Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A royal baby watcher on why the royal baby watch was pointless

As I've blogged about before, I find the royal family interesting because they have this really bizarre job that they have to do and it's interesting to me to see how they do it.  I'm also interested in fashion, so I will totally click through for a picture of a female royal, just to see how they've costumed themselves for this bizarre job.

Despite the fact that I'm childfree, I also think babies are interesting.  They're all little and cute, with these ridiculously tiny (but fully functional!) hands and feet, and it's interesting to me to see what they can do and to speculate on what they must think about what's going on around them.  I will totally click through to see a picture of a baby.

So that makes me totally the target audience for royal baby media coverage, which I unrepentantly consumed when the time came.

However, I think it was a complete waste of time to have media staking out the hospital for weeks and weeks in anticipation of the birth, because there was no story to be had by doing so.

Don't get me wrong, I do think the royal baby is news, objectively speaking.  Under the current system, he's third in line to be our head of state.  His identity is approximately as relevant as the identity of a political party leader. (But he's much more adorable to look at!)  On top of that, there is public interest.  When you've got a large chunk of your audience wanting to know biographical information about a public figure, it is appropriate to report it.

The thing is, what is there to know about a newborn in the first day of their life?  Their name, gender, date and time of birth, weight and length, whether they're healthy, and what they look like.  That's literally all there is.  There isn't any more yet because the poor kid hasn't been around long enough yet.  Even his parents aren't yet able to answer questions like "Is he a good sleeper?" or "How's he nursing?" because they haven't had enough time to find out yet.

All they could get by camping out in front of the hospital was pictures of the baby and maybe a soundbite or two of royals charmingly expressing appropriate delight at the birth of the baby.

All of which the palace would have released anyway.

All that time and effort and sitting out in the hot sun, and it made no difference to us as the interested audience. It just took up a lot of airtime and column inches on "no baby yet", all of which could have been better spent on something else.  We still would have gotten all available information through official channels, and there was simply no other information to be had.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The folly of measuring calories in exercise

Sometimes people talk about calories in terms of how much exercise it would take to burn them off.  There has even been talk of putting the amount of exercise needed to burn the calories on menus. I think this is a red herring, because it might lead people to believe that you have to exercise enough to burn off all the calories you consume.

This isn't the case.  A lot of calories (probably even the majority of our caloric intake) are burned by our baseline metabolism and the activity of everyday life. When I had my dysphagia incident a couple of summers ago, I was being as sedentary as possible to preserve what precious few calories I was able to consume. I didn't exercise at all, I took elevators and escalators instead of stairs, I took the subway to the next stop instead of walking. Despite that, I still lost about a pound a day because of the calories burned in the course of everyday life.

I'm concerned that if you present food to ignorant people in terms of hours of exercise to do, they might think that in order to be healthy, they have to go out and jog for three hours to burn off their dinner.  Then they might feel the need to exercise the point of unsafeness, or to eat unhealthily little, or otherwise deliberately exercise off a greater percentage of their caloric intake than necessary and thereby not leave enough for everyday life.  (And, of course, non-ignorant people can calculate how much they need to work out for themselves.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Faking it

Dear Carolyn
In the mid-1990s, when I was 22 and my brother was 18, our family took a Caribbean cruise. It was fun, but not so much fun that I cared to go back again.
Now that my parents are in their late 60s and retired, my mom has gotten it in her mind that all four of us should take another cruise together as a family. They have even offered to pay. 
Aside from not having an interest in the cruise, I am also not interested in taking a family vacation. I am single and in my late 30s, and a family vacation smacks of desperation, a way of saying, “Oh, how sad, he didn’t want to go by himself, so he went with Mommy and Daddy.” Also, traveling anywhere with my parents is never a simple process (I suppose that can be said of a lot of people, though). In short, a cruise might be a vacation for my parents, but it would be anything but one for me.
I have repeatedly explained that neither a cruise nor a family vacation (wherever the destination) interests me. Nevertheless, the badgering continues. 
For the record, I take my own vacations, usually by myself. I also see my parents about once a month, so it is not as if I ignore them and am being “guilted” into a vacation. Any thoughts?
 I was surprised to see not only Carolyn, but also a huge number of people in the comments, suggest that LW would regret not going on the cruise after their parents die, because they'd feel bad about missing an opportunity to spend time with their parents.

This surprises me because if you asked me in a vacuum "What if they die and you don't get to spend any more time with them?" my immediate visceral answer would be "Then it's even more important not to spend what time we have left together doing something that makes me resent spending the time with them."

This also makes me wonder if there are people who actually enjoy spending time with their loved ones doing something that their loved ones don't actually have interest in doing.  Because I hate it!  It makes me feel so awkward and just want to run away and go home.   When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes on their own initiative try to take me to something that I was interested in but I knew they had no interest in, and it just felt awful and cringey and dreadful, and generally not worth doing at all.  Even when I invite my friends to do something that I'm not completely sure if they're into, and they accept my invitation of their own free will,I still find myself worrying in the back of my mind that they might not actually be into it. So, in this context, I just can't fathom how someone can enjoy an activity if their loved ones don't actually want to be there and are going along just to humour them.

Actually, I wonder if there's a correlation between this group and the people who want others to go through the motions of being religious?  As someone who takes religion seriously (which is why I left the church and started living as an atheist in the first place), I've always felt it's terribly insulting to the deity to go through the motions and not mean it.  But if there are people who genuinely enjoy having their loved ones go through the motions of things they actually hate doing, maybe they'd think their deity would feel the same way?

Monday, July 22, 2013

The tale of the GO bus skeptic

The scene: I'm sitting in a GO bus, putting on my seabands in the hope of warding off motion sickness.

Guy next to me: "What are those things?"
Me: "They prevent carsickness. I put them on my wrists, and this sticky-outy plastic bit presses into an acupressure point that relieves nausea."
Guy next to me: "Those are a scam, you know!  They're totally unproven, they don't do anything at all, it's all in your head!"

Now, it is true that I can't say for certain that the seabands work.  I've never thrown up while wearing them, but I also haven't thrown up on many many occasions when I wasn't wearing them.

But this guy was about to sit next to me for a long bus ride. If it were true that the anti-nausea measures I'm taking are entirely psychosomatic, he would have an immediate personal investment in my believing in them!  Why would you try to convince the person next to you on a long bus ride that their psychosomatic anti-carsickness measures are all in their head?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thank you Blogger!

I recently blogged about a Blogger error message that prevents you from posting or saving posts unless the post has a title.

It seems this error has gone away.  I can now once again save and post messages without a title!

Given the recent spate of Google decision that hindered my user experience and disregarded my needs, I'm very glad to see Blogger is responsive to this!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Analogy for why social media is not a replacement for RSS

One of the things I found most bizarre in all the discussion surrounding the cancellation of Google Reader is that some people (including, apparently, some who work at Google) seem to think that social media is a suitable replacement for a feed reader.  As though we're perfectly content with reading whatever our internet friends choose to share and have no need whatsoever to curate our own reading list.

Today my shower gave me an analogy:

I've just caught up on the Inspector Gamache series, and am waiting with bated breath for the next book to come out in August.

So suppose, on the release date in August, I walk into a bookstore and ask "Do you have the latest Inspector Gamache book?"

The bookstore worker answers, "Here are some books I read and enjoyed recently!"

That doesn't solve my problem, does it?  I want to know what happened with Inspector Beauvoir.  I want to know how (or whether) Peter and Clara's marriage is holding up. I want to find out who leaked the video.

The books the bookstore worker read and enjoyed recently won't address these needs.  They may well be good books, I may well enjoy them, they may well end up being new favourites that I end up following diligently.  But, even if I read and enjoy them all, I will still want to read the next Inspector Gamache.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition V

9. If you tell someone (or say about someone) that they should just get a job, as though it's that simple, you're required to hire them.  You must hire them to do something they're capable of doing (or that you're willing to train them to do) and pay them enough to make it worth their while.

Oh, what's that?  You don't have any work that needs doing?  Or you couldn't afford to pay them reasonable compensation for the work that does need doing?


Monday, July 15, 2013

People who don't have preferences

Quite often, if someone mentions that they don't like a certain food, someone else will reply with something like "Oh, you just haven't tried really good [food].  You have to get it fresh, in season, organic and locally grown, and eat it raw, not cooked.  Or if you have to cook it, just steam it lightly, make sure you don't overcook it."  They give all this advice that is ultimately aimed at getting the most flavourful [food] possible.

But when I don't like a food, it's because of the flavour.  I don't like olives because they taste like olives.  I don't like cantaloupe because it's so cantaloupey. Making it more flavourful would just make things worse. 

Are there really people who want some flavour, any flavour, no matter what it is, and would only dislike a food because it's lower in flavour?

You see something similar in nutrition advice from time to time.  They recommend that you reduce your salt use by shaking spices on your food instead of salt, or you put lemon juice on your salad instead of salad dressing.  As though you're after a flavour, any flavour, rather than a specific flavour.  (But, somehow, the flavour of actual food won't do.)

I also see this sometimes when I'm complaining about my annual apple drought.  I'm all "I can't find Cortland apples!" and people respond with "You should get some blueberries, they're in season now!"  My complaint is about the absence of a  specific variety of a specific fruit.  Why would someone think this need can be addressed with a fruit, any fruit?  And if it could, there are plenty of kinds of fruit commercially available, including other kinds of apples right where my beloved Cortlands should be. Don't you think I'd have already bought some other fruit and stopped complaining if some other fruit would solve the problem?

Actually, this also reminds me of the Google Reader shutdown.  One of the arguments in favour of the shutdown was that people allegedly don't need RSS in this age of social media.  My social media certainly does provide me with things my friends think are worth sharing (and is useful in this respect because it isn't all stuff I would have stumbled upon myself), but I still want to read the things I want to read.  Having a steady stream of things to read is insufficient; I also want to read specific  things.

Are there really people like this, who don't have specific preferences and think anything will do interchangeably? Or do people who like to give others advice on the internet just think there are?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Things They Should Invent: emergency information robocalls for power outages

My power didn't go out in the storm earlier this week, but, being a bit of a Twitter stormwatcher, I did occasionally look at Toronto Hydro's Twitter feed to watch the show.  However, as many people have noted, using the internet for primary method of communication during a power outage is problematic.  People's personal internet access is going to be out, so only those whose cellphones have internet (and haven't run out of battery yet) and those who aren't currently in the power outage area can access the information. This means that the information is going to be less available to more vulnerable people (elderly, poorer, etc.) who are also likely to be less resilient to difficulties of a power outage.

Here's a simple solution: if there's a power outage, Hydro automatically robocalls affected customers telling them the status, the size of the area affected, and the ETA for power restoration.  When the status has changed significantly (ETA has changed, or area affected is significantly smaller), they send out another robocall.

People could opt in or out of emergency robocalls, so those who do have smartphones without landlines wouldn't have to use up valuable battery life fielding phone calls that give them no new information.

Perhaps they could also have mass text messaging (for people who don't have data plans - or if data isn't working due to the outage) since that's less of a drain on the battery than a ringing phone.

In any case, methods of immediate and automatic information distribution that aren't dependent upon electricity do exist.  They should make use of these during power outages.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Things They Should Invent: car alarm that goes off if a child is left in a car seat

Recently in the news, there have been a number of cases of babies and toddlers dying after being forgotten in a car on a hot day.  This makes me think they should invent something to alert parents if they walk away from the car with the kid still in the baby seat.

Some of the media coverage (can't seem to google up the exact article) mentioned that there are some alerts that work with smartphones, but those depend on the parent having a smartphone and having the app installed and the smartphone being on and charged.  If your battery's dead, or you've turned off your phone for a meeting, or it's just at the bottom of your purse and you're in a noisy environment, you might fail to notice the alert.

I propose something simpler and more immediate:  if the car is turned off, there is weight in the carseat, there is no weight in the driver's seat, and all the doors are closed, the annoying horn-honking car alarm goes off.  (Proposed added bonus feature: rather than the usual horn honky car alarm sound it produces the sound of a baby crying.)

The advantage of this model is it draws attention to the car, even if it for some reason it fails to attract the parent's attention.  I know people generally disregard and curse out the source of car alarms, but someone walking past might take a peek in, and if the car is parked somewhere staffed, the staff might notice.  This increases the chances that someone will notice the baby's presence and intervene.

Ideas for how this could be engineered: cars could have a built in attacher thingy for baby seats (baby seats have to be physically attached to the car by more than just a seatbelt. The ones I've seen are attached by a bolt-like thing behind the back seat.)  The attacher thing recognizes when a car seat is attached (the same way the seatbelt detector detects when the seatbelt is fastened) and then there could be a weight detector in the seat of the car (maybe there could be a button to press to "zero" it to an empty baby seat).  The car would therefore know when there's a baby seat present and when the baby seat is occupied.

The other advantage of this model is it wouldn't require any proactiveness or diligence on the part of the parents.  If it doesn't occur to the parents to take precautions against accidentally leaving the baby in the car, the car will do so anyway, much like how some cars already warn you if your seatbelt isn't done up or if you've left the lights on.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

"Required field must not be blank"

Lately, when I type up a blog entry, I've been getting an error message "Required field must not be blank".  Through trial and error, I've determined that the required field is the title field.  In other words, Blogger has made post titles mandatory.

Problem: Blogger also will not permit us to save posts unless we have typed something in the title field.  Which is problematic, because I like to write my titles last, after the whole post is composed. Yesterday I started writing a good post that required some precise choice of language and some careful composition.  I didn't finish it last night (not unusual for more mindful posts) so I clicked Save. I got a "This page is asking you to confirm that you want to leave - data you have entered may not be saved" error, but I knew I'd just clicked save so I told it to go ahead and navigate away.  And then, this morning, my careful work was all gone!

Dear Blogger:  If you're going to require titles to post (which strikes me as completely unnecessary, BTW), there's no need to require a title to save a draft.  The draft is, by definition, not finished.  It's okay if it doesn't have all the required elements.  In fact, it will save you a small amount of storage space if you don't force people to fill out a field they don't need to fill out just yet.

Edited to add: I've just discovered that the post body field is not a required field, just the post title.  That's a wee bit ridiculous...

Monday, July 01, 2013

The choreography of conversation when not everyone understands the language

From David Eddie
Every spring my mother-in-law arrives from Europe. While she stays in her own home we see her often, usually for meals and then a four-day visit to the cottage with us. Although she speaks English very well, she seems to feel we should all be learning her language and accommodating her, to the point that she will often speak her language at these meals. So instead of saying “pass the butter” which is hardly a complicated matter in English, she will revert to her own language and then she hooks in my husband and they begin talking and no one has a clue what they are saying. I know it’s a power grab so she can control the conversation and cut me out but my husband is afraid to stand up to her because she has quite a temper, and because he says that at 78 you get to do what you want to. This causes untold friction in my family and, judging from the number of mixed marriages in Canada, for many other families, I am sure. Is it rude to speak a foreign language in front of people who don’t understand?
My credentials: I was born into a bicultural family, where some family members don't speak the local language very well, and still others choose to talk among themselves in the heritage language despite being functionally bilingual. I am fluent in the local language, but for most of my life I understood nary a word of the heritage language.  (I understood it as a toddler as well as a toddler understands anything, then lost it when I began school and started learning it in adulthood, but I'm still nowhere near fluent and can  follow along only sporadically.)  So I grew up immersed in this situation, but nearly always as a unilingual party who didn't understand half of what was being said.

In this capacity, I propose that the best approach is for the husband to translate the conversation for his wife.  He doesn't have to do every single word, he can just say "Mum's asking about our vacation, so I'm telling her the story about the elephant and the guy with the hat." If his mother's receptive English really is fluent, perhaps he can even respond to her in English so his wife can follow along, and his wife can participate in the conversation too. Then when his mother responds in the heritage language, he can translate her statements.

While all this is happening, the wife should feel free to participate in the conversation in English even if she doesn't understand every word that's being said.  For example, after the husband says "I'm telling her the story about the elephant and the guy with the hat," the wife could chime in with "And make sure you tell her what the weather was like that day!" - regardless of whether he's already told her that part. 

As an added bonus, if the mother can in fact express herself in English as easily as LW thinks she can, she will naturally begin using more English in this context.  It might be to speed things up, but it quite often even happens through normal code-switching patterns.

This will achieve the same result but make the mother feel like it was her idea, all without having to have an awkward conversation trying to convince her not to converse with her child in the language in which she naturally converses with her child.