Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Green Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Plumb this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old style vegetables

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

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

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

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

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

Picture from:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fractional Reserve Banking

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pizza as vegetable

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

Except of course when it isn't true.

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

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

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

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

Picture from

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bottled water: A lifesaver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to get published

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The convention

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hanging out in Omelas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A misplaced note and a moment of panic

I left a note on my desk that was not meant to be there.  Shortly thereafter Wendy read the following when she glanced at it:

I am so sorry to leave like this but I have some matters to attend to.  I have grown to love you and I am so thankful for your friendship.  

Panic!  A love note talking about a break up.  From me, or to me?

I wish you all the best in your quest and I hope to one day see you again.  Be brave my love, Bobesh.

Wait, what?  Quest?  Who is Bobesh?  And then Wendy looked at the top of the note to read the salutation:

Dear Aerta,

Aerta, you must understand, is the name of my current character in my Dungeons and Dragons game.  Bobesh is the name of the character he is having a troubled romance with and who just recently ran off into the sunset leaving only this note to explain her actions.  Wendy, being both clever and used to my romantic escapades in roleplaying games (she has played my paramour before) instantly realized what was going on.  No need to panic, nothing is wrong.

Nothing at all.

Your husband is going over to an apartment belonging to a girl every week for several hours playing 'roleplaying games' with a group of people you have never met.  He comes home with love notes from the girl's 'character' and talks about their 'entirely fictional romance'.  To top it off the girl happens to be 15 years your junior and possess red hair and blue eyes which your husband is a notorious sucker for.

Nothing to worry about at all!

Blogger stats

I am walking tall today.  Blogger tells me that on Nov 9 I got 600+ pageviews, which is roughly 6 times as many pageviews as I normally get on a posting day (Blogger only tracks actual visits, not feed readers, so I have no idea what my actual readership size is).  I wondered what it could be - was it my article on the health benefits of cutting out wheat?  A previous article that people were suddenly passing around?

No, it turns out I was just visited many times by a bunch of useless scammer sites like

This address in particular generated 280 separate hits.  I have no idea *why* a couple of different internet scam organizations decided to boost my readership count all on the same day but in looking at my stats I found some other fantastic stuff.  A Google search term that brought a ton of traffic to my site:

grassy plain israel

Apparently my old posts on reading the Bible are collecting hits still and the large number of people looking for 'grassy plain israel' information get sent here instead.  Sorry folks, I don't think I have what you want.  Other big winners were:

villain cough
play with my beard

I can see how each of these gets to me since I have posted about beards now and then and I do talk about villains (it is almost as much fun to say as buccaneers) but these searchers likely aren't pleased with what I have to offer.  I expect the last one is hunting for beard porn of some sort but I have no idea at all what 'villain cough' was supposed to find.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Boneheaded scammers

I got a phone call today from a company promising to help me eliminate my back taxes owed to the IRS.  Apparently President Obama is trying to help Americans reduce their debt load so they called me personally!  Strange that they called a number *in freaking Canada* for this purpose, but apparently the "US government" is just that incompetent.  The random call centre worker who talked to me when I pressed 1 didn't seem to have a script for "I don't live in your damn country, fool." and promised to look into it.  The fact that these companies can make money while being this stupid is really sad.  Obviously, its a scam; the first hit on Google for "IRS tax debt scam" brought up this page which warns US citizens of companies that claim to be able to wipe out IRS tax debts and are flat out lying.

I have gotten a large number of these phone calls in recent weeks and it makes me wonder if I am on a sucker list.  I have never given any random caller any information or money whatsoever but I regularly punch through to a live person to tell them to take me off their damn list already which might well put me on their sucker list just for not hanging up.  Generally speaking I don't believe in griefing phone salespeople as long as they are selling real products - newspapers, cleaning companies and others call now and again and I just tell them no and hang up but when a real scammer gets on the line I like to jerk them around.  This is an excerpt from a conversation I had a week ago when I got a call right after supper.

Scammer:  Please sir can you tell me your VISA card expiry date please?

Me: What company are you calling from?

Scammer:  I work for VISA sir.

Me: Wonderful, then please tell me my name.

Scammer:  I cannot reveal that information, please tell me your VISA card number and expiry date.

Me: First you tell me who it is you have called.

Scammer:  You are the owner of the household sir, now please tell me your VISA card number and expiry date.

We went round and round like this for a couple minutes and then...

Scammer:  Fuck you.

Me: You aren't very good at this are you?

Scammer:  I am very good at this, I kept you on the line for four minutes and thirty seconds so far.

Me: I have been having a great time jerking you around, it has been nothing but entertainment for me.  Since you haven't gotten anything useful from me though it is clear you aren't very good at this.

Scammer:  No, I beat you, I wasted your time.

Me: I don't consider entertainment a waste of time, this conversation is better than a movie!

Scammer:  Kiss my ass.

Me (sexy voice): Oh, that sounds *hot*.  Can you be over here in five minutes for some of that action?

Scammer:  *click*

It probably isn't very Stoic of me to relish causing some shiftless thief in India to become really irritated but hot damn it was a lot of fun.

The supreme sacrifice

Would you give up your life to save your child's life?  A lot of people would say yes and in fact a significant number of them would say that it is something a parent must do.  Would you give up somebody else's life to save your child's life?  This is trickier, of course, and less prone to emotional hyperbole.  Obviously an awful lot of people would choose that a random stranger die instead of their own child; in fact probably the great majority would.  How about if the person you have to sacrifice is your partner instead?

Wendy linked this blog post about parenthood which was written from the perspective of a father.  He said that after his child was born he suddenly realized that he would be willing not only to die to save his child but also to throw his wife under a bus if that is what it took.  Presumably this means he would be willing to murder absolutely anyone to save his child which I think was meant to be heartwarming but mostly managed to be terrifying.  I understand the desperate desire to prevent any harm from coming to my child but the idea that I would murder my wife to prevent my daughter's death is completely mindboggling.  Even if it wasn't murder but rather just a 'you can only save one of them from certain doom' sort of made up situation I would save my wife.  Would I sacrifice myself?  I think the answer is no, but that is the hardest question.

I wonder if these values are things that come from inherent personality characteristics or are a product of environment.  My father sometimes talked about how his father made it clear that the children came a distinct second behind his wife so maybe these values are passed along within social groups.  I don't recall being told explicitly how my parents viewed this sort of situation (and honestly I don't know how they would answer) but I suspect these sorts of values will often be communicated implicitly.  It is certainly true in the case of my grandfather, my father and myself that we would take extreme risks with our own lives to save our children.  There is a world of difference between extreme risk and certain death though and nearly all parents will do the first but many would not do the second.

Of course much of this discussion is entirely moot because real life very rarely grants us scenarios where we can guarantee saving a life by sacrificing a life.  Far more often when these things come up it is a momentary decision made to do something very dangerous in the hopes of saving someone who might survive anyhow.  Even more relevant is that what we think we will do in these situations is often unrelated to what we will actually do - few people think they will commit murder when ordered to by an authority figure but in fact they often will.    It might be that our answers in the cold, rational state of typing have no bearing at all on what we would really do in the heat of the moment.  Saying "I would do the right thing!" is easy but when the knife is in your hand and adrenalin floods your body actually following through is hard.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Getting a degree isn't what is used to be

I saw an interesting post today about the declining wages of people with college degrees in the US.  The author talked about this as if it were surprising and as if there was a need for the government to do something about it but missed the crucial point entirely.  The pay for people with college degrees obviously took a hit because of the weakened economy, just as you would expect for any sector, but also it took a further hit because so many people are going to college/university than ever before - the bar is being constantly lowered.  The percentage of people who graduate with a degree has been steadily going up but the actual need for those degrees has not been keeping pace.  This is abundantly obvious when you check employment ads and discover that degrees are required for all kinds of jobs that cannot possibly make use of them.  When I was applying for my job as a mattress salesman, for example, they were looking for people with degrees.  Why in the hell would a mattress salesman need a degree, you ask?  Good question.

It is not that I believe that degrees bring no value at all.  Completing university can, in many cases, give you a wealth of problem solving skills and ways of thinking that can be valuable to a business.  The thing is that just as four years in school can be valuable, how about eight?  Or thirty?  At some point you must ask what the degree is *for* and you very quickly discover that the vast majority are getting them to advance careers that have nothing to do with the degree in question.  However, if you want to advance in any given field you are obviously way better off with four years experience than four years in university.  Having looked at the folks in university and having seen what they study I can say for certain that if I were hiring I would be much happier with someone with four years of hands on experience in the field than a degree, all other things being equal.

But all other things aren't equal for the person in question.  For example, a person with a degree has a towering mountain of debt and someone with experience does not.  Even if someone else is paying for the degree you could still take that money and start a business or invest it while you work and end up with a small fortune to go along with your business experience.  This is particularly true if you are in one of the more expensive institutions in the US where you could easily end up $200,000 in debt by the end of your four years; a sum that is daunting to pay off by any measure.  A degree isn't granting the respect and job opportunities it used to because so many more people are getting degrees.  The world needs bricklayers, truck drivers and salespeople and we need to recognize that those people do not need a degree nor a mountain of debt.

It should be noted that getting a coop degree where you get to sample a large number of workplaces, build real experience and heavily mitigate your debt are a great way to avoid this problem.  It is entirely possible to end up with relatively minimal debt, a degree and real experience and this strikes me as the best of all worlds... when it works.  Which it sometimes doesn't, as I can personally attest.

Friday, November 11, 2011


The Naturalist sent me a link today to a veteran's thoughts and impressions on the wars he fought in including WW2 and the Korean War.  I got to thinking about how I view war and those who go to fight in it.  When I was younger I was much more tolerant of war and also much less willing to fight in them - war wasn't such a big deal, I figured, but I sure as hell wasn't going to be involved.  My impressions have changed on both fronts, largely based on learning a lot more about the real reasons countries go to war and what it accomplishes.  Now my feelings on the issue run a lot like the advice on fighting my father gave me when I was young.

Never fight.

If you have to fight, do anything to win.

I feel like there was absolutely no reason for us to get involved in the great majority of wars that have occurred in the past century.  We simply should not be involved in war as even when we go into conflicts with the best possible intentions it is rarely the case that we make things better.  There are so many examples of wars that were pitched to the public as necessary and inevitable like Iraq in 2002, Vietnam, and Korea, among others, where the war became an endless morass of death and suffering for both the people living there and the foreign soldiers.  We should not be involved in war.

Sometimes though there is no way to avoid it.  Hitler's atrocities were not going to stop in Europe - WW2 is by far the clearest example of a war that had to be fought.  If a situation so desperate and dire arises that we absolutely must go to war then I should be involved; if it is not worth me risking my life then it is not worth risking the life of anyone, regardless of which side they are on.  On Remembrance Day we must remember both the sacrifices that brave people made and also remember that we must only ask for such sacrifices when there is no other way.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A serious contender

Rick Perry is a serious contender for the next president of the US.  Part of his platform is to eliminate three US government agencies completely:  Education, Commerce and ... hm.  In a recent debate Perry managed to completely forget which third agency he wanted to axe and was even convinced by others in the debate to name the Environmental Protection Agency, which he doesn't have any intent to dismantle.  It turns out that he actually wants to eliminate the Education, Commerce and Energy agencies.

Here is the rub.  The gaffe everyone is talking about is Perry forgetting which agency he wants to eliminate, rather than the bare fact that Perry wants to completely remove 3 critical government agencies!  This isn't a joke folks, this is the actual platform of a guy who has a real shot at running the US by the end of next year.  Forgetting which agency he wants to get rid of is a hell of a bad sign for a prospective president but it is small beans compared to the fact that he wants to do it at all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A new supervillain: Wheat

I got a link from Facebook to a interesting 10 minute talk on how wheat is bad for you.  There are no shortage of videos on the net about weight loss and how to live of course but this one seemed pretty legit especially given recent conversations I have had with people who are attempting to cut wheat out of their diets or at least drastically reduce consumption.  The trick with evaluating the truth of these sorts of claims is usually figuring out where the money is.  The video in question suggest you check out the link to the book which has a huge ass webpage explaining how great the program is and how important it is that you buy now.  Well gee, hyuck, if some dude on the internet says so, I better buy now!

Thing is, there is no guarantee that just because somebody is making money off a scheme that they are wrong.  I could sell a book using questionable marketing tactics that tells everyone to get one hour of exercise a day and eat nothing but green vegetables and it would undoubtedly make them healthy and slimmer - nothing wrong with the technique.  The devil is in the details and I expect that the people promoting the 'wheat is the only thing wrong with your diet' propaganda are partly right and partly wrong.  Eating stacks of Starbucks cakes, fast food burger buns and commercial cookies is obviously awful for you - the sugar, the wheat, all bad.  Eating a multigrain loaf of bread is unlikely to be an issue as long as the rest of your diet is reasonable.  Attributing nearly every possible ailment to wheat consumption is a great way to boost your 'don't eat wheat' diet program but not particularly truthful.

I recall the mantra of In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Eat food.
Mostly plants.
Not too much.

Where food is something that doesn't come with an ingredients list.  If they have to list the ingredients then it isn't food.  If you can't tell what the ingredients are, it isn't food.  Follow that very simple formula and you can't go too wrong.  People can live and be healthy on everything from a pure meat diet like the Inuit from northern Canada to vegetarian or omnivorous diets all over the world.  The trouble comes from 'food' made in factories and the attendant Metabolic Syndrome, diabetes, and obesity.  Cutting down wheat consumption is probably a great idea for lots of people but we shouldn't confuse it with the obvious, simple solution of making sure we eat food.  You want to be healthy?  Eat this.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Liability at school, once again

It seems that I have been breaking the rules while volunteering at Elli's school.  I have been doing my Milk Monitor and Board Games Club duties without having filled out the mandatory Police Record Check Form which requires me to pay $17 so that the police can tell the school that I am not a convicted criminal with a history of underage victims.  Just to be clear, I can walk around the school without a Record Check, I can volunteer at various school events, raise a child, babysit, run other children's events, and any manner of other child centric things without a Record Check but I cannot stand in the lunchroom near several other staff members and sell milk.  This is of course because this Record Check nonsense has nothing to do with protecting the kids and everything to do with the dread spectre of liability.

Not only do I have to cough up the cash for it but I also have to wait 6 to 8 weeks for the Record Check to be completed.  Of course this means that all the new volunteers at the school can't legally volunteer for a couple months after they find out about this which means cancelling a bunch of school programs until 2012.  As usual the people involved find themselves desperately trying to balance the liability requirements with the reality that none of the volunteers is going to do anything wrong and that the regulations designed to 'protect' the children are just making their lives worse.  I can almost see the desperate wish of the administration:  "Just volunteer, do your job and don't under any circumstances let me know that you haven't completed your Record Check!"

All I ask is that I be told what work needs to be done and allowed to do the work and the regulations deny even that at every turn.

Madness in the Mediterranean

While I have a lot of sympathy for the Occupy The World protesters (if not necessarily all the things they ask for) I find myself feeling exactly the opposite way about the Greek protests.  Their economy is a shambles and their country came within a whisker of having to default on their loans, withdraw from the EU, go back to their own currency, and witness catastrophic inflation and massive economic collapse and yet they are violently protesting the very measures that are plugging the holes in the dam.

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This isn't peaceful but belligerent demand for change but rather throwing molotov cocktails and gasoline bombs at police.  It is true that they have plenty to be angry about as their government is taking away money and rights that the Greeks thought they had for life and there is a very justified perception that the rich countries of France and Germany are the driving force behind these unpleasant changes.  That said, there is no logical basis for this protest.  At least the Occupy protesters are getting attention, being nonviolent and have achievable goals - the Greek protests are utterly hopeless.  What could they possibly get that would satisfy them aside from the rest of Europe pouring more and more money in an endless upward spiral into Greece?  They already know that down that road lies isolation and disaster as the EU will not put up with it.

So now they scream and shout and loot and burn and shut down the country for days to tell the government that instead of austerity they want catastrophe.  The demands that the government continue to pay out as it has always done are an impossibility; there is no way in which that can occur.  The solution now is to get the government to act quickly to resolve the situation as best it can and work to try to rebuild.  Here we have a disastrous example of fear of loss destroying any rational attempt at a solution.  The people of Greece fear losing their benefits and they fear a collapse but there is no appropriate weighting of those two things.  They are rushing into a burning building to recover a wallet left behind in a dresser drawer and they don't seem to see that the building is going to collapse long before they can get out again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A book that matters

I just finished reading Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  You should read this book, all of you.  Often I will recommend a book as a very good way to understand a topic or as very amusing but rarely would I suggest that a book could seriously improve your life.  This book could seriously improve your life.

I have always been intrigued by the subject of delaying gratification and self control and ever since I can remember I have taken these things to extremes.  The classic experiment in this field is the marshmallow test - give a child a marshmallow and tell them they can eat it but that if they do not eat it for 15 minutes they can have another one.  (I was the sort of kid who, upon receiving the second one, would ask if I could wait another 15 minutes to get a third.  I don't know that my level of saving and hoarding is actually beneficial, mind.)  The experiment showed that kids who waited for the second marshmallow had better lives by nearly any measure because self control is so critical to making good choices and ending up happy.  Willpower outlines very clearly what self control actually is in physical terms and how understanding the way that self control works allows us to understand why and when we make bad decisions so that we can avoid those situations.  The book won't tell you what choices to make but rather how to make sure that you are in a frame of mind to make the decisions required to live the life that you choose.

I really like that in Willpower the authors make it clear that losing self control isn't a moral choice but rather one that can be explained in medical terms.  It is a break from the mindset that people who can't control their spending / weight / compulsive internet usage are simply weak or bad.  Self control is shown to be something that is very much affected by our food, how long we have been awake, how many decisions we have had to make so far in the day and other environmental factors.  It is also something that we can practice becoming better at!  The book details ways in which we can practice self control and by doing so improve our willpower.  The book talks about David Blaine who is known for crazy feats of endurance and self control like sitting in a glass box without food for 44 days and how he prepares himself for such incredible tests of willpower.  He spends every part of every day utterly, totally regimented and does everything in precisely the correct way, allowing himself no deviation.  In short he prepares his mind for feats of self control in the same way athletes prepare their bodies for feats of strength.

So much of our society's ills can be traced to a breakdown of self control that I can't help but think that if everyone read this book and took the lessons to heart we would all be tremendously better off.  Accidents are usually preventable if people have the self control to prepare ahead of time.  Debt, addiction, and unhealthy life habits can be headed off at the pass if the person involved understands when they are most vulnerable to temptation and how to arrange life such that they have enough willpower left to make the correct choice when the critical time arrives.  Knowing what they *should* do is rarely the biggest problem for people, the issue is managing to do the right thing when the time arrives.

The book also talks about the benefits of religion in assisting with willpower.  It turns out that people can substantially improve their self control by outsourcing decision making to a higher power.  Rather than considering the pros and cons they can simply decide that "God doesn't want me to drink" and this helps them to do what they know they need to do.  The authors are agnostics but they do recognize the benefits such a belief set can have on self control.  It is of course a bit beyond the scope of the book but we should note that outsourcing your decision making to God also has the potential drawback that you might end up deciding that "God wants me to strap explosives to myself and kill random people" and avoid thinking about the pros and cons of that, which is somewhat less beneficial.

I think I should take the book's advice to heart and try to do things to improve my self control.  A few months ago I decided to improve my posture and to consciously sit up straight and walk tall all the time but now I am looking for something new to do.  After a bit of considering I decided to refuse to watch porn for 6 months.  Being a pretty normal sort of 30 something male I usually watch porn regularly but in small doses and have done so for as long as the internet has been easily available to me.  I see absolutely nothing wrong with watching porn so long as doing so isn't being detrimental to the rest of a person's life but I do think that it is the sort of thing that is unnecessary and yet potentially challenging to cut out completely.  I will think of it as a couple of extras pushups every day for my willpower muscle.

Photo taken from

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A picture

Check this picture out:

No, this is not a still from the Radiers of the Lost Ark scene when the ark is opened, but an absolutely magnificent image of southern Chile's Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano spewing lightning-topped ash. Wow. Ricardo Mohr's photo was selected as one of National Geographic's "Pictures We Love: Best of October."

The quote above and the picture are from, though they were just sharing it from elsewhere.  Holy crap, the world is awesome.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Self Improvement

Recently I have been too addicted to my new game Glitch so I decided to order in some books for self improvement.  Michael Lewis is an author I enjoyed when I read his The Big Short and I found a few other books by him at the library, namely The Real Price of Everything and Liar's Poker.  I ordered them in from the library and when I went to pick them up I noticed something:  The Real Price of Everything is quite large enough to crush a small nation.  Also, Wendy had World War Z on hold too.

A good person with strong inclinations towards a better understanding of economics and the fiscal world would plunge right into the gigantic tome which contains wisdom from many famous economists like Kinsey and Adam Smith but instead I read the simple Liar's Poker.  It was a fun story of the shenanigans on Wall Street in the 80s and it reminded me of my adventures in medical sales - get in, make a bunch of money, get disgusted with the whole thing and leave.  Any guesses as to which bundle of knowledge I pick up next?  A hint:  It probably has more to do with the zombie apocalypse than monetary theory.

So much for self improvement.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Ziggyny reminded me of Movember. (The mustache growing fundraiser for prostate cancer and men's health in November.)  I find it a very strange sort of event because so much of what we are told about prostate cancer is completely backwards.  I am a bit torn because trying to raise awareness of health issues and get them recognized as general topics rather than hushing them up is a fantastic goal.  We as a society benefit hugely when we can comfortably discuss health issues instead of surrounding them with shame and a shroud of lack of information.  We do have to be careful exactly how we go about doing this though.  For example, I recently have seen several advertisements on bus stops and subway walls talking about prostate cancer and advocating that people like me go get tested.  We shouldn't listen to the posters because right now the treatments for prostate cancer are so unreliable in actually making us live longer and so reliable in their hideous side effects that pretty near nobody should be treated.  You should not be tested for ailments we do not have effective treatment for.

Of course I would love to have an effective prostate cancer treatment that doesn't leave huge numbers of people impotent or with serious urinary problems.  Research is definitely a good prospect since this is a widespread disease with no effective cure.  I won't be growing a mustache for Movember (though I will have facial hair as usual) since I generally refuse to take part in charity that pretty much revolves around me trying to wheedle money out of my friends.  If they want to donate to charities I heartily encourage it (Doctors Without Borders or the World Food Program are my favourites currently) but I don't like using a random event to try to pry money out of them.

Overall the Movember site is good and really covers a broad range of useful topics but they seem to avoid laying out the uncomfortable facts about prostate cancer treatment - probably because you aren't going to encourage trips to the doctor and screening if you tell people how bad the treatment really is.  "So, want to find out if you have a disease that has a treatment that regularly causes impotence?  No?"  That said, the general goals of education, positive lifestyle alterations and demystification are excellent.  Walking around barefoot got me into lots of interesting conversations where I was able to teach people all kinds of things that would normally never come up; mustaches in November would serve the same purpose it would seem.

So yes, eat better, go to the doctor and be tested for things when you need to and be open and honest about health concerns.  Just don't worry about prostate cancer, as it will either kill you or not and there isn't much to be done about it at the moment.