Sunday, March 31, 2013

Things They Should Invent: use the names of companies as synonyms for their bad employment practices

The pinnacle of branding is when your brand is used as a generic, like kleenex or xerox or google.

So let's leverage this and start using the names of companies as the generic for their most famous bad employment practice.

Got screwed out of your pension?  You got nortelled.  Got your telework status suddenly revoked?  You got yahooed.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Things Google Should Invent: unclick that link

Google tracks click-throughs.  You can see this when you right-click on a link in search results.  Rather than the link of the target page, it gives you[insert alphanumeric sequence here]. 

The problem with this is when you click on a link that looks promising, but it turns out not to be what you're looking for.  Google still counts that as a click-through, even though it's an unhelpful result.

I'd like to have the option of, when I go back to the search results to find something more useful, clicking a little checkbox next to the unhelpful link that says "This isn't what I was looking for with this search," so Google can learn from this.

They did once have a thing where you can ban certain websites from your personal search results, but that's way more drastic than what I'm thinking of.  For example, perhaps a search for "Jon Doe" "University of Toronto" turns up the Facebook page of a Jon Doe who lives in Toronto, but it isn't the Jon Doe who's a prof at U of T. That doesn't mean I never want to see search results from Facebook again.  That doesn't even mean I never want to see this particular Jon Doe again.  It just means that this is not the Jon Doe I'm looking for with those keywords. 

It's also possible that Google might be able to track when we return to the search results and select another result.  The problem is that doesn't tell them if the first thing we clicked on was unsatisfactory, or if we're just looking for further information. (If I'm researching/hiring/stalking Jon Doe, I'm not going to stop at one search result.)  Allowing us to inform Google when individual results aren't what we were looking for will clarify this ambiguity.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Can you mail a package to a baby in Australia?

I really wish Not Always Right had a comments section after reading this story, where a plot point is an apparent Australian post office rule that only the person whose name is on the package is allowed to pick up the package.

I've sent My Favourite Little Person a number of things in the mail over the course of her life, and I always put her name on the package and address her in the second person in the enclosed note. Her parents have told me they appreciate this, because it respects her humanity.  She's small and preverbal, but still deserves to be addressed as a person.

However, she would not be able to pick up a package.  She can't sign for it, and she doesn't even have photo ID.  So if she lived in Australia and I addressed the package to her, would it be forever caught in limbo because she's a baby?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Can you recommend a Google Reader replacement with visual notification?

One function I really like about Google Reader is that, when I'm signed in, the Google Reader icon on my Google toolbar turns green when there are new posts waiting for me in Reader.  Because this exact functionality was not available in Chrome when the Google toolbar stopped being compatible with Firefox (which was also a dick move on Google's part, BTW), I stopped upgrading Firefox at version 10.

I'd really like to duplicate this functionality in whatever I end up replacing Google Reader with, i.e. I'd like a visual cue when there is new reading material waiting for me.  I don't need (and would prefer not to have) something that pops up every single time a new post arrives, I just want to be able to know when something new is present so I don't have to keep checking back.

I use Firefox as my primary browser.  I'm willing to upgrade my Firefox, but I don't want to switch to Chrome because I'm losing trust in Google.

Can you recommend anything?  Or, conversely, have you tried any Google Reader alternatives that don't have this feature so I can avoid them?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Post your router recommendations here

I am looking into buying a router for the purpose of connecting two computers to my (Rogers) cable modem at the same time. I intend to connect them by ethernet, not wi-fi. I have no objection to the router being wi-fi capable, but I'd like the option of disabling its wi-fi so I don't have to worry about securing a wi-fi network that I don't even need. I don't anticipate needing to connect more than two computers at once.

I'm asking about routers because that's what the internet tells me I need to connect two computers to the cable modem at once, but if you know of another, better way to do it, please let me know.

Also, if there's a particular router that you recommend not using, I'd appreciate knowing that as well.

Anonymous comments welcome.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Google Reader cancellation braindump


I use RSS feeds to follow websites, newspaper columnists, webcomics, blogs, comment threads, livejournals, tumblrs, fanfiction, and YouTube channels all in one convenient place.  Before I joined Twitter, I also used it for Twitter feeds.  This saves me the trouble of having to go to each website separately to check for updates. By nudging the internet away from RSS feeds, Google is encouraging the siloing of the internet.  Each of these things has its own mechanism for following within the website.  We use RSS to follow them all in one convenient place.  But weakening RSS and creating the perception that it's obsolete might drive websites to neglect it and move towards a more siloed approach, trying to force you to follow each website only from within that website.  (I've actually noticed that with YouTube lately - if I use youtube while logged into a google account, it has suddenly started acting as though that's a youtube account and encouraging me to make a channel, even though my youtube use is entirely passive and I have no interest in having an actual account. The few youtube channels I do follow, I follow with RSS.)

Social media

Some of the commentary I've read suggests that RSS is less necessary now that we have social media.  I don't understand this line of thinking.  The people I'm connected to on social media do often provide interesting links, but they're a supplement to, not a replacement for, my own Google Reader.  My Google Reader contains the things I want to read - specific bloggers and websites and columnists and communities and comics and fic authors that I've decided I want to read to completion, and be informed as soon as they update. I'm not just looking for something to read, I have specific things I want to read.  So how does it happen that someone thinks having self-curated reading material is inferior to just reading whatever their friends happen to link to? Do they not have their own preferences?  Are they really bad at determining what will be interesting to them?


Google's decision to kill both Google Reader and iGoogle seems to be because newer things exist.  I blogged about this before regarding their decision to kill iGoogle, where they seem to think people are going to stop using the Web because apps exist, and stop using regular computers because tablets exist.  I dislike this because the newer things don't meet the same needs. (Even if I had a tablet, I wouldn't use it to translate or blog or play Sims.)  I've also noticed this reflected in search results themselves.  Google searches seem to prioritize newer information over older information, even when you're not searching by date, which can be irritating if you're trying to determine the origin of something. They don't even have the option of reverse sort by date, so you can quickly and easily find the origin or the first recorded occurrence of something.

Permanence oblige

Google is 15 years old, which is massive in internet time.  (I myself have been using the internet regularly for under 20 years.) It has been the best search engine for all this time. Gmail is 9 years old, which is also a significant period in internet time, and it has been the best webmail provider for all this time.  Even for people who are supposed to be techy and of the moment, a gmail address is perfectly respectable in a way that a hotmail address never quite was.  Because Google has been the very best for so long, it is the closest thing the internet has to permanence, stability, longevity.  And, because of it's permanence, stability and longevity, it has a greater duty of reliability and dependability than some random startup.  If you want to be an essential part of people's internet experience, you have to create enough stability that people can feel safe taking the risk of making their internet experience dependent on you.  Google is losing some of this credibility.


Google Reader and iGoogle are my primary gateways to the internet, and now Google has cancelled both of them.  This makes me fear for the future of Gmail and Blogger.  (Or search, for that matter).

There is a petition to save Google Reader here.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Buying happiness: quality housing

My apartment was brand new when I moved into it, nearly six years ago.  It has many improvements over my previous apartment (which was built in the 1970s).  I have big windows (and I face east and am above the building next door), so I enjoy direct sunlight that helps my circadian rhythms. I have a washer and dryer in my actual suite, which means I don't have to schlep down to the basement three times per load of laundry, or hoard quarters and loonies, or worry about what I'm going to wear while I do laundry. I have a dishwasher, which means that my least favourite chore (apart from exercise and pest control) is completely eliminated.  And, speaking of pest control, I average one bug a year here, compared with one bug every two months in my old place and several bugs a month in student housing.  Since a bug equals a panic attack, this is a revelation.  Making rent is always tight, and I can't think of anything I'd rather be spending it on.

This is why I will never be convinced that money can't buy happiness.  I've bought a near-elimination of panic attacks, and of the tedium of two major chores, as well as a sunlight pattern that helps adapt my circadian rhythms to the realities of everyday life.

All of this sounds disgustingly privilegey, but this is why I'm so opposed to the N2 rent increase exemption - it puts the quality of life I enjoy further and further out of the reach of more and more Ontarians (which might include me eventually if I hadn't bought a condo - my rent has always increased at a greater rate than my salary).  I've benefited so much from buying this happiness that I want to to be affordable to everyone.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Complaints about baby toys: alphabet blocks

A while back, I had the idea of getting My Favourite Little Person some alphabet blocks.  That way, when she begins to approach literacy, they'll have a toy in the house that people can use to make words and demonstrate phonetics whenever the spirit moves them. And, in the meantime, she can make towers and knock them down, which is always entertaining.

So I went to a toy store and looked at their alphabet blocks, but I was very disappointed to discover that the picture on each the block didn't correspond with the letter on that block.  So I went to another store and looked at more blocks, and, again the picture didn't correspond.  Eventually I decided to put off the alphabet block purchase until she was older (she was under a year old and completely pre-verbal when I was looking at alphabet blocks), and she ended up getting some alphabet blocks form someone else in the interim.  But the ones she owns don't have pictures that correspond with the letters either.

Why do they even make alphabet blocks where the pictures don't correspond with the letters?  Someone at some point in the design process has to decide which pictures go on which blocks, so why not choose something that starts with that letter?

The first block should have the letter A, the number 1, and an apple. The second block should have the letter B, the number 2, and a ball.  And they should continue with this pattern all the way to Z, with duplicates of the more common letters so people can use them to make actual words.

This isn't complicated.  It probably takes more thought to come up with another system.  So why not maximize their educational value?

Friday, March 08, 2013

My experience with Staples

I needed to replace my desk chair and Staples was having a good sale  I went into the store and tried out a chair that looked promising, and I didn't perceive any problems with it so I decided to buy it.

Because their delivery times coincide exactly with my normal work hours, I called their 800 number to ask if it was possible to schedule a delivery for a specific day (i.e. an upcoming day when I was schedule to work at home).  The very nice man who took my call told me that it was, and took my order right then and there.  I was very impressed that I could just call them up and ask for what I want and get it, and thought that their "Easy!" advertising was actually true.

The delivery happened as scheduled, and the delivery people were super nice. The chair came in a box, disassembled, and I found the assembly instructions were less helpful than they could have been.  They told which pieces to attach to each other and where to attach them, but they didn't always make it clear how. (More about the assembly and disassembly experience here, framed as a cognitive experience.)  I assembled it over a period of several days (I could have done it in an hour or two if I'd had to, but I would have gotten extremely frustrated), but the assembly was ultimately a success.

But once I got it assembled and sat in it for a couple of hours, I realized it was ergonomically unsuitable.  The arm rests were higher than my elbows on their lowest setting, and the bulge in the seat back that's meant to support the lumbar spine was taller than my lumbar curve, so it was forcing my back to curve forward not only in the lumbar spine where it naturally curves forward, but also in the bottom portion of the thoracic spine where it naturally starts curving back towards my back.  (I'm 5'7", with long legs and a short torso.) I didn't notice this in the store because I was just looking for whether lumbar support is present - it never occurred to me it might be too big.

So I called the 800 number again to ask about the possibility of returning the chair, and I was very happy to hear that not only was I allowed to return it, but they could pick it up from me and schedule the pick-up on the day of my choosing.  So I chose my next day off work (which was close to the end of the 30-day return period), and disassembled and repackaged the chair, again over a period of days.

On the day of the scheduled pick-up (a Friday), I pushed the box containing the chair over to the door of my apartment (it weighed about 50 pounds, so I couldn't lift it in the box - I could easily roll the chair on its wheels and lift and carry it short distances when it was assembled in chair form, but the box was too big and unwieldy), made sure my phone line was not in use all day so I'd be able to buzz the pick-up guy in, and settled down to wait.  But he never came.

I called the 800 number, and the very nice lady who answered verified that they did have a pickup scheduled, told me that this very rarely happens, and rescheduled the pickup for the following Tuesday.  (I was very, very fortunate that my boss let me work at home on the Tuesday on such short notice.)

On the Tuesday I worked at home, again keeping my phone line clear, again not leaving the apartment even for a second between the 9-5 window.  But the pick-up guy never came.

I called the 800 number again.  The very nice man who answered empathized with my situation, gave me a $20 credit for my trouble, reassured me that I would still be allowed to return it even though we were going beyond the 30-day return period because they had a record of the saga and it clearly wasn't my fault, and rescheduled my pick-up for the Friday of that week.  (Again, my boss went above and beyond by allowing me two short-notices work-at-home days in a week.)  I also reported the problem to Staples via Twitter, and got a voicemail from another very nice lady confirming that my pickup had been scheduled for the Friday and giving me a different 800 number to call if there should be any problem.

Then, just to complicate things, I got home from work on Thursday to find a voicemail from the pick-up guy, saying he was there to pick up my chair and would come back the next day.  This caused a brief panic that the pick-up had been scheduled wrong, but a very nice person at the 800 number confirmed that it was in fact schedule for the Friday.

On Friday, I worked at home, one again kept my phone line clear and stayed in the apartment, and the pick-up guy came as scheduled.  He was super nice and took the box away with no fuss even though it was packaged less perfectly than I'd received it.

So here's what I've learned:

- I do not recommend using Staples if you're going to be dependent on their delivery and/or pick-up service and being at home on a weekday is difficult for you. I get the impression that the delivery service is more intended to serve businesses, where there's someone in during business hours every day anyway and if they come the next day instead of the scheduled day it isn't a huge deal.  I should add that Staples would also have accepted my return if I brought it into a store, but that was logistically impossible for me because I don't have a car and couldn't lift the box.  If you normally have someone home during the day, this problem won't affect you. If you can handle the transportation for the product in question yourself, this problem won't affect you.  But if you're not normally home on weekdays and the combination of the nature of the product purchased and the transportation options available to you makes it impossible for you to get the product to or from a store, you might want to look into other stores to see if there are better options out there.

- I do not recommend this Staples Multifunction Task Chair if you're under maybe 5'9".  The armrests were too high on their lowest setting and the lumbar spine support was too tall/long for my 5'7" short-torsoed body.

- If you struggle with assembling Ikea furniture, you will probably find it difficult to assemble Staples chairs. The instructions are less detailed than Ikea instructions.  The pieces are also rather heavy.  I could handle it, my grandmother wouldn't be able to handle it. My parents could probably handle it, but someone with back problems could hurt themselves.  However, you might also look into whether the store provides an assembly service.  I seem to remember from my initial research a thing where you can pay an extra $10 or $20 and they'll assemble it for you, but I can't currently confirm its existence, and I'm not sure whether I found it on a US or Canada Staples site.

I should add that throughout this ordeal, every single customer service person I dealt with was awesome, and the delivery people were super nice as well.  It's just the customer service people in their call centre had no way of making the delivery truck actually come to me, so it caused me quite disproportionate inconvenience.  I really appreciated how I could call their 800 number and, with minimal to no hold time, talk to a human being, asked for what I wanted in words, and have them arrange for it to be done.  I didn't have to make a special request or game the system, I just asked and they what they do to make it happen.

Except that it didn't always end up actually happening.  And that unfortunate disconnect between the superb customer service in the call centre and whatever was going on with the truck is the only reason why this isn't a glowing review and is instead an epic saga.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Things Foodland Ontario Should Invent: "If you like...then you might like..."

My very favourite apples are Cortlands, which aren't available all year, and my second-favourite are McIntosh, which are available nearly all year. I make do with Paula Reds and Ida Reds during the summer gap, but I don't like those ones nearly that much.  I actively dislike Red Delicious and similar varieties. I find Granny Smith too tart and Honeycrisp too crisp.

Currently, the Loblaws I usually go doesn't have either Cortlands or Macs. Metro had Cortlands up until this week (although they were the kind in the bag rather than the kind in the bin), and now they still have Macs. (This is an interesting reversal - usually Loblaws more reliably has produce I like better.) 

However, I've noticed in both supermarkets a sudden influx of apple varieties I don't recognize.  There may well be apples I like among these new varieties, but I have no way of knowing which ones, and I don't much fancy the idea of buying and eating a bunch of apples I don't like just in case one of them meets needs already met by existing varieties.

I think Foodland Ontario could help me with this.

Foodland Ontario's mandate is to encourage people to buy local produce.  Surely helping us discover new things we like falls within this mandate!  Foodland Ontario is also basically the "official" source of information about produce varieties.  If there's such thing as tasting notes for apple varieties, they'd be the ones who have them.

So they should take the information they have about all the different apple varieties, and use it to make a grid, or a flowchart, or a nifty little interactive website where I can input the fact that I like Cortlands and Macs and dislike Red Delicious, and it would tell me what other varieties I'm likely to enjoy. The more varieties you can give your opinion on, the better results it could get - so if you do find yourself going through the produce section doing trial and error, it can help you pick better next time.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"It's just gas."

There exists the idea that newborn babies don't really smile to show that they're happy, it's just their face happens to land in that position sometimes.  A common explanation is "It's just gas."

I can't tell you if this is true or not.  There are people on the internet who confirm this statement and saying that it's a common misconception that babies really smile, and there are people on the internet saying it's a common misconception that babies don't smile and they totally really do.

But the pervasiveness of this idea that babies don't smile means that once upon a time someone discovered it or thought they discovered it, and then they - and many other people - perpetuated the idea.

Why would someone do this??

If you, as the adult, think the baby has smiled at you, you're happier.  You feel "Awww, she likes me!" and that brightens your day.  Your happiness may make the baby feel happier, safer, or more relaxed, or it may be neutral, depending on how well the baby can read your moods and how much they affect her moods.

If you think the baby likes you in general, you're more likely to want to engage with her, and more often, so you can see her smile again.  Engaging with the baby is good for her social development and her language development, and will probably help her get to know you better and build trust with a loving adult.  Plus, if you genuinely feel that the baby likes you, you're more likely to respond sympathetically to her.  When she's crying, you're more likely to go "Awww, poor baby!" rather than "Shut up, you ungrateful little brat!"  This will make her feel safe and secure and loved, which is good for her long-term social and psychological development.

In short, thinking that the baby has smiled at you makes life a little happier for everyone and, even if it's not true, there's no downside. Conversely, if you think any sign of affection from the baby is just instinct or fluke or gas, the best possible outcome is neutral, and the worst is neglect.

So why would someone do science with the goal of proving that the baby doesn't really like you?  Or, if they discovered this by accident, why would people work so hard to perpetuate it?  Even if the truth is that the baby doesn't actually like you because she's too young to like you, there's nothing lost and a certain amount gained by being deluded into thinking she likes you.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

How to organize hair accessories

I was sorting through a drawer, and I noticed it contained a lot of loose hair clips, and a lot of loose hair elastics.  I was considering getting some kind of container or organizing device, and then I had a brainstorm:

I grouped all the like clips together, then I wrapped all the like hair elastics around each bundle of clips. The elastics keep the clips together in bundles, and the clips provide something to wrap the elastics around without stretching them out, so they won't rattle around loose and sink to the bottom of the drawer.

This takes up less space than any organizing device, the hair accessories are far more readily visible in the drawer than when they're loose, and I can tell what I own at a glance. 

Friday, March 01, 2013

Thoughts from advice columns: assuming panhandlers have a kitchen

DEAR ABBY: I spent the afternoon running errands. As I left the shopping center, I saw a young couple with a baby and a toddler holding a sign requesting help with food, as the husband had just been laid off. I drove past, then considered the children and circled back.
I had no cash with me, so I stopped and offered them our family's dinner -- a jar of premium spaghetti sauce, a pound of fresh ground beef, a box of dried spaghetti, fruit cups that my children usually take to school for treats, and some canned soups I occasionally have for lunch.
Imagine my surprise when the couple declined my generosity. Instead, the man strongly suggested that I should go to a nearby ATM and withdraw cash to donate to them because they preferred to select their own groceries and pay their phone bills. What are your thoughts on this? -- GENUINELY PUZZLED IN AUSTIN, TEXAS

What surprises me most about this letter, and Abby's response, and all the comments I've seen made on it in the places where people normally comment on advice columns, is no one seems to notice that she gave a family who's panhandling a bunch of food that requires a kitchen to prepare it.  You can't assume that panhandles have a kitchen! Everything but the spaghetti sauce and the fruit cups is inaccessible without cooking equipment, and the spaghetti sauce and the fruit cups cannot be eaten in anything remotely approaching a dignified manner without utensils.  (And that's before we even get into possible medical issues - if I were to eat enough straight spaghetti sauce to assuage my hunger, I'd require medication that costs $3 a day to keep my body from destroying itself.)

This family may or may not have been in genuine need, it may or may not have been a scam, and they may or may not have an actual home.  But I'm very surprised that LW was so taken aback that panhandlers would decline an offer of raw meat that she felt the need to write in to Dear Abby, and I'm very surprised that no one else seems to have glommed onto this fact.