Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Elevator... of DOOM!

Over the last month or so I have been giving Elli a new bit of freedom.  When we are using the elevator together I let her ride it by herself and then take the next available one.  She is absolutely thrilled by the idea of going by herself and very much enjoys the game of hiding from Daddy at the other end.  Prior to sending her I taught her how to use the elevator properly of course, including using the phone button to talk to the concierge downstairs in the case of some emergency.  On Monday this week the concierge stopped me when I got home with her and informed me that I could no longer do this as children are banned from using the elevator unaccompanied.  Due to my experience with 'government regulations' and 'rules' during my barefoot experiment I immediately decided to find out exactly who made this rule and what the penalties were for breaking it.  The trouble is that the concierge's English is not great so sorting out the exact details of the rule wasn't particularly feasible; this wasn't helped by the fact that he was obviously trying to be evasive.  I tried to get details on the exact nature of the rule and was told that children under the age of 12 were not allowed to use the elevator unaccompanied.

Let's get this straight...  the concierge is telling me than an 11 year old is not capable of riding the elevator safely? My 4 year old, who is nothing special one way or the other as far as elevator operation goes, is quite capable of riding the elevator by herself and has been doing so regularly.  How is it exactly that an 11 year old is not able to accomplish this?  I persisted in questioning the necessity of the rule and he told me that it was in place because of the safety concern that children would get scared if the elevator got stuck.  I have been riding elevators a long time and have never been stuck.  Hell, I don't think I even know anyone who has been stuck for any length of time and I know a lot of people who ride elevators constantly.  So somehow there is a rule in place to prevent the extremely unlikely circumstance of an elevator being stuck between floors because that might cause a child to become scared for a little while?

Let us do a little thought experiment.  Imagine that a child has a 1% chance of becoming stuck in an elevator while riding between the ages of 4 and 10 and that this would last a couple hours.  As such we can imagine that we are trading off 2 minutes of being scared against the option to let the child use the elevator on her own.  Would I trade 2 minutes of being scared for increased independence, training in self reliance and a truckload of fun?  Yes!!  Clearly we don't weight unlikely events that are really bad as actually being the product of probability*badness in most of our lives but this isn't a bad thing like being killed, or maimed, or losing a job... it is being scared for a little while.

I ended up giving up on the conversation and talking to the chief concierge later that day.  He told me that this rule was something he was taught in his security training course and he had to enforce it.  He also told me that the cutoff age was 8, not 12.  He directed me to take it up with the property manager if I had a problem with it.  I certainly don't want to be yelling at people who can't actually make decisions anyway so I agreed with that course.

Note # 1:  People don't even know what the rule is.

On Tuesday I went to see the property manager who had already heard of the problem from the concierges.  She spoke to me with great concern telling me that as a mother and grandmother she had to advise me that letting my child use the elevator was very dangerous.  After all, there is a chance that she could be very scared for a long time!  Moreover "it is better to be safe than sorry" she said.

I HATE "it is better to be safe than sorry".  What a useless waste of air that expression is... of course it is better to be safe than sorry, but what about safe vs. not sorry?  There is a cost to safety and being sorry is not guaranteed so that ridiculous, useless little statement is as tautological as it is meaningless.

I pried and tried to get details as to who exactly created this rule, who enforces it and why it exists and could get absolutely nothing out of the property manager aside from worthless platitudes and advice that amounted to nothing more than "I am a grandmother so obviously you have to raise your child the way I tell you".  When pressed about her decision making power she insisted that the chief concierge made all security decisions and she deferred to his judgement on the matter.  Great.  So now I have two people who are both referring me to the other as the decision maker and absolutely zero information on the actual rule or its enforcement.

Note # 2:  People don't agree on who decides what the rule is and substitute platitudes for details.

Conclusion:  There is no rule.  At least, no rule I actually have to follow.  Rules are things that are written down, are defined, and information about which must be supplied.  This 'rule' is a nothing more than a vague preference on the part of security and management and it turns out that since I am an owner in the building they have no recourse aside from making my life really difficult when I have to interact with them.

I went back to the chief concierge and confronted him with the fact that his superior refused to take ownership of the situation and that it was up to him one way or the other.  He got very frustrated at this because now he was stuck enforcing a rule that he had no real interest in and no control over.  This was made even worse because there isn't anything he can do to enforce it aside from be really irritating on moving day or perhaps refuse to buzz me in, forcing me to find my keys myself.  Thankfully, being a resourceful fellow, he said that if I could supply him with a letter indicating that I take responsibility for the safety and happiness of my daughter on her unsupervised trips on the elevator he would file it and consider the matter dealt with.  I have no reason to think that a letter written by me about taking responsibility for my daughter in the elevator has any legal weight whatsoever but of course he isn't looking for legally binding documents but rather just plausible deniability.

All he has to do is make sure that if his superior notices a 4 year old alone in the elevator he can point to the document and say "Look, this guy said he was responsible, I was not derelict in my duty".  It matters not at all to him what happens after that point as the only thing he can salvage from this mess is job security.  He can't stop me doing whatever I want and he doesn't have any control over what happens if something does go wrong anyhow.  Since I do want to preserve good relations with the building management I will supply them with a piece of paper saying I take responsibility for Elli riding the elevator and then go back to doing exactly what I was doing before.

Plausible Deniability - reminds me of the cigarette smoking man from the Xfiles.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Negotiation, again

Back in November I posted about my experience with the phone company.  In short what happened is that they kept jacking up my bill without notice and eventually I called them and threatened to cancel.  To keep my business they gave me a huge set of extra services and chopped the bill from $130 to $95.  This month I got my regular bill from the phone company and lo and behold it is now $101 - mostly due to a $5.50 additional charge being applied to the bill.  That charge was being applied because my special 3 month rate had expired.

So I thought to myself thought I, what the hell is going on here?  Nobody mentioned a 3 month promotional price to me when I negotiated my rate in November and as far as I know it is fraudulent to present a price as ongoing when it is only for a fixed term after which a higher price will apply.  This really gets me ticked off.  I don't like paying high prices for anything of course but even more than that I don't like having to call people up and yell at them about unethical things they have done to try to take my money.  It gets me doubly mad that I have to call them up and deal with their annoying administration a second time just to get what I had originally agreed to in the first place!  I rang up the phone company again and got

-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.
-A customer service representative will be with you shortly.  Please stay on the line.

By the 8th iteration of elevator music plus the obligatory computer voice message I was starting to seethe.  I must remain Stoic, I tell myself.  I must not allow these things to rattle me.  I will sit and be calm.  A person will answer soon and being angry will not make it happen more quickly.  Maybe it will be the person who lied to me about the original deal and I can threaten to go to his manager with my complaints!  No no, that isn't Stoic, must be calm, cool and collected.

Finally I got on the line with a person and explained my position.  He expressed shock that I would have had a 3 month rate and not be notified about it and said there must have been a misunderstanding.  Yeah buddy, I have been in sales awhile and I know exactly what went on.  I have even had the pleasure of fielding calls about coworkers who lied and cheated customers and had to try to defend the company and claim misunderstanding when I know full well that the customer is probably telling the truth and the salesperson probably cheated them.  However, revenge against the salesperson in question will bring me nothing so I simply negotiate from where I am and manage to get a rate of $90 a month ($5 less than in November) for a one year contract.  Normally the phone company is the one wanting contracts but in this case I am even happier about it then they are - now I know I won't have to deal with sneaky price changes for at least 12 more months.

There are times when I try to defend the much maligned profession of salesperson.  And then there are times when I do not... like right now.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nuke me

The coverage of the Japan tsunami disaster here in Canada has begun to really irritate me.  Specifically the problem is that the news insists on focusing on the 'nuclear disaster' in Japan when they really should be reporting the 'vindication of the safety of nuclear energy' in Japan instead.  I also found out that Canada is restricting imports of food from Japan unless that food comes certified as being free of radioactive contamination.  Do the people who make these edicts have any idea whatsoever about what they are talking about?  To hear the news you would think that a significant chunk of Japan is a glassy nuclear wasteland with twitching, mutated survivors wandering around looking for brains to eat.  Instead the real picture is that a nuclear plant had some significant problems due to a catastrophe far beyond its design parameters and as a consequence a few people got extremely minor and non life threatening doses of radiation.  The radiation pumped out of the plant into the surrounding area is insignificant and the idea that crops from that area are contaminated is to completely ignore the facts.

Let us note:  EVERYONE is exposed to radiation every single day.  The increased radiation suffered by people at the plant so far is comparable to the increased radiation people are exposed to by living in cities at higher elevations.  The plant in question was 40 years old and designed to withstand earthquakes of one fifth of the strength of the one that occurred and yet the current sum of the consequences of the mess is structural damage and relatively inconsequential health damage.  To be sure, the health damage to the handful of people involved is probably a real source for concern for them but the total damage to human health is less than a *single* car crash.  If a car crashed in Malaysia and several people were injured or killed we would not be talking about banning cars in Canada or preparing for a car-less future because of it - let us take the same stance with nuclear power.  Obviously it is critical to take very significant precautions when dealing with something as potentially dangerous as nuclear power but the lesson we should take away from Fukushima is that we have and can manage that risk to our benefit.

A good way to look at the dangers of various sources of energy is to consider how many deaths there are for each Terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity they provide.  This link has a bunch of details, but here are the highlights for those curious:

Energy Source              Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average               161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China                       278
Coal – USA                         15
Oil                                36  (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas                         4  (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass                    12
Peat                               12
Solar (rooftop)                     0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind                                0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro                               0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao)    1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear                             0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

That's right, nuclear is safer than anything.  Of course, this is based off of a history of pretty extreme safety levels, barring Chernobyl, and if a giant reactor were to blow up in the worst possible fashion it could kill an awful lot of people.  However, we should always keep in mind that the WHO estimates that 1 million people a year die from the particulates in the atmosphere introduced by coal power.  If nuclear was comparably dangerous then it would be killing approximately 100,000 people a year.  For nuclear to be worse than coal over the past 25 years a nuclear accident would have to kill 2.5 million people.  That is absolutely beyond belief; even Chernobyl only killed 30 people directly.  There are varying reports as to the eventual death toll of course.  The nuclear industry likes to report the 30 direct deaths, Greenpeace estimates 270,000 deaths from its own internal report and actual governing bodies all seem to agree on something like 4000.  I am inclined to believe the UN and the WHO over Greenpeace or the nuclear industry since of those 3 groups only one doesn't have a vested interest in exaggeration and hyperbole one way or the other.

The bottom line is that people can die from all kinds of things.  Falling out of bed kills more people per year than nuclear power does by a huge margin, not to mention car crashes, alcohol poisoning, or nearly any other source of deaths you can name.  We should respect the potential danger of nuclear power and take appropriate precautions.  Fear is not a rational response here; the key word is respect.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I had a dream

Last night I had a dream that really made me think a lot afterwards.  Strangely it was a sex dream which normally people don't associate with 'thinking a lot' but nonetheless that is the effect it had.  (I wish I could collect stats on which readers of my blog clicked away when they read the phrase 'sex dream' and which got even more interested.)  In the dream I was myself and I was having a threesome with Wendy and a nameless man.  The man is nameless because in the dream he had no identity; in most of my sex dreams the people involved are people I recognize and can put names to and the cast does not often feature men aside from myself.  Note that the frequency of such dreams for me is definitely more than 'rarely' and less than 'constantly' so I assume I am normal in this regard even though the data supporting that conclusion is sketchy at best.  I remember distinctly the feeling that I wanted the Unknown Man to enjoy himself but was uncertain as to how to best accomplish that.  First off there is the complication that I have a decent sense of how sex between a woman and a man goes but much less so between two men.  The second trick is I have a decent sense of how sex between two people goes and much less so when there are three involved.  Hell, even physicists have huge issues with the three body problem.

I recall in the dream that I tried a few various things in an attempt to cause Unknown Man to enjoy the experience but I will spare the reader from the precise details.  The part which was most strange in retrospect was that I wasn't particularly excited or nervous or anything like that - I viewed it more as a social obligation to be fulfilled rather than something crazy and overwhelming.  Note this is not the case when I have sex dreams that don't involve other men as in those I generally feel like people normally do in novel sexual situations:  Excited, nervous, aroused, etc.  I was trying new and previously unavailable sex acts and yet just wasn't especially interested.  This made me think about my attitudes towards homosexuality and how they might be the same or different from the attitudes most men have.  I won't even try to compare the attitudes of women towards homosexuality to mine because quite honestly I don't think I have any idea what those are.  Most men that I have met or read about feel a little bit of  revulsion when it comes to the idea of having sex with another man.  Not that they object to homosexual behaviour in others by and large but when it comes to themselves they would find that a distinct negative instead of simply neutral.  Whether or not it is possible to really be neutral on homosexual issues when one has such a personal revulsion is a good question of course but since this isn't the sort of thing one can just decide to stop thinking I don't think I need belabor that point.

For me the entire point of sex, the crux of the issue, is a woman being involved.  While a man could certainly physically stimulate me *cough* it just wouldn't be the same thing at all.  I wouldn't find it bad though unfamiliarity would certainly make it a new and strange experience.  If Wendy wanted to have a threesome with another man I wouldn't be averse to it but I wouldn't be especially interested either aside from the potential to use it as a lever to arrange a threesome with distinctly more appeal.  Obviously these sorts of tendencies are mostly inherited as people don't get to choose their sexuality but I do wonder how much of it comes from socialization.  In ancient Greece most men would have their first sexual experience with another man and sex with women was viewed at least in part as only for procreation.  This had a lot to do with women mostly being viewed as inferior and unsuitable for proper friendship I expect but it does show that how men view sex with other men is not at all limited to how things are in our society today.

A lot of people go through a very experimental phase in university where they try relationships and sex types that are quite outside their normal boundaries.  I never really did that in part because I just don't have significant interest in most of those behaviours and in part because I foolishly tried to start off dating looking for a life partner instead of just looking for experience and understanding.  I suspect that the world would be a much better place for homosexuals in particular and for anyone with nonstandard sexual or relationship preferences in general if the population as a whole followed that advice.  Date people.  Have (safe) sex with them.  Try both sex and relationships with both genders, multiple partners and all kinds of other bizarre permutations.  I firmly believe that doing so would result in a much more tolerant society as it is much harder to demonize people for doing a particular thing when you and everyone you know has done it and much easier to say 'People do all kinds of strange things... as long as they don't hurt anybody or try to force us to join them we should leave them to it.'

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rational Optimism about wind power

Last week I found the Rational Optimist blog.  The author of the blog is Matt Ridley, who wrote The Rational Optimist, a book about the environment and the future of civilization that I found tremendously enjoyable and informative.  In the book Ridley takes the viewpoint that many of the environmental concerns we are warned about by activists these days are very real but that we must be careful about how we go about solving them and especially careful about mixing up environmental solutions with anti-capitalist propaganda.  This speaks to me because I really do think environmental quality is important but I also think that an awful lot of the people most stridently advocating for the environment do have completely unrealistic ideas of what is actually feasible.  There are plenty of people who really have a hate on for the capitalist system and advocate tearing our entire financial structure down in favour of communism / benevolent autocracy / whatever as part of their environmental platform.  This is all nonsense since it is entirely clear that nations care more and more about the environment the richer they become and although capitalism has many flaws it is the best option we have come up with so far.

I read a post by him on Friday though that shredded my 'Ridley has left wing values mixed with pragmatism' image.  His post has all kinds of criticisms of wind farms including the new and surprising revelation that offshore wind farms kill whales!  His support for this shocking new claim was an article by the author of 365 Ways to Drive a Liberal Crazy in an online publication, which itself linked to its source .... a page that said "We cannot find the page you are looking for."  It turns out that they original article had been removed as of Thursday last week and replaced with an apology and correction since the researcher involved claimed his remarks had been taken out of context and badly misinterpreted.  It is easy to become confused about various subjects by reading commentary on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter) and listening to writers spin things their way.  However, quoting a ridiculous and wholly biased pundit who makes very serious claims and supports them with nothing other than a broken link is shoddy and extremely disappointing.  The rational approach to a new and surprising find is to click around and read a little bit about it *before* trumpeting it to the world.  This sort of thing is exactly how myths like 'the scientific consensus that the world is cooling' become entrenched in the public mind.  I know, because I bought into it when I saw it repeated in enough places.

Here is the thing:  There are problems with wind power.  It does kill birds (in numbers that are a miniscule fraction of things like domestic cat predation), it does change the view (I actually like the look of windmills, some don't) and it is very costly for the amount of electricity produced.  That last point I think is the only negative one about windmills that I actually buy into.  Most of the other issues with windmills are seriously overblown or completely fictional (affects people's minds or health through scientifically inexplicable means, kills schoolchildren by throwing ice tremendous distances) but the cost in terms of land, steel, concrete and manpower is very real.  We as a society have limited resources and there is much good we could do all over the world with those resources; whether or not we want to devote those resources to windmills is a very good question.  Ridley did a good job of presenting that rational viewpoint in his book and advocating for a scientific approach to decision making rather than a surrender to panic.  On his blog though he sure comes off as much more of a right wing activist than a rational optimist.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Packets of Jam

Elli loves to collect things.  Bits of paper, birthday cards, cardboard tubes, stickers, toys, even food.  The latest thing she has decided to cling to is jam packets from the local breakfast joint that we go to.  She loves to take them home and gets really upset if we try to prevent her from doing so; in her mind it is a critical thing for her to be able to bring them back from the restaurant.  She brought back quite a number over the past while and I began to wonder where they had gotten to since there weren't any in the kitchen and I wasn't finding them in her room when I cleaned it out.  Recently I found out the answer.  She is taking them to school and giving them away to her friends there.

But I ... no... why... but you shouldn't... but I shouldn't care... argh.

I am caught between my instant reaction which is to tell her to stop taking jam from the restaurant and giving it away at school and my reasoned consideration which says that the restaurant doesn't care and she is doing no harm giving away jam packets.  Sure, the jam in the packets isn't exactly good food, but that is hardly grounds for interfering in this strange little practice.  I find I constantly have this battle between telling her to stop doing whatever crazy, random thing she has taken a liking to and just letting her do anything she wants.  The trouble more than anything is that it is *hard* to sit there and do a rational analysis of her crazy ideas.  I normally have a very excited small person cheerleading to be able to do whatever she wants and am distracted by whatever else it is I was already doing when I discovered her doing something bizarre.  In the midst of that I have to consider whether my gut reaction of

No!  Don't do that.  Why are you doing that?

is actually warranted by facts or if I am just reacting emotionally to her forcing me to a decision without the time or space to make it correctly.  Sometimes the things she does really are strange but innocuous; just a child experimenting with the world.  I want to encourage that and let her try things out for herself rather than just toe the line because the line is there.  Unfortunately sometimes her ideas really are bad, either for her health, my sanity, or other people's convenience and I have to stop her.  I think you can see a lot about a person by watching their instant reactions to their children doing strange things.  Some are hyperprotective, some get angry at any behaviour that isn't 'normal' and some are very permissive.  I think I tend a lot towards 'stand in line!' in my instant, reflexive responses but I become extremely permissive once I think about things and consider the long term consequences of her actions.  Two days ago I got to watch Wendy go through this exact thing when Elli was running down the sidewalk with a small hard candy in her mouth.

Wendy:  "Elli, don't go running with candy in your mouth!"

Me:  "I don't think there is any danger.  The candy is tiny and dissolves in saliva anyway..."

Wendy:  "Oh, ignore me... I was channeling my grandmother there for a minute."

Yeah, I know that feeling.  Those instant reactions come out and then we just look at them and wonder where the heck they came from.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Show

Yesterday I went to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to see The Secret Garden, a musical adaptation of the book by the same name.  I never did read the book so I had no illusions to shatter and no image to compare the performance to.  Today I took Elli to Silver City to see Gnomeo and Juliet, a 3D movie about a war between two warring factions of garden gnomes and the star crossed lovers who belong to each of the warring factions.  I thought it was interesting to compare the two experiences.  It should be noted first thing that I enjoyed both performances but one definitely beat out the other in terms of overall bang for the buck.

The Secret Garden of course takes place in a theatre which requires about a 30 minute commute to get to.  We then had to wait 30 minutes after arriving for the show to actually begin.  Strangely the architect who designed the theatre seems to have operated on the assumption that people are generally all about 5 foot 4 inches tall.  Wendy, who is considerably shorter than me, had her knees directly up against the seats in front of her and I ended up with my knees being a good two inches longer than the seats could accommodate.  Initially I tried just shoving my knees up on top of the seat ahead of me with my legs in a normal-ish sort of pose but whenever the people ahead of me moved the seat crushed my shins pretty badly.  Thankfully I was on an aisle seat so I was able to watch the show by turning my lower half sideways while keeping my upper half straight; I couldn't see the rightmost part of the stage but I had a good view of 90% of the show.  Had I not been so lucky I basically would have had to tuck my feet right under my butt while resting my knees on the seat ahead of me... realistically I would have either just left or perhaps stood in the aisle if the ushers would let me.

The performance was really well sung and acted and the emotion conveyed was tremendous; I think the actors did a wonderful job.  However, the plot left a lot to be desired.  At intermission I commented that every single scene so far had introduced a new and interesting plot element so I wondered how exactly they were going to wrap everything up in the time alloted.  It turns out the answer to that is to simply have a final scene where a character outlines the plot and everything resolves itself in a neat package in 2 minutes.  It is a testament to the actors that despite the ridiculous deus ex machina ending that the emotion and strength of their performances really made it shine.  Hell, I even got misty eyed even as I bemoaned the trainwreck of a denouement.

Gnomeo and Juliet was another story entirely.  Clearly a war between garden gnomes designed to appeal to children isn't going to stick too closely to the double suicide ending of the Shakespeare version but it did use the essential and timeless elements of lovers trapped on either side of a war they cannot control.  The element of confusion and conflicting loyalties between family and romance was well done, especially since the movie made quite substantial use of slapstick comedy.  It is difficult to create an emotionally gripping tale while having your characters go through all kinds of 'this is like real people, except they are garden gnomes!' type comedy scenes but overall they managed to keep me both very amused and wrapped up in the fate of G&J at the same time.  G&J also had two gems:  Patrick Stewart playing an animate statue of Shakespeare doing commentary on the plot of G&J and a tremendous scene with an internet ad for the lawn tractor - you must see it to believe it.  Unsurprisingly the movie theatre had big, comfortable seats and is a two minute walk away from my house.

It quite amazes me the comparison between the experiences.  The Royal Alexandra theatre costs 6 times as much, requires 90 minutes of commuting/prep time instead of 10 and has wretchedly uncomfortable surroundings, up to and including not being able to see parts of the performance.  The show, while tremendously well acted, was honestly not as good for me even though it was targetted at adults and the movie was targetted moreso at children.  The musical is sold out far ahead of time and the venue was absolutely packed to the brim which is in part why there was so much time devoted to getting seated and getting out again.  The movie theatre was running at maybe 1/10 capacity even though it was showing a great kids movie during march break.  I must be missing something here, but I sure don't know what it is...

Monday, March 14, 2011

The dangers of CFCs

This weekend Elli and I went to the Ontario Science Centre.  We visited a number of interesting exhibits and had a good time but there were a few that really illustrated how science exhibits need regular updating or they risk delivering entirely the wrong message.

The particular one I have issues with is the exhibit about CFCs and ozone depletion.  The exhibit ended with a note that Canada was planning on eliminating CFC usage by 1995 so I think we can peg its creation time at around 1990 without going too far wrong.  The exhibit talked about the size of the ozone hole, talked about the future of the earth where the ozone layer was very much depleted and deplored the 'current' use of CFCs in refrigeration.  The trouble with all this is that the problem is being presented as a current issue when CFCs are really a solved problem.  The ozone hole over the Antarctic is not gone, but it is no longer growing and there is good reason to think that since CFCs have been mostly eliminated the ozone hole will shrink and go away.  These developments are pretty important in understanding CFCs and ozone depletion of course - the exhibit very much makes it sound like finding ways to eliminate CFCs is a real, current environmental hot topic rather than a success story.  We have not yet repaired the damage done by our use of CFCs but we have successfully turned a major threat and environmental mess into a story of how the entire world can change its ways when confronted with an environmental necessity.

There was also an exhibit on global warming that looked like it dated from around the same time as the CFC one.  Again, knowing the history of the global warming debate is useful but it is pretty unprofessional to have data on something that changes so quickly be 20 years out of date.  The models that were being used then are hopelessly out of date (or simply wrong) and much of the projections and 'what if' scenarios described are just as much incorrect.  There is also a lot of extreme alarmism in the exhibit that you can still find in the current media but which just isn't well supported by the science.  Global warming is a reality but apocalyptic predictions aren't supported by strong evidence.

Of course there were lots of things in the Science Centre that I heartily approved of.  A giant lifesize exhibit of a replica of the heart of a blue whale was tremendous and very exciting for Elli - crawling around inside the whale's heart was a ton of fun for her and gave her an idea of just how immense whales are that other measures simply would not accomplish.  A fan blowing air straight up keeping a ball supported on the column of air (Video here) is a wonderful illustration of complex scientific ideas that have important real world implications.  When intending to portray contentious scientific ideas it is critical that information be kept relatively up to date.  Obviously the Science Centre isn't going to be able to maintain constantly changing exhibits to be completely current with the cutting edge of science but when talking about things like global warming or the ozone layer having exhibits 20 years old is really dropping the ball on educating the average person.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hope springs eternal

George RR Martin is the writer behind the greatest fantasy series ever, A Song of Ice and Fire.  His latest book has been due for years now and legions of rabidly loyal fans have spent the past few years raging across the internet demanding the next installment.  And all the rest of the installments, as fast as possible please.

George RR has set a publication date in a way that seems pretty solid.  I wonder how many fantasy nerds are going to book off the previous week from work to finish rereading the series just in time for the new book?  Thankfully my boss is pretty easygoing and I suspect I won't have a problem timing it just right.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I generally respect a scientific analysis much more than random hunches.  Normally that is on the basis of two things:  Proper data collection and proper data analysis.  Tonight I got a phone call from a phone survey company and it illustrated the extreme weakness of the data collection for anyone who relies on such surveys.  The interviewer asked me all kinds of questions like:

"How would you go about looking for government services if you needed assistance for an aging relative?"

While I tried to answer "I would go to Google and type 'Government Canada Old Age Service'" they didn't seem especially interested in that answer.  The interviewer wanted yet more data about which other ways I would look for answers... as if there was anything useful I could do after fully investigating the result of my Google search.

"Why have you not done more to Green your home in the past year?"

Well, it is complicated.  First, I live in a condo.  I can't just start tearing out the walls to put in more insulation, I have no control over the type of heating used and since I already made real efforts to maximize my recycling and reusing I don't know how I *could* do a lot more.  Since the interviewer never asked what sort of home I lived in the information they got is pretty near useless and they don't have the option to enter more random data to make my answers make sense.  Some people probably answer "It costs too much" or whatever but I can't see how they make the answers usefully correspond to the actual reasons.

"What is your household yearly income?"

Do you want income as reported to the government counting Wendy's stipend as zero (which it is for tax purposes), or how much money we had coming in?  Do we subtract tuition, do we count appreciation of investments or the increase in value of the condo over the year?  I gave a random answer but honestly there is no reason to think people are going to respond using the same sorts of rules I did.  Never mind the fact that people regularly misreport their income depending on who they are talking to, we don't even know what the correct answer is.  I can't even tell if I was lying or not!

"The Canadian government is against the UN resolution making access to water and sanitation a basic human right.  Do you agree with this stance?"

How the heck should I know?  What exactly does this resolution say?  It is clear that Canada tries to make sure all its citizens have access to water and sanitation so there must be something more to this but I can't exactly take an hour off to read up on the complexities of this situation.  Does adopting this resolution mean that countries with cruddy infrastructure are committing human rights violations?  Does it mean I can sue the government if they don't supply me with proper sanitation for my shack in the wilderness?  I have no idea!  I guess I answer something in the middle of the spectrum of answers allowed and move on.

The trouble with all these things is that my answers are uninformed (about the UN!), wildly inconsistent with other reports (income reporting), not useful (Greening my condo), or incomplete (finding government services).  The interviewer also did not speak English as a first language so I had all kinds of difficulty interpreting options for answers and I probably ended up giving flat out incorrect answers due to challenges with translation.  Now this data is going to be used to make government decisions, supply data to environmental organizations and develop models of living conditions based on location.  All of that is just going to be incorrect, and that is with a cooperative subject!  There are plenty of people who end up just taking the first option for their answer instead of getting the right one and probably a few who give wildly incorrect responses for their own amusement.  Any time you see studies being quoted that talk about surveys done interviewing 2,000 people with particular confidence intervals you have to wonder if the data is any good at all; are we really just guessing at these things?

Of course I don't have a better solution.  Presumably phone data gives you some interesting information, primarily what sorts of things patient, bored, polite people say when they want to get off the phone.  It seems sort of like democracy... pretty wretched from nearly any perspective but everything else is even worse.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Buying stuff

This last weekend, as previously mentioned, I went up to the cottage belonging to Worried.  During the trip it became apparent that much of the equipment at the cottage was not particularly suited to me due to my somewhat boat-sized feet.  I tried to go snowshoeing but the snowshoes would not wrap around the back of my shoes so I had to just jam my feet forward really hard, put a ton of torque on the forward straps and hope for the best.  I did a bit of wandering around like that and it worked, but not well.  I certainly couldn't move quickly and the front of the snowshoes sank deep into the snow due to the very uneven weight distribution - better than just shoes for moving through deep snow but not ideal.  I also ended up remembering that I don't actually find snowshoeing all that fun anyway; it isn't bad but it isn't particularly compelling either.  The story as far as cross country skiing goes is similar but since that requires special shoes I couldn't hack together a solution and just sat out.

None of this bothered me.  Cross country skiing, much like snowshoeing, is fine but not that interesting.  I am perfectly happy to wander around in my boots and I don't need special equipment.  At the end of the weekend though Worried asked me if I would mind going to MEC (Mountain Equipment Coop) and buying snowshoes, ski boots and any other equipment that goes along with those on her dime.  She was obviously somewhat flustered and embarassed that I had to sit out activities due to equipment restrictions despite my insistence that I was perfectly content with the situation as it was.  The two of us sit pretty far apart in the universe of "How much stuff do you want to own?" and similarly far apart in "How prepared do you need to be to be comfortable?"  I generally am averse to getting anything new and much prefer to just continue to use things until they become very broken indeed.  My favourite jacket is a jacket my father gave me 15 years ago or so and when he gave it to me it was quite used.  The jacket is worn and the inside of the pockets is tearing out but I fully intend to get another 15 years out of it.

It's still good, It's still good! - Homer Simpson, re: Flying pig.

It is very much like my Christmas presents conundrums.  Other people like to get things and buy things and I don't.  It isn't one sided as I am just as happy to get no presents in return but I am pretty weird as far as this goes.  Worried really wants to acquire new things for the cottage and is fine with spending quite a bit of money on equipment that will be used 0-1 times a year for half an hour while I find that quite ridiculous.  Clearly it is her money to spend and yet I don't particularly want to be part of the stuff acquiring engine even when someone else is paying when that stuff is being bought almost exclusively for my use.  I am unsure how to proceed.  I don't want to offend, and the gesture to buy things just so I can use them is appreciated, but I don't really want to spend the money in ways that I find superfluous.

The really silly thing is that I will probably get more use out of the current crop of non fitting snowshoes that any new ones.  Trying to go snowshoeing in inappropriately sized gear without falling down or any other such shenanigans is a challenge I find interesting - snowshoeing in proper gear much less so.  I suppose I can be reasonably accused of being quite silly in that regard.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bad Weather

This last weekend I went up to the cottage with the family, my inlaws and some friends.  In the days leading up to the trip we checked the weather and found that the weekend was going to be full of rain with perhaps a dash of snow at the end.  We grumbled and groused about how we were going to be kept inside all weekend and fussed that we had picked the worst possible weekend to try to be in the outdoors and far away.

True to prediction it rained all the way up north.  On Saturday the rain got more serious and we only got outside when Elli decided that she was going to go out and wander around in her rubber boots and adults were needed to go out with her.  After a very short trip outside Wendy came back in to report that the road was incredibly slippery, covered in a 4 centimeter layer of ice and then coated on top by a slick of water from the constant rain.  Not only that but Elli had had a fall with the first step she took onto the road.

"Nobody could walk on that road without falling down."

Now I, as a certified man, can't let such a challenge go by.  Were I to not rush out immediately and walk, run and slide around on a road deemed impossible I would be forever stamped a sissy-boy and would be unable to show my face in public henceforth.  The question is not whether I will go out and challenge this insurmountable obstacle (I will), nor whether Wendy understands that I will do this (she understands) but rather did she decide to phrase it that way just to get me to do it or not?  She knows that telling me that a thing cannot be done is the surest way to convince me to do it but it is not clear whether she uses that fact to manipulate my foolish, primitive man-brain or not.  Regardless, the thing must be attempted.

I wandered out onto the road and was quite amazed at how well it lived up to its billing.  I did not fall but I can certainly attest to the fact that the road was a very smooth, thick slick of ice covered with a fresh layer of water and was treacherous in the extreme.  I can also attest to the fact that I ran up and down the road, feet slipping and sliding every which way, trying ski poles, downhill sliding, and running in place to see where the greatest thrill and danger might lie.  After a few minutes of wandering around looking rather silly we decided to go for a walk in the rain.  We all wandered out into the forest and had a good long hike through slushy snow while the rain continued to fall.  Luckily the paths were groomed by local snowmobile enthusiasts (aka those damn kids and their infernal machines) and we actually managed to avoid submerging ourselves significantly.  After awhile we wandered back home and Elli got treated to hot chocolate.  Though I do try to curtain her intake of sweets I think the tradition of a warm, sweet drink after exercise in the cold and rain is a tradition with little enough risk.

By the end of the weekend the snow had come down in significant amounts, leaving the roads very safe and solid and the world a wonderland of laden branches and hidden treasures.  Despite the 'bad weather' we enjoyed the outdoors very much and I think many of us could benefit from remembering that lesson.  The weather, like most things, is only as bad as we let it be.  Believing that a rainstorm is an opportunity rather than an obstacle seems like a recipe for happier living.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I am going to kick you

Elli and I had a bit of a fight at her school today.  We had differing opinions on how the rest of the day was going to go.  She felt that it was going to go like "Elli stands in a corner pouting until Daddy agrees to stay at school all night" and I felt it was going to go like "We go home now".

I forcefully sat Elli down to get her outside things on and she declared "I am going to kick you!" and pulled her leg back to boot me in the chest.  This is the sort of thing that you can respond to in a number of ways.  I chose to grab her leg with one hand fairly hard and hold it exactly where it was and say "No, you are not."  I then held her leg there for about 10 seconds or so without letting her move and then let go.  She collapsed in tears, allowed herself to be clothed and we left the school.  2 minutes later she was as happy as anything and we had a perfectly nice walk home.

How to respond to that sort of aggression is really a tricky thing.  I was physically forcing her to sit down and remove her inside shoes so I can't complain that she went the "might makes right" route first.  On the other hand, she was being unreasonable and we simply can't sit at school until a tired, hungry little person decides it is time to go.  I am the parent and I have the responsibility to make the necessary things happen even if it isn't fun for her or me.  I have watched different parents take different routes when their child tries to strike them and while I am pretty sure some of them are terrible I don't claim to know what is best.  Some of them just let the kid strike them and ask them not to; I think that is terrible.  Sending the impression that assault is something you tolerate strikes me as a disastrous message.  I have heard of parents telling their children "Don't hit me there honey, if you have to hit me, hit me on the arm or something" which is right out.  Decades ago the answer would have been for me to give her a slap or a spanking but those options are not so much tolerated now - I am actually concerned that doing that in a school might get me in legal trouble, if I was so inclined.  I have also seen parents who just dodge their children's attacks - or try to, at any rate; sometimes they just take it and act as if it was nothing regardless of whether or not it hurt.

My technique is obviously designed to send the message that she is both not allowed and utterly unable to assault me.  I can hold her such that she cannot hurt me with fairly minimal effort and although it certainly isn't comfortable for her I expect that the greater part of the aggravation for her is that she is simply dominated by something she cannot fight.  Being totally helpless is *not* a pleasant situation for most people (though they like to play the role of helpless for a thrill sometimes) and this is especially true for people who really like to have their situation under control.  The message I want to send to her is that it is totally unacceptable to strike someone and that she will not be allowed to do so.  I wish I could send that message without physical force but that isn't feasible.  Much like putting people in prison it is a technique that is terrible but has no real alternative that doesn't make things even worse.