Friday, April 29, 2011

Who to vote for

I am posting twice today.  I wrote my first post and then realized that this second post can't wait for Monday for obvious reasons.  Read them both!

On Monday Canadians will go to the polls and elect a new government.  The current Conservative government is one I hold in nothing short of contempt and I will not disguise that in the least.  However, which party other than the Conservatives I will vote for is a tricky question.  Today I decided to look around the internet at each party's platforms and see what they had to say about themselves and each other.  Ads, discussions with other people and partisan articles can tell you a lot but there is some real value in reading exactly what each party is willing to commit to in writing.

First, the reasons I hold the Conservatives in such contempt:  The primary thing that gets me is the fact that it isn't the Conservatives at all but Stephen Harper's Government.  If you read the Stephen Harper's Government election platform it makes it abundantly clear.  Every picture is of SH and only SH and every mention of the government does not include the phrase The Canadian Government or The Conservative Government but only Stephen Harper's Government.  Stephen Harper even directed government officials to only refer to his government as the Harper Government.  This is not a monarchy!  Secondarily I have real issues with the way the SHG conducted itself.  They got rid of the long form census in a move that can only be justified by a intense desire to rule by one man's instinct rather than informed decision making.  They committed huge amounts of money to military spending that I see as entirely unnecessary.  They also demonstrated total disrespect for their responsibilities and the government by proroguing parliament opportunistically multiple times and refusing to answer questions or address the press.  This is all to ignore the fact that they were actually found in contempt of Parliament for their refusal to supply basic information demanded by Parliament.  Stephen Harper's Government is a one man show displaying total disregard for anyone who isn't Stephen Harper.

Now with that aside I need to figure out who to vote for.  Last election I voted Green because I was completely certain the Liberals would win my riding anyway and I thought that providing a little bit of momentum for the Greens was the most useful thing I could do with my vote.  I didn't want them to form the government but I do think them having a say would be constructive.  This time I am realistically deciding between Liberal and NDP.  I find that both the Liberals and NDP have social policies that I can get behind and I don't see a huge difference between them.  SHG has a big pro religion, pro guns, anti gay, tough on crime at all costs thing going on that I disagree with on all fronts but the other guys mostly all seem comparable.  Given that I decided to pick a party based on the strength of their economic platform.  Supply side economics as advocated by the right wing types world wide has been a total failure over the past 3 decades and has really just led to immense government deficits and not much else.  If I could actually vote a party in that flat out guaranteed a debt reduction plan that would balance the budget within 2 years and pay off the debt within 20 years I would vote that party in for sure. Since I get no guarantees though I figure I will instead just look over their economic plans and vote for the party that has the most realistic plan for success.

There is a perception out there that left wing parties tax and spend their way to big deficits and right wing parties run surpluses. I don't think that is generally accurate and data from any number of countries backs that up; left wing parties tend to tax more and spend more and right wing ones tax and spend less but from what I have seen there is actually no reason to think that left wing parties actually run bigger deficits.  If anything, it is the reverse both here in Canada and in the US because the right wing parties cut taxes but shift spending from social programs to the military and end up in the red.


I like their social policy changes.  They would return the census and do lots of things I approve of.  Their plan includes immense lists of extra spending and even tax cuts but also includes eliminating a massive deficit with no details.

I really like the NDP plan of abolishing the Senate.  Appointed Senators that rubberstamp Parliament is not a useful way to run things.

I also like the fact that the NDP isn't generally running attack ads but rather promoting itself.


Good policies again.  The Liberals would also return the census, as would apparently everybody since abolishing it was idiotic.  The Liberals do have extra spending written in but they also have tax increases on large businesses noted and chopping military spending.

The Liberals don't have a Senate reform plan.  I like the NDP plan of abolishing it and I like the SHG plan of making it an elected body less than the NDP plan but more than the status quo.

I dislike that the Liberals are running attack ads.  However, the fact that SHG is running attack ads against the Liberals that include portraying Ignatieff as a "I am the only important one" sort of leader is hilarious so I am tempted to forgive them this point a little.

So overall I like the Liberal fiscal plan the best by a wide margin.  It actually seems doable and acknowledges the tax increases and cutbacks that will be necessary to pay for things.  I wish the Liberals had a plan for Senate reform but honestly I think that is a drastically lower priority than a sound fiscal plan.  My current plan is to vote Liberal.  This is good because if I think that the main thing is to get the SHG out then strategically I should vote Liberal so I can cover both my strategic voting and ideological voting with one vote.  Of course my commenters often find big holes in my logic and research so maybe someone will supply a good reason why I should change my mind.  They don't have much time to do it though.

Edit:  Check this link out.  This is a link from  This is our government.  How embarassing.

Separate bedrooms for the twins

I read an article today that completely boggled my mind.  It was talking about a single mother with 3 children - 1 older daughter and 8 year old twins (one boy, one girl).  The mother was talking about how her twins share a room and she has gotten a lot of bad reactions to this situation.  Apparently most people feel like parents have an obligation to buy a house large enough so all children may have a separate room and failure to do so is some sort of a social crime.  The part that blew me right away was the attitude displayed in the comments... many people felt that it was *extremely* dangerous to have two children of the opposite gender sharing a room because they might see each other naked!

Oh no, a penis!

Ack, a vagina!

What do they expect will come of this?  Does anyone really think that the children will instantly decide to have some kind of underage incestuous love affair because they caught a glimpse of the other's genitals?  It makes me crazy to think that people assume something terrible will come of looking at someone of the opposite gender without clothes on.  The children will be curious as to the differences, no doubt, but with regular exposure they will come to the conclusion that 'I have these bits, and they have these other, different bits' and then move on.  I personally like to lay the blame for this mostly at the doorstep of religion but I assume the source of our collective terror of the power of exposed sex organs probably comes from many sources.  It certainly seems ridiculous when you consider the sorts of swimsuits people wear - there is a tiny strip of cloth covering the smallest portion of the offending region that is legal and yet somehow this is different from actually being naked?

I cannot help but wonder at how this sense of propriety is resolved when one considers that so much of the world lives in tiny spaces where the expectation of a separate room for each individual is laughable.  Much of the world lives in housing where families containing 10 people live in 1-2 rooms.  There is no such thing as privacy under those conditions and we aren't even restricting it to children in this case - clearly sex has to be happening regularly to have all those children around but there isn't any place to have it that is away from the current flock.  For the majority of our evolution it is clear that humans lived in large family groups where nudity and sex could have no expectation of privacy and in the modern day many people are still in that situation so I find the argument that it is a big problem to be lacking.  As a matter of fact I am quite convinced that closeting children away from the other gender and treating genitals as something dirty and shameful creates problems rather than solving them.

It has been abundantly demonstrated that abstinence programs to control teenage pregnancy are an utter failure. We cannot avoid children learning about sex and sexuality thankfully but we can make sure they have the facts and attitude they need to make the best decisions possible.  (Teenagers especially are still going to do foolish things but we can help them to do foolish things *less*)  Teaching the facts instead of teaching shame and secrecy is by far the best way to make sure our children grow up comfortable with their own bodies and able to enter into sexual relationships with a healthy dose of preparedness.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Source of All Evil - Sugar

The advice out there for those who want to understand the increasing levels of obesity and related health issues is both wildly inconsistent and unthinkably vast.  If you peruse the internet looking for the causes you will find many things implicated from TV to transfats to high fructose corn syrup to cars to simple laziness.  If you are willing to be suckered into obvious scams you will be sold acai berries, weight loss pills, exercise regiments, herbal supplements, detoxifiers, antioxidants and more.  What is even more challenging is how fast the villain in question changes.  When I was young my father was told that he had very high cholesterol and was forbidden to eat eggs because of their high cholesterol content.  This was a struggle for my parents because my father loves eggs and tends to ignore that sort of advice while my mother was much more willing to cut out eggs in an attempt to improve his health.  In the end it turns out that dietary cholesterol does absolutely nothing of significance to increase the risk of cardiovascular failure so the advice that was given was very poor indeed.  We were first told to cut back on fat in our food decades ago and many people still look for low fat content food and items with 'light' marked on them despite the evidence that 'light' products are not at all better for your health or weight.

Recently I found this article and this video (It is 90 minutes long but I highly recommend taking the time to see it) that talked about the real reason for the increases in cardiovascular problems and obesity in our society.  Of course *everybody* knows the real reason, but some are more real than others... and this guy seems about as legit as it is possible to be.

1.  He isn't selling anything.  Never trust anybody telling you what you need to do when they follow it up with a pitch asking for your money.

2.  He obviously has a deep grasp of both the practical and theoretical components of his argument.  Don't trust advice from people unless they obviously have a tremendous personal understanding of the issue at hand.

3.  He presents a lot of good science to support his position and has no stories or testimonials.  Relying on testimonials is basically admitting that you don't have sufficient evidence to support your idea properly.

What is the conclusion?  Sugar is the villain - fructose in particular.  High fructose corn syrup is bad, bad, bad but it only continued the trend established by its more respected cousin sucrose (50% glucose, 50% fructose).  Fructose is cheap, very sweet, and causes all kinds of problems.  It is the primary cause of metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, obesity, bad cholesterol, high insulin) and all the attendant problems and health risks.  The movie in particular attacks soft drinks, sugared juices and gatorade as being the #1 culprits but makes it clear that adding sugar to the vast majority of manufactured foods is a huge problem.

This isn't any big news in some ways.  Anyone who thought that drinking a Big Gulp at 7-11 was good for their health clearly was tuned out pretty seriously.  However, there are probably a lot of people that drank Gatorade and thought they were drinking something targetted at elite athletes instead of a giant bowl of sugar that would ruin their bodies after sufficient abuse.  The amount of sugar we as a society drink in our pop and juice is disastrous but those are the obvious things - knowing that bread all has high fructose corn syrup in it is something you only find out but carefully reading the ingredients list.  Solutions to the current dietary problems we face are easy to think of but very hard to implement as there are tremendous vested interests trying to maintain the status quo.  Sure, we should all stop drinking pop and adding fructose to our foods but how do you implement that when the majority of the food we purchase in stores has this stuff in it and it isn't dangerous in the short term?  Presumably we do it the same way we have reduced the incidence of trans fats in food - educate people until eventually they demand foods that are fructose free and let the market respond accordingly.  Not exactly fast, but I don't see it going any other way.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sugar and plastic

Elli just finished attending quite a run of birthday parties.  The norm around here is for kids to have birthday parties at a business designed around hosting such things - generally 1.5 to 2 hours of 15 - 30 kids eating junk food and running around plastic indoor playgrounds like maniacs.  At the end every kid is presented with a bagful of plastic toys, stickers and knickknacks (also known as junk) and sent home high on sugar and excitement.  The price tag is pretty severe as the parents of the birthday kid end up tagged for $500 but they do end up with ~20 presents for their kid worth something like $20 each so they can count it as not overly expensive... if what they wanted to do with their $500 is buy a mountain of toys that surely will mostly be ignored.  I hate it all!

I can't see the reasoning behind such a ridiculous explosion of spending for so little return.  These kids are not desperate for a toy to play with so suddenly be inundated with them is going to mean that most of the gifts will be very nearly worthless to them - likely even a negative because they will clutter up their place for awhile until everyone is willing to trash them.  The constant stream of birthday parties that children attend is incredible and to accept all the invitations is to be forever running to the store and buying gifts the recipient doesn't need but which must be given to avoid much ill will.  What is just as bad is the waste that goes on to feed the kids at this event.  Every bit of food served means another disposable plate and fork in the trash and every kid goes through 1-2 disposable cups.  Napkins are pitched without ever being used and water is doled out in recyclable containers that mostly go straight into the dump too.  Most of this is in the name of safety of course - anything that goes near a child is contaminated and must be thrown out right away to maintain the illusion that no passing on of germs can occur.

The food itself is yet another problem.  There are often some bright spots like trays of fruit slices but by and large the main fare is fast food pizza, chips, sugared drinks and cake.  I understand that cake is a tradition but I very much question the necessity of a Barbie / Cars / Hannah Montana / Ninja birthday cake containing 50% icing purchased at the local grocery store for a fortune.  There are plenty of foods that kids will eat that don't fall between toxic and bad but they don't often make an appearance.  I would think that this is mostly the parents at fault rather than the businesses though; they could easily bring healthy snacks instead of crap but healthy probably takes more work and runs a higher risk of kids complaining.

I think this is one of those situations where I really need to apply Ghandi's maxim of "Be the change you want to see in the world".  Elli's parties so far have been small at home affairs with just 4 friends at most.  Even then the number of presents all at once is too much for her to really appreciate; I can hardly imagine dealing with 8 times as much.  We managed to serve pretty decent food and homemade cupcakes so we are doing well on that front but we did end up sending all the attendees home with a stack of princess themed accessories.  I should probably just try to be realistic in that I have no chance of getting people to serve vegetables instead of cake nor any ability to prevent the tide of unneeded presents.  I can try to have small events, serve good food and not give out junk to the kids as they leave without causing too much fuss though so I suspect that is the only real course available to me.  I figure the kids may complain that they didn't get their customary loot bag but their parents are probably just as happy to not have to cart home and eventually get rid of my dollar store treasures.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Effective argument

Yesterday I watched a fairly long debate on youtube between Christopher Hitchens, a very well known and very outspoken atheist, and an evangelical christian named Jay Richards.  You can start it here.  Note that I linked to the 2nd part of the show, for your own sanity don't watch the first part which is just introductions.  The basic topic of the debate was arguments for theism vs. atheism.  I mentioned Hitchens before in a post about good atheist books to read and I was eager to see exactly what this persuasive, passionate individual would do in a debate format.  It turns out that what he did is savagely lambast religion both in the general sense and specific religions in particular in a very amusing and effective display of oratory.  What he failed to do was actually address his opponent's concerns and have any semblance of a real debate.  I must give Richards real credit because although he was trying to defend some truly laughable points in favour of Intelligent Design he at least kept things civil and went about his arguments in an organized, reasonable fashion.  Just like a good actor in a badly written movie Richards did a good job presenting a point of view that left him little to work with.  His primary points were as follows:

1.  The universe can either be seen as theistic or materialistic.  Therefore we should consider which of these two explanations fits the data we have about the universe better.
2.  The universe had a beginning and because in science we know that all things happen for a reason and are caused it stands to reason that there is a force that caused the universe.  Therefore there is a God.
3.  Many structures in nature are irreducibly complex such as some flagella on microorganisms and eyes in more complicated creatures.  Because these could not have arisen from natural selection only God must be responsible.
4.  The particular set of circumstances in which humans find themselves is so unlikely that there is no way it could have arisen by chance alone and there must have been a designer to have made it thus.
5.  Since God is required for both the universe to have begun and for it to be in the way it is and for us to be around to question it God must be real.

Of course this line of reasoning fails at every point.  Many things in the universe appear from nothing for absolutely no reason we can discern.  Time itself was not a thing prior to the Big Bang - the idea that there was a big universe ticking along normally with all the matter in a single point somewhere isn't remotely representative of the actual physics as we understand it.  Irreducible complexity has been tried on dozens of different structures in living things and has *always* failed because in every case the structure has been proved to have evolved normally.  Every time it fails some new structure is hailed as irreducibly complex, leaving us with a God of the gaps, a creator found in any tiny bit of information science has not yet discovered.  The conditions for life are not nearly as precise as most calculations made by theists suggest - things live beside volcanic vents in the utter darkness of the ocean floor, in caves miles underground, underwater, in the air, within other creatures and in nearly any chemical composition you can name.  Lastly we must note that this is a false dichotomy; there is absolutely no reason to divide the choices into atheism vs. Christian God but rather there are an multitude of other choices like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a 20 storey tall slot machine of infinite power or any other less silly choice you can imagine.  These arguments, if they worked, which they don't, might prove that there is something science does not yet understand about the universe but they cannot prove the existence of an anthropomorphic, caring, all powerful Creator, much less one that is incredibly concerned with minor surgery on the penises of males of a particular stone age nomadic tribe.

Richards brought absolutely nothing new to the table.  It would have been easy, maybe even trivial for Hitchens to utterly demolish all these arguments and yet he did not.  I kept thinking "Why wasn't I at this debate?  I could have CRUSHED Richards into paste!  Get him Hitchens!"  I am no astrophysicist nor evolutionary biologist but you don't need to be as these arguments simply don't stand up to even 'science for the layman' level book knowledge.  I got really frustrated by the end because I thought that even though Hitchens had some fantastic points it would be easy for someone watching the broadcast to think that the theistic viewpoint had some kind of scientific legitimacy because Hitchens avoided actually addressing it properly.  Why didn't he take the 2 minutes it would have required to show the fatuousness of the arguments he was facing?

It could be that Hitchens just isn't informed enough.  He is a huge name in religious debate and a very well known writer but in his book he doesn't bother with scientific debate but rather focuses on religion's history and inconsistencies.  Maybe he knows that the science is on his side but doesn't know it well enough to debate it.  It could also be that he feels like even arguing that science is legitimizing his opponent's position and suggesting that there is actually a scientific debate to be had.  The tactic of debating things that are widely known to be true as if there is an actual question is used all over the place - most notably in politics and climate science - and perhaps there is an argument to be made that even pretending that there is a point in debating things like irreducible complexity is silly.  Clearly it is worth investigating so that there are rock solid scientific proofs one way or the other but the benefits of engaging in debate about it on TV is somewhat more questionable.

I don't know what to make of it.  I certainly wish I could have been on that podium instead of Hitchens as I think I could have ruined the 'science' of his opposition and still had plenty of time for biting social criticism but I wonder if that would have even been more effective.  Is anyone actually convinced to not believe in God by scientific arguments one way or the other or do they just use them to support their position when convenient?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Liking kids

Recently I have been following Penelope Trunk's blog.  She is a very well known career advice columnist and writer in the US and has a spectacularly interesting blog because she is crazy and holds nothing back.  She writes in detail about her fights with her husband, her struggle with Asperger's Syndrome, her divorce, her sex life and her relationship with her kids.  It is rare to find a blogger that is willing and eager to tell the world about their most vulnerable, awful moments and confess their mistakes to the world.  She coined a wonderful term to talk about magazine covers and interviews that portray rich, famous working mothers as being superwomen who have it all.  You know the kind, you see them at the grocery store with Angelina Jolie on the front cuddling with one of her 12? children fulfilling the dream of being a caring full time mom and a globetrotting actress simultaneously.  The wonderful term for this is Mommy Porn.  I *love* it because it is so utterly appropriate - pictures that suggest that the most outrageous and impractical fantasies are somehow real.  A key part of her attitude in this is her assertion that people generally don't like spending time with their kids.

This is not an easy thing to say.  People will noisily proclaim that they love their kids (which is true) and that they wish they could spend more time with them (which is occasionally true, but regularly false).  If people really wanted to spend more time with their kids they could give up work and stay at home with them.  This is financially feasible but most people simply don't want to do it!  They would much prefer to go out and work; although they want the best for their children they don't actually want to be around them most of the time.  Some people certainly confess this, but generally in a very quiet 'don't tell the neighbours' kind of way.  I have met many moms who stayed home during maternity leave and most were desperate to get back to work and away from the children long before their 8 months was up.

This is definitely true for me.  I love Elli but I really don't like spending time with her.  I just get no satisfaction out of following a small person around playing her games by her rules and when I am trying to get things done myself or play my own games Elli is stubborn and willful enough that I end up not enjoying the process.  I end up having constant wars with myself because I really do want to have a good relationship with her and I want her to be happy but the things I do to try to make that happen end up being boring at best and terrible at worst.  Most probably this is due to the modern advantage of having children be a choice... the fact that I chose this life makes me think I should damn well be enjoying it.  I know Wendy has had some strange conversations where people find out I am at home and assume that I must be taking care of child(ren) full time and they become somewhat confused when they find out I am not.  They must have some moments where they wonder what could be wrong with me that I do this or what must be wrong with Wendy to put up with such behaviour on my part.

I often end up feeling very frustrated over the whole thing.  I wish I could take more pleasure in the day to day grind of taking care of and entertaining a small person.  I can be silent about this but I cannot make it go away; it is who and how I am.  Just as there are people who would go insane sitting at a computer by themselves all day building a spreadsheet there are people who would go insane staying at home with a small child all day.  The trick for those who are like me is that they often end committing to a decade or more of childcare and unlike a job you cannot so easily change your mind once you figure it out.  The world is full of messages that parenting is a rewarding, wonderful, rejuvenating experience that many people do effortlessly and when questioned publicly few people are willing to speak negatively of it.  There certainly are people out there for whom parenting feels easy and wonderful but for most of us it is much more of a struggle than we let on.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is my job worth doing?

I got to thinking the other day about various jobs people can have and whether or not they are worth doing.  By worth doing I mean that the job has a positive impact on society in general totally separate from the pay.  This certainly has some overlap with a job being hated or not by people at large but I don't think that is the best indicator.  The easiest examples I can think of from the two extremes are doctors and door to door 'lock in your utility rates' salespeople.  I think we can all agree that in general doctors bring a lot of positive value to society and make things better for all of us regardless of how much they are paid.  I think pretty much everyone would agree that most criminals fall into the 'not helping society' bucket but I think utility rate salesmen are almost as bad since they rely on selling an absolutely useless product to vulnerable people using lies, fear and high pressure tactics.  My measure is simple:  Would people be worse off if everyone doing the job in question simply stopped working entirely?  Working on the line in a factory may not be exciting or prestigious but we need people to do it and it would be a big mess if nobody did.

I can't claim that my jobs have always been great examples of helping people and making the world a better place.  By far the best job I have ever had and the one most worth doing is working Old Fort William historical site as a cooper.  I taught people about history, entertained them with stories and feats of axe throwing and build useful things with my hands.  Nearly everything about the job was good and I enjoyed it immensely.  I had a few jobs in university as a computer programmer and they were distinctly less worth doing but not terrible.  I built websites, helped people understand technology, took care of servers and other such projects.  Unfortunately because I was a coop student much of what I did was busywork and the support I got for my projects was often so pathetic I was able to get nothing of consequence done.  I certainly didn't make anyone's life worse but I contributed little.

A little lower down the chain were my jobs at 7-Eleven and Esso.  In both cases a cursory examination might suggest that being a clerk, pumping gas and restocking shelves is a worthwhile endeavour if a little lacking in excitement and challenge.  I rate these jobs a lot lower though because so much of what I did was actively harmful to the customers.  I sold an awful lot of cigarettes, pop, chips, slurpees, lottery tickets and chocolate bars.  I spent the bulk of my time and energy doing things that are flat out terrible for people.  Granted I also fixed tires and sold magazines too, which I see as being useful, so these jobs I feel like manage to be slightly above neutral.

I have also been a salesman.  Evaluating this is really tricky because people have such different ideas about lying and so many people actively hate salesmen and feel like they are leeches on society.  I feel like lying to people about products or misrepresenting what a thing can do is morally wrong.  However, I don't feel the same way about negotiation.  When haggling over price people say all kinds of things that aren't true and that includes the most virtuous shopper.  I feel like as long as both parties know the terms of the agreement and concur on the price then dishonesty like "Oh, I simply can't pay that much" or "Best deal today only, tomorrow this deal will be gone!" just aren't important.  Given that standpoint I think my days of selling mattresses were actually an example of a job worth doing.  I helped people understand the product, I legitimately did my best to guide them to the most appropriate products and I am absolutely confident that I made people sleep better and be more healthy because of the assistance I provided.  My second sales job selling medical appointments to executives was the opposite; I was simply trying to convince people to do things that were mostly completely unnecessary at best.  My entire job consisted of hassling people into buying things they did not need and then charging OHIP for those procedures they shouldn't have been getting in the first place.  That job justified the commonly held negative stereotypes of salespeople.

Now of course I should consider the job of unpaid writer, games designer and homemaker.  I think I entertain and educate people with my writing (I try, anyhow) and I maintain a home and do chores that need doing.  I certainly harm no one and much of what I do is very necessary work.  The glory factor is certainly a little lacking but I think as far as being worth doing my current job is right up there.

I imagine the scale as going from -10 to 10 where 0 is a job that just doesn't do anything helpful, 10 is a doctor and -10 is a mob hitman.

Cooper:  8
Homemaker/Writer/Layabout:  7
Mattress sales:  5
Programmer:  3
Clerk:  2
Medical sales:  -4

I don't know that this tells me much of anything really.  I think if everyone thought about jobs this way and tried to find jobs that were really worth doing by my definition we would have a much richer, happier and more productive society.  I suppose that most of the people doing the jobs that are negative have little enough concern for this metric regardless.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Chicken soup for the soul

Quite some time ago I read a little book called Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I have a memory of reading it while sitting in the bathroom at my parent's place as they like to keep those sorts of things there... but I could be wrong about that.  The book had all kinds of quotes and anecdotes about all kinds of things but they shared a universal theme of being heartwarming stories of redemption, triumph, love and companionship.  Awww.  The theory is that these books make you feel good about the world and make you happy.  I found the quotes interesting at times but I can't say that they made me feel happy.  When I want to get a quick pick-me-up from reading something I go read Dan Savage's sex advice column instead.

You might wonder why reading about people embroiled in all kinds of terrible situations regarding love, sex and relationships would make me happy.  Thing is, I am not entirely clear on how that works myself but I have some ideas.  I think it is similar to the fact that a strong determining factor in people's happiness is their relative wealth to the people within their social circle.  Absolute wealth is a factor to a point and is either a very small or nonfactor beyond basic necessities but *relative* wealth is important no matter how much you make.  If your friends, family and the people on your street make 30% less than you it doesn't matter if your salary is 30k or 500k you tend to be happier.  I think the same sort of thing applies here but on a different axis. By some determining factors including at least luck, brains, discipline and natural tendencies I am in a pretty good place in terms of relationship issues so if my theory holds water I should be happier when I can see that the people around me are worse off.  That isn't necessarily going to work when I look at people who are single, for example, since there are definite benefits to being single even if you would like to be in a relationship.  However, it would definitely work if I see people with bizarre sexual tendencies that land them in all kinds of trouble.

This, as it turns out, is the main fare in Savage's column.  People who want to be dressed up like babies during foreplay, people who want their spouses to cheat on them for a turn on, people who are matched up with partners with drastically different libidos (normally the male wants sex 3 times a week and the female wants it once a year, but the reverse situation does exist) and all the even more exotic fetishes come out to play.  Unsurprisingly when you look at the folks with really nonstandard preferences they have all kinds of problems with a world that doesn't understand or respect them and often rejects them quite violently.  Their stories are often awful and heartwrenching and full of terribly evil acts and seeing all that really cheers me up.  Sure, I might be really irritated with having to haul Elli all the way from school over my shoulder while she screams and tries to hit me... but at least it is a 4 year old trying to hit me and not an adult who professes to love me.  I may be bitter that I can't go barefoot into the local grocery store but I am not stuck looking for a lover who is into transgendered women who have the physical characteristics of a man; which, as I understand it, isn't a rough road indeed.  I read these stories of woe and misery and think

-Wow, my physical gender and my mental gender match!  (I might be offending trans people with poor terminology... but you know what I mean.)
-I am attracted to people that make up a very large percentage of the population!
-All the things my partner wants of me sexually are at worst easy and at best quite a lot of fun!
-Nobody over the age of 4 has tried to hit me in quite some time!

Again, I have no problem with people that have these characteristics but we can all see where the easiest path lies; just like I have no problem with Russians but I am glad to be living in Canada instead of Russia.

I remember a Simpsons episode where Homer is sitting in Moe's bar recounting his story of becoming a team mascot for a baseball team which ends with him being utterly humiliated in front of an immense crowd.  The barflies listening to him are all enthralled and utterly absorbed in his tale...

Homer:  "Why do stories of degradation and humiliation make you more popular?"
Moe:  "I don't know, they just do."

In some ways it is very Stoic to be thinking of how much worse life could be and using that recognition to be happy.  I don't know that the ancient Stoics would have approved of reading sex advice columns as an aid to negative visualization but it sure seems to work.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What would happen to me?

It is often very tricky to figure out exactly what children are asking.  Sometimes they ask important questions that are veiled in very unimportant terms and much of the time it is very difficult to sort what exactly they want to know because they are talking about things outside their realm of experience.  They don't have the life experience to understand many important issues so they simply don't know how to frame questions in a way that adults can easily understand.  Yesterday Elli asked

"What would happen if you and Mommy got hurt?"

My ears perked up and my internal klaxon started whooping.  Lights flashed and something in my brain shouted that we were about to have An Important Conversation.  First off I have to figure out if she is asking about what first aid we would use if we both barked our shins, what happens after people die, if she wants to know who would take her to school if we both were very ill or something else entirely.  I asked some questions and she rephrased her question to be

"What would happen if you and Mommy got hit by a car?"

Relief sets in.  Now at least I know what she is trying to figure out - she wants to know what would happen to her if we both died.  It is a tricky subject because I want to answer her question clearly but I also want to communicate how unlikely that situation is and I don't have a lot of attention span to work with.  I reassured her that Mommy and I are not likely to die but that if that happened that her Nana and Papa would take care of her. She wanted to know yet more and asked if they would come to live in our house but seemed quite satisfied with the answer that she would go to live with them.  She wanted lots of details about their flights, how they would get to the airport and how they would get from there to our condo and how she would get back to their house.

It amazes me that I was concerned about how to explain the concept of myself and Wendy dying but the thing that was really concerning her was what modes of transportation her grandparents would use to come and get her.  I wonder what was going on in her head... she may have been worried about very simple things like how she would get food from the grocery store when food ran out, who would tuck her in at night or how she would get the front door of the condo open.  The fact that all those things fall under the umbrella of 'You need an adult to take care of you' isn't necessarily obvious to someone her age and there may have been all kinds of interesting thoughts floating around in her head.  I won't get to find out though because she seemed entirely satisfied with my answers and moved on to another topic, a flight of fancy about her imaginary sister if I recall correctly.  Whatever secrets might have been there are now lost to us, which is a pity because I would love to know how someone so small thinks about these things.

Wendy and I are the sort of people who are entirely practical about these affairs; we have our wills in place and all the arrangements made ahead of time.  It doesn't bother us to talk about these things at all and though obviously we would not view the real event of one of us dying with such cool, rational behaviour we approach those ideas with pragmatism.

"So, what would you want me to do if you died?"

"Well, I would expect you to grieve for awhile and then go out and find somebody else to get married to.  You?"


Friday, April 8, 2011

I always get a deal

Awhile ago I was talking to The Shopper about buying things and money.  He was shocked at just how little money my family lives on and simply couldn't fathom how we could make it on roughly 27k a year.  Not to mention that I think we pretty much live a life of endless riches, a life fit for royalty.  His income is higher than ours by several times and many of the major costs in his life were similar to ours and yet he was not accumulating money.  He mentioned, however, that he was a very canny shopper and always got a deal when he bought things.  That line triggers a question in my mind.

"Do you get a deal when you go out to buy something you need, or do you buy things just because they are a deal?"

That question is critical and it turns out it was the right one to ask.  He divulged that he would only buy things that were 50% off but that whenever he saw things he thought he might use that were discounted by that magical % he would buy them.  New clothes, music, electronics, whatever, when he saw a deal he would take it and felt like that made him a smart shopper and good with money.  It is funny that when I see that strategy I pretty much reverse it and call it disastrous with money and an uninformed shopper.  This rests on the fundamental facts that 'regular price' is an illusion created by merchants to fleece people with exactly this mindset and that the benefit of a thing has very little to do with its price, regular or discounted, and everything to do with how much it will actually improve the buyer's life.  If I go to buy a pair of shoes it is because my last pair of shoes is actually broken and nonfunctional since more shoes would actually be worse due to needing more closet space.  I have thousands of songs in itunes and I hardly ever listen to most of them so buying more simply isn't going to benefit me.  I could just go back and actually listen to all the ones I haven't heard in a year instead.

I think everyone should work in a store where the salespeople have total price control if only for a short while.  It gives such clarity when you are confronted with a poster advertising a big sale or a gigantic % discount, particularly after you hear the stories told by the old salespeople of the crazy companies where they used to work *cough* cheat customers *cough*.  That idea that the price currently offered is somehow exceptional simply does enter into my mind anymore after my time in retail; I can get the best price any time.  I tried to convince The Shopper that he should utterly ignore 50% off and simply get the best price for whatever he knows he absolutely needs.  Unfortunately I think my advice fell on deaf ears - even though nearly all discounts are entirely fictional he continued to believe he was finding exceptional deals every time.  I expect that giving up the idea that 'regular price' is actually the regular price is something like giving up religion in that you can tell people how things really are all you like but until they have it personally slammed in their faces they are likely to go on believing what they have always believed.

It probably helps that I like to spend my time sitting at home reading and writing on the computer.  I don't see ads on TV, I don't get exposure to billboards or even subway advertising mostly.  I also hang around with a lot of people who think owning stuff (except for real estate and a bitchin' computer) is unimportant.  I know that I might be tempted to buy things when walking through the mall during Boxing Week Blowout! but surely other people can see that if every single store has 70% off every single item that *nobody* is getting a deal?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Population Bomb

I recently picked up a copy of The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich.  I have heard much made of this book from a number of different sources and I wanted to see what exactly was up with it first hand.  The book was first published in 1968 and the library delivered me the 1971 version though I believe there were more versions after that.  The basic premise of the book is that the world's population is completely out of control and the coming decade (that is, the 1970s) will be marked by catastrophic starvation and most likely widespread war and plague.  This book was a powerful galvanizing agent for the environmental movement and helped make population control a much more widely acknowledged issue.  It has also been widely and roundly criticized for being wrong on nearly every prediction and being full of speculation and emotional appeal instead of fact and science.  Everyone agrees that it was an influential book and mostly everyone agrees it was completely wrong.  That is, of course, notably barring the author who believes that the book was very accurate.

In a book focused on dire predictions and imminent apocalypse there are some real bright spots.  Ehrlich tells us exactly how long it will take given current growth rates for the mass of humanity to be a gigantic sphere that is expanding at the speed of light.  (Images of a ball of humans the size of the solar system blasting outwards at light speed based on the number of new babies being produced is certainly amusing.  If nothing else it triggered a very interesting physics discussion between myself and Wendy concerning whether or not such an outrageous mass would be relatively stable or if it would collapse into a black hole.  We ended up not being entirely sure.)  Ehrlich does have some absolutely irrefutable points though they are really quite trivial in many cases.  For example, he points out regularly that if we reduce the death rate but do not reduce the birth rate we will eventually be unable to feed everyone - see expanding ball of humanity.

The primary failure of the reason in the book is one that is very common even to this day; that is the assumption that since the individual cannot fathom what power and benefits new technologies might bring that those powers and benefits will not arrive.  Some scientists in the early parts of the 20th century were known to declare that science was nearly at an end; humanity was very near to knowing all things.  This is of course utter rubbish and would be rubbish no matter when the speaker lived as the idea that we will somehow arrive at an ending of ingenuity and creativity is laughable.  Even if science did not have nearly endless mysteries that we simply do not yet possess the power and technology to plumb the very idea that we cannot use the technology and understanding we have to improve the way we do things is ludicrous.  Every day, a hundred times a day somebody comes up with a new gadget, product, technique or substance that is a huge improvement over what we had before.  Constantly we recombine, redesign and tweak to make things better and more efficient in every field of human endeavour.  There are mistakes, false starts and backslides of course but there is no reason to think that this trend is going to stop; at least not while people, technology and Earth remotely resemble what they do today.

In the end the book is really just a retread of a very old line.


Doomsayers have attracted audiences forever and most likely always will.  People are very interested in dire predictions and certainties and much less concerned by error bars, potential concerns and issues that will take a long time to appear.  I liken The Population Bomb and its author to modern global warming alarmism.  Both AGW and population pressure are real issues that humanity is going to have to come to grips with.  Both of them are things that are longterm in scope, both are things that greater technology will assist us in dealing with and both have been blown hilariously out of proportion by some people and groups.  When dealing with such issues it is important that we take them seriously and that includes not listening to people whose primary message is


Monday, April 4, 2011

I am normal, really! ... I think?

A short while ago I posted about a sex dream I had.  I wondered if a lot of people would click away instantly when they read 'sex dream' in the second sentence of the post or if they would become suddenly intrigued.  My mother called me the other day to chat and mentioned that she had read that post and perhaps should not have - the warning was perhaps not worded strongly enough.  She said that she had learned perhaps too much about what exactly her son was interested in as far as sex goes.  I was a little surprised at that because I felt like I revealed really tame things that would be considered entirely normal and unsurprising; *talking* about those things in a place that your relatives can see it is strange but the preferences themselves weren't shocking in the least.  Roughly speaking I revealed that:

I have sex dreams.  (Like 99% of people)

I had one sex dream about a threesome with my wife, myself and another male stranger.  (Hardly unique.)

I am uninterested in men sexually. (Much like the majority of heterosexual men claim to be.)

I would find a MMF threesome mostly uninteresting, but would do so to arrange a MFF threesome.  (Unsurprising, but not necessarily the most common attitude)

Corollary to this last one is the idea that I am interested in a MFF threesome.  (Dead common.  In my age, gender and sexuality bracket one might say ubiquitous.)

I look at these things and I think that if you got honest answers from the vast majority of people like me you would find that these revelations are a pretty good approximation of the norm.  Of course my experience and understanding is coloured by the times in which I have been raised and the fact that I was not indoctrinated into any 'sex is evil' philosophies, religious or otherwise.  Clearly if you polled people who are much older you will find people raised in times where homosexuality was generally considered deviant/evil/unnatural and speaking about sex was not nearly as acceptable culturally as it is now and if you polled women or gay men you would find differing attitudes from my own.  These are going to change the answers you receive, but I am going to talk about the answers you would get from heterosexual men between 18 and 60.

There are plenty of things I could have said that would definitely have been way out there - you can read columns by Dan Savage or Sasha to get a good idea of the kind of stuff some people are into.  There are people who want to be dressed up in adult diapers and treated like a baby as a part of foreplay, people who want their spouses to go out and have unprotected sex with strangers and people who make women penetrating men with strap on pegs a major part of their sex life.  Not that I have any problem with people doing these things (the unprotected sex thing is a bad idea...) but we definitely can say that these are odd and unlikely things to be doing.  I certainly didn't reveal any sort of crazy sex secret to the world, I just placed myself firmly in the 'wants the kind of stuff most hetero males want' camp.  It might make all this more interesting if I had some really outlandish fetish to reveal here, something that would really make my parent's jaws drop... but I am quite boring in this regard.

Heck, if a random male was confessing his sexual desires to me for some reason and listed the things above and asked what I thought I would tell him that he is absolutely, totally normal.  If anything I would characterized this stuff as rather uninteresting and ask him if he had any really wild stuff going on.  With the speed with which attitudes towards sex are changing I wonder what sorts of things my daughter will see as 'totally normal' by the time she gets to be my age.  If she for some reason decided to confide in me that she was considering a threesome I would certainly tell her that she should make sure to practice safe sex but otherwise go nuts and have fun.  It wouldn't bother me in the slightest to know that she was doing that.  Maybe I have found the the thing that makes me odd in terms of sexual attitudes:  The idea of my parents having sex doesn't bother me at all and the same applies to my daughter.  I mostly just want them to enjoy themselves as I would for any other recreational activity they were involved in.  That right there might make me pretty odd.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Disaster through the eyes of a child

This week Elli's school had a fundraiser for Japan tsunami relief.  Their charity of choice was the International Red Cross which seems like a fine place to send money if you are going to send it.  I wondered a lot about whether they were actually going to be able to get the children to understand what is going on over there and how they would frame it.  Clearly they want the kids to understand that people in other places have it pretty bad and that there is merit in helping them but they want to avoid making the kids scared that their everyday life is going to be destroyed by an earthquake or tsunami.  How do you convey the magnitude of destruction that occurred in Japan while giving your child an accurate idea of how safe they really are from such things?

I asked Elli on our way to school if she understood what had happened over there.  She answered "The ground shook and buildings fell down and a big wave came and smashed everything and people got hurt and died."  I can't argue with that summary at all so I guess the school did a decent job of communicating to her what went on.  I was curious as to whether or not I would have to follow up with corrections or more explanations as children have greater difficulty understanding things like that which are so far out of their realm of experience.  She seemed to have a good idea of what went on but I also wanted to be sure that she understood that such things occurring was a very rare thing and that we would likely never see such a thing happen.  I reminded her that we had an earthquake last year in Toronto (horrific photo of the destruction from the Great Toronto Earthquake is at the bottom of the post) and that earthquakes happen all over the world but that very few of them were really dangerous like this last one in Japan.

What I ideally want for Elli is an understanding that terrible things can and do happen in the world but that the only sensible response is to understand both the problem and the chance that it will happen and take careful, measured care to prepare for them.  Worry, panic and fear are not useful and indeed are usually destructive responses to threats to our well being.  When I was young my parents taught me how to deal with different kinds of animals and the lessons almost always came down to

1.  Learn about the animal.  Find out if it has any particular things that set it off.

2.  Respect the animal.  Do not threaten things it cares about:  Babies, food, home.

3.  Do not fear the animal.  Stay calm.  When you are calm they will take the hint and do the same.

Whether you approach a dog, a bear, a wolf or a person you move slowly and without threatening gestures, stay away from their children/food/home and stay calm.  I watched the effects of teaching children that dogs were dangerous, malevolent creatures last summer and was just horrified by the resulting conflict, panic and terror that ensued every time the children saw a perfectly friendly dog.  The same applies for disasters; understand it, prepare for it, do not be afraid.  I am very happy with the way I have prepared Elli for dealing with animals so far as she has been able to be very friendly and comfortable with any dog she has come into contact with.  Now I just have to hope that I can prepare her for dealing with the other challenges in her life in the same way.  Those, however, are a lot harder to test.  I can't exactly order up a small earthquake just so we can see how she reacts...