Sunday, November 30, 2014

Books read in November 2014


1. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
2. Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer
3. The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle Riley
4. Hild by Nicola Griffith
5. Longbourn by Jo Baker


1. Indulgence in Death
2. Possession in Death

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The opportunity to be good at something

I recently realized that, based on the various jobs I've had, the "better" my job is (in the sense of more specialized, socially seen to be of higher calibre, requiring more education and training and experience, better paid), the easier it is for me.  And I don't mean easy in the sense that I get to sit in a comfy chair and wear whatever I want and not have to talk to anyone instead of being on my feet dealing with customers all day (although that's true as well).  I mean easy in the sense that if I do my best and use my own best judgment, I'm very likely to land on the results that make my clients and employer happy.  When I worked in fast food, somehow my best work and best judgment just didn't align with customer and/or employer expectations.

I've been reading a lot of novels with historical settings lately, where the characters are uneducated or undereducated and have to do a lot of unskilled or physical labour.  If I'd lived in that era (assuming I'd managed to survive birth, childhood, etc.), I simply wouldn't have been much good at my work.  With practice I would have fought my way up to competent, but I just don't have the potential to become exceptional - or even above average - at things that are physical and tangible, or at people work.

My whole life I've heard that I'm lucky to live here and now because I get to have an education and live independently.  But what's more interesting to think about is that living in this situation gives me the opportunity to excel - like, to excel at something, anything. I'm good with academic and professional things, and I never would have discovered that if I lived in an era where I didn't get the chance to do academic and professional things.  I'm bad at people work and physical work, and that's probably the majority of what I would have been doing if I'd been born in an earlier age. I've always been labelled as smart because I glommed onto literacy and numeracy quickly and easily, but in an earlier age I would have been the village idiot because I'd be a mediocre housemaid or weaver or subsistence farmer or something, with no appreciable skills in any area.  I'd never even have been exposed to things I'd be good at doing.

I wonder how many people are currently in that situation - the things they're good at haven't been invented yet or are far out of reach of the non-elite?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What if suicide prevention were removed from the mandate of mental health care?

When Robin Williams committed suicide, many people responded with the "Genie, you're free" scene from Aladdin. This response received a lot of criticism, some of which argued that suicide isn't freedom.

It occurred to me that the problem with this statement is it's clearly unknowable.  The author has no way of knowing with the amount of certainty they claim that you don't find freedom or peace after death.

And, because of this, their anti-suicide message has no credibility in the eyes of those considering suicide.  They're quite clearly just saying stuff to perpetuate the message of Suicide Is Bad.  So a person considering suicide isn't going to listen to them, because they're obviously just going to unquestioningly say Suicide Is Bad regardless of the truth of the matter.  (And if suicide is in fact Bad, you'd think they could come up with something substantiated to support that position.)

Then it occurred to me that this might be the symptom of a broader problem in mental health care and emergency response.

If I were suicidal, I would never even consider seeking medical attention, because I feel like they'd just want to stop me from committing suicide.  They'd restrain me in a mental ward somewhere and declare the job done, or monitor me for the rest of my life and never leave me a moment's peace.  Sounds like hell!

But what if health care as a whole recognized a person's right to end their life? Your body, your choice!  They don't prevent, persuade, coerce or manipulate you into not committing suicide.  It's considered a perfectly valid choice.

However, since it is also a drastic - and irreversible - choice, they strongly urge you to try less drastic approaches first.  Take a pill, talk to a doctor - the mental health equivalent of rebooting your computer and maybe reinstalling the OS rather than going straight to throwing it out the window. If it hurts, the doctor will give you something to try to stop it from hurting.  If you're feeling nothing, the doctor will give you something to try to make you feel again.  If your fish are dead, the doctor will try to resuscitate them.  If it doesn't work, you're no worse off than you were before and you can always kill yourself later!

Some people will argue "But when I was suicidal, I didn't actually want to kill myself.  I wanted to stop wanting to kill myself."  That's fine, a person could still go to the doctor and say "I have suicidal feelings and I don't like them! Can you help me make them stop?" But if the patient feels their suicidal feelings are valid, the doctor won't force them to do anything about it.

Analogy: if you've never gotten pregnant and you want to have children, you can go to the doctor and request assistance with conceiving.  But if you've never been pregnant and you're okay with that, they don't force fertility treatment on you.

And some people will argue "When I wanted to kill myself, it was just the depression talking. Once I received help, I came to realize that I didn't want to kill myself."  If that's the case, this approach will still achieve the same results.  The hurting/sadness/feeling nothing/dead fish will be treated, the patient will come to the realization they didn't actually want to kill themselves, and life would proceed as usual.

But if you want something right this moment and someone tells you "I'm going to take you to a doctor who will make you not want the thing you want," that would feel like they're going to brainwash you.  And if the doctor's mandate is to do everything in their power to prevent you from achieving what you want, you'd probably actively avoid them, perhaps even going as far as to deceive people about your condition and situation so they don't brainwash/restrain/monitor you in a way that would make it impossible to achieve your goal.

Building on the fertility treatment analogy above: suppose you tell a loved one that you want to have children, and they respond by taking you to a doctor who will make you not want children.  Or, based on the information you have absorbed from media/culture/society, you believe that a doctor would respond by taking all measures to prevent you from having children, up to and including forcibly sterilizing you. 

Or the inverse: suppose you don't want to have children, and a loved one responds by taking you to a doctor who will make you want to have children. And the information you have received throughout your life leads you to believe that the doctor would go as far as forcibly impregnating you.

Would this make you feel safe seeking medical treatment?  Or would it make you want to avoid it at all costs?


Removing the suicide prevention mandate might also help reduce the criminalization of mental health patients. 

There was recently a series in the Toronto Star about how people are failing police checks they need for employment because they are known to police (even though they were never found guilty and in some cases never arrested or charged).  And some of them are known to police because police attended a mental health call.  The police were called because the person was considered a threat to themselves, and in the messed up system of disclosure for background checks there's no differentiation between being a threat to oneself and a threat to others.

If health care professionals were not mandated to prevent suicide, there'd be no such thing as involving the police because someone is a threat to themselves.  Killing yourself would be considered your own decision to make, even if it's ill-advised, so there'd be no reason to forcibly stop you.

Analogy: if someone wants risky ill-advised elective surgery and they're proactively trying to get this surgery, this isn't considered a reason for police intervention.  Even if getting the surgery would harm them, that's between them and their doctors. 

Since there's no police involvement, people won't have police records dogging them just because they were once suicidal, so they'd have the full range of employment and travel options still available to them. Surely this would make for a better recovery than being shut out of jobs where they can do good just because they were once suicidal!

Yes, this aspect could also be addressed by police only disclosing appropriate and pertinent information in background checks, but I feel like the medical profession could be more easily persuaded to make helpful decisions than the police.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The time I accidentally meditated

I've been carrying around a lot of stress and worry and general disproportionate bad feelings about the latest round of condo drama for about the last week and a half. (I think it's almost over...)

So on Saturday evening I went to bed early, then woke up at 8 a.m. on Sunday, which is uncharacteristically early for me.  I went to the bathroom as usual, and realized that I was physiologically done sleeping, but I still really wanted to be in bed under the covers.  I couldn't explain why, I just wanted to snuggle up in bed more than anything else.

Well, I figured, it's only 8:00, I'm usually still asleep now, it's a Sunday, I'm getting back under the covers!

So I snuggled up in my usual fetal position, surrounded by my nest of pillows, cocooned in my big fluffy duvet, with my sentries in position...and didn't fall asleep.  I just lay there. My eyes didn't close.  I just lay there.

But my brain didn't do anything.  Normally if I return to bed after waking up to pee, I either drift in and out of dreamland, or start thinking through things that need to be thought through, or start mentally writing fiction.  But none of that happened.  I just lay there.  Not sleeping, not thinking.  Just lying there.  For two hours.  With my mind blank.

It was nice, very peaceful.

I think that's what meditation is supposed to be, and I've never done it before.  I tried later to duplicate it on demand, and I couldn't turn my brain off.  But this one time it happened organically, without my even trying, and I enjoyed it.

Interestingly, the only time I've ever done visualization was also during a round of condo drama.  Maybe this endeavour will prove to be mind-expanding...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Improper use of photoshop

In the past year, there have been a lot of fit and flare dresses in stores that have one thing on common: when I put them on, it looks like they shrunk vertically.  It's not just that the hemline is high, it's the entire proportions of the dress somehow make it look like it shrunk vertically in the wash and/or that I'm a child who had a growth spurt.

I know it's specific to this season's fashion as opposed to a change in my body shape because all my old dresses fit the same way they always have.  It's just that every time I try on a dress that's new in stores this year, I find myself wishing I could photoshop it to stretch the length by like 20%

While trying to google up a picture of this phenomenon, I stumbled upon the image below from Fashion Bomb Daily:

The lady on the left is actress/comedian/writer Mindy Kaling.  The lady on the right is modelling the same dress in the designer's catalogue.

The way the dress fits Ms. Kaling is similar to the way similar dresses fit me that I dislike (although it's worse on me), and the way it fits the catalogue model is the way I wish they fit me.

At first I thought this was because my body's far more similar to Ms. Kaling's than it is to the catalogue model's.  But then, when I looked more closely, I realized the proportions of the dress in the two pictures are different.  On Ms. Kaling, the skirt of the dress is 130% of the length of the bodice (putting a ruler up against my monitor, the skirt is 3.6 cm long, measured vertically from the waistband; the bodice is 2.7 cm long measured vertically from the highest part of the shoulder to the waistband).  On the model, the skirt is 182% of the length of the bodice (skirt 3.1 cm, bodice 1.7 cm).

So, in response to the design problems that caused me to wish I could photoshop the dress longer, it looks like they actually did photoshop the dress longer!

Using photoshop to make the model appear more flawless is one thing, but using it to correct design flaws when attempting to sell a dress is quite another!  If the proportions of the dress are so bad that it has to be photoshopped to look good on a model who was specifically cast to make the dress look good, the dress should have been redesigned long before the photoshoot.  And if the designer can't make a dress with proportions that look good even on a model, perhaps they're in the wrong line of work.

57 channels and nothing on

This whole blog post is obsolete, in that it applies to the world before streaming and on-demand.  However, it just occurred to me now, so I'm blogging it now.

People complain that there's hardly ever anything good on TV, that there are so many channels but only a few show anything you want to watch, and even then there's only one or two things a day you're interested in out of the whole day's programming.

It just occurred to me that this is good.  We don't want every single TV channel to show us stuff we enthusiastically want to watch every minute of every day, because we could never get to it all.  We want a maximum of one thing worth watching on at any given moment.  And, for the vast majority of the day, we don't even want that.  We need to sleep, we need to go to work, we need to shower, we need to do errands and chores - all kinds of things that are incompatible with watching TV.  Really all we want is a maximum of maybe 2 hours of programming that we're enthusiastic about in any given day - maybe more on a rainy Saturday, maybe less on a day when there's soccer practice.  I myself find that about four shows a week meets my needs quite nicely.

But quality programming 24/7 on every single channel would just be a recipe for frustration.

My latest Twitter win

The negatives of having a system

As I've blogged about before, I have a system and I find it beneficial.  But there are two consequences of this that sometimes seem a bit negative.

1. I don't feel like I have spare time.

If you were to ask me what I do in my spare time, my first answer would be that I don't have spare time.  I don't feel like any time spent doing something I'm "supposed to" be doing is spare, or any time that is scheduled is spare.  I've been surprised to hear other people say that they do yoga in their spare time, because to me it's a chore. Time spent on things that are objectively recreational but my system requires me to do, like reading books and newspapers, doesn't feel like spare time either, because I'm just doing what I'm supposed to be doing at that moment. Even something that's pure fun like going to see Eddie Izzard or going out to dinner doesn't feel like spare time, because it's an appointment - I have to be in a specific place at a specific time, so the time isn't spare.  (For this reason, appointment television doesn't feel like spare time either, and I haven't idly channel-surfed since I transitioned to idly internetting.)

2. Tasks that aren't part of the system are disruptive

When something unexpected comes up, it disrupts the system.  Having to go to a place and do a thing gets in the way of completing the day's system.  Even if it's seeing Eddie Izzard - something welcome, enjoyable, anticipated, unquestionably worth doing - it still interferes with the day's system.  I can't do all the things I'm "supposed"  to do because I have to do the exceptional thing.  I haven't yet figured out how to make the system flexible enough to seamlessly incorporate exceptional circumstances.  I have a few measures I do take, but I'm not there yet.

Despite these problems, I still think having a system has enormous value in the long term. It lets me get shit done without even trying.  And it gives me a point where I can rightfully stop doing stuff (even if I don't reach that point many days), so I don't get overwhelmed by everything I ever have to accomplish in my entire life and feel guilty for not having paid off the mortgage and finished saving for retirement.

I also think it will be useful to have the system as an ingrained habit when I reach my declining years. When I look at my grandparents in long-term care, it seems like the difference between peace and despair is a sense of "this is what I'm going to do today" rather than sitting around waiting for something interesting to happen. If I can automate the system well enough that it survives the loss of my faculties, hopefully my elderly self will just keep going through her daily routine by rote.  Wake up, go to the bathroom, collect the newspapers (maybe not print newspapers any more when I'm elderly), boot up the computer (maybe not a computer any more when I'm elderly), open the blinds, sun salutation, etc. etc. Keep moving forward, no room for despair.  (Which is why I invented the system during a period of unemployment in the first place!)

And if I need a break from it, hey, spare time!

Easy vs. hard, virtue vs. laziness: a braindump

1. In my last post, I mentioned how I can't cope with interior decorating but can do my job well.  This is because my job is easy, or at least is easy for me.

2. Conventional wisdom dictates that you're supposed to challenge yourself, and just doing what's easy is lazy and coasting and slothful and generally non-virtuous.

3. So am I doing a bad thing by choosing a job that is easy for me?  Would it have been more virtuous to go into engineering like grownups were always pressuring me to do, and do something that I struggle with and might sometimes even fail?

4. Or was it virtuous to choose something I'm good at, thereby giving the world an always-competent translator with the potential to become exceptional, rather than giving the world a mediocre engineer?

5. My approach to life as a whole is similar: I arrange things to make them easy for myself. The vast, vast majority of the time, everything I do is something I can handle without breaking a sweat, because I have eliminated the need for the things that make me struggle.  Is that laziness?  Or is it cleverness that I've been able to find workarounds for the hard stuff?

6. But, again, making things easier reduces the chance of failure, which makes me less of a burden to other people.  If I fail to pay my rent on time or crash a car in an ill-advised attempt to drive, I'm inconveniencing others.  If my little corner of the world just quietly and unremarkably runs smoothly, I'm minimizing my footprint.

7. Also, if I make my life easy, I'm less stressed.  When I'm stressed, I have trouble keeping my emotions to a civilized level, which also makes me a burden to people who have the misfortune of having to interact with me, and makes my life more difficult because it's detrimental to my credibility.

8. Or is behaving like a civilized person at all times while stressed just another hard thing I should be doing to challenge myself?

9. Another one for the Things They Should Quantify list: the optimal balance between challenging yourself and not being a burden to others.

What if we could objectively quantify competence?

I blogged before about how it would be interesting if we could objectively quantify luck. 

With the latest round of condo drama, I've been feeling extremely incompetent because I simply cannot cope with the very notion of interior decorating, and despite the fact that many people in the world have problems that are many thousands of orders of magnitude more serious, I still can't get my head together and just get this shit done.  I just can't.  I'm stuck, and had to go crying for help.

But while this was going on, I was also doing some stuff for work that's sound pretty hardcore and serious, although in reality it's no big deal, I just sit down and get it done.  I thought about this, and was amused at the fact that I could handle this serious work stuff without blinking but still can't even cope with the very notion of interior decorating.

Then I found myself debating: is my competence at work enough to make up for my incompetence at even thinking about interior decorating?  Or does the fact that I can't help but make big hairy drama out of something as inconsequential as interior decorating far outweigh the simple everyday act of being competent at my job like most people who do a job are?

It would be interesting if we could objectively quantify this, and people could know if they're good enough at enough things or if they have room for improvement.

Bad condo finish selection setup

A few days ago I got a call saying I have to make an appointment to choose my condo finishes.  But there are a lot of problems with how it's set up:

1. They don't provide you with a list of the decisions you have to make ahead of time.  I'm not just choosing colours, I'm also choosing materials.  And I don't know anything about materials.  And it's certainly not feasible to research every single possible material in the world!

2. You have to do it in-person.  It's the 21st century, you'd think they'd have a website where you can log on and put the different finishes on a simulation of your suite and see how they look together.  (Sims mods have been able to do that for at least 10 years!)

3. The office where you go to do this is only open weekdays during regular business hours.  A lot of people are at work during those hours!  I have to use my vacation time to do this! (And not everyone has the luxury of vacation time!)

4. You have to make the appointment within two weeks of when they call you.  On top of the problem of getting time off myself, this means I also have to find someone to help me who's can get some free time on a weekday at the same time as I can *and* at the same time as the office has an appointment slot available.  One of my closest friends (who is the mother of my fairy goddaughter) is very enthusiastic about this whole condo finish thing so I was quite happy to hand all the decision-making over to her, but she couldn't get childcare on a weekday within such short notice, so she couldn't do this thing we were both looking forward to.  Ultimately I ended up going crying to my mommy, who is knowledgeable about such things and fortunate enough to be retired so she can come and help me.

I've been happy with my builder so far and felt they're taking my needs as a regular person (as opposed to some posh investor who picks out condo units like they're choosing wine for a party) and a first-time buyer into consideration, but this condo finish selection setup makes me worried.  It feels like they're not taking into account that these are actual homes for actual human beings, not a game of monopoly where everyone's just trying to shuffle property around to make money.  It feels like they're trying to pressure me into making bad decisions.  I just feel so much less safe with this arrangement.

So I'm going to go in with my mother (in a total adulthood fail moment) and look at the stuff, and I'm totally prepared if necessary to walk out with no decisions made and a list of stuff to research. But that would still mean more vacation time to go back and make another appointment.

Really what they should have is a website where I can log in to see my unit and put different finishes on it, design and save different combinations, and let other people log in to look at it too.  Quite a few people I've talked to during this time think choosing condo finishes would be fun, but the vast majority of these people can't take time off on a weekday on such short notice. So I'd love to have it online and open it up and crowdsource the whole thing - let everyone who's interested put together a look and let people vote on them.  My friend could put together a look for me from the comfort of her own home after my fairy goddaughter is asleep, and maybe my fairy goddaughter could even put together a look herself! 

This would be good advertising for the builder, especially if they made it sharable on social media so everyone could crowdsource. It would be far easier for the end users, and it would probably save the builder some money on setting up and staffing a design centre.  If they found that people still wanted to look at stuff in person they could still have a design centre, but there wouldn't be as much traffic through it because a lot of the work could be done online.  It would be a win-win situation!

But, barring that, the very very very least they could do is send you a list of the decisions you're going to have to make ahead of time!

Current status (aka First World Problems)

I've been having some stress about having to choose my condo finishes. Then I've been feeling incompetent because I find this stressful.  Then I've been feeling stressed about feeling incompetent about finding this stressful.  Then I've been feeling guilty about feeling stressed about feeling incompetent about finding this stressful.

So, since I'm blogathoning today, some of my posts might be me working through this.  If you're a person with real problems, you might prefer to skip these posts.

I might also decide to stop wallowing in my head and post other stuff instead.  Not sure yet what's going to happen.

Good morning!

Here's what I'm doing today and why.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The marginal cost of buying happiness

Working from home is so good for me that I can't think of any reasonable salary increase that would induce me to switch to a job where I have to go into the workplace.  I might consider doing it on a temporary basis for some ridiculous amount of money - like if I earned enough in six months to pay off my entire mortgage - but only if I could be certain that I could return to my current arrangement afterwards. If not, it wouldn't be worth this.

Some people would use this as an argument in support of the idea that money can't buy happiness.  But the fact remains that quite a bit of the happiness I do have was bought with money.  It's not that more money wouldn't make me happier, it's that the cost in happiness of earning more money would be greater than the amount of happiness that additional money would buy me. 

So, if my quick googling has led me to the correct economic terminology, it's not that money can't buy happiness.  It's that there's a threshold where the marginal cost (in happiness) of more money is greater than the amount of happiness that that same money could buy.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Reaching for the dictionary

I'm currently reading Hild by Nicola Griffith (no spoilers please, I'm only a little ways in), which is set in 7th century English and therefore contains a lot of Old English words to describe concepts for which le mot juste doesn't quite exist in modern English.

My first instinct is to look up every one of these words I don't recognize, and, before I discovered the book has a glossary in the back (which still isn't as comprehensive as I need), I was rushing to Google every single time, which is intrusive, slowing down my reading and spoiling the atmosphere.

A while back I read a book in German for the first time in years. I've always had more difficulty reading in German than in other languages, and when I was in school it would take me forever because I felt the need to look up every word I didn't understand and annotate the text as I went.  But in my recent German reading endeavour, I discovered that translator brain make it possible for me to tell which parts are and aren't important, even when I don't understand every word, and to look up only the words I need to understand the story as a whole.

So, knowing full well that I can get full enjoyment and comprehension out of a story without looking up the words I don't understand, why do I feel compelled to do this when I'm reading in English?

To further complicate things, this is something I deliberately didn't do when I was a kid.  Our teachers would always tell us to look up words we don't understand and keep a running list of words we'd looked up, and I never wanted to do that.  I just wanted to keep reading the story.

So what's changed?

My first thought was that it might be translator brain - I live in a world where I have to know what all the English words mean.  But translator brain also caused me to stop using the dictionary when reading in German, so I don't know if it can be the cause of two opposite actions.

Then I wondered if it might be because I've been reading quite a bit of historical non-fiction lately, in which I looked up all the things I didn't know ( also most often the names of objects used in historical times that are no longer used today).  Since non-fiction isn't building a world for me to get lost in, it seems more "normal" to be googling as I go.

But maybe it's just Google brain! In daily life I've become so accustomed to googling every passing thought that I have trouble turning off that impulse when visiting fictional universes.  I guess Hild is just the first book I've read in quite a while that leaves me with so many questions that the googling becomes intrusive.

Which perhaps means I need to be reading more challenging books...

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A Ford family writing prompt

There's an interesting, non-politics-related, factoid about the family of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Rob Ford is one of four children of Doug and Diane Ford.

The names of the four children, in birth order, are: Kathy, Randy, Doug, and Rob.

Rob's brother Doug, as I'm sure you've concluded, is named after his father Doug.

But Doug Jr. is the second-born son.  The first-born son is Randy, who isn't named after his father.

This is really interesting to me, because there's a story behind that!  We don't know the story because it obviously isn't applicable to anything that's in the public interest, but there is a story.  Either there was something so important about the name Randy that they had to name a child Randy before even naming a child after the father, or something changed between the birth of Randy and the birth of Doug that made them feel the need to name a child after the father.

I think this would make a good writing prompt. The firstborn son is not named after the father. The second son is. What's the backstory? How does this affect sibling relations?