Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What if they deliberately inflated grades in gym class?

Every once in a while, people talk about making gym class mandatory throughout high school to improve the population's fitness. As I've blogged about previously, before we even get into the instrinic humiliation gym class, making it mandatory every year would be rather harmful academically.

First of all, having another required course to take every year eliminates the option of taking some other course that might be academically useful. Imagine if you're trying to get into some demanding university program, and you don't have room for Biology AND Chemistry AND Physics AND Calculus AND Computer Science because you have to take gym.

Secondly, making the class mandatory brings down the average of students who aren't particularly good at athletics (who should be the target audience of any such initiative, as those who are good at athletics are much more likely to already be involved in athletics). This would be harmful to non-athletic students' university and scholarship applications. For example, I did my very best in gym class every day, and all I got to show for it was a begrudging C. (And I suspect the teacher was only passing me at all because I was doing my best). In comparison, simply showing up in calculus or physics class and not putting in any effort would earn me a B, and simply showing up in French or German class and not putting in any effort would earn me a low A (and doing my best would get me a high A in all these classes). So, if the class were mandatory, it would lower my average, make me less attractive to universities and reduce my scholarships, all in service of a subject that's not only irrelevant to my future academic and professional career, but actually prevents me from taking another course that is relevant to my future academic and professional career. That's downright punitive!

But what if, instead of making gym class mandatory, they made it an easy A? Suppose showing up and doing the sport of the day was enough to earn you a low A-. Students are graded on a curve relative to each other within the A range of percentages, but the lowest mark you can possibly get for showing up and participating is a low A-.

This would give all students who can't normally earn an A effortlessly incentive to take gym every single year, to bring their average up for university. Students would still retain their positions relative to each other because the better performers would get high As and the worse performers would get low As, but gym class would have a positive effect on many people's averages, and no particular detrimental effect on anyone's average.

Inflating the grades may also be useful from a public health perspective (which is relevant since the whole idea of making gym class mandatory comes from a public health perspective). Because my very best efforts got me only a begrudging C, I reasonably conclude that my objective skill in sports is mediocre. If someone asked me to be part of their sports team, I'd be reluctant to do so (again, putting aside personal inclination) because I'd assume I'd be a liability for the team. However, if my best efforts had gotten a respectable B, I'd assume I'm more or less average and therefore no more of a liability than anyone else. You can see how this might affect a person's inclination to play sports later in life.

In all of this, there's still the question of Kinesiology class. I don't know how it works now, but when I was in high school, the OAC (Grade 13) gym class was called Kinesiology, had a stronger classroom component than the gym classes in the lower grades, and was preparation if not prerequisite for studying Kinesiology in university. I googled a few university Kinesiology programs, and they had multiple academic prerequisites (none of which were a high school gym or Kinesiology course), which suggests that, if high school Kinesiology still exists, the classroom component is academically relevant and would suffer from being inflated. Therefore, I propose that, if there is academically relevant material, only the in-gym component should be subject to grade inflation. That way, the students' relative marks will reflect their grasp on the academic material.

Understand, I'm not actually objectively advocating for inflating people's grades in gym class. However, from time to time, people advocate for using gym class as a public health tool, most often by suggesting that it should be made mandatory every year throughout high school. If they're going to insist upon manipulating the curriculum to achieve public health goals, I think grade inflation would be more effective and more just.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

I'm surprised that the bullied bus monitor video is surprising

I'm not surprised by the level of cruelty shown in the recent video of a middle school bus monitor being bullied. What surprises me is that so many people are surprised, and that the bus monitor was unprepared for this situation.

I want to be perfectly clear: I am not in any way suggesting that the kids' behaviour was even remotely acceptable. I am not in any way suggesting it should be shrugged off just because it's so common, and I'm not in any way suggesting that the bus monitor should have to be exposed to that behaviour.

It's just that, even before this video, if you said to me "A middle school bus monitor is a job that exists. Would you do that job?" I would have answered no. And the reason why I would have answered no is a) I would expect the behaviour of middle school students on a school bus to be very much like what is shown in that video, b) I would assume the bus monitor's job is to stop them from behaving that way, and c) I have no idea whatsoever how to even begin doing that. And my basis for these conclusions is the fact that I went to middle school and took the bus.

I'm very interested in the experiences of the people who were surprised by this. Did they never take the school bus? Did they somehow have a bully-free middle-school experience? (If so, how?) If I could figure out a way of asking without sounding assholic, I'd also want to ask what the bus monitor expected to happen, and why.

But, in any case, I'm glad this video has raised awareness among those who, for whatever reason, weren't aware that this is the reality of middle school buses, and I hope it reaches some people who are able to change the situation. I hope it gets the instigators in trouble (without getting the other kids who happened to be on the bus in trouble - when I was in middle school the whole bus would get in trouble, which was doubly punitive for those of us who weren't involved because not only were we trapped in a bus with dickheads, but we were also being punished for being uninfluential in the vicinity of dickheads). And I hope Ms. Klein is able to use the money raised to enjoy a nice peaceful retirement and never have to ride on a school bus again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thoughts from old pictures on Retronaut

1. Pictures of the New York City subway from 1946. What surprised me most here is how many women are standing up while men are sitting. I think in every picture where there are people standing and people sitting, there are more women than men standing and more men than women sitting. This surprises me, because everything I've ever heard from my elders suggests that back in the "good old days" when everyone wore suits and hats, gentlemen would always always always give up their seats for a lady.

2. Pictures of middle-aged women from the 1960s. What surprised me here is how frumpy the people look (my own mother is in her 60s, and looks younger than everyone in these pictures), but how nice their clothes are. There's probably half a dozen outfits in there that I'd actually wear myself and feel well-dressed doing so, and if you told me that the pink shoes on the lady in the third picture were next season's Fluevogs I'd totally believe you. And yet, overall, they still look frumpy to me.

I'm wondering if the overall aesthetic has changed, either culturally or because of improved technology. I think the aesthetic in which these ladies were dressing themselves focuses on going through all the right steps. These ladies have their hair set, they have nice dresses and nice shoes and stockings and pearls, they have their red lipstick. Check, check, check, everything on the checklist.

In comparison, I think today's aesthetic focuses more on creating an appearance of naturally-occurring flawlessness but doesn't care as much about which checklist items you'd use. It doesn't matter whether your hair is set nicely or artfully tousled, as long as it looks healthy and plentiful and probably not grey. It doesn't matter if you have red lipstick or look like you've done anything with your lips at all, but you'd better get your lines and blemishes and dark circles convincingly covered. It doesn't matter how nice your clothes are or aren't, but you'd better give an overall impression clothed that you're not unpleasant to look at naked.

My grandmother things what she needs to do to make her feet sandal-ready is paint her toenails. I think what I need to do to make my feet sandal-ready is pumice and moisturize until there is no visible sign of coarse skin anywhere other than the soles (I'd remove it from the soles too, but it turns out the purpose of those calluses is they make it not hurt to walk), pull every hair out with tweezers, apply a light layer of self-tanner to hide any evidence that I ever had a sock tan, and paint my toenails. (And all the aesthetic shortcomings of my feet were inherited from my grandmother.) Could our respective pedicure standards be indicative of a broader cultural shift?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On "policing femininity" in sport

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.

South Africa is ground zero of the debate. An estimated 1 per cent of the 50 million people here are born “intersex,” meaning they don’t fit typical definitions of male or female.

For female athletes, this may mean they were born with hyperandrogenism, a disorder in which they have hormone levels similar to those of a man.

Sometimes, the distorted levels result from conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes a hormonal imbalance in the body, while other cases are pure hermaphroditism, where women are born with some male reproductive organs.

Many elite athletes have bodies outside the range of what is typical. They might be taller than usual (basketball) or shorter than usual (gymnastics), or have unusual bodily proportions (e.g. Michael Phelps), or have a high ratio of muscle (weight-lifters) or a low ratio of fat (distance runners). I'm sure many athletes also have cardio or lung capacity that is far better than the human norm. If their hormone levels are naturally occurring, they're just another physical atypicality that makes people especially well-suited to their particular sport.

If they're going to police hormone levels and force athletes to artificially alter their hormone levels or withdraw for competition, they should also be policing things like unusual height or proportions or lung capacity. If they insist on hormone levels being within a certain range of the human average, they should insist on that for all physical characteristics.

Plastic bag braindump

1. "But Whole Foods doesn't use plastic bags and they do fine..." The experience of an individual store not providing something is not indicative of the experience of its unavailability in the entire city. It's easy to plan for one store in your many errands not having bags - if you misestimate, you can always get an extra bag from another store. But it's far more inconvenient, and your planning has to be far more perfect, if you can't get another bag, at all, ever, from anyone.

Analogy: most shoe stores will put an extra hole in your sandal straps if you ask them to. I once went to a shoe store that didn't have the tool to do that with. No big deal, my regular shoemaker was willing to do it for free. However, the relative inconvenience of that one non-hole-making shoe store is not indicative of the impact of banning that shoe-strap-hole-punching tool from Toronto city limits.

2. "Shopping without bags is easy! All you have to do is get these bins and keep them in your trunk..." Not if you don't have a car it's not. Since the stated reason for eliminating plastic bags is environmental, all discussion of the matter should focus on the carless trip chain, which benefits from things like light weight and waterproofness and handles and not having to carry big bulky sacks around all day just because you might want to stop in and pick up a couple of things after work. Making it more difficult to live without a car would be even worse for the environment - especially since this is Toronto, where there are many high-density neighbourhoods with shops within walking distance or public transit of homes. And, because I'm frustrated by how often people are promoting a car-based outlook in the name of environmentalism, I'm instituting a new rule: everyone who says it's easy to do away with plastic bags and then cites a car-based example is banned from using a car on their next comparable shopping trip.

3. "But I don't like plastic bags. I have sooo many of them and I don't even like them!" So why do you keep taking them? I've seriously seen this multiple times - people who actively embrace a ban because they feel that they have too many plastic bags in their own home. I don't like those awful "reusable" bags and already have more of then than I'd like, so I don't take them any more, not even when they're being given away for free. I also don't like cantaloupe. Or tampons without applicators. Or bubble gum. So I don't buy any and say no thank you if they're ever offered to me for free. It's really rather simple. Just because you have trouble saying "No thanks" or not reaching out and accepting what is thrust in your direction is not a good basis for a ban. "And sometimes they get holes in them!" So do shoes. And underwear. And "reuseable" bags for that matter. That isn't a good reason to stop (and ban!) their use.

4. "This is a failure of leadership by Rob Ford." No, it isn't. Don't get me wrong, I have no fondness for Rob Ford and would love to seize a chance to criticize him, but it's not his job to make council not vote stupidly. It's council's job to not vote stupidly by virtue of being remotely competent adults. In fact, because we don't have a party system at the municipal level and voted for our councillors on the basis of a non-party system, it would be morally wrong and a betrayal of voters for the mayor to whip the vote. (I know he attempts to do so from time to time; that is something you can cite when looking for examples of poor mayorship.)

5. Would the cost to retailers make it worth adhering to the ban? Some media coverage (e.g. the first letter to the editor here from C.R. Ihasz) has mentioned that paper bags are significantly more expensive to retailers than plastic, and some coverage has mentioned that some retailers have already ordered and paid for enough plastic bags to meet their anticipated needs for the next 12-18 months. I haven't seen anything about what the consequences of providing plastic bags after the ban would be, but it seems like the sort of thing that would be punishable by a fine. It might be more cost-effective to retailers to continue providing plastic bags in violation of the ban, and just accept any fines as the cost of doing business.

Also, paging C.R. Ihasz: I would like to know the name of your store so I can direct some of my business there.

6. How will this affect farmer's market farmers? When I purchase soft, easily squishable produce (peaches, strawberries, etc.) from a farmer's market, I have them put the Foodland Ontario basket in a plastic bag and carry the bag around by the handles. That protects the fruit from being bruised or smashed as much as possible while keeping it clean and easy to carry. But when I buy harder, sturdier produce (apples, carrots, etc.) I have them take it out of the basket and just put it in a plastic bag. The basket isn't necessary to keep the fruit from bruising or smashing, and it's lighter to carry that way. The farmer keeps the baskets I don't use and fills them up again the next week. But if the farmers can't provide plastic bags and we have to do our market run with reusable bags, then we'll have to keep all our baskets to keep the fruit as segregated as possible in the reusables (or else the apples will bruise the peaches and the carrots will burst the berries.) I'd be using twice as many baskets under these circumstances, which means that my farmers would have to buy twice as many baskets (which are surely significantly more expensive than bags.) Plus, I have no use for the baskets once I get my food home, so that's something even bigger and bulkier going into the waste stream in addition to my usual one plastic bag a day.

7. What about retailers who reuse plastic bags? Some small businesses I patronize (i.e. owner-operated, only one or two employees) don't have their own plastic bags. If I need a bag for my purchase, they give me a bag they used when they bought something at a store, or promotional bags given to them by their vendors. Including these in the ban may would be ridiculous.

8. Legislate handles! If it turns out that City Council isn't able to undo this ridiculous over-reaching ban and retailers are left only able to provide us with paper bags (which would actually increase my household waste footprint, because I have no further use for paper once I get them home so they'd go straight into recycling while I still throw out one plastic bag a day full of food waste), City Council should pass a law requiring all bags to have handles! At least that would solve the logistical problem of an errand trip chain with multiple stops. It's true that a handle requirement would be far beyond the scope of what City Council should be legislating, but so is an outright ban.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Things They Should Study: what circumstances or conditions lead people to be blinded by popularity?

As I wrote about in my previous post, this whole plastic bag thing reminds me of elementary school group work, because in both cases I have a better solution than what's popular, and it's being automatically written off because it isn't the thing that's popular. I find this particularly irritating because I have to suffer the consequences of the worse solution despite having come up with a better solution and duly communicated it to all involved.

As I also mentioned in my previous post, I am able to convince people to use, or at least try, my ideas far more often than would be attributable to pure chance. In my previous post, I took this as a sign that my ideas are not without merit and I'm not entirely incapable of being convincing.

But what if people are more likely or less likely to be blinded by popularity under certain circumstances or conditions? What if there was some common condition present in my elementary school classrooms, in LCBO leadership, and in Toronto City Council that wasn't present in my workplaces and my high school and university classrooms?

One thing I have noticed, although it's possible this is subject to confirmation bias, is that others seem more likely to be blinded by popularity in cases where it is not logistically possible for me to implement my idea myself. In my job, I can do things my own way unless specifically instructed by my boss or a client to do otherwise. I don't need others to agree, I just need the people who can boss me around not to disagree. Nevertheless, nearly every idea I share in the workplace gets at least tried by at least one person. And, of all my ideas (not just in the workplace, but in life in general), the ones that get picked up the most are my mnemonics, and it makes literally no difference to me whatsoever if other people use them.

But when it comes to something like changing plastic bag policy, which I can't in any way make happen by myself and am dependent on governments and retailers to implement, I'm automatically dismissed because I'm advocating for something other than the most popular idea.

What if there's something in here that's indicative of a broader pattern of when people are open to ideas vs. being blinded by popularity?

Monday, June 11, 2012

A flaw in my elementary school education

As I've blogged about many times before, the reason why I'm so incredibly frustrated about attempts to ban plastic bags (first from the LCBO and then from Toronto) is that I already came up with a better solution to the stated problem. I solved the problem, I communicated the solution to the appropriate people, but, because the influential people aren't listening to me, I still have to suffer the inconvenience of their suboptimal "solution".

This reminds me of elementary school.

In elementary school we did a lot of group work, for the ostensible reason that it would teach us how to work with others in the workplace. I was one of the top students, but I was also one of the least popular students. And it would often happen in our group work that I would know the correct answer or the correct approach, but my group wouldn't listen to me because I'm not cool. (When I say "the correct answer", I'm referring to cases where there is a single objectively-correct answer or approach. How to calculate the area of a polygon. How to spell a word. What a French sentence says.) So then the work we turned in would have mistakes in it, and I'd get a worse mark than I would have gotten if I'd done the work myself. Apart from gym class, all the worst marks I got in elementary school and middle school were for group work, where the rest of my group would drag me down by disregarding my correct answers.

I always maintained that this doesn't actually prepare us for working with others in the workplace, because in the workplace there's a boss. The boss makes the final decision, and has the ultimate responsibility for the outcome. If I think I have a better idea than my boss, I speak my piece and then she decides. If she decides against my idea and I end up being right, she's the one who faces the consequences and I have better credibility for next time. I don't face negative consequences when my good ideas are not accepted.

But this plastic bag thing is just like elementary school group work. I'm looking at nuances and natural user behaviour patterns and non-intrusive approaches to optimizing the usage cycle, but the popular kids just want to blindly barrel through like a bulldozer shouting "BAN IT!", just like my classmates in elementary school who disregarded my explanations of order of operations and insisted on blindly barrelling through our math questions in the order the numbers appeared. And, like in elementary school, I still have to suffer the consequences of their poor decisions even though I know a better way to do it.

This made me realize there was a flaw in my elementary school education. Our group work was supposed to teach us how to get work done as part of a group. This should include how to convince others that your better ideas are actually better than the popular ideas. But they never actually taught us how to do this. They just threw us in groups and assumed we'd learn. No teacher ever actually explained to us how to get around this blind devotion to popularity. They just operated under the assumption that we'd automatically figure out how to solve these problems from working in groups, but that never happened. And now I'm 31 years old and unable to convince my governments to take a nuanced approach to an issue that will affect everyone every day.

At this point, you might be thinking "Maybe you're just generally unconvincing and don't have good ideas." But I do have good ideas and am able to present them convincingly in many contexts. In the workplace and in group projects in university, my ideas have been used quite often, either based on their clear value or based on the credibility I've developed by demonstrating my skill and expertise. Family and friends most often at least give my ideas serious consideration. Mnemonics I created in high school language classes are still used to this day, and my teacher even gave them to other teachers to use in their classes. I've even been able to get my dentist to try out my ideas when working on me, and he now has a better way of taking impressions for patients with small mouths and strong gag reflexes.

But I've never figured out how to get past blind following of popularity. And I think my teachers did us all a disservice by assuming that just working in a group would teach us how to overcome these pitfalls.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Spiting Rob Ford: ur doin it wrong

Dear Toronto City Council:

I totally get wanting to stick it to Rob Ford. I'm no fan of the man myself. He came into work early on his very first day to cancel Transit City, which (as I explained to him in email shortly after his election) would hurt me more than any other government policy enacted in my lifetime. With that action, he lost any further benefit of the doubt I might have given him, and, before we even get into policy quality, I'm not above enjoying a little flicker of schadenfreude every time he's defeated.

However, by banning plastic bags in Toronto, you've just ensured his next election victory.

What you've done is introduced an inconvenience that people will notice every day, and that Ford opposed. Every single time someone ends up buying more groceries than they planned for; every single time someone opens the hall closet and their stash of those bulky annoying "reusable" bags that it's never actually convenient to use falls on their head; every single time someone needs to get shoes repaired, go to the farmer's market and buy clothes all in one trip; every single time someone runs out of garbage bags because they keep forgetting to buy garbage bags because they've never had to buy garbage bags before in their life because their grocery bags have always done the job, this irritant you've introduced will come up and slap them in the face.

As we know, Ford appeals to voters who don't closely follow the details of municipal politics, who don't have (or don't care to have) a broader view and are more likely to vote on things that affect them personally and directly. We saw this in the last election, with people swayed by groundless claims that a subway could be built quickly and cheaply, or by the prospect of saving a measly $60 a year on vehicle registration tax (an amount so negligible that they wouldn't even notice if $60 were pickpocketed from their wallet over the course of a year.) If spin and catchphrases and negligible cost savings could win him an election, imagine what a tangible daily irritant will do!

There are many things you could do to spite Rob Ford that will also make life easier and more fun for Torontonians. You could restore the library and bus services that were cut. You could build more bike lanes. You could extend Pride funding. You could build all of Transit City in its original form.

Or you could solve this whole plastic bag debacle by requiring stores to give away biodegradable plastic bags. As I've blogged about many many many many many times before, biodegradable bags would make environmentally optimal behaviour effortless. You don't have to remember to bring your reusable bags, you don't have to remember to buy garbage bags. You just go to a store and buy stuff without thinking about bags, and they give you a biodegradable bag. Then, when you get home, you reach for the nearest plastic bag to use for garbage, and it's biodegradable. You'd have to go out of your way to put plastic into the landfill. And, as an added bonus, it would spite Rob Ford because he's not so very into the City telling businesses how they can do business. You could also do so by extending the organic waste collection program to highrises, which will spite Rob Ford by costing money to implement, and do way more to address your ostensible goal of reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfills than a plastic bag ban would.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Journalism wanted: who are these people who throw plastic bags away and what are their motivations?

People who are opposed to plastic bags claim two different problems:

1. They fill up landfills.
2. They litter the streets.

Both these alleged problems baffle me, because I cannot fathom how they could possibly happen in any appreciable quantities.

1. Everyone I know uses their plastic shopping bags as garbage bags, or to clean up after their pets. If they didn't use plastic shopping bags for this purpose, they'd have to purchase garbage bags for the same purpose, and the total amount of plastic that ends up in the landfill would be the same. (Some people have stopped getting plastic shopping bags since they introduced the five cent fee, but they buy plastic garbage bags instead so the total landfill plastic they are generating is still the same.)

But since people keep complaining about plastic bags in landfills, that would suggest that a significant number of people are bringing their purchases home in plastic bags, throwing the bags straight into the garbage, and presumably buying separate garbage bags for garbage and to clean up after their pets.

Who are these people? Why do they do it this way? Why do they not find plastic shopping bags suitable for their garbage and pet clean-up needs?

2. When you have a plastic shopping bag, it's because you've just purchased something and need a bag in which to carry it home. You need your plastic shopping bag the entire time you are outdoors, because it is being used to carry your purchase. Your need for the plastic bag doesn't stop until you get home. So how on earth does a plastic bag turn into litter?

I understand how litter happens - you cease to need one of the things you are carrying for whatever reason, it's more trouble than it's worth to carry a specific thing around until you encounter an appropriate receptacle. But I cannot picture any situation in which this might happen with a plastic bag. I cannot envision how you might cease to need the plastic bag that contains your shopping. Throwing a plastic bag on the ground makes as much sense as emptying your purse of its contents and throwing the purse on the ground. That just...doesn't happen.

But enough people to reach my ears are complaining about plastic bags being litter. So who are these people littering with plastic bags, and what kind of situations are they in that they're carrying a plastic bag but don't need it? Or does this mean our landfills don't work?

I'd really like to see some actual answers from the people who do these things, because I just cannot picture how they happen. It would also be interesting to know what percentage of the population does these things.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What do urban planners do in the private sector, and why is this even an option?

From an article about why urban planners apparently don't want to work in Toronto:

He calls his interview in Toronto a “positive experience;” even so, he was smart to go back to Lotusland, where he works as a planner in the private sector, and as president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina), a noted planning wonk, says Toronto’s lack of investment in its planning department turns off applicants.

“Every good young planner jumps ship because it’s better pay, better hours and more respect from clients if they work in the private sector.”

What on earth do urban planners do in the private sector? Why and how does private sector urban planning even exist? How can a private company plan a city? Doesn't urban planning inherently need to be done by the people with jurisdiction over planning the city?

It seems to me that private-sector urban planning would be analogous to a company whose business model is to barge in and tell people how they should renovate their houses. But, since these things exist, clearly I'm missing something. Can anyone explain to me why and how private-sector urban planning exists?