Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Rob Ford and his allies should be responsive to slactivism

Doug Ford says:

“Ford Nation is too busy working, paying taxes, creating jobs. That’s what they are doing.”

But then Rob Ford said:

“I encourage people to come to the executive committee next Thursday,” he said during an interview on CP24. “Everyone has five minutes to talk to me personally at our executive committee. I invite the whole city. I don’t care if we have to sit there for three days. I don’t want to have people ... they have five minutes to tell me what business do you think we should be in. And it’s next Thursday at 9:30 at city hall. Come and let me know what you think – the average taxpayer out there – what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong. I want to hear from the people and I encourage them to come.“

So if their base consists of very busy people, why do they insist that people make the time-consuming effort of going all the way down to city hall and waiting around all day to speak in person? As a person who is in fact busy working, I find that prohibitive. Shouldn't they be more responsive to emails? Petitions? Facebook groups? I've noticed on more than one occasion they seem to write off existing feedback as insufficiently effortful and encourage people to use other methods of communication. If their base consists of busy people, they should be making it easier, not harder, to state one's case.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The other other awesome thing about libraries

With silly attitudes towards libraries in the news lately and having recently lived through the hottest day of my life so far, I find myself thinking about another benefit of libraries: they're a place where everyone is allowed to be. Not just where everyone is allowed to go, but where everyone is allowed to be.

If you want to hang out in Tim Hortons, you need to buy a coffee. If you want to hang out in the mall food court, they can kick you out for loitering if they want. But you are allowed - and in fact welcome - to hang out in the library for as long as you want. It's climate-controlled, there are comfy seats, there's psychological privacy (you're in an open room, but people generally mind their own business, and no one will think it's strange if you find an inconspicuous nook somewhere and hide there), and there are no rules about what you should be doing apart from not disturbing others. You don't have to be doing schoolwork, you don't have to be using library materials, you don't have to be doing something serious or important, you don't even have to be awake. You're just allowed to be there, for as long as it's open, doing your own thing.

It's very easy to forget how important this is when you're in a position of privilege. I myself don't hang out at the library that often, I tend to just swoop in, pick up my books, and go home. But that's because home is a comfy, internet-equipped, air-conditioned apartment that I have all to myself. Not everyone has that privilege. If home is too crowded or noisy or uncomfortable or abusive or non-existent, having somewhere else to go - a perfectly respectable place to go and to be (compare the connotations of spending hours in the library vs. spending hours in the bar) - can be a lifesaver. And once you're there, it's full of tools for educating and improving yourself or, worst case, quietly amusing yourself.

And despite the fact that it's of such value to the most marginalized people, it is not by any means charity. It's something literally everyone uses.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy, Amy, Amy.

I was saddened to hear that Amy Winehouse was found dead earlier today. She was only 27.

I first heard Amy Winehouse sing in this mashup, where she put Ella Fitzgerald to shame (Ella is the first voice you hear, Amy is the second).

I had heard of her from media coverage of her private life, but I was rather surprised to discover that someone who attracted that kind of coverage was also such a genuine talent.

The world is now worse off for no longer having that talent among us, with all its potential forever unfulfilled. And it's tragic that even with all that talent and wealth she was never able to find peace.

Here are a few of her songs that always end up on repeat:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The problem with conventional thinking about machine translation

Reading In the Plex, Steven Levy's fascinating biography of Google, I came across the following quote from machine translation pioneer Warren Weaver:

When I look at an article in Russian, I say, "This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode."

I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is incorrect, and people who don't find themselves able to get past this way of thinking end up being very poor translators.

A more accurate approach would be "This idea really exists in a system of pure concepts unbounded by the limits of language or human imagination, but it has been coded in a way that one subset of puny humans can understand. I will now encode it for another subset of puny humans to understand."

To translate well, you have to grasp the concepts without the influence of the source language, then render them in the target language. You're stripping the code off and applying a new one.

If you translate Russian to English by assuming that the Russian is really in English, what you're going to end up with is an English text that is really Russian. Your Anglophone readers will be able to tell, and might even have trouble understanding the English.

The Russian text is not and has never been English. There's no reason for it to be. The Russian author need never have had a thought in English. He need never have even heard of English. Are your English thoughts really in Russian? Are they in Basque? Xhosa? Aramaic? Of course not! They're in English, and there's no need or reason for them to be in any other language.

This is a tricky concept for people who don't already grasp it to grasp, because when we start learning a new language (and often for years and years of our foray into a new language) everything we say or write in that language is really in English (assuming you're Anglophone - if you're not, then, for simplicity's sake, mentally search and replace "English" with your mother tongue for the purpose of this blog post). We learn on the first day of French class that je m'appelle means "my name is". But je m'appelle isn't the English phrase "my name is" coded into French. (If anything is that, it would be mon nom est.) The literal gloss of je m'appelle is "I call myself", but je m'appelle isn't the English idea "I call myself" coded into French either. If anything, it's the abstract idea of "I am introducing myself and the next thing I say is going to be my name" encoded into French. The French code for that concept is je m'appelle, the English code is "my name is".

I'm trying to work on a better analogy to explain this concept to people who don't already grok it, but here's the best I've got so far:

Think of the childhood game of Telephone, where the first person whispers something to the second person, then the second person whispers what they heard to the third person, and so on and so on until the last person says out loud what they heard and you all have a good laugh over how mangled it got.

What Mr. Weaver is proposing is analogous to trying your very very best to render exactly what you heard the person before you say.

But to grasp concepts without the influence of language and translate well is analogous to listening to what the person before you said and using your knowledge of language patterns and habits to determine what the original person actually said despite the interference.

Which defeats the purpose of Telephone, but is the very essence of good translation.

Monday, July 18, 2011

This should be a tweet, but I can't get it down to 140

I find myself wondering how people who truly, genuinely believe in and fear hell can bring themselves to have children. Because bringing a child into a world where hell exists introduces the possibility that the kid will go to hell someday.

I did once yearn to have children, I did once genuinely fear hell, and I do have your basic adult hormonal child protection instincts, which I'd imagine are massively stronger when it's your own child.

It's perfectly normal protective instincts to be willing to risk one's life to save one's child's life. But, for those who believe in it, the threat of far is vastly worse than the threat of death. Death is a sudden extinguishing of life, while hell is eternal torture without hope of reprieve. Religious traditions with a strong fear of hell do tend to contain the idea that it's your religious duty to have children. But if any parent would risk their life for their child's life, wouldn't they also risk hell to save their child from hell?

It is true that parents tend to think "But MY child will be GOOD," but your basic human decency isn't usually enough in hellfearing religions. Religious traditions with a strong fear of hell also tend to make it difficult to get into heaven. The slightest lapse of virtue can send you to hell, and in some cases even a virtuous life with improper rites can send you to hell. Thinking back to my previous mindset of hellfear and adding protective instincts, the risk of having a child go to hell far outweighs the biological/hormonal yearning to have a baby and any other benefits of procreation that I can think of.

I wonder what other factors there are for hellfearing parents that outweigh even the horrors of hell?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

How long do we have to keep stating the obvious for?

Despite the bombshell nature of many of the cuts suggested this week by a city-hired consultant, there is no stampede of Torontonians signing up to tell the politicians face-to-face, or in writing, how they feel about them.

I'll admit it never occurred to me to tell politicians how I feel about them. You know why? Because it's so blatantly obvious that they're destructive and unworkable, and I figured it's just as blatantly obvious to anyone who lives in the world. The KPMG study proves that there simply aren't workable cuts to be had by listing what few remaining things could even legally be cut. It isn't advocating cutting these things, it's pointing out how destructive large-scale cuts would be by saying that these important things are the things that would remain to be cut if large-scale cuts were to happen.

It really frustrates me that not wasting my time stating the obvious to politicians could be interpreted as support for or indifference to such destructive measures. And I think, on top of all the damage already being done to our city, this need to constantly be loudly shouting the obvious at the top of our lungs is also destructive to our city, because it takes away energy that could otherwise be used to think of ways to make things even better.

It's like if you had to say to every person you encountered "Please don't hurt me," and if you didn't they'd hurt you. That would be really draining, wouldn't it? You have to be totally on top of making sure you noticed every single person around you and said "Please don't hurt me" to them, plus it would preclude saying "Hi, how are you?" or "I love your shoes!" or "Can I pet your doggie?" And on top of that, it would also take up the energy you need to think "This sidewalk would be more easily navigable if the planters were flush with the curb" or "Hey, that store might sell greeting cards" or "What if I used the egg slicer to slice the mushrooms?"

Real life operates under a tacit assumption of the obvious. Of course people don't want you to hurt them. Why can't politics do the same?

In which my planned blog post is obsoleted

I was going to blog about this, but POGGE beat me to it and did it far better than I could have. Please go read POGGE if you'd normally read my posts on municipal politics.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why I want everyone to refer respectfully to those I disagree with

Recently my twitter feed turned up a blog entry that formulated an excellent argument in support of a political position that I agree with, explaining the issue fantastically for those who aren't already familiar with it. My first instinct was to retweet it for the benefit of those who don't see this issue from the same point of view or haven't given it much thought. Unfortunately, the blog author used insulting nicknames for the individuals and organizations with whom they (and I) disagree. I'm not going to argue that the insulting nicknames weren't well-deserved, or, in some cases at least, perfectly accurate, but the problem is that they destroyed all the post's credibility in the eyes of those who didn't already agree with our position.

I know I'm not the boss of anyone else's blog and I know that we're all totally allowed to use our own blogs for venting, but it's just so frustrating to see such a useful argument that I can't use or share because of a bit of name-calling!

If you're going to say something I disagree with, go ahead and say it however you want. I welcome your destruction of your own credibility.

If you're going to say something I agree with but can express better, go ahead and say it however you want. I don't need you.

But if you're going to say something so brilliant and insightful and better than I could ever come up with that I feel compelled to link to it and share it, please don't do so disrespectfully. You don't even have to be actively respectful. Just calling people by surname only will do the job, and it's still easy to mentally pronounce venomously.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wherein a monogamist presumes to give advice on how to handle adultery

Dear Annie: I recently found out that my 27-year-old married daughter is having an affair with her 40-year-old boss. He is married and has two children. She doesn't know that I know.

I warned her to be careful when I noticed that she and her boss sometimes work late. I told her that when I was her age, I did some things I was not proud of. I also sent her articles about people having affairs. I told her it was wrong and people would get hurt. I have tried to give her as much advice as I could without letting on about what I know, but now I think it's time to tell her.

I do not want to do this over the phone, so I am waiting for the vacation we are taking with her and her husband in a few weeks. This has truly been a shock to me because I thought I had taught her better than this. Before she married, her father and I separated for a year. I never told her that he was seeing someone else.

So far, I have told no one about my daughter's affair, but I want to confide in my husband. How should I handle this? -- Puzzled

I think the best approach here would be for the mother to simply inform the daughter of what she knows and how she found out. No judgement, no advice. Simply let her know that her ass isn't covered (if indeed it needs covering - some commenters in CF Abby suspected that it might be an open marriage) and that any interested party who is at least as competent as her mother would be able to find out about the affair.

The mother's first duty in this matter is to her daughter. Even if, as a general philosophy, she doesn't want adultery to happen or marriages to break up, her loyalty should be to her daughter over her daughter's husband or her daughter's boss. Simply pointing out what she knows and how would fulfill that loyalty to her daughter, and at the same time make her point about the pitfalls of having an affair far better than nagging or passive-aggression ever could. And, as an added bonus, doing so completely without judgement and advice sets her up as someone her daughter can confide in should it become necessary.

Of course, in this particular letter, it's too late for that. The LW has already given her daughter lectures and unsolicited advice and passive-aggressive newspaper clippings. At this point, her only hope is probably just to come clean. "Listen, I've been making a complete ass of myself and handling this really poorly and I understand completely if you don't want to talk to me any more. I'll just tell you this one thing and then leave you alone. All this started because I googled your name and the word Facebook and found a post in the Citizens Against Bad Puns facebook group in which you appeared to be flirting with a guy named Bill, so I clicked on his name, [etc.] In any case, all I wanted to do was point out that this information is publicly googleable so you can protect yourself accordingly. I truly am sorry for acting like such an idiot and making you uncomfortable. The only explanation I can offer is that I've never been in this situation before and couldn't figure out what to do, although at my age I really should know better."

Then drop it completely.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Further attempts to translate Eddie Izzard's giraffes and tigers

A while back, I proposed a strategy for translating Eddie Izzard's (technically untranslatable) giraffes and tigers bit. The basis of this approach was that the tiger needs to be replaced with something that's charadable in French.

In the shower this morning, it occurred to me that it might be possible to keep the tiger.

The French for "tiger" is tigre (scroll down for French pronunciation). The first syllable could be ti, as in the casual French diminutive for petit. And, if the onomatopoeia for a growling predator animal is reasonably similar in French, the second syllable could be "grrr" just like in English.

Now you're probably thinking (especially if you're Anglophone) that the second syllable of the French tigre doesn't sound very much like "grrr". Which is absolutely true. But it the second syllable of the English word "tiger" as pronounced in Eddie's own non-rhotic dialect doesn't sound much like the very rhotic "grrr" either. Eddie pronounces it something like the UK example provided by "mooncow" here, in a way that I would write out in my North American dialect as "tie-guh". The fact that the English word "tiger" contains a G and an R seems to be enough to carry the charade in non-rhotic English, so I see no reason why it wouldn't work in French. (I don't know if the French sound in the second syllable of tigre can be defined as rhotic or not because I never paid enough attention to my phonetics unit, but the French R is certainly more growly like a tiger than the non-rhotic UK English R in the English word "tiger".)

The flaw in this translation is still in the first syllable, using the diminutive ti. In English the first syllable is "tie", which Eddie charades by miming the act of tying a tie (i.e. men's neckwear). The Anglophone audience sees this and thinks "tie", thus making the charade effective. However, any effective charading of the French ti will first lead the Francophone audience to petit, from which they'd need to be guided to ti. It's still a two-step process in French where it's a one-step process in English, and the additional step is significant when you're doing something as complicated as trying to communicate syllables soundlessly while imitating a giraffe.

I can't tell you whether or not this translation would work on stage. It would have to be tested to an actual audience in real-life conditions. But it's the closest I've gotten so far to translating this untranslatable sketch, so I'm posting it.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Things They Should Invent: opposite of né(e)

(And, no, I don't mean mort(e).)

In English, we have the word né(e) to refer to the surname a person was born with, most frequently used (as née) to refer to a woman's name before marriage. For example, suppose Elizabeth Bennet marries Fitzwilliam Darcy and changes her name to Elizabeth Darcy. If she is subsequently profiled in her alumni magazine or hometown newspaper, they might refer to her as "Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennet)" so that people who knew her before her marriage but lost track of her will recognize her.

We also need a word that refers to the name a person would later adopt, but did not have at the time at which they're being referred to. For example, suppose, sometime after her marriage, a childhood photo of Elizabeth is published somewhere. It would be inaccurate to describe this as a photo of Elizabeth Darcy, because she wasn't Elizabeth Darcy in the photo. However, if the caption says "Elizabeth Bennet", people who know her as Elizabeth Darcy might not realize who it is.

I know we can totally express this concept clearly by arranging words into phrases and sentences, but I want a simple one-word term that will express it as elegantly as né(e). Extrapolated logically from French, it would be something like marié(e) or devenu(e), but I'd prefer something more elegant.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Building a better long-term care model

Reading this article about a woman who doesn't want to leave the hospital because there are no openings in her preferred nursing homes and she doesn't want to go to the first available nursing home, I've been thinking about how to improve the current system. Here's what I've come up with:

What if being transferred to a long-term care facility didn't ever have to be final?

You can make a list of the facilities you want and rank them in order. You're immediately put into the available facility on your list that you've given the highest ranking. If none of the facilities on your list are available, you're put into the first available bed.

HOWEVER: After you get put into the first available bed, you're still in line for the facilities on your list. When a bed becomes available in one of them, you get moved there. And even after you're placed in a facility on your list, you still get informed of openings in facilities that rank higher on your list with the option of transferring there. In other words, if your #3 facility has an opening first so you're placed there, but then your #1 facility subsequently has an opening, you get the option of transferring to your #1 facility.

You can put however many facilities you want on your list, and rank them however you want. You can have every facility in the province ranked in order of preference, or you can have 12 facilities ranked equally, or you can have 2 facilities in first place and 5 in second place, or whatever you want.

Possible variations:

- Patients who are currently placed in a facility that's not on their list have precedence over patients who are currently placed in a facility that is on their list. For example, if I'm currently in my #5 choice and you're currently in the first available bed in a facility that isn't on your list, and I'm ahead of you on the waiting list for a facility that's #1 on both our lists, you get admitted to that facility first.
- Exceptions can be made to the "first available" rule under specific circumstances (for example, if the first available facility has been found in violation of regulations, if the first available facility is inaccessible to the patient's support people, etc.)
- The patient (or, if the patient is not competent to make decisions for themselves, their representative) can veto any placement proposed under this system.
- Before the patient loses their faculties, they can include in their power of attorney guidelines dictating circumstances under which the representative may or may not change the patient's priority order. For example, the representative might be permitted to change the patient's priority order if a new facility is built that didn't exist back when the patient was still competent, but might not be permitted to make changes solely for financial reasons.

I have no idea how much of this is or isn't a good idea. It seems like it would get appropriate care to as many people as possible and preferred care to as many people as possible, but there could easily be flaws that I'm not seeing. It would be cool if they could do projections on this model and see if it would work.

Analogy for everything

This comes from an article on why dogs bite, but it applies to everything in the world:

Bites are usually caused by an accumulation of stressors. Each time a dog is exposed to a stressor, stress hormones are dumped into the brain. These stress hormones are like the puzzle pieces in Tetris. They build up over time. You have to actively reduce the stress (like a Tetris player clearing lines) through management, desensitization, counter conditioning, and general stress reduction techniques. If you are not taking steps to reduce the stress, it begins to accumulate. The dumping of stress hormones into the brain leaves the dog increasingly sensitized to stressors, which replicates the puzzle pieces dropping faster and faster until you eventually reach the threshold. Soon, the dog bites. The game is over.

Stressors vary in individual dogs. One dog may be stressed by loud noises, nail trimming, men with beards, wearing a shock collar, foul weather, and a bad diet. Another dog may not seemingly respond to these factors but is sensitive to visits to the vet’s office, small children, cats, people that smell like beer, dogs walking past the fenced in yard, and people approaching or entering the home. Every dog has stressors (commonly called “triggers”) and a big part of effective behavioral modification strategies is identifying these as accurately and thoroughly as possible, which allows behavior consultants and handlers to focus their efforts most efficiently. Stressors, like Tetris pieces, accumulate over time.

This explains introvert brain. The more time you have to spend in the company of other people without a moment of privacy, the more stressors (Tetris pieces) accumulate until you melt down.

This explains how phobias work. The more you're exposed to triggers (or the threat thereof) without having time to reset, the jumpier and edgier you get, and the more susceptible you get to future triggers. (Among other problems, this is why desensitization therapy is problematic when you're likely to have uncontrollable exposure to your triggers in everyday life.)

This explains why, when I was a kid, I often had trouble just being nice and putting up with stuff that grownups thought I should be able to just be nice and put up with. After being bullied all day in school, and having my sister get all up in my business when I got home, and being subject to whatever lectures and judgement external factors had made my grownups feel like delivering regardless of whether I needed to hear them, and having no control whatsoever over when I arrived and left and went to bed and woke up and ate (or even what I ate), I had very little room left to just fake being nice so we can all get along. It's not that I've matured, it's that I can now go home or eat potato chips whenever I damn well please, which clears a lot of Tetris lines.

It's the most multi-purpose analogy I've ever met. I think if you're lacking an analogy for anything, this one just might do the trick.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Analogy for why potlucks suck

Think of a group of people ordering pizza. Everyone contributes an equal share of money. That's how it works. Barring certain exceptional circumstances, it is inethical to not contribute as much money as everyone else but still eat pizza.

At a potluck, the coin of the realm is food. Specifically, it's quality, quantity, interestingness, yumminess, and awesomeness of food. So if the food you bring is somehow not up to the standard of compared to what everyone else brings (it only feeds 2 people when everyone else brought enough for 12, it isn't very good and therefore not worth eating compared with everything else, it's something everyone can have at home or buy in any store when all the other contributions are interesting things that you hardly ever get to try, etc.), your behaviour is just as inethical as not contributing your fair share for the pizza.

The first problem with this is you don't know what other people will be contributing, so you have no way of knowing in advance what your fair share is. It would be like if we lived in a world where it's impossible to find out the price of pizza before it's delivered, and the price fluctuates wildly from day to day. You couldn't pay your fair share of the pizza in advance then, could you?

The second problem is that once you discover your contribution isn't up to par, there's no way to bring it up to par. Apart the fact that different people have different abilities and resources (in other words, all the hard work humanly possible within a reasonable period of time isn't going to bring my contribution up to par with my mother's, because she has 3 extra decades of practice and acquired equipment, and a kitchen twice the size of mine), it's very difficult to vastly improve a potluck dish at the last minute. If everyone else brought cake and I brought supermarket cookies, there is nothing I can do to bring them up to par with a cake (other than running out and getting a cake, which isn't always feasible either.) If you don't contribute enough for pizza, you can always give the person who covered you a few extra bucks later. There's no way to do this with potluck, so even if your inethical behaviour was accidental, there's no way to fix it and you're stuck being inethical all day. And, given people's annoying habit of attempting to strike up a conversation by saying "So what did you bring?" you're stuck with the humiliation of having to constantly admit to everyone that your contribution isn't good enough.

I have never in my life encountered any social event that's worth all this trouble and stress and angst and humiliation.

Why we need Canada Post

In the wake of the Canada Post lockout, some of the commentariat is asking whether we really need Canada Post. I can tell you that, from my perspective as a customer, I certainly do! Here's two real-life examples of why:

The item: a used Wii, purchased on eBay.
The cost: $140, including shipping
The courier: UPS
The brokerage fee, due cash on delivery: $60
Further complications: It had to be picked up at Jane and Steeles, which, given the depot's operating hours and my work hours, would have been impossible if not for the fact that @BroadwayProfe is awesome and drove me all the way up there.

The item: a couple of silly things from ThinkGeek as a surprised gift for a friend.
The cost: $25 for the gift, $15 for shipping
The courier: DHL
The brokerage fee, due cash on delivery: $17.35
Further complications: It was a gift - a silly gift of little consequence - and the recipient had to pay more than the shipping cost upon receipt, completely defeating the purpose of a gift.

In comparison, Canada Post would have charged $0 COD for the first item (there's no duty on used good) and a maximum of $4 COD on the second item - literally pocket change. If it had not been possible to put the packages in the recipients' mailboxes and the recipients had not been home, the packages would have ended up about a five minute walk away, at places whose operating hours included evenings and weekends.

Private couriers seem to charge extortionate brokerage fees that are significantly greater than the duty levied on the item in question. Canada Post has the decency to include the cost of getting items across the border in their international shipping costs, and charges the end customer no more than the duty levied on the item (I say "no more than" because in the past I have had someone along the way waive small duty charges of just a few dollars, which was the gamble I was taking with the ThinkGeek purchase). Private couriers leave undeliverable packages at distant depots with inconvenient hours. Canada Post leaves them at neighbourhood post offices with convenient hours.

Before we even get into important questions like good jobs for the future, service availability in all corners of the country, whether public money should be enriching corporations etc., the fact of the matter is that, for the customer, Canada Post is by far the easiest and most convenient. In cases where retailers have offered me multiple shipping options, Canada Post is always the cheapest, and it never has ridiculous and unpredictable brokerage fees. It would be a great detriment to us all to lose it.