Friday, January 31, 2014

Books read in January 2014

I recently realized that I read more books than I thought I did.  So, for 2014, I'm going to keep track of the books I read each month. Might be interesting to see how many I get done or if any patterns emerge. (Although which books I read when is really a function of the library's holds system rather than any deliberate choice.)

New books (i.e. read for the first time):

1. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon
2. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Chol-Hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulet
3. To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
4.  How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman

I'm also doing an ongoing comfort-food reread of the In Death series. I don't really think of this as "books I've read" because they're not new, but nevertheless they are books and I did read them. This month I read:

1. Purity in Death
2. Portrait in Death

Hmm...that's fewer than I expected when I tweeted excitedly about how many books I'd read earlier this month...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why did serving sizes get big?

Conventional wisdom is that food serving sizes are bigger than they used to be, particularly in restaurants, and that this is a leading cause of obesity. You can google up all kinds of articles and graphics and such giving examples.

What I don't understand is why restaurants and other food sellers would have started increasing their serving sizes in the first place.  You're running a business selling people food.  Your customers are accustomed to getting a certain amount of food for the money they pay.  If you increase the amount of food in a serving, you're shrinking your profit margins for no reason.

A quick google turns up explanations of how large sizes at fast food restaurants came to be - they worked out that people aren't going to order two servings of fries even if they could eat more, but they'd feel that a large is good value because it costs less than two standard sizes, and the additional mark-up in retail price was significantly more than what the restaurant paid for the ingredients.

But that doesn't explain why serving sizes also increased in non-fast-food restaurants that don't have multiple size choices, or why restaurants with multiple serving sizes keep phasing out the smaller size (which was once upon a time the "regular").

Friday, January 24, 2014

My earring storage solution

I previously asked for advice on how to store my earrings.  I've now found a solution.

In addition to the jewellery tree for my necklaces, I've got a second jewellery tree for earrings.

The metal butterflies on this stand have dozens of little holes in them, which are perfect for putting earrings in. Hoop earrings and dangly earrings can also be hung on the hooks and the arms.

I like this method because there aren't carefully circumscribed slots for the earrings to fit into (so I'm not going to run out of spaces any time soon) and because it allows my jewellery (i.e. pretty/interesting things that reflect my taste and character and that I already own through the normal course of life) to serve as a decorative element in my bedroom, rather than having to go seek out other decorative elements that reflect my taste and character.

The only flaw in this particular jewellery tree is it's too short for necklaces (and my necklaces aren't particularly long), so I had to get another one for necklaces.

If you're in the GTA, you can buy this and many other jewellery trees at Kitchen Stuff Plus.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In which I dream my way into a starring role in a Community spin-off

Last night I dreamed I was a student at Greendale Community College (where the TV show Community is set) and I had to take a chemistry placement test.  The chemistry prof was a crotchety old man (who, in retrospect, bore a striking - but not perfect - resemblance to the criminology prof who's been introduced this season) and, during the placement test, he led me to believe I was nowhere near good enough to be in his class.

Towards the end of the dream, I was in the chemistry lab, and I mentioned to someone "I'm not going to be taking any classes in this room.  Well, probably not."  The crotchety prof, without letting his facade of crotchetiness drop an inch, said something like "Don't be so sure about that" and lifted the piece of paper he was holding so I could see I'd gotten an A- on the placement test.  (For those of you who don't watch it or aren't caught up, this season of Community has established that an A- is the grade professors give to students they don't like who have done work worthy of an A.) 

I gave the crotchety prof a knowing smile and said "I look forward to it," knowing in that instant that I was setting myself up for multiple seasons of respectful antagonism à la Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson.

Then I woke up.

It will be interesting to see if I ever dream my way back there for further adventures.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

itunes lyrics efficiency

As I've mentioned before, I'm lyric-deaf, meaning I can't always clearly hear all the words of a song I'm listening to.  As a result, often when I'm going about my everyday life, I feel the need to stop and google up the lyrics to the song I'm listening to.

But this morning my shower gave me an idea:

Every time I find myself googling up lyrics, I'll paste them into the "Lyrics" tab for that song. (Right-click the song, click on Get Info, choose the Lyrics tab.)  Then they'll be available for me on my ipod, and apparently you can also download plug-ins that will show the contents of the Lyrics tab in itunes as the song plays.  So if I keep doing this, every song with incomprehensible lyrics will eventually display its lyrics automatically when it plays.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Things They Should Invent: PBS donations conditional upon changing how Masterpiece is listed

I've been rather baffled and slightly irritated that PBS insists upon listing Downton Abbey as Masterpiece Classic in TV listings, when we all know that people are looking for Downton Abbey.

Wil Wheaton recently had the same complaint about Sherlock, which is listed under Masterpiece Mystery.

I don't understand why PBS does this or what they think they gain by listing popular TV shows under a less popular generic name, but I have an idea for how to stop them:

Everyone contact their local PBS station and promise to pledge money next pledge season if they start listing these things in a normal way. Then, as soon as we see our favourite programs being listed under their actual title, donate.  If they don't, don't donate (even if you normally do).

What I learned from my 2009 New Year's resolution

My 2009 New Year's resolution was "shut up and buy it".

I did this because in the year or so leading up to my making that resolution, I found myself wanting various things that were significantly more expensive than I was accustomed to spending, and this wanting kept sitting in my brain and yelling at me.  I felt so guilty and conflicted about it - I can't just spend money!  Then I'm going to want to keep spending money! - but it kept sitting there in my brain nagging me.  So I decided that for a year I'd permit myself to buy whatever I wanted as long as I didn't have to go into debt or tap into my condo fund, and I'd use it as a learning experience.  If it started to hurt or I regretted it, then that's where the dividing line is.  If buying things didn't make me satisfied and instead just upgraded my wants, then I'd learn that that's how I operate.  In any case, instead of sitting there feeling deprived and guilty, I'd be doing something about it.

That was three years ago, and I didn't end up stopping the "shut up and buy it" at the end of the year.  But, I just realized, my wants didn't upgrade.  I bought the things I was wanting at the beginning of the year, they made me feel happy, and no new wants came in to replace them.

This did still increase my ongoing spending.  One of the things I wanted was better hair, and now I spent far more than I care to admit on natural shampoo and conditioner that achieve significantly better results than what you get at the drugstore. I started wearing more expensive bras (to fantastic effect!), and, while they don't need to be replaced quite as often as hair products, they still do need to be replaced from time to time.

But I bought the things I was originally wishing for when I started my resolution, and then didn't feel the need to buy any other things that I didn't have in mind going in.  I didn't get caught up in some endless treadmill of materialism, it turned out I just wanted some nicer things.

Which supports my ongoing theses that I know my shit better than I think I do and I can buy happiness.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

An alternative to Rimmel nail polish in Crushed Pearl

My previous go-to nail polish was Rimmel Lasting Finish Pro in Crushed Pearl.  It's a subtle pink that alludes to the natural pink of my nails, but is a bit lighter and has a pearly finish, thereby making it more forgiving to my quickly-chipping nails.

Unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere anymore.  I'm not sure if it was discontinued or what, but it isn't in any stores or on ebay.  So this sent me on a mission to find an alternative.

After much trial and error, I landed on the following:

1. One coat of Cover Girl Outlast Stay Brilliant in "Pink-finity"
2. A second coat of Cover Girl Outlast Stay Brilliant in "Perma-pink"

Pink-finity is a matte baby pink.  It's very boldly baby pink in a way that's not nearly as natural as Rimmel Crushed Pearl and, because it's a shiny matte, isn't nearly as forgiving.

Perma-pink is a far more natural pink with a forgiving pearly finish, but it finishes somewhat sheer when used on its own (which I dislike).

However, in combination, these two colours produce a natural, forgiving, opaque pearly pink that's very close to Rimmel Crushed Pearl (a wee bit lighter and without that tiny drop of purple, but I doubt you're going to get close with what's currently commercially available.)  Although I'd really still prefer Rimmel Crushed Pearl.

Added bonus factoid: Sally Hansen Hard as Nails Xtreme Wear in "Pink Satin" is not a suitable substitute for Rimmel Crushed Pearl.  Even though it does have that drop of purple and appears similar in colour to the natural pink of my nails, it's far brighter and bolder, not subtle at all.  It can't even be tamed with a layer of Cover Girl Perma-pink over it.

Update:  If you don't want to combine colours, Revlon Colourstay Gel Envy in "Beginner's Luck" is also very similar.  It does have a tiny tiny amount of glitter in it though - it's extremely subtle on the nail, but is more difficult to remove like glitter polishes tend to be.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The real problem in the York University religious accommodation case

I first heard about the York University religious accommodation story through Twitter, so I got all the outrage before I got a straightforward reporting of facts.  It wasn't until I read Friday's Toronto Star editorial that I saw the missing piece that pointed to the real problem, which has gotten buried in all the debate and outrage and sensationalism.  But, I'm pleased to report, the real problem is much simpler, less fraught, and more easily resolved.

The real problem is that this is an online course, but it includes a group project that apparently needs to be done in person, and this in-person component is not mentioned in the course calendar.

When this story first made the news, my first thought was "Well, what did the student expect?"  The answer is he expected an online course. So he was actually conducting himself perfectly reasonably, given his limitations and the information available to him at the time, by enrolling in a course listed as online. 

There are plenty of other situations where it might be disproportionately inconvenient to have an in-person requirement sprung on you.  Maybe you have medical issues that preclude going to campus and are trying to keep chipping away at your degree while you convalesce. Maybe you're pregnant and on bedrest.  Maybe you're a caregiver and can't get away for long periods of time but can occasionally find a moment to go online.  Maybe you live somewhere car-dependent but recently lost the ability to drive and haven't yet been able to reorganize your life accordingly.  I'm sure you can think of a few examples that you'd find perfectly reasonable.

So the solution is simply to accurately represent the course location in the course calendar.  I'm not saying they have to pinpoint the specific room number way back when the course calendar is published, I'm thinking more in general terms.  If it's on campus, say so.  If it's on campus but not in a fully accessible location, say so.  If it's on a different campus, say so. If it's an online course with an in-person requirement, say so.  If it mostly takes place on campus but students will occasionally have to travel to other locations, say so.  Are these locations in the city or outside of it? Accessible by transit or not?  Whatever it is, say so.

This will allow students to make informed decisions about the courses they take. Students who would find a particular course unduly inconvenient can opt out ahead of time, without having to lose money by dropping the course or involving the administration in an attempt to get an exception.  And only a very small number of professors and instructors would be inconvenienced by the need to edit the course calendar entries, because the vast majority of courses do in fact take place in the stated location and only the stated location.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Not letting it bother you vs. not being bothered by it

The following is a quote from from Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon.  As usual, any typos are my own:
A peculiar arrogance accrues to people who cannot recognize the diversity of human impulses, and who feel superior because they do not lapse into behaviours that don't tempt them in the first place. People disgusted by sexual predators say smugly that they don't pursue the sexual favours of children, without acknowledging that they don't find children sexually attractive. Those who do not tend toward chemical dependency express disdain for addicts; people with small appetites patronize the morbidly obese. A hundred years ago, my homosexuality would have landed me in jail, and I am fortunate to live in a place and an era that allow me to be true to myself. If I'd had to deny my longings, it would have been a different experience from that of straight people who have no such longings to deny. Spending time with criminals, I have seen that while many have poor impulse control or are weak or stupid or destructive, many others are driven by a compulsion. Some manifest enormous courage by refraining from theft although the wish to steal burns in them every minute, and their restraint of emotions they cannot eradicate is categorically different from the lawfulness of people who find the idea of thievery distasteful.
This quote seems broadly applicable to many things in life and I expect to be referring back to it many times in the future, but the first thing that comes to mind is to wonder if it applies to "Don't let it bother you."

Example: one day last year, I was walking down the street when some random lady walked up to me and said "Where did you get such ugly shoes?"  When I was a preteen or teenager, this would have devastated me, but now that I'm older and wise, I simply don't let things like that bother me.  Not letting things like this bother me is a much better way to live life!  Everyone should do it!

Except, as you'll recognize if you've been reading me for a while, this isn't an example of not letting something bother me.  Rather, this is an example of something that never bothered me in the first place.  As I blogged about when it happened, Shoe-Hating Lady's comment didn't bother me because she clearly had no fashion credibility, I've received a critical mass of external validation for those particular shoes, and she phrased her comment in a way that set me up perfectly for a bright and witty comeback.  In comparison, when people would make negative comments about my appearance when I was young, they were people with more fashion credibility than me, I hadn't received any external validation, and I couldn't come up with a good comeback.

There was no skill or effort or virtue involved in my not being bothered by Shoe-Hating Lady's comments.  I didn't transcend any bad feelings or will myself into some positive or zen emotional place, it's just that the bother never happened.

Sometimes, especially in advice column forums but in other places as well, I've noticed a certain soupçon of smugness/arrogance from some people about not letting things bother them.  Rather than helping brainstorm specific solutions or alternate approaches for the letterwriters, their contributions are always "You shouldn't let it bother you" or "You should get past it" or "You shouldn't allow yourself to feel that way."  But if you ask them for specifics on how to do that, they have nothing useful to contribute, or they just tell you to not let it bother you.

So I find myself wondering if some of the people who say they don't let things bother them are rather simply not bothered by those things.  They're not actually actively doing anything to make the thing not bother them, it just simply happens to be a thing that doesn't bother them.

It also occurs to me that something similar might be happening with some of the cases where people think they've matured and outgrown feelings or priorities they used to have. 

For example, when I was in middle school, it was very important to have a circle of friends who are near you at all times.  It was very important not to wear the wrong clothes.  It was very important to be familiar with the correct aspects of pop culture. I put a lot of time and energy into meeting all these criteria and never being seen to set a foot wrong.  However, now that I'm older and wiser, I know that these things aren't really important and I do as I like rather than follow trends.

Except that this change has nothing to do with me and everything to do with how people treat me.  In middle school, people would actively work to make my life miserable of they saw me without friends near me, or in the wrong clothes, or indulging in the wrong pop culture.  And, because of the school setting, the people who did this were able to make my life miserable for seven hours a day, five days a week, and I couldn't walk away from them.  Now in adult life, the vast majority of people simply don't care, and those who do can be easily avoided.  This has nothing to do with my own maturity or wisdom, and everything to do with my day-to-day context.

So I find myself wondering if other people who say the same things did in fact become more mature and wiser, or if they're just removed from the situation where the importance of these things was artificially inflated.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Wherein I answer all the question in today's Ethicist

From The Ethicist:
I received an envelope that was addressed to my home but did not include a name. I recognized the last name on the return-address label. I opened the envelope and realized it was intended for my neighbor, a woman I have known, along with her husband, for many years. The letter chronicled the dates and locations of an affair the sender claimed his wife was having with my neighbor’s husband. I regret reading the letter. Upon looking more closely at the envelope, I was able to discern my neighbor’s name (the wife) and the words “private and confidential,” but these were obscured by the postmark. It seems the sender intentionally sent the letter to my home to keep the husband from intercepting it, counting on me to deliver it to the wife. Now that the envelope is open, the neighbors will know that I have read the allegations. What is my obligation: To deliver the letter or to inform the sender that this plan didn’t go as intended? NAME WITHHELD
Unlike the Ethicist, I think the optimal solution is to write "return to sender - no one by this name at this address" (in whatever the official wording for your postal system is).  The the sender knows that the intended recipient hasn't seen it and can take whatever action they consider appropriate.

In the depths of my mother’s closet, shrouded in a black garment bag, hangs her fur coat from the 1970s. And in the pocket of that fur coat, wrapped in a silk jewelry bag, is her ivory collection. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of it,” she says. “But I don’t know how to get rid of it.” Is there an ethical way to dispose of unethical waste? STEVEN FRANK, LOS ANGELES
I have no idea what to do about the ivory, but the fur coat is still a coat, and therefore an item of which people have genuine need. It should be donated to the homeless or other people who genuinely need it to stay warm.  I believe this approach is even considered acceptable in animal-rights circles, since it deglamourizes fur.

I just noticed that the letter-writer lives in Los Angeles, so perhaps it isn't appropriate for his local homeless shelter.  But I'd suggest googling around the idea to see if you can find a way to donate it to people in colder parts of the world who need coats.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Pirate synchronicity

The following two comics were next to each other on yesterday's Globe and Mail comic page:

I like to think they're both the same pirate, getting all his medical exams done in in a row on his one day of shore leave.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The tale of the 13th floor poltergeists

My old apartment was on the 14th floor of a highrise building that's most likely concrete slab construction.  When the temperature dropped below -20, the building would settle really loudly.  Specifically, I'd hear these big loud cracking noises in the floor under me, loud enough to wake me up - often right under my bed when I was sleeping!

My current apartment is on the 12th floor of a highrise building of concrete slab construction.  When the temperature drops below -20, the building settles really loudly.  Specifically, I hear these big loud cracking noises in the ceiling over my head, loud enough to wake me up - often in the ceiling right above my head as I'm sleeping!

During the recent cold snap the loud noises started up again, so I started googling around the idea and couldn't readily find any reports of concrete slab buildings settling loudly in cold weather.  There were plenty of reports of wooden buildings settling loudly, but nothing about concrete. (And I know for certain there's no wood in the construction of my current building because I watched it being built.)

Then I realized: neither of these buildings have a 13th floor - both skip straight from 12 to 14.  So in the ceiling of the 12th floor and the floor of the 14th floor we have the ghost 13th floor.  Obviously those sounds I hear are the poltergeists that live there!

My condo is on the 8th floor.  If it doesn't settle loudly in -20 temperatures, we'll know that this theory is true.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The benefits of low self-esteem

Scott Adams asks whether there are any benefit to low self-esteem.

As someone with low self-esteem, there is a benefit I have noticed: I'm quite often delighted, and very rarely disappointed.

I try to do something and I fuck up: no surprise there.
I try to so something and succeed: what an awesome surprise!I can't believe that worked!

I shop in a fashionable store and am treated rudely: no surprise there
I shop in a fashionable store and receive good service: I can't believe how nice they were to me!

I invite a friend to do something and they decline: no biggie, I'm sure they have more important things to do.
I invite a friend to do something and they accept: I feel so lucky to have friends I can go do things with!!

I'm introduced to a puppy or a baby or some other small adorable interesting creature and they don't like me: I don't blame them, I'm just a big weird stranger
I'm introduced to a puppy or a baby or some other small adorable interesting creature and they like me: My day is made!!  Hell, my week is made!!!

At this point you might be thinking "But you've been successful at quite a surprising number of things over the course of your life.  Doesn't that lead to you start expecting success at some point?"  Yes, it does.  But, because I have low self-esteem, when that success is followed by failure, I just assume "Meh, I was due for it. That's what happens when you get cocky. The other shoe had to drop eventually." And, until then, I'm walking around with a smile on my face and dancing when no one is watching at the shocking quantity of good fortune I'm enjoying.

As I read this over, I realize it sounds like one of those gratitude or optimism approaches to life that people write self-help books about, so I want to emphasize: this is not at all deliberate or mindful in any way.  Unlike what Scott Adams suggests, this isn't a strategy. It's simply where my emotions land naturally.  But it's certainly not without its benefits.

Friday, January 03, 2014

How Google can fix the internet in one easy step

There's an article circulating called The Year We Broke the Internet.  The way we "broke the internet" is by being so quick to share things via social media that ultimately turn out to be hoaxes.

Google can fix this problem in one easy step: introduce a reverse sort by date feature.

Google already allows you to search results by date, so you see the newest first.  Therefore, its databanks must already have the pages organized by date.  By adding a reverse sort by date feature, to simply reverse the order in which the results display so the oldest is first, Google will allow anyone to determine the original internet source and origin of anything in a single click.

This would be especially helpful for reverse image search. I find that if I'm doing a reverse image search of an image that has been heavily reblogged on tumblr, the first several pages of results are just tumblrs that have recently reblogged it without context.  A reverse sort by date would let us see the source quickly and easily without having to dig through pages and pages of tumblr purgatory.

If a computer system can sort, it has the ability to sort bidirectionally just as easily as it can sort unidirectionally. You can see this in any kind of table with headers that you can click to sort.  All Google has to do is give us an interface item that can activate this functionality, and it would be taking a huge step towards fulfilling its mission of organizing the world's information and making it accessible and useful.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Teach me how to store my earrings

I have a lovely wooden jewellery box.  It's lined in velvet or some reasonable facsimile thereof, with all kinds of neat little compartments.  And it's utterly unsuitable for the jewellery I actually own - the sizes and shapes of the compartments simply don't correspond with the sizes and shapes of the jewellery, so my jewellery is currently all sitting in a tangled pile on top of the compartments, making it impossible for the box to close.

I've already worked out that I need a necklace tree for my necklaces, but that still raises the question of what to do about my earrings.  Some necklace trees have a little tray at the bottom that you can put earrings in, but I'd prefer something that keeps them more contained.  Googling around this idea, I see suggestions to use ice cube trays or egg cartons, but that would take up more room than I'd like. But, at the same time, I'd like to be able to see what I have at a glance rather than having to dig through.

I have probably between 10 and 20 pairs of earrings.  (I've never actually counted, and I keep finding ones I've forgotten about because they're currently being stored in this tangle of jewellery.)  I'd like a storage solution that enables me to acquire earrings willy-nilly without having to worry about whether I have space for them in my earring organization system. Most of my earrings are hoop or drop styles, but there are some studs in there too.  The vast majority of them are cheap; none of them are expensive.  The smallest are tiny little studs, and the largest are about 2 inches.  I don't plan for any future earring purchases to go much more than 2 inches in diameter for hoops, but I might go longer than that for dangles if they're lightweight.

Any suggestions?  How do you store your earrings?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Journalism wanted: why aren't Hydro workers electricians?

I just blogged that Hydro workers should be allowed to reconnect homeowners' equipment in order to facilitate power outage recovery.

Then I read an article about what the Hydro CEO was doing during the outage, which mentions in passing:
Meanwhile, workers report that, after finally restoring power in many neighbourhoods, they are being forced to disconnect some houses because of damage done to stand pipes, the hollow masts usually mounted on rooftops that serve as a conduit for power cables to enter a dwelling. A bent or broken stand pipe poses a risk of fire, and it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to have it fixed by a qualified electrician.
Hydro workers are not electricians.
 (My emphasis.)

So why aren't Hydro workers electricians?  They're working with electricity.  They're connecting bigger wires than electricians usually work with, so it seems like they should be able to be electricians.  Are they actually unable to do the work of electricians?  Or is this merely a certification issue?  Or is it a jurisdiction issue?

 What would it take for Hydro workers to be electricians?  Would they have to learn new skills?  Or just get an additional certification?

 I hate it when I walk away from a newspaper article with my questions than I went in with.