Saturday, February 28, 2015

Books Read in February 2015


1. The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley
2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
3. Calculated in Death by J.D. Robb
4. Cataract City by Craig Davidson
5. The Ig Nobel Prizes 2 by Marc Abrahams
6. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
7. Thankless in Death by J.D. Robb
8. Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (English translation by Peter Frost)
9. Taken in Death by J.D. Robb
10. Aunt Winnie by Elspeth Cameron


1. Delusion in Death

Monday, February 23, 2015

Door etiquette

Proper door etiquette is normally to let people out first and only enter once everyone has exited.

This makes perfect sense for enclosed spaces like elevators and trains, and everyone should diligently follow this rule at all times.

However, it occurs to me that the rule should be the opposite for entrances to buildings, especially in bad weather: you should let people in first, and only exit once everyone waiting to answer is inside.  This means that the people in the cold/heat/wind/rain/snow/humidity can get out of the uncomfortable environment as quickly as possible, and all waiting is done in the comfortable environment.  In other words, wait inside the comfortable lobby to let people get out of the cold rather than vice-versa.

In cases where both weather and enclosed space are factors, such as a train with an outdoor platform, I think we have to let the enclosed space rule take precedence.  Regardless of the weather, it's still logistically necessary to let people out so there's room for new people to get in.  Plus, in the specific case of a train, it's easier for the person in charge of the doors to see that the loading/unloading process is still ongoing if there are still people on the platform, so they'll be less likely to close the doors and tell the train to leave while people haven't gotten on or off the train.

But in cases where there's plenty of room for everyone and no one is going to drive away and leave anyone stranded, let's let people in out of the cold as quickly as possible, shall we?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

There is no incentive to falsely take a citizenship oath

Recently in the news is the story that the government intends to appeal the Federal Court ruling that it is unlawful to require people to remove their clothing (in this case, a niqab) before taking a citizenship oath.

Sitting here steeped in white girl cultural hegemony, I tacitly assumed that they wanted people to uncover their faces during the oath for identification or fraud prevention purposes.  But it occurred to me in the shower this morning that no one would cover their face during a citizenship ceremony for nefarious purposes, because there's no incentive to do so - nothing would be gained or achieved by doing so, and it wouldn't change anything.

Let's unpack this.

Scenario: Cindy the New Citizen has gone through the entire immigration process and permanent resident process and citizenship exam and all the hoops and paperwork and everything, and has just received an invitation to attend a citizenship ceremony and take the citizenship oath.  Congratulations, Cindy! But Cindy doesn't attend the ceremony and take the oath.  Instead, Irene the Imposter attends the ceremony, pretending to be Cindy, and takes the oath in her place.

So what would the outcome of this scenario be?

Would Irene become a citizen by taking the oath?  Of course not - it's not a binding magical contract like in Harry Potter!  The record would show that Cindy, who is fully qualified to be a citizen, is now a citizen.  So Cindy would be a citizen and Irene's status would not change. 

This means that Irene has no incentive to impersonate Cindy, because it would have no impact on Irene's status.

But what if it's not Irene whose intentions are nefarious, but rather Cindy?  What if Cindy is trying to get citizenship without being beholden to the oath?  Let's think about this.

Suppose, Cindy breaks her oath and is caught.  When called out on it, she says "Nope, you can't hold me to that!  I didn't take the oath - I sent an imposter on my behalf!"  She's still in trouble, since the content of the oath is, essentially, promising to fulfill your duties as a citizen and obey the law, so she'd be in trouble for being derelict in her duties and/or breaking the law.  And, on top of everything else, she'd also be guilty of fraud! 

This means that Cindy has no incentive to send an imposter on her behalf, because that would only make things worse.

But what if Irene isn't there on Cindy's behalf?  What if she's there without Cindy's knowledge?

I can think of two possible motives for that: either Irene is trying to steal Cindy's identity, or she's trying to inflict citizenship upon Cindy without her knowledge.

If Irene is trying to steal Cindy's identity, she would have had to start long before the citizenship ceremony.  She could only find out about Cindy's citizenship ceremony if she has access to Cindy's mail, in which case she's either successfully stolen her identity, or has access to far more useful things like credit card statements and tax documents.  Going to the ceremony and taking the oath as Cindy will have no impact on the extent of her identity theft.

If Cindy doesn't actually want citizenship and Irene is trying to inflict it upon her without her knowledge, Cindy wouldn't even be having a citizenship ceremony.  There's quite a lot of work to do and steps to take to become a citizen, and if Cindy didn't want it, she could just do nothing. 

There is simply no reason why anyone would falsely take the oath with nefarious intentions, because it would do nothing to help them achieve their nefarious intentions and basically wouldn't be worth their time.  Therefore, there's no reason to fret about being able to see everyone's faces at all times.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Downton needs to explain why Tom thinks they'll have a better life in America

This post contains spoilers up to and including Season 5, Episode 7 of Downton Abbey (the one that includes a cute scene of Tom and little Sybbie dropping sticks off a bridge into the creek below).  Please do not include spoilers beyond that point.

In last week's Downton, Tom mentions to little Sybbie that he thinks they might be able to have a better life in America.

The show really needs to elaborate on why he thinks it would be better.

At Downton, Sybbie enjoys a much higher baseline level of security than she would living with Tom alone.  Even if we take luxury out of the equation and don't consider it a contributor to quality of life, the fact remains that at Downton she will have a roof over her head and food in her belly.  She will have new shoes whenever she needs them and a warm winter coat and a fire in her fireplace.

In America, Tom would need to find work and remain steadily employed to provide these things, but Downton has enough resources to provide these things regardless of what happens, and Sybbie will always be able to benefit from this security because everyone from Lord and Lady Grantham to Thomas the Evil Underbutler loves her.

Also, since Tom is a single parent, he would need to find childcare in America, whereas at Downton there's already childcare fit for a future earl.

Looking forward a few years, at Downton, education will be available to young Sybbie. If Tom wants her to go to school rather than being taught at home by a governess, I'm sure that could be made to happen without compromising her place within the security of Downton. If, when she gets older, she wants to go to some posh school or go on to university, her doting grandparents will make that available.  She will be constrained by nothing but her gender (given the era), and I'm sure she'd be similarly constrained by her gender in the US as well.

What would Tom do to earn a living in America?  Be a chauffeur or a taxi driver?  That's not necessarily going to provide his child with security.  Run a business?  If he feels that he has the business savvy to build a stable life for his child, he can already make use of it in his current role as estate manager at Downton, in support of the estate that provides his daughter with a secure life. 

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Tom would necessarily fail in America.  He could probably eke out a perfectly reasonable working class cum middle class living.  We all know people who've done it - in fact, we probably all know people who've done it despite being a bit of an idiot!

But I just don't see why he's confident it would be better, especially from the point of view of building a future for a child. Normally this 20th century Europe to North American immigration arc involves people who are oppressed or otherwise have limited opportunities in their homeland, and Sybbie isn't and never will be in either situation.

Little Sybbie Branson the daughter of a widowed Irish chauffeur would probably have a better life - or at least more opportunities - in America, but you can't assume that Miss Sybil the granddaughter of an English earl necessarily would.  Some insight into Tom's logic here would be helpful to the viewer.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Journalism wanted: how did the Toronto Star's HPV vaccine story end up being sensationalistic?

I recently wrote a blog post complaining about a Toronto Star article about HPV vaccination that presented the story very sensationalistically and failed to include necessary context.

This week's public editor column agrees with that assessment.  Public editor Kathy English says:
In looking at all of this, I have to wonder why the Star published this at all — especially at this sensitive time in public health. If there is no proof that any of the young women’s illnesses, or the 60 adverse reactions in the database, were caused by the vaccine, then what is the story?
In that same column, she says:
To be fair, in the Gardasil investigation, reporters David Bruser and Jesse McLean absolutely do not conclude or state that the vaccine caused any of the suspected side effects the young women talk about. The article was written carefully to try to impart to readers the message that there was no conclusive evidence.
Also, on CBC radio program As It Happens, Toronto Star publisher John Cruikshank said:
"We failed in this case. We let down. And it was in the management of the story at the top."
What I want to know: how did the front page layout and presentation and tone of the story turn out sensationalist if the public editor and the publisher both think this is inappropriate and it's not consistent with the reporters' stated intentions?

I know the writers don't write the headlines and aren't necessarily involved in layout, and I know that senior editors might not necessarily vet every single page layout in the whole newspaper every single day.  But you'd think they'd approve the front page!  You'd think they'd edit an article extra-carefully if it's going to be the first thing people see, and you'd think they'd look at the big, front-page, above-the-fold headline and make sure it reflects the writers' intended thesis.

It would be informative to readers to write a story about how this sort of thing comes about.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My second Dell depot repair experience

The good: Dell appears to have fixed my computer by implementing the solution I suggested

The bad: It took two months after I suggested the solution, two separate depot repairs totalling 13 days computerless despite the fact that the problem occurred under an on-site service warranty, and an assortment of additional stressers.

The details:

The problem was that, following an in-warranty replacement of a failed hard drive, my BIOS sporadically failed to recognize the presence of operating system on the hard drive.  This was a particularly stubborn problem, and had persisted through all possible troubleshooting and one previous attempt at depot repair.

I felt like they were grasping at straws when the best idea they could come up with was another attempt at depot repair and I was very reluctant to send my computer away and have to spend some time computerless, but the telephone technician told me it would be expedited since it's the second attempt (5-7 business days, rather than the standard 5-10).  Since my first attempt at depot repair had only taken 4 days all in, I reluctantly agreed to give them one last chance.

I received the shipping box on a Monday, which was the day before my grandmother died, and when I learned of her death I decided to postpone sending out my computer for a week.  Being computerless is very stressful to me, and I didn't want the additional stress when I was freshly bereaved.

So the next Monday, I dropped my computer off at the closest Purolator shipping office (a local print shop).  I decided to drop it off rather than having a courier pick it up so I could use my computer for part of the day on Monday and prepare it for shipping at my leisure rather than having to have the whole thing ready by 9 in the morning because I don't know what day the courier will come.

Unfortunately, there was a snowstorm on Monday, so the Purolator truck didn't show up at the store to pick up my package!

After a frantic Tuesday morning spent trying to figure out why my computer wasn't in the Purolator system, it was ultimately picked up on Tuesday evening, and arrived at the Dell depot on Wednesday morning.  I figured no big deal, last time around it arrived at Dell on Tuesday and was back in my hands on Thursday, so I'll probably still get it back this week.

The Dell tracker showed that they received my unit at 8:30 and began diagnosis at 2:30.  Okay, a bit more of a delay than last time, but still reasonable.  I was heartened to see the expected return day showing Thursday.

But on Thursday at 10 am, the status changed to "Customer Hold", which meant it was on hold until they got some information from me.  I waited and waited, willing the phone to ring, obsessively checking my email, but no one contacted me. 

As you might have noticed if you follow me on Twitter, this stressed me out. What was the problem?  Why did they need to contact me?  And if they so needed to contact me, why hadn't they done so yet?  Had they lost my computer?  Was it going to take months to fix?  What could possibly be going on?

I spent much of the day stressing and crying and catastrophizing, and when I hadn't heard back by the end of the depot's business hours I started emailing and tweeting at anyone I thought might have information.  I finally got a snippet of information from @DellCares: apparently, the depot hadn't been able to reproduce the problem.  But that just raised more questions.  Why did they need to contact me?  And why hadn't they? If you need information from the customer about how to reproduce the problem before you proceed further, what is gained by not contacting the customer?  It seems like in this case you'd either ship it straight back with "could not reproduce" to keep your numbers up, or you'd contact the customer right away so you could move forward.  Both @DellCares and one of the techs I'd been emailing with said they'd have the depot get back to me the next day, so I eventually managed to soothe myself to sleep.

On Thursday at 10 am, I still hadn't heard from anyone.  So I checked the tracker again, and it said the hold had been lifted at 9 am.  But no one had contacted me!  What was going on here?  From where I'm sitting, it looks very much like they wasted a day (thereby doubling my number of computerless days because of the weekend) for no particular reason! 

At 11, the tracker said they'd begun repair.  I was glad to see progress, but how could they be repairing if they couldn't reproduce the error?  I hoped this was just an interim step towards shipping my computer back to me.

Meanwhile, the email tech told me that the hold delay was due to the depot having to find out whether I have a complete or limited warranty.  How does that take a whole day?  And why did the tracker say "customer hold" when that wasn't information that they'd find out from me?  And what kind of strange crazy problem did I have that required them to double check the warranty?

On Friday, the tracker still said the computer was under repair and the next update would be Monday.  So I bolstered myself for the stress of a computerless weekend, exacerbated by all these questions about the mystery hold.

On Monday, I eagerly refreshed the tracker over and over, but it hadn't been updated despite the fact that it said Monday was the next update day.  Had the repair failed?  What if they couldn't figure it out and insisted on holding onto my computer for weeks and weeks?  Partway through the day I received an email the email tech, but all he had to say was that the computer was still in repair.  It seemed like the email was either automatically generated or he was blindly transcribing the tracker status into email without regard for utility.

Then, towards the end of the day on Monday, the tracker said the repair was complete and they were shipping my computer back to me!  I was half delighted and half nervous, uncertain if the problem would actually be fixed or not, and, because of the various horror stories I'd read online, partly dreading that my computer might come back in worse condition.  I'd already decided that if this repair hadn't fixed it I wouldn't accept a third depot repair because it was just too stressful for me, so I was also partly dreading having to be assertive to get my computer fixed without Dell marking me as a problem customer.

I received my computer on Tuesday.  I was so worried that something might have gone wrong that I videoed the unboxing and the first few boot-ups, just in case I needed evidence of any damage or evidence of the problem reoccurring.

The first mystery was on the slip that came with the computer, telling me what work had been done. Under "The unit was received with the following cosmetic issues which is not covered by Dell's HW Warranty", everything was checked (Scratches/Marks on top cover/Case, Scratches/Marks on LCD Screen/Bezel, and Scratches/Marks on Palmrest).  There were no scratches or marks when I sent it out!  I inspected it closely, and discovered...there were no scratches or marks on it when I received it back either!  Did the depot check all those off as a matter of course so they wouldn't be obligated to repair any damage they did???  Yet another source of distrust!

Dreading the prospect of having a damaged computer in hand that Dell would refuse to prepare, I booted up, still taking video.  On the first boot-up, it said "Setup is preparing your computer for first use", just like it did after my last depot repair.  Figuring that meant they hadn't tested it like I asked, I created an account, finished the installation of Windows, and decided to boot up a couple more times to see if the problem reoccurred.

On the first boot-up after the installation of Windows was completed, I saw that there were in fact two Windows accounts: my own, and one named "Dell".  Maybe this meant they had tested it!  I did two more boot-ups from complete shutdown, and the problem didn't reoccur. 

I looked at the device manager, and saw that the hard drive they'd installed wasn't Western Digital this time! The device manager said my hard drive was a "ST1000LM024-HN-M101MBB", which, according to google, is a Samsung hard drive - just like I originally had and I requested after the first round of hardware troubleshooting failed back in December!

That appears to have solved the problem (so far at least, knock wood).  Since I got the computer back, I've had 8 boot-ups from a power-off state and 3 boot-ups from a hibernate state, and it has worked every single time.  I sincerely hope this means it's fixed!

A squandered opportunity

This whole saga has been a squandered opportunity for Dell to delight me and win back my unquestioning loyalty.  As I mentioned in my post about how Dell needs to empower its employees, the telephone tech was not empowered to dispatch a Samsung hard drive as I requested, even after we'd eliminated every other variable.   

 If he had been empowered to do so, the whole problem would have been solved with the second on-site service call.  I would have been delighted with Dell for, once again, saving my ass in the dying days of my warranty, and would have blindly gone with Dell for my next computer purchase, buying the best gaming laptop they'd be willing to sell me with all the warranties and upgrades available.

Since the problem would have been solved before xmas, I would have told everyone at xmas (empty-nester baby boomers and millennial young professionals, most of whom have more disposable income now than they ever have before) all about how Dell saved my ass.  But, since the problem was still ongoing at xmas, I instead was telling them about how Dell was stressing me out by wanting to send my computer to a depot even though the problem occurred under an on-site warranty.

Since I wouldn't have had any reason to google up other people's Dell depot experiences, I wouldn't have seen other people's horror stories and therefore wouldn't have been stressing out nearly as much.  I wouldn't have been saturating my Twitter feed with worries about Dell.  I wouldn't have been blogging extensively about everything I found stressful about Dell.  I would simply have written one blog post praising their warranty service, and gotten on with life.

But, because the Dell telephone technician was not empowered to take my suggestion of using the original brand of hard drive, and because the first round of depot repair either couldn't or didn't this suggestion, my loyalty was not won over and all the word of mouth and social media I produced about Dell over the past two months was full of stress and worry.

They should be able to do better, and it's rather their loss that they didn't.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Horrid journalism from the Toronto Star

The Toronto Star wrote very sensationalist front-page story about people who report having various illnesses after receiving a cervical cancer vaccination. 

As they mention in the subheadline (with some weird conjuction use), they found 60 people who reported illnesses, out of hundreds of thousands who have received the vaccine

The problem: they don't mention the statistics of these kinds of illnesses occurring in similar populations who have not recently be vaccinated.  We're talking tens of times among a sample size of hundreds of thousands, which is hundredths of a percent. It is certainly plausible that the number of illnesses reported are consistent with what would happen ordinarily in the general population. 

Back when I did my research before getting Gardasil, my research found just that: the number of reported conditions in the sample group was consistent with the number in the general population.  That could certainly be the case here.  But the Star doesn't provide the numbers!

If the number of illnesses found in this investigation is significantly higher than what would have occurred in the control group, then that is important information that supports the Star's thesis and they should include it.

But if it is not, then this is an irresponsible piece of journalism.

By failing to include these numbers, they've made the article non-credible in the eyes of the most-informed audience who will read it critically, while sensationalistically creating paranoia among the least-informed audience who will only skim the headlines.

The article ends with one of the interviewees saying “I am not against the vaccine, I want people to be responsible about Gardasil. I am trying to inform people.”

In order to inform people so that they can make responsible decisions about Gardasil, you need to include control group numbers!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The opportunity to experience life's simple pleasures

I blogged before about how if I'd lived in a different time and place, I'd never have had the opportunity to be good at anything.

Today in the shower, it occurred to me that if I'd lived in a different time and place, I may never have experience any of the things that destress me or make me happy.

The first of which is the shower!  It relaxes me, makes me feel human, makes me look civilized, and is where I get all my best ideas.  And it wouldn't have been available even 100 years ago.  Or even 50 years ago in poorer areas where housing hasn't been upgraded to include modern conveniences.  Or even in the present in some parts of the world.

As I blogged about in my resilience braindump, the things that destress me are very externally dependent, and many of them are very 21st century.  Fandom is a huge destresser, and it's entirely dependent on the constant creation of new stories involving beloved characters.  For nearly all of human history, this simply wasn't possible.  There was no media, and new stories were few and far between.  And, apart from fandom, most of my pleasures and destressers are on my computer, which is why sending it out to be repaired is so upsetting to me.  But personal computers didn't exist before my lifetime, and the internet as we know it didn't exist even during the first half of my lifetime!

Even my other simple pleasures and necessary destressers - comfort food, privacy, curling up safe in my cozy bed as a storm rages outside - would have been impossible for all but the very wealthiest for the vast majority of human history, and still aren't available to the general population in many parts of the world.

So in another time or place, would I have found pleasure and destressing in other things in life?  Or would I simply live my whole life on edge, never completely at peace?

However, it also occurs to me that if I'd been born in a different time and place, I wouldn't be alive anyway.  Even if I'd survived being born, I probably wouldn't have survived my annual bouts of strep throat (which, the internet tells me, is the same infection as scarlet fever), and even if I'd survived that, I probably would have died on a fainting couch from my reflux incident where I just couldn't swallow food.

Things They Should Study: how does people's likelihood of having survived in more difficult times and places correlate with their likelihood of thriving in those times and places?  Would a disproportionate number of the people who are fragile and sensitive like me have died at birth anyway?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


In the world of Downton Abbey, etiquette dictates that ladies don't remove their hats indoors. They don't wear hats in their own home (or in the evening), but if they go to a shop or a restaurant or someone else's home they don't remove their hat, even if they do remove their coat.

It occurred to me that this could make wardrobe planning difficult.  Do you choose a hat that goes with your dress or a hat that goes with your coat?  Or do you have to make your coat match your dress too so the whole ensemble works?

Obviously, not everyone has the budget for multiple hats and coats to go with every dress, and they actually show this on screen.  When a working-class character is visiting someone's home, she's shown wearing a hat that doesn't really complement or enhance her outfit.  And this is because it's her only hat, the best she could do to go with her only coat, which was the best she could do for as sensible a coat as possible.

You can't have a red hat, because then you won't be able to dress properly for a funeral. You can't have a dainty floral summer hat, because then you won't be able to dress properly for the cold and the rain. You can't have a delicate hat, because it has to last you several years.

But still, you have to wear a hat every time you're indoors but not at home during the daytime. No matter how carefully you dress and groom, you still have to wear this piece of pure pragmatism quite prominently, next to your face, so it's the first thing that people see.

In the 21st century, people talk about unrealistic standards of beauty projected by Hollywood, with fashion being set by celebrities who have access to all the beauty treatments in the world and plastic surgery and hair extensions and stylists and custom-tailored clothing.

I wonder if, in the olden days, people talked about unrealistic standards of beauty being set by the upper classes, who had access to a flattering, custom-made hat to go with every outfit?