Sunday, December 29, 2013

Things They Should Invent: allow utilities to repair equipment that belongs to homeowners

I'm fortunate enough not to have as yet been affected by the recent spate of ice-storm-induced power outages (knock wood), but I have been following developments fairly closely.  And one thing that has come to my attention is that some of the electrical equipment that's attached to the house may belong to the homeowner rather than the utility, and therefore homeowners are responsible for getting it repaired before the utility can reconnect power.

This would piss me off if I were a homeowner.  I have no power (perhaps for days!), then the Hydro people suddenly come around, only to tell me  have to hire some kind of contractor I've never heard of before, and probably can't research adequately because I don't have internet.  And if I've decided to go elsewhere until power comes back, I might not even find out for days that I need to get the bits attached to my house fixed by a different contractor, thereby extending the time to restore power.

Solution: allow Hydro workers to repair the equipment that's attached to the house, and bill the homeowner for this service, with the owner's consent.  The owner can still hire their own contractor if they want, but if the Hydro truck is right there, you can have the option of getting reconnected immediately. If the homeowner is not present and doesn't contract Hydro within a certain period of time, Hydro reconnects and bills them. (This is to prevent homeowners who decide to leave the blackout area and go elsewhere from getting caught out because Hydro can't get in touch with them and they have no idea that they need to hire a contractor.)

If this happened, some parties would probably complain that the utility is taking business away from private electrical contractors.  I think this is negligible compared with delays in restoring power, but if it does end up being a problem that needs to be addressed, Hydro could outsource this portion of the work to private contractors through a normal bidding process.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Teach me how to erase an external hard drive with a dead power supply

As I blogged about before, my old external hard drive (a Western Digital Elements) has gone through two power supplies in just over two years.  I was sick of buying new power supplies for it, so I replaced it with a external hard drive that doesn't require a power supply (which I'll blog about after I've used it for a bit).

Now I'm ready to dispose of the Western Digital. 

Problem: to erase it, I'd have to connect it to a computer.  And to do that, I need a working power supply.  And I don't much fancy buying yet another power supply to use only once just to erase a drive I no longer intend to use.

Does anyone know of a way to erase an external hard drive that requires a power supply but the power supply is dead?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Why xmas is a downer

The problem with xmas is it creates deadlines.  Even if you don't celebrate it.  There are two statutory holidays and then a third for new year's, so you have to get your errands done and stock up on what you need before the stores close.  Some people you deal with (clients, friends, businesses you deal with) take time off or go away around this time of year, so you have to schedule your interactions with them around this.  If you want to get a gift for someone, you have to do so by xmas, or before you see them, or in time to ship it to them. If you're invited to a social event and decide to attend, you have to decide what to wear and have it clean for that day and get done up properly and get to the place in time.

Even if you don't celebrate, some of these deadlines may apply to you.  My apartment building had a party and my office had a party.  A friend who celebrates xmas may invite you to their party and you may wish to attend.  Your office might have a Secret Santa, or you may wish to buy a present for a small adorable child of your acquaintance whose family does celebrate xmas.

There are also various areas of life that have administrative deadlines at the end of the calendar year.  You might need to make a TFSA contribution or apply for CPP. 

For me, personally, because my birthday is also this week, I sometimes have administrative deadlines related to my birthday, such as getting my health card renewed.  My birthday also creates deadlines of its own - I spend a quiet, at-home day with indulgent food and drink, which means I need to buy the food and drink and arrange other areas of life so I don't have to go out that day.  (Not to mention that the quiet stay-at-home birthday isn't by choice, it's because everyone's too busy with their peri-xmas stuff that they don't have time to give my birthday more than a cursory acknowledgement.)

And all these additional deadlines come at the darkest time of year.  The sun rises so late and sets so early, and it gets truly cold for the first time since the previous winter, which makes me desperately want to curl up and hibernate.

I think this is genetic.  My ancestors for many many generations were peasants in cold parts of Europe. I'm made entirely out of genes that have always survived the winter by battening down the hatches, huddling around the fire, and eating potatoes. It is against the dictates of every fibre of my being (literally) to be rushing about getting things done in the cold wind and after the early sunset.

These aren't huge stresses, to be sure, but they are additional Tetris blocks.  So when the xmas decorations go up on November 1, it's just a constant reminder that these stressers, many of which I'd rather not do, are imminent.

And all this for something that isn't even meaningful to me!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Half-formed idea: fully automated text message power outage reporting

Picture this: your power goes out, so you pick up your cellphone and text your six-digit postal code to a specific number, and doing so automatically enters in the hydro company's database that there is a power outage in your postal code.

Currently, you can report power outages by phone or internet.  The problem with reporting them by internet is not everyone has internet during a power outage.  The problem with reporting by phone is that there are a finite number of people who can answer phones, so during widespread power outages, wait times to report an outage can be long.  In fact, as I type this, Toronto Hydro has just announced that its phone lines are overloaded and it only wants people to call for emergencies.  I'm not sure if a simple power outage counts as an emergency or if that's reserved for lines down and trees on lines.

Being able to text your outage directly into the database would be faster, require less human intervention, and take up less bandwidth.  It would also help you preserve your valuable phone battery if you don't have a landline, because texting takes significantly less battery power than calling.

A postal code doesn't precisely pinpoint the location of the outage, but it does narrow it down pretty well.  My current six-digit postal code applies only to my building.  In the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up, our postal code applied to only six houses.  It's possible that the postal code will be sufficient information, especially if they're getting multiple reports from a postal code or from a set of adjacent postal codes.

But if the information provided by the postal code isn't enough, perhaps the system could record the numbers that each text comes from, and a human could call or text back for further information if necessary.  It's possible no further information would be necessary because the postal code is a single building like mine, or because there's a general outage in the area, or because someone else in the postal code has already filed a full report.

In any case, automated reports by text would allow for an additional communication pathway that currently isn't available, and would let reports be made faster and more easily, with less time and battery power invested.

It seems like the technology should exist or should be creatable based on other things that already exist (like charitable donations by text message, etc.)


From the Toronto Star, although I can't find a direct link to the online version. Typos are my own:
This year you often need to spend extra time at work, with an older relative or perhaps at school. Demands on you are heavy, yet meeting responsibilities opens an important door. If you are single, you could meet someone at work or out running errands. Avoid being critical and fussy. You could cause a problem in your relationships this way, which will create distance and hard feelings. If you are attached, take that special trip the two of you often talk about. The good vibes between you will help bypass a hassle or two. Virgo can get picky about details.

Globe and Mail
You must define your goals clearly. You must also keep them within realistic bounds. If you can do those two simple things then what you achieve over the next 12 months will overshadow what you achieved in the previous 12 years. It’s your time to shine.

Last year was the first year when my birthday horoscopes didn't turn out to be true by any remote interpretation (they didn't turn out to be outright wrong either, they were just irrelevant), so it will be interesting to see what happens next. I'm definitely not going to meet anyone at work given demographics and hiring patterns.  I don't (to my knowledge) know any Virgos, but I don't think it's fair that they get to be picky and I don't!  And I can't imagine any clear yet realistic goals that could result in achievements that overshadow the past 12 years.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why do they start selling xmas food so early?

I've already complained about the habit of starting with xmas decorations and whatnot at the beginning of November, but one thing that particularly baffles me is that the grocery store started with the xmas food at the beginning of November.

By "xmas food" I mean food that is intended to be served at holiday parties and food that is intended to be given as a gift - cheese platters, assorted nuts in decorative boxes, those Italian cake things, etc.

I doubt a significant portion of the population is having holiday parties in early November.  And people are going to want to serve or gift reasonably fresh food (or at least convince themselves that they are doing so) so no one is going to buy pastries nearly two months ahead of time, and they're certainly not going to buy a cheese platter that early!

Who's their target audience here?  Do these things even sell early on?

Monday, December 16, 2013

What to do about hanger bumps in the shoulders of your shirts

I have disproportionately narrow shoulders, so I always get bumps from the ends of the hangers in the shoulders of my shirts. Even using fat hangers doesn't solve this problem - it just makes bigger bumps.

But I've finally figured out a quick and easy solution:

While wearing the shirt, wet your hands, and smooth them over your shoulders.  This only takes like 10 seconds and smooths the bumps right out.  The only negative is your shoulders are damp for a couple of minutes, but if you'd rather have briefly damp shoulders than hanger bumps, this is the solution you need.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Imagine if we could see why people treat us the way they treat us

I've been pondering the fact that I've been getting better customer service in recent years, and I've been wondering why this is.  Is it because I'm older and could no longer be mistaken for a teenager?  Does my appearance perhaps somehow reflect the fact that I have more money than I did in the past?  Is it because I've been patronizing many of the same businesses for over a decade and they're starting to recognize me as a repeat customer?  Or has customer service in general improved?

Then it occurred to me that this line of thinking could be extrapolated to all human interactions.  Wouldn't it be interesting if we could see the reasons why any particular individual treats us well or poorly?  How much of it is because of what we're contributing to the interaction?  How much of it is because of how we present superficially?  And how much of it is how they would have treated any person that they were interacting with at that particular time?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

To what extent is the media responsible for Rob Ford being mayor of Toronto?

Very little about this Rob Ford saga has surprised me.

I mean, I wouldn't have guessed crack and cunnilingus specifically, but, extrapolating  his public behaviour before becoming mayor, I was completely unsurprised by drunkenness, drug use, sexual harassment, and anger issues.  When rumours of organized crime affiliation first reached my ears (shortly after Gawker first reported on the crack video story - long before the official police reports started coming) my first thought was "That would explain everything!"  When the video of him ranting and raving and threatening to kill someone came out, I was rather surprised that there weren't already similar videos in public circulation.  He strikes me as having enough anger issues that this wouldn't be an unusual occurrence.  (Although maybe that's why there's no video - perhaps it's business as usual Chez Ford?)

Basically, everything that has come to light has been within the range of what I would have expected of him back when he was running for mayor.

So why did so many people not see this coming?

And to what extent it this the media's fault that they didn't?

Heather Mallick has written that perhaps the media has been too polite to Ford. But I think it's eve moreo than that. I think the problem was that the media was automatically treating him as a frontrunner in the 2010 mayoral election. As I blogged about during the last Toronto election, there were some 40 mayoral candidates, but the media treated only a handful of them as remotely viable candidates. And this handful included Rob Ford.

With 40 candidates, surely any viable position must be duplicated in there somewhere.  And, with 40 candidates, surely there must be a few people who are less problematic individuals than Rob Ford.

Should the media have been covering others more prominently and treating them more seriously rather than treating Ford as a front-runner (and for far longer than a municipal election even deserves to be covered for) just because, like, they've heard of him?

But they did treat him as a front-runner, which may have led some voters to think that he must be a viable and reasonable candidate.  Toronto is a city with a lot of newcomers - both from other countries and from other parts of Canada.  We're probably more dependent on the media to contextualize our elections than other communities with fewer newcomers would be.  How many people weren't completely up on Ford's history but were led to believe that he would be a reasonable candidate because the media had placed him in the top 5 out of 40, and then in the top 30 out of 40?

Lately I've been seeing articles  being tweeted into my twitter feed proposing various people as candidates for the 2014 mayoral election.  I'm not happy about this, because the last municipal election lasted way too long and it's even earlier now.  But this also has me wondering whether this premature coverage is leading to the same kind of premature declaration of frontrunners that may have given us Ford in the first place...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to tell if you've already read a particular library book

Sometimes I come across a book that seems vaguely familiar in concept, but I'm not sure if I've read it already or not.  I don't really care to waste my time rereading something that turned out to be forgettable, but I don't want to not read an interest-sounding or recommended book just because I might have once read something similar.

The library doesn't keep records of which books you've checked out in the past - which makes perfect sense from a privacy perspective, not to mention what a huge-ass database that would end up being.

But I've just worked out a way to figure out if you've checked out a particular book before.  And the solution is beautifully simple:

Search your email.

If you checked out the book by putting it on hold and having them send it to your local library branch, you'll have an email alert that it's ready to be picked up.  If you kept the book until nearly the due date, you'll have an email alert that it's due soon.  (Helpful hint for Toronto Public Library patrons: search your email for the call number rather than the book title, since the email notifications used to not contain the title.)

This won't work if you don't use email alerts, or if you delete your emails, or if your primary method of library use is to browse the shelves.  But if your library transactions habitually pass through your email, you can find a record of what you've taken out of the library in your email.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What I learned from Eddie Izzard

I've mentioned many, many, many times that Eddie Izzard is an inspiration and a role model to me.  I've previously described it as he made me brave, insofar as I am brave, but that doesn't articulate it as well as I'd like.

Then I found the perfect articulation in this article about the Setlist Show:
BR: Another one is Eddie Izzard who we work with a lot; he's a friend. We approached him a long time ago about doing the show, and he kept saying that he just didn't work that way. But then we were doing the Altitude Festival in Austria, and he gave in and did the show...

PP: Half way through his set he just turned to the audience and went, "This is f***ing hard!" and then went back into the set. He just owned the moment. He stepped outside it for a second, but that just gave him what he needed to go back in in an even richer way.

This absolutely encapsulates what I've learned from Eddie Izzard.  Own it.  Whatever the "it" of the moment is, own it. That's what he does when he goes on stage in clothes of any or all genders.  That's what he does when he messes up or gets knocked off track.  And that's what I did the first time I had to supervise a practicum student and had never had a student intern before. "Congratulations, you're my first student! So if I'm going too fast or too slow, skipping over stuff you don't understand or belabouring the glaringly obvious, it's not intentional. Please do let me know and I'll adapt to your needs."  And that's what I did when I bought my condo. "I've never bought real estate before and I'm mildly terrified.  Please answer my giant list of questions, and then I'll probably come back in a few days with another giant list of questions, and then once all my questions are answered I'll stop being terrified and cheerfully hand over all my money."  And that's the basis of my policy of making it clear how confident I am or am not in any statement I make.

It's given me a massive improvement in confidence, credibility, and quality of life.  I'm able to have more pleasant interpersonal interactions and get what I want more often simply by owning whatever is making me feel awkward or nervous or uncomfortable than by being a poseur pretending to be confident in the way that I imagine the people in the situation expect me to.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Google Blog Search doesn't do its job properly

Being the kind of fangirl I am, I have an RSS feed of Google News and Google Blog Search results for "Izzard" in my feed reader, so I get any new articles.

And, as you might have noticed, I also have a blog, where I've mentioned Eddie Izzard in a couple of different posts during the course of my current fandom high. (I really should start blogging about something else, shouldn't I?) But my own posts have never turned up in my feed reader!  (And my feed reader uses a completely separate log-in identity from my blog, so it would have no way to know not to feed me those because I wrote them.)

So I did some searching:

Here is a regular Google search for blogspot posts containing "Izzard" made within the past week, sorted by relevance.

Here is a Google Blog Search for posts containing "Izzard" made within the past week, sorted by relevance.

There are far more posts in the regular Google search than in the Google Blog Search, even though blogspot is just a subset of blogs!

So then I did a regular Google search for Wordpress posts within the past week, sorted by relevance, and it also contains some quality posts that didn't show up in the Google Blog Search.

Same with Typepad, LiveJournal and even Tumblr.  Most of the posts turned up aren't quality, but at the moment, there's at least one quality post (i.e. tour performance reviews or other things I'm interested in reading) in the first page of results for each of these blogging platforms that doesn't show up in Google Blog Search results!  Even if Google curates its blog search out of necessity, there are things in there that should have made it into the results.

I want to be clear, I'm not complaining because Google Blog Search isn't turning up my blog.  (Objectively, it's better if it doesn't turn up my Eddie Izzard posts because they're all fangirling rather than informative content.)  I'm complaining because Google Blog Search isn't turning up other people's blog posts that I would have liked to read.

How long has this being going on for?  And how many other, more important, searches does this also affect?

In my post speculating whether Web 2.0 makes information less accessible, I wrote:

When Eddie Izzard first started his last US tour in 2008, I could do a google blog search the day after each show and find multiple reviews of each gig, or at least what he was wearing and which wikipedia entry he looked up. By the time he got to Canada in 2010, internet trends had moved away from blogs more towards Facebook and Twitter, so you couldn't necessarily find comments on any given show. They were all buried in people's Facebook walls, ungoogleable to the outside world. Not the most important thing in the world, obviously, but it was information I was looking for and could no longer find.

What if, all this time, the blog reviews I'm looking for have in fact been out there, but Google has made them less searchable or less findable?

It's kind of scary, the extent to which Google can influence our concept of what does and doesn't actually exist.  But, at the same time, no other search engine finds stuff as well as Google.  I just don't know if we can trust it to confirm or refute existence...

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Being the kind of fangirl I am, when I entered Eddie Izzard fandom I read every current and past article I could get my hands on, and continue to read every article where he's mentioned. (I have a google alert set up and everything.)

And one thing I've noticed in reading all these articles on a very specific subject with a rather narrow scope is the frequency with which they reuse quotes or statements or information from old articles, without regard for whether that information is still current.

The example of this that I find most egregious is the oft-repeated statement, most recently seen in Post City, that Eddie raised over £200,000 for Sport Relief when he ran 43 marathons in 51 days in 2010.

This statement is completely true.  And it is completely misleading.  Because Eddie did in fact raise well over £1 million with his marathons.

I blogged about it when it happened.  The now-defunct video I'd linked to in my blog (which I so wish was still alive because it would completely prove my point) was from the Sport Relief 2010 broadcast.  Eddie himself also confirmed the 1.6 million number on Twitter. There's also a BBC article with the million pound number prominently featured, an article in the UK newspaper The Guardian citing 1.8 million, and an archived Sport Relief page from when the total was 1.1 million.

The fact that the number is over a million is important, because that's commensurate with the number of Twitter followers Eddie has.  In my blog post linked above, I mentioned that it was more than the number of followers he had at the time.  There's a huge difference between raising an amount of money commensurate with your number of Twitter followers and raising exponentially less money, especially with a feat so ridiculous as 43 marathons in 51 days.  (Analogy: I have 189 Twitter followers.  If I were to attempt to raise money, raising $189 is a reasonable expectation.  However, raising $40 would not be gloat-worthy at all.  And if I were doing multiple marathons, raising $40 would be pretty much a failure.)

Eddie deserves full credit for raising an amount of money commensurate with his feat and his audience reach, but because of citogenesis (although not necessarily through Wikipedia in this case) he isn't always getting it.

And this leads me to wonder: what other defunct or misleading statements are making it into media reports, perhaps on more important subjeccts?

That thing I do where I go to see Eddie Izzard and then brainspew disconnectedly all over my blog

Most of the times I saw Eddie Izzard material for the first time were alone, in my apartment, watching YouTube.

The last time I heard Eddie Izzard material for the first time was almost 5 years ago, lying in bed in the dark listening to an audio bootleg of one of his Stripped shows.

Today, I saw new Eddie Izzard material for the first time sitting front row centre in Massey Hall with my two very best friends in the whole world!

I highly recommend it.

I repeat: front row centre. Front row centre.  Front row centre!!!

This bears emphasizing not just because holy shit front row centre, but because Eddie Izzard and Massey Hall deserve credit for having a system where an ordinary person with no inside knowledge and no connections, armed with nothing but a readily-googleable fan presale code, can land front row centre seats through normal, official channels!  Since I saw tickets to some of Eddie's other shows on stubhub before the fan presale even started, I was very happy to see that Massey Hall was selling properly and aboveboard and "best available" actually meant best available.

Also, I touched the stage of Massey Hall!  (Before the show, when the audience was milling around. I just stood up, took two steps, and touched it!)

The whole show went by so fast!  The first half felt like 20 minutes (it was an hour and a quarter) and the second half felt like 10 minutes (it was at least an hour). I didn't even retain any of the material for future quoting purposes because it went by so fast!  I've already forgotten and then re-remembered some parts, and burst out laughing in the subway because I re-remembered the sacrificial virgins bit.

About halfway through the first act, I hit this endorphin high where I was so close to full belly laughter than I couldn't even laugh big any more.  The show ended 1.5 hours ago, and I'm still floating there.  I've been grinning basically since 8 pm, and I'm not about to stop any time soon.

Because of the high and the rapid pace of new material and the intensity of experiencing it brand new for the first time live and in person and up close and personal, I can't even review the material!  I can't even compare it to other shows!  I'll seriously have to buy the DVD to figure out how I like it compared with other shows!

We still really need a way to communicate to Eddie on stage that we're listening with rapt attention.  When he was talking about how we use French-derived words for meat instead of the Anglo-Saxon-derived words we used for the animals (cow = boeuf = beef) we were agreeing and listening and waiting to hear what he said next, but he read the room as not following or not entertained or something.  Which isn't true!  What he was saying was true and interesting and one of my favourite things about English etymology and we couldn't wait to see what else he had to say about it, it just wasn't making us belly laugh.

I normally tweet a welcome to any visiting celebrities, but Eddie arrived right at the peak of the Rob Ford gong show, so I didn't quite feel right about welcoming anyone into this mess.  But perhaps it's good thing for a comedian, because it provides a wealth of material!  Eddie did a bit about Ford at the beginning and then had smoking crack as a callback punchline throughout.  Twitter tells me that in the earlier shows this week, he got 20 minutes of quality material out of it.  Imagine walking into a city as a comedian and it hands you 20 minutes of material that didn't exist the day before!  On one hand, maybe this will make him like us and come back!  On the other hand, I don't want my city to still be so rich in comedy material next time!

Eddie looks absolutely fantastically gorgeous during this tour!  Best I've seen him look in real time! The clean-shaven look really suits him, even when he's not going fully femme.

And my absolute favourite part of tonight was that instead of doing the stage door autograph thing, Eddie came back onstage and did a Q&A session!  He sat down right on the edge of the stage and took questions from the audience!  I vastly prefer that because you get to feel like you're part of a more intimate conversation even if you don't have anything to contribute!  I didn't have any questions, so I just sat there and enjoyed and felt like I was getting to be a part of the conversation without the risk of making an ass of myself.

Eddie is so good at including the whole room that even though we were front and centre and really really close to him during the Q&A, we didn't feel any more included in the conversation than anyone else.  He was deliberately calling on question-askers who were further back and not giving us any particular attention.  All of which was very fair and equitable, of course, I'm just very impressed that he can do that!  It's got to be difficult not to favour people who are nearly within arm's reach and within easy conversational distance!  (We still got to enjoy proximity and skinny jeans and such, so I feel like we won.)

(I'm also happy about the Q&A in my ongoing tradition of interpreting everything as being the result of my influence as a blogger.  Eddie did Q&As earlier in the Stripped tour, but didn't do them for us.  I did express my disappointment on the internet that we got stage door instead of Q&A.  And this time we got a Q&A!  Also, last time I also expressed concern that the tickets available through Ticketmaster weren't the same as the tickets available though the Massey Hall box office, with far better tickets being available through Massey Hall (Massey Hall put us in the second row when Ticketmaster was putting us on the balcony), and this time the Toronto tickets were through Massey Hall only with Ticketmaster not involved at all!)

Next time there's an It Gets Better or Letter To Your Younger Self or similar meme floating around, this evening is something that I am totally going to tell my younger self about.  This was like the pinnacle of experience for me.

Eddie did mention in the Q&A that he plans two more tours.  I look forward to him topping this.  Twice.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Things They Should Invent: leave cartons with cracked eggs open on the shelf

In the grocery store buying eggs, I picked up a carton off the shelf, checked the eggs, and discovered that one was stuck to the carton, which meant it was cracked and leaking. Since I don't want a cracked egg, I put that carton down and selected another one.

But I put the carton with the cracked egg back on the shelf, which meant that the next person will pick it up, inspect it, find a cracked egg, and put it back on the shelf.  And then the next person will pick it up, inspect it, find a cracked egg, and put it back on the shelf.  This wastes a little bit of everyone's time and interferes with the smooth flow of traffic in the egg section.

Solution: we need to standardize some way to signal to other shoppers that a particular carton contains a cracked egg.

My idea:  If the carton has a cracked egg, leave it open on the shelf.  Other people can then avoid it and go straight to cartons that are still closed.

This will also signal to store employees that there's something wrong with this carton, although it's possible they might just close it and put it back.

As an added bonus, if you pick up a carton of eggs and find it contains an egg that's cracked but not stuck to the carton, you could swap that out with one of the good, non-cracked eggs in an open carton on the shelf, thus consolidating all the cracked eggs and potentially reducing waste.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Seeking external hard drive recommendations (signal boost)

This morning I posted a request for external hard drive recommendations, then promptly sank it with my blogathon.

If you have any external hard drive recommendations, please post them here.

Thank you kindly!

Monday, November 11, 2013

How I became old-fashioned

There have been a lot of technological changes in recent years, and I haven't felt it necessary to adapt these changes wholesale.  As a result, my overall media consumption and telecommunications patterns are starting to look a bit old-fashioned.

Here's what happened:


I've found that I read about three times as many articles in print newspapers than in online newspapers.  Because you have to page through all the pages, more headlines and such catch my eye and I end up reading more articles, whereas when I'm reading online I tend not to dig deeper than what's linked to on the front page.  It isn't readily apparent to me online whether I've looked at all the day's headlines or not, and it's important to me that I at least see what the headlines are even if I choose not to read all the articles.

I do use newspaper websites too, of course.  There are columns I read regularly in papers I don't subscribe to, I look at how other media outlets are covering stories when I'm trying to get a full in-depth picture, and I often land on newspaper websites when googling things. But I continue to read my core newspapers in print so that my baseline news consumption doesn't get drastically reduced.


I also mostly read books in print, because I find I focus better.  I do use ebooks from time to time (when the library doesn't have something in print, when I want searchable, when I want to be able to read on my ipod), but I find I can concentrate and get into the story better when reading on paper.  (I'm more likely to glaze over when reading on screen.)

I also find I like the physical switch from sitting in my computer chair and looking at my computer screen - especially since I'm now working from home so I'm in this exact same chair looking at this exact same screen for nearly all my waking hours.  Don't get me wrong, I love my computer, but when I'm reading a book I sit in a different place, in a different position, facing a different direction, and escape into a different world.


When TV shows and movies are available on demand, I can watch them whenever I want.  So I end up never watching them because I can always get to them later.  So then, instead of being a nice break and bit of entertainment, they become an item on my to-do list.

However, if TV shows or movies are on TV at a specific time, then I'll stop what I'm doing if at all possible and watch them at that time because that's when they're on.  It's a perfectly valid excuse to take a break, and it's also a clearly circumscribed break.  No half-assed "I'll just game for a bit."  Nope, I game for the duration of this specific TV show, and then get back to what I should be doing.

For example, I'm currently watch 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation because they're in syndication on channels I get.  Twice a day, I take a half-hour break, and I'm getting through these shows at the rate of one episode a day.

However, United States of Tara, Big Love, Dexter and Arrested Development have been languishing on my "stuff I should get around to watching" list for literally years. Because they're no longer on TV or on channels I get, I'd have to get the DVDs from the library and binge-watch (because you can only take out a DVD for a week) or acquire them through unofficial channels.  But I can do that whenever, so I haven't done it yet.  The DVDs are languishing on my holds list and the shows are among the many things weighing down my mental to-do list.

I also don't feel any particular need to avoid television that has commercial breaks, because I have a long-standing habit of using commercial breaks to get shit done.  When I'm watching something and commercials come on, I start doing housework or, if it's close to bedtime, going through my evening routine.  I'm motivated because it's such a short period of time, so I get a surprising amount done.  I wouldn't be anywhere near as motivated or efficient if I just though "I'll do 15 minutes of housework now for no particular reason."

There's also the fact that I use TV for exercise.  The "if I can do it whenever, I'll never get around to it" thing holds here too.  I'll get down on the floor and do pilates because Pilates from the Inside Out is on TV.  But if I had DVDs or online videos, I'd procrastinate it.  And given how much I detest exercise, anything that gets me doing it is good.

Cable is a major expense and is high on the Things I'd Cut If I Needed To Save Money list, but fortunately I don't need to cut it yet, so I keep it for the structure that it gives to my recreational habits.


I do own a cellphone, but it's a cheap phone that's uncomfortable to talk on with the cheapest plan I could find.  (And for three years, I had a deal where I didn't pay anything at all for it.)  I use it when I need to get in touch with someone while I'm out of the house, but I don't like it for social conversation.  For social purposes, I very much prefer the landline.

The major advantage of the landline is it's in my home, not in my purse.  I'm only able to chat for social purposes (and for many business purposes) when I'm at home.  When I'm out and about, I've got shit to do and/or I'm already socializing with someone, so I'm simply not available for telephone conversations.  I do still enjoy long, rambling, high-school-style telephone conversations when both parties have the time, but I only ever have time when I'm at home.

I think one of the factors here is that I live alone.  I don't need telephone privacy from anyone else or have anyone else tying up my line (and back when these things did apply, it was the 20th century and I was a teenager, so a cellphone would have been an unattainable luxury for me at the time), so I don't have any reason not to use the landline, or any reason why using the cell would be preferable.


Many people in recent years have moved towards using texting for social purposes, but I still find email more convenient for many of the same reasons why I find the landline more convenient.  Again, I do use texting if I'm out and about and need to communicate with someone textually, or if I need to put textual information directly into someone's cellphone.  And when people text me, I do text back (eventually, once I'm within reach of my cell and have it turned on.)

But I find it inconvenient for purely social "Hi, how's it going, how was your day?" purposes, again because I'm only up for these purely social conversations when I'm at home, and when I'm at home it's much more convenient to write textual conversations on the computer.

I can type nearly 120 wpm (my typing speed actually went up after plateauing for years!) but I can only text at about 50 on a good day. The keyboard is also more conducive to using sentences and paragraphs and punctuation and such.  You don't need to press a extra button to insert a number or a semicolon or anything, you just go.  Plus, if I'm at home, I'm almost always at the computer so it's just a question of alt-tabbing to another window and replying, whereas if I were to text a reply I'd have to put down/stop what I'm doing, pick up another device, and painstakingly peck out a reply.

Again, this is also informed by the fact that I live alone and in a very small apartment.  I leave my computer on whenever I'm home and awake, I can hear any incoming email thanks to Gmail Notifier, and basically I'm never in a situation where using another device is more convenient for me than using my computer and I'm up for social chitchat.  So, again, I don't have any reason not to use email, or any reason why texting would be preferable for casual conversation.

But apparently all these things are starting to be seen as old-fashioned, and, from what I've seen on Reddit and such, younger people in their teens and 20s hardly use them at all.  But I'm well over 30 now.  I hope that makes me old enough to be a bit old-fashioned.

Why try to force people to exchange gifts when none of them want to?


As a father of two teenagers sons (14 & 18) and step-father of two more boys (16 & 21), I am at odds with my wife about birthday gifts between the siblings.               
While I understand that giving should be from the heart, I feel the teenage boys could use a "nudge" in the right direction. My idea was that sibling gifts should be at least $25, and no limit to generosity above this base level of gift card or purchase. In this way, the amount always comes back to them anyway, so it's not a big budget issue, looking at the year as a whole.            
What are your thoughts about brotherly love through birthday gifts, should it be regulated just enough to encourage giving?

If they're unenthusiastic about giving each other gifts, why eliminate the option of a mutual agreement not to exchange gifts?  Giving the perfect gift is awesome, but the would-be joy of giving quickly becomes an arduous chore when it's forced upon you.

If the kids have different ideas of what constitutes an appropriate birthday present, it might be an idea to make some guidelines (with their input!) But if they're all just unenthusiastic, I think it would be a better idea to let them drop it in favour of exchanging gifts with people they actually care about.  The most important thing in encouraging giving is to make it a pleasure, not a chore.

Things They Should Invent: insist on Advent

On November 1, multiple non-retail sources, ranging from Weather Network polls to Reddit alien doodles, turned Christmasmas themed.  As though everyone had collectively decided "It's November, therefore it's time to think about Christmas!"  (In fact, one of the polls or articles on the Weather Network even said this outright.)

This is ridiculous.  It wasn't too long ago that US Thanksgiving was considered the distant early beginning of Christmas shopping and such.  But to stretch it out to very nearly 2 full months?  That will ruin it for everyone, because everyone will be tired of Christmas by the time December rolls around.  And to unquestioningly treat that as baseline human reality?  Unacceptable!

I have a solution: Christians should insist that Advent be respected.

Advent is, in many Christian denominations, a period of anticipation and preparation for the arrival of Christ.  In Western denominations (which includes Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist), it begins four Sundays before Christmas, which ranges from November 27 to December 3 depending on how the calendar falls that year.  That seems like plenty of time for actively getting ready for Christmas.  In fact, it has been decreed to be enough time by the very people who decreed that Christmas is A Thing in the first place!

Appropriately, because Christmas is a Christian holiday, this solution needs to be pushed and promoted and advocated for by Christians. There are people out there who are very insistent that Christmas should be acknowledged in public spaces, going to far as to proclaiming there is a "War on Christmas" if it isn't acknowledge to their satisfaction.

These people, especially, can do an enormous amount of good by also insisting that Advent be acknowledged, and by proclaiming and pre-Advent public display of Christmas paraphernalia to be a War on Advent.

The liturgical calendar exists for a reason.  There are different seasons that reflect the trials and tribulations of the life of Christ and of the human condition.  Christianity - and life itself - are not all trees and presents and food and adorable haloed babies. Advent, too, is there for a reason, and organizations that fail to respect it are failing to respect the complexity of your religion. You should protest this, like you would protest the use of a creche as an Easter decoration.

The best thing about having bought a condo

So it was just over a year ago that I bought my condo.  It's currently under construction, and my strongest feeling about the whole thing is relief that I don't have to buy a condo!

I've never felt it's strictly necessary to buy a condo, but I have felt that it's strictly necessary for my decision to rent to be the best choice, which meant that I needed to keep running numbers and researching prices and basically working on buying a condo even when I wasn't buying one.

But the numbers and the situation turned last year, and I managed to buy the exact unit I wanted, which means that for the past year this omnipresent chores has been off my to-do list!

Condo people are always asking me if I'm excited about the new place, and I'm not.  I have no negative feelings about it, but my positive feelings aren't as strong as excitement.  However, I have been incredibly relaxed and stress-free for the past year because it's no longer up in the air. The complex multivariable equation of what/when/where/if has been turned into something simple: hoard money and throw it at the mortgage.

That I can do.

Scientific approaches without critical thinking

I blogged  before about the guy on the GO bus who was trying to convince me that I shouldn't use my anti-carsickness wristbands because he believed their effect was purely psychosomatic and had no scientific basis.

This is an example of something that's been irritating me for a while: people who are so dedicated to the scientific method that they don't think critically about whether it's necessary to approach a particular problem or situation from a purely scientific perspective.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of science.  It's just that it isn't absolutely necessary to limit oneself to a strict, solely evidence-based, clinical, experimental approach to absolutely everything in the world at absolutely all times.

Here are some of the problems:

Unwillingness to make educated guesses

Sometimes, if you ask an evidence-based expert's opinion on something, they'll just say "There haven't been any studies conducted."  But, as someone who doesn't know much about a number of subject areas, I'd very much like their educated guess.

Using a blatantly fake example so as not to accidentally create googleability on something I don't know anything about, suppose I've read on the internet that jumping out of a second-storey window will cure your cancer. They probably haven't done any studies on this.  But we can still use our basic knowledge of how cancer and gravity and the world work to conclude "No, it doesn't work that way."  But suppose I say that I've read on the internet that if you jump out a second-storey window, you'll most likely survive but might injure the part of your body that you land on.  Without conducting any studies, we can look at our basic knowledge of the world and say "Seems about right."

This comes up and annoys me most often in websites dedicated to scientific analysis of beauty products. They'll say something like "The product claims to do X, Y and Z.  There have been no studies conducted on whether these ingredients would do X, Y or Z."   And then they leave it at that.  Okay, but is the claim plausible?  Is the claim ridiculous?  In the absence of clinical evidence, use your education and make an educated guess!  I'm reading you for expertise, not just for you to google up other people's studies so I don't have to.

The assumption that untested = harmful

When I was having my dysphagia incident, at one point during the long, scary weekend when I was waiting to see my doctor, I googled up the reflexology points that correspond with the esophagus, and massaged them. It helped a little.  If my esophagus was functioning at 10%, it felt like it was functioning at 15% after I did my little experiment in self-reflexology.

I don't know if reflexology has been clinically tested (the internet tells me it has and the internet tells me it hasn't). But even if it hasn't been tested, it's reasonable to assume I'm doing myself no harm by rubbing my own feet. If reflexology did serious harm, someone probably would have noticed by now.  (In fact, if it could do harm, it's better for me to google up the correct reflexology points and operate under the assumption that I'm doing a medical treatment on myself than to just rub my feet willy-nilly.)

The assumption that ineffective = harmful

When I was a teenager, I read or heard somewhere that duct tape can cure warts.  In the early 2000s, I had an opportunity to try it, and it worked fantastically where drugstore treatments had no effect.  Sometime later, someone did a study of duct tape as a wart treatment (although they used clear duct tape and I used silver) and they found that the results for duct tape were no different than the results for no treatment.

What I have a problem with is people who use this study to conclude that you shouldn't try to treat your warts with duct tape.  The study found that the results were no different from doing nothing.  So why not give it a try if you want to do it?  Basically the study proved that putting duct tape on your foot has no effect.  So if you want to do something silly-looking that the evidence found has no effect, why shouldn't you?

When it doesn't matter if it's scientific 

As I've blogged about before, I found significant, life-changing inspiration in the concept of Entitlement, which I learned about in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. A number of times I've mentioned this in discussions about things that inspired you, and been told that I shouldn't be inspired by that because Gladwell's methods aren't scientific.

But it doesn't have to be scientific for me to be inspired by it.  The book introduced me to a concept I needed in a way that made it clear to me why I needed it and how I could make it work for me.  So I tried it out, got good results, kept using it, and it was life-changing.  No science required.  It's like if someone says to you "You'd look good in red," or "Here, taste this food." They don't need to prove scientifically that you'd look good in red or that the food is yummy, you just try it out and either it works or it doesn't.  And if it turns out you do look good in red or the food is yummy, these positive qualities are not negated by their not having been proven scientifically.

When it doesn't matter if it doesn't work

Shortly after my GERD diagnosis, in an informal conversation with someone with naturopathic training, I learned that apples are thought to be effective against GERD.  The pectin in their peel is thought to form a protective barrier on top of the contents of the stomach, making it more difficult for it to reflux back up into the esophagus.  To get the most out of this protection, I was told, an apple should be the last thing you eat at each meal and at the end of the day.

So I immediately started doing it.

 Is it scientifically proven?  I have no idea.  Does it work for me?  I have no idea - my GERD is silent so I don't feel heartburn.

But it doesn't matter.  I love apples and I eat at least one (and 2-3 during peak season) every day anyway.  Even with all the contradictory information I received from conventional and alternative medicine, apples were not contraindicated anywhere.  So I took something I eat anyway and started eating it at specific points in my day rather than whenever the hell I want (although I'm also free to have them whenever the hell I want too.)  If it doesn't work, nothing has changed and no harm has been done.  So why wait around for someone to do a study?

The right to self-experimentation 

One thing I hear quite often from people who are opposed to alternative medicine on the basis that it hasn't undergone clinical testing is that people shouldn't be experimenting on themselves or using themselves as test subjects for things that haven't been proven.

But why not?  Experimentation and test subjects are necessary for things to become proven. So if you feel it's promising or would rather be doing something than doing nothing, why not experiment on yourself?

Weirdly, because this comes from nearly an opposite place, I've also seen this from people who think prescription medicines are overused.  For example, when I had my dysphagia incident, my doctor offered me the option of taking a medication (Dexilant) while we waited for testing and referrals to go through.  His reasoning was that most things that could be hindering my swallowing had reflux as the root cause, and Dexilant would help with reflux and help heal any damage to my esophagus caused by reflux.  If reflux was a factor, it would help.  If reflux wasn't a factor, it would be informative.

At that point, I really wanted to do something proactive, so I decided that yes, I want to try the medication. I noticed an improvement within an hour of taking the first pill, and I was able to eat normally in three days (i.e. before any tests results had come back or referrals had gone through.)  It was an unmitigated success.  But I've gotten static from a surprising number of people for taking a prescription medication without being 100% certain it was necessary.

One thing I learned when I got sick was that being proactive is helpful for me.  I'm far less stressed when I feel like I'm doing something to make myself better.  I left the doctor's office that day with a to-do list: go to the lab and give them some blood; go to the pharmacy, take the pills they give you, monitor what happens; go to this address at this time and drink some barium; when the hospital calls you, do what they tell you.

Similarly, when I get a cold, I bring on the home remedies.  Vitamin C and echinacea and garlic and Cold-FX and zinc and juice and water and tea and broth and 12 hours of sleep a night.  If I'm not asleep, I'm intaking some kind of fluid literally at all times.  I have no idea if all of this stuff is proven (they keep coming out with studies changing what has been proven), I have no idea if all (or any) of it is necessary.  For all I know, the 12 hours of sleep a night is doing all the work for me. But I feel far better when I'm doing something about it, so I do something about it.

Why would you want to deny someone the relief of being proactive if that's what works for them?

Anecdotal = empirical when it happened to you

Sometimes when I mention something that worked for me in my own firsthand experience, people point out that this is just anecdotal, not experimental data, and therefore I shouldn't rely on it.

But it actually did work for me.  That's empirical evidence.  Duct tape did cure my warts, so I will use duct tape next time I get a wart.  Even if for some reason it doesn't work for anyone else in the world, I already know that it worked for me, so it will be the first thing I reach for next time.  My home remedy bombardment when I have a cold has worked for me for the past 20 years, so next time I get a cold, I will reach for it.  Even if it doesn't work for others, I know it works for me.

Everyone is their own best test subject for determining whether things work for themselves. If someone is willing to take the risk of playing guinea pig for themselves, why deny them that option?

Is anyone teaching young people how to drink?

In Grade 12, the student council president was in my homeroom, so a lot of posters and swag and propaganda and stuff got delivered to our classroom for her to use for student council purposes.

One day we got a package of anti-drinking posters.  We opened them up and looked through them, and some of my classmates thought that one poster was inappropriate and shouldn't be used.

The inappropriate message?  Guidelines for safer social drinking.  (For example, the one part I remember was "No more than one drink per hour, no more than four drinks per occasion".)  People thought this was inappropriate because the vast majority of the students in our school were under the legal drinking age, and they felt this poster was giving students permission to drink as long as they did so responsibly.  So it didn't go up.

However, I saw the poster and internalized the message.  Then, that summer, when I took up drinking, I followed those rules.  One drink per hour, four drinks per occasion.  Water in between, start on a full stomach.

And I've never had a hangover.  Or a blackout.  And the last time I vomited was four years before I started drinking.

This all came to mind when I saw a headline in Salon refuting the premise of another article that apparently alleges that no one is telling young women not to drink. (The article is not important to this blog post, it's just the headline that triggered this train of thought.)

My experience is consistent with the Salon headline: everyone is telling young people not to drink. 

But is anyone teaching young people how to drink?  Is the information about timing and spacing and what constitutes moderate consumption and what constitutes safe consumption and what the threshold is for binge drinking being provided?  Or are they just being told not to do it or not to overdo it?

Quantitative guidelines fell into my hands a few months before I had my first beer, and as a result I've always been in control of my inebriation. But these guidelines were kept from my peers for fear they might imply that it's possible to drink responsibly.

How many of my peers didn't learn how to drink responsibly as a result?  Or perhaps even that drinking responsibly is an option?

Post your external hard drive recommendations here!

Just over two years ago, I bought a Western Digital Elements external hard drive.  I didn't put a lot of research into this - I just had to reimage my computer so I needed something immediately for backup.

It served me well for nearly two years, but then the power supply died.  I bought a new one on ebay, but it died just now, after only a few months' use.  The internet suggests that this is not an uncommon problem with Western Digital external hard drives.

So I've decided it's time to go for quality.  Can anyone recommend an external hard drive that has given them worry-free reliability and longevity?

I don't necessarily need anything with its own backup software or anything, I just need an external hard drive that will work and keep working for years without my having to worry about it.


Interesting Canadian place names

I was slightly surprised to see Thunder Bay in the list of Eddie Izzard's Canadian tour stops. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy for the people of Thunder Bay that they get to see Eddie, but it is a bit of a "one of these things is not like the others" on the list of cities he's visiting.

So I was amused to see, in Eddie's interview in the Ottawa Citizen, “I’m excited to play Thunder Bay because I assume it’s an exciting place where Thunder happens.”

So here's a few more Canadian place names about which one could draw similar conclusion:
 Add your own in the comments!

Good morning!

Here's what I'm doing today and why.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Things They Should Study: what kinds of wear and tear are and aren't avoidable with quality manufacturing?

Conventional wisdom is that good-quality products last longer and cheaply-made products wear out faster.

But this isn't necessarily going to apply for every single kind of wear and tear.

For example, because my gait is uneven, the outside back corner of my shoe heels wears out long before anything else.  I've owned shoes at a wide range of price points, and this has happened with every pair that I've worn enough times.  It therefore stands to reason that it's going to happen regardless of the quality of the shoes.  (Unless shoes with 4-digit or higher prices, which I can't afford, won't wear out from uneven gait.)

A lot of my things that wear out seem to be from similar causes. The fabric of my coats gets threadbare where my purse hangs.  My rug gets threadbare under my desk chair.  Would better quality products not wear out in these ways (or wear out slower?) Or would everything wear out unevenly from an uneven application of friction (and therefore it's not worth it to buy more expensive if this is the first thing that wears out)?

As I've mentioned before, I buy cheap earbuds and treat them with no care whatsoever.  And my earbuds always die within a few months.  But are do they keep dying because they're cheap, or because I treat them with no care whatsoever?  In other words, if I bought high-quality earbuds and continued to treat them with no care whatsoever, would they last me years and years?

It would be really useful if someone could study different kinds of wear and tear in different quality levels of products and determine for us what kinds of wear and tear can be avoided by buying better-quality products, and what kinds are unavoidable regardless.  Then, if our possessions wear out from unavoidable wear and tear before avoidable wear and tear kicks in, we'll know that we're buying at a sufficient quality level for our needs.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My schoolwork/studying technique

Since I've posted my essay-writing technique, I thought I'd also post my approach to schoolwork and studying.

I spent a designated amount of time on schoolwork per day per class.  Extrapolating from guidelines in my high school student handbook, I started with 15 minutes per day per class in Grade 9, and gradually increased it to 30 minutes per day per class in university.

Note that I worked with the total amount of time, rather than distributing it evenly among all my classes.  This means that, for example, in a university semester where I was taking 6 courses, I'd do a total of 3 hours of schoolwork each day, but I wouldn't necessarily do an equal amount for each course, or even do work for every course every day.

I'd decide what to work on by simple chronology.  I wrote down every deadline (reading, assignments, tests, projects, exams) in my calendar, and would spend my designated hours of schoolwork on whatever was due next.

If the next thing due was a test to be studied for (as opposed to an assignment that can be definitively completed), I'd do one round of studying for the test, then go on to the next deadline, then do another round of studying for the test, then do the next deadline, then do another round of studying for the test, and so on and so forth until I wrote the test.  What a "round of studying" actually was would depend on the nature of the test.  It could be reading through all the relevant parts of the textbook, it could be quizzing myself on the material that would be on the test, it could be doing practice exams.  

If the next thing due was a group project and my group hadn't yet sorted itself out enough for me to know what exactly I needed to do for the project, I'd work on it anyway.  I'd just open up a Word document and start typing up reasonable content for the project.  Then, at the end of the day's session, I'd email what I had to the rest of the group.  I'd frame it as "I've been thinking about the project, and I think better by actually writing stuff down, so I threw together a partial, very rough draft.  Feel free to critique whatever you don't like, or appropriate anything you do like, and we can maybe use it as a basis for discussion and planning for the rest of the project."  I didn't think of this approach until university, and by then my classmates most often appreciated my work (as opposed to earlier grades, where they'd reject my work because I'm not cool, even though my work was objectively correct), so the end result of this was a not-insignificant chunk of the project was done, anyone who was worse than I am could see what needed to be done to get the project up to my level, anyone who was better than I am could catch anything I needed to improve early on, and the entire group would be nudged into a "time to do the project" mindset without having to actually schedule a meeting.

The most important thing about this method is to always do the designated hours of work, starting on the day you receive your course syllabus and every single day until you've finished your last project or exam, even when you don't have any imminent deadlines. What would usually happen is I'd get way ahead on my reading in the first couple of weeks when there weren't many assignments yet, which would pay off when assignments picked up later on in the semester, when deadlines started catching up with me and I spent most of my time working on the next day's deadlines.  I'd pull ahead again during reading week, where I'd make some progress on final projects and studying for final exams, which had the added advantage of letting the material fester in my head for a bit once classes resumed and I was getting more imminent deadlines.

What was most valuable about this technique for me personally was that it gave me a definite point at which I could stop studying guilt-free.  I'm naturally inclined to feel the burden of everything I have to do ever ("OMG, I have to pay off my mortgage! And save for retirement!  Right now!"), so it's beneficial to me to have a system where all I have to do is study for three hours, regardless of how much or how little I get done in that time, and after the three hours are up I'm Officially Done for the Day.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Do silica gel desiccant packets get used up?

After the Infamous Rogers Centre iPod Drowning Incident of 2012, I started collecting everyone one of those little silica gel desiccant packets that crossed my path.  I put them in a ziploc bag with some rice, just in case I should ever have a similar incident in the future.

That paid off this week, when I accidentally overturned a glass of water onto my ipod. I stuck the ipod straight into this bag and left it there for 24 hours, and it came out fully operational (and I think the moisture indicator didn't even turn, knock wood!)

My question: do I need to throw out all these silica packets, or are they still good for further use?  I intend to keep adding packets to the bag as I encounter them, but can I keep the "used" ones in there or should I throw them completely out and start over?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


I recently tried Nanoblur, which claims to instantly reduce the appearance of skin by changing the way light reflects off skin.

Many internet reviewers have said that they experienced instantly noticeable results.  However, on me, it did basically nothing.  I could see maybe a 2% improvement on my forehead wrinkles when I was wearing makeup, and nothing perceptible when I wasn't wearing makeup. Also, when I applied with with makeup, my eyes somehow looked smaller afterwards. 

I also tried it on my elbows and on the backs of my hands (to duplicate tests I've seen people do on the internet), and there was no perceptible difference.

It didn't do anything to mitigate the dark skin around my eyes or my acne scars, which are my primary beauty concerns at the moment.  (I suspect it might not be intended to address these issues, although the advertising didn't rule it out.)  It also didn't do anything about my large pores, which the advertising did specifically mention.

One thing I did notice is Nanoblur is very matte.  Which might be helpful if you don't have your shine under control, but is less useful if you do have your shine under control (which I didn't even realize I do until I tried Nanoblur!) My usual foundation regime (a combination of Cover Girl TruBlend liquid and powder foundations) usually gives me a tiny bit of a good shine - a certain luminosity, for lack of a better word - and Nanoblur slightly suppressed this.

I found it was compatible with makeup when used as directed (other online reviewers reported having difficulty combining it with makeup), and I didn't find it drying (other online reviewers did). 

But I didn't find it worth using either. I'm not even planning to keep it for my special occasion makeup arsenal, instead I intend to pass it on to someone else who's interested in trying it to save them the expense.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things They Should UNInvent: banners that overlap the body text section of a website (or web browsers that can't handle this)

Some websites (such as Twitter and Salon) have banner-style headers that overlap the body text area.

The problem with this is if you press the spacebar to page down one screen, the browser behaves as though the area covered by the banner is visible, which means you miss a line or two every time you page down, and then have to page back up with a mouse.  This is very irritating, and also bad ergonomically - pressing the spacebar to page down is basically the minimum amount of ergonomic strain, and having to mouse could cause problems for people who have or are prone to RSI.

Web design and browser design need to fix this.  Pressing the spacebar should show the next page of text, with no text missed (and, in fact, with the last line of the previous page visible at the top, just to reassure the reader that they haven't missed anything.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things They Should Invent: public birthday parties

Sometimes people can't celebrate their birthday on their actual birthday, because the people they most want to celebrate with aren't available on that day.

Solution: public, meet-up style birthday parties for anyone who has a birthday that day.  I'm picturing the parties being held by a group of bars or pubs - the kind of place where any random person can walk in and have a good time - that would rotate among themselves so each one has to throw a birthday party only every couple of weeks or so.

You go in, show ID showing that it's your birthday, and you're entitled to one free drink and a piece of cake and maybe all the nachos you can eat over the course of the evening (or whatever else they can give away without wrecking their margins).  The employees (and, hopefully, other customers and birthday people) congratulate you and wish you happy birthday and generally make a fuss over you.  Maybe there could also be bonus freebies for people celebrating a milestone birthday. There would also be a general discount for people whose birthday it isn't on birthday party days, so there will be other people around to wish happy birthday to the birthday people.

The bars get attention, publicity, drink sales (because few people are going to limit themselves to the one free drink on their birthday), and maybe some new regulars who remember how this bar made them feel happy and welcome and celebrated on that birthday when they were all alone.

The bar's regulars get a discount and a bit of a party atmosphere on that particular day, and the possibility of attracting new and interesting regulars to the bar (if the birthday people are made to feel happy and welcome and celebrated.)

The birthday people get something fun to do on their birthday that makes them feel happy and welcome and celebrated, plus they get to meet other people who have the same birthday and thereby make friends who will totally be into celebrating their birthday on their birthday next year!

And, because the birthday people will meet birthday buddies, they might be able to make it just a one-year project. This would eliminate any "Meh, I'll go next year" sentiment among the birthday people, and thereby increase attendance and popularity.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Double candy buyback?

From The Ethicist:

Several dentists in our area offer to purchase candy during Halloween from their young patients for $1 per pound. Presumably they do this to reduce the risk to their patients of developing cavities. Unfortunately, the dentists then give the candy to the local food cupboard. There is little doubt that most (if not all) the clients who use the food cupboard can little afford proper dental care. I believe such behavior is thoughtless, unethical and unprofessional. I am a retired dentist.
Unrelated to the question being asked and without claiming that this is actually a good idea, I find myself wondering if people could get candy from the food bank and have the dentist buy it from them from a dollar a pound?  Or if someone from the food bank could just take it back to a dentist and get it bought out and use the donation to buy food?

The first Google result tells me that the average kids gets 10 pounds of Halloween candy, which means the food bank may well end up with a few hundred pounds of candy.  So if they split it up among several dentists, they could get a few hundred dollars, which would buy a decent amount of food (especially since food banks can apparently buy food wholesale.)

I don't know if this would bring their clients as much happiness as getting some candy for a treat, but that's where my mind went.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thankful without a "to"

I've blogged before about my non-thankfulness policy.  But it occurs to me that the things I'm thankful for are those for which there is no one to be thankful to.

For example, I'm thankful that I don't feel the need to seek out adventure and am perfectly content at home with books and TV and internet and gaming.

I'm thankful that I'm introverted enough that I don't get lonely, functionally speaking (i.e. the frequency with which people pay attention to me in the natural course of life is sufficient to keep me from getting lonely).

I'm thankful that, through a series of flukes, I found my optimal career path and my optimal neighbourhood.

All of these are things for which I'm truly thankful, but there's no one to be thankful to.  They're just how things turned out.

I want to make it clear: this isn't any sort of deliberate exercise in gratitude.  This isn't the result of a philosophy or a self-help system.  The purely internal things for which I'm thankful aren't the result of any attempt to master my emotions or become zen or otherwise self-improve. This is just how my naturally-occurring emotions landed: thankful without a "to".

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Things They Should Invent: standardized "I'm about to smoke on the balcony" warning

I habitually keep my windows open when the outdoor temperature is comfortable.  I find it's more effective (and cheaper) at regulating the indoor temperature, especially at this time of year when apartment buildings are switched over to heating mode but it's nowhere near cold enough to need heat.

Unfortunately, one of my neighbours smokes, and whatever it is they smoke is truly disgusting.  It's worse than cigarettes, it's worse than pot.  (I'm wondering if it might be cigars, since it really has a strong stinky old man smell.)  I can't tell when they're about to start smoking, so my living room gets filled with stinky stinky stink before I can even get the window closed.

But smoking on one's balcony is a reasonable thing to do, so I can't exactly complain.  I just wish I had some kind of warning so I could close my windows before the stinky stinky stink gets in.

Solution: some kind of standardized, audible "I'm about to smoke on my balcony" signal.  A bell or something, loud enough to be heard when the windows are open but not when the windows are closed, with the same sound for everyone so everyone could recognize it.  If you're going to smoke, you ring the bell, wait a minute or two, then light up.

One benefit of this approach would be that it retains some anonymity.  Smokers could inform their neighbours they're going to smoke without actually having to converse with them (and risk having to deal with being yelled at or otherwise deal with attempts at dissuasion).  The neighbours might not even know who it is who's about to smoke, just that it's someone nearby or downstairs or whatever.  But we could still get fair warning so we could close our windows and not be disturbed by the smoke.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Beware of calls from 1-877-974-2547 allegedly from RBC

I recently received a phone call from 1-877-974-2547, with the call display saying "RBC".  I bank with RBC, so I answered.  On the other end was a young woman in a very noisy call centre asking me if I wanted to switch to paperless statements.  I've been on paperless statements for years, so this seemed suspicious to me.

So I asked RBC on Twitter, and they replied that it doesn't appear to be an official number:

So beware of any call you get from 1-877-974-2547.  Remember: if you get a questionable call, you can always call the customer service number listed on the bank's website and ask them if there are in fact any problems with your account that require attention.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

In my readings about neuroplasticity, I came across a mention of a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which is a drawing course that uses neuroplasticity principles to improve your drawing skills by strengthening your right brain.  I have no interest in drawing but I did want to see neuroplasticity happen, so I decided to try it out.  (This is also why blogging has been particularly slow lately - I've had to spend a lot of time drawing!)

Here's what I discovered:

Using my right brain only literally makes my brain hurt!  One of the earlier exercises is copying a line drawing upside down.  Because it's upside down, it's far more difficult to recognize what you're drawing, so instead of thinking "This is a leg that I'm drawing now" you think in terms of "How do the length and angle of this line relate to the line I just drew?"  Because your left brain can't name the parts of what you're drawing, it stops participating in the exercise, leaving it to the right brain only.  My poor, underused right brain was not accustomed to this, and the exercise gave me the worst headache I've had since the first day I tried going coffee-free on weekends.  If I hadn't known about the neuroplasticity benefits, I would have given up right then and there.

My left brain quickly adapted. When I did that first, painful upside-down line drawing, the exercise was a success in that I couldn't recognize what I was copying so I copied the actual lines far more accurately.  However, by the time I got to the second (which was on another day, with at least one sleep in between), rather than my right brain being stronger, I found my left brain had adapted to the exercise and I could recognize what I was drawing far more readily, which defeated the purpose of the exercise and resulted in a less realistic drawing.

My drawing did improve, but not as much as I had hoped. The last pictures I drew were significantly better than the first ones.  However, they weren't nearly as good as I had hoped they would be based on the description of what the book was meant to achieve.  I wasn't able to enjoy my clear, obvious, significant improvement because the drawings still didn't come out nearly as well as I wanted.

This book helps you see, but doesn't help you actually draw. The core function of the book is to make you see what's actually in front of you - how the lines and spaces and light and shadows relate to each other - rather than letting your left brain fill in the blank. The problem - as with everything physical and tangible - is that I can't always make my hand make the pencil do what I want it to.  I draw a line, and it looks wrong.  Using the principles taught in the book, I am now able to think "That should be on a steeper slant." But when I erase it and try to redraw it on a steeper slant... it comes out exactly where I put it in the first place!  This book doesn't do anything to help with that, and it's currently the biggest obstacle to my drawings coming out the way I want them to. 

I'd also hoped that it might give me drawing skills that enable me to do a quick, semi-realistic sketch, the sort of thing I could bust out as a parlour trick.  I was picturing sitting and colouring with my fairy goddaughter, and while she makes me a page of crayon scribbles that I will keep forever, I make her a recognizable picture of her dog or something.  But instead the process is slow and technical, and requires a subject or model that stays still (which my fairy goddaughter's dog most definitely does not.)  It gets results with time invested and hard work, but doesn't give you the ability to improvise delightfully.  Much like my music skills, actually.

Turns out I don't like drawing. I never got to the point of enjoying the drawing exercises.  Every time I got to one, I'd be like "Aww, man, I have to draw now!"  I found it tedious and time-consuming and got no pleasure out of it.  I wasn't expecting to enjoy it - I was in this for neuroplasticity, not for art skills - but because of this I found it a bit annoying when the book suggested that I was probably pleased with my drawing or I probably found this particular exercise enjoyable.  In fact, the exercise I found most enjoyable was the pure contour drawing, where you try to visually copy the contours of what you're drawing without looking at the paper.  This is a visualization exercise rather than a drawing exercise - it isn't intended to produce an actual drawing and most often just produces a scribble - and I found I enjoyed it specifically because there were no expectations of the end result.

I don't know if this actually had any neuroplasticity effects.  I noticed my left brain compensating, and I noticed that after the first couple exercises my brain stopped hurting during the right-brain-only work, but I don't know if that's my right brain getting stronger or just that my left brain figured out a way to barge in and help.  Other than that, I didn't notice anything, but the fact that I don't perceive it doesn't mean it isn't there.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Things Torrent Trackers Should Invent: let people with invitations search

My favourite torrent tracker recently closed, which sent people scrambling for an alternative. I was able to secure an invitation to one of the trackers touted as an alternative, so I accepted the invitation, created an account, visited the tracker...and discovered there was nothing there of interest to me.  None of the things I'm currently looking for are there, none of the things I got from the old tracker were there. Even though its description sounded like it would meet my needs, it didn't.

So my much sought-after invitation was wasted.  Other people were still after invitations to this tracker, but I couldn't give my account to them. 

Solution: set up torrent trackers so that people with invitations can conduct a limited number of searches before accepting their invitation.  You put in your invite code, then you're allowed to conduct maybe 3 to 5 searches, then you have to either accept or decline your invitation.  If you accept, you create an account and can start torrenting.  If you decline, the invitation reverts to the person who gave it to you, so they can pass it on to someone else.

Private trackers are private for two reasons: to limit themselves to quality users, and to protect themselves from parties who want to get people in trouble for torrenting.  Letting people with invitations search won't hinder these objectives.  People who turn out not to be as interested in the content of the tracker as they expected aren't going to be high quality users, because they have less of an incentive to participate and keep their ratio up, while taking up a space that could otherwise be occupied by a more enthusiastic user.  And people who want to get the users in trouble would simply accept the invitation and get in. 

I don't know how easy or difficult allowing searches to invitation-holders would be from a technical perspective, but it would create a better torrenting experience for everyone.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Things They Should Invent: standardized, legally-binding DNR tattoo

Today's Toronto Star ethics column discusses some issues surrounding Do Not Resuscitate orders. In the final paragraph, the columnist raises an idea I've come up with independently in the past:
I floated one more suggestion by Godkin. “Perhaps,” I mused, “this lady should get the letters DNR tattooed on her left breast — then no one could miss it at the critical moment.” Godkin responded that she’d heard the same suggestion from several nurses. She doubted, however, that such enigmatic ink would stop a zealous paramedic.
Solution: we need a standard design for a DNR tattoo that is widely publicized and universally understood to mean DNR.  Its location should be standardized so responders know where to look (like with dog microchips.)  The presence of this tattoo should provide first responders and medical personal with all the ass-covering they need to not be held liable for not treating a person who has the tattoo.

The design should be as small and as simple as reasonably practicable, to minimize the time and discomfort of getting the actual tattoo, but distinctive enough to be easily recognizable and to be distinguished from any other tattoo a person might have.

There should also be a standardized and easily-recognizable way to cancel it, perhaps by tattooing a big X through it.

When I started writing this, my idea was that tattoo artists can only give people a DNR tattoo if they see DNR documentation.  Then it occurred to me that getting a tattoo is such a serious act that maybe it should simply count as DNR documentation.

I'm also going back and forth about whether you should have to prove you're of sound mind to get a DNR tattoo. On one hand, a DNR is serious business and you should have to be of sound mind to do serious business.  On the other hand, how much quality of life is possible if you're in a situation where you can end up in a tattoo parlour asking to get DNR tattooed on you when you don't actually want it?  I don't know the answer to that question, so I'll leave it to the experts.

But, in general, the problem with DNR orders is the paperwork might not always be readily available at a time when a decision on whether to resuscitate needs to be made.  So why not standardize a way to have the order literally on one's person?

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

By request: my essay-writing technique

Conventional wisdom is that, when writing an essay, you should decide what your thesis is, determine what points best prove that thesis, use this information to prepare an outline, and then flesh it out into a full essay.

This was never particularly good for me, because either I had no idea what my thesis should be, or I had a brilliant idea for a thesis but couldn't quite pull the essay together.

So in university, I came up with another technique.

I started by opening a blank Word document and typing out everything I knew that was remotely relevant.  Some if it would be in nice sentences and paragraphs, some of it would be in point form, some of it would be a list of questions to answer.  I'd usually also have stray analogies and turns of phrase that I wouldn't mind working in there somewhere.  I'd just braindump until my brain emptied, then put it aside.

The next day, I'd open it up again, read it over, add anything that occurred to me, and then figure out what thesis was most naturally proven by all this stuff I'd written.

Then I'd drag all the stuff on the screen around until it landed in the order that best proved the thesis, marking any gaps with "[...]" or "[talk about widgets here]" or whatever.  Then I had my outline.  And over half my essay.

If I had time, I'd put it aside overnight again, and then fill in those blanks I'd left the next day.  After letting it sit overnight, filling in those blanks always seemed like a remarkably easy task.  Just a few sentences here and there, no biggie!  (If I didn't have time to let it sit overnight before I did this, I'd do all I could by brute force.)

Then another overnight, a fresh morning edit, and we're done!

If I didn't have time for more than one overnight, I'd do the braindump and determine the thesis on the same day, but with a break in between and in two different locations. (For example, braindump at home, spend an hour gaming, get dinner, then determine my thesis in the library.)

The result was an essay that does its job as well as possible.  Because my thesis was supported by the points I knew most about, it was (very nearly by definition) the best-proven thesis I could come up with, and proven to the best of my ability. Essays written this way always got As, many of which were high As (at the university level), whereas essays written by choosing my thesis first more often got Bs, occasionally low As.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Secularism: ur doin it wrong

At first I wasn't going to blog about Quebec's Charte des valeurs. I've already written many times about how assholic it is to force people to expose more of their bodies than they're comfortable with and was weary of having to cover the same ground again, and most of the media coverage of this story has already taken that approach so I was weary of having to repeat myself and didn't think I had anything to add.

But in the shower, it occurred to me that it's interesting to look at it from from the other side: instead of looking at what's banned, let's look at what's allowed.

Here's an English-language version of the visual aid that's been circulating.

Look at the "banned" items in the bottom row.  Apart from the giant cross in the left-most picture, all these items have a practical and/or theological function.  They all have the practical function of covering a part of the body that the wearer wants to be covered (with the possible exception of the yarmulke - I'm not clear on whether covering that part of the head is necessary, or whether it's the yarmulke itself that's necessary.) They all also have the theological function of being something the wearer needs to do to avoid going to hell, or whatever the equivalent in their religion is.  (I have heard that the hijab per se is not necessary, just that covering the head is necessary.  And I have heard that the hijab per se is necessary.  So let's split the difference and say that some people believe it is theologically necessary.)

Now look at the "allowed" items.  They're all small pieces of jewellery that display the wearer's religious affiliation.  They have no theological function, and they have no practical function other than displaying the wearer's religious affiliation.  They aren't a part of the actual practise of the wearer's religion, they aren't going to help send the wearer to heaven or prevent them from going to hell (or whatever the equivalent in their religion is).  They are simply a gratuitous display.

If Quebec wants to create an image of secularism, the place to start is by eliminating gratuitous displays of religion that serve no purpose.  Banning the functional while permitting the gratuitous eliminates all credibility.

Analogy: Suppose I have a car, and suppose you have a baby. We have an awesome, supportive friendship full of mutual assistance, which includes me lending you my car on those occasions when you need a car.  But then one day I tell you "You aren't allowed to put your baby's carseat in my car.  As you know, I am a Voluntary Human Extinctionist, and displaying the carseat would come across as promoting breeding."  But, before you can even open your mouth to protest, I add, "But it's okay if you want to put your Baby On Board sticker on the car, because that's just small."

Update: I was so caught up in imagining how awful it would be to be forced to expose more of my body than I'm comfortable with in order to keep my job that I failed to notice two very important things pointed out in this article:

The Charte wouldn't (my emphasis):

1. Remove religious symbols and elements considered "emblematic of Quebec's cultural heritage." That includes: the crucifixes in the Quebec legislature and atop Mount Royal in Montreal, the thousands of religiously based geographic names (e.g. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!) and the names of schools and hospitals.

4. Ban opening prayers at municipal council meetings, which was recommended by the 2008 Bouchard-Taylor Commission report into cultural accommodation. The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in May that such prayers do not necessarily violate Quebec's current human rights legislation.
Yeah. So they're forbidding people to wear as much clothing as they'd like to in government buildings because it might be interpreted as a religious symbol, but they're allowing actual religious symbols actually on display in government buildings.  They're forbidding individuals who happen to work for the government in one capacity to practise their own religion with their own body, but still permitting situations in which individuals who work for the government in another capacity are forced or coerced or pressured to participate in the collective practise of a religion to which they may or may not subscribe in order to do their jobs.

So let's revisit the analogy.  I own a car that I lend out to my friends in a spirit of mutual assistance, but I forbid people to put their children's carseats in my car because "displaying" the carseats would counter my stated Voluntary Human Extinctionist principles.  However, I permit the "Baby On Board" sticker on the basis that it's small.

But now, with this new information, it comes to light that I have a gaudy, brightly-coloured children's playground in my front yard.  Because, like, it's always been there.

Also, since I lend out my car to my friends so often, I'm gathering together a circle of friends to give me their input on the next car I purchase.  However, if you want to be part of this circle, you have to donate gametes to help me in my attempt to conceive a child of my own.

But you still aren't allowed to put your baby's carseat in the car.  Because that would promote breeding.

Not so very good for the credibility, is it?

Mme. Marois suggests that the Charte will unite Quebecers.  I believe it will, against her.  You don't win over the secularists by allowing gratuitous displays of religion in the name of secularism.