Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why does it take businesses so long to answer email?

I've noticed a disturbing pattern: whenever I send an email to a business, it takes them ages to respond.  I sent two emails - simple inquiries, the sort of questions they should expect to be asked every day - last Wednesday.  One was the equivalent of "Do you have widgets in stock, and, if so, how much do they cost?"  The other was "I bought a widget and it was missing a part. What should I do?" Still no reply.  One was sent to a general email address listed on their Contact page, the other was sent through a form on their website.

This is hardly the first time.  It has happened dozens of times in my life, including nearly every time I email Rogers. 

When I email very small businesses, they reply within a day or two.  So why on earth can't larger businesses?  If you don't have enough staff to reply to or escalate every email you receive within one business day, you're understaffed!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Call the Midwife

I blogged before about how, in Downton Abbey, the writers' decision make the nobles in this series kind and reasonable to their servants allows more interesting stories to be told.

I think the same is true for Call the Midwife, but rather than an idealized noblesse oblige, we have an idealized integration of newly-arrived outsiders.

In the opening scene, when the newly-graduated Nurse Lee walks into the neighbourhood for the first time and sees the poverty, crowding, and fights breaking out on the street, I thought I knew what to expect.  I thought the locals would disrespect her for being middle-class and educated, and she'd be totally out of her depth.  When she arrived at the convent and told them she hadn't realized it was a convent she'd been sent to, I thought the nuns would look down their noses at her for being worldly and for perhaps having come from a less austere quality of life than they themselves maintain.  I figured she'd find her place eventually, but we'd be in for a season of awkward and humiliating moments before that happened.

So I was very pleased to see that the series only lightly touched on that arc.  The nuns were glad to have the secular nurses around because they needed all the helping hands they could get, and had no problem whatsoever with their secular colleagues being secular.  The expectant mothers were glad to have midwifery care, and the midwives were respected in the neighbourhood and by doctors and hospitals.  Everyone is professionally competent; sometimes newbies need to call a senior midwife, sometimes midwives have to call for backup for a complicated birth, and sometimes they need to call in a doctor, but no one loses face for doing this. Even when the posh and awkward Chummy shows up, she's still competent (and not just at midwifery - when she discovers that they don't make uniforms big enough for her, she shrugs and reaches for the sewing machine), only the meanest one of the nuns says anything judgemental, and she's integrated well enough by the end of the episode.

This all sounds very happily-ever-after, but, like Downton Abbey, removing the expected primary conflict allows the show to spend more time showing us its universe - everyday life in postwar working-class East End London and the practice of midwifery in that context.  Which is the whole reason why I'm watching in the first place.

I hope this is the start of a new trend, because in historical fiction (and science fiction and fantasy, for that matter) I particularly enjoy immersing myself in the universe of the story, and I often find that the primary conflict comes barging in and disrupting that universe before I've gotten to spend enough time there.  (Which may also be why I like Star Trek.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Things They Should Invent Words For

This is related to this idea.

Scenario: I think it is important for widgets to be readily available to everyone who needs them.  The last time the Purple Party was in power, they ran on a platform of "Free widgets for all!" However, this platform was not implemented as well as it should have been.  The last time the Yellow Party was in power, they ran on a platform of "Ban widgets!"  And they did ban widgets.

There are some people who, in this situation, would say that I shouldn't vote for the Purple Party because either they lied about their "Widgets for all!" platform or they were incompetent at implementing it.  And there are some who would go so far as to say that I should vote for the Yellow Party to punish the Purple Party for their ineffective widget distribution policy, despite the fact that the Yellow Party has a very effective widget banning policy.

We need a single word or straightforward term for this phenomenon.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Journalism wanted: how can people who find themselves in Amanda Todd's position get their tormenters in trouble without getting themselves in trouble?

Amanda Todd was coerced into exposing herself on a webcam when she was 12 years old.  She was a legal minor and she was below the age of consent, so surely that was illegal on the part of the coercer.  And, of course, having the pictures in his possession would have counted as possessing child pornography.

Then, when she was 15, someone tried to convince her to expose herself again, threatening to distribute her previous pictures if she didn't.  Blackmail is illegal (it's covered in the Criminal Code under "Extortion"), plus he was trying to coerce someone who is underage and under the age of consent to appear in child pornography, and threatening to distribute child pornography if she didn't comply.

It sounds like it should have been quite easy to report the blackmailer to police and put an end to Ms. Todd's troubles.

However, according to the story, the police knocked on Ms. Todd's door at 4 a.m. to tell her that her photo had been distributed. 

If I were a teen in Ms. Todd's position, that fact alone would be disincentive to going to the police.  The knock at the door at 4 a.m. would lead me to conclude that I couldn't expect the police to have compassion for me as a victim.  (At the absolute bare minimum, if the victim doesn't yet know they're a victim, why not do them the small decency of letting them get a full night's sleep?) It would lead me to conclude that the police wouldn't care about protecting me from the wrath of my parents (because a 4 a.m. knock at the door would result in my parents being tired and cranky and frightened, which would mean emotions are running high), which could be a reason to actively avoid police involvement if I had abusive parents.

Therefore, I think it would be helpful if some of the media coverage told teens in Ms. Todd's position how they could get help without getting into trouble.  Can you report it to the police without involving your parents?  Can they investigate it if you report it anonymously through Crime Stoppers?  What kind of evidence do they need?  Screen shots?  How can you avoid the 4 a.m. knock on the door?

Similarly, what should you do if you're an adult and a kid comes to you with this kind of problem?  How can you get the perp in trouble while minimizing the awkwardness and humiliation to the kid?

I also think, if they haven't done so already, the police should come up with a way for minor victims to report their victimization without the involvement of their parents, if they prefer not to involve their parents. Victim Services counsellors should also be trained and available to help minor victims tell their parents if they want, but parent-free reporting should still be possible.  And if it turns out that it is in fact possible to report that you've been a victim of a crime without involving your parents, police and media need to publicize this fact and give specifics.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Things They Should Invent: everyone who has ever been entitled to free cervical cancer vaccine is entitled to free cervical cancer vaccine

Fact: The cervical cancer vaccine is offered for free through school clinics in early adolescence.  (In Ontario, for example, it's offered for free to girls in Grade 8.)

Fact: Because of the students' age and the fact that it's offered through the school, parents can veto it, and many do.

Fact: The cervical cancer vaccine is expensive.  It cost me about $400 to get it 5 years ago.  And, in Ontario at least, it isn't covered by OHIP except for the school clinics for Grade 8 students.

Fact: The cervical cancer vaccine is not useful if you already have HPV.  People are generally considered to have been exposed to HPV if they are sexually active and are not certain are that every single one of their partners was HPV-free.

Fact: Many people become sexually active long before they're able to scrape together $400 to spend on a vaccine.

Problem: This means that people whose parents don't allow them to get the vaccine as adolescents may never be able to get the vaccine, because currently your only chance at a free vaccine is when you're in Grade 8.

Proposed solution: Anyone who was eligible for the free vaccine in Grade 8 (or whenever it's done in their jurisdiction) but doesn't get the vaccine at that point can get the vaccine for free from any health care provider (doctor, walk-in clinic, Student Health, Planned Parenthood) at any point in the future as long as it is not medically contraindicated.  You go in to get your first birth control pills, they also offer you Gardasil.

This won't cost any more to OHIP than they've already stated they're willing to pay (one vaccine per girl who has been in Grade 8 since the program started), and it will achieve the public health objectives far more effectively than leaving people whose parents were overprotective when they were 13 with the choice of delaying their entire sex life until they can scrape together more than a week's take-home pay at minimum wage or foregoing the chance to ever be immunized against the cancer-causing strains of HPV.  Eligibility would be easy enough to verify - it's a function of the patient's age and gender.  And normal medical channels could administer the vaccinations when the patients are willing but their parents are not, because medical professionals don't require parental consent to attend to minor patients' sexual health concerns.

This isn't intended to contradict my usual position that OHIP should pay for all health care that everyone needs at all ever.  However, it would serve as an effective interim measure that would better achieve the stated public health objectives without costing any more than OHIP has already stated they're willing to pay. Multi-win, no-lose situation.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why do paper grocery bags exist?

Picture a paper grocery bag:

They're terribly inconvenient, aren't they?

You can carry a maximum of two, and you'd have to put them down every time you want to do up your coat, open a door, swipe your metropass, answer your phone, or get your keys out of your purse.  If a bottle leaks or it's rainy or snowy out, a paper bag disintegrates. (And, again, if you have more than one bag, you don't have the option of carrying an umbrella.)  It's extremely difficult to do another errand after groceries, because you'd have to put down your bags to select something off a store shelf or reach for your wallet.  Because you're limited to two bags, the likelihood of your peaches getting squished increases.

And yet, they persist.  Someone invented them, someone approved the idea, and the idea is common enough that if you do a google image search for "groceries", a good number of the images are paper bags so brimming full that, in real life, some of your produce would end up on the subway floor.

The first day after paper bags displaced plastic at my the LCBO, I wasn't able to leave the store with my purchase.  I was already carrying several shopping bags which were too full for me to add bottles.  The LCBO cashier handed me my purchase in a paper bag, and I couldn't carry it along with all my other shopping.  There just wasn't room in my hands and arms.  I had to have them do a return on my purchase and give me my money back, because it wasn't physically possible for me to get my purchase home that day.

And yet, enough people think these things are a reasonable replacement for plastic bags that they got all the way through whatever approval process the LCBO has.  And now people are acting as though they're reasonable replacements for all plastic bags when the short-sighted, ill-conceived city-wide ban on plastic bags goes into effect.  (The most frustrating thing was when I wrote to elected representatives encouraging them to vote against the ban and telling them about my idea of using biodegradable plastic bags, which will make environmentally optimal behaviour effortless for citizens, and they wrote back "reassuring" me that paper bags would still be permitted.)

What are these people doing that they find paper useful for anything other than ripening fruit?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How does the driver of the last GO bus of the day get home?

When a GO bus is full and there are still people waiting in line, sometimes they run another bus.  And sometimes they do this with the last bus of the night.

So when they do run an extra bus on the last run of the night, how does the driver of the extra bus get home?  Unless they have an extra driver around who's going to the destination city anyway, the driver of the extra bus ends their day in a completely different city than they expected to, and this well after midnight.  Even if they drove to work, their car is in a completely different city than they are and transit has stopped for the night.

So how do they get home?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Things They Should Invent Words For

You are very limited in life if you lack certain skills.  However, having these skills does not, in and of itself, make you employable.  Examples include literacy, numeracy, driving, and using a computer.  If you don't have these skills, you're at a significant disadvantage - both in the labour market and in life.  But having them gives you no particular advantage. no one would ever hire you simply because you can read, do basic math, drive a car, and operate a computer.

We need a word for skills like this.

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition II

As an addendum to this post:

6. Sometimes, when you ask for advice on how to find someone to provide a service you've never dealt with before (real estate agent/therapist/plumber/financial advisor), people tell you "Ask around!" or "Ask your friends!"  Even though if you're having that conversation, you're already asking around.  Therefore, anyone who suggests "ask around" to someone who's already asking around, or who suggests "ask your friends" to someone whose friends don't have an answer is thenceforth personally responsible for finding the asker what they need.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Describing people superficially

A while back, Miss Manners printed the following letter:


People just don't see my roommate the way I do.
When I look at her, I see the hilarious, kind, goofy, generous, fun-loving, down-to-earth roommate that I've had the privilege of living with this year.

Other people look at her and see only one thing: cerebral palsy. Well, that and the big red power scooter she uses to get around campus.

So, when I'm trying to tell someone who my roommate is, I describe her as Katie: the petite, blonde-haired, blue-eyed freshman Psych major who lives in such-and-such dorm down the hall from so-and-so, or something to that effect. You know, the characteristics you'd use to identify just about anyone: name, major, year, appearance, etc.

In response to this, I get blank stares.

But as soon as I say the word "scooter", most anyone on campus- professors, students, staff, etc- knows exactly who I'm talking about.

She's fine with that; she's been "the scooter kid" in the eyes of the general population for as long as she's had the thing. But I feel I'm being disrespectful to her when I bring the s-word ("scooter") into play, because I'm reinforcing the idea that her disability is her most important identifying characteristic, when that's nowhere near being true. She and I have been attached at the hip-- or, handlebar, if you will-- all year, and I see her in a very different light. Yes, she has CP, but that's not in the top ten or even top fifty things that come to mind when I think of her.

When it's obvious that a person isn't going to know who I'm talking about unless I bring her disability into the conversation, should I do so, or just drop it and say something like "Never mind; I'll point her out to you if I see her," or "I'll introduce her to you sometime." and leave it at that?

This letter attracted my attention because sometimes I have the opposite problem.  I understand that it's insulting to define people by their most visually apparent marked features, but I keep running into situations where I need to identify people about whom I know nothing except their most visually apparent marked features.

I recently had a worker in a store where I was shopping notice that the item I had selected off the shelf was defective and go out of his way to find me a new one before I even noticed the problem, so I wanted to send the store an email thanking them for this worker's helpfulness.  Unfortunately, he wasn't wearing a nametag.  So I tried to describe him.  Medium height, dark hair, probably under 30...this described a number of workers in that store.  The feature that best served to distinguish him from the other workers is that he's brown.  However, I know that you're not supposed to call people brown.  People sometimes call themselves brown, but we can't call others that.  Which is fair enough under normal circumstances, but I honestly couldn't come up with another way to explain the concept (I'm not nearly savvy enough to determine his specific ethnic origin, and I know confusing one ethnicity with another can also be offensive.)  So my choices were to be kind of racist, or to give incomplete information and maybe have him not get credit for his helpfulness.*

This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened to me.  Once I was buying some clothes, and the cashier asked if anyone had helped me, presumably for commission purposes.  Someone had helped me, but I didn't think to catch his name.  He was rather nondescript - white guy, medium height, brown hair...the most effective way I could have described him was "fabulously gay".

When I worked at my alma mater, I was trying to help one of my new co-workers put a face to the name of a departmental secretary.  Middle-aged, medium build, medium brown hair, all of which describes the vast majority of the departmental secretaries. The most effective way to describe this lady would have been "the one who walks funny".  I don't know the name of the disability that caused her to walk funny.  She didn't use an assistive device so I couldn't say "the lady with the cane". (Which the letter-writer in the Miss Manners letter above would object to, but at least isn't coming across as an attempt to define the person - it's similar to "the lady in the red shirt" or "the lady carrying the iguana".) She wasn't the only one with a disability so I couldn't describe her as "the one with a disability" (which also sounds bad now that I say it out loud). I can do a fair imitation of her walk (which isn't appropriate in the workplace, obviously) but I can't describe it in useful google keywords.

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this. On one hand, I want to propose a rule that grants leeway in situations where a superficial description is genuinely more useful and/or is all you could reasonably be expected to provide. On the other hand, that sounds perilously close to people who say racist things and then argue that it isn't fair that they're being thought of as racist.  And I don't want to be one of those people.  But I do want to be able to accurately describe the worker who helped me, even when I don't know his name.

*Update: karin points out on twitter  that I could have identified him as "South Asian" and it would have done the job.  I was initially reluctant to do so because of the possibility that he might be Middle Eastern (my dentist, for example, is from Iran and has the same colouring), but I now see that "South Asian" would still have communicated his colouring, and worst case they just have a good laugh at the ignorant white girl, rather than using slurs or referring to anyone by the ethnicity of one of their culture's historic enemies.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Things They Should Study: does sibling resemblance run in the family?

I recently saw a picture of a large family where all the children are blond, and my first thought was that it was kind of creepy but I couldn't articulate why.  After some thought, I realized it's because I'm not accustomed to seeing a whole family of blonds.  All the blonds in my own family, as well as nearly every blond kid whose siblings I knew growing up (I can only think of one exception), have at least one brunette sibling.

Siblings tend not to resemble each other especially closely in my own family.  My sister and I don't share colouring, shape, bone structure, or any distinguishing features.  Among my relatives, siblings who share colouring don't share bone structure, and siblings who share features have them in different colours. If you put us all together collectively you can see that some people might be related to others, but you'd never be able to tell who is siblings with whom.

And yet, siblings with strong resemblances do exist.  And sometimes, like with the family of eerily similar blonds, all the siblings in a given family resemble each other.

It would be interesting to see if there's some kind of genetic reason why some families have strong sibling resemblance and others don't.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Teach me about self-cleaning ovens

I only recently noticed (after living here for five years) that my oven is self-cleaning.  And just the other day I spilled a significant amount of food in it (turns out "bake uncovered" doesn't mean "bake covered"!)  So I'm considering using the self-cleaning feature.

Anything I should know?  I know that it heats the oven up really hot until the spilled food apparently just flakes right off or something.  Do I need to supervise it?  Does it get smelly?  Any does or don'ts?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Teach me how to make my taskbar behave

I'm using Windows 7, and I have a few of my most commonly-used programs "pinned" to my taskbar, just to the right of the Start button.

Previously, when I'd open one of these programs, it the pinned icon would disappear.  It would kind of turn into the active taskbar button.

However, this hasn't been happening lately.  Now, the icons continue to appear next to the start button in addition to the taskbar buttons.

Here's a screenshot of my taskbar:

I have Firefox, Sims and iTunes open, and the buttons for those programs appear to the right of the pinned icons.  Previously, the pinned icons would have turned into buttons, so the icons and the buttons would not both have been present at once.

How do I make it go back to the way it was before, or what can I google to find it out?  What's the proper name of this icons turning into buttons phenomenon?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Plot hole in my childhood

I've blogged before about my most vivid memory from the single year I did at Montessori school.  I wanted to play with these beads, but the teacher told me I couldn't because I couldn't count to ten.  This confused and frightened me.  I genuinely thought I knew how to count to 100, so I didn't understand why this teacher was telling me I didn't know how to count to 10.  How could I be so wrong about my own ability to count? 

Looking at it with adult hindsight, I see that she expected me to respond by showing her I could count to 10 by counting to 10 then and there.  However, as a 3 or 4 year old child, I wasn't able to draw that conclusion.  I thought she was telling me that my counting wasn't good enough.  Which baffled me - I got to 10 every time, I used the same numbers every time, I could carry on past 10 all the way to a hundred, the numbers followed the same pattern all the way through, how could I be wrong?

In my previous tellings of this story, I criticized the teacher for not being able to make it clear to me what she expected.  If you're an adult in a conversation with a 3 year old, it's primarily incumbent on you to communicate in a way that the kid can understand.  Especially if you're an early childhood educator!

However, there's another, even more egregious problem here: why didn't she take this opportunity to teach me how to count to 10?

You're an adult and a teacher.  You're faced with a small child who needs to be able to count to 10 to play with the toy she really really wants to play with.  You believe this child does not know how to count to 10.  So why not take 30 seconds of your life and teach the child how to count to 10?

What kind of teacher says "Oh, you don't know that" in a blamey tone of voice and walks away rather than teaching???

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

How to conduct a garbage audit for plastic bags

From time to time, news coverage of discussions of plastic bags contains the results of various garbage audits, where they look at a sample of garbage and see how many plastic bags are in it.   These numbers are often used to support the author's thesis about which measures do and don't help, but I find that the garbage audits I see cited tend to be less thorough - and therefore less useful - than they  need to be.

Here are the questions a plastic bag garbage audit needs to answer in order to be truly informative:

- How many shopping bags are being used as garbage bags?  These would likely be replaced with garbage bags if shopping bags were banned, and therefore would not be eliminated from the total landfill plastic.

- How many garbage bags are there in total (including shopping bags being used as garbage bags)?  If the audit counts shopping bags being used as garbage bags, it also needs to count garbage bags being used as garbage bags.  If there's a reduction in the number of shopping bags but a corresponding increase in the number of garbage bags, banning shopping bags didn't change anything.

- How full are the garbage bags?  I empty my kitchen garbage every day, for a minimum of 365 garbage bags a year.  They aren't always full, I just don't leave food waste overnight for sanitary reasons.  If a significant percentage of garbage bags aren't full, the smaller shopping bags would actually be a better choice because there would be less plastic.

- What is the total quantity of plastic?  Remember how plastic grocery bags got bigger when they introduced the five cent fee?  Suppose I was using 400 bags a year for my garbage before they got bigger (because I occasionally have more than one bag of garbage).  Then suppose the new, bigger bags are always big enough for my garbage needs, so I'm using 365 a year.  If the new ones are 20% bigger, that's actually the equivalent of 438 of the old bags, so I'm throwing out more plastic.  If, in the future, I'm forced to use the even-larger kitchen catchers, that's even more plastic being thrown out.

- How many plastic bags are in the recycling stream? Sometime after we started talking about plastic bags, I became aware that plastic bags are recyclable.  I don't know offhand if they first became recyclable then or if they were already recyclable and I just found out then, but the fact of the matter is that awareness of their recyclability has increased in recent years. If there are, say, 100 fewer bags in the landfill but 100 more bags in recycling, nothing has changed in terms of what we throw out.  Obviously it's better for things to be recycled than to go in the landfill, but you can't claim a reduction in usage if the same things are just being recycled now.

- What is the condition of plastic bags that are in the landfill or recycling but not being used as garbage bags?  I have heard some people complain that they hate plastic bags because they rip.  This is not my experience.  However, regardless, it would be informative to see how many of the plastic bags not being used as garbage bags have ripped. If, for example, 87% of the thrown-out bags have ripped, that suggests we have a high reuse rate and people aren't throwing them out as trash unless they can't be reused normally.  It might be worth investigating whether it would be more efficient to manufacture higher-quality bags.  (Obviously they take up  more resources to manufacture and have more plastic in them so there's a tipping point in here somewhere, but it should be looked into if it turns out to be applicable.)