Monday, April 29, 2013

Are children really unfamiliar with pregnancy?

I was very surprised to see that some people thought the word "pregnant" shouldn't be used in an elementary school yearbook for fear that the kids might ask what it means.  My experience was that children were familiar with pregnancy essentially because they were children.

When you are born, your parents are, by definition, part of the cohort that's getting pregnant and having babies.  It's therefore very likely that many of the adults around you - your parents' friends and siblings and cousins - are also at this stage of life.  This means that there's a good chance that within the first few years of your life, one or more babies will be born to the people around you.  It might even be your own younger sibling!

And it's most likely that your parents will explain the concept of the new baby to you.  They won't just one day go "Hey, look, a baby!"  They'll probably tell you that Mommy or Auntie Em is pregnant, which means she's going to have a baby.  And they'll probably even tell you the baby is growing in her belly so that's why her belly is getting fat.

And if this doesn't happen to you, it will probably happen to one of your friends, who will then announce to you "I'm going to have a baby brother and he's growing in my mommy's tummy!"

Myself, I don't remember a time when I didn't know what the word "pregnant" meant.  My first cousin was born when I was 1.5, and my sister was born when I was a few months short of 3. I have memories of the cousin being a baby and I have memories where I knew that my mother was going to have a baby, but I don't ever remember actually learning what "pregnant" means.  For as long as I've known, it's just meant that a baby is growing in a mommy's belly.  It didn't seem sexual or adult (because I didn't know what sex was), it was just a point of fact.

So I'm very surprised that parents would think that elementary school children need to be protected from the concept of pregnancy.  In my corner of the world, children were familiar with pregnancy by virtue of the demographic realities of being children.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Receiving welfare while on a terrorist watch list

From Snopes, one of the accused Boston marathon bombers had apparently received welfare benefits while on a terrorist watch list

I'm rather surprised at the tone of outrage, because it seems to me that continuing existing welfare payments to someone you want to watch is a good way to help keep track of them.

 It means they have to tell you where they live.  It means you'll know at least some of their banking information, either from direct deposit or from them cashing cheques, and with bank records and stuff you might be able to track what else they're doing with their money.  It means they have a strong incentive to be where they told you they'll be at least once a month.  If you're trying to track them physically, you can stake out their mailbox on the day that cheques arrive, or track where the debit card affiliated with their bank account is used to get a sense of their usual haunts.  If your jurisdiction has social workers monitoring or assisting welfare recipients, you've got a known person who is not a criminal associate but has spoken to them regularly and perhaps asked them some more personal questions.  Plus, the fact that they're receiving government benefits might lead them to led their guard down - they might think "Surely they wouldn't be paying me welfare if they thought I was a terrorist!" 

In contrast, if you discontinue their benefits, they know you're watching them.  They now have no incentive to ever be where they told you they are, or to maintain any bank accounts that the government knows about.  It also decreases their overall contact with public authorities, and increases their incentive to earn money through illegal means, which might put them in touch with a broader range of criminal element.

All in all, from a purely strategic viewpoint, I'd say it's worth the pittance.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why not have books in solitary confinement?

From a Toronto Star article about solitary confinement (emphasis mine):

The woman she saw that day looked humiliated and defeated, Pate says, adding seclusion is “complete sensory deprivation.”
“It’s no wonder so many people develop bizarre behaviours and mental health issues when they’re in those conditions, because where else can you go, but into your mind?
Whether it’s called seclusion, isolation, segregation, “therapeutic quiet” or solitary confinement, lawyers at the Ashley Smith inquest representing Elizabeth Fry, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Smith family say the terms amount to the same thing: a prisoner locked in a bare room with no stimulation and basically no interaction with others.
But, later in the article:
a Corrections Canada spokesperson said segregation is used as a last resort for the shortest period of time necessary to manage the serious risk posed by an inmate’s association with other inmates.
If the stated problem is the inmate's association with other inmates (either to protect the solitary confinement person from the others, or to protect the others from the solitary confinement person), then there's no reason not to give them a couple of books.

If the inmate is in solitary for their own protection, there's no reason to deny them something to pass the time.  If they have mental health issues, it would help keep them from getting stuck in their head.

Even if you feel they don't deserve sympathy or entertainment, good could still be achieved by giving them reading material that reinforces the goals of their correctional plan.  In addition to educational materials, they could be provided with works of fiction that address the themes that correctional programs are trying to teach.  It would also make things easier from an inmate management point of view - the most entertaining thing available to them would involve sitting quietly.

Right now we have a system where inmates who shouldn't be near other inmates are locked into a room to go, quite literally, stir-crazy.  Put a few books in the room, and you've turned it into a system where best case they're working towards their correctional goals without interruption or negative influences, and worst case they're quietly passing the time.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gambling and positive thinking

The following is a quote from page 264 of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  As usual, any typoes are my own.

In 2010, a cognitive neuroscientist named Reza Habib asked twenty-two people to lie inside an MRI and watch a slot machine spin around and around. Half of the participants in Habib's experiment were “pathological gamblers” — people who had lied to their families about their gambling, missed work to gamble, or had bounced checks at a casino — while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn’t exhibit any problematic behaviors. Everyone was placed on their backs inside a narrow tube and told to watch wheels of lucky 7s, apples, and gold bars spin across a video screen. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a “near miss,” in which the slots almost matched up but, at the last moment, failed to align. None of the participants won or lost any money. All they had to do was watch the screen as the MRI recorded their neurological activity.

“We were particularly interested in looking at the brain systems involved in habits and addictions,” Habib told me. “What we found was that, neurologically speaking, pathological gamblers got more excited about winning. When the symbols lined up, even though they didn’t actually win any money, the areas in their brains related to emotion and reward were much more active than in nonpathological gamblers.

“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”

Two groups saw the exact same event, but from a neurological perspective, they viewed it differently. People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near misses— which, Habib hypothesizes, is probably why they gamble for so much longer than everyone else: because the near miss triggers those habits that prompt them to put down another bet. The nonproblem gamblers, when they saw a near miss, got a dose of apprehension that triggered a different habit, the one that says I should quit before it gets worse.

The mindset that makes the problem gambling problematic sounds an awful lot like positive thinking, doesn't it?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Things They Should Invent: check supermarket stock and prices online

My mother's Loblaws has Macintosh apples, but mine doesn't.  This means, should my current source of Macs dry up, I may be able to find them at another Loblaws, but it isn't a certainty.  Since I'm now on tokens, I don't much fancy the idea of running around the city in search of the kind of apples I like. 

Why can't I do a search on supermarkets' websites to see which locations have Macintosh apples in stock?  Unlike practically every other retailer, supermarkets' websites don't even have the items the chain sells and the prices, to say nothing of individual store stock.

A computerized database of stock must exist because they've used scanning check-outs for decades, so surely they have scanny check-in of inventory as well at this point.  Why not just put it online where we can find it?

Laptop batteries: WTF?

I'm very frustrated by the mixed messages I'm getting about laptop batteries.

My recent computer troubles turned out to be due to my battery being dead (which involved a weird and roundabout diagnosis!).  All three Dell techs I spoke to in the process told me that you shouldn't keep your laptop plugged in all the time (which I normally do because most of the time I'm using it at my desk), you should instead allow your battery to discharge fully and then recharge it.

However, Dell's laptop battery FAQ says this is unnecessary and the battery will behave nicely even if you leave it plugged in all the time.  But their Alienware battery FAQ says the opposite. 

I did start charging and discharging the battery once I got my new battery, but I find it very inconvenient. I also noticed that there's a "Disable Battery Charging" setting, so I was wondering if using this setting and leaving my computer plugged in would save my battery from any negative effects of having it fully charged and still plugged in.  I asked Dell's twitter account, but they directed me back to the FAQ that said this was unnecessary.  And this right after they posted the Alienware FAQ that said the opposite.  (My computer isn't an Alienware, but I believe it has the same kind of battery.)

I also had the idea of just taking the battery out completely and using the laptop on AC power only until I need to move it.  One of the Dell techs I talked to told me this would work, another told me it wouldn't work.

The internet contains arguments supporting and opposing every possible approach, including things like "maintain a battery charge of 70% at all times" or "take your battery completely out of your laptop for normal operations, but discharge and recharge it once a month." All of these arguments can be found from credible sources and backed up by scientific explanations.  I could write a paper with quality citations in support of any possible approach to battery management.

And I still haven't the slightest idea which approach is actually correct.

My intention when writing this blog post was to put the question out to my readership, but that will just be more sensible people giving soundly-reasoned explanations on the internet.  I seriously don't know what to do.

Opinions are welcome, even though I'm tired of opinions.  I'm particularly interested in:

- What is your own battery management approach, and what kind of battery lifespan do you get?  (By "battery lifespan" I don't mean "how long until your battery drains and you have to recharge it?", I mean "how long until you have to buy a new battery?")

- Would using the "disable battery charging" function while leaving the battery in the computer and the AC adapter plugged in eliminate whatever harm might potentially be caused by leaving the AC adapter plugged in when the battery is fully charged?

- Any experience with just taking the battery out?

Update:  I have since learned that the "disable battery charging" function gets better battery lifespan.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More information please

Mentioned in passing in an article about the 65th anniversary of Israel:
Nor will many of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in the celebrations. They regard the establishment of the Jewish state ahead of the advent of the Messiah, who alone can and will redeem his people, as an affront to God.
So if they think it's an affront to God, why do they live there?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Things They Should Invent: private bath facilities in long-term care homes with controlled access to water

Apparently many long-term care homes have private washrooms with a toilet and sink in the residents' rooms, but bathing facilities are in a separate room down the hall. The reason for this is allegedly that many residents are unable to bathe themselves safely, and, if they had bathing facilities in their own rooms, residents who can't bathe themselves safely but have cognitive impairments might attempt to bathe themselves anyway and end up hurting themselves.

However, I think not having your own bathroom is a bit less dignified and needlessly lowers your quality of life.  You have to walk down the hall in a bathrobe carrying your toiletries in a bucket rather than just walking into your own private bathroom.  I know, we all did this in university, but in adult life we become accustomed to a greater level of privacy and dignity, and I don't think it's right to take this away from our elders.

Proposed solution: every room in a long-term care room has a full private bathroom, complete with bathing facilities.  However, the bathing facilities require a key to turn on the water.  It could be an actual key, or one of those magnetic beep cards like we have on office security passes, or some other sort of tangible object.  Staff members whose job involves bathing residents would have a key to the bath water.  Residents who are competent to bathe themselves safely would have a key to the bath water.  Residents who are not competent to bathe themselves safely would not.

This way, all residents would get to enjoy the privacy and dignity of a private bathroom, while still controlling access to the slippery, fall-inducing environment of bathing facilities to those who can handle it or situations where there is proper supervision.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Things They Should Invent: dictionary of connotations

I recently had a disagreement over a word.  I thought that it was neutral, linguistically unmarked, and derived directly from the verb in question (analogous to how a cook is a person who cooks, or a grave-digger is a person who digs graves).  But my interlocutor  thought it was negative, and wanted us to use a less negative word, but couldn't actually suggest one.  I wasn't able to suggest one either, because I didn't feel that the original word was negative (or positive), and it's very difficult to come up with a synonym that has a different degree of a characteristic that's absent in the original word.  It would be like if someone asked you to provide them with a cake recipe that's less extroverted, or a career path that's not quite as purple.

In any case, the problem was that we were at an impasse over whether this word had this connotation, and there was nothing either of us could to to prove our position to the other.

Proposed solution: a dictionary of connotations.  You look up a word, it tells you all the positive and negative connotations.  In this situation, we could have looked up the word to see definitively if it has the connotations in question, much like how you'd look up a word in the OED or the Petit Robert if you're disagreeing on the meaning.

It would also be useful in preventing inadvertent racism.  Most of the racist things I've uttered in my life have been because I didn't know they were racist, because I don't spend much time around people who are being racist so I don't know all the slurs and stereotypes.  (The remaining times I've been racist have been when I learned some non-neutral words for concepts without having learned the neutral words, so I didn't have the vocabulary to express what I wanted to neutrally.)  It would be enormously helpful to have a reference where we can check these things without having to google for racism.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why is a single provider for chaplaincy even an option?

Headline in the Globe and Mail: Corrections Canada seeks a single provider for prison chaplaincy services.

Why is this even an option?  By which I mean, before we get into matters of religion or philosophy or principle, does an organization that's capable of serving as a single provider for nationwide prison chaplaincy services even exist?  If so, why?  Given that Corrections just started doing this, who are their other clients?

They'd essentially have to be a multidenominational temp agency for clergy. Is there such thing?  Or is someone going to scramble to put one together as the result of this announcement?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Why don't you get the bends when you ride the subway?

From an article about digging the tunnel for the Eglinton LRT:

The tunneling crews that built New York City’s subways and sewers around the turn of the last century only spent part of their shifts digging tunnels.
Half their workday was devoted to decompression, so the urban miners working beneath the earth wouldn’t die from “the bends,” the atmospheric pressure-related illness that afflicts deep sea divers if they surface too quickly. It meant that every shift had to have two crews on at once — one digging, one decompressing.

So why don't people have to go through decompression to ride the subway?

Monday, April 08, 2013

The day I did surgery on a lamp

I was sitting curled up on the couch, reading by the light of the lamp on my end table.  I finished my chapter and got up to make dinner, pulling the cord of the lamp to switch it off.

And the cord came right out of the lamp and ended up in my hand.

Since the lamp was new and I'd have to buy a new one anyway, I figured I'd try to fix it.  Nothing to lose, right? So I unplugged it, took out the lightbulb, and started unscrewing anything that would unscrew and tugging anything that would tug.  Eventually, I had a nice little row of lined-up lamp parts, and I could see where the string had come from.  There was a bit of string still in there and attached to the switch, so I tried to tie the broken-off end to the remaining bit.  However, it was a bit of a tight squeeze and I couldn't get my fingers in, or manoeuvre it with tweezers.  So I tugged and twisted some more until I could see where and how the remaining bit of string was attached to the lamp, and then realized that it was a relatively simple matter to pull it out and replace it with a new and longer piece of string.

By this time, my neat little row of lined-up lamp parts had gotten disorganized, so I had to go through some trial and error and logic to figure out how to put it back together.  But my efforts were ultimately successful, and the lamp now turns on and off when I tug the new piece of string!  Now I just need to figure out how to reattach the decorative little dangly piece that normally hangs from the string, but that's easier because it's outside the lamp and the lamp is still functional even with the decorative little dangly piece.

This was absolutely amazing to me, because it was literally the first time in my entire life that I've fixed something without either having instructions or having first been in some way taught how to do it! Even my tech support skills, which include figuring out software from scratch, are based on a broadly-applicable methodology.

I blogged before about my experience figuring out how to assemble and disassemble a desk chair (for which I did have instructions, mediocre as they were).  This was similar - I looked at it, fiddled with it a bit, stepped away, came back with new inspiration, all over the period of a couple of days.  This is especially amazing to me because I literally could not figure things out like this when I was younger (e.g. in my teens).  I either would or wouldn't know how to do it, but no further enlightenment was forthcoming.

I had no idea that it was even a possibility for these kinds of cognitive skills to actually improve with age after adulthood is reached!  This gives me a lot of hope for the future that I may still have the ability to improve and gain skills in areas I never before thought possible.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Router update

In follow-up to my previous questions about routers, I ended up getting a Linksys N300 for no especially good reasons, and I discovered a few things:

- Nearly all, if not absolutely all, of the routers currently commercially available are wifi-capable
- You can turn off the wifi from the software
- You can also limit the number of users who connect to the router in the software.  The default setting was 50, but I limited it to 2 since I'm only connecting two computers. 

These last two things mitigate my wariness of having a wifi router.  I don't particularly need wifi, so I didn't really want to deal with having to secure an unnecessary wifi network.  But being able to turn it off and to limit the number of users makes me feel more secure.

One thing I haven't figured out: I can change router settings via software by going to a specific 192.*.*.* IP address.  However, this only works on my primary computer (i.e. the one I used to set up the router.  It doesn't work on my secondary computer, even though it's connected to the router too.  Is it supposed to be this way, or should I be able to reach the 192.*.*.* address with my secondary computer too?

Buying happiness: resilience

I was going to close out my Buying Happiness series by writing about how money buys resilience, but the fourth letter-writer in this Carolyn Hax column: does it much better than I ever could.
People with plenty of money have crummy luck all the time, too, but it’s just an inconvenience for them. My parents are millionaires. Last week their heater, car, and garage door broke. So what?
If they were poorer, each problem would’ve caused two more problems. People living on the edge are vulnerable to every mishap in a way that is catastrophic. It’s very hard to break the cycle. You need a string of good luck that lasts for years.
By the way, I’ve always tried to live within my means and got hit with the housing crisis in a perfect storm that reduced me to zero. So I’m not saying here that poorer people are doing something wrong; it’s just about having more than enough money to be able to recover.
The first time I ever had serious computer problems was terrifying. I was in university, I needed the computer for work and play and social life, and I couldn't possibly afford a new one.  Fortunately, Dell's warranty support saved my ass, but the prospect of being computer-less was terrifying.

I'm having computer problems again (I'll blog about them more fully once they're resolved) and they're now far less terrifying.  Even if I can't coax the desired behaviour out of my computer, I have my work computer, I have my old computer (which doesn't work super well, but can still do safe mode with networking), and I have my wifi-capable ipod and an open wifi network in my building's lobby (plus one in my very own apartment as long as I can keep my personal computer alive for long enough to turn on the wifi on my router). I can research my problem, I can access my comforts and my friends, and, if absolutely necessary, I can swallow the cost of a new computer that will meet my needs for at least a year.  So what was an ordeal when I was in university is, at best, an item on my to-do list.  Surely a huge step towards happiness!

Monday, April 01, 2013

Things Google Should Uninvent: "results for similar searches"

I've noticed a new thing on Google search results lately, called "Results for Similar Searches".  If it doesn't think my search query has a lot of results, it comes up with other similar combinations of keywords that would get more results, and puts them on the bottom half of the first results page.

The problem is, this feature has never once been helpful to me.  For example, I was searching for an individual. I won't use the real name here, but my search was analogous to jon smythe toronto.  So Google, under "Results for Similar Searches", kept giving me results for things that were analogous to john smith toronto or john toronto or even john smith.  Which is not what I needed.  I spelled the individual's name correctly.  I put "Toronto" to limit results.  I chose my search terms quite deliberately.  Cluttering up my first page of results with similar terms that produce unrelated results just pisses me off.

As another example, in an attempt to clarify Reddit's April Fool's joke, I googled reddit what do all the hats mean.  The "Results for Similar Searches" contained what do all caps mean and what does many hats mean (the latter in the context of wearing several hats in one's job, i.e. fulfilling many roles.)  Neither of these were remotely relevant.  I was looking for a chart that would give me a meaning of each of the little hat flare icons that you could put on people's Reddit usernames.  But even if you didn't know what I was looking for, it should be clear that the presence of the word "reddit" in my search was important.  Even if I had meant one of those two similar searches and had misspoken "caps" into "hats" or "many" into "all the", I wouldn't have typed "reddit" unless I meant it for a reason.

I've complained in the past about how Google's attempts to "help" me interfere with  my attempts to use it as a corpus for linguistic research, but this is worse because they're interfering with searches for actual information. Usually Google's predictions are helpful (I don't even worry about typoes when I'm searching, and I actually use their autocorrect system when I'm doing medical translations and can't read handwritten medication names - I just type what I think I'm reading, and Google tells me what I really need), but this one is useless and disruptive, taking up valuable space on my first page of results that could otherwise go to actual results of my actual search.

I hope Google will eliminate this alleged feature, or at least fix its predictions so they're as useful as its usual autocorrect.