Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Do cell phones affect smoking rates?

The following is (a tangent) from Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard. As usual, any typos are my own:

In the old days we had cigarettes, so if you wanted to hang out somewhere looking relaxed, you could just light a cigarette an lean against a lampost and smoke it. You could lean against a wall in a station, or sit in a chair or on a bench. You could hang out anywhere with a cigarette. Now most of us have given up cigarettes, but we've got our mobile phones, which we can use much in the same way: we stand somewhere or sit somewhere while doing almost anything - reading a book, sending an email, checking our texts - on our smartphones.

This makes me wonder if the rising prevalence of cell phones and smart phones and texting and apps has resulted in a decline in smoking rates?  Perhaps not the percentage of smokers in society, but perhaps the number of cigarettes smoked.

Your phone gives you something to do with your hands when you have downtime, so you might not automatically reach for a cigarette out of boredom.  It also gives you something you want to do with your hands when you have a moment, and it might be harder to light a cigarette with a phone in your hand, or harder to text with a cigarette in your hand.  (I'm sure innovative people can find a way, but it would be an additional inconvenience).

I once read a theory of addiction that to cure an addiction, you have to replace it with something else, because the patient needs . . . something.  Maybe the phone could serve as that something?

I don't know if this could be studied, because there have been numerous efforts to decrease smoking rates for public health purposes before and during the advent of the cell phone, so I don't know if you could separate the effect of cell phones from other factors.  I know that in Europe in the 90s smoking was more widespread, and I know that Europe took up texting before North America, but I have no idea what else was happening in the interim that might have affected smoking rates.

I wonder if there's somewhere in the world where people do smoke, but there haven't been anti-smoking measures, and cell phones have also become increasingly prevalent.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

King Charles III (and some thoughts on cultural references)

I recently saw the movie King Charles III. The premise is that, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles ascends to the throne and causes a constitutional crisis by refusing to sign a bill into law.

The plot I could take or leave, but what made this movie particularly interesting is that it's written in a Shakespearean style, using blank verse, iambic pentameter, asides to the audience, etc. So watching it was akin to being one of Shakespeare's contemporaries watching a Shakespearean history play.  In fact, as I was watching it, I kept finding myself noticing references that would need to be footnoted if this were taught in schools centuries in the future.  But for me, they were just common knowledge with a soupçon of tabloid gossip.

It might be interesting to show this movie to students learning Shakespeare, just to give them that experience.  Anyone who can name or extrapolate from context the names of most of the people in this photo already has the necessary cultural references.


When I studied Shakespeare in school, the plays came in these books with extensive footnotes explaining the wordplay or cultural references that weren't part of our vernacular. The teachers said that in Shakespeare's time, everyone understood these references, with tone, delivery and connotations suggesting that if Kids Today would just be more diligent, we'd understand it too just like in the Good Old Days.

But as I watched King Charles III, I realized that those were just their modern cultural references at the time - contemporary slang, basic current events, current social media use patterns, the sort of celebrity gossip you pick up from seeing tabloid covers while waiting in line at the grocery store, etc.

Similarly, when we did an extensive unit on Greek and Roman mythology in Grade 8, the teacher said that people used to know all these references, again with tone and delivery suggesting that our lack of knowledge of these references that are apparently so crucial and vital and baseline to our culture made us somehow subpar.

But the 90s Jane Austen movies, and some subsequent reading on the concept of neo-classicism, made me realize that this whole Greco-Roman thing was basically a trend too. It was that era's equivalent of Simpsons references and/or dank memes. The flowery, wordy reference-laden Romantic-era writing style was that era's equivalent of today's dense, reference-laden hip-hop lyrics. And people were familiar with them simply because they had consumed the era's popular culture, just like how people who have seen the Marvel Thor movies starring Chris Hemsworth might pick up a thing or two about Norse mythology.

I think if our teachers had presented these aspects of the curriculum as a glimpse into the popular culture of the olden days, we would have found it much more approachable and much more interesting.

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.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The notion of prayer is weird

Within a paradigm where there is a deity who is capable of answering your prayers but does not always choose to do so, the very notion of praying doesn't make sense.

A deity, being omniscient, would already know what you want, and how badly you want it, and the arguments for giving it to you, regardless of whether you go through the motions of praying. The only scenario in which praying would make a difference is if the deity is not just, and is so insecure in its own divinity that it wants its ego stroked by people getting down on their knees and begging. But shouldn't any remotely competent deity be above that sort of thing?


As I was writing this, I found myself wondering if there's some correlation between capacity for religion and capacity for emotional labour.  Religion (or, at least, the subset of religion to which I have been exposed) requires not just having certain feelings, but  performing those feelings, often publicly. (Or, if not truly publicly, then at least so it can be seen by your family or your religious community or your religious leadership.)  I wonder if being able to and willing to do that that might correlate with being able to and willing to perform emotional labour?

I don't think it would be outright cause and effect (in my case, I have far more desire to perform emotional labour than to perform religion, but far less ability), but nevertheless I do wonder if it correlates.

Friday, March 03, 2017

"It doesn't matter as long as people can understand you"

There are people who say that it shouldn't matter whether something is written properly as long as the audience understands it.

I've heard this said about things that aren't "correct" English per the prescriptivist definition (like "ain't"), and about spelling and grammar errors, as well as things like slang and txtspeak, which aren't the focus of today's post.

I have also found myself in situations where these things make it difficult for me to understand the text. For example, if the "incorrect" English or spelling or grammar error shifts meaning, I interpret the text literally, not realizing that the person meant something else.

And sometimes in these situations where I'm having trouble understanding because I interpreted an erroneous text literally, I'm accused of being pedantic, as though I'm not understanding on purpose as a judgement of their poor writing skills, with tone and delivery hinting that I should stop being difficult and just get along and understand it like a regular person.

This makes me wonder: do people whose English skills lead to spelling/grammar/usage errors that shift meaning find it easier to understand other people with similar English skills?  Do they not see the shift in meaning, or somehow instantly see what was intended?

(In this post so far, I'm talking about people whose first language is English, although it could certainly also happen with people whose first language is not English.)

One thing I've learned in my translation career is that Anglophones and Francophones make different kinds of mistakes in French.  An Anglophone who learned French in school wouldn't confuse manger (to eat) and mangé (eaten), or ses (his/her where the noun is plural) and ces (these) on the grounds that they're completely different parts of speech, but these are among the most common mistakes Francophones make on the grounds that they're homophones.  (I was so proud of myself the day I almost sent out an email in French with an infinitive where a past participle should have been! Finally thinking in French!) 

Meanwhile, a Francophone would never say il faut que je vais (indicative , where the subjunctive il faut que j'aille is correct), but this is one of the most common mistakes Anglophones make because subjunctive isn't as intuitive for us.

A French text written by an Anglophone with poor French skills is very easy for me to understand. A French text written by a Francophone with poor French skills is perilously close to impenetrable for me.

I wonder if the same phenomenon occurs with texts written by people with similar skill levels in English, even if English is their first language. Do people who are prone to make errors in English understand error-prone English better than people who have a better handle on spelling and grammar?  If so, I wonder if they can understand error-prone English better than error-free English?

(Aside: I'm quite sure the gods of irony will have inserted a few errors of the sort that I don't usually make into this blog post.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What if different kinds of lies were like apples and oranges?

Conventional wisdom is that politicians lie.

But when we say this, we usually mean "They don't keep their electoral promises." They say they're going to do something and then they don't, or they say they aren't going to do something and then they do.

But sometimes politicians lie about objective, observable facts.  And this is a problem, because they aren't just stating objectively incorrect information, they're also using the objectively incorrect information as a basis for questionable policy.

For example, a politician says there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses in their area, and therefore libraries should be cut. However, the fact of the matter is that there are more Tim Hortonses than libraries in their area.  And even if there were more libraries than Tim Hortonses, that wouldn't necessarily be a problem. And even if the ratio were a problem, perhaps the solution would be more Tim Hortonses.  And maybe the ratio is even a problem the other way - maybe there aren't enough libraries.  One possibility is that there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses but still not enough libraries (for example, if there were two libraries and one Tim Hortons, that wouldn't be enough libraries for the entire city.)

It creates a stream of hypotheticals that the people least likely to be willing or able to stay fully informed are least likely to be willing or able to follow. If you focus on debunking the clear, objective lie (more libraries than Tim Hortonses), you're implying that the problematic logic that follows (that more libraries than Tim Hortonses would be a problem, that libraries should be cut) is not a problem. If you focus on the problematic conclusions, you're implying that the false premise is accurate and failing to call out the politician for a glaring objective falsehood.

But not enough people see this lying about objective facts as a massive deal-breaker problem that needs to be immediately and drastically nipped in the bud, because we're coming from this baseline conventional wisdom that of course politicians lie.

This makes me wonder how our political discourse would be different if these different kinds of lies were completely different concepts in our language and concept system. We can, of course, describe the different kinds of lies that exist using words and phrases, like I've done above, but they're all lies.  What would happen if they were different concepts, like apples and oranges? Yes, apples and oranges have things in common (they're both round and sweet and edible, they both fall into the broader category of "fruit" in our concept system), but they're clearly different things in our concept system.

If different kinds of lies were apples and oranges, no one would say "Of course that politician is oranging, everyone knows that politicians always apple." No one would say "Why are you calling out that politician for oranging but not that other politician for appling?"  People could be aghast that the politician oranged without even having to address the conventional wisdom that politicians apple, because they're two completely different concepts.

I wonder what our political discourse would look like then?

I wonder if there are any languages where different types of lies are completely discrete concepts?  I wonder if the cultures where those languages are spoken also have the conventional wisdom that politicians lie?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How do people on the wrong side of the confidence gap perceive other people's abilities?

I blogged before about the notion of the confidence gap, where some people are loudly overconfident about their own abilities.

I wonder how these people who overestimate their own competence assess other people's abilities? ("Competence" is actually a better word than "abilities" for what I'm trying to express here, but the post rapidly became ridiculous with the conflation of the similar-looking and -sounding words "confidence" and " competence")

To make it easier to give examples, let's pretend that abilities can be measured in Ability Points.  Does a person who actually has 50 Ability Points but is overconfident enough to think they have 70 Ability Points perceive someone with 60 Ability Points as more competent or less competent?

Or do they equate loud overconfidence with ability, and so can't recognize that the quietly-competent person in the corner easily has at least 100 Ability Points, but the loudmouth down the hall only has 40 Ability Points on a good day?

I suppose you could also look at this from the other side: how do people with imposter syndrome perceive other people's abilities?

I can't tell you for certain that I underestimate my abilities, but both anecdotal evidence and other people's comments to my younger self suggest that I have done so in the past. (I'm too close to the present to accurately assess it.)  And during that time, I simply assumed that other people had the level of awesomeness that I myself felt subpar for lacking.  For example, I thought I had 50 Ability Points, and assumed that others had 100 Ability Points, when in fact they were within 10 Ability Points of me. (I'm too close to the situation to tell you objectively if that meant we both had ~50 Ability Points or ~100 Ability Points or some vastly different number.)

But that's when comparing myself to other translators in the realm of translation.  In other areas of life where I very clearly don't have particular expertise, if someone who is supposed to have particular expertise doesn't appear to be vastly better than I am in a way I can clearly perceive, I feel betrayed. If I'm right about something and my doctor or lawyer or realtor is wrong, I don't feel I can trust them. I have no idea if this is representative or just one of my personal neuroses.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

What if there are perfectly unremarkable sexual proclivities that no human has ever had?

Humanity collectively has a mind-blowing range of sexual proclivities, so I've always operated under the assumption that every imaginable proclivity or variation must exist within the full scope of human experience.

But what if some things that we would expect to exist don't and never have? And what if some of the proclivities that have never existed are really unremarkable or benign compared to other proclivities that do exist?

For example, what if no one in human history has ever been turned on by the idea of their partner wearing a hat during sex?  What if no one has ever gotten off on having the back of their knees licked? Not these specific examples per se (I thought of them, so they probably aren't good examples of things no one has ever thought of), but what if there are things that are comparably unremarkable but no one in human history has ever found them sexy?  Even though there are people who get off on the idea of being eaten alive (Savage Love column, no graphic images but textual content NSFW).

Monday, January 02, 2017

Girl colours and boy colours

I currently have four baby cousins: three boys and one girl. (They aren't all so much babies - the oldest one is 3 - but old nomenclature dies hard.  And it's not like they can read this blog to complain that I'm referring to them as babies.) I bought xmas gifts for all of them (I don't celebrate xmas myself, but my family does and it's an awesome excuse to look through all the adorable children's books at Mabel's Fables), and since all the gifts would be going under the same tree I put gift tags on them.

I managed to find a package of non-xmas-themed gift tags in all different colours, one of which is pink.  So I put the pink tag on the girl's gift.  Because pink is for girls.

Of course, I myself don't actually think pink is exclusively for girls and not for boys at all.  If any of my male baby cousins expressed interest in pink things or things that are culturally marked as for girls, I'd be the first to make sure he had all the girly things he wanted. 

But, because on a broader cultural level pink has connotations as "for girls", some boys might not like it.  Some boys might find it insulting to be given the pink thing. It might be problematic to give one brother pink and the other brother a colour without gender connotations. (The inverse is true too - I remember once feeling very humiliated and insecure in my femininity when my sister got a Judy Jetson toy and I was given smelly old George Jetson.)

If I had multiple pink tags, I wouldn't hesitate to give every child a pink tag. But I only had the one, and I only ever use gift tags for the baby cousins, so the one pink gift tag went to the one girl.

And so, out of consideration for connotations that these small children may or may not have yet picked up from the prevailing culture, gender stereotypes of colours are perpetuated for another generation.


Another similar issue is that I'm very mindful of making sure the boys get books with male protagonists (insofar as the books have protagonists and the protagonists have gender - with children this young, sometimes the books are about animals or shapes or colours, and sometimes they don't have enough of a plot to have a protagonist), but I don't put the same thought into making sure the girl gets books with female protagonists.  This is because I have the idea, absorbed from the ether, that boy are more likely to be reluctant readers, and that boys are more likely to be disinclined to read books with female protagonists. 

In real life, none of these kids are reluctant readers, simply because they're too young for anyone to make that determination.  In real life, I'm not even sure to what extent children that age do or don't perceive gender.  But, nevertheless, I've decided to pre-emptively address this Thing That People On The Internet Say Might Happen, and, as a result, might be perpetuating the stereotype that books about girls aren't for boys.

Part of it is the fact that I can testify from my own first-hand experience that even a girly girl whose gender identity and expression is wholly feminine can totally enjoy books about a male protagonist, and therefore would feel confident in getting a girl a book with a male protagonist.  But I have heard anecdotes of boys being disinclined to read female protagonists, and I only have a self righteous "Well, it shouldn't make any difference!" to counter that.  (I don't actually know whether my male baby cousins as individuals care about the genders of their protagonists - I'm never able to have as comprehensive a conversation with their parents as I'd like because we keep getting interrupted by the presence of babies and toddlers.)

But ultimately, I think it's more important (in terms of both gift-giving and child development) to maximize the likelihood that the kidlets will enjoy the books put in front of them. And so I resort to gender stereotypes unless I have further specific information.

I kind of wish I could switch off that portion of my knowledge of self and culture, and choose books cheerfully unaware of what gender (and other) stereotypes might exist and need to be addressed.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


When Eddie Izzard was running marathons across South Africa and periscoping his progress, I repeatedly saw people in the comments asking how he gets wifi way out in the middle of nowhere.

I've recently seen people call into question the authenticity of civilian tweets from Syria by saying that wifi couldn't possibly be working with all the war constantly knocking out power and infrastructure.

In both these cases, it's glaringly obvious to me that they aren't using wifi, they're using their data plan. They don't need a wifi hotspot (or electricity if their phone is charged), they're using...I don't actually know - satellites or towers or whatever it is that transmits cellular data.

My first thought was to wonder if people are now using "wifi" as a synonym for any type of wireless internet, even when it's clearly not actual wifi.

But another thing I hear about from time to time is the possibility of introducing free wifi in public places as a public service. And when I think about it, the number of places that offer free wifi as an amenity seems to be increasing - restaurants and stores and malls and even the TTC have introduced it, and the trend seems to be towards more rather than less public wifi.

All this time I've been assuming that everyone has a data plan (except me, because I'm frugal with my cellphone use). But could it be that far fewer people than I expected have data plans and far more people than I expected are dependent on wifi - to the extent that it doesn't even occur to them that people might have another method of connectivity?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Shitty relatives cannot be persuaded. That's why they're shitty relatives.

From this week's Savage Love (emphasis mine):
Perhaps you're not the best person to ask, being a cis white man, but as a queer woman of color, the election had an extremely detrimental effect on my relationships with my white partners. I love and care for them, but looking at those results has me wondering why the fuck they didn't do better in reaching out to their shitty relatives? I'm sick of living at the whim of white America. I'm aware this is the blame stage of processing, but it's left me unable to orgasm with my white partners. I'm really struggling with what Trump means for me and others who look like me. I know my queer white partners aren't exempt from the ramifications of this, but I wish they had done better. Respond however you like.

The thing about shitty relatives is they cannot be effectively reached out to. If they could be effectively reached out to, we wouldn't know them as shitty relatives because they would have been effectively reached out to (and therefore ceased to be shitty) long before we became politically aware.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that LW should continue to have sex with people she doesn't want to have sex with, regardless of the reason. (And Dan Savage also stresses this point in his answer.) If recent political events have brought LW to the realization that she's only interested in partners who can effectively persuade their relatives towards acceptable politics (or whose relatives all had acceptable politics to start with), that is entirely her prerogative.

However, my point here today is that some people cannot be effectively reached out to. (Can you? Could a straight white cis man* effectively reach out to you and change your vote?)  And if your partners' shitty relatives were people who could be effectively reached out to, they would have been effectively reached out to long before their relative's partners became aware of them, and therefore wouldn't have fallen under your mental category of "shitty relatives" in the first place.  In a world where there are people who cannot be persuaded on a particular point, I don't think failing to persuade should be seen as insufficient diligence.

*I didn't learn about the English order of adjectives until well into my translation career - and learned about its existence from my Francophone colleagues! But I'm still struggling to figure out what the order of adjectives should be in the phrase "straight white cis man". LW lands on "cis white man", which is counterintuitive to me, but I can't objectively assess which is right/wrong/better/worse.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Moving stress braindump

I'm moving into my condo at the end of the month, and I'm really disproportionately stressed about it.  And I'm trying to figure out why.

I think part of it is that this doesn't have the potential for any immediately-appreciable increase in my quality of life.  Every move I've ever done at least had that potential.  When I moved out of my parents' house into res, I got to live away from prying adult eyes!  Every new res room gave me more privacy than the previous (apart from that one awful summer in summer res, but that was outweighed by actually working grownup jobs all summer for the first time in my life).  Then when I moved into my first apartment, I got a whole apartment with a living room and a bedroom and a bathroom and a kitchen, just like a real adult!  Then when I moved into my current apartment, I also got a dishwasher and washer/dryer, plus the decrease in panic attacks that comes with living in a brand new building. But the condo is comparable to my current apartment, so there's nothing to get excited about.

There are benefits to the condo, but they're dull, pragmatic long-term benefits. It's better for aging in place, it increases the likelihood of retirement being feasible in 20-30 years if retirement is still a thing then, etc.  That's the sort of thing that it's hard to work up a visceral positive emotional reaction about, but the work and uncertainty of moving still elicits a visceral stress reaction.


I don't remember getting this stressed with my previous moves, but I do think I got a lot more stressed about other things.  I was less secure in most areas of life, I hadn't yet discovered Entitlement, couldn't cope with my phobias as well, had far less experience with getting problems solved, and had far less cumulative empirical evidence that people will help me solve my problems when they arise. I mean, today alone I made two phone calls and sent several emails to people who may or may not be the right person to solve my problem. This past week at work, I solved three different problems caused by other people under extremely tight deadlines and even communicated with two of the clients myself without blinking an eye. I regularly patronize stores and restaurants that are way cooler than me, and often go in with specific needs or special requests.  And I do all this with complete sangfroid.  but I wasn't anywhere near as stressed about moving as I am now. What's going on?

Unsubstantiated theory: I'm out of practice with feeling stressed. The combination of working from home and having nearly all aspects of my life arranged just the way I like them means my baseline is zero stress.  I previously blogged that it would be awesome if I could save my day-to-day non-stressed feelings.  But what if it's actually working the other way and my coping muscles have atrophied?

Another unsubstantiated theory: I have a finite capacity for stress, so it's all manifesting itself in this one stressful thing as opposed to being distributed among multiple things like it was in the past.  I read a while back about a concept called the "psychological immune system", which suggests that the brain protects itself during times of high stress by limiting the amount of stress you experience. I found this concept difficult to believe when I first read about it.  But what if it had been working all along, and even the high stress I experienced back then was being limited by my psychological immune system?  And now that I'm not stressed in my day-to-day life, I'm feeling the full impact of the stress that I'm capable of handling?


Thinking back to when I was younger, I would never have said that my day-to-day stress is zero, but neither would I have said that I'm particularly stressed.  Things like the rush of the daily commute, getting frantic at an urgent text, getting nervous about making business phone calls, etc. were all part of baseline human reality for me.

Putting aside for a moment the current and (hopefully temporary) stress of moving and dealing with the condo purchase, I wonder if, in the future, I'll look back at the baseline that I currently perceive as zero-stress and wonder how I ever coped with that much daily stress?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Survival bias

Think about everyone you have known personally who was in the Second World War, either as a member of the military or as a civilian who happened to live in an area affected by the war.

They survived the war, didn't they?

Because WWII ended 71 years ago, and, unless I have readers who were alive during WWII themselves (if so, pop in the comments and say hi!), the people we know personally must necessarily have survived WWII because they lived long enough for us to know them personally.

And, because of this, I think we might have the subconscious impression that WWII was more survivable than it actually was.  Even though we know the death rates in raw numbers, we hardly ever have the stories of or from those who died. This is both because you most often have to live to tell the tale (the only exceptions I can think of are Anne Frank and Irène Némirovsky), but also because the vast majority of war deaths don't make interesting stories. If you're walking down the street and a bomb falls on your head, that's not an interesting story. If a soldier goes charging onto the battlefield and is promptly shot by the enemy, that's not an interesting story.

So we don't hear those stories, and because of that we are less inclined to think we would die instantly and unremarkably.  And this is even if we aren't envisioning ourselves as the hero of the story.  I know that when I think about what would happen if I ended up in a war, I'm certainly not under the impression that I could be a successful soldier or a hero of the resistance. But I'm imagining deprivation, suffering, rape and torture, being sent to a concentration camp - unceremonious instant death isn't even on my radar.

I think this extends to other areas of life as well. I've blogged before about gun people who think a good guy with a gun will necessarily beat a bad guy with a gun. They don't seem to be thinking of the possibility that when the good guy pulls out his gun, the bad guy will just shoot him.

I think we also hear it in narratives about serious illness.  We hear about survival stories.  Sometimes, especially when people are trying to sell something, we hear about people who defeated serious illness with traditional medicine or prayer or a very specific regimen of positive thinking that can be yours for three easy payments of $29.99.  Sometimes narratives about serious illness do involve death, and impose meaning on the patient's life or on the patient's death. But you never hear stories where a person gets diagnosed with something, does everything right, and dies meaninglessly.

I've seen cases where this survival bias affects public discourse. I've seen people making public statements that in WWII, various countries being invaded should have just fought back against the Nazis, when the countries in question did in fact have active resistance organizations.  In one of the recent US mass shootings, someone commented that the shooter wouldn't have succeeded if someone else present had had a gun, when in reality there were armed security guards present.

When I was first educating myself about WWI, a recurring theme was that they didn't know what they were getting into. The countries eagerly declaring war on each other and the young men rushing to enlist all seemed to think they were off on a jolly good adventure, none of them imagining just how many people would end up uselessly dead in the middle of no man's land. 

Was survival bias a thing 100 years ago?  And could it lead us into a similarly tragic situation again in the future?

Monday, November 07, 2016

People who can leave the house without a plan

With the already very loud US election coming to a crescendo, my various feeds are filling up with US "get out the vote" advice.  And one piece of advice I keep seeing is that you should make a specific plan to vote - when you're going to do it, how you're going to get there, what you'll do if you encounter various possible obstacles.  Apparently people who make a plan are more likely to actually end up voting.

The part that baffles me: are there people who don't make a plan when they're going out to get shit done?  Because I can't not!

The plans I make are nothing terribly complex or arduous, but they are present.  For example, today's was "It's 15 degrees, not doing anything important, so I'll wear the pink shirt, black sweater and jeans. I need to mail the card and acquire lemon cupcakes. The mailman collects from the nearest mailbox at 5, and I have a phone appointment at 5.  So stop working at 4, write, address and stamp the card, put the card in my purse, put on default boots and black trenchcoat. Walk to the mailbox, mail the card, check the time. If I have time to go to Loblaw's before my phone appointment, go to Loblaw's and buy lemon cupcakes if they have time. If I don't have time to go to Loblaw's or they don't have lemon cupcakes, go home so I can make my phone appointment and go to the cupcake place after my phone appointment."

I don't do this on purpose.  My brain just does it before I leave the house.

But apparently there are people who can leave the house - even on a day when they have an important, time-sensitive errand, without making a plan?

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?

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Daylight Saving Time and sunrises

When they were talking about changing daylight saving time in 2007, my primary concern (which wasn't one that seemed to get much in the way of media attention) was that more people would have to wake up in the dark and start work and school in the dark, which would mess with our circadian rhythms.

That concern went unheeded, and daylight saving time changed despite my protests.

I've been struggling to drag myself out of bed these past couple of weeks (yes, even with my work-from-home schedule), and, with some googling, I realized it's because sunrise is even later than it is at winter solstice!

Just before daylight saving time starts, sunrise here in Toronto will be at 7:59 AM.

But the latest it gets in December is 7:51 AM.

Even if there are in fact good reasons for extending daylight saving time, there is no excuse whatsoever for making even later than it is in the bleak midwinter. If it absolutely must be a certain number of weeks, they should make it start earlier in the spring, resulting in a sunrise time of 7:30-7:40.  But the latest natural winter sunrise time should be a rubicon that is never crossed.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Jason from Iowa who lived in the last trailer on the right and was born on the 4th of July

The Ani DiFranco song 4th of July, which tells the story of a child she met while driving through Iowa, contains the following lyric:
He says his name is Jason
He lives in the last trailer on the right
And he'll be seven
On the fourth of July
This song is from Ani's 1993 album Puddle Dive, which means that, if Jason is real, he was at least 6 years old in 1993.

That means he's at least 29 years old now.  And every time this song comes up in my playlist, I wonder what happened to him.

Does he still live in the trailer park? Did he get married? Did he have children? Did he join the military and get PTSDed in Iraq? Did he go to university and become a professor of comparative literature? Has he ever heard this song? Does he know it's about him?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Things They Should Study: do political positions correlate with attitudes towards politically-incompatible celebrities?

Sometimes the celebrities I follow on Twitter get people telling them to shut up about politics and stick to entertainment.

This is something I find difficult to understand. 

I do see why someone might not want incompatible political opinions turning up in their Twitter feed.  But what I don't understand is why you'd want to keep following someone once you know that they hold these incompatible opinions.

When someone has incompatible politics (by which I don't mean simply that I don't agree with them, but rather that I see their position as outright harmful and/or cruel) I'm not able to respect them enough to be a fan of them. I cease to be interested in their day-to-day life and thoughts, and most likely in their work as well.  Even if for some reason I do maintain interest in their work (for example, perhaps if one member of an ensemble cast for a major fandom has incompatible politics) I no longer have any desire to hear from them as an individual, just to see the finished work.

It would be interesting to study this on a broader level.  Are there any patterns of the political opinions or affiliation of people who want to continue following politically-incompatible celebrities but not hear about their politics, as compared with people who lose interest in politically-incompatible celebrities, as compared with people who can cheerfully continue following a celebrity without regard for their incompatible politics.

They could also study whether there are patterns in real-life relationships as opposed to celebrity-fan relationships, but I find the celebrity-fan relationship particularly interesting because it's unidirectional. If a parent holds political opinions you consider harmful, there's an element of "How can you bring a child into the world and then work politically to make the world a worse place?" But the celebrity has no loyalty or attachment to the individual fan and the fan adores the celebrity, so it's an interesting and unique dynamic.

Monday, August 15, 2016

How did the logistics of money work back when money only existed tangibly?

I watched a few episodes of Game of Thrones recently (don't think I'm going to continue - the gory parts visit me in my dreams - so you don't have to worry about spoiling me), and I found myself wondering how the logistics of money worked in that era.

(I know Game of Thrones isn't actually a historical era, but there would have been a period of time when money worked similarly in real-life history.)

At various points in the story, wealthy characters go on extremely long journeys. Sometimes during these journeys they need to spend money on things, and sometimes not all these expenses are anticipated. For example, at one point, a character invites another character to travel with him and offers to pay his way.  At another point, a character who has temporarily relocated to the king's castle while leaving most of his household at home in his own castle hires a swordfighting instructor for his daughter, even though, when he left home, he didn't know this would be a necessity.

Since they didn't have bank accounts or the ability to wire money, their money was actual coins, or perhaps jewels and other valuables.  So if they're away from home (where, presumably, their actual tangible money lives), they have to take some coins with them to cover their expenses during the journey.

But what if they misestimate their expenses and run out of the coins that they brought with them, but still have plenty of money at home in their keep or vault or Scrooge McDuck-style money room or wherever it was they'd keep their wealth?  Was there some for them to get more money other than sending a runner for it?  (If so, were there occasionally fraudulent runners coming to castles where the lord was away and saying they'd been sent by the lord to bring him 1000 gold coins?) Or did nobility occasionally get stranded on their journeys because they didn't bring enough coins with them?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Ad-supported media should never have worked in the first place

There's been a lot of media talk recently about how declining advertising revenues put various media outlets and websites at risk and how websites especially are taking extraordinary efforts to get ads in front of people who don't want to see them.

And in all of this, it occurs to me: it's bizarre that ad-supported media has lasted this long in the first place!

I can see why a business might consider spending a certain amount of money to make potential customers aware of it. And I can see why a media outlet might consider offering paid placements.

But it doesn't even make sense that businesses would be willing to spend so much on advertising that it supports the existence of entire media outlets, to the point of being their primary or only source of revenue!

Think about all the ads you're exposed to in a day. How many do you even notice?  (If you're like me, you're not even looking at the parts of the newspaper pages where they put the ads, or going to the bathroom during commercial breaks.) Of these, how many do you pay attention do? Of these, how many affect your purchasing decisions? Maybe a handful over a lifetime, compared with the dozens (hundreds?) you're exposed to every day.

How is that worth businesses' while to pay for?

The decline of the advertising model is a market correction. Something that never made sense in the first place is ceasing to function. Yes, it's inconvenient, but it was inevitable, long before the dawn of the internet or of ad blockers.