Thursday, December 29, 2011

The disparity between the size of glasses and the size of standard drinks

Reading about a game on the LCBO website that tests how well you can pour a standard drink, I was reminded of the first set of wineglasses I ever purchased.

I had one or two wineglasses among my worldly possessions already, but I wanted to get some that matched. They were cheap, from the dollar store or something, but they were decently nice-looking and I quite liked them. We christened them with a lovely glass of wine that gave us quite a happy buzz indeed. The next day, I got home from work and poured myself a glass of wine, and...discovered that there wasn't even one glass left in the bottle? How could that be? The two of us had one glass each the previous day, there are five glasses in a bottle, where did the rest of the wine go?

Turned out they were oversized glasses. When you filled them to a reasonable-looking place, they contained two standard drinks of wine (unlike my previous glasses, which, when filled to a reasonable-looking place, contained one standard drink of wine.) No wonder we got such a good buzz on the previous night! There hadn't been any serious consequences to that little adventure, but what if those glasses had been used to serve to someone who had been driving?

This gets me thinking that it would be useful if glasses intended for alcoholic beverages were only available in single standard-drink sizes. Of course, oenophiles would probably complain because they like those oversized bowls so you can get the nose of the wine. So what if there was a line on the glass itself indicating how far to fill it for one standard drink? What if the box they come in or the bottom of the glass was marked with a warning label saying how many standard drinks it holds?

This would probably still garner complaints about the government meddling in commerce and whatnot, so here's a faster and easier solution that should offend no one: the LCBO should give away free glasses. They should be simple but attractive, of decent quality, and sized to make it impossible to accidentally overserve. They should be available in any quantity up to whatever constitutes a normal set of glasses like you might find in a wedding registry. You can just walk in and pick them up, no drama, and perhaps they could even include them with purchases as a value-added bonus at the beginning. Drinking glasses are cheap (I've bought them commercially in a set for as little as 50 cents a glass), the LCBO's profits are high, and hindering accidental overserving surely falls within their social responsibility mandate. The fact that they're given away for free at the place where you go to buy alcohol anyway means that people would have to make more effort to get oversized glasses than to get standard-sized glasses, so more responsible drinking is easier than less responsible drinking.

Personally, I'd still prefer if all alcohol glasses commercially available had to be sized to a standard drink, but I think a lot of people would complain. Giving them away at the LCBO would get the job done for people who don't care what kind of glasses they use and people who do want their glasses sized to a standard drink, without giving those who want non-standard glasses any reason to complain.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wherein googleproofing may have been inadvertently invented 80 years ago

From the Wikipedia entry on the Shirley Temple cocktail:

The cocktail may have been invented by a bartender at Chasen's, a restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, in the 1930s to serve to the child actress Shirley Temple to help her deal with her growing alcohol addiction. By offering a non-alcoholic alternative to drink when not on-set, establishments frequented by the actress were able to hide her problem from the public.

Upon reading this, my first thought was to google up confirmation of whether Shirley Temple had an alcohol addiction. And I wasn't able to, because the search results were dominated by discussion of the drink, including statements that it's non-alcoholic and recipes for alcoholic ones.

If the drink was invented to help Shirley Temple hide her alcohol addiction, it was far more successful than they could possibly have imagined.

Do the less fortunate really need to be fed cafeteria-style?

Picture a holiday charity meal for the less fortunate. The most common image is a turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, veggies, etc. being served by friendly volunteers, with the occasional politician or celebrity mixed in for a photo op dishing out stuffing.

But why is it set up in such a way that there are volunteers and photo ops dishing out the food? That puts the clients in a position of forcing them to express gratitude to a different person for every single food item. That could feel awkward or humiliating for people who aren't entirely comfortable with receiving charity, and they might not feel free to ask for more stuffing please or no brussel sprouts thank you for fear of being judged.

It seems to me that serving the meal buffet-style, where people just help themselves to however much of whatever they want, would better protect the clients' dignity, with the added bonus of freeing up volunteers to do other work.

Am I missing anything? Is there any advantage to cafeteria-style that I'm not seeing?

Thursday, December 22, 2011


The Star:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY for Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011: You might remind others of a cat with nine lives this year. Don’t push Lady Luck too far. An element of excitement also runs riot in your next year. Flex, detach and maintain a sense of humour. Stay grounded and realistic. If you are single, you could meet someone very important to your life’s history. After this year, look at this tie more seriously. If you are attached, the two of you really care about each other. Domestically, one element could shake up the status quo. SAGITTARIUS makes a great doctor for you!



It seems you are under divine protection. It seems you can do no wrong. Take a few risks over the coming 12 months. Do things other people would not dare to try. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

This is a particularly interesting set of horoscopes, because I've been considering buying a condo (with more seriousness than all the other times I've been considering buying a condo.) The mention of a doctor makes me a bit nervous though. I've had enough of doctors.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Analogy for eating for health

There are a lot of people in the world who eat with the primary goal of providing themselves with optimal health and nutrition. I'm not into this. One of my greatest sources of happiness in life is eating exactly what I want exactly when I want, and I find that focusing on health and nutrition unduly detracts from this simple pleasure. Health and nutrition people can't understand this. "But what could possibly be more important than your health?" they say. "It will make you live way longer."

Here's an analogy:

Imagine a sex act that doesn't give you an orgasm and (either on its on merits or by virtue of the partner you're doing it with) isn't particularly fun for you. The kind of sex act where you wouldn't feel at all deprived if you never engaged in it again. Now imagine the combination of sex act and partner are such that it takes a long time. It takes far longer than it would take you to have an orgasm with your favourite sex act. It takes long enough that you're starting to wonder why people consider premature ejaculation a problem. And imagine doing this sex act in a position where you have to do all the work. You can't just lie down and relax, you have to do it all yourself - and it takes way more work than your favourite sex act does.

Now suppose you have to do this sex act somewhere between three and six times a day, every single day, for the rest of your life. Even if you're away from home or out with friends, when it's sex time you have to drop everything and find a suitable place for the sex act (which is often away from all the fun everyone else is having), and you have to either carry around all the equipment necessary or make sure it's available wherever you'll be going, all of which is rather conspicuous and is detrimental to general social spontaneity.

Even if your favourite sex act isn't contraindicated, it's difficult to fit it into your schedule since so much of your time and energy (and physical tolerance for friction) are consumed by the non-fun sex act.

And if you complain about any of this, people reply with "But it's SEX! What could possibly be more important?" and cite research studies that show that if you have sex this particular way, you'll be able to continue to do so for decades longer than most people can maintain an active sex life.

Doesn't that sound like a special kind of purgatory?

Friday, December 16, 2011

What if the library gave patrons credit for early returns?

One thing that surprised me in discussions of the library charging for holds that aren't picked up is the number of people who are annoyed not just by people who don't pick up their holds, but by people who pick up their holds on the last day before they expire, or keep library materials check out right up until the due date.

I don't consider this a problem myself and I don't know if the library considers it a problem, but nevertheless my shower gave me an idea to address it:

What if libraries gave patrons credit for holds picked up early or books returned early? For example, using amounts that make the math easy and might not necessarily be the optimal ratio, suppose they credit one cent to your account for every day before the deadline that you either pick up a hold or return an item. Late fines are currently 10 cents a day, so this would mean that if you're a cumulative total of 10 days early in circulating your material, that will cancel out one day's late fine.

The big question here is whether circulating material faster is more important to the libraries than the revenue generated by fines. I don't know the answer to that question.

The other question is whether this would motivate people to game the system by taking out material they don't want and returning it right away. This incentive could be partially mitigated by allowing the credits to only offset future fines and you still have to pay fines already incurred. People could still game the system, but how many people are organized enough to game the system in anticipation of future late fines but not organized enough to get their books back in time? I don't know the answer to that question.

But if it turns out it actually is important for the library to encourage faster circulation of materials, this could be a starting point for brainstorming.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Analogy for banning niqabs (or any other clothing, for that matter) at citizenship ceremonies

I was so outraged that this is being done in my name that I couldn't blog about it for days. But my shower gave me an analogy:

Suppose there's an elite search and rescue team. Throughout its history, the vast majority of the team members have been male, although there's never been any rule or practice preventing women from joining.

The first step to joining the team is a physical fitness test. Everyone takes their test at the same time, and, because it's such an elite search and rescue team, these tests sometimes attract VIP visits and media attention, and applicants' families and friends often come along to watch. There has never been any dress code for the tests, but it's ended up that the vast majority of the candidates don't wear a shirt when taking the test. So, even though there are no gender or clothing rules, it's not at all uncommon to see an entire test group full of shirtless men. Some of the women who take the test also do it shirtless (Maybe they like the tradition? Maybe they're more comfortable that way? No one has ever thought to ask.) and some wear shirts. We don't have any data on how many do or don't wear shirts. (For that matter, we don't have any data on how many men, if any, wear shirts.) We actually don't even have any data on how many applicants are women. The statement that's it's dominated by shirtless males is based solely on visual observation.

Then, suddenly, the head of the search and rescue team announces that all fitness tests must be taken shirtless. In support of his statement, he cites a story told by one of his colleagues about how he was observing a fitness test and saw a group of women wearing shirts. The colleague told this story in a tone of voice that suggested he thought it was a problem, but the best reason given is that wearing a shirt is not what most people do. There's no logistical reason why a shirt would get in the way (they do need to briefly listen to applicants' lungs with a stethoscope before the test - although some question whether that's even medically necessary - but that could easily be done around a shirt or behind a screen away from the crowds and cameras), and there's no other dress code for the tests.

On top of all this, they announced the no-shirt rule at the last minute. There are thousands of applicants already in the system, who have spent years getting in shape and training their dogs and learning how to climb mountains and fly helicopters and scuba dive so they can fulfill their lifetime goal of being a part of this team, all without any idea that they might suddenly have to perform in front of a crowd and cameras in less clothing than they feel comfortable wearing.

Isn't that just assholic??? It's disproportionately cruel and humiliating to the people affected, and for no good reason. It's not going to give people a sense of belonging, it's going to give them an urge to flee.

The new recruits will grow comfortable as members of the search and rescue team on their own, as time passes and they collect empirical evidence that they are welcome and valued members. As we all know from our private lives, if you want to make someone feel comfortable about wearing less clothing, you don't start by removing their clothing; you start by making them comfortable. There's no reason to force people to do something they're uncomfortable with in front of a large audience on their very first day just for superficial visual consistency.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why the idea of nominal fees for library materials grates

Recently, my city councillor asked for feedback on the idea of the library charging $2 to borrow DVDs. My visceral reaction was negative - a far stronger negative reaction than could be explained by the basic fact that libraries are meant to be free. At first I thought that this was because people who are least able to afford $2 for a DVD (like my grandmothers, for example) are also less likely to have the resources and the know-how to acquire movies for free through unofficial channels. But another aspect that grated was this treatment of certain library materials as Less Than other materials.

I've finally figured out why this is bothering me so much. It all goes back to my letter to my 18-year-old self. One of the things I wrote was:

Read Harry Potter. Read the complete works of Miss Manners. Read the In Death series. Read Introvert Advantage. Read Malcolm Gladwell. Watch Eddie Izzard's comedy and every interview he's ever done. These will all not only entertain you, but help you navigate the world better.

All of these things were transformative. From Harry Potter, I learned how to do literary analysis (yes, this is AFTER an academic career that involved lit courses in four languages) and how to use the happy place fandom gives me to chase away my dark moods. From Introvert Advantage I learned how my brain and energy work. Miss Manners gave me much-needed perspective on real-world social expectations to counteract the skewed context I grew up in. Eddie and In Death made me brave (insofar as I am brave, which is still exponentially braver than I was before I met them). Malcolm Gladwell taught me about Entitlement, which also coalesced all the other stuff I'd learned.

All of these materials are rather lowbrow. Anyone could make a convincing argument that any of this stuff is Less Than and Unworthy. Despite the fact that I've been exposed to more than my fair share of Serious Art and academic writing, it was a children's book series, a newspaper advice columnist, a couple of pieces of mass-market pop psychology/sociology, a transvestite comedian, and a series of formulaic mystery novels that ended up being what made me.

(At this point, some of you are thinking "What kind of pathetic person gets life-changing inspiration from such banal material?" The answer to that question is, obviously, "Someone who very much needs it.")

So, you're now asking, what does this have to do with the library?

Like most people, I don't like to pay for something when I don't know if it's going to work. This means that I don't buy books, movies, or other art/entertainment/information media if I don't know if I'm going to like it or if it's going to teach me what I need to learn from it. I borrow it from the library instead.

I didn't know going in that any of this stuff would be transformative. I didn't even know if I would like it. I added it to my library list because it seemed like it had the potential to be mildly interesting, but I never would have bought it - not even for a nominal price. There's enough pop cultural comfort food to keep me reliably entertained that I don't ever need to try anything new. The fact that I could try them all risk-free is what made it possible for me to discover all these things.

On top of that, there's also the fact that these transformative works are far from the only things I borrowed from the library during that time period (the past 8 years of my life). Most of the stuff I borrowed wasn't nearly as transformative - I'm sure I don't even remember 80% of it! But, because I can borrow as much as I want, I get to separate the wheat from the chaff and become a better person in the process. Even a nominal fee would be enough make me think twice before putting a hold on something I'm unsure about, which would have been enough of a barrier to prevent me from discovering my true inspirations.

I'm sure no one else has my exact combination of inspirations, and many people have a similarly unpredictable combination of inspirations out there waiting for them. (And I sincerely hope there are even more out there waiting for me!) The world will become a better and better place as everyone expands their horizons and finds their way to their own inspiration, so we must not introduce any cause for hesitation.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A mission for Toronto Public Library patrons

They've recently announced a new list of possible savings for the library to meet its reduced budget. I have a number of discrete thoughts on these, which I'm going to spread out over probably three blog posts. But we'll start with a simple mission for all library patrons.

One of the proposed savings is to charge people who don't pick up holds. This grabbed my attention because I recently had a hold that didn't turn up on the hold shelf. I looked through all the books on the shelf and it wasn't there even though the computer said it was. I was up to talking to people that day, so I went to the librarian. She looked through the hold shelves with me and couldn't find it either, so she placed another hold on the item for me and it came in a few days later. However, it still shows up on my account as a hold that I didn't pick up.

While we were looking through all the hold shelves, the librarian mentioned they'd had a few similar problems recently - apparently some glitch in the computer system. And it occurs to me that this is the kind of problem that would likely be underreported - it's very easy to just shrug your shoulders and renew the hold once its hold shelf time has expired rather than tearing a busy librarian away from their job.

So, in light of this potential new policy, here's a mission for all Toronto Public Library patrons: if your hold isn't on the hold shelf but the computer says it is, tell a librarian. If the problem I encountered is systemic or recurring, it needs to be reported to its full extent before the new policy comes into effect. And if it turns out it was completely temporary and has been fully resolved, then everything is fine and no one will have to go to any trouble.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Things They Should Invent: administer medication through breastmilk

A friend of mine has to give medicine to her month-old baby. The medicine is liquid, and apparently tastes disgusting. The poor baby HATES it and tries not to swallow it, making the whole thing an ordeal.

What if the mother could take the medicine instead? Then she could nurse the baby as usual and the baby would get her medication without having to deal with the yucky taste.

We know that bad drugs can make their way into breastmilk, so why not good drugs? Obviously this wouldn't be appropriate for every medication or every situation, but wouldn't it be nice to have the option? I'm sure there are quite a few cases where the mother would rather take a bit of unnecessary medication herself than have to make her poor baby miserable several times a day.

Update: The mother of the baby in question informs me that it would change the taste of the milk, which slightly blows my mind. I do think the taste wouldn't be as strong as the taste of the medication itself, and still think science should figure out how to do this on principle.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Assholic behaviour I have encountered recently

1. A two-lane side street. I'm waiting patiently to jaywalk mid-block. The car coming from my left stops and waves me past. I look right, and there aren't any cars coming from my right. So I start across. Then the car BEHIND the one that stopped to wave me by decides to pass the stopped car by driving on the wrong side of the road, nearly hitting me in the process. The weird thing is he wasn't even stopped that long - definitely under 10 seconds, maybe even as little as 5 - before the guy behind him decides to come roaring past on the other side of the road.

2. A rainy day. The lady walking in front of me down the street is carrying a golf umbrella. I always think this is inconsiderate because it makes it impossible for someone else to pass you on a narrow or crowded sidewalk while also carrying an umbrella, but she's walking fast enough that I don't need to pass her so she isn't my problem. Turns out she lives in my building. She walks up to the front door of the building, gets under the overhang, then starts to shake her umbrella out by opening and closing it repeatedly, taking twice as long as people normally take to do this. The problem with this is, between the diameter of the umbrella and the range of the water being shaken off it, there's no room for anyone else to get into the front doors or even under the overhang. Anyone else who might want to get in (i.e. me) is stuck outside in the rain until she finishes shaking out her umbrella.

And one I might have done myself...

3. There's a guy on the subway who looks rather like my cousin's husband. But it can't possibly be him - what on earth would he be doing in Toronto? Besides, I know my cousin's husband broke his leg recently, and this guy isn't on crutches or anything. Then he gets off the train...and he's wearing a walking cast! Ooops...

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A little less conversation: building better consensus-building

One thing I find absolutely tedious about watching youtubes of Occupy is the people's mike. It takes such a long time to say anything! This also echoes something I find tedious about municipal politics: live, in-person consultations where anyone gets to get up and talk. Again, it takes such a long time! Surely it would be faster, easier, and more convenient to have everyone submit their ideas in writing - reading is faster than talking, and the writing process tends to result a more organized deputation than extemporizing does.

But, at the same time, there's a certain democracy to everyone getting up and having their say in full that we don't necessarily want to lose. So how can we make the general process of public consultation faster and easier and less tedious without making it less democratic?

Here's what I've got so far:

We start with a whiteboard, which can be either literal, virtual, or metaphorical depending on what's needed. For a set and reasonable period of time, everyone writes on the whiteboard every factor they can think of that needs to be taken into consideration for the issue in question. Each factor only needs to appear on the whiteboard once, no matter how many people think it's important (we'll address the number of people who think it's important in a minute.) So even if every single person in the room thinks it's important for the new widgets to be backwards-compatible with existing widgets, only one person needs to stand up and say so or send in an email saying so for it to get written on the whiteboard.

This is also a question and answer time. Anyone can post or ask a question, and anyone can answer or expand on anyone else's answers. All questions asked and all answers given are recorded on another whiteboard for everyone's review.

After the period of time for contributing to the whiteboard is over, there's a voting period. During the voting period, everyone votes on each factor on two axes: Agree/Disagree and Important/Unimportant. You can cast a neutral vote by abstaining. Once all the votes have been tallied, you can see what the collective's priorities are. Then they can take action to implement everything that gets a high number of Agree and Important votes and avoid everything that gets a high number of Disagree and Important votes. Things voted Unimportant but with a clear Agree or Disagree consensus will be addressed if doing so doesn't interfere with the things voted Important. Things voted Important but without a clear consensus could be subject to further discussion/dissection, or looked at in terms of how they related to other Important factors with clearer consensus.

Whiteboard and voting will be made as accessible as possible. The whole thing could be online if everyone involved has internet access, but if that's difficult for anyone then in-person, telephone, write-in, and any other kind of input method people might require should be allowed.

The enormous advantage of this method would be that it eliminates duplication. Instead of having to hear (or even read) dozens of impassioned pleas on the importance of backwards-compatibility, only one person has to bring it up and the importance will be made clear in the voting phase. At the same time, if one lone maverick is insistent that the widgets should glow in the dark, it's right up there with all the other idea and will stand and fall on its own merits. If other people think it's a good idea, it could go through even though that one guy doesn't have very much reach.

This method of consensus-building is far from perfect, but I'm putting it out there as a starting point. Improvements welcome.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

You can't just replace screen time with exercise

I was annoyed to wake up yesterday morning to my radio telling me that the Heart and Stroke Foundation thinks we should be exercising when we would normally be watching TV or looking at the internet. As though those two things are anywhere near interchangeable.

Screen time is pleasurable and relaxing; exercise is a chore.

Screen time is multitaskable, conducive to cooking or eating or housework or light reading or more than one kind of screen time at once; exercise requires the full attention of your whole body and entirely too much of your mind.

Screen time is logistically simple - just turn it on and plop down; exercise requires different clothes and a shower afterwards and, depending on your health situation, planning what you do or don't eat before and/or after.

Analogy: suppose I decide that people aren't intaking enough current events and should read more newspapers. When they protest they don't have the time, I say "How much time do you spend driving around in car every day? Why don't you spend that time reading a newspaper instead?"

Not that simple, is it?

This irritated me so much that I skipped exercising yesterday just because I didn't want them to win.