Showing posts with label half-formed ideas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label half-formed ideas. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Half-formed idea for how to warn prospective tenants of bad neighbours

From The Ethicist:

I have a rental property, and the neighbors next door are extremely racist. We didn’t know this when we bought the house. We have had both white and Hispanic people as renters. The next-door neighbors harassed the Hispanics until they left. The white family had no issues getting along but did hear their racist rants. I cannot legally do anything about this behavior. Am I obligated to tell any prospective renters about this problem? I don’t want people to move in without knowing of it. If I do tell them, how do I phrase it so that I’m not perceived as discriminatory?

I know what to do to solve this problem, but I don't know how to get it done.

What you need is online reviews that turn up on the first page of Google results for the address, accurately describing the quality of the property and of your services as landlord, and accurately describing the neighbours' behaviour.  Then anyone who's interested can be warned about the neighbours and make decisions accordingly, but it won't come across as the landlord trying to dissuade tenants of certain ethnicities.

The problem, of course, is making online reviews happen. Working hard to convince former tenants to leave online reviews is bad form, and leaving them yourself as a landlord is outright inethical.

Nevertheless, the best medium for communicating this message is the voice of former tenants.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What if they had completely separate hospitals for infectious and non-infectious patients?

One of the risks of going to a hospital is that you might pick up a hospital-acquired infection, like MRSA or C. Diff.

At the root, there are a lot of infections in hospitals because many patients are infectious.

But there are also many patients who aren't infectious at all. For example, if you're in the hospital for surgery or chemotherapy to have a broken bone set or to give birth, you don't present any risk of contagion to others - but contagion may present a greater-than-usual risk to you.

So what if they had completely separate hospitals for contagious and non-contagious patients?  Different buildings, different doctors and nurses, never the twain shall meet.

Apart from money, is there any reason for not doing this? The only thing I can think of is that a certain subset of patients may or may not be infectious, and we don't know yet.  (I can think of several potential ways to handle that, but that's probably something better left to medical professionals.)  However, at the same time, there are also patients who are definitely not contagious - the surgeries and broken bones and childbirth that I mentioned above.  Is there any medical or non-money-related logistical reason not to keep them separate?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

If you think the government is going to take your guns, you should sell your guns

The first panel of this The Knight Life comic: "Whenever gun nuts think their weapons will get taken away, they buy tons more!!"

I have no idea whether people actually think this way, but, at the very least, it's a fairly common trope - the idea that American gun people think the government is going to take away their guns, and stockpile guns in response.

It occurred to me when I read this comic that stockpiling guns is the most foolish thing you can do if you fear the government is going to take your guns away.

On the day the government takes your guns away, they will take all your guns, no matter how many you have.  They wouldn't come to collect X number of guns from each person, they'd come for all the guns.  Regardless of how many guns you have at the beginning of Gun Confiscation Day, you will have zero guns at the end of the day.

Therefore, if you stockpile in advance of the government taking your guns away, you will still have zero guns at the end of Gun Confiscation Day, plus less money than you did before you started stockpiling.  Nothing is gained, guns and money are lost.

A better way to prepare for the government taking your guns away is to sell as many of your guns as possible before the government gets there. You will still have zero guns at the end of Gun Confiscation Day, but you will have more money than you did before.  Then, after the gun confiscation is complete, you can use that extra money to acquire more guns.

Some people might be concerned that it will be more difficult to acquire guns after Gun Confiscation Day. But stockpiling in advance won't negate that. If you stockpile, you'll come away with zero guns and less money. If you sell, you'll come away with zero guns and more money.  And it's always easier to acquire contraband with more money than with less money.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The origin of mansplaining and bootstrapping?

A while back, this story circulated where a male employee and a female employee switched email signatures on their shared inbox:

My first thought was that nothing like this has ever happened to me, but in the shower today, it occurred to me that this might explain another phenomenon I've observed.

When I ask for something that's perfectly reasonable and then don't get it, older men within earshot of my complaints often respond with "Well, did you ask?"  Of course I asked. And I didn't get it. That's why I'm complaining about it.

For example, when Dell said they couldn't sell me an extended warranty as promised (which, BTW was two years ago and I'm still using the same computer - they could have gotten hundreds of dollars each year and absolute loyal out of me by extending it), I kept getting "Well, did you tell them that you'd been sent this personalized offer?  And that you had a confirmation email?"  Yes, I did. And it didn't get me what I wanted. That's why I'm complaining about it.

For as long as I can remember, I've been baffled at this "Well, did you [do the most glaringly obvious first step]?" with tone and delivery suggesting that they think this is a whole solution.

But in the shower, it occurred to me that maybe, in the world of the men who say these things to me, the most glaringly obvious first step is the whole solution?  Maybe they live in a world where all they need to say is "I have a confirmation email" and people agree with them?

I don't know how to test this, but if it is the case, I wonder if there are any other disadvantages I might be experiencing that I don't perceive?

Also, might this be part of the origin of mansplaining?  If things tend to work out for them when they try the first obvious step, they might arrive at the conclusion that someone who's having problems hasn't tried the first obvious step?

And more broadly speaking, this would probably be the root of punitive "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" policies - people in positions of greater privilege have things turn out right when they do the basic right things, so they conclude that people who have things turn out wrong aren't doing the basic right things.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What if there was just one chain of stores selling all clothes?

When I was writing about the problem of sales commission, I realized that even with salespeople whose sole motivation was to help me find the best clothes for me, clothes shopping would still be a challenge because there are so many different clothing stores all operating in silos. The optimal pants for me could be in some indy store two neighbourhoods over, and I'd never know because it's simply unworkable to visit every single store or chain of stores and try on a reasonable share of their clothes to get an idea of how they fit.

But what if there was just one giant chain, staffed by expert salespeople incentivized on customer service rather than on sales numbers? 

This one chain will sell every single brand of clothes. They don't pick and choose which brands to carry, instead they carry every brand, at every price point.  If a brand wants to be sold in [Ontario/Canada/the world/whatever the jurisdiction covered is] it simply signs up with the store.  The brand sets its own price point, of which the store deducts a fee to cover the cost of running a store.  The store is not permitted to turn away a brand.

Store employees are trained on all the products, and can help you find things that meet your needs.  They could do clothes fitting like the people from Secrets from your Sister do bra fitting - for example, I could tell them "Reitman's Comfort Fit jeans fit me perfectly, but they've discontinued the boot cut dark wash. Can you find me a boot cut (or, barring that, true straight leg) dark wash that also fits me comfortably without gapping in the back?"  And the employee uses their expertise to find something that meets my needs without my having to try on everything in the store.

The store would also have a robust website with free shipping and a generous return policy (they can afford this because of economies of scale), so if the particular item you want isn't available in the actual store, you can order it and have it shipped straight to you.  Maybe economies of scale would also make it possible to have an in-store alterations service!

Now, at this point, you're probably thinking "But I don't want to have to go all the way out to the big-box stores to shop for clothing in some giant warehouse!"

You wouldn't have to. As the price of getting a monopoly on the clothing market, the chain of stores would have to maintain a location in every existing retail space currently used to sell clothing.  They could set up a small specialization in each space - one for office clothes targeting women in their 30s, another for men's running gear, another for toddler party dresses, etc.  Key strategic spaces could be dedicated to whatever is new, so people who have shopped recently don't have to go through everything, and smaller brands don't immediately sink into obscurity.

The data collected by having all clothing sales centralized would help improve everyone's shopping experience by matching in-store stock with what people in the neighbourhood wear most frequently.  In other words, even if my neighbour buys her awesome dress from Yorkville or Queen West or Pacific Mall, the computer will know that someone at Yonge & Eglinton bought and loves this dress.  If many people in the neighbourhod wear and love similar things, local stores will eventually start stocking similar things

Fit information could also be centralized, so maybe eventually a computer could tell me "If Shirt A drapes well on you and Shirt B drapes poorly on you, then Shirt C will drape well on you." Like Amazon's "People who bought this item also bought", they could have a "People who looked good in this item also looked good in."

I know greater competition is theoretically supposed to increase consumer choice, but, despite the fact that I'm wholly materialistic, have disposable income, and adore having nice clothes that make me feel beautiful, I find it tediously difficult to shop for clothes. More often than not, I go out with the intention of spending money on clothes and come home without having bought anything. I think if we could somehow have just one chain of stores that sells everything, with well-trained staff who are incentivized to provide excellent customer service rather than to increase sales numbers, it would be a lot easier to actually buy things when I want to buy things. Which would probably be good for the economy and the industry.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Things They Should Invent: platonic meetup app for women attending events alone

Sometimes it can be logistically inconvenient to go to events alone. It can be a lot easier to go as part of a group, so you can hold each other's place in a general admission audience or keep an eye on each other if the situation turns questionable. These inconveniences are felt particularly by women, what with dealing with purses and keeping an eye on your drink and getting home safely at night.

Sometimes when I'm at a place alone and I need a buddy, I form a temporary alliance with another woman who's also there alone. I'll hold your place while you go to the bathroom, then we'll trade. Would you join me in walking back to the subway after?

But you can't just blindly assume there will be someone there to serve as a buddy when you need one. So sometimes, when I'm uncertain about going as a woman alone and I can't find someone to go with me, I end up not going.

What if there was an app for that?

I envision two parts: one that's kind of like Meetup, and one that's kind of like Grindr, but both platonic-only and women-only.

The Meetup aspect (which doesn't have to be an app - it can and should function as a website) is for people who are considering attending an event but don't want to go alone. You click on "I'm interested", you see a list of other people who are interested, and you can get in touch and make plans. (Potential safety feature: you can indicate on the website who you're going with, so the website has a record. I'm not a superfan of facebook integration, but maybe your facebook friends can see who you're going with?)

The Grindr aspect (which has to be an app because it's location-based) is for if you're already at an event and you want a buddy.  Maybe the crowd is more of a crush than you anticipated, maybe the walk back to the subway is scarier at night than it looked on Google Street View, maybe you don't dare brave those portapotties alone. You sign into the app, indicate where you are and that you're looking for a buddy, and see anyone else present who's looking for a buddy.

Of course, as with so many things in life, the challenge is the creep factor.  How do you keep out people who are just looking for single women, either for a hookup or to find vulnerable people?

The only idea I can think of initially is a nominal membership charge (like Metafilter's $5) that has to be paid by a credit card with a female name on it. But, obviously, there are problems with that. How would whoever or whatever is responsible for determining if a name is female tell that Jean Augustine is a woman but Jean Charest is a man? What about the poor girl whose parents decided to kre8tively name her Bruce? It would also marginalize people who don't have credit cards, or aren't at liberty to use credit cards for this, which would include minors. If, for whatever reason, a 15-year-old girl is going somewhere alone and feels the need to reduce the risk or difficulty of doing so, she shouldn't be shut out of a tool for doing so because she's a minor.

But if there was a way to keep the creeps out, it could be incredibly useful.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Alternatives to political debates

I've been thinking for some time that debates between political candidates aren't particularly useful, because they don't reflect the actual work of being a political leader.  Political leaders aren't (or shouldn't be) spending their days arguing with someone advocating for a different policy platform, they are (or should be) their days providing leadership to get shit done, often with an irritatingly finite budget and a politically divided legislature.  Instead of debates (or, if people insist, in addition to debates), candidates should have to do televised activities to reflect that.

My shower has given me two ideas so far:

1. Assembling Ikea furniture:  The candidate has the instructions but can't touch the actual furniture parts or tools. The candidate oversees a team of people who are allowed to touch the parts and tools but aren't allowed to look at the instructions.  The candidate has to effectively communicate what needs doing to the team. To up the difficulty level, maybe there are multiple pieces of furniture to be assembled and the parts are all mixed in together. Maybe there's one or more parts missing, or one or more parts extra.  Maybe the other team has the missing parts!

2. Scavenger hunt: The candidates are given a list of things to find (impossible ideal: a randomly-generated subset of all the things in the world), a specific budget, and a team of people. Their mission is to bring all the things to a designated location.  The crucial thing about this scavenger hunt is that it is not designed to be logistically feasible. Some items might be more expensive than the budget allows for. Some items might be extremely difficult to move. Some items might belong to someone who is reluctant to give them up or sell them or lend them.  Maybe the last surviving white rhino is on the list. Maybe the Stone of Scone is on the list. Maybe the Pope's underwear is on the list. (As well as easier things like a pink paperclip or a ferret or a bottle of EKU 28.) And the candidates and their teams have to plan and strategize and persuade to figure out how to get all these things, in time and under budget, despite whatever obstacles exist.

In both cases, there are several options for who is on each candidate's team. Maybe they have a team of randomly selected politicians they'll have to work with, e.g. MPs if this is a contest between prospective Prime Ministers. Maybe they have a team randomly selected from a group of volunteers - people volunteer to be part of this, but which candidate's team they're on (or if they're selected at all) is left up to chance. Maybe the candidate gets to appoint their team. (I like the idea of a team partially randomly-selected and partially appointed, so we can see both how the candidates work with people who don't necessarily support them as well as the power of the candidate's metaphorical rolodex and the candidate's judgement in choosing a team.)

In all cases, the goal is not to see who finishes the task first or fastest, but rather to see how they handle the tasks. How do they elicit the desired performance from people who aren't necessarily enthusiastic allies? How do they deal with obstacles and frustrations? How do they deal with limited resources?  What are their responsibility and blame dynamics like?

Ideally, these challenges wouldn't be scored and wouldn't be set up to necessarily have a clear winner.  The goal is to let voters observe the process and see just what kinds of leaders these candidates would make.

Can you think of any other activities that would be similarly useful in achieving this goal?

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.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

How to reboot Are You Being Served?

I was very surprised to hear that they're rebooting Are You Being Served? because that show is very much a product of its time and totally out of step with modern comedic sensibilities.

But then my shower gave me an idea of how this might be carried off.

Grace Brothers a struggling department store, conveniently located in London's West End so as to create a situation where all its sales staff are struggling actors, working in the store as a day job until they get their big break.

The sales staff are established as modern, relatable people - savvy, witty, reasonably worldly, aware of irony, texting and snapchatting, dressed like regular Londoners. They're also very good at their jobs as clothing salespeople, able to serve as personal shoppers and do alterations and bra-fitting and such, but in this modern world there's simply less call for this sort of service.

Then store management hands down a new dictum: in an attempt to boost sales and draw people back into the store, they're going for nostalgia. There is now a dress code - suits for the men, brown jumpers for the ladies, and all kinds of finicky rules about who's allowed to wear what kind of hat and how many frills you're allowed to have on your blouse. Staff are ordered to address each other as Mr./Mrs./Ms. Surname, and strict scripts are introduced, such as "Mr. Humphries, are you free?" and "Are you being served, Madam?"

The staff thinks this is ridiculous, so, being actors, they decide to make it a game. They see their new dress code as costumes, and start getting some character acting practice in when dealing with customers and management.  They do their job and do it as well as possible under the circumstances, but they do so while playing over-the-top roles and having a standing wager to see who can utter the most double-entendres. It's an ongoing improv game, creating foolish, outdated characters to go with store management's foolish, outdated vision. Also the fact that they're all actors creates an opportunity for song and dance numbers as sometimes occurred in the original - someone has an audition piece, they're yes-anding the fuck out of something that happens on the floor, etc.

Even as over-the-top improve characters played ironically, it would still take quite a delicate bit of writing to have the original Are You Being Served? characters work in the 21st century.  I mean, Mr. Humphries' whole schtick is that he has stereotypically gay mannerisms, and that's supposed to be intrinsically funny in and of itself. No competent writer or performer would think of that as a viable comedic choice in the 21st century!!

But that gives me the idea (which may or may not actually be a good idea) that perhaps the actors staffing Grace Brothers are not actually good actors.  (That's why they're working a struggling department store!) And the broad characters of Are You Being Served? are a result of their imperfect acting/improv skills. For example, Miss Brahms is a creation of an American actress who thinks she's speaking with a posh English accent, but it actually comes out Cockney.  Mrs. Slocombe is an attractive middle-aged woman trying to play a young hipster character, but her bold hair colours and makeup are actually unflattering and make her look even older than she actually is. Mr. Humphries is the creation of a Michael Scott type with no sense of judgement or appropriateness, but the character goes over well with customers (who have no clue that he's meant to be a joke and simply think he's fabulous) so no one stops him.

Or maybe that's what the original Are You Being Served? was doing all along...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What if some copies of popular library books didn't have a space on the shelf?

If you follow me on twitter, you know I've been getting irritated with the Toronto Public Library having only ebooks and no print copies of certain titles. I find reading electronically inconvenient, and the app you have to use to read library ebooks extra inconvenient. So far, if a book hasn't been available in print, I just haven't added it to my list.

But I was quite baffled to find that Down the Rabbit Hole, the anthology containing the latest In Death novella, is not available in print at all!  In Death is a long-running series with over 50 titles, and every single title, including the anthologies containing the other novellas, is available from the library in print. But not this one.  Even the next book, Brotherhood in Death, which isn't due to come out until February, is already on order and holdable in print.  There's certainly precedent!

This is especially mysterious since the library has publicly spoken out against unfairly high ebook prices, so you'd think with ebooks being unfairly expensive they buy more print copies and fewer electronic copies.  (Or, since libraries are given a limited number of uses for each copy of an ebook they buy, they'd at least give customers the option of reading on paper if that's what they prefer.)  In the press release, the Chief Librarian is quoted as saying "Ensuring universal access to information in all its forms is key to public libraries’ mandate."  Surely ensuring access to information in all its forms includes in print!

But a comment conversation here made me think that the reason for not getting paper copies of everything might be lack of physical shelf space! Which gave me an idea...

If the problem is in fact shelf space, what if, for books where the library acquires a large number of copies and anticipates many times that number of holds, a certain number of copies aren't assigned a space on a shelf in a branch?  They just circulate throughout the holds system and are sent to the next customer in the holds queue. These kinds of titles rarely make it to a library shelf in the first few months of their life anyway - they're either checked out, on a hold shelf, or in transit.  Perhaps the computer could be programmed to prioritize these "non-shelf" books when allocating which book will respond to the next hold.  This would also increase the likelihood that "shelf" books (i.e. those that are assigned a space on a shelf in a branch) will be found by customers who are browsing the shelves, rather than being off circulating in hold land.

Once the ratio of holds to available copies gets below a certain threshold, the non-shelf books are pulled from circulation and sold, as already happens eventually with a certain number of copies of books with high initial demand.

So what does this achieve?  If not all copies of high-demand, high-circulation books need a space on the shelf, there's more space on the shelf for other books.  So titles that are perhaps less important and have less demand can have just a few spaces on the shelf, thereby making it possible to have a non-zero number of print copies and for customers to enjoy the book in their preferred medium.

For example, the library currently has 138 copies of Devoted in Death, the full-length In Death novel that comes before Down the Rabbit Hole. Currently, there are 45 holds on this title, but almost all the copies are checked out (and those that aren't are on the Best Bets shelf), so if some of the copies of this book were non-shelf, they'd still be doing their job, two months after release date, and probably for at least another month (assuming no new holds).

When Down the Rabbit Hole was first released, there were 80 holds for the 20 available copies, which means it will take 4 lending periods (12 weeks) for everyone to get a chance to read it. Let's use a conservative estimate that 10% of those holds are people who would prefer to read in print but are putting a hold on the only version available. (I suspect it's far more given the hold patterns on previous anthologies, but for the moment let's assume the library has a good sense of where the demand is.)  If the library had just 2 print copies of Down the Rabbit Hole, these hypothetical 8 people who would rather have print copies could also get a chance to read the book in their preferred format within 4 lending periods, thereby providing equitable access in all formats.

If the library designated just two copies of Devoted in Death as non-shelf books, there would still be at least one copy for the shelves of each branch, and there'd also be room on the shelves for two print copies of Down the Rabbit Hole. The non-shelf books would be in full circulation for several months and then could be put straight into the used book sale - where maybe they could even charge a bit extra for them because they're still recent bestsellers.

If this were done on a larger scale, with a small number of non-shelf copies of high-demand titles, then perhaps the library could have one or two print copies of every book, so that everyone could access every title in their preferred format with no negative impact on the availability of high-demand titles.

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.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Half-formed idea: standardized two-step marriage proposal

Something I see from time to time in advice columns is a situation where one partner is ready to get married, and the other partner isn't.  This is often presented as a Serious Relationship Problem, and surprisingly often talked about as a Reason to End the Relationship. 

But one of the things that might happen in a relationship is that one partner is ready to marry before the other partner is.  This doesn't necessarily have to be a problem.  Two people may well have different emotional arcs that end up in the same place.  Everyone who becomes ready to marry was at one point not ready to marry (although, obviously, not being ready to marry doesn't necessarily mean that one day being ready to marry is inevitable), so for one person to be ready to marry before the other isn't necessarily a sign of long-term incompatibility.

There are some people in advice column forums who respond to anything about a partner who isn't proposing with "Well, then you should propose to them!" But that isn't necessarily going to solve the problem.  If the other party isn't yet ready to get married, that creates the awkward situation where they have to decline the marriage proposal, which could be a blow to the relationship. In general, a declined marriage proposal is seen as a setback in a relationship, whereas no marriage proposal yet is seen as a relationship progressing (perhaps normally, perhaps slowly), or perhaps stalled. Declining a marriage proposal is seen as backward movement, whereas not having proposed yet is neutral or slow forward movement.

So I suggest a two-step system:

When one party in the relationship (whom we will call "First") is ready to marry, they inform the other party (whom we will call "Second") through a standardized system/script/ritual.  Under the generally-accepted rules of this system, Second is not required or expected to give any response to the news that First is ready. It's the in-person equivalent of a facebook status update.

However, this means that Second is responsible for making the formal marriage proposal at such time as they are ready (like Penny and Leonard in Big Bang Theory). Second knows they'll get a yes (because First has already given them a yes), so there's no stress or worry about whether the proposal will be accepted.  It becomes a 100% guaranteed positive thing.

I don't really have a good idea for what form the first half of the proposal should take.  It could be as simple as First saying to Second "You're hereby responsible for marriage proposals in this relationship." Extrapolating from my new favourite Polish expression (which I am totally appropriating into English, BTW), First could give Second a toy monkey.  It doesn't really matter, it just needs to be standardized.  And it shouldn't count as an official Phase of the Relationship (like Living Together or Engaged), it's just a notification.

And, of course, if First finds themselves in a position where they want to end the relationship if an engagement isn't forthcoming (which apparently is a feeling some people do have sometimes), they are still allowed to propose to Second.  They just go in knowing they have a higher than average chance of getting a no and having to make difficult decisions from there.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

What if the media stopped covering election campaigning?

I've blogged before about my displeasure with media coverage of Toronto elections.  Apart from the length problem (I still maintain they shouldn't start covering municipal elections until September, with voting day in late October), I wonder if a solution might be for media to stop covering the campaign trail completely.

I don't mean that they shouldn't cover elections, I'm just pondering whether it might be better if they didn't follow all the candidates around and report on the speeches they make and activities they do every day.

This would save media outlets a lot of time and resources.  And then they could put this time and resources into analyzing candidates' platforms and incumbents' records and fact-checking their statements, with the goal of providing us with a factual analysis free of spin.  And since the media are no longer spending all their time running around chasing the few candidates they have deemed front-runners, they'd have the time to analyze all the candidates.

Instead of hosting debates, they should conduct in-depth one-on-one interviews with the candidates with a cross-examination level of intensity. For video and audio media, these interviews should not be aired lived, but rather aired after there's been time to fact-check the candidate's statements.

In addition to all of this, print and online media especially should publish primers on the issues.  In doing this, they shouldn't allow the candidates to define the issues and their scope, but rather look at them as objectively as possible, with the goal of informing the uninformed, especially newcomers etc. who haven't been following all the issues for the whole election cycle.  At the municipal level, this would be especially useful for school board trustee elections, because all voters get to vote for school board trustees, but not all of us are students, teachers or parents and therefore we aren't all up on the issues within the school board.

I think the end result could be a far better signal to noise ratio in election coverage, and therefore make it easier for the uninformed to become informed.  It might also be more affordable for media outlets (especially for provincial and federal elections where there's a lot of travelling), and certainly less stressful for reporters.

It would probably also incentivize politicians to focus more on policy than on soundbites, because, under this model, campaign trail soundbites aren't going to get media coverage, but sound policy and knowledgeability (or lack thereof) are.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Half-formed idea: fully automated text message power outage reporting

Picture this: your power goes out, so you pick up your cellphone and text your six-digit postal code to a specific number, and doing so automatically enters in the hydro company's database that there is a power outage in your postal code.

Currently, you can report power outages by phone or internet.  The problem with reporting them by internet is not everyone has internet during a power outage.  The problem with reporting by phone is that there are a finite number of people who can answer phones, so during widespread power outages, wait times to report an outage can be long.  In fact, as I type this, Toronto Hydro has just announced that its phone lines are overloaded and it only wants people to call for emergencies.  I'm not sure if a simple power outage counts as an emergency or if that's reserved for lines down and trees on lines.

Being able to text your outage directly into the database would be faster, require less human intervention, and take up less bandwidth.  It would also help you preserve your valuable phone battery if you don't have a landline, because texting takes significantly less battery power than calling.

A postal code doesn't precisely pinpoint the location of the outage, but it does narrow it down pretty well.  My current six-digit postal code applies only to my building.  In the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up, our postal code applied to only six houses.  It's possible that the postal code will be sufficient information, especially if they're getting multiple reports from a postal code or from a set of adjacent postal codes.

But if the information provided by the postal code isn't enough, perhaps the system could record the numbers that each text comes from, and a human could call or text back for further information if necessary.  It's possible no further information would be necessary because the postal code is a single building like mine, or because there's a general outage in the area, or because someone else in the postal code has already filed a full report.

In any case, automated reports by text would allow for an additional communication pathway that currently isn't available, and would let reports be made faster and more easily, with less time and battery power invested.

It seems like the technology should exist or should be creatable based on other things that already exist (like charitable donations by text message, etc.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

A better way to schedule preventive medical care?

Today my doctor told me that pap smears are no longer included in annual physicals.  This isn't the thing where pap smears are now once every three years, it means that they're apparently now considered a completely different test.  Because doctors aren't allowed to bill for more than one issue per appointment, this means that if I want an annual physical and a pap smear, I have to make two appointments.  Apparently OHIP is kind of cracking down on multiple issues in one appointment, and auditing doctors to make sure they don't treat patients for what they weren't booked in for.

I was googling around the idea, and apparently the intention is to cut back on the tests and examinations done during annual physicals because they've found that the tests have little to no benefit for healthy people.   Apparently studies have found that the people who diligently go in for annual physicals tend to be a healthy demographic for whom the tests don't turn up anything because they're healthy. Meanwhile, the less healthy people are already going into the doctor regularly for all their various health problems, so there's little benefit to a schedule physical this month if they just saw the doctor last month and are going to see the doctor again next month.

Which I'm fine with.  Because I don't actually want an annual physical.  Or a pap smear.  What I actually want is my birth control pills.

For my entire on-the-pill life, an annual physical and/or pap smear has been the gauntlet I have to run to get my birth control prescription renewed.  This doctor books physicals far in advance, which I didn't know at the beginning, so I called when I had a month of birth control left and was told it would be six to eight weeks.  When I told them I was running out of birth control, they booked me in for an appointment, where they gave me a three month prescription and then scheduled me for a physical, which I had to have before I could get a whole year's worth.

I don't think this is unique to my doctor.  At various times I've read discussions about whether birth control pills should be available over the counter, and in them doctors have said one of the reasons they like them to be prescription is it gets a sizeable proportion of their patients in for their annual physicals.  (You may remember we discussed how 1/3 of all Canadians use prescription contraception.)

Without getting into the (important) question of whether a physical is in fact necessary for birth control, this gave me a broader idea of how they can make the health system much more user friendly for patients and doctors.

Step 1:  Completely abolish annual physicals
Step 2:  Completely abolish the one issue per appointment rule
Step 3:  Create a system where whenever you come into the doctor for a specific issue, you also get all the preventive tests and examinations you're due for, based on your specific medical situation, and any other care your doctor feels you need.

So, in my case, I'd call the doctor when I'm running low on birth control pills.  The receptionist (perhaps with the assistance of a computer program designed to track these things) would see that it's been 12 months since I had blood work so I should probably get it done again, but it's only been 34 months since I had a pap smear so I'm not due for that.  Then it would book appointment length accordingly.  (Perhaps it could also add some extra time to the appointment if the patient hasn't been to the doctor in X months.) 

The doctor then sees me to renew my birth control pills, and also offers all the tests and examinations for which I'm overdue, and offers any other care that he feels would be appropriate.  And I am permitted to decline tests and care that are unrelated to the birth control pills and still receive my pills.

This will make things easier for the patient.  No more having to keep track of your preventive care schedule and call the doctor and make the right kind of appointment.  You just call the doctor when you need to go to the doctor, and they'll give you all the care you need, not just for this one issue but for everything.

It will also make things easier for the doctor.  You treat the patient in front of you for everything they need treating for, without worrying about whether it falls under the issue for which they made the appointment.  You can use your professional judgement without worrying about administrative matters.

And it will save the health system a little bit of money by creating a scenario where patients get their preventive tests and examinations sometime after their due, rather than right on the button of when they're due.  The current system normalizes coming in every 12 months for various examinations.  But if it's 12 months plus whenever the patient has an issue for which they need to see the doctor, some patients will be coming in after 14 months, some patients will be coming in after 2 years.  The healthier the patient, the bigger the interval between when they come in.  But it's self-selecting, so the patients are still getting care whenever they request care.

Of course, doctors can still have patients with chronic issues or high risk factors come in on a regular basis for monitoring.  And they'd still have the option of influencing the frequency with which patients come in with the length of the prescription they issue.

This leaves the question of whether anyone would slip through the cracks.  Under this model, anyone who wants to see the doctor for a specific issue will see a doctor when that specific issue arises.  Anyone with a chronic issue or high risk factors or complex needs who needs regular monitoring will get regular monitoring as required by their doctor. Anyone who takes medication on a regular basis will see the doctor whenever they need their prescription renewed. 

So that leaves people who don't have any specific issues for periods of over a year, don't have any ongoing medications, and don't have any conditions that need monitoring, as well as people who don't go to the doctor when they have an issue they need to go to the doctor for.

I think the people who don't go to the doctor when they have an issue aren't going to go for preventive annual physicals, so this wouldn't affect them.  So that just leaves people who don't have any specific reason to go to the doctor during periods of over a year.  Things They Should Study: is there anyone who's healthy enough to fall into this group but unhealthy enough that they have something just waiting to be caught by their annual physical?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Journalism wanted: how can people who find themselves in Amanda Todd's position get their tormenters in trouble without getting themselves in trouble?

Amanda Todd was coerced into exposing herself on a webcam when she was 12 years old.  She was a legal minor and she was below the age of consent, so surely that was illegal on the part of the coercer.  And, of course, having the pictures in his possession would have counted as possessing child pornography.

Then, when she was 15, someone tried to convince her to expose herself again, threatening to distribute her previous pictures if she didn't.  Blackmail is illegal (it's covered in the Criminal Code under "Extortion"), plus he was trying to coerce someone who is underage and under the age of consent to appear in child pornography, and threatening to distribute child pornography if she didn't comply.

It sounds like it should have been quite easy to report the blackmailer to police and put an end to Ms. Todd's troubles.

However, according to the story, the police knocked on Ms. Todd's door at 4 a.m. to tell her that her photo had been distributed. 

If I were a teen in Ms. Todd's position, that fact alone would be disincentive to going to the police.  The knock at the door at 4 a.m. would lead me to conclude that I couldn't expect the police to have compassion for me as a victim.  (At the absolute bare minimum, if the victim doesn't yet know they're a victim, why not do them the small decency of letting them get a full night's sleep?) It would lead me to conclude that the police wouldn't care about protecting me from the wrath of my parents (because a 4 a.m. knock at the door would result in my parents being tired and cranky and frightened, which would mean emotions are running high), which could be a reason to actively avoid police involvement if I had abusive parents.

Therefore, I think it would be helpful if some of the media coverage told teens in Ms. Todd's position how they could get help without getting into trouble.  Can you report it to the police without involving your parents?  Can they investigate it if you report it anonymously through Crime Stoppers?  What kind of evidence do they need?  Screen shots?  How can you avoid the 4 a.m. knock on the door?

Similarly, what should you do if you're an adult and a kid comes to you with this kind of problem?  How can you get the perp in trouble while minimizing the awkwardness and humiliation to the kid?

I also think, if they haven't done so already, the police should come up with a way for minor victims to report their victimization without the involvement of their parents, if they prefer not to involve their parents. Victim Services counsellors should also be trained and available to help minor victims tell their parents if they want, but parent-free reporting should still be possible.  And if it turns out that it is in fact possible to report that you've been a victim of a crime without involving your parents, police and media need to publicize this fact and give specifics.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What if food bank clients could buy extra food via food banks?

Two pieces of common knowledge:

1. Donating money to food banks is more efficient than donating food, because they can use the money to buy food bulk and/or wholesale.
2. Sometimes food banks run low on food.

Suppose you're going to a food bank because you can't afford enough food to get your family through the month. And suppose this happens to be a time when the food bank is running low on food, and they don't have enough to give you (or they don't have enough of what you need to give you). And suppose you have a little bit of money, just not enough to get through the month. What if you could give the food bank what money you have, and they could buy food for you at much better prices?

Of course, it's debatable whether this is ethical. Letting people buy better treatment from food banks doesn't seem entirely consistent with the spirit of food banks. But, on the other hand, saying "If they have extra money they should be donating it when the food bank is short on food!" seems very nearly victim-blamey. Perhaps the solution would be somewhere in the middle - X% of clients' donations go to general food bank coffers, Y% can be used for the donor-client themselves. But that seems a bit paternalistic, like parents who dictate how much money their kids need to give to charity.

I don't have answers, but I think it would be interesting to study and do projections (if they haven't already), and perhaps do a temporary pilot project to see what happens.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What if they deliberately inflated grades in gym class?

Every once in a while, people talk about making gym class mandatory throughout high school to improve the population's fitness. As I've blogged about previously, before we even get into the instrinic humiliation gym class, making it mandatory every year would be rather harmful academically.

First of all, having another required course to take every year eliminates the option of taking some other course that might be academically useful. Imagine if you're trying to get into some demanding university program, and you don't have room for Biology AND Chemistry AND Physics AND Calculus AND Computer Science because you have to take gym.

Secondly, making the class mandatory brings down the average of students who aren't particularly good at athletics (who should be the target audience of any such initiative, as those who are good at athletics are much more likely to already be involved in athletics). This would be harmful to non-athletic students' university and scholarship applications. For example, I did my very best in gym class every day, and all I got to show for it was a begrudging C. (And I suspect the teacher was only passing me at all because I was doing my best). In comparison, simply showing up in calculus or physics class and not putting in any effort would earn me a B, and simply showing up in French or German class and not putting in any effort would earn me a low A (and doing my best would get me a high A in all these classes). So, if the class were mandatory, it would lower my average, make me less attractive to universities and reduce my scholarships, all in service of a subject that's not only irrelevant to my future academic and professional career, but actually prevents me from taking another course that is relevant to my future academic and professional career. That's downright punitive!

But what if, instead of making gym class mandatory, they made it an easy A? Suppose showing up and doing the sport of the day was enough to earn you a low A-. Students are graded on a curve relative to each other within the A range of percentages, but the lowest mark you can possibly get for showing up and participating is a low A-.

This would give all students who can't normally earn an A effortlessly incentive to take gym every single year, to bring their average up for university. Students would still retain their positions relative to each other because the better performers would get high As and the worse performers would get low As, but gym class would have a positive effect on many people's averages, and no particular detrimental effect on anyone's average.

Inflating the grades may also be useful from a public health perspective (which is relevant since the whole idea of making gym class mandatory comes from a public health perspective). Because my very best efforts got me only a begrudging C, I reasonably conclude that my objective skill in sports is mediocre. If someone asked me to be part of their sports team, I'd be reluctant to do so (again, putting aside personal inclination) because I'd assume I'd be a liability for the team. However, if my best efforts had gotten a respectable B, I'd assume I'm more or less average and therefore no more of a liability than anyone else. You can see how this might affect a person's inclination to play sports later in life.

In all of this, there's still the question of Kinesiology class. I don't know how it works now, but when I was in high school, the OAC (Grade 13) gym class was called Kinesiology, had a stronger classroom component than the gym classes in the lower grades, and was preparation if not prerequisite for studying Kinesiology in university. I googled a few university Kinesiology programs, and they had multiple academic prerequisites (none of which were a high school gym or Kinesiology course), which suggests that, if high school Kinesiology still exists, the classroom component is academically relevant and would suffer from being inflated. Therefore, I propose that, if there is academically relevant material, only the in-gym component should be subject to grade inflation. That way, the students' relative marks will reflect their grasp on the academic material.

Understand, I'm not actually objectively advocating for inflating people's grades in gym class. However, from time to time, people advocate for using gym class as a public health tool, most often by suggesting that it should be made mandatory every year throughout high school. If they're going to insist upon manipulating the curriculum to achieve public health goals, I think grade inflation would be more effective and more just.

Friday, April 27, 2012

What if Barrett's esophagus isn't actually a problem?

I previously came up with the idea that medical science should come up with a way to install stomach lining in the esophagus to protect it against acid reflux.

In some reading I was doing today, I discovered that the changes to the esophagus that constitute Barrett's esophagus are actually making it closer to stomach lining than to esophageal lining.

So what if Barrett's esophagus isn't a problem?  What if it's just the esophageal equivalent of a callous?

The reason why Barrett's esophagus is even a thing is that it's considered a precancerous condition, in that a large percentage of esophageal cancer patients have Barrett's esophagus.  Because of this, a diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus triggers a more active esophageal cancer screening protocol.

But I really am beginning to suspect that Barrett's esophagus itself isn't actually a problem, it's just a correlation.  Fortunately, science does seem to be working in that direction.  Most of the papers I see recently emphasize how few Barrett's esophagus patients (usually stated at only 1%) go on to develop esophageal cancer, and science does seem to be looking at it as correlation instead of causation.  Hopefully researchers will focus on better pinpointing the actual root cause that differentiates that 1% within the next 10 years and spare me any unnecessary scoping.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What if buses stopped at every other stop?

This idea was inspired by the comments thread here (but is unrelated to the post itself). People were discussing how some transit routes have stops relatively close together, which slows things down because the vehicle has to stop so much. Some suggested spacing stops further apart, others thought that this would place too much of a burden on people with mobility issues.

But what if we kept all the stops, but had each vehicle only service alternate stops. The first bus of the day would stop at the first, third, fifth etc. stops, the second bus of the day would stop at the second, fourth, sixth etc. stops. Each individual bus would travel the route faster (which would make this technique useful for bus routes that are most often used to travel all the way across town or connect to the subway), and any user who carries a cellphone (to check NextBus) and for whom walking to the next bus stop is feasible would not be inconvenienced at all.

Just visualizing it in my head, it also seems like it would reduce bunching, although I can't actually prove that to you. For this reason, it also occurred to me to apply it to streetcars, but I don't think they can pass each other on the tracks. Transfers would be a problem under current policy, but the transfer policy could be easily changed.

This wouldn't work with infrequent bus routes, but if you've got a bus every 10 minutes it should increase convenience for the majority of users without too much inconvenience for the remaining users. Of course, the question is whether we want to be conveniencing the able-bodied on the backs of those with mobility issues, even if overall it is for the greater good.