Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books read in July 2016


1. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
2. The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time by Jonathan Kozol
3. Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
4. Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee--A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee


1. Calculated in Death
2. Thankless in Death
3. Taken in Death
4. Concealed in Death
5. Festive in Death

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The age when you stop being intrinsically interesting

I was looking at this 30-second YouTube video of a toddler ring bearer who was reluctant to walk all the way to the altar and his innovative way of solving that problem:

Some of the comments were to the effect of "What do you expect choosing such a little kid to be your ring bearer?" as though the wedding couple is disappointed that they didn't get flawless textbook ring bearing.

My extended family is currently full of weddings and toddlers, and extrapolating from this I realize that they didn't choose that kid to be their ring bearer because they wanted flawless textbook ring bearing.  The chose the kid to be their ring bearer because they wanted to see what would happen if they put him in a little suit and gave him a ring pillow and told him to walk down the aisle.  Maybe he'd do something cute or interesting - and he did!

When children are very small, they are intrinsically interesting that way, at least to people who care about them.  It's interesting to see what they'll do in a new situation, how they'll react to new input, etc. That's why friends and family members and co-workers will hand their new baby to my childfree self - to see how we react to each other. That's why adults like to show small children animals and toys and mirrors and bubbles - to see what they do.

And then there must be some age, I'm not sure exactly how old, when a kid's reactions stop being intrinsically interesting, and the adults want them to sit down and be quiet, and they'd get in trouble for throwing the ring pillow.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Interpersonal interaction of the day

As I've mentioned before, one of the many things I dislike about myself is that I'm not (and can't seem to get) knowledgeable enough about how to treat people with disabilities. (At this point, some people will say "Like a person." This doesn't help for reasons that I will get into momentarily.)  I can't always tell when they need help or when they've got this. I can't tell when to offer help or when to wait to be asked. If the lady in the wheelchair drops something, can she pick it up herself or does she need help? When giving directions to someone who's using a white cane but wearing glasses, can I point or give visual cues (e.g. turn left at the big green sign?)

When I do my best, I sometimes fuck up, like the time I eagerly scurried to open a door for a lady with a cane and almost caused her to fall down, because she needed to hold onto the door handle for support. 

When I try to educate myself, I just end up feeling even less certain. For example, I saw some kind of awareness campaign saying that some people who use wheelchairs can walk. So when I overhear the couple in the wheelchairs saying "There it is on the top shelf," should I interrupt and offer to grab it for them, or can they get it themselves?  How do I tell?

I don't want to make people with disabilities do the extra work of having to ask for help, or do the extra work of having their day and train of thought interrupted to fend off unnecessary offers of help. And I hate the fact that I'm not good enough at being a person to tell, and thereby impose extra work on people for whom the simple act of going to the grocery store is more work than it is for me.

So with all this as background, I had an extremely interesting interaction in the grocery store today.  Behind me in line was an older lady in wheelchair who spoke broken English with a thick accent.  As I'm telling the cashier that yes I would like bags and try to balance the weight if you can and I have coupons and air miles, I see out of the corner of my eye that the lady in the wheelchair has dropped a bag.

Before I'd even had time to mentally debate whether I should retrieve it for her or see if she can get it for herself, she snaps her fingers and says "Hey!" to me. When I turn to look at her, she points to the bag that fell and says "Get that for me?" I promptly pick it up for her, she says thank you, and I go back to dealing with the cashier.  Shortly afterwards the bag falls again, she snaps her fingers, says "Hey!" to get my attention, and points to the bag again.  I retrieve it with a joke about how it really doesn't want to go home with her, we laugh, and I finish my transaction.

If I'd been reading this story in someone else's blog, the lady's actions would have sounded imperious and arrogant to me. But the dynamic IRL was that she was answering my unasked questions about what I should do (and thereby attending to my emotional needs). Her immediate reaction (rather than waiting to see if I'd react) and clear call for my attention spared me the debate about whether to get involved, so I had the positive feelings that come with helping the lady in the wheelchair rather than the uncertain feelings that I usually have in this situation.

Of course, I'm sure a huge part of the reason why this lady didn't sound imperious and arrogant was that I held all the privilege in the situation. It could very likely have read differently if I'd been young enough that she held the age privilege, or if she'd been white and I'd been non-white, or if she'd spoken the same generic Canadian English as I do, or perhaps even if she'd been male.

But, somehow, she read the convergence of factors right and managed, even in this unconventional way, to give me the information I needed and facilitate the interaction so we both left with our goals achieved.

Of course, none of this should be necessary. In an ideal world, I'd know how to be a person well enough that I wouldn't have to look to the less privileged person in the interaction for guidance. But since the reality of this specific situation is that my incompetent self was the person we were stuck with, I admire and laud this lady for handling the situation with such aplomb. It doesn't sound like something that should work, but it worked beautifully!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Brilliant Ideas that will Never Work: murder-proof knife

While writing my previous blog post, I came up with an idea for a knife that can't be used as a murder weapon.

If the blade of the knife touches something that is approximately 37 degrees celsius (i.e. the temperature of the human body), the blade retracts, making it impossible to use it to cut or stab anything.

We already have thermometers with protruding metal probes that detect the temperature of the thing they're touching (e.g. meat thermometers). We already have switches that switch on and off when the thermometer they're attached to crosses a certain threshold (i.e. thermostats). We already have knives with blades that retract. So combine all this technology to make a knife whose blade retracts when it touches something at a temperature near 37 degrees.

Food shouldn't be near 37 degrees, at least not for any significant amount of time.  It should either be stored below 4 degrees or cooked above 60 degrees. If the food you're trying to prepare is 37 degrees, it needs to be either heated up or cooled down.

If you're using the knife for something other than food preparation, the thing you're cutting is probably room temperature.  Room temperature is about 20 degrees, and 37 degrees is uncomfortably hot for ambient temperature. If the ambient temperature is 37 degrees, you really should move to somewhere cooler before you get heatstroke.

I don't deny the possibility that there might be some specialized activities beyond the scope of my imagination that legitimately require the use of a knife at 37 degrees celsius. And they can use a specialized, non-murder-proof knife for those specialized activities. But for ordinary household use, knives could be made murder-proof.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

US gun money braindump

With the various US shootings in the news and a constant flow of information about how gun industry money is influencing US politics, my shower gave me the early foundations of an idea to disrupt the cycle.

I know I'm a foreigner and therefore this isn't my business at all, but it is an idea I haven't seen elsewhere, so I'm posting it in case it's useful to anyone.

We know that the pro-gun people's argument for having guns is that they need them for self-defence and/or they're used for perfectly valid sporting pursuits.

We know that there's a lot of firearm manufacturer money spent lobbying against any restrictions on owning or acquiring firearms.

My first idea to disrupt this was to make firearm manufacturers pay a fine whenever a product they make is used as a murder weapon.  This is intended to disincentivize manufacturers from lobbying against firearms restrictions, and possibly incentivize them to produce products that make mass murder less easy.

But, because of all this lobbying money, any law specifically targeting firearm manufacturers is unlikely to pass.

So my next idea was to be big and bold: all manufacturers of all products must pay a fine whenever a product they manufacture is used as a murder weapon.

Q: But wouldn't this result in all kinds of harm to all kinds of random businesses (many of whose products are far more vital and far less profitable than firearms)?

A: To mitigate that, I propose a progressive fine structure.  The fine to be paid is a percentage of the company's revenues (not profits, because those can be hidden with accounting).  It starts out as an extremely small percentage (like 0.01%), and that percentage increases (perhaps even doubles) with every subsequent murder. (I can make an argument for the percentage increasing every time there's a murder with any of the company's products, or for each individual product having its own tally.)  So if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and one very resourceful person comes up with a way to murder someone using a tube of mascara, you have to pay a tiny fine. But if you're a manufacturer of firearms or ammunition and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble.  (And, of course if you're a manufacturer of cosmetics and someone murders 50 people all at once with one of your products, you're going to be in serious financial trouble too.)

Q: But why are you just focusing on murder? All kinds of people are shot in alleged self-defence or in accidents too, not to mention all the people who are injured, some of them seriously!

A: All these things are important too, and I have no objection to including them if it can be made workable. My thinking in focusing on murder is that it's far more difficult to argue with. By making policy that focuses strictly on murder weapons, you're not questioning the go-to arguments of self-defence or culturally-considered-legitimate sporting pursuits. You're not trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens or regular folks.  You are, in fact, agreeing with all the standard arguments about why guns should be allowed. It's just the bizarre, exceptional case of murderers that you're addressing - people who use the guns for the express purpose of going out to kill people.

Q: Wouldn't the focus on murder make people (perhaps with firearm-industry-provided lawyers) attempt to defend themselves with claims of self-defence or accidents?

A: Since murder is already a separate crime with a more severe sentence, people are already incentivized to do that. I don't know whether or not extra lawyering could make a difference.

Q: Why manufacturers? Why not retailers?

A: I have no objection to including retailers too. I'm focusing on manufacturers because I have the impression that that's where the lobbying money is coming from.

Q: So what do you expect manufacturers to actually do?

A: Primarily, to stop lobbying against various proposed legislation intended to stop guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people.

But they could perhaps also stop manufacturing guns that make it so easy to kill so many people.  For example, they could make guns that fire fewer rounds per minute, or that require the user to squeeze the trigger each time they want to fire a round rather than holding it down. I've seen mentions of certain types of ammunition being more lethal than others, so ammunition manufacturers could probably use that information to make ammunition that's less lethal. Perhaps they might also have the option of providing their products wholesale only to retailers with stricter security checks.

And, of course, they always have the option of doing nothing and bearing the risk of a massive fine that would put them out of business if someone should choose to use their products for mass murder.

Q: And what about manufacturers of other products who get caught up in this? What do you expect them to actually do?

A: If their products are being used as murder weapons on the same order of magnitude as guns, perhaps it would be a good thing for them to be incentivized to make these products less lethal!

Q: Might this disincentivize foreign companies from making their products available in the US?

A: It might, I don't know. Maybe if it does, and maybe if there's enough demand for the product in question, it could also boost the US manufacturing sector.

Q: And how do you propose getting this kind of legislation introduced when it's so obviously targeting firearms?

A: Wait until someone is murdered with an ordinary object that isn't intended as a weapon. Sensationalize the situation in the media, cite other historical cases of people being murdered with ordinary household objects that aren't intended as a weapon, and make it sound vitally important to introduce safety measures so ordinary household objects can't be used as murder weapons. Don't mention firearms at all.  Cars have had more and more safety measures introduced over the years, at least some of which have been required by law. Use the same spirit for everything, but without (at least initially) presuming to dictate what exactly the safety measures should be.  This is a country that managed to ban Kinder Eggs FFS - surely they can pass some anti-murder-weapon legislation if no one mentions the G word.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Things They Should Study: what would election outcomes look like if votes were weighted by how much people are affected?

I've occasionally seen people say they're voting for various buffoonish political candidates for amusement purposes, because they want to see what shenanigans that candidate will get up to next.

When I hear this, I think what a privileged position these people must be in, to be so unaffected by politics that they can vote solely on the grounds of amusement.

In the shower one day, I had the idea of discouraging those who are so completely unaffected by politics from voting, which evolved into a series of other idea of giving extra votes to people who are more affected, or weighting votes by how affected people are.

Of course, this is all completely unfeasible in reality, and I'm in no way arguing or hinting that it should actually be done.  Voting is a capital-R Right, and it would be wholly inappropriate to argue for reducing some people's rights because they're thought to need them less. (That's the stated reasoning oppressors used to prevent people from having voting rights in the first place.)

But it would be super interesting to study as a what-if scenario.  What would the outcomes of elections look like if people's votes were weighted by how greatly they're affected by the policies of that level of government?

Another problem would be that weighing how greatly people are affected is highly subjective, with different people having different opinions about which factors should be weighted most heavily.  But since this is a what-if scenario anyway, why not calculate the outcome for every arguable definition of "greatly affected"?  What would election outcomes look like if people's votes were weighted by how much taxes the government's policies would cost them or save them? What if votes were weighted by how much people's employment and livelihood were affected? What if it they were weighted by how dependent you are on that government's policies for health care, or education, or transportation?

It might also be possible in certain cases to determine if there is a subset of people who are voting "wrong", by which I mean that the thing that affects them the most is the accessibility of widgets, but they're voting for the party that's trying to ban widgets. (Which would get into the question of whether they're voting "wrong" on purpose for selfless purposes because they believe other issues are more important than access to widgets, or if they're voting "wrong" out of ignorance.)

In any case, it would be terribly interesting to study as a "what if?", and might also end up being somehow informative. But it would have to be done in a way that makes it clear that weighting votes isn't something that actually should  be done.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition XI

16. Some people seem to be under the impression that people can choose their feelings. They then go and give advice to others on that assumption.

I suppose it might be possible that some people can choose their feelings, but not everyone can. So advice to choose to feel a certain way is completely useless to someone who can't choose their feelings.

Therefore, people who give advice on the assumption that everyone can choose their feelings to people who can't choose their feelings lose the ability to choose their feelings until the issue on which they were giving advice is solved. Sentences to be served consecutively.

Actually, let's extend this: anyone who gives advice that assumes that the advisee has skills or resources that they don't actually have is denied use of those skills or resources (or their own equivalent) until such time as the issue is solved. Sentences to be served consecutively.

If the advisor acknowledges in their advice that the advisee may not actually have the skills or  resources and they're just throwing out ideas until something sticks, that's fine, no consequences necessary. But if the advisor takes as a given that the advisee clearly has those things and doesn't even consider the possibility that they aren't available, the advisor is denied the use of those things or their equivalent in the advisor's own life.

For example: "Does your university have a student health clinic? If they do, that would probably be a good starting point" is acceptable.

But if you say "Just go to the student health clinic!" when the advisee's university doesn't have one, you are not allowed access to your primary medical care until the advisee's health issue is resolved.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Things I did invent!

For years and years, I've been telling the universe to invent things for me. This week I shut up and invented the things for myself!

1. Since I discovered the Toronto Fire Active Incidents page years ago, I've gotten in the habit of checking it whenever I hear a siren, just to see what's going on. However, not all sirens are the fire department.  So I was going to write a Things They Should Invent that someone should merge the Toronto Fire Calls map and the Toronto Police Calls map (as well as ambulance data, if it is available) into a single "What's that siren?" map.

Making a map isn't in my immediate skill set, but people who are smarter than I am have already turned these data streams into twitter feeds. So I made my very first twitter list, which shows all police and fire calls in near-real time (there's about a 5 minute delay). So now when I hear a siren, I just pull up my list and within moments the answer to my question will appear.

(Although if anyone is feeling ambitious or creative, I still think a map would be a better interface).

2. There was some visible sediment in the reservoir of my coffee maker.  Neither running vinegar through the machine nor rinsing it out would budge it, so I figured it needed to be scrubbed. Unfortunately, since it's only a 4-cup coffee maker, the reservoir is small enough that I can just barely get my hand in and couldn't move it around in the way I needed to to scrub the sediment. A bottle brush wasn't soft enough, and that sponge-on-a-stick thing that's like a bottle brush but with a sponge was too bulky. I thought a q-tip would be about the right size and texture, but I couldn't get my hand in properly to manipulate it the way it needed to be manipulated.

I was going to write a Things They Should Invent of extra-long q-tips for these kinds of cleaning challenges, but then I had an inspiration:

I took a cotton ball (the kind you use to remove makeup or nail polish), stuck it on the end of a fork like it's a meatball, and used that to scrub the inside of the coffee maker reservoir.  The cotton was the right texture, the fork gives it the kind of stiff support you need for scrubbing, and the fork was long enough that I could manipulate the movements of the cotton fully because my hand could be outside the reservoir. The whole thing was perfectly clean in about 20 seconds!

I've never before been able to actually make one of my Things They Should Invent, and this week I made two in one week!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

How to make a manual for new homes

I previously came up with the idea that developers should provide a user manual for new homes.  Today my shower gave me an idea for how that could be achieved effectively.

First of all, the manual wouldn't be an actual static manual, it would be a constantly-updated website, perhaps with a login to limit it to residents of the development if such a thing is thought to be necessary.

Homeowners are asked to report any problems they have to the developer, and the developer will provide free repairs/resolutions/instructions on preventive maintenance required to the first person to report each problem in exchange for being permitted to document it for the manual. 

The homeowner's privacy is protected throughout the process.  While the repair is photographed and videoed so the process can be fully documented, the homeowner doesn't appear in the photos or videos, and the homeowner can remove any identifying items and tidy the area before the documentation people come in.

Since only the first person to report the problem gets the free resolution, the cost to the developer wouldn't be very much, relatively speaking. It would be no more than the total maintenance cost of one unit over its lifetime (minus any repeated maintenance activities), and would probably turn out to be less because not all homeowners would be interested in participating and it's possible that no one would bother to call the developer for certain very basic maintenance activities (e.g. changing a lightbulb).  Given that each development has many units (my condo has nearly 400), and that developers tend to make multiple similar developments (many aspects of my condo operate the same as my apartment, which was built by the same developer), this is negligible compared with the number of customers served.

On top of that, to properly document a procedure with photos and videos you have to actually carry out the procedure.  So developing the manual this way wouldn't cost anything more than staging it for the cameras, and would save the time and effort of planning what should go into the manual, because the natural course of the homeowners' maintenance problems would make that decision for them.

This would be an excellent way for a developer to make customers feel like they're being taken care of, and would make that developer particularly attractive to first-time buyers who are perfectly positioned to start developing brand loyalty.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Things They Should Invent: dog-in-car thermometer

An article about a law in Massachusetts that would allow people to break into hot cars to rescue pets turned up in my social media, and I was surprised to see some commenters complaining about this law. Their complaint was that passers-by might not realize when a dog is perfectly safe and comfortable in an air-conditioned car and break windows unnecessarily.

This made me think of a simple solution: a thermometer inside the car, positioned in such a way that it's easily visible to passers-by through the window.  That way anyone who's concerned about the dog can easily check the temperature. If it's safe, the window won't be broken unnecessarily. If it's dangerous, the dog will be rescued.

If someone wanted to manufacture this as a new product distinctive from ordinary thermometers, they could make thermometers marked with the temperature range that's safe for dogs (and humans), similar to how some fridge thermometers have coloured markings showing the temperature range that's safe for food storage.

They could also enhance the simple window thermometer with smartphone integration.  If the temperature in the car exceeds a certain threshold or rises at a certain rate, you get an alert on your phone telling you that the temperature in the car is becoming unsafe.

Now, I have heard some people say that is absolutely always 100% of the time unsafe to leave a dog in the car no matter what the conditions, and, since I don't have a car, I've never had to become knowledgeable enough to confirm or refute that statement myself.  But the fact remains that there are people who do think it can be safe.  If there was a visible thermometer in the car along with the dog, it would confirm or refute whatever dog owners or car owners or concerned passers-by or meddling internet people might believe about the safety of the situation.  Then we could all take comfort in the fact that passers-by and owners with smartphones will be immediately alerted when dogs are unsafe, and dogs who are safe can be left to enjoy the musical stylings of Steely Dan in peace.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Analogy for "can't you take a joke?"

Some people say cruel things to others and if called out on it say "Can't you take a joke?"

Some people think "a good sense of humour" means "laughs at every one of my attempts to make a joke, no matter how pathetic", and accuse those who don't laugh at their unfunny attempts at humour of having a bad sense of humour.

Today my shower gave me an (unfortunately phallocentric) analogy for both these phenomena:

It's like kicking your partner in the balls while you're having sex, and then accusing them of being impotent or bad at sex when this doesn't give them an orgasm.

Being good at sex, like being good at humour, requires anticipating and meeting the other person's needs. If what you're doing doesn't get the results you're going for - and, especially, if what you're doing causes unwanted pain - you're the one who's doing it wrong, not them.

And even if there have been some people in human history who laughed at your unfunny attempts at humour, the fact still remains that if the attempt at humour doesn't work for this particular audience, you're the one who's doing it wrong.  Just like how, even though under Rule 34 there is probably someone somewhere in the depths of the internet who gets off on being kicked in the balls, the fact remains that if you kick your partner in the balls and they double over in pain instead of having an orgasm, you're the one who's doing it wrong.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Things They Should Invent: vacuum bags with insecticide inside

This post contains non-graphic descriptions of killing household pests from a phobic point of view.

My severe phobia of bugs means that it is necessary for any bugs in my home to be eliminated, but renders me too squeamish to touch them directly or indirectly.  So my standard approach is to spray the bug with Raid or something similar to kill it, then to vacuum up the corpse.  However, sometimes circumstances make it impossible to spray it with Raid first (if it's on the ceiling, if it's flying around, if I'm startled and the vacuum is closer than the Raid), so I end up vacuuming a live bug.

The internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed will kill a bug, and the internet tells me that the trauma of being vacuumed won't kill a bug.  So, as a precautionary measure, if I vacuum a live bug, I spray Raid down the vacuum after it, then block the opening to the vacuum for 24 hours. I've been doing this for 13 years, and have yet to see any evidence that the bugs survive the process.

But it occurred to me in the shower that the makers of vacuum bags could help people like me by selling vacuum bags with insecticide on the inside.  If a bug gets vacuumed up, it is automatically poisoned to death.

In addition to helping people who vacuum up bugs as part of their home pest control approach, this would also help regular people by killing things like bedbugs, fleas, dust mites etc. It would make sure that they get killed in the natural course of housework, resulting in a healthier living environment for everyone.  They could also add antibacterials and germicide to help kill everything before it escapes the vacuum bag.

Some might object to the introduction of additional poisonous chemicals into the household.  However, putting the insecticides inside the vacuum bag would reduce the need to spray them around the home, so they're less likely to end up in the air you breathe or in your food.  On top of that, they can totally continue to sell non-insecticide vacuum bags for people who aren't interested in using their vacuum as a bug-killing machine.

We already have the precedent of introducing not-strictly-necessary chemicals into household cleaning products for psychological purposes.  For example, anti-bacterial toilet cleaners are a thing that exists, even though everyone is going to treat even a freshly-cleaned toilet as a contaminated surface anyway.  So why not give us the option of treated vacuum bags, and address the psychological needs of people with one of the most common phobias?  I'd even gladly pay extra for it!