Sunday, August 28, 2011

The cottage

I will be away at the cottage for the next week so there will not likely be any posts up until the 4th or 5th.  I will be back on the regular schedule at that point.

Have a good last week of summer!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gee Plus

You should be on Google+.  If you aren't familiar, it is basically Facebook + Twitter except good instead of bad.  You might say that all your family and friends are on Google+, why start a new platform?  Xkcd already has that one covered! Is there any actual reason to swap?  Yes!

So here is the thing that Google+ does that is entirely different from Facebook and is also awesome:  Circles.  Instead of having friendships that have to be reciprocal you just place people in a Circle.

On Facebook if you post a photo of you at the bar with the caption "Whoah, I was SOOOOOOO drunk and I hurled all over this random guy!" then your boss sees it, your mother sees it, you casual acquaintances see it.  Not the best.  On G+ you post that message to your Friends circle and your friends see it.  You post "I am taking Elli to the park on Saturday afternoon from 1-4 if anybody wants to join" to your Parent Friends circle.  You post about your trip home for Christmas to your Family circle and you post about your schedule conflicts for your game nights to your Gaming Crowd circle.  You can also follow anybody you like so I set myself up to get posts from random geek celebrities (Felicia Day, Randall Munroe and Will Wheaton) because they say amusing and interesting things.  They don't have to know me at all, they just know they have 237,987 followers and those followers can see their posts.

Also G+ has the distinct advantage of not being designed by a sociopathic weasel on crack.  I hate the way Facebook is laid out and the way its features work and so G+ feels like a cup of hot chocolate and a backrub all at once.

Now, it isn't all rosy and perfect.  There is one really interesting issue:  G+ wants you to use your real name.  Right now they are just getting started working out the kinks in the system but it is clear they have set for themselves a challenge that is quite possibly insurmountable.  They are forcing people to sign up using their real name even if that is not the name they go by generally, and it is enforced by account recovery being based on government ID and complaints of "This guy isn't real" being taken seriously.  The idea is to improve security and the level of discourse by getting people to be responsible for what they say and do on G+, which is certainly a noble goal, and is necessary by the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.  If you are the sort of person who already goes by their real name online (like me) then you don't care about this stuff at all, but there are a tremendous number of folks up in arms about their inability to play by the rules and still post on a pseudonym.  There are also a lot of folks ticked off because their real name triggers G+s 'not real' algorithm because trying to figure out how to store names at all is brutally hard, never mind the challenge of rooting out fake ones.

I tend to take a more middling route.  I don't have any problem with real names in theory.  I think in fact that it will both make the community better and provide even better security for those who are marginalized.  However, I also think that it just isn't going to work.  Logistically the idea of trying to monitor this on a global scale is just not feasible - names are too different and there are just too many outliers.  However, I think G+ could do themselves a *huge* favour by acknowledging pseudonyms and providing for them.  I am fine being Sky Roy but I would appreciate the ability to have public nicknames like Redcape so that people who read my material on websites or used my mods for various games could find me easily.  Even just being able to search for my nicknames and select them from a dropdown list after finding me would really show that Google is trying to support those people who have persistent pseudonyms while retaining the benefits of real names.

Will Google stick to their guns and try to make this work?  I would say yes, since they must have seen the Blizzard real name fiasco last year and decided to go with this policy regardless.  It won't affect me much either way I expect but for the record I hope they find a way to succeed.  I wouldn't put even money on it though.

Also, get on G+ already.  Ask me for an invite if you want one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The world used to really suck

I am reading a book right now called A People's History of the United States.  If you want a real pick me up, something to make you feel good about humanity, do not read this book.  It contains far too much truth about what unbelievable jerks people are to one another when given the choice.  The idea of this book is to tell the story of the history of the United States focusing on the people at the bottom of the social ladder.  Instead of details of battles and leaders it is a story about slaves, women, natives and poor white men who made up the vast majority of the population of the United States but who had tiny fractions of the power.

Reading this book you get to hear about a case right near 1900 where a black man was accused of murder when a white man shot at him and missed and the black man shot back with much greater aim.  The case is interesting because the black man was acquitted (self defence, obviously) and this was the first time in American history that a black person accused of killing a white person was not found guilty and executed.  You also get to hear about strikers who were demanding the end of such practices as forbidding conversation during the 14 hour work day, requiring mandatory church attendance and paying employees in company scrip which could only be spent at the company store.  The normal government response to this was to call in the military and have soldiers open fire on the strikers to get them back to work.  The stories of the unbelievable cruelty and savagery of the government towards the people least able to defend themselves are endless and it is clear that the government was simply a tool of the rich to subjugate the poor.

I have generally had fairly little respect for unions throughout my life but reading through the details of their beginnings and the conditions they were created to fight against has really given me a lot of perspective on the matter.  I also begin to see a very reasonable source for the common American sentiment that the government is evil and is simply out to get you - that was absolutely the unvarnished truth for several centuries though currently the waters are more muddied.  The people of the US could quite reasonably conclude that the government is simply a tool of the rich to keep the poor in line by law when possible, by violence when necessary and that culture is still around today.  The US government today is pretty dysfunctional still of course, you just have to consider their system of measurements, their military spending or their medical system to see that, but certainly it is hugely better than the early days in the 1700s and 1800s.

So if you want to understand the history of the US much better than most history classes would be able to achieve or gain some perspective on how great the world is today then this is a great book.  It sure is a miserable collection of stories of tremendous human suffering at the behest of other humans though.... too bad that is the truth of the matter.

Picture from Wikipedia.

Attitude is everything

Yesterday I was walking down the street with Elli on my shoulders and a dog ahead of us started barking at me.  It jumped towards me as far as its leash would allow and made quite a scene.  The owners of the dog were really apologetic, trying to pull it away and giving me excuses (He's just a puppy, sorry!) and continually looking at me like I was going to freak out on them on the basis of their dog's behaviour.  I figured the dog was probably just unused to a freaky 7 foot tall double human and walked up to it, squatted down and held out my hand for it to sniff my palm.  It sniffed for a few seconds, calmed down and then I gave it a pat on the head and we wandered away.  Simple, but I see so many people not grasp that fundamental mechanic when dealing with a dog or a human.

Just give them a reason to think you are safe!  If you meet a big scary man in a leather jacket with tattooes and a bowie knife on his hip and he stares at you, acts very tense and refuses to get close you have every reason to be worried but if he walks up to you calmly, sticks out his hand and says "Good day, my name is Brad, how are you?" you will almost certainly calm right down.  Brad is the same guy but his attitude will hugely influence the way you act even if you are totally unaware of it.  Just a hint:  To other people or dogs *you* are Brad.  You can decide how they react!  This stuff obviously isn't new as any good sales manual or psychologist would tell you but it is something that people so often seem to forget.  Those folks who were afraid and panicked about my reaction just needed to stay calm and say "Sorry, the dog is still young and excitable" and firmly drag the dog away.  Their fear was making things worse for the dog and might have affected me if I wasn't so used to that situation.

The world could really benefit from giving people at large some sales training.  If we were all better at figuring out what other people want and finding pleasant ways to keep conversations productive and civil we would waste a lot less time and energy being mad or afraid for no reason.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Justice or no justice

The much publicized court case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has finally come to an end and now the only question that remains to be answered is whether or not justice has been done.  Dominique was a powerful French politician who was accused of raping a maid in his hotel room earlier this year.  The facts of the matter are that the maid in question was in the room for 7 minutes and gave Dominique (whom she had never met) oral sex in that time.  She then accused him of rape and shortly thereafter he was arrested in the US and charged.  After that several other women came forward to state that they also had been sexually assaulted by Dominique but had previously remained silent.  The details of the reasoning behind dropping the charges from the prosecutors themselves is here.

It seems hard to think that Dominique could possibly be innocent.  A man accused of sexual misconduct from several sources who convinces a woman he does not know to give him oral sex at her workplace in a matter of a couple minutes at most?  Bloody unlikely story, that.  The trick is that the testimony of the maid in question changed dramatically from time to time though, including the details of how the event happened.  The maid also told police and prosecutors of a previous rape in another country and then recanted the story later, which raised grave doubts as to the justice of proceeding with a trial based solely on her testimony.  If she successfully convinced a number of people of a fictitious rape she almost certainly could do so again with the jury.  So here we have a situation where nearly everybody involved thinks the accused is guilty and yet he is being sent home and cleared of all charges.

Was this right?

My answer is yes.  The prosecutors have the obligation to only put people on trial if they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty and that they have a reasonable chance of a conviction.  Allowing people to be dragged before the courts when the people trying to convict them think they aren't guilty or that a guilty conviction isn't likely would be disastrous - these sorts of accusations are ruinous regardless of their truth.    The legal system has an obligation to not let the entire decision rest in the hands of a jury, especially so when the case has been national news and many or most jurors will already have formed opinions on the matter from media sources.

Witness testimony is always a fickle and unreliable thing.  Eyewitnesses to crimes regularly remember things that are completely false, identify people that were not there and otherwise disagree with indisputable facts.  When the entire case revolves around one person's word against another's we must be exceedingly careful to be sure that the credibility of the people involved has some weight.  Dominique is probably guilty of rape.  However, it is far more critical that we protect the integrity of our legal system and the rights of those who aren't guilty than it is that we prosecute him for a crime he probably, but not certainly, committed.

Justice?  Probably not.  However, it was the right thing to do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Train 'em young

It is important to begin training very young if you want your child to excel at a particular field.  Starting practice at age 4 is a good spot if you want your young progeny to excel in some field of endeavour and the field I choose for Elli is of course killing pixel monsters and taking their stuff.

Wendy and I are beginning Elli's training regimen with Plants vs. Zombies.  If you are a professional PvZ player you will note that the depicted arrangement of resources in the war of chlorophyll vs. animated flesh is poor - Elli is just beginning and her strategy is more random than good.  However, she has grasped the mechanics of clicking on the sun to get resources and putting things on the screen and is very interested in squashing zombies so I feel confident that with training and discipline she can become an excellent player.  Her greatest challenges at this point are mostly in the interface since the mouse is just too large and heavy for her hands.  Maybe I need to take her to a store that specializes in equipment for aspiring monster slayers and get her set up to maximize her time spent training.

Thankfully the usual exercise of locating a reclusive master to teach the young one the deep skills required to kill things and take their stuff will not be hard as we have one such savant living in the house already.  My only fear is that someday I must see her click on some awesome new stuff and realize that she is better than me and that I cannot kill that dude and I will never be able to get that stuff for myself.  Such is the risk of trying to be the old master in someone else's movie.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Being number 1

Recently we have been trying to sort out what sort of ballet classes Elli should take.  She is desperately in love with ballerinas since presumably they have a lot in common with princesses dressed in fancy gowns (also they all wear pink, apparently...) and wants to join their august ranks.  This all despite the fact that before she was born we were absolutely set on not raising her to conform to gender norms and were planning on dressing her in colours that are not pink and getting her building sets instead of dolls.  Turns out popular culture trumps Mom and Dad's plans every time.  The things I have seen in ballet schools for small girls have really made me shake my head in dismay.

Some of them seem quite good, like the one she is attending next week.  They ask for some kind of gymnastic or dance shoe and a one piece outfit for dancing and exercising in.  They plan on having the kids do some yoga, some trips to the park, play some games and then do ballet.  This strikes me as a great plan for 4 year olds.  They likely will find continuous ballet practice boring and unpleasant and after 3 hours of repeating basic exercises would turn into either weeping piles or berserking terrors.  The other extreme is the 'fancy' ballet school which wanted me to spend ~$250 on an outfit for ballet and had rules dictating the one acceptable hairdo - any performer who showed up without the correct hairdo would be sent home.  This in a class for 4 year olds!  The fancy school also charged what worked out to $35 for each 45 minute lesson which seems to me to be the most ridiculously high cost for entertainment I have ever seen.

I suspect though that if you really desperately want your kid to be a virtuoso you need to get them involved in some brutal class that trains them from a very young age.  Most people who end up being prodigies recall spending outrageous amounts of time while very young trying to become the greatest golfer / dancer / cellist / gymnast in the world.  It goes back to the idea of needing 10,000 hours of practice to absolutely master a specific skill - the earlier you get started the faster you achieve that peak.  Of course it also helps that the kids that practice the hardest at very young ages get accepted to the best schools, find the best teachers and get involved in the hardcore community in whatever their field of endeavour is.  That community more than anything else I think is what allows people to develop into wonders at a particular talent.

Of course I put no stock at all in shoving a young child into a skill that they did not choose on their own.  Too often this is the result of parents desperately trying to compensate for their own failures or humiliations and has nothing to do whatever with what the kids want.  My strategy is to let Elli get really involved in something if she really wants to do it herself.  If she decides she wants to train for the Olympics in synchronized otter wrestling or some other such nonsense I will let her go at it but any pressure will be entirely internal.  I don't see that frenetic attempts at world domination particularly lead to a good life.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Economists - roll the dice

This recent spate of financial problems around the world got me interested in finance and investing.  I have been doing a fair bit of poking around on the internet to try to understand what exactly is going on, and even more importantly to understand what people actually know about the whole situation.  The only thing I can safely conclude is that nobody knows anything of any use, even the professionals (especially the professionals?).  When I watch interviews with CEOs of big investment firms who talk about how Greece and Japan are going to default on their debts in very short order and then notice that people are still buying up Greek and Japanese debt it becomes clear that there is no consensus on what is right and what is wrong.

Of course this is how the market is supposed to work.  The value of something ends up being what people think it is and since there are plenty of informed, clever people who think that Greece will never be allowed to default and others who think that it will default for sure we end up with high yield Greek bonds that people do buy.  I saw an interview with Warren Buffet who firmly believes that the US is headed out of recession and into better economic times but the bbc quotes bankers as believing that we are headed into another year of recession based on market behaviour.  What is the average person to do in such a situation?  At the moment the answer seems to be "buy gold with all your money in mid July" but nobody has a clue about where things are going.  To be sure, plenty of them have strong opinions but since people all disagree and no one has a perfect track record or working model I don't think believing any of them is reasonable.

They have so many of us fooled.  We watch the evening news and economists say "when the government does X, Y will happen" and then when the government does X, Z happens instead.  Or the government does X slightly weirdly and C happens instead.  These pundits and advisers go to great lengths to establish that they understand the markets and can predict what will happen in the future and despite irrefutable proof that their claims are bogus we go on listening.  I guess it can be laid at the feet of the human desire to see patterns.  We want to think that the market is something we can understand, something we can control.  We assume that if someone has an impressive degree, an expensive suit and a high paying job that they must be better at predicting the future of the economy than darts thrown at a dartboard.  It turns out though that they aren't.  The best returns on investments are those run by a simple 'buy a little of everything' formula (index funds) and nobody beats the market.

When I was young I played a game called Stock Ticker that simulated a simple stock market.  Each turn you would roll the dice to figure out what stocks were going to move and how.  I assumed that real stock market players would know what was going to go up and what was not - just buying stocks and hoping wasn't how real people did it.  Turns out buying stocks at random and then consulting the dice to see if you are rich or not is actually an awful lot like the real stock market.  The people involved have all kinds of information and training and yet they still struggle to beat 'roll dem dice' investing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ballerina, man style

Old prejudices die hard.

We were talking about ballet because Elli is going into ballet camp next week for 5 days and the topic came up of male ballet dancers.  Wendy called them ballerinas but I questioned that.  I figured that ballerina refers specifically to the female and not males.  Wendy asked me what I would call a male ballet dancer, if not a ballerina.  Deep down inside something was shouting "A Sissy!" and collapsing in a heap of bad boy laughter.  I held that to deep inside though since for one I don't want to plant dumb ideas like that in Elli's head and for two any male ballet dancer is ripped enough to beat the living hell out of me and my matchstick arms.  I had no idea what the male version would be, mind you, but obviously the solution to the problem is

To The Internet!

It turns out that the male version is called variously a danseur or a ballerino depending on who on the internet you believe.  It also turns out that boatloads of people ask this same question of google on a regular basis.  Despite all my supposedly enlightened views I still get those gut impulses that would make dumb grade 2 bullies proud.

Good ole Tamale Pie

When I was young my mom sometimes made tamale pie.  It is essentially a variant on chili that replaces beans with olives and which is cooked in a container that has been lined with a cornmeal paste.  I have fond memories of tamale pie where spicy meat and veggies were perfectly wrapped up in a crisp, just slightly crunchy cornmeal crust.  Yum.  A little while ago I decided to make tamale pie for myself and although making the filling was no problem the crust didn't go at all well.  The cornmeal paste is roughly the consistency of white craft glue mixed with playdough.  Wet, sloppy and very sticky are the words that best describe it.  My job is to somehow line the bottom of the cooking pot with this stuff, which isn't too hard, and then to create a layer of smooth, even cornmeal over the top.

What actually happened was that the cornmeal came off the spoon in giant clumps and fell into the filling.  I tried to spread it out from where it had fallen but I mostly ended up pushing it into the filling since it holds together much more strongly than the filling does.  I tried cursing at it but somehow that didn't change the fundamental physics of the matter and I ended up just slopping all the cornmeal over the top in giant ugly lumps.  Instead of a nice even crust I ended up with a sea of meat, tomatoes and peppers with cornmeal icebergs floating in it.  Eventually I gave up in disgust and just cooked the damn thing.  The taste of it was fine but it didn't come out all beautiful and smooth but rather in giant ungainly glops.  After a few attempts at this I gave up on improving and resolved to ask my mom how she managed to make it so elegantly on my next visit.

When that next visit occurred my mom made tamale pie and when it was going to go into the oven I wandered over to look at the masterpiece and inquire about its construction... and saw a sea of meat, tomatoes and peppers with cornmeal icebergs randomly strewn about the top.  I asked about that and my mom told me that there is no good way to spread it evenly about the top and this is the best you can do.  It turns out that my memories of mom's tamale pie are a lie.  It still tastes great and I enjoy it the way I always have but that perfect crust is completely in my imagination.  I have never eaten that mythical perfect tamale pie that I still recall despite knowing that it does not exist.

I guess that is why people so often look back on the past with such irrational fondness.  Our recollections of the past not only ignore problems that existed but also create fond memories that never were.  Whether it be the perfect family of the mid 1900s (Father knows best) or the simplicity of good morals in ancient times (People who are different are bad) or just the imagining of a flawless piece of tamale pie we are too eager to forget the bad and imagine the good that might have been.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A bright future

Recently I have been asking people a question.

"If you could choose any year in which to be born for a random person, which would you choose?  You don't get to pick your social status, ethnicity or gender, just a country and a year.  Your goal is to maximize quality of life for this random person."

The responses have generally fallen neatly into two camps.  Either people say '2011' or they say something between 1950 and 1960.  They generally agree that growing up before 1950 is not ideal because you might be born nonwhite, a female, gay or anything else outside white straight man and find that your life sucks for no particular reason.  The stark difference between the answers seemed to come down to people who thought that the future was going to be a bad place and those that thought it would be a good place.  If you think things are getting better then it makes sense to pick 2011 as the date because there is no more equality or freedom at any point in the past than there is today and things look like they are going to only improve.  If you think the future is bleak then picking 1950 allows you to grow up, have a career, have kids and be in the later stages of life when witnessing the fall or perhaps just decay of humanity.

I don't buy the idea that things are getting worse.  Overwhelmingly our indicators of quality of life have been improving all over the world for decades or centuries now and that improvement is accelerating.  There is no sign of a collapse of civilization nor some levelling off of improvement.  There is no end of doomsaying and pessimism of course but I have not yet seen any of that which has convinced me that the constant upward trend will stop, particularly because no matter what time period you examine the same refrain of 'civilization has hit its peak and it is all downhill from here' is constant.  Were there people predicting imminent collapse of the economy, the environment and morality in the 1950s?  Yes!  How about 1800?  Yes!  How about 2800 BC?  Yes!

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching,” attributed to an Assyrian stone tablet of about 2800 B.C.

No matter when or where you look the conclusion that we are at the peak and everything is going to hell is ubiquitous.  The most remarkable thing is that these conclusions are so constantly wrong.  There were a few times when they were right, of course, like just as the Roman Empire was set to collapse.  Of all those millions of predictions though very, very few were correct.  The things we know for sure are that things have consistently, constantly gotten better for humanity with a few bumps in some places and that doomsaying has no correlation whatsoever with actual danger.  We can look forward to cars powered by thorium reactors that produce no emissions and never need to be refueled for their entire useful life, a cure for HIV and a cure for the common cold.  These aren't proven technologies yet but they are happening.  There is so much more that we can and will develop to make things better than they ever have been before.

Don't believe me?  Read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.  Note that it isn't that we don't have problems, we do.  The world isn't perfect and many of the new solutions we come up with will create their own issues.  Nobody rational is claiming that the world is perfect, nor that it will be perfect.  There are plenty of people claiming that things are good and that they are going to get better though, and those people are right.  The future is going to be *awesome*.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Environmental weighting

Yesterday I ran out of peanut butter.  The jar had a bunch of little bits of peanut butter left in it so I needed to wash them out before dropping it in the recycling bin.  Problem is that peanut butter is really greasy, sticky and annoying which necessitates using a ton of water and soap to actually get the thing clean.  I got to thinking about how saving water and soap is a good idea and recycling is a good idea... so how much water and soap would I have to use before recycling a peanut butter contained is not worth it?  Answer:  I have absolutely no idea.  Moreover I don't think anybody has a decent sort of answer for these types of questions.

Clearly when we have a choice of a long shower or a short shower the green choice is easy but how do we go about making these decisions where we have to trade off one problem for another?  In much of life we can reduce choices to simple cost evaluations where everything is expressed in terms of dollars and cents but that doesn't work well when things don't have a value that works.  Water is cheap as hell of course but it makes sense to treat it as more expensive than it is because in many cases we are borrowing against future yields.  Recycling is a foolish thing to do from a strictly personal perspective because it benefits me zero and the labour involved in doing it is something.  I can't value these things on any shared scale.

This is all made much worse by articles that talk about how "The wars of the 21st century will be over water!" and environmental propaganda that talks as if every tree, molecule of oxygen and drop of fresh water simply has infinite value.  When people talk about these things they present their case without any sort of dollars and cents argument most of the time because the dollars and cents argument would be completely unconvincing.  That does leave me up the creek though in trying to make these small choices.  Air conditioning vs. sprinker?  Paper vs. Plastic?  If I can spend 10,000 gallons of water and $5,000 to get 500 tonnes of CO2 out of the air is that a good idea?  The calculations are simply impossible even from a macro level and there is no way the average person looking at them can make good choices.

Generally of course we can make significant progress just be getting people to make the obviously good choices and letting them do whatever they please when the choices get jumbled.  That doesn't stop me from desperately wanting weights and functions for various resources and tasks though.  I want to know *exactly* what to do!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Buying a house, or not

There is lots of advice out there to help people who are trying to decide whether or not they should buy a home.  There are pretty big extremes on the issue, on one hand you have construction companies in the US 5 years ago who were happy to convince people with net incomes of $20,000 to buy houses worth $500,000 and for some reason thought this wasn't going to cause any problems.  On the other hand you have articles like this which basically accuse anybody currently owning or considering owning property of being a moron.  The gist of the 'just rent, why would you buy?' argument is that real estate is so overpriced due to competition that you would be much better off financially just renting for your entire life, particularly since it makes it so much easier and cheaper to relocate for whatever reason.  Buying houses is portrayed as a insanely expensive way to convince the world you are a grownup now that is completely unjustified.  Buying houses is sold along the lines of "What, you want to rent forever, like a broke student?"

It turns out that neither side really makes any sense.  After reading this article I went ahead and redid the numbers on purchasing my condo a few years ago and came to the conclusion that buying the condo has resulted in a steady 5% return on investment every year just based on the (condo fees+taxes) - (cost of rent) formula completely ignoring appreciation.  The place has also gone up in value a lot more than inflation so clearly for me the investment was a fantastic choice monetarily.  Obviously buying real estate is good if you can just buy it then, so the real problem is when people buy property with a low or nonexistent down payment and get reamed by interest over the next 25 years.  Given that it is safe to say that the majority of home purchases are terrible choices from a strictly financial point of view.  Thing is, that is completely irrelevant when you consider what the money would be spent on otherwise.

What exactly were those people buying homes with 5% down going to do with their money otherwise?  They clearly are in the market for status boosts so most likely they would instead spend their money on an expensive car, a huge TV, exotic vacations, jewelry or other conspicuous consumption.  The question is not whether buying a house with no down payment is a good idea but rather whether or not that purchase is better than trying to buy status with the other methods available.  The answer is rather hard to predict on a personal level because we don't have good benchmarks for how much status is gained from particular purchases that we can plot against price but it is clear that viewed in this way buying a house is much more of a murky business.  The best of all worlds is probably to rent a home for a long time and tell everyone you own it while simultaneously spending all your free cash on Porsches and Cancun vacations.  The whole house of cards comes tumbling down if anyone figures out you are lying about home ownership but as long as you are good at bluffing you can rack up big status for minimum investment!

This is a particularly North American affair of course because across the pond renting for life is considered a pretty normal thing to do.  Owning a house is just not the way everyone expects to live so people who do so presumably are a lot more interested in actual ownership and less interested in other people's reaction to their ownership status.  Of course if you really, really want to own a house and don't have the cash I hear there are some pretty great properties in Detroit that you can have for a couple grand... though impressing your friends might not be part of the bargain.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A bad choice in bread

Lately I have been baking bread.  Having tried many different kinds of store bought bread I came to the conclusion that everything there fits into two categories:  Pricey and bad.  The bad stuff is largely crammed full of high fructose corn syrup and other additives I have no interest in and also tastes blechy, and even the really expensive stuff is hit and miss.  Much better to bake my own since that way I can also make raisin bread, which is awesome.

Mmmm, yummy raisin bread.  I am still working on getting the formula just right to achieve perfect density too since this one didn't rise quite enough but the taste is great and butter melting over home made raisin bread that is still hot from the oven is sexay.

I have a caveat though.  Even though raisin bread is great you don't want to bake it when you are intending on serving bruschetta on it.  Raisin bread is great, bruschetta is great, bruschetta on raisin bread is not great.  You know, in case you were wondering.

It turns out that store bought baguettes are much better with my bruschetta than my raisin bread is.  Lesson learned.  Normal people would just assume this to be true, but I am a little bit special sometimes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Having another baby

Wendy and I aren't planning on having another baby.  Elli is most put out over this fact and has been quite regularly telling us that she wants to be a big sister.  I suspect that she would be very excited about being a big sister for about 3 hours until she realized that it meant Mommy and Daddy are going to be extremely busy and tired for a very long time and that she would no longer be getting nearly as much attention.

Mommy I want to be a big sister.  Can you and Daddy have a baby girl?

Well Elli, you know that we can't choose whether or not we have a girl or a boy right?  It is random and we don't know which it will be.

Yes you can, you can choose!  Pick a girl and have a baby girl!

Elli, we aren't going to have another baby but even if we did we wouldn't be able to choose - that isn't how babies work.

Yes it is!  (Stomps feet and pouts)

(A few days later)  Okay Mommy and Daddy, I want to be a big sister, you can even have a boy.


This morning she came up with a jewel of an announcement.

Mommy, when I get bigger I want you to get married again.

Well Elli, your Mommy married me and she isn't going to marry anyone else.

No, Mommy can marry you again and then you can have another baby!

She has the idea that once people get married they have babies but there are a few little details in there she isn't quite clear on... I will give her credit for tenacity and creativity though.  She wants a sibling and she is willing to bend reality in any number of ways to make that happen.  She seems to be a born salesperson:  Decide what you want.  Make up the rest of reality to support that.  Tell everyone reality is that way and do it with conviction.  Profit!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The cheats

There are times when I figure I know a lot about how people behave and then there are times when I am quite clueless.  For example, I can tell a lot about how much money someone has, whether or not they want to buy something and how much they trust me with reasonable accuracy because of my job training in sales.  However, I have never been on a normal date (you know, like one person asking another person to meet them at a restaurant or bar to have fun and determine if there is any chemistry going on) and my relationships have never included cheating on either end so there is a lot about relationship norms that I really don't get.  How do you tell if your partner is cheating on you?  Do most couples talk about the subject openly?  How do people in a relationship normally deal with that topic?

I read a blog a little while ago by Penelope Trunk that talked about how she invited a much younger and extremely attractive young friend to live with her and her husband.  Then she followed up by constantly talking to both of them about how they might end up cheating on her and finally wrote a big blog post about the whole thing.  This is not normal, I figured that part out.  Wendy and I talk about this sort of thing now and again pretty openly since both of us are pretty convinced the other will never stray.  She gets me to give her the rundown of exactly how I rate her friends and coworkers in terms of attractiveness and personality appeal and I give her honest answers with just enough 'nobody is as attractive or awesome as you!' to keep myself out of trouble.  Thankfully she is close enough to the ideal that I don't have to stretch the truth significantly.  I figure she is just curious about what I think and how I view people; we sometimes agree on how attractive a person is but regularly we look at each other and say "wut?  You think they are hot?  Really?"  We even sit around and discuss who we would hook up with were the other one of us to die.  Are we normal?  I have no idea!

I find it really interesting to see how other people approach the topic.  A comment deep into the blog post I linked above talks about how sexual fidelity is merely right of first refusal, not exclusivity.  I think that this is bang on in the sense that expecting someone to not have sex outside a marriage when they are being denied it inside a marriage is lunacy but I wouldn't necessarily phrase it quite that way early in a relationship!  For a lot of people just the act of sex with another person is sufficient to end a relationship and when I was younger I fell into that camp too.  These days I belong more to the philosophy that a single incident of passion simply isn't enough to warrant ending an otherwise good long term relationship.  It is the act of deception over the longer term that is unforgivable to my mind; people make mistakes in the moment but a planned betrayal is not acceptable.  These sorts of musings make me wish that when I was younger I had actually tried dating.  I find people and the things they do to one another fascinating and this is one area that really interests me but which I cannot usefully test out myself.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The show was great but too loud

Today Elli and I went to the Science Centre.  On most of our trips we do the same activities and see the same exhibits as the previous trip (much to the delight of Elli, less so for me) but this time we got to see the CSI show which was certainly new and different.  The people manning the information booth were decidedly unhelpful but that did not deter us.

"So, my daughter is 4, is this show suitable for her?"

"The show is fine for kids."

"Okay, but she is only 4 and has no idea what CSI is... will she enjoy herself?"

"Everything at the Science Centre is designed for kids."

Yeah, I know that everything at the Science Centre is designed for kids, but you have to be pretty clueless to not suspect that shows that a 12 year old who is a big fan of CSI will enjoy are different than the shows a 4 year old who can barely read the letters CSI will enjoy.  I wouldn't mind if a random employee was only this helpful but this person's only responsibility was talking about and handing out tickets for the CSI show.  Your whole job is being able to describe one thing!  Be descriptive!  Tell me things!

The show itself was actually really well done and even though it was regularly way out of Elli's range of comprehension she had a great time... mostly.  When we left her summary was "The show was great but too loud."  I couldn't agree more.  The microphones the cast used were set too high but it capped out at unpleasant.  The music on the other hand was set to 'rock concert' and caused both Elli and I to immediately clap our hands over our ears in shock.  Even with my palms anchored firmly to the sides of my head I found it too loud and yet the rest of the theatre sat there seemingly unaffected.

I am paranoid about noise.  Whenever I visit my grandparents I am pained by watching my grandfather sit on the edge of the room unable to take part in conversations.  He has so much to say and so much knowledge to impart but solo conversations are challenging and when there is background noise at all no communication is possible.  I find the idea of watching my own parents go through that frightening to contemplate and even more so when it applies to Wendy or I.  For years I have worked hard to limit my exposure to loud noise for that very reason and as such I find it particularly aggravating that a place like the Science Centre would decide to blast the audience with music at a volume that certainly causes long term hearing damage.  Not much damage, of course, and on its own completely harmless... but so is the smoke from a single cigarette.  The greatest part of extreme hearing loss results from our modern society and the noise we create and as such we have a responsibility to not exacerbate that problem for no reason.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wicked Problems

Charles Stross has a great blog where he shares all kinds of interesting ideas.  Recently he had a guest blogger write about the topic of Wicked Problems.  I highly encourage reading the article, and although the comments are really interesting they are also really long.  One thing I think was left out of the definition of a Wicked Problem there is the idea that the sizes of the groups that believe in particular definitions of the problem and their attendant 'solutions' need to be comparable.

For example, abortion is a Wicked Problem.  There is no right answer, just lots of answer of varying degrees of wrong.  Defining the issue is very hard, the solutions are myriad and testing out those solutions in some safe, scientific way is impossible.  However, if 99% of people concluded that abortion is fine up until 20 weeks then we would pretty much all conclude that abortion is not a Wicked Problem even though it meets the other criteria.  Note that I am not redefining the problem here, just suggesting that when people think of things that are Wicked Problems they will only include the ones that have a significant element of controversy - that is, those that have two or more groups of substantial size in disagreement.  That sometimes is going to correspond to problems that aren't actually all that challenging to solve but sometimes not since whether or not people agree on a topic is correlated to it being solved, but certainly there is no causality there.

Religion is the same way.  Religious conflict is clearly a Wicked Problem both by the definitions in the article and by near unanimous belief but that wouldn't be true if basically everybody was an atheist (not so if we all shared a religion since there is no end of examples of religious infighting) since we would all basically ignore the few crazies who don't follow the party line.  We would fight over something else, no doubt, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone thinking that religious conflict was a Wicked Problem.  To my mind it is less about the actual nature of the problem being looked at and far more about what people think about the problem.  Once we mostly agree on the nature of the issue and the goals involved the rest is just engineering.

More corn

There was a question raised at the dinner table tonight.  I had served up corn on the cob fresh from the farmer's market, duly slathered with butter, salt and pepper.  The corn was absolutely delicious, in that sense of desperate chomping, butter dripping down chins and a beard full of salty, oily goodness.  As usual we were so desperate to eat we burnt our fingers and scorched our tongues rather than just wait 2 minutes for it to cool down.


The question for the ages is "Is this corn actually any good or is it just a vehicle for copious quantities of spices and fats?

You will note that in the aftermath of our gluttony one cob of corn was left partly eaten because it sucked.  It tasted bad and looked old.  So the answer is now clear:  Butter, salt and pepper are wonderful things but even they cannot fully disguise the taste of bad.  Fresh corn on the cob is actually as awesome as it seems.  Write that down.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Danger danger!

When I was doing my barefoot project everyone asked me if I was worried about broken glass on the ground.  Well, either that or they asked me how often I had cut my feet on broken glass on the ground but either way the answer was about the same...

"What glass?"

To be sure, I *saw* glass on the ground here and there and sometimes there were bits of glass in the crevices of the pavement but it was never an issue.  Today I stepped directly on a piece of broken, jagged glass with bare feet for the first time.  I felt a pinch under my foot, shifted my stance, continued to feel a pinch and then lifted up my foot to find a shard of glass stuck to it.  I peeled it off and noted that absolutely no damage had been done even though 3 distinct pointed edges had been trying their best to pierce my flesh.

So there you go.  It turns out I am largely invulnerable to glass.  In even more ironic news the glass was not located on a sidewalk, nor even a park but rather in the elevator in my building.  So much for the outside world being dangerous.  :)


A long time ago I heard a very good bit of advice surrounding when to get a tattoo.  The advice was to write down exactly what you want and where you want the tattoo and put it in a drawer for a year.  After the year is up you decide what tattoo you want and where you want it and check to see if your current desire matches up with what is in the drawer.  If they match and you haven't changed your mind in the interim, go ahead and get the tattoo!  Otherwise, write the new preference down and put that in the drawer for another year.

Seems like good advice... but the question remains as to whether this is a necessary or sufficient condition.  I have known for years that I want to get the ace of spades and a 20 sided die tattooed on me if I get a tattoo and I know that I would put them on my inner arms.  (Visible when in casual clothes, hidden in formal clothes)  Am I now obligated to get these tattoos now that I have completed the recommended preparations?  My parents were definitely against tattoos when I was younger although they clearly don't get much say in the matter these days!  My brother and my sister in law both have tattoos that I like and both chose tattoos that were particularly appropriate for them; though I generally don't think keeping up with the Joneses is especially useful it does tempt me.

Clearly I am not the first to come up with this theme, as the following pictures from the internet show admirably.

I don't especially want gigantic pictures on myself but rather just small graphics.  Is it go time?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Estate taxes

In my last post I got a comment suggesting raising estate taxes to pay for more costly electricity generated by solar and wind power.  I got to thinking about estate taxes and what we might hope to accomplish with them.  Right now we pretty much let people pass on their wealth with some taxation but there is a real question of whether or not that is a good way to do things.  One of the biggest issues I think is the image of the family farm being passed down from generation to generation and the children being destroyed by not being able to pay enough to keep up the family business upon the death of their parent.  The Republicans used this image years ago to drum up opposition to estate taxes (stop the death tax!) in the US even when the taxes were restricted to those estates worth multiple millions of dollars - hardly starving farmers desperate to make a go of it.  I think that the concern of taxing people who follow in their parents footsteps is real but hugely overblown; it happens but it isn't the standard these days that it once was.

Imagine what would happen if the government taxed 100% of estates left over after death.  This isn't practical from a policy perspective but it is interesting as a benchmark to think about.  Clearly we would need to continue the tradition that spouses are exempt as otherwise we would destroy people very much unjustly. The problem is that we would be directly encouraging people to give away everything they have to those close to them as they aged or took sick and it would create a market for disposable spouses that bought their way into estates for substantial amounts of cash.  I don't have any problem with the situation of rich people who die late in life being unable to give their cash to their children but single parents dying and leaving their young dependents with no means of support at all is quite the disaster.  I wouldn't have any problem with a 100% tax on those who have no dependents or spouses so perhaps that could be a useful dividing line.  We might also just leave the current tax rate for small estates and only have a punitive tax rate levied against really large estates, say those over $1,000,000.  In reality a 100% tax would surely have lots of other negative consequences including people destroying value when they are in a nihilistic mood near death's door.  A number more like 50-75% would prevent some of the abuses but would achieve the same goals I think.

Increased taxes is a really scary concept politically speaking especially in these days of economic unrest.  People would be incredibly upset at not being able to leave everything to whoever they want but from a societal perspective I see a real value in preventing massive quantities of power (money) from translating directly down family lines.  Handing over a small business or some cash hidden under the mattress to the person of your choice seems often harmless, occasionally abusive and sometimes really positive but shipping millions to your favourite person is just concentrating power in the hands of the few and that isn't good at all.  You can earn it and you can spend it but you can't take it with you when you leave.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The economics of CO2

I went to visit The Naturalist and The Quilter today.  They took advantage of a green energy policy by the Ontario government that was aimed at increasing solar power creation in the province.  I got to watch them show off their immense solar array that was about 10 meters tall and perhaps 15 meters wide.  The engineering aspect of the project was really neat but the economics of supporting it looked mighty suspicious indeed.  Energy around here is sold for approximately 8 cents per kwh and Ontario Hydro is committed to buying solar energy from producers like the folks I visited at a much higher rate; initially the price was 80 cents per kwh and now it is down to 64.  Essentially what the government did is force everyone using electricity to subsidize these solar installations by paying 10 times the going rate for electricity.  People who installed these very expensive machines were looking at paying back their investment in full in 8 years and then making pure profit from that point forward.  While this unquestionably reduces emissions and gives good investment opportunities to local people with capital and real estate I really have a lot of doubts as to whether this policy was remotely sensible.

First off, why was it set up so that anyone buying into the program would make such immense profit at the expense of the regular ratepayers?  Clearly if you want anyone to opt in you need to make it possible to recoup the initial investment but the rate was simply set way too high to start.  Secondly I question the strategy of having huge numbers of individuals set up solar panels in their backyards when it is abundantly obvious that a large number of panels built in an ideal location would generate much lower setup costs.  It has the 'local' feel to it but is certainly inefficient.  Thirdly I wonder why anyone thought it was the best possible use of capital to generate electricity at such a low return on investment.  If the utility was buying at 30 cents there would be practically nobody who would view setting up their own solar panel as a good investment and yet they would still be generating electricity at 5 times the normal cost!

So here is the big dilemma:  Since we have finite dollars to spend and want to achieve the maximum emissions and CO2 reduction how should those dollars be spent?  In some kind of imaginary fairyland we simply produce all of our power from solar and wind and reduce electricity sourced emissions to zero but the cost of doing so would be a stupendous capital investment and then quintupling the cost of electricity; hardly a palatable solution.  In the real world where capital is limited the clear choice is to produce the maximum emissions reductions possible per dollar invested and solar and wind power are laughable in that regard.  There are ways to close old, dirty, inefficient coal plants and replace their output effectively but local solar isn't that way at this point.  If we want to have cleaner air and lower emissions we need to invest in nuclear power and high efficiency fossil fuel plants burning coal if necessary, gas where possible.  These options are drastically better from a ROI perspective and that is the perspective that matters in the long run.  Right now the government is supporting options that look good from a PR standpoint and bad from the standpoint of actually making the world a better place.