Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Things They Should Invent: substitute MPs

This post was inspired by two things. First, the by-election for the late Jack Layton's riding is on March 19, 2012, which is nearly 7 months after Mr. Layton's death on August 22, 2011. This means the people of Toronto-Danforth have gone without representation for 7 months.

Second, there was a brief bit of an issue where a plot point was that MP Sana Hassainia had her three-month-old baby with her in the House of Commons. The fact that she's working when her baby is three months old must mean that she doesn't get much, if any, maternity or parental leave, likely because it wouldn't be fair to ask the people of Verchères–Les Patriotes to go a year without representation. But, at the same time, the vagaries of life such as childbirth and illness happen to everyone, and MPs deserve some leeway when it does happen, just like any other worker.

Solution: substitute MPs who can step in when an MP needs to take extended leave for whatever reason, and represent the constituency while waiting for by-elections.

Here are a few ideas to serve as a starting point:

- The substitute MP would be appointed by the party of the sitting MP. If it's a by-election situation, the substitute MP would not be permitted to run in that by-election or campaign for the party's by-election candidate. (They are, of course, welcome to run in future elections).

- The substitute MP's primary mandate is constituency work, and they are to be as productive and pro-active in this area as possible.

- Substitutes would still vote in the House of Commons. In general, substitutes would have to vote in accordance with the party line, but there would be specific, quantitative procedures to allow them to break from party line when the majority of their constituents want them to do so. (Possible variation: the quantitative thresholds for breaking with the party line could vary based on the percentage of votes won by the sitting MP.)

- Substitutes are not permitted to be party leaders, ministers, or critics. If the MP they are replacing held any of these roles, the roles must be passed on to another elected MP on an interim basis.

- If an MP crosses the floor, a by-election is called and in the interim a substitute is appointed from the party to which the MP belonged when they were elected. This would accommodate the needs of voters who vote by party while still permitting constituents to re-elect the floor-crossing MP if they choose, in full knowledge of their party affiliations.

- Some provision needs to be made for substitutes for independent MPs, but I don't have any specific ideas at the moment. I have no particular objection to the independent MP simply appointing their own substitute, but it would be nice to have more of a safety net than just one person asking around until they can find someone able and willing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Journalism wanted: why are sitting politicians allowed editorial platforms in commercial media?

With the news that the Ford brothers have a radio show, I'm reminded of something I meant to blog but never got around to months ago when Josh Matlow (my city councillor) had a newspaper column and, later, a radio show:

Why are sitting politicians allowed to write newspaper columns and host media shows? My gut feeling is that it should be some kind of conflict of interest, but I can't quite explain why I think it should be. The newspaper column seems less objectionable to me because they have more control over the topic and can keep it from straying into unethical areas, but again this is purely a gut feeling.

If they get paid by the media outlet (I don't know if they do or not - I asked Josh Matlow but haven't received an answer yet) [Update March 3: I have received a response saying he did neither received payment for the show nor paid for the airtime], then it seems like it would be a conflict of interest for a politician to be on a media outlet's payroll, just like it would be a conflict of interest for a sitting politician to be on any outside body's payroll. It also seems kind of wrong that a politician would promote a media outlet (which they will end up doing in the course of the completely reasonable act of telling their twitter followers "Hey, I'll be on the radio in this place and time"), but they'd be doing the same thing if they were the interviewee instead of the host and that doesn't seem as wrong to me. There's also the question of the advertisers for the radio show. What if one of the advertisers is something that it's inappropriate for a politician to be endorsing?

Of course, despite my gut feeling that this is wrong, it's probably perfectly permissible. It's so high-profile that if it were wrong, someone authoritative would have stopped it, or at least loudly announced it.

So I'd like to see someone write an article explaining to us ordinary citizens why sitting politicians are allowed the additional platform of hosting radio shows and writing newspaper columns. Since journalists for reputable news outlets would be trained in media ethics they already know the answer to this question, so it's an easy article, little research needed, just type it up and you'll have done a public service.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Things They Should Invent: customized crudités

The problem with eating veggies and salads is all the chopping up and washing you have to do. Grocery stores are addressing this by selling pre-made salads and packages of crudités. But the problem is that they don't always contain what you want. For example, I love cucumber slices, but you can't just buy a thing of cucumber slices. The cucumber slices come in a thing with carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and sometimes dip. I don't mind carrots and celery, I prefer my broccoli cooked, I'm not fond of cauliflower, and I'm not actively seeking dip. So there's less yummy (and more calories) than the thing I want.

But what if you could order them customized? Fill out a form on the grocery store's website telling them what you want, and you can pick it up within a certain timeframe. The price will reflect the ingredients you've chosen.

At first glance this sounds like it might be more expensive, but I think it would actually be cheaper for the store. The current business model is the store guesses what people will want, puts it out on the shelf as prepared food or in the salad bar as separate ingredients, and hopes everything will be bought. If they aren't bought, the store has to throw them out. But if they're custom-made, then the store knows that they're wanted, so there's a better preparation-to-sales ratio and less waste. The stores already have workers who prepare the prepared food and a pricing model that takes into account workers' salaries and revenues from less than 100% of the food being sold. It seems like they could expand to customization at no increased expense to the customer and a slightly greater profit margin.

Will the baby boomers stand up for their children or throw us under the bus?

With the recent announcement that changes to the OAS won't be implemented until 2020, the burden is being passed from the baby boomers (whose demographic weight is cited as the cause of this alleged crisis) to their children.

Apart from the question of advisability (if the problem is the proportion of the population receiving OAS, this proportion will have shrunk by or shortly after 2020), I wonder if the baby boomers will object to or embrace policy that makes life harder for their children.

In general, people want a better life for their children - or at least not a worse life. No one cradles their brand new baby, all bundled up in a blanket and wearing an itty bitty hat, gazes adoringly into that scrunched up and confused little face and says "Look at you! You're going to have to work multiple jobs at once in constant contract hell until you're 80 just to scrape by, yes you are!" On top of that, the baby boomers tend to be more protective of their children than previous generations - this is, after all, the generation that invented helicopter parenting. On that basis, they sound like people who might object to policy that will worsen their children's quality of life.

On the other hand, the baby boomers are the generation who, to quote a source that I've forgotten but is clearly from the US, got the drinking age lowered to 18 when they were in college and raised back to 21 when their kids were in college. As a generation, they engaged in (or at least developed a reputation for engaging in) a drug-fuelled sexual revolution, and then when their kids get old enough to become interested in such things there's a war on drugs and abstinence-only sex "education".

So will they stand up for us or throw us under the bus? And, in making this decision, will they remember that we'll be picking out their nursing homes?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Seasonal agricultural workers

With seasonal agricultural workers in the news recently, I thought I'd share something interesting I learned from some texts I was translating a while back.

The workers I was translating about live in shared huts, shacks or trailers in the fields where they work. They work 12-16 hour days, for which they are paid basically minimum wage with living expenses deducted. They rarely, if ever, leave the farm. I don't know if this is an actual rule imposed by the farmers so much as a result of logistics, but the fact of the matter is that the existing model is not compatible with having one's own life outside of the farm.

There's no provision for picking your kids up at daycare. There's no provision for getting a book out of the library. There's no provision for a bit of time alone or with your partner.

When people talk about seasonal agricultural workers, they tend to say things like "Canadians aren't willing to do this work", as though Canadians don't want to work hard or something. But it isn't about that at all - it doesn't get as far as thinking about the difficulty of the work. The key point is that if you're going to give up your life for several months to do a job under all-consuming conditions, you're going to want to make enough money to support you for the rest of the year. Work all summer and make enough to pay for the next year's university tuition and living expenses. Spend a few months away from your family and be at home to take care of them the rest of the year.

But minimum wage - even at 80-100 hour workweeks - isn't enough to do this if you're living in Canada. However, it is enough to do this if you're living in the countries where the seasonal agricultural workers come from, because of the differences in currencies and economies and costs of living. That's why they're willing to give up their lives during farming season when we aren't. They get more money than they could ever make at home, but we get just as much as we'd make at any other job where you don't have to give up your life.

Rather than bemoaning Canadians' alleged lack of work ethic, people who want Canadians to be doing farm work should look at either a) how can we make farm work more compatible with having a life? (Shift work maybe?) or b) how can we tweak our economy so we can afford to buy food farmed by workers who are paid enough to give up their lives during farm season?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How the Levi's ad campaign could have been made to work

I've been reading about the hilarious misfired Levi's ad campaign, and I think I see what they were trying to do and how they could have done it better.

Different people who wear the same size have different builds. For example, some people carry front-to-back, and some people carry side-to-side. Some people have long legs and a short torso, and some people have short legs and a long torso. Some people's hips curve in a smooth and gentle slope from the narrowest point of their waist to where the femur meets the pelvic bone, and some people's hips go straight out to the side at the top of the pelvic bone, slightly back inwards below that where there isn't much going on, then out again where the femur meets the pelvic bone.

I think what Levis was trying to suggest is that these jeans will fit all of these variations, or at least more of them than the average pair of jeans. Which would be useful! And it's possible that the models they use do in fact have these variations in their bone structure. But we can't tell, because of the pose. The pose only highlights their similarities, which makes it laughable.

Here's how they could have done it better:

Get an assortment of people whom the best-selling jeans on the market don't fit well. Make a video of them trying on the best-seller, focusing on the areas where it doesn't fit well. Then show them trying on the new jeans and focus on how they fit better in the problem areas. They could even get several models who all wear the same size jeans but have all different fit problems with the best-seller, and show them each trying on the same single pair of jeans (à la Travelling Pants), handing it from one to the next so the viewer can see that they're actually the same pants. If they don't want to show the models in their underwear, they could be in dressing-room booths with neck-to-knee doors.

The print component of the campaign could consist of a series of ads each highlighting one common fit problem, and include a link to a youtube page where you can see them actually putting on the new pants and comparing them with the old pants, to prove they're not photoshopped etc.

Of course, this ad campaign would only work if the pants actually do what they say they do. But if they do, they deserve to be well-advertised. And if they don't but claim they do, they deserve to be an object of ridicule.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Miscellaneous thoughts about the Star Trek reboot

I finally got around to watching the Star Trek reboot, and I have some random thoughts that aren't really a fully review.

1. When I first heard that it takes place in an alternate timeline, I thought that was just a handwave for any inconsistencies and was questioning whether that's actually good screenwriting. But after watching the movie, I think the alternate timeline was a good decision because it attends to our emotional needs as fans.

Fans tend to get disappointed when an adaptation or sequel doesn't fit into their concept of the existing universe. We have an emotional attachment to our fictional universes, and when they're messed with it ruins our happy place. Think of all the people who don't accept the Harry Potter movies or the Star Wars prequels as canon.

But, because it's an alternate timeline, we don't need to worry about whether it's canon. It doesn't change or negate the timeline we all know and love, and our favourite characters are still waiting right where we left them. This means we don't have to worry about whether they're in character or canonical or compatible with our own version of the fictional universe (just like we don't have to worry about these factors in the Mirror Universe episodes), and can just enjoy a space adventure.

2. The dialogue in this movie seemed more realistic than in any of the other Trek incarnations. In the midst of a space battle, someone on the bridge says "Are the shields even up?" Totally something a real person would say in that situation. But in other Trek incarnations, they'd say something more formal/military sounding. "Give me a status on the shields" or similar. I appreciated that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Gary Webster

I am sickened and disgusted and terrified by the firing of Gary Webster, and I am so absolutely livid that this is being done in my name.

In addition to being an insult to Mr. Webster, the TTC, the people of Toronto, and basic good sense, this disgraceful behaviour is a slap in the face of the hundreds of thousands of Torontonians who came here specifically to flee this kind of corruption.

On top of that, this raises the very important question of what kind of person would be willing to replace him under these working conditions? When the previous incumbent was fired for refusing to falsify a business case, do we have any chance of getting a competent or ethical replacement?

I sincerely hope Mr. Webster wins millions and millions of dollars that the city can't afford in a massive wrongful dismissal suit. Even if he doesn't need the money, I hope he wins on principle.

If I were a lawyer, I would be volunteering to represent him pro bono.

If I owned a business, I'd be wracking my brains to figure out how to hire him for more than he made at the TTC.

Things They Should Invent: consulting firm staffed entirely by former senior civil servants driven out of their jobs for doing their jobs. (Gary Webster, Linda Keen, Richard Colvin, Munir Sheikh, etc.)

I've never donated money to a political campaign. I dislike the fact that you cannot donate anonymously. More than once I've googled someone and their political donations have come up on the first page of results, and I don't like the idea of a prospective employer or client or someone else with whom my relationship would be purely professional and apolitical having access to that information.

But my visceral reaction here, for the first time in my life, was that I want to donate as much money as possible to whomever has the best chance of beating out the people responsible for firing Mr. Webster in the next election.

In the meantime, there's a petition to get them removed from the TTC Board.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A major flaw in mandate of the Drummond report

I was very disappointed to see that the mandate of the Drummond report specifically did not allow them to recommend tax increases. This deprives the people of Ontario of essential information. We're being told that various public services, all of which are valued by some people and some of which are valued by everyone, need to be cut, but we aren't being told what the alternative is.

In life in general, if you want to convince people to do something unpleasant, you have to tell them what the alternative is. For example, if you have a child who needs to get vaccinated, you tell them they have to get a needle so they don't get a big yucky sickness that will certainly make them miserable and might even kill them. But the too-narrow mandate of this report is akin to walking up to that child and saying simply "I'm going to stick a needle into you."

The child may or may not understand, and may or may not accept, the idea that doctors sometimes have to do unpleasant things to you to make you healthy. But, in any case, they'll be far more likely to think it's reasonable to stick a needle into them if you first tell them what you're trying to prevent. Even as an adult who understands the concept of vaccination, you'll want to know what you're being vaccinated against and maybe google the disease if you aren't already familiar with it before you allow a needle to be stuck into you.

But the government isn't telling us what exactly they're trying to prevent with these cuts; they're just taking as a given that the alternative is too expensive.

And, in life in general, if you want to convince someone that something is too expensive, you start by telling them how much it costs. For example, imagine you get the notion of buying a good bottle of real champagne. So you go to the best wine merchant in town ask for real champagne. He looks you up and down and says "You can't afford real champagne."

Is your reaction going to be "You must be right, you know best"? Probably not. Your initial reaction will probably be "WTF do you mean I can't afford real champagne? I can so afford real champagne!" Depending on the kind of pride or stubbornness you have, you might even feel so compelled to prove you can afford real champagne that you buy a bottle of champagne that you can't actually afford.

However, if he said something like "Of course. We have a lovely selection of champagne, starting at $750,000 a bottle," that would dissuade you far more effectively, wouldn't it? And it would make you far more likely to trust the wine merchant's judgement of what you are and are not able to afford in the future.

Of course, the reason why the government gave the Drummond Commission a mandate that precluded recommending tax increases is probably because the government has no intention of raising taxes under any circumstances. However, this is a strategic error. If the government's apparent plan of not raising taxes under any circumstances is even remotely sound, a report that includes information on how much our taxes would need to go up to support current service levels would support and build credibility for that plan. And, knowing that, the fact that they nevertheless mandated the Commission to neglect this key information leads me to question whether their plan is in fact sound.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How primary care physicians are compensated

This is either a "Teach Me About..." or a "Things They Should Invent", depending on how accurate my current understanding is.

My understanding is that (in Ontario, at least) primary care physicians are only compensated for the thing you make the appointment for, which is why you're only supposed to bring up one issue per appointment.

Is this understanding correct?

If this is correct, I wonder if the medical system could be improved by allowing doctors to bill for whatever they actually end up doing. This occurs to me because of a recent experience with my dentist. I was in for a check-up and cleaning, and it was discovered that I needed a filling. So they did the filling too, then and there, without having to make another appointment. It would be convenient if doctors could do this too. Would billing for everything they end up doing make this happen?

If I'm misunderstanding how doctors are compensated and they do bill for actual work done, why are you only supposed to bring up one issue per appointment? The idea of one issue per appointment is culturally pervasive enough that there must be more of a reason than simply because there are people waiting in line after you.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Better spin on the deal-breaker personal ads

I previously came up with the idea of deal-breaker personal ads, and they've been festering in my brain, occasionally being improved.

Today my shower gave me a better way to spin them: call them "Things you need to know before you date me" or something similar. On a website, they wouldn't appear in the initial personal ad, but you would see them before messaging a person. If you find the deal-breakers unappealing, you simply don't message that person.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mabel's Fables

A close friend of mine recently had a baby, and, as self-proclaimed fairy godmother, I wanted to do better than just getting something that I think is adorable, I also wanted it to be something the baby (and her parents!) would enjoy and appreciate. Unfortunately, I don't actually know stuff about babies or new parents or baby gifts, I just know what I think is cute.

Googling around for ideas, I learned that Mabel's Fables, a children's bookstore in my neighbourhood, has gift baskets of books especially for brand new babies. I've passed by their store many times and it's all colourful and fun-looking but I never had a reason to go inside, so I decided this was the perfect excuse to go check them out.

I had enormous fun looking at all the toys and books (I kept picking stuff up and going "OMG, I remember this!"). The employees were friendly and helpful, and when I told them I have no idea what I'm doing, they asked me some questions and used their expertise to come up with an appropriate variety of books for the gift basket. (I got the impression that you can also have a say in which books to choose if you feel you know what you're doing.) The books that go in the baby gift basket are absolutely gorgeous, and align with specific child development outcomes that I can't explain well because they're way over my head. Mabel's Fables had the gift basket shipped right to the new parents' house (I believe they ship by CanPar, but is isn't an issue because new parents tend to be home), and the parents and the new baby all loved it!

Best of all, I got a picture in my email of my favourite little person (not even three months old when the picture was taken) holding one of the books I got her, looking just like a regular person reading! While the setup, with the book open vertically in front of her, resting on the high chair tray, her itty bitty baby hands holding onto the cover, might have been the result of some parental intervention, the intent look on her face as she stares at the pages cannot be faked. I totally get fairy godmother points for that, and I could never have picked anything so suitable on my own. I look forward to going back to Mabel's Fables again and using their expertise to choose more books for my favourite little person as she and her reading needs grow and develop.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Failure dreams

Many many people (including me) have dreams that they didn't finish high school. If you tell someone "I had that dream where I didn't finish high school," it's quite likely they'll know exactly which dream you mean.

I wonder if there's a similarly pervasive dream in culture that don't have high school? I wonder what people who actually didn't finish high school (but are no longer in school) have in place of it?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Things They Should Invent: career guidance that asks you what DON'T you want to be when you grow up?

At lot of the career advice I received as a child led me to respond "No way! I do NOT want to do that!" The usual response by the grownups around me was to try to convince me that I should be more open-minded about such things, or to try to convince me that I really could do it if I work hard and put my mind to it.

What they really should do when a student is resistant to a particular career path is determine what exactly they don't like about it, and use that information to guide them towards something more suitable.

For example, many adults tried to convince me to go into engineering. If they had thought to ask, I would have told them that I didn't want to go into engineering because you had to make actual things that actually worked. With suitable leading questions, I could have given the example of enrichment workshops where we had to make bridges or rube goldberg machines out of paper and glue and cotton balls and string, and while I had a solid grounding in the necessary theory and some innovative ideas, I found making the things actually function was impossible, and far more frustrating than anything else I faced academically. A knowledgeable teacher or guidance counsellor could then point me towards something that uses the same strengths that lead them to think I'm suitable for engineering, but is less tangible.

Aptitude tests kept giving me a set of possible career paths that included psychologist and clergy person. I didn't want to do either of those because they're such intense people work that need far more emotional intelligence than I have (plus, for the clergy thing, I'm an atheist). My guidance counsellor's next step should have been to look at things that use the same aptitudes, but don't require people skills.

For a time, it was trendy to encourage students to go to college instead of university. While I have nothing against college in principle, college programs train you in a specific career, and none of those career appealed to me. Meanwhile, university programs train you in an academic subject, so I could study something I like and am good at rather than train for a career I find unappealing. For example, college-encouragers would always tell me "You don't have to go to university, you know. You could go to college and do Travel and Tourism! You like languages!" Yes, but I hate travel and tourism! Why would I want to commit at 18 to a career in something I hate rather than spending the next four years studying something I love? In any case, a useful response would have been to either identify college programs that would be more appealing to me, or to recognize that I'm well-suited to university and look for useful programs there.

A student's disinclination towards a particular field is just as informative as their enthusiasm for a particular field, and it shouldn't be written off just because it's negative. Especially when combined with the What can you do better than others? method, asking students what they don't want to do and why could go a long way towards pinpointing the right field for them.

Open Letter to Toronto City Councillors

Dear Toronto City Councillors:

Thank you for your very sensible vote to restore LRTs yesterday. I immensely appreciate seeing political cooperation to do what's right for our city, and look very forward to seeing more of the same in the future.

In the interest of achieving that, I have something I'd like you all to think about. Rob Ford unilaterally announced that Transit City is dead on December 1, 2010. Your successful vote to reverse that decision came yesterday, on February 8, 2012. That's over 14 months. Even if everything goes absolutely perfectly from now on, the best possible outcome is we're 14 months behind where we should be.

So here are two questions you need to think about quietly to yourselves and then brainstorm together until you get workable answers:

1. Why did it take you 14 months to reverse such a destructive decision that the mayor had no authority to make?

2. What will you do to make it possible to prevent or reverse future destructive decisions in a more timely manner, so we don't lose a year every time the mayor does something stupid?

I'm not posing these questions to make you defend yourselves. (If anyone posts spinny damage control in the comments I will be very unimpressed.) They are not for answering immediately, or slapping together a talking point for a briefing note and checking off the list. I'm posing these questions so you'll actually think about them, at length and over a period of time. Let them fester in your brains, think of ideas, share them and build on them with other councillors, and ultimately come up with a way to prevent this problem from happening again.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Miscorrected mondegreens

The OED Online twitter feed has been talking about mondegreens today, so I thought I'd blog my contribution since I can't get it down to 140.

I'm lyric-deaf, so I mishear lyrics more often than I hear them correctly. Because I'm used to mishearing lyrics, I tend to recognize when what I think the lyrics are must be wrong, and I try to determine the correct lyrics using logic. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work out properly. For example:

1. The song: You Shook Me All Night Long
What I heard: "She was a fax machine"
What I thought: "That can't possibly be right. The song is clearly sexual, it must be "She was a sex machine"."
Actual lyric: "She was a fast machine"

2. The song: Lookin' Out My Back Door
What I heard: "Memories and elephants are playing in the band"
What I thought: "Memories must be tambourines, but I can't figure out what elephants is."
Actual lyric: "Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band". The elephants are actually in there!

Update: just remembered a better one:

3. The song: Land of Hope and Dreams
What I heard: "This train carries whores and camels"
What I thought: "Why on earth would you have passengers on the same train as livestock? And why would it be so specifically limited to prostitutes? That can't possibly be right. It must be horses and camels."
Actual lyrics: "This train carries whores and gamblers"

Sunday, February 05, 2012

What problem are they trying to solve with airline gender ID rules in the first place?

The changes to airline screening regulations have gotten a lot of attention for their impact on transgender people. The problematic change in wording states an air carrier shall not transport a passenger who "does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents."

But in all the (rightful) focus on the impact of this change on transgendered people, there's one question I haven't seen asked yet:

Why are they making this rule in the first place?

Impersonating someone else and using fake ID is already against the rules, so introducing the gender rule doesn't add anything.

Logically, the gender rule sounds like it's intended to prevent people from getting through security by pretending to be someone of another gender. But that sort of ploy would only work if they weren't screening people of all genders. If that's the problem, what they need to do is screen people of all genders properly.

The new rule contributes nothing, and I'm really curious how it managed to get through the extensive legislation scrutiny process.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Concepts we need: origin of knowledge

I blogged before about why I know how vaccines work: my mother told me when I was a small child who needed to get a needle, her father told her when she was a small child who needed to get a needle, and he would have learned in university. So what was part of a university education to my grandfather became part of general knowledge to me.

A couple of things I have read recently lead me to think that it's a useful exercise to figure out exactly how and why each of us knows the things we've always known as general knowledge.

First, I read this article about Attawapiskat

I’ve met Oji-Cree people who would really just like to know how to operate a buzz saw, after spending the past few millennia hunting and trapping in the boreal forest before being catapulted into residential schools and then bounced back into the birch trees. They know about Jesus, but they have no clue how to insulate prefab modular housing units shipped up by a federal bureaucracy that prohibits them from logging on “Crown land.”

My first thought on reading this is "But I have a clue how to insulate housing!" I don't know exactly, but I have a clue - a rough idea, a starting point, some thoughts on how to refine that rough idea.

So why do I know this?

Because my parents' house came with an unfinished basement, and when I was a small child they finished it. And part of the process of finishing the basement was putting in insulation. I haven't yet talked to my parents and traced how they learned to put in insulation, but for the moment we know that I know about insulation because I saw it being done around me, and the people described in the article don't because they've never seen it done around them, which, as the article describes, is the root of many problems in Aboriginal communities.

Then I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells the story of the HeLa cell line and Henrietta Lacks, from whom they originated. The book described how Ms. Lacks and her descendents had cultures taken from their bodies and tests conducted without their consent and understanding, and, despite the fact that Ms. Lacks' cells have contributed so much to medical science, her descendents still receive insufficient medical care due to lack of medical insurance (they live in the US). One of the points made in the book is that her descendents don't (and Ms. Lacks didn't) understand the situation very well, and this is portrayed as due to their lack of education.

But this got me wondering: why do understand it? My education didn't cover any of this stuff!

I learned what cells are in grade 9 and/or 10 science class, and that surely contributed to my understanding. But I never took biology, and really learned very little about health stuff in school. So why do I understand it? Part of it is related to my vaccine story above: my parents were able to answer my health questions when I was little, so I've always had the idea that understanding the answers to my health questions is within my grasp. I look stuff up if I don't understand it - and I do understand that I have more resources at my fingertips than the Lacks family did - but ultimately my understanding of the health issues discussed in the books can be traced to the fact that I read newspapers. For probably about 20 years, I've been reading health-related articles that either explain things down to my level of knowledge, or give me the vocabulary to look things up. Sometimes newspaper articles mention interesting-sounding books (like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) which I then read and learn even more about medical stuff, but the original input seems to be newspapers.

I blogged before about how I read newspapers just because we always had them around the house. My parents read newspapers because their parents always had them around the house. I don't know my great-grandparents' precise habits of media consumption, but my grandparents have told me stories that involved them as children looking at newspapers that were around the house. So the origin of my newspaper-reading habit predates living memory.

At this point, some people are probably thinking that these things are a result of how I was parented. But they aren't exactly. The influence did come from my parents, but they weren't doing these things to produce good outcomes for their children. Rather, they were just living their lives with me in the general vicinity. They renovated and read newspapers before they have children, and they continue to do so today with their children grown and moved out.

It's more about the context in which one lives. Fifty-five years before Henrietta Lacks was born, her ancestors were slaves. Fifty-five years before I was born, my grandparents were children, looking at (and not entirely understanding) the newspaper they found lying around their parents' houses. And, because of this, I understand her medical records, while she never even thought to ask.

This is something everyone should think about a lot. It really gives you perspective.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Things They Should Study: what percentage of the population can read on trains but not on buses?

One of the reasons why Transit City is of particular interest to me is that I get carsick reading on buses but have no problem reading on trains. A trip in any kind of rail vehicle - even the old-fashioned streetcars they have downtown which are nowhere near as awesome as LRTs - is an opportunity to relax and get some reading done. A trip in a bus, it's at best lost time, and at worst a struggle against nausea. Transit City maximizes the number of potential trips that can be taken by rail, thus maximizing multitaskability.

As I've blogged about before, multitaskable commutes increase productivity, and multitasking in a vehicle generally involves reading of some sort. I'm not the only one who is more prone to carsickness in buses than in trains, but I can't find any data on the percentage of the population to whom this applies. If it's a large percentage of the population, this should be a factor in transit planning - or at the very least it should be public information so we can make an informed decision about whether to take it into consideration.

The first page of google results gives numbers ranging from 33% to 90% of the population being prone to motion sickness, so the number of people affected is probably not negligible. Someone really needs to research this so we can get some real numbers.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Controversial things that I would like to be available if I were one of the people affected

1. Sex-selection abortion. I was a wanted child, conceived quite mindfully and intentionally, and life is still hard. I have wished that I hadn't been born, but I've never been glad that I was born. (Long before I even knew what abortion was, I realized that I hadn't been born, I wouldn't mind not having been born). I'd imagine it's far worse if your parents don't think you're worth having because of your biological sex, but you would be worth having if you had a different biological sex. If my parents had wanted to abort me for being a girl, I would have wanted that option to be available to them.

2. The option of committing suicide when in prison. I always thought that part of the punishment of prison is that they prevent you from committing suicide, so you live to be raped and tortured another day. So, if I were in prison, I'd be very glad to have the option of ending it. However, I don't think the senator's proposal of providing rope for hanging is ideal. Nooses look hard to tie (I wouldn't know how to do it without googling, and I don't think they're allowed internet in prison) and I don't know the results of hanging with a poorly-tied noose. In addition, your bladder and bowels release when you die, and if the body's hanging from the ceiling that would all spray around the room and then someone would have to clean it up. A cleaner and more reliable method would be preferable. On top of all that, it isn't right for people who have been convicted of crimes to have the right to suicide when euthanasia isn't yet available to the general public. Nevertheless, I do support the general principle of suicide being an option, both inside and outside of prison.

I don't expect many people to agree with me on these points. I'm be the first to admit that I'm more nihilistic than most, and I'm certainly not saying that others should feel the same way just because I do; I do very much see where people who disagree with me are coming from. However, the fact remains that, if I were one of the people affected first-hand by these questions, this is what I would want.