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.