Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books read in December 2015


1. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
3. The Trouble with Brunch by Shawn Micallef
4. After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson


1. Imitation in Death
2. Remember When

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Things They Should Invent: streetlights with time-sensitive variable brightness

I was walking down a residential side street at about 5:30 pm in the bleakest depths of December, and I found it uncomfortably dark.  The street did have perfectly normal streetlights at perfectly reasonable intervals, but I found myself wishing the lights were significantly brighter.

Of course, the problem with making the lights significantly brighter is that they're right in front of people's houses.  No one wants a giant floodlight just metres from their window in the middle of the night when they're trying to sleep.

But what if they could program the streetlights so they start out brighter in the early evening and get less bright as we transition towards bedtime? We could have a safe, well-lit rush hour even in bleakest midwinter, while still making it possible for people who have a streetlight in front of their house to sleep comfortably at midnight.

In the summer, when it doesn't get dark until 9 pm, the streetlights wouldn't have to start out as bright as they do in the winter, but they could still dim as the hour gets later.  In other words, the streetlights are the same brightness at 9 pm in June and at 9 pm in December, they're just brighter at 5 pm in December (but completely switched off at 5 pm in June because it's still bright and sunny out.)  They wouldn't ever get darker than they are now, they'd just get brighter during hours when no one is anywhere near ready for sleep.

We already have the technology. Dimmer switches have existed for decades (I was originally going to title this "dimmer streetlights" but that would make it sound like I just want the streetlights to be less bright), and programmable dimmers already exist in household products such as the Phillips Wake-Up Light.  If they can deploy this technology on a large scale in streetlights, our streets would be safer and more user-friendly for the vast majority of users.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The real fantasy of Pemberley is the servants

I've fallen down a bit of a Pride and Prejudice rabbit hole lately, exploring fanfictions and historical background information.

While I do enjoy poking around in the Jane Austen universe from time to time, unlike many Pride and Prejudice fans I never found Mr. Darcy particularly dreamy.  He proves to be kind and honourable and madly in love with the protagonist, all of which certainly come in handy, but doesn't have the je ne sais quoi that it would take to make me fantasize my way into Elizabeth's place.

However, in my recent revisitation, I realized the actual fantasy of being mistress of Pemberley isn't having Mr. Darcy for a husband - it's having Mrs. Reynolds for a housekeeper.

Mrs. Reynolds has been serving as Pemberley's housekeeper since back when Mr. Darcy's parents were still alive, and has kept it running smoothly even after his mother died.  This means that Pemberley can run smoothly without a lady of the house, but also knows how to accommodate a lady of the house.  So the position of mistress of Pemberley can be as much of a sinecure as its incumbent wants, and as much of an apprenticeship as she wants.

Being the mistress of a well-run estate is pretty much the most prestigious role in life that someone in Elizabeth's position could reasonably dream of. So imagine you end up in the most prestigious role in life that you can reasonably dream of, and the support team is in place to ensure that you will succeed. Even if you do nothing, the endeavours under your responsibility will succeed and you will get credit for it.  If you want to actually do the work, they can train you up so you can do it independently, and if you want to introduce your own ideas, they know how to adapt to that.

On top of that, the presence of Georgiana means that, despite the absence of a "lady of the house" for many years, the estate is equipped for there being a lady in the house.  They no doubt have a maid who knows how to do hair, an existing business relationship with a local dressmaker, a horse who is accustomed to a sidesaddle rider - all kinds of things that it would be convenient for Elizabeth to have in her home and less convenient to have to acquire from scratch.  On top of that, Georgiana probably knows a little something about being the lady of the house at Pemberley, but, since she isn't out yet, she doesn't officially hold the role (and would never expect to hold it in the long term since she'll likely get married and be mistress of her own household) so she wouldn't feel usurped by Elizabeth.  Mrs. Annesley probably also knows a thing or two about being mistress of a household since she's an upper-class lady and a "Mrs." herself, and part of her role is likely to prepare Georgiana for her future. But, at the same time, Mrs. Annesley is an employee, so she is incentivized to help Elizabeth succeed as well.

Compare this to the situation of Jane and Bingley, who are going to buy an estate of their own and start the Bingley dynasty from scratch.  Neither of them has ever run a large estate before (except for Bingley's time leasing Netherfield, which doesn't entail running the whole thing.)  Probably neither of them has ever hired a whole staff of servants before, and the servants they do hire won't necessarily know how to run the place optimally since no one has run that estate before (or, at least, not for the Bingley family). Caroline Bingley is around and has been mistress of the Bingley household (formally, because she's out), but because of that (and what we know of her character) she's likely to feel usurped, so she's less likely to be a useful resource for Jane.

None of this is hideous hardship, of course, because they are rich, but Jane does have to put in effort and diligence to succeed in her role as Mrs. Bingley, whereas all Elizabeth has to do to succeed as Mrs. Darcy is nothing. As long as she doesn't insist on overruling her experienced household with subpar ideas, she will succeed gloriously.

Friday, December 25, 2015


This post contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Big Bang Theory. If you follow the show but haven't been spoiled for this episode yet, I highly recommend not reading this post.


I got spoiled for last week's Big Bang Theory, so I knew going in that Sheldon and Amy were going to have "coitus", as Sheldon likes to put it.  I had some speculation about this that didn't end up getting blogged because life got in the way, but there was one thing I didn't see coming, and actually didn't realize was even possible: the writers created a situation in which the sex was actually better for both people because one party wasn't actively into it.

Mayim Bialik (who portrays Amy) has blogged about how people keep asking her "Is Sheldon good?"  But the first thing that popped into my head when I got spoiled is "Is Amy good?"

As we know, Sheldon is a finicky person with a tendency towards self-absorption. If he's half as particular about his sex as he is about his meals, it's quite possible that an inexperienced partner like Amy won't be able to meet his expectations first time around - especially if, like nerdy virgins since time immemorial, he's been getting ideas from the shadier parts of internet.  What would that do to the relationship? What would that do to Amy's self-esteem?

I was also contemplating whether the writers would hand-wave this by making them both end up being surprisingly good together. (They're intelligent people, they would have researched, if they used good sources instead of porn and happen to have certain physical compatibilities, it might just work out fine the first time.)  Then I was hoping the writers wouldn't overdo it and make it a joke that awkward nerds might be good at sex.

I was also pondering the situation from the other direction: what if they're not able to have good sex together at the outset, but the show chose to explore that?  Not every couple can always have good sex together the very first time, and the likelihood of it not going perfectly increases it when it's a first time for both. But this isn't something you often see depicted in media or fiction, so it would be an interesting approach to take. Then I was hoping that the writers wouldn't overdo it and make it a joke that awkward nerds have awkward sex, or make it cringingly horrible with Sheldon's finicky nature.

However, the Big Bang Theory writers did something that I didn't know was coming: they had Sheldon come up with the idea of having sex with Amy as her birthday present.

Normally I dislike the dynamic of a sex act being a gift and it's certainly not something I'd want in my own private life.  But, by making it a gift from Sheldon to Amy, they eliminated the problem of Sheldon's finicky nature.  He doesn't actively want sex for himself, so he doesn't have highly specific needs and preferences like he does with seating arrangements and bathroom schedules and take-out food. He's simply interested in making the experience work for Amy - kind of the sexual equivalent to accompanying your partner to a high-school reunion or something (which is quite an emotional/interpersonal milestone for Sheldon!)

The fact that Sheldon (as the person who's less enthusiastic about sex) came up with the idea of having sex on this particular occasion himself, without any pressure or suggestions from Amy or anyone else, goes a long way towards mitigating the any potential distastefulness of the "sex as a gift" dynamic.  It's also somewhat mitigated by the fact that both parties are nervous and tentative beforehand, and that we learn that the experience ultimately exceeded expectations for both of them.

Another fantastic choice by the writers and producers is that the combination of script, editing and choreography gave us no indication of exactly what sex acts they engaged in, or whether they were perfectly successful or it was a trial-and-error kind of situation. This was an excellent choice because it attends to the audience's emotional needs.  Certain people have certain feelings about certain sex acts, including feeling that certain sex acts are degrading or humiliating or other negative emotional baggage. It would probably ruin the heart and sweetness of the scene to see a likely-asexual character engaging in a sex act you consider humiliating or degrading as a birthday gift for his partner. As it stands, all we know it that Sheldon was at peak emotional generosity, both parties were nervous beforehand, and both parties were happy afterwards. And every viewer can fill in the blanks with whatever fits those criteria in their own worldview.

Despite the fact that I still think it would be helpful for sexual novices if the spectrum of media portrayals of sexuality included occasional (and sympathetic) depictions of  unsuccessful first-time sex, I think the writers did right by Sheldon and Amy.  And I hope that the physical part of their relationship can now fade into the background where they can explore it in private, much like the show did when kissing was introduced into their relationship.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015



IF TODAY IS YOUR BIRTHDAY: This year you will greet some positive changes in your life. You’ll need to learn to look at the big picture more often. Your ability to learn comes out as you adapt to new ideas, cultures and perhaps new developments in your chosen field. If you are single, you might connect with someone who is very different from the type of suitor you have chosen in the past. This experience will be a real eye-opener for you. If you are attached, you find that more acceptance and trust builds between the two of you. Your in-laws could play a significant role in your life. GEMINI might wear you down with his or her constant chatter.

Don't aim for the top of the tree, aim for the stars. Your potential is limited only by your imagination and your imagination is limited only by your willingness to dream. What is it you want most from life? Go out and get it over the coming 12 months.

Saturday, December 05, 2015


I've decided to adopt the French usage of Daesh to refer to the organization that recently committed terrorist attacks in Paris.

This article gives a good English-language explanation of why.  In short, they're not actually Islamic and they're not actually a state, so we shouldn't give them an importance they don't have.  Plus, the word "Daesh" (which is an acronym of the group's Arabic name) can mean "a bigot who imposes his view on others" in Arabic, which is appropriate.

I find each of these points sufficiently compelling in and of itself, but, on top of all that, we have the fact that Daesh dislikes being called Daesh but France prefers that usage. Under the circumstances, I think it's especially appropriate to disregard Daesh's preference in favour of France's.

It occurs to me that it would be interesting to extend this principle. What if there was a general rule that the victim of any offence gets to choose the name or terminology used to define and/or address the perpetrator?

This would be optional (so the victim isn't in the situation where now they have to decide on a name for the perpetrator on top of everything else!), and perhaps there would have to be limitations, like the name you give the perpetrator can't be worse than the offence they committed (so you can't insist that everyone address the guy who blocked your car in the driveway as Pedophile) and they get to resume their own name after the consequences of their offence have ended (so if they kill someone the name change is permanent, but if they fixed your shoes wrong and you had to go back and get them redone, the name change only lasts until you get your properly-fixed shoes back.)

Assholes have been known to use names and forms of address to insult, belittle, or otherwise disrespect people (e.g. calling a grownup woman "miss", misgendering transpeople, insisting on addressing people by their birth name even though they changed it, addressing people by their spouse's surname even when they didn't opt to take their spouse's surname.)  So why not use this power against the assholes?

Unless, of course, that would just make us no better than the assholes...

Friday, December 04, 2015

Things They Should Invent: open source all discontinued products

Sometimes, for various reasons, companies decide to discontinue a particular product, because continuing to manufacture it is no longer an optimal business choice.  Perhaps it's not profitable enough to be worth manufacturing any more, perhaps they prefer to focus their business efforts on other things and it's just not worth continuing to put resources into that particular thing.

The problem with this is that the product is no longer available to any consumers who may still want to buy it.  We're completely at the mercy of manufacturers to continue manufacturing the products that work best for us, and we're left in the lurch when they decide to change their business direction for whatever reason.

Solution: whenever a company discontinues a particular product, they should be required to make the source publicly available for free.  The "source" c\would be the recipe for a food product or beauty product, the pattern for an item of clothing, the technical specifications for a piece of technology, etc. - whatever information is needed to reproduce the product.

This kind of information is usually proprietary, because if the source were available anyone could just make the product themselves and the company wouldn't make any money.  Which is a reasonable rule within the framework of a capitalist society.  However, if the company chooses not to make the product available any more (and, therefore, opts out of making money on it), they shouldn't get to hold it hostage and prevent anyone from ever using it again.

If the company's decision to discontinue the product was in fact advisable - because there isn't demand, because their other products are superior, because the revenue generated by the product doesn't make up for the expenditure and trouble of producing and selling it - then it shouldn't make any difference if they release the source.  But if their decision to discontinue the product was inadvisable, the rest of us shouldn't be punished for their inadvisable business decision.

Variation: if a company alters a product rather than discontinuing it, they have to release the source upon request to individual customers who contact them.  So, for example, the pattern for the my old, beloved Victoria's Secret underwear wouldn't be posted online because they still make the product, but I could email them and say "Your new cotton panties don't work for me - they're itchy wedgie machines! Please send me the pattern of the previous style," and they would be required to send me the pattern so I could make them or have them made myself.