Thursday, December 29, 2011

If I had a Billion Dollars I'd buy you scientific research.

Karl Schroeder wrote a great blog piece on what he would do with a billion dollars.  Of course with a billion dollars you can do a lot of pointless things like smash helicopters together for personal entertainment or buy ad space during the Superbowl to just stare at the camera (if you watch the Superbowl you will know if I ever get stupidly rich!) but you could also do some really useful things.

Schroeder talks about five areas of research he would like to see get 200 million dollars of research money to try to get breakthroughs:  Better governance, CO2 capture, Microwave space launching, nuclear fusion and vertical farm technology.  These are all fine things to research but I wouldn't focus on these in particular.  I honestly think that maximizing space launch efficiency is not a useful thing to be spending extra money on at the moment.  There are things we could learn from it certainly but I don't especially think it is worth the cost.  I would definitely throw thorium power up there on the list as I suspect it would be a reality with that amount of money thrown at it and it might well be a magic wand that lets us prevent climate change, improve air quality and get good, clean, safe power to the entire world in a single stroke.

I wonder what the relative benefits of spending that kind of money on things like research would be vs. charity. I could feed a lot of people with a billion dollars but I could also make the world a much better place in the long term by improving systems of government or making thorium power a reality.  I suspect that comparing research to concrete assistance in any numeric fashion is an exercise in futility though since first you would have to figure out just what the research will produce which seems somewhat problematic to say the least.

It makes me shake my head when I see the size of various people's fortunes.  The local supermarket had a rag talking about Will Smith getting divorced and the fight over his $520 million fortune.  Whether or not any of the gossip is true it seems like that the net worth guess is relatively on target and that just blows me away.  Everybody in North America gave Will Smith a dollar and now he has half a billion dollars.  He could personally fulfill 2 of Schroeder's wish lists and still have an unfathomable fortune remaining.  Do it Will Smith!  Make those scientists research something!  Anything!

Betrayed by my own brain

Tonight Wendy cooked up a new dinner for us.  I try to be optimistic about these things but I am not generally the sort of person who seeks out new meals - I figure out what the best dish for me is at any given restaurant and simply order it every time.  Why eat something less than the best?  This same sort of thing applies to new meals at home because even though Wendy's experiments are usually quite tasty I am regularly apprehensive.  Call it cowardice, call it caution, either way I sniff and taste her new concoctions with trepidation.  Here is the new thing from tonight, a dish called Shakshuka, which is essentially eggs poached in a spicy tomato and onion sauce.

I love eggs, tomatoes and onions.  The smart part of my brain knows that the combination of these three things is very much going to be like eggs with ketchup and onions, a dish I know I love.  There is nothing in this pot of which I do not approve.  Unfortunately the other half of my brain has things to say.

Those white stringy bits look like cheese.  We are gonna puke, don't eat it.

That is egg!  We know it is egg.  No cheese!

Puke puke puke, gonna puke.  Poison!  Don't eat it.

Seriously, we watched this being made.  Wendy is adding cheese to hers separately, there is no cheese.  Safe!  Delicious even!

*hands over ears* Not listening to you, it is cheesy poison and we shouldn't eat it, gross!

Even as I forked in the first bits of it my lizard brain was still shrieking "POISON!" at me over my tongue informing me that in fact it tasted like egg, tomato and onion and was quite delicious.  It boggles me how bloody strong these tendencies can be when they are based on nothing at all.  I have managed to train myself after years of hating cheese to react in ridiculous ways to things that bear only a small resemblance to cheese.  However, I can just bear down and eat it and once I get halfway done lizard brain finally shuts up and I can enjoy my meal in peace.

There we go, finished it off and quite enjoyed it.  This is what Shakshuka looks like with cheese on it, stupid lizard brain:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Carbon footprints and mathematics

Over the holidays I read How Bad Are Bananas?, a book talking about various services, goods and habits that we have and how much CO2 they pump into the air.  It was well written and fun to read, especially considering the fact that it was pretty much designed to be a list of things with associated numbers; a hard sort of baseline from which to create a compelling narrative!  Most of what I found in the book was fairly unsurprising but there was still a fair bit to learn.  The broad summary is fairly simple:  Anything that requires a ton of heat or long distance flight is really bad.  Certainly giant gas guzzling vehicles on the roads with only one person in them are terrible but nobody needs to be told that, the important thing to know is that getting local produce out of season is often terrible because of the incredible energy required to keep it heated in northern climes.  Just as much it is disastrous to airlift food from far off countries so that we can have asparagus from the Southern Hemisphere in winter.

It turns out that having a dishwasher is a fine thing as long as it is reasonably efficient, run only when full and used for a long time.  Same goes for vehicles, interestingly enough.  If you buy an efficient car, drive it only when you have several people to carry and use it a long time it is just as efficient as many forms of public transit.  There are lots of good bits of information in the book talking about these sorts of issues and I found it really useful to have a bit of a guide as to when it is worth buying a new, more efficient device and when it is better to just run the old one into the ground.  Some devices are such brutal energy hogs or such big polluters that replacing them is necessary but in most cases there is so much CO2 tied up in manufacturing a device that it is far better to simply use it as long as possible and then buy a much more efficient one once the old one finally dies.

The book talks mostly about personal habits and purchases to help give the average person an idea of what their decisions mean but it does cover government subsidies of clean power sources too and it does not paint a pretty picture.  There are some things individuals and governments can do to reduce emissions that are tremendous wins all around like adding insulation to buildings and swapping from coal to gas as a heat source but many of the current things governments are trying are terrible from a cost:benefit perspective.  Generating power from solar cells and windmills certainly reduces emissions but the cost to do so is prohibitive and isn't the cheapest way to tackle the problem.  The author shows a real concern for understanding and lowering our CO2 emissions but makes it clear that many of the current ways governments are approaching it are very inefficient.

One thing I did find that seemed utterly wrong was the author's estimate of the costs of pumping CO2 into the air.  He estimated that for every 150 tons of CO2 sent skyward that one person would die and made some calculations about the cost of saving lives based on this number.  Unfortunately I can't see how that number can be possible since on average each person in the world puts 7 tons of CO2 into the air per year; this would imply that after ~21 years everyone on the planet would be killed by climate change. Clearly the function of CO2 to deaths is not linear but I still can't see how 150 tons / death could possibly be right.  My best guess is that he is off on this figure by at least one order of magnitude and more likely off by two.  I still think that the rest of the numbers in the book are useful guidelines but any time he talks about impact I think his figures can be safely ignored.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Suicide Hill - aptly named

On the 24th my family and some friends went to Suicide Hill.  I bragged in my last post about my previous great spill where I flew upside down, kicked my sled away and landed with minimal damage and without bashing my precious cranium.  My hubris was suitable punished this year when I tried the same stunt.

On the last run of the day I decided to ride a Sno Racer down the hill from quite near the top - a more than slightly dangerous feat.  It was not a danger that could be avoided though as Mr. Frisbee had crushed my distance record by a full meter and my honour needed defending.  I blasted down the hill rocking from side to side without any really close calls but once I hit the flat I grazed a bump and one ski popped up into the air.

My desperate attempts to abandon ship were in vain as my boots caught on my sled and my face was smashed most brutally into the ground.  After rolling over and collapsing I dragged myself off of the ground wondering if I would see streams of blood coming from my face or if my knees had been badly damaged by being twisted around by the flying sled and falling human.  Strangely I wasn't worried about my face; even in a haze of pain I was sure any damage to my face would be superficial (if potentially ugly!) but I was very concerned about my knees.  Wendy has real trouble with her knees from old injuries and I have no desire whatever to join that club.  After I had gotten up and was deemed not to badly hurt people showed me the massive chunk I had torn out of the ground with my face:  A hole in hard packed snow about 5 cm x 5 cm x 40 cm.

Thankfully though getting up was a trial I am not seriously hurt.  My knees were complaining mightily for a day or two and my face is still obviously battered but they are nothing that will not be cured by time.  No regrets are had by me though.  One's honour must be defended on the sledding hill and simply allowing an opponent to recklessly smash a distance record cannot be tolerated.  Being unable to compete by dint of injury is acceptable but refusing to try based on danger?  Nevar!

Wendy decided that my bruise looked like rock star makeup and encouraged me to try it again by applying colours with a brush instead of smashing myself into a hill.  Perhaps it is time for a foray into eyeliner to please her...?

Thanks to Mr. Frisbee and Also The Doctor for recording my crash for posterity.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tomorrow - Suicide

The snow is falling and it is going to be a real white Christmas.  There was already a small amount on the ground when I arrived up north but now it feels like winter for real.  Elli and I went out sledding on the driveway today and it was a grand old time, barring the trouble that she just can't carry her sled up the hill so I end up being the pack mule for both Sno Racers at the same time.  The old Sno Racers sure have done their duty.  They were brutally used and abused when we were young, being used to pull jumps off of rocks and crashland on ground frozen hard as concrete.  They are worn, scratched and the steering is really more like 'steering' but nonetheless they still work and will probably outlast me.

There is a yearly trip to Suicide Hill for a sledding party that looked like it was going to be cancelled but the snowfall today has restored our desire for speed and snowy danger.  Tomorrow we will be flying down the hill at ridiculous speeds and hoping that no one is seriously injured.  In previous years we have seen some spectacular crashes like when The Piper flew upside down with his Sno Racer above him and his head plowed through multiple small trees before he came to rest in a pile.  I remember doing the same thing when I went down the entire length of the hill and hit a bump at the bottom; I have a distinct memory of hanging onto my sled even though it was directly above me in the air and I was wrong way up with my head cruising along a few centimeters above the hard packed ground.  Thankfully I jettisoned the sled and managed to crash with some non head part of me cracking the ground first.  A few minutes were required for recovery but no real damage was done.

We are lucky to be having a wonderfully mild Christmastime.  I recall periods when I was young that we would hit -35 C (without the wind chill) every day and on the trip so far the temperature has consistently sat at -5 to 0 C during the day.  Can't do better than that if what you want is snow to play in, and I do.  You can't beat -35 C for storytelling in Toronto though; I derive no end of pleasure from regaling southerners (relatively speaking!) with stories of real cold when they complain about the mercury going down to -10.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evil or just pragmatic?

Obama has decided that the US needs to be able to lawfully, and with proper oversight, detain anyone they want forever without formal charges, a trial, or proof of any wrongdoing.  Why?  The obvious answer is:  He is evil and the Democrats are just as evil as the Republicans because all American politicians are evil!  (Obvious according to the internet, anyhow.)  I wonder if it isn't something else entirely though... maybe Obama is just desperately trying to be reelected.

Imagine this scenario.  Obama closes Guantanamo Bay and frees a couple hundred people that were being detained for crimes that cannot be proven.  Presumably some of those people are absolutely innocent, some are vaguely guilty and some are absolutely guilty of either trying to attack US soldiers, civilians or interests or at least planning to attack them.  Sometime later there are terrorist attacks against US interests and the Republican candidate proclaims that Obama releasing the Guantanamo prisoners allowed them to initiate this attack and that Obama isn't protecting America.  Obama loses the election on the basis that he freed maniacal terrorists bent on destroying America and the new president declares war on Iran.

Realistically most of those released, even of the ones who actually were involved in terrorism against the US, aren't going to do anything of note once they get their freedom.  However, that has absolutely nothing to do with the accusations against Obama that will be believed by a lot of Americans.  Combine this with the fact that all Republican candidates barring Ron Paul support a new war in against Iran (for NO FUCKING REASON) and you can see why there is some kind of argument for doing anything at all to prevent a Republican victory in 2012.

I am not going to debate what *should* be done since I think it is abundantly clear that the US needs to immediately try those detainees who can be tried and release the rest.  Their willingness to detain without charge is just another reason that people want to commit terrible acts against them - in order to end the war on terror the world needs to stop being given so many reasons to hate the US.

So here is the question:  Given that a war against Iran would probably involve killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, not to mention soldiers on both sides, can Obama be doing absolutely anything he can think of to try to make sure he stays in power for another term?  Does he think that indefinite detention is bad but necessary to prevent a war, which is certainly a far greater evil?  I personally think that the answer is yes.  I was very hopeful that Obama would be a drastically left leaning president but he has failed in many ways - Indefinite detention, suppression of Occupy and environmentalism come to mind but there are surely many others.  That said, I don't see the US starting another war under his administration and preventing war is by far the greatest priority I can think of.  Perhaps Obama is just another evil US politician eager to crush the little man but maybe he is just desperate and willing to do things that are wrong to hopefully prevent an even greater wrong.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Tradition

I generally look forward greatly to Christmas.  Every year the three of us fly from Toronto to Thunder Bay to stay with my parents for a week and visit all the family and friends I have here.  Planning the list of things I want to do each time I come ends up being stressful though because the time I have is never enough and always too much at the same time.

I really want to visit my friends and get time to just hang out playing cards.  I want to see all my various cousins, visit my grandparents, have dinner with my brother, spend time with my parents and go to the big Christmas bash.  I also desperately need alone time and solitude and I want to enjoy the natural surroundings and quiet that coming up here allows me and it is simply impossible to do it all in the time I have.  Of course I could book even more time up here but then it becomes too much time away from home and we get homesick, not to mention the challenges of leaving pets at home for extended periods and my parents eventually wanting their house back.  I feel like a stuffed toy being tugged from all sides by a group of children, my stuffing coming out a little as the seams begin to give way.  I love the attention and all but I wish there was a way to get all these great things without any of the downsides as my memories and anticipation of Christmas so regularly ignores the tradeoffs involved.

Not to say I am disappointed with coming up here for Christmas as that has never been the case.  I love it but I can't seem to reconcile all the things I want to do and feel like I should do with the time I have available.  Of course I don't want anyone to feel like I ignored them when I came into town but if I make time to see absolutely everybody and do everything I will just make myself miserable.  There is a compromise that strives to be everything and doesn't quite make it as there is always someone I didn't see or some time to just relax that I never quite got around to taking.

My parents asked me this year if I was planning on starting up a Christmas tradition of my own and stopping my yearly trips up to see them.  This is one of the things I love about them:  They recognize that they don't necessarily know exactly what I want and make sure to make room for the changes I might want to make.  They take the time to be sure we all know what the other wants so we can create a plan that makes us all happy.  I see so often families where each person takes for granted that everyone wants the same things and it makes nothing but friction and angst.  I don't particularly want to set up any of my own Christmas traditions though as I don't have much use for tradition; I don't mind doing the same thing over and over as long as that same thing is still justifiable on its own merits without relying on "But we have always done X".  I love coming up north for Christmas and for now there is nowhere else I want to be.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I will miss you Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is dead.  Despite never knowing him personally, indeed never coming within a thousand kilometers of him, it does make me a little sad to know he is gone.  He was atheism's rabid dog, the crazy, impassioned debater and writer who was willing to fly across the world any time to debate religion with anybody.  I read his most famous book on religion, God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything and blogged about it, comparing Hitchens to a salesman while comparing Dawkins and Stenger to a mad scientist and a force of nature respectively.  Hitchens was hilarious to watch or read because he was so talented at writing eloquently and forcefully but he would never be accused of being the most meticulous debater in the world; he often ignored his opponent's arguments, dismissing them as ridiculous, and simply charged ahead in his inimitable way.  He was the sort you would set on someone you wanted to confuse and demoralize because he refused to engage on any but his own terms and was savage and dangerous in his prose.

I read some of his later written works in Vanity Fair talking about his illness and the various reactions to it.  He talked about how some religious people suggested that his cancer of the esophagus was a direct punishment from God for his blasphemous statements, to which he replied that he was surprised that God had not struck him in other body parts which he used to sin very regularly.  One might also question why God waited so long to punish him and why God chose a method that could so easily be predicted by lifestyle and circumstance...  Hitchens even talked about how he hoped that he would not become so weak and confused that he repented his atheism at the end and insisted that if by some chance he did that everyone ignore it as the person that did so was not really Christopher Hitchens.  Of course other folks simply said that they were not praying for Hitchens because he wouldn't want them to, or that they were praying for him even though he wouldn't want them to.  I wonder if it is enjoyable or terrible to have so many people so interested in one's own imminent death.

Of course although his body is gone Hitchens is not vanished forever.  His debates, his books and his cutting remarks stay with us and as such a big part of what Hitchens was will live a very long time indeed.  This is true for anyone, and the memories of us and the way we change the world is the only real immortality we have.  Though some may find it terrifying or insufficient I see it as a far greater form of immortality than the fictional kind.  Awareness is a wonderful thing but the knowledge that even though I will someday be gone my thoughts and actions will continue to echo across the world is a more wonderful thing yet.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas break

I will be heading up north for the Christmas season again this year starting next week.  Blog posts will probably still happen but they will likely be sporadic in frequency.

I posted this before but it deserves a repeat; it is by far my favourite Christmas song.

I have in the past been called 'a cold blooded snake' due to my resistance to emotional scenes but every time I watch this video it makes me cry like a baby.  Something about the way he sings

I'll be seeing my dad,
my brother, my sister my gran and my mom,

just tears me up.

In other Christmas news the Canadian government gave the world a dubious Christmas present by officially pulling out of the Kyoto accord.  Canada was utterly failing at its Kyoto commitments and was going to have to fork over ~$9 billion to make it up in carbon credits.  That is actually a really large sum for our budget and the government obviously didn't want to either have to slash services, raise taxes or engage in even more deficit spending.  Not that this excuses their behaviour as they could have just done the right thing and lived up to their commitments instead but when you elect right wing folks on a platform of bigger jails and more weapons you get what you ask for; we asked for incarceration and destruction instead of conservation.  This map from wikipedia shows countries in the world by agreement on Kyoto and paints a pretty sad picture of my chunk of the world.

And that right there is one of my biggest sources of pessimism on the world's ability to prevent climate change.  The dark green countries are trying but mostly failing to keep to their commitments, light green ones are actively increasing emissions with no binding restrictions and orange and red countries have refused to be involved.

Picture from Wikipedia:

Stinking up the place

For two months I have been refusing to use deodorant to see if anyone would notice.  I have always disliked using deodorant and all the kinds that I have tried recently have ended up leaving a sticky gunk in my armpits that was really hard to get completely out even with thorough washing.  I remember back in university the Computer Science Club was renowned for smelling bad (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) and I wondered if that was due to a lack of deodorant or showering.  The acid test was to simply stop using the stuff without anybody about it to see what sort of reactions I would get.

The only reaction I have catalogued thus far is Wendy's and she told me that I generally smell better now than I did before; she hadn't realized that I had stopped slathering my pits with gunk at all.  The trouble with that test is that people in relationships tend to especially like the way their partner smells and that unique scent can be a real source of comfort or arousal.  This is not so much true of everybody else in my life I think so now I just have to wait and see if anyone has noticed that I am a stinky man over the last two months.  My friends and relatives might or might not like my natural odor but they aren't likely to be swayed by associating it with either comfort or sexy time so hopefully I can get useful data.

Assuming everybody else agrees that they can't tell the difference I am left wondering what deodorant is good for at all.  Surely people who do a lot of physical labour or exercise are going to sweat more than me and be smellier but I found that I actually sweat less now than before because the gunk under my arms actually made the problem worse.  Perhaps showering regularly and skipping the chemical addons would lower the need for such things enough to make them not worth using?  Of course this isn't likely to sell a lot of people because I can't see much use for mascara, aftershave, perfume and many other widely used chemical addons and yet they don't seem to be going anywhere.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Earthings - disturbing and powerful

Yesterday I watched the Youtube video Earthlings.  It was extremely disturbing and despite the 'viewer discretion advised' label I would advise that everyone watch it.  The video is a documentary pushing the vegan viewpoint and it does so by showing raw footage of slaughterhouses, factory farms, fur farms and other animal product manufacturing.  You need an hour and a half to spare but I think the understanding gained from doing so is completely worth it (I was tempted to say necessary).

I have read some books on the topic before like In Defense of Food and Fast Food Nation and watched Super Size Me but none of that hit home like this video did.  Watching footage of animals being boiled and dismembered while still alive is sickening and I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw an animal with the fur ripped completely off thrashing around obviously still aware and conscious.  Of course people do horrific things and watching those isn't necessarily helpful but when we are complicit in their reprehensible acts I think being aware of exactly what happens is critical.  When we buy commercial meat, leather and fur these things do happen to the animals used in the process and we have an obligation to acknowledge the consequences of our consumption.

That isn't to say I have suddenly become vegan.  I still find the idea that eating meat is morally wrong to be unsupportable as then we would have to solve various conundrums like either killing or starving carnivorous creatures and the ethical quandaries surrounding the murder of insects.  The critical feature to my mind is suffering rather than life since a reverence for life in general must get around the issue of eating *something* or righteously starving to death.  Eating as much meat as we do here in North America is bad for our health and bad for the environment but I don't have a problem with eating small amounts of meat as long as the suffering of the animals involved is minimized.  There are of course all kinds of issues with the nutritional quality of factory raised meats which was enough to get me to go for grass fed additive free meat and this video reinforced that decision but did not convince me to take the next step.

The movie had a section about using animals as research subjects in science and industry.  I was much less convinced by that part of it as they flat out stated that animals research simply cannot help improve medicine for humans.  I assumed that Wendy would agree with me on this as she does a lot of research on rats and I presumed that she felt like it was beneficial overall to do so.  Instead she backed up the film saying that many researchers feel that animal studies actually make things worse by requiring us to spend time and money on studying the animals we kill that should have been used on humans.  Apparently we know an incredible amount about mouse physiology because of medical experiments and much of it is utterly useless for treating people.  So though it seems to me that some animal research must have been beneficial it may well be that animal research as a whole simply brings no net benefit but has the real downside of causing substantial suffering.

I suspect you would find that a lot of people would say that this video is not suitable for children.  I would disagree.  My mother was raised on a farm and was used to watching animals be slaughtered for eating and her experience is by far the norm for nearly all of human history.  Children can deal with these things and can learn a lot from how their parents deal with the death and suffering of other creatures.  If you are going to eat grocery store meat then I do think you should accept the reality of what it takes to produce it and watch the video regardless of age.  If you can't take it, don't eat it.

Having thrown down the gauntlet I find myself in a position to have to deal with my own statements.  I didn't know how this post was going to go when I started but now that I have my ideas down I should stand by them.  I do buy local grass fed no additive beef but I buy eggs and fish from the grocery store.  I have (and love) a leather jacket and gloves too and so I should consider that issue as well.  I suppose it is time to google "cruelty free leather clothing" and see where it takes me.  Mitigating my own hypocrisy is going to be a lot of work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accept failure and move on

This past weekend Wendy and I took a trip to Wolfe Island near Kingston to visit The French Couple.  We had some great discussions though I must say that sometimes the language barrier made things challenging - which I should take credit for since I was the only one of the group who has no second language to speak of.  One of the greatest points of contention was how we should approach climate change from a global standpoint.  The Frenchman's argument went as follows:

1.  The current trends of CO2 emissions are going to raise world temperature and cause climatic changes.

2.  The ocean will increasingly become acidic and eventually will turn from being a CO2 sink into a CO2 source at approximately 3 C above current temperatures.  This will cause a further acceleration of the process.

3.  We must therefore concentrate our energies on reducing greenhouse gases such that this threshold is never reached.  All plans must revolve around this goal.

I can't argue with the first point since it is clearly true.  The Frenchman is a scientific researcher working specifically with large bodies of water so I am pretty confident his estimate about oceans is right.  However, I think we simply can't leap to the third point from there.  The primary difference between us is that I simply don't accept that such adjustments are even remotely possible and so I think we should focus on what to do about the problem when it arrives rather than assume we can prevent it.

Despite various agreements made among developed countries to curb CO2 emissions is it clear that there simply does not exist the political will to make really impactful changes.  Note that the changes required to not hit the 3 C benchmark are often estimated at a 5% reduction per year worldwide starting *now*.  Canada made commitments and it will fail to deliver on any of them.  This is not atypical as pretty much the entire world is in the same boat.  Some countries (notably the US of course) would not even sign up for the completely inadequate Kyoto Protocol so how are we to expect anyone to sign on to reduce emissions by 5% a year starting *instantly* and have it really work?  Developing countries aren't going to tell their people to continue to live as subsistence farmers so that rich countries can continue their way of life and rich countries are in no way willing to dramatically reduce their consumption of goods and energy.

Imagine if the government tried to actually sell people on these kinds of reductions.  "Hey, everybody, you need to completely discontinue flying airplanes.  Also, we are going to double all taxation and no services will increase as the money will be used to buy solar panels."  Even that wouldn't be enough but selling that to the populace is impossible.  The will to make those tremendous sacrifices won't materialize until people really start to see catastrophe unfolding (maybe not even then) and by that point it is certainly too late.  People turn off their lights, they buy more fuel efficient cars and they ask the politicians to DO SOMETHING but they will not make the sacrifices required for that something to work.

So what do we do?  Well, focus on spending what money we can afford on things that will help like high efficiency gas plants and research into thorium power.  Make sure that developing countries have a sufficiently advanced economy and enough wealth to deal with the catastrophes that will follow.  We should reduce emissions where we can find cheap, effective solutions and acknowledge that barring some kind of technological 'magic wand' (which thorium could possibly be) we are going to have to deal with a warmer world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sissy Toronto Men

Christie Blatchford is a columnist for the National Post here in Toronto.  She wrote a piece recently to explain how awful it is that men in Toronto no longer believe that the solution to violence is more extreme violence and to deplore the fact that men hug each other.  She is careful to explain that she isn't anti gay, as long as the men in question act like repressed, savage, vengeful louts, can shoot a puck and fart on cue.  They must also not hug each other, that is for women and sissies.  (I am not making this up.)

At first I thought that Christie must be some sort of angry man with a penchant for football, vigilante justice and a feminine name but in fact Christie is a woman with a distinctly unusual outlook.  Not to say that the 'hugs are wrong' doctrine is better coming from one gender or the other but you sure don't see it as much from mainstream female writers!  The incident that touched off her rant was her seeing two sets of preteen boys come upon each other on the street and greet each other with a series of hugs.  Perhaps a routine of nipple twisting, hair pulling and chest beating would please Christie more, leaving her secure in the knowledge that young men are safely ensconced in the ideology of fear and domination.  She would evidently enjoy that men embrace the culture of refusing to show affection in any way other than "Hey baby that shirt looks great but it would be even better on my bedroom floor!"

The crux of her argument goes something like this:  No one should go to authorities with their problems.  If you are being bullied you should expect all the other kids around to catch the bully alone and beat them senseless for you.  In the movies we can expect that grievous wrongs will be righted when John Wayne rides into town and gives the bad guys some bare knuckle vengeance but in real life the biggest kid on the playground only gets stopped by the adults.  When a person is being bullied there are many things they can do themselves to try to deal with the situation but waiting for other kids to enact bloody payback is not one of them.  In a world where every man is expected to be capable and ready to physically attack a bully at a moment's notice you probably would expect men to greet each other with fists rather than hugs but I assure Ms. Blatchford that she does not want to live in such a world.  In the real world John Wayne is busy somewhere else and never shows up.

Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy watching violence in movies and television shows and I even have a fondness for professional wrestling.  An epic physical struggle between hero and villain is a marvelous thing to watch now and again but we must acknowledge that vengeful violence in narratives is satisfying in a way that real world violence is not.  In a story the hero wins and all is well, in real life things are more complicated and the person upon whom vengeance is visited is often completely innocent or was merely getting 'justice' in the first place.  One person's justice is another person's atrocity and the only way we escape from that cycle as a society is to let relatively neutral authorities take care of problems.  They aren't perfect but they are better than Angry Man Beatdown Squad.

Christie may like her men savage, unable to express positive emotions and constantly involved in violence but the rest of us hopefully are sensible enough to realize how much better the world is when that isn't the case.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Packing it up

Elli loves the idea of being an adult.  Like most little kids she desperately wants to try everything that adults do and is often frustrated by her lack of skill, size or strength that makes it impossible for her to do so.  Today she was hugely pleased to be able to pack her own suitcase and choose her own clothes for her trip this weekend. She is intensely possessive of her suitcase (which isn't strictly hers but which she adopted and isn't giving back!) and when I got ready to do packing today she was very careful to tell me that she could do it for me and didn't need help.  I could see that she was expecting me to just pack her stuff as normal but wanted to present a 'big kid' face and do it herself.

She asked what clothes and how many of each she needed and requested permission to take additional copies of some things, added in some sleeping toys, a video and a book and then packed everything using the special pockets of the suitcase.  I don't know where the idea that the book and video must go in the mesh pocket and the toothbrush and toothpaste go in the solid elastic pocket came from but she is quite convinced her version of the packing process is right.  I was actually pretty taken aback by how efficient she was about the whole thing, she got the case out and fully packed in just ten minutes.

It is the juxtaposition that gets me.  One minute she is angry that the parcel that arrived was for Wendy instead of her and so she spends fifteen minutes on the floor screaming and thrashing "I want a parcel for me!" and then she goes and acts very grown up the next.  I never know what to expect.  I suppose it isn't any more crazy than an adult who displays otherwise good judgement and then talks about being able to beat the slot machines in Vegas or how a book about the bloody conquests and sacrifices of desert nomads a few thousand years ago contains Ultimate Truth.  People can be very competent and very bizarre at the same time.

2 years

Brightcape is two years old last week.  I know, missing birthdays is par for the course for me, ha ha.  Thankfully Google Calendar has been commanded to keep me informed about other people's birthdays from now on so those people who expect birthday wishes from me are likely to get them on time instead of a day late.  Note I said likely, Google can fix my information deficit but it can't fix lazy.

Early this year I changed my format to have gaming posts on Brightcape Gamer and non gaming posts here.  My goal in doing this was to let me geek out about games for an audience that wants that and not try to please everybody; I think I have been successful in that.  I have also cranked up the volume of posts pretty substantially from 3/week to 7/week over that time span and I am very much enjoying writing more and doing the homework required to say things of interest that often.

I am having a good time and I hope you are too.  The paucity of posts this week notwithstanding I have a grand time writing and debating with all of you.  I particularly want to thank those who drop comments on my posts to keep things interesting and keep me honest; if you don't generally read the comments or only read on a feed reader you may want to check them out.

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The advantages to greed

Last night I had a heated discussion with some folks at my gaming group on the subject of commission sales.  The opinion there was pretty negative regarding both commissioned salespeople and the price flexibility they had and the folks were rather surprised that I would rather deal with a commissioned salesperson if given the opportunity.  By and large salespeople have a pretty bad rap and commissioned ones even more so; I expect that there aren't very many people who actually want to get a commissioned salesperson to help them.  I wouldn't argue that everyone should want the same as me but I would say that once you understand the industry from all angles you probably would agree with me.

Regardless of how they are paid there are plenty of really bad and really good salespeople.  One of the people debating with me was a salaried salesperson with a dim view of commission and given his passion for his product, years of experience and obvious pride in giving good service I expect he gives customers a great experience.  I feel like I did the same when I was selling.  However, the plural of anecdote is not data so we must consider the general experience.  In general I find that commissioned salespeople *can* be very good but tend towards being pushy and aggressive.  In general I find that salaried salespeople *can* be very good but tend towards being uninterested and uninformed.  It doesn't matter how they are paid if they are good at what they do and want the customer to be happy but if they aren't good then the experience is completely different.

Due to many years of selling I got pretty good at handling the situation of a salesperson who isn't wanted.  I am comfortable telling someone who is being overly forward to shove off and negotiating price isn't an issue.  What I can't stand is dealing with salespeople who don't know what they are talking about and who aren't concerned with finding me something that solves my problem.  I don't want them to back off and 'give me space' or any such nonsense, I am interested in them getting information from me to find the product I need but don't know about yet.  Once they do that I can grind them down on the price as necessary.  If a salesperson just isn't interested in the process there is really nothing I can do to fix that situation though and so salaried salespeople trend towards being useless to me.

I am sure that a lot of the objection comes from people buying into the myth of fair value.  There is no such thing though we spend much of our lives deluding ourselves into thinking that the listed price on an item somehow represents this illusory concept.  It is much simpler to just go by the store's listed price and not try to work at figuring out what their cost is and how much of a discount you really can expect to get and so of course most of us most of the time just pay the asking price.  This of course leads stores to abuse us with '50% off sale' and other such contrivances.

Simply put when dealing with salespeople you can get good or bad salespeople no matter what else is going on.  You have a choice in what sort of bad you can expect though and I find it much easier to deal with 'pushy' bad then 'nonexistent' bad.  I think in general the populace finds it the other way though which is why commissioned salespeople have such a bad reputation.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Blog subjects

When I was the a science fiction convention last month some of the panelists were talking about their blogs and how they use them to build an audience and flog their merchandise.  They all talked about the necessity of keeping parts of their personal lives off of their blogs and making sure that everyone in their personal lives got to opt in or out of 'blog public life' at will.  I asked them if they decided to keep information off their blogs for personal or business reasons and they seemed offended, telling me that they would never use the people in their personal lives to drive business to their blogs.  That wasn't what I intended, of course, as I don't presuppose that any good person *must* keep others out of their personal statements.  If you personally don't mind talking about the fight you had last night with your spouse on your blog but keep it off for professional reasons it doesn't bother me.

This is a tricky sort of thing.  Some people in my family have suggested in the past that I reveal too much and in particular that Elli should have veto power over what I say about her.  I don't see it that way.  I need to be able to talk about what I feel and what happens to me and when our lives intersect I need to have the freedom to speak about it.  While blogging about events leaves a permanent record I don't see it as so much different from people randomly talking about their kids and their lives with one another - as soon as you share something with random people it isn't a secret any more.  I find lots of little things in my life to talk about but generally I don't have much in the 'fights with my spouse' category that would interest people.  When Wendy and I disagree it is a matter of lying in bed talking things out for awhile until we settle on something we can agree on; very little worthy of recording there.

In this way I differ dramatically from Penelope Trunk.  Her fights with her husband often involve incredible screaming matches in public like "You never wanted a family! You should go live with your pigs! All you want is some woman who doesn’t talk to you and just gives you blow jobs!" and she records it on her blog for all to see.  She includes their make up sex, his physical violence toward her, their therapy to talk about her social problems and his spousal abuse and everything else you might imagine.  The crazy thing is that it seems like she really does just talk at random about these things and the fact that her life is completely bonkers keeps readership up even without doing this sort of thing deliberately.  She believes completely in not keeping secrets and having everything be open because of the awful things that were kept secret during her childhood.  This week she talked about hiring a random nanny / homemaker, flying her in for the week, finding out the nanny advocated child beating and 'the husband must sit at the place of honour at the dinner table' and then flying her out again right away at the cost of two grand.  

I just don't have stories like that to tell.  My life is weird, but it is weird in ways that just don't lend themselves to that sort of incredulous 'can this be real?' kind of writing.  I don't hide from the cops and the IRS because of unpaid taxes and simultaneously fly people I haven't met around the country to come in and manage my family and perhaps I should count myself fortunate in that regard, lost blogging opportunities and all.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Communication in the Far Future

I have been reading Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder, a far future hard science fiction novel.  My impressions of the book are pretty normal for me and this sort of story:  I think the ideas and concepts are really fantastic and thought worthy but the story itself ends up being somewhat flat.

Many books in this genre end up presenting remarkable scenarios but not explaining them well enough for people to really understand what is going on.  Not explaining everything in a book is fine as the reader is very much expected to imagine much of the story themselves to fill in the gaps but when the world is so utterly alien and makes so little sense from a 2011 perspective it becomes infeasible to do so in any way that feels satisfying.  In this case the world is filled with many (nearly infinite?) numbers of different 'manifolds' which are essentially like versions of reality overlapping the same locations in space and time.  We are given a very basic primer on how these work but it is sketchy enough and violates all known physics enough that figuring out the bits of the story that aren't explicitly laid out is impossible.  Once hundreds of people can occupy the same space simultaneously without even being aware of one another it is hard to imagine exactly how the rest of the story might 'logically' fall out.

The best bit about this book though is the idea of animas.  This is the name given to a software construct designed to perfectly emulate a human.  The characters live in a society where everyone creates many animas of themselves so that their friends (or enemies!) can constantly have access to them regardless of what their physical bodies might be doing.  This is a really intriguing extension of the current trend toward having constant communication between people; cell phones and texting have meant that getting answers and social interaction have become quicker and easier and animas take it to the next level.  You want to know what Joe thinks of a topic?  Just ask the anima of him you keep on hand at all times!  The societal implications of these constructs are outlined a little bit in the book too and in the story they challenge others to duels, make dates and do other things that the original meat person is expected to answer for.  It is made clear that if you create an anima and use all of the tremendous functionality involved you are entirely responsible for what it does since it is in fact doing what you would do in that same situation.  If you don't want to accept that responsibility, don't make an anima... but everyone will find you intolerably rude since you won't be able to hold 10 conversations simultaneously like everyone else.

Obviously the technology to create software simulations of a person that are so accurate that no one can tell the difference is far beyond us today but it certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility.  Human brains are deadly complicated but computers continue to improve in capacity exponentially and eventually we must be able to find a way to cram a brain sized amount of data into a computer.  Guessing about social constructs hundreds of years in the future is purely for fun of course since people of 1980 wouldn't have had any clue about online forum behaviour today and the rate of change is accelerating but I do think that Schroeder's version of future communication is far more realistic than most other science fiction I have read.  It feels much more like an extension of current trends to the nth degree than the usual '2011 man with a ray gun and FLT spaceships' science fiction.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A moment of panic, then amusement

Last night I was peeing and suddenly noticed that the toilet bowl had turned a nasty shade of red instead of the normal yellow colour.  This is not a good thing, thought I, and I immediately began to wonder if pissing blood was serious on the level of 'rush to the hospital' or the level of 'call the doctor on Monday'.  Then I noticed that the colour wasn't exactly that of blood, but in fact a little more like purple.  Now pissing red is bad news, but pissing purpleish red?  Then I recalled that I had eaten a really large amount of beets in the 24 hours prior to this and that beet juice is really quite notorious for staining absolutely anything.

To the internet!

It turns out that Google defaults 'beets red' to 'beets red urine', which in itself is quite a reassurance.  It turns out that not only is this a relatively widespread thing but the websites Google suggested tell me that it is linked to iron deficiency.  I can't tell you *why* iron deficient people are apparently susceptible to having their juices stained purple by beets but the internet claims it is true and we all know the internet is never wrong.  We all know for sure though that self diagnosis of medical problems via 'some guy said some stuff on a forum comment' is a path to hypochondria so I am going to haul my butt to the doctor to find out if this iron deficiency as revealed by beet consumption has any merit.

I don't have pictures to show you as I didn't have the presence of mind to take them at the time.  This is probably a relief for the great majority of you.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Libertarian Viewpoint

I watched an interesting interview today with a US libertarian who was talking about wealth inequality being a good thing for everyone in the economy.  The interviewer was not remotely sympathetic to his position and tried to stick it to him (more politely than I would have) without strictly speaking calling him out on being bigoted against the poor.  There is a real difference between wanting to keep a privileged position, which pretty much anyone reading this on a computer is likely guilty of, and going out of your way to punish anyone below you on the ladder as a matter of principle.  The logic of the libertarian in question goes like this:

- Taxing the rich is bad because they lose incentive to innovate and work hard and since the ultrarich have obviously traded even greater benefit for the wealth they have received they are helping us all.

- The greater inequality is the more incentive there is for the poor to work hard to become rich, which increases economic performance.

- Estate taxes are wrong because the rich can invest in the human capital of their children and create highly innovative, productive people for the next generation.

None of which makes a damn bit of sense.  The interviewee straight up talks about Bill Gates and his 50 billion dollar + fortune and suggests that if Gates hadn't been compensated as much he simply wouldn't have bothered.  Somehow I find it a bit of a stretch to suggest that if Gates only had 40 billion dollars he would give up in disgust - why bother working for peanuts, right?  (Gates of course donates truly absurd sums to charity so handing him in particular a lot of money is actually not so bad)  The economic inequality that is truly staggering is not the entrepreneur who manages to put together a net worth of a few million before retirement by working really hard but rather the people with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars who cannot possibly receive any notable benefit from 90% of their income.  The average person wouldn't even be able to tell you what the lifestyle difference is between someone with 5 million dollars and someone with 50 million - probably a lot of the people with fortunes of that size can hardly tell.

The hilarious thing is that the argument goes that the rich work better when the government doesn't tax them but somehow the poor are the opposite.  What the rich need is boatloads of cash since that fuels their innovation and productivity but the poor need a swift kick in the ass to fuel theirs.  Convenient that all the poor people produce best under the opposite set of conditions as rich folks.  Should we not crush the rich with punitive taxes so that they see how much harder they must work to get above the commoners?

This attitude on estate taxes makes my head hurt.  The poor need to start from nothing with no help, that makes them more productive.  Rich kids on the other hand need to be handed obscene fortunes without having worked at all because that makes them work harder...?  It is very well established that those people who inherit massive fortunes do not nearly so well with them as those who build the fortune themselves.  Hell, punitive estate taxes don't even have any effect on the buying of education, introduction to social networks or business favours that rich kids get, it only matters when they are handed huge stacks of money in the middle years.

There are points I agree with sometimes when libertarians start pontificating whether it be north or south of the border but this stuff is ridiculous.  There isn't even any attempt made to disguise this as anything but bigotry against the poor.


I love bread.  In particular I love raisin bread, and I especially love raisin bread made with white flour and jam packed with high fructose corn syrup.  This leads me to a difficult conundrum because I desperately want to eat only healthy home baked things.  Thus I get myself involved in baking all whole wheat bread for a few months and then peter out on enthusiasm... eventually my love of whole wheat gives way and I stop making it.

At some point I start feeling guilty since I have the time and the means to bake bread so I should stop absently munching on crackers and bagels and make my own bread again.  I get in a cycle of being excited about making my own bread and having nothing to do with other wheat based foods and then getting worn down on the concept again.  This time I am trying to introduce a portion of white flour into the mix to try to get the bread to rise better and look more like the fancy pants breads you see at the store - my success has not been resounding in this regard.  I have a bizarre conviction that somehow I can achieve the look of store bought goods while keeping the healthy credibility I want and despite never ending failure I continue to have great expectations.

It is a strange cycle.  I convince myself that this time I will find a way to make the bread's appeal not fade with time and that I won't get sick of it again.  It seems to me that this must be much like yoyo dieting except of course "Man, homemade bread is great!" and "The hell with homemade bread, I am going to the bagel shop" are a lot less frustrating and serious.  Now of course I have to consider the idea that I shouldn't be making things out of wheat at all and that maybe all this slugging away at making whole wheat bread is pretty much equivalent to making cake over and over again.

But such delicious cake with melted butter... nomnomnom.

You see this same thing with people who have bread makers at home.  They initially get super excited and make bread like crazy and then the bread maker gets stuffed in a closet someplace and never comes out again.  Even though each time they are reminded of it they recall how great it is to have fresh bread finish just in time for breakfast it never lasts long.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Prior to today it was fall.  Regardless of what the 'official' season is I won't count it as winter until there is a real snow that gives me a 'must stay inside where it is warm' feeling.  I don't get that just from cold days since we have had a good number of those already but rather from some combination of cold and snow falling.  Maybe it is triggered by being unable to see much because of the blowing snow and not wanting to have to hunch my shoulders against it as I walk and maybe it is because so many activities are impossible in such conditions.

Regardless today finally triggered my hibernation instinct, a voice deep in my mind that tells me that it is time to light a fire and sit beside it gently dozing until the flash of green emerges in the spring.  It is especially stark because when I walked Elli to school this morning the streets were completely clear and it was just a cool fall day and by the time I got back home I was covered in snow and unable to see any great distance.  Smells are linked to memory in powerful ways and can bring out powerful emotions; I think that for me walking through the first heavy snow of the year has the same sort of effect.  It brings up memories of winters long past, dark mornings waiting for the sun to rise and dragging sleds through waist deep snow to Suicide Hill.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Green Religion

I have a few blogs on my blogroll that tend to pretty right wing viewpoints, in particular on climate change.  Sometimes they say things that are spot on (otherwise I wouldn't be much interested) and sometimes I question their veracity but one thing that crops up regularly is the comparison between climate change activism and religion.  If you wander around the blogosphere and check out opinions ranging from the bonkers "Climate change is all a Zionist conspiracy" to the truthful "Climate change just isn't as serious as some pundits would have you believe" this comes up over and over - environmentalism is unfavourably compared to religion.  I tend to find this pretty funny because so often the people making the unfavourable comparison are religious but they tend to think that their Abrahamic religious beliefs are obvious and only other religious beliefs are silly.  What is actually interesting from a objective viewpoint is that what these people are saying is actually true in many ways.

Traditional religion in the First World is definitely on a precipitous decline.  Much of the fixed social values and goals that were imparted by a common religion are utterly gone and people look for something to replace that which can supply that sense of purpose and certainty.  Working out what is moral and what is not by figuring out the complete set of consequences of an action is slow and annoying not to mention hardly worth the time in many cases.  How much will society benefit by me figuring out whether the plastic applesauce container goes in the trash or the recycling?  If figuring that out takes awhile then it is pretty hard to justify worrying about 2 grams of recycling either way.  However, if we operate under the assumption that environmentalism is important beyond the utilitarian calculation then we must work harder to do it right.  If we place environmental concerns on an entirely different plane than monetary considerations then the fervour we see from many activists makes logical sense.

In the book Willpower that I blogged about before the authors talk about this.  They found that religion and its accompanying useless rituals often helped people achieve greater willpower by giving them practice doing things they did not want to do.  They also found that environmentalism was filling this same role in the lives of many modern people, giving them a set of rules and reasons to do things that were hard to justify from a utilitarian perspective.  Note that I don't find this an especially bad thing for society.  I would much rather people have strong feelings about cleaning things up and living a low impact lifestyle than about the infallibility of ancient tomes advocating racism, discrimination and murder among other atrocities.  Of course it is going to have downsides since faith does require a surrender of objective reason but for the majority of people the best thing you can do is give them a set of guidelines to follow without thought as long as the guidelines are right most of the time.

I figure that people just want ideas to idolize and heuristics that simplify their lives.  Religion used to supply those but since it is becoming more and more anachronistic people search for other things to fill that gap.  That doesn't mean that environmentalism is wrong at all, it just means that many people approach thinking about it in the same way they do religion.  You can see this very clearly when small children talk about environmentalism from their lessons in school - their viewpoints have no shades of grey.

As Voltaire said, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."

Voltaire may not have been thinking about other more palatable religious alternatives when he said this but it works for me - many people need something that fills the role of religion and environmentalism can fit the bill.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Plumb this

When I was a teenager I was talking to my dad and his brothers about do it yourself home repairs.  I asserted that I was going to work hard, make a ton of money and pay somebody else to fix stuff around my house, none of that Mr. Fixit work for me!  All of my the listeners laughed and told me that they had exactly the same idea when they were young and that things change.  They are all really capable mechanics, builders and machine operators and I know they like getting on a big backhoe or firing up power tools so obviously my life would be different from theirs since I don't especially like doing that sort of thing.

I was eighteen, I had it all figured out.  All these old men don't know anything about me!

Today I noticed my faucet leaking.  It has done this a little bit off and on for the past few months but finally the leak was significant enough I could no longer ignore it.  I don't know much about plumbing except what I learned by holding the flashlight for my dad a lot but I do know the basic rule of fixing stuff that doesn't quite work:  Take it apart, clean it out, put it back together nice and snug and that often fixes the problem.  Having no idea what sort of tools I might need I hauled everything out of the toolbox and proceeded to demolish the tap.

Being that I don't know what the hell I am doing I only got partway through before I couldn't figure out how take it apart any more.  I found a bunch of pieces that were covered in cruddy buildup though so I proceeded to clean them and then reassemble it, managing to screw up the assembly despite only having 6 pieces to work with.  However, the tap now works and doesn't leak.  Huzzah for clueless home repair.  The eighteen year old me is screaming "You fool, go write some code or something!  Pay some chump to fix your tap!"

It got me to thinking about Adam Smith.  I am reading his An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and he has a lot to say about specialization.  Specifically he credits human specialization for nearly every improvement in life from our most primitive days.  In particular he thinks that innovation in manufacture comes from specialization because someone who does a particular thing for a lifetime will figure out the best possible routine for doing that thing and will be in the best position to imagine new technologies to assist them.  Right you are Adam Smith.  Now I know why everybody quotes him, it has to do with being right about things.

Of course I am not being a very good cog in the economy of the world by fixing my own tap.  I should pay somebody to do this and spend more time doing whatever I can earn the most money doing.  Heinlein would like me to fix my tap though,

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Lazarus Long, Time Enough For Love

Sorry Heinlein, you just got beat by Adam Smith.  I fixed my damn tap but I refuse to learn how to butcher a hog.  Plan an invasion, now that might be an interesting thing to learn.

Old style vegetables

I like the idea of local produce.  There is an appeal to buying fresh vegetables that have not been trucked halfway across the world and regularly Wendy and I order one of the many 'weekly fresh produce box' offers that are available throughout Toronto.  We never end up sticking with them though because the convenience of the modern grocery store is just so appealing compared to the old way of just taking whatever you can get.

Back in the Good Ole Days people were used to just eating turnips for a few months straight.  They probably weren't a big fan of it but when you have experienced simply not having enough food at all in bad years you can't be too upset about endless turnips.  In bean season they would eat beans, in apple season they would eat apples.  Not exactly convenient but it was the only way to stay alive.  The weekly food box harkens back to that style of eating in that they ship us random stuff and we just have to figure out something to do with it.  A full bag of carrots every week?  I guess I better snack on carrot sticks.  Huge head of lettuce?  Salad, I suppose.  Zucchini?  Maybe the internet has some recipe that uses zucchini.  Now and again this just adds some creativity to cooking but when all of my vegetables come this way I get irritable.  What if I want to make my sausage/veggie/eggie mash and they didn't send the correct ingredients?  What if I want to make a homemade pizza but instead I have to find some way to use whatever it is I have in the fridge?

Cry me a river, I know, I know.  My life is so hard.  ;)

I am so used to the modern grocery store it feels utterly alien to *have* to use a particular ingredient.  Normally I just go to the grocery store every day to buy what I need to make dinner and have very little food in the house.  I buy exactly as many potatoes as I want to cut up into fries, precisely one green pepper for my 'ragu' and two bananas at a time.  This is actually remarkably efficient because I waste virtually nothing when I shop this way and I get exactly what I want.  Though I try to use all the vegetables in the box I end up tossing things out inevitably - I never want to use as much lettuce as they send and eventually the parade of carrots overwhelms me.  Wendy calls my use of carrots 'oppressive' normally so dialing up my usage even more seems problematic!

Strangely I actually have no idea what is cheaper.  My instincts in this case are driven by environmentalism and plain old waste aversion.  I like the idea of local food but I am driven mad by wasting food.  (At restaurants I eat everybody's leftovers, just leaving food to be thrown out is abhorrent.)  Hell, I don't even necessarily know that the grocery store food isn't sourced from the same local farmers as the food box food so I am not even sure I am helping anything at all by buying the box.  I figure my mom would tell me that getting the box is a good thing because it forces me to get out of my rut, experiment and try new things when unexpected foods arrive in my kitchen.  Cook new things you say?  That sounds suspiciously like 'doing things' and I certainly don't enjoy that!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fractional Reserve Banking

Ever since I found out how our money supply works a few years ago I have been fascinated by the process of fractional reserve banking.  I (like the majority of people) assumed that the government printed money and that banks just had huge stocks of money in their vaults to lend out.  Finding out that 95% of all Canadian money is in fact created from nowhere by private banks was ... unsettling.

“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
- Henry Ford

Clearly society can trundle along for quite some time with private institutions generating massive amounts of interest off money they created themselves and in fact I figure it can do so indefinitely.  The question is what alternatives do we realistically have given our much our current economy is integrated with this system?  I found a long but informative video on US Presidential candidate Ron Paul's website talking about the US Federal Reserve which made a case for returning to the gold standard and eliminating the practice of fractional reserve banking immediately.  The idea behind this is to disallow any money creation that is not tied directly to gold deposits, ending much of the activity of current banks.  Banks could still take deposits, lend money out at interest and perform all the basic economic functions they do now but with money creation gone I don't see a way for current mortgages to exist - the banks simply would not have the cash to lend out.

Mortgages aren't the only thing that would go away if we returned to the Gold Standard though.  Easy credit for businesses would be a thing of the past since lenders would have to actually scrape together the money to create the loan rather than simply creating money to loan to anyone who seems like a decent bet.  It would have a tremendous impact on government finance too since governments could not rely on printing money to get out of debt and the steady inflation that comes from private institutions adding to the money supply would be gone.  Of course Ron Paul and others paint this as a return to the Good Ole Days where people were honest, government was good and the bankers didn't control everything but that seems like an overzealous application of rose coloured glasses.  On the other hand even though their portrayal ranges from dishonest to delusional they might actually be right that this is a far better way to run a country.

There is no denying that under the Gold Standard the crazy government bailouts of banks would not be necessary and that the tendency for people to get in over their heads in debt would be less.  Question is, what other terrible pitfalls await us there that demagogues like Ron Paul don't know about or talk about?  How destructive would such a transition be?  I suspect that even slow measures designed to change our current system gradually would cause a catastrophic crash.  In the very long run I believe that eliminating fractional reserve banking would be a real boon to our economic system but the pain of getting there from here would be severe indeed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pizza as vegetable

You may have seen how Congress in the US has decided that pizza is a vegetable.  Apparently Congress has decided to pass a bill declaring pizza a vegetable so that it can be served to school children in place of actual food, a coup for frozen pizza manufacturers.

Except of course when it isn't true.

The real story tells us that in fact only the tomato sauce on the pizza is considered a vegetable, which isn't strictly true but isn't insane either.  The proposed change to the bill would require 1 cup of tomato sauce to be counted as a vegetable instead of the current smaller amount.  So no, Congress isn't declaring that pizza is a vegetable, they aren't that stupid.

On the other hand they are bowing to pressure from food like substance manufacturers and setting up the children of the nation to be served utter crap for their lunches instead of healthy food.  It is important, you see, that McCain and other gigantic companies be able to maximize their profits even if it causes all kinds of health issues with children and worsens their education.

So the US Congress isn't stupid, just shockingly greedy and self centered.  Healthy kids don't buy expensive lunches for Congresspeople you know, that is the job of corporate lobbyists!

This certainly is the week for 'the government doesn't understand what food is' scams.

Picture from

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bottled water: A lifesaver

Facebook provided me with a good rant target today.  There is an article here about how the EU has banned water distributors from telling people that water can stop you from being dehydrated.  There is the typical shock and outrage combined with a heaping helping of anti government sentiment and who could argue with them?  Can you really condone the government telling us that water isn't useful for preventing dehydration?  The editorial slant of the news source in question is easy to divine as all you need to do is read a couple of comments to find the firm belief that this is the bureaucracy trying to use science to implement their socialist agenda just as with global warming.  Of course, that isn't the real story.  The story is actually that bottled water manufacturers want to put the phrase

 “Regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration and of concomitant decrease of performance.” 

on their bottles and want the EU regulatory body to rubber stamp this as an official health claim.  To do this they had to prove that dehydration was a disease and that their product was an effective way to combat it; the scientists debating their claim decided that consumers probably didn't need to be informed of the ability of bottled water to combat dehydration.

It boggles my mind to read this stuff.  The only possible reason for anybody wanting to put 'this product prevents dehydration' on a bottle of water is to bamboozle some foolish or uninformed person into thinking that only bottled water can do this or that perhaps dehydration is some other kind of disease that isn't trivially preventable.  Governments *should* tell people that want to put bogus crap like this on products to shove it.  Talk about the mountain glittery coldness of it all you like but if you want the government stamp of approval for a legitimate health claim you should actually be addressing a freaking health issue!

Of course all you end up seeing is the sound byte on Facebook and everybody gets all up in arms about government interference and scientists saying crazy things.

Government:  You can't claim that dehydration is a disease that your bottled water prevents, that is ridiculous!

Internet:  The government thinks that there is no link between water and dehydration!


Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to get published

When I went for advice on how to publish a book from young, tech savvy authors who have big web presences I assumed it would tell me to avoid big publishers.  I figured they would advocate self publishing, or posting work online for free to generate buzz as good strategies.  Yesterday I went to a few sessions at the Toronto Science Fiction Convention and got a hard nosed lecture on how those things are terrible and anyone who is serious about getting published should go to a publisher.  I think these folks must get a lot of people trying to convince them that the new way is the better way and so they squash it hard and fast whenever they see it.

This makes sense to me.  If you want to be a writer, why would you try to be your own artist, marketer, editor and accountant?  If you are really good at writing you should write and let other people who are already great at doing all those things do what they are good at.  Specialization is what allowed humanity to drag itself out of hunting and gathering to the society we have today so we should leverage it whenever we can.  Karl Schroeder in particular talked about how he was a money loser for TOR books even though he was a successful science fiction writer by any standard - Robert Jordan essentially paid his salary because no other author publishing with TOR was actually making the company any money.  According to Schroeder the norm in publishing is a few massively successful authors keep companies afloat while the rest of the authors lose the company just a little money each.  Effectively the publishers are acting like patrons, keeping authors around so they they will have a chance to make money off those who happen to hit it big.

Not that I have a book to publish, mind.  I do find it encouraging to know that if I decided to write one that the best way to do it is not for me to start my own business though.  The best thing to do apparently is to make something awesome and then let other people do all the grunt work of turning awesome into cash for me.  I approve.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The convention

Tonight Wendy and I went to the Toronto Science Fiction Convention.  Despite me being quite a hardcore geek I had never been to one of these things before and didn't have much of a sense of what it would be like.  Somehow I was expecting hordes of people dressed as Klingons and lecture halls with speeches by famous speakers.  It wasn't much like that at all.  They felt the need to post a weapons policy telling everyone that firearms were not allowed, no seriously, not allowed, not even fake ones.  I also got to see the use of 'peace knotting' outside of a DnD roleplaying game for the first time.  Given that and the fact that there was definitely a lot of folks who were clearly stereotypical geeks in their lack of communication skills I wasn't entirely disappointed in my expectations but there was only one person wearing a Star Trek uniform and the average age was probably 55 - much higher than I had thought.  Thing is though, I like geeks and I found myself really having a good time with the people there.

I was apparently was off on the scale of things too.  I went to three panel discussions and the crowd attending ranged from 4-12 people.  Thankfully this allowed the audience to step in and really participate in the discussion and given that this is a forum that attracts all kinds of people knowledgeable in many very esoteric and specialized fields the discussions were really interesting.  There was a talk on weapons and armour which I enjoyed but didn't participate much in but I really got into it with the panelists (in a good way!) in the Game Design discussion.  I would have happily invited any of the folks on the panel home to have a good chat about things and maybe a game or two and that has got to be a great sign for how tomorrow will go as we are going to be at the convention the whole day.

I generally have a policy of not doing anything.  Sthenno and I have this sort of arrangement where will be forcibly drag ourselves out of our dwellings to get together now and again because both of us know we *should* go outside but we both find ourselves dreading actually doing anything.  Because of this unhealthy attitude I usually am hesitant to do anything new so Wendy needs to kick my ass to get me out the door.  Usually that works out great though sometimes I just put up with it and think about the video game I could be playing.  This convention, though I harboured deep suspicions about it, has so far been a really good experience.  If it continues as it has I will have a great time and be pleased I went even though I will have had to leave my house for someplace new twice in just two days - a tremendous sacrifice to be sure.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hanging out in Omelas

Recently I was reading a discussion of the Penn State football rape scandal on John Scalzi's blog.  Both Scalzi and tons of random commenters talked a lot about the story "The ones who walk away from Omelas" which you can find by googling very easily but which is probably not legally available on the net.  It is a story about Omelas, a paradise, a city where there is no crime, no poverty, no soldiers, no police, no jails, no suffering.  With one small caveat:  There is a single child living in a tiny space in the city that is in constant agony, suffering from both terrible neglect and isolation.  Every member of Omelas is shown this child at some point as they grow up so that they understand that this is the price they must pay for the wonder that is their city.  Mostly they are horrified but eventually come to terms with it while others feel they must leave.  None can offer even a moment's comfort to the child because that would destroy the pact that keeps the city safe.  The commenters on the blog talked about how the Penn State organization was like the city of Omelas where a few children suffered terribly to support the elite.

I find this idea really interesting because of the way people react to it.  In the blog post many people said that Omelas was an example of a most horrendous society and that they would rescue that child regardless of the danger or consequences.  The fall of the rest of the city was meaningless; the child must be saved.  It was clear that anyone that supported such a society was a monster.  Wandering around the net reading various other takes on the issue I found similar conclusions.  Generally people decry the city as evil and insist that there is a moral imperative to rescue the child and that tearing down such a monstrous civilization was not a loss but rather a gain.  I see it in exactly the opposite way.

Omelas is of course a magical place where somehow the peace and prosperity of the city is linked to this child's suffering so we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions; rescuing the child will have immediate and certain repercussions.  While it is undeniably evil to cause such suffering and do nothing about it even though the means to stop it is at hand, it is also evil to force suffering upon the rest of the populace.  What would we say to the loved ones of the first person murdered after the child is freed?  "I am sorry they died, but the child had to be saved."  How about the second, or hundredth murder victim?  "I am sorry all one hundred of these people died, but the child had to be saved."  What shall we say when the first person dies of exposure or starvation in the streets?  "I am sorry you died in horrible agony but the child had to be saved."  It is hard to imagine how you would console all the victims of rape and murder when war first came to the fallen city. "I am sorry everyone you know has been violently killed and abused, but the child had to be saved."

If we truly believe that a single child's suffering must be alleviated at any cost then we must believe that every child starving in Africa right now must be worth saving - and yet those who cry out to save the child at any cost go out for dinner and a movie instead of sending that money to a desperate country to save a life.

The single child in Omelas is not more deserving of mercy just because you know their address!

This is probably the most extreme example I have seen of people confusing themselves about their moral obligations.  We have a real difficulty differentiating between the importance of one person's suffering and many.  It has been proven that a story about a single person's suffering gathers much more in the way of donations and support than several people simply because the donors end up being overwhelmed by the problem.  I cannot see how I can save all the children in Africa so I shall save none, but I can see how I would save one child in Omelas so I will do that, even though I could save the child in Africa with minimal difficulty and the child in Omelas being saved would be catastrophic.

If I could make the Omelas deal for Toronto I would, in a heartbeat.  Would it be awful?  Yes.  Would it be even more awful to read the news each day and hear about abused children, murders and other suffering that could have been prevented?  Also yes.