Sunday, December 30, 2012

Old and tired

Years ago I found New Year's to be a wonderful night full of fun and mayhem.  I didn't quite understand what made the numbers rolling over so important to everybody else but it hardly mattered - for some reason that event convinced my parents I should be allowed to eat all kinds of treats and stay up way too late.  Reasons mean very little beside such unfettered freedom and licence to scream, shout, and run about.  After all, my exhaustion and grumpiness the next day won't be my problem, my parents will be the ones who suffer for it.

Some things have changed, others not so much.  I still don't get why people get to wrapped up in New Year's celebrations, particularly given how arbitrary and meaningless our accounting of another trip around the sun really is.  Christmas has just passed and those of us that celebrate it are tired and ready to stop partying and yet we launch into yet another festival.  The differences now are that I am old, and thus entitled to stay up as late as I want any time I want and also that I am old, and thus don't want to stay up because I would rather be asleep in my bed.

Couldn't we all agree to move New Year's to January 20th?  I am ready for another party around then with Christmas being a bit of a fading memory and me having had enough time to pay for the season's gastronomic extremes.  Also, this tradition of midnight really needs to be adjusted.  I am going to vote for about 3:00pm instead.  That way we can all get together, those who feel the need can scream happy new year, and the children can still get put to bed at a normal time without having missed everything.

The other good thing about a January 20th celebration is it would be a great time for ReChristmas.  That is, a time for everyone to bring all of the Christmas presents that didn't work out to a party to be put into a pile so that others can have a crack at them.  I don't have a perfect system for this yet, but the opportunity for everyone to snag something perfect and offload things that missed the mark to a good home seems a great way to mitigate the potential waste of holiday gift exchanges.  I took part in a gift exchange years ago that had a 'stealing' component where people got to grab their favourite of the 20 or so gifts available from whoever had it currently and it seemed a fantastic game as long as everyone had an appropriately mischievous and irreverent attitude.  Something along those lines would be a great new tradition.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Solving the wrong problem

The Connecticut massacre has people talking about gun control and about the reasons for violence.  This is a good thing, and hopefully something positive comes from it.  Unfortunately some ridiculous and terrible things are also coming out of the panic over the shooting too.  Despite Canada being much safer than the US and despite school shootings being an incredible unlikely source of danger Ontario's premier has decided to spend 10 million outfitting schools with security systems and institute locked door policies.

As usual, there are three things to consider when spending money to increase safety.
1.  How serious is the safety problem.
2.  How much does it cost.
3.  How effectively can we stop the problem with the solution presented.

The premier has failed to notice that this particular safety theatre fails all 3 tests.  School shootings are terrible but they are vanishingly unlikely - lightning strikes are more likely to kill children.  The cost is high and comes at a time when our budget is in desperately bad shape, so much so that the government has essentially declared war on teachers.  Not only it is a lot of money but it also comes at the cost of creating a climate of fear in the minds of the populace that is completely unjustified.  Lastly we must conclude that the 'solution' solves nothing.  People with guns can get into schools even with all of the precautions listed by shooting out windows, going through unlocked doors, shooting off locks (like the Connecticut perpetrator did) or just by hitting the button and sneaking in before pulling a gun.

So to summarize, the militarization of schools will not stop a shooter, costs a lot, addresses a problem that doesn't exist, and creates extra problems of its own.  What a colossal waste.

I must be thankful that I live in Canada at this moment though and not the US where there the NRA is calling for armed guards in every school (and who will pay for it exactly?) and/or arming and training teachers.  What a great idea, putting firearms within arms reach of a bunch of irrational teenagers!  Also, there is a new product on the market that you might want to buy for a New Year's present or something:  Armoured backpacks to protect children from bullets.  Both countries have it wrong.  The US is solving the problem of gun culture and easy access to weapons by having an arms race, ignoring how well that worked out with the Soviet Union, and Canada is solving a problem that doesn't exist.  If we want to spend money to help children live long lives we should be spending it on reducing smoking, preventing diabetes, and reducing the use of cars, not by turning schools into fortresses.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Being Awesome

Dude, it is time to be awesome.  I read an interesting article on about getting out in the world and doing things rather than expecting them to come to you.  The gist of it is that rather than waiting for a job to show up you should become the sort of person that people want to hire; instead of waiting for a person to show up who recognizes how special you are you should become the sort of person people want to date; instead of waiting for your life to get better you should go out and do things to make it better.

More generally speaking you should strive to be awesome.

Not that I agree with the article in its entirety but it has a very important point.  That is, people care about what you can do.  Relying on innate properties like 'nice guy' is a sure path to nowhere because practically everybody has 'nice guy' going for them.  Yesterday The Doctor couldn't get her car up the driveway because it had crappy tires and the driveway is steep and icy.  My dad lent her his truck to get home (nice guy) and the next day got out the Tree Farmer and pulled her car up the driveway with it.  He could do this because he knows things, and her happiness and gratitude was based on his ability to solve problems.  Nice guy is fine and all, but you are only going to be awesome if you can do things too.

To be attractive to other people you don't even necessarily have to be all that useful in a practical way though.  Being in a band is a sure way to get mobbed by potential dates regardless of the fact that it isn't going to make any money or solve problems.  Just being the sort of person who is passionate about things and who pursues excellence is hugely attractive to others.  We all want to date awesome people, people we can brag about to others, and being awesome doesn't have to mean being rich or powerful.  It usually means being engaged and interested in what you do and working hard at being amazing even if you constantly fail in that pursuit.  You know all those people who really want to hang around folks who don't try anything because they might not succeed?  Me neither.

Note that success and being awesome don't have anything to do with what other people think.  People who write songs and are passionate about playing the guitar can be awesome regardless of their financial status.  People who focus on a particular game or sport in the pursuit of awesome talent can be exactly the same way.  The key to being awesome is to pursue something that you internally know is awesome.  People can see when you are coasting, when you are afraid, when you don't try for worry of not being good enough.  When in your own mind you say "I am doing something AWESOME!" everyone can tell and they will flock to be with you.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas advice; also, aren't you sick of Christmas advice?

Today Elli, my dad and I went sledding and then had a hotdog roast in the fireplace.  That, right there, is the essence of Christmas for me.  Presents can be nice as long as they are something that somebody really needs but the entire point of the season for me is that it is a time when lots of relatives I rarely get to see all end up together for a big gathering.  I feel obliged at this point to link to an article about excessive consumerism... though that is probably the second most annoying thing about Christmas next to all that extra shopping we feel obligated to do.  Just like all of your other Facebook friends I will swamp you with well intentioned opinion pieces telling you that you are doing Christmas all wrong.

You're welcome?

I also recommend snow angels and walking in the woods as good therapy for the stress of the holidays.  It helps not only with retail stress but also with the need to unplug from bloggers who can't help but link to obligatory 'you're doing it all wrong' articles.

Strangely I panic a little inside during the holidays when people want to talk about politics.  I wander away from the internet for a week and I am suddenly far behind on the fiscal cliff, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's removal from office, and any number of other current events issues.  I get that sense that I desperately need to run to a computer and spend a few hours getting up to date on everything so I can talk competently about the world.  I think the feeling that I need to spend hours a day keeping up on current events (about which I can do absolutely nothing) is a real problem... I need less hours spent in pointless worrying about the world, not more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One evil dude in a fancy suit

The Connecticut shooting is a tragedy, no doubt.  Thankfully in tragedy there can be hope; lessons that can set us on a better path for the future.  Unfortunately in tragedy there can also be evil people who leverage that tragedy to try to push their crazy agenda.  See exhibit one, Mike Huckabee, who tries to convince us that the reason that God didn't save the children was because society no longer teaches religion in schools.

What bamboozles me is that so many people see this video and comment on it talking about what a wonderful person Huckabee is.  How nice of him to note that God let children be brutally murdered to teach a lesson to a bunch of adults far away.  Because, obviously, God couldn't just blast those adults with lightning, or open up a hole in the ground to swallow them up, or just send an avenging angel down to chop them... despite the fact that he did this regularly in the Bible.

I have no respect for God in any of their various incarnations but the God that flounders around trying to teach lessons to bad people who aren't of the correct religion (or even those who think that people should be allowed to have their own religion, however mistaken) by enabling mass murderers is unthinkable.  That is the kind of being you love and trust to run the universe and be your personal saviour?  I can't say whether that version of God is more incompetent or cruel but they certainly don't lack for either trait.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where Tiny Tim once sat

A Christmas Carol really gets to me.  Wendy and I went to see it as a play last night and I couldn't keep it together at all - I cried at several of the scenes, in particular the ones where Tiny Tim's family mourn his passing.  That story really gets to me emotionally, particularly when the actors really get into the scene themselves.  I just can't block out my empathy when people get so wrapped up in their emotions and project their own misery outward.  Strangely Wendy is the tough guy when it comes to these things.  Normally I get accused of being the cold fish, the one without feelings, the robot, but when it comes to crying at shows I am definitely the softy.

I went to see the play because my brother Matt is in it; normally going out to see a play isn't my first impulse. It made me wonder though if doing acting is something I would like to do as a hobby.  Not as a way of making money, to be sure, because acting as a way to pay the bills is even more sketchy than game designing, but just for fun.  I know a fair number of people who enjoy community theatre and it certainly seems like both a lot of fun and a giant timesink.  I guess the difficulty is that mostly the timesink occurs on evenings and weekends, where I have no spare time, rather than monday to friday, 9 to 3, when I have tons of spare time.

Because of course writing a book isn't sucking enough of my time up and I need another hobby that desperately drains all of the spare time and energy I manage to acquire.  It would have so many fun elements to it though, like learning to cry on command, giving speeches, and going off script just to keep my coactors on their toes.  They would let me give speeches in front of crowds and everybody would have to listen to me!  Bwahaha and such.

As a note I am up north for the holidays and posts may be inconsistent or shoddy due to time constraints; consider yourselves warned.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Learn 2 rite, f00l

I spend too much time reading online posts and have lots of experience playing online games so I have plenty of experience with badly written thoughts.  I generally don't bother playing Captain Grammar because it never seemed to accomplish much but I certainly preferred the company and commentary of people who communicated using something resembling normal english.  Boingboing just posted a fantastic piece on the topic talking about literacy being a privilege and it certainly shed some light on the topic for me.

A lot of people due to disability, life circumstances, or place of origin really don't have the capacity to write english in a way that I would deem 'correct'.  That doesn't mean that what they want to communicate is less valuable or that there is anything wrong with them.  Pedantically correcting their grammar or spelling is a pointless and unpleasant ad hominem - address the argument, not the argumenter.  I think though it is worthwhile to set a standard for communication because that does involve real benefits.  Conflating who and whom is never confusing and making a mashup of tenses rarely causes real misunderstanding.  CAPS LOCK, refusing to use periods or capitalization, and giant, unformatted text blocks on the other hand are a huge impediment to comprehension.

The delineating factor, the thing that tells us whether or not we should correct someone or even dismiss their argument entirely, is whether or not they are easily understood.  That last sentence is probably riddled with at least three separate errors in 'formal english' but everyone knows what I mean.  If you can tell exactly what someone is saying then there is no need for correction "I ain't got no pencil" is perfectly understandable though it will make many people cringe.  English is not a language that can possibly have a 'correct' version, if any language can, though many people of course insist that everyone speak exactly to the standards that were normal among their social group when they were young.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wonderful things

Today I am just going to link to two wonderful things I found on the internet.  Neither are new, rather they are gems that warrant rewatching every few years or so.  They aren't particularly safe for work.  If you haven't seen them I highly recommend setting aside an hour to watch all the rap battles.

You can find the rest of the epic rap battles Here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hardass for life

I am naturally a hardass parent.  I have been persuaded by books, discussions, and all manner of other communication that smacking kids into line isn't the best way to raise them but I can't seem to change my first reaction, which is to tell them to do as I say and suck it up.  It takes a tremendous expenditure of willpower for me to curtail my internal draconian parent and have patience, talk it out, give extra chances, and be calm. It is like taking a difficult exam, doing heavy exercise, or getting a lecture from a boss; it drains me.  It really confirms the hypothesis in the book Willpower because forcing myself to do the right thing and suppressing my desires drains me of energy.  I guess that is why I found taking care of a baby to be easy and parenting a kid to be really hard - the simple chores of baby care did not sap my willpower but dealing with a small person with her own desires does.

This is all kinds of strange because this week really illustrated how necessary it is to be a hardass some of the time.  Elli struggles with rules that aren't completely consistent and we had told her that she had to walk to school, no shoulder rides.  On Monday though she was really tired and burnt out so I gave her a ride home from school; at the time I felt like it might be a bad idea but I wanted to do something nice for her.  Of course on Tuesday I had to cart her back and forth to school kicking and screaming over my shoulder in a fireman's carry because she absolutely would not go anywhere unless I gave her a shoulder ride the entire way.  I cannot relent on this at any point, ever.  I must always force her to walk because being nice even once ruins things for days afterwards.  I don't want to be *that* much of a hardass!

The Willpower book really makes all this clear and it explains so much about bad parenting.  People who are exhausted literally do not have the energy to force themselves to do the right thing.  It takes a measureable, physical resource to force yourself to make difficult decisions and delay gratification and our inability to summon up that energy means that kids get plunked in front of the TV instead of played with.  I assume it must be easier for some people than it is for me because parenthood gets such glowing reviews but for me intense physical labour would be easier than being a good parent - bad parenting would probably be pretty easy though, in the short term at least.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Too much freedom

I was chatting with The Second Doctor last night about some of the issues with Canadian medical care.  Unlike what much of the American press would have us believe the issue is not so much that Canadian medical care is bad, but rather that it is too good in the wrong ways.  There is a huge amount of emphasis put on patient autonomy, which is a noble goal after all, but which regularly ends up with the system groaning under the burden of foolish, wasteful, or pointless care.

Whether it be patients getting antibiotics for viral illnesses, expensive but mostly ineffectual treatments for cardiovascular illness, endless rounds of cancer treatments for people who have no chance of survival, or desperately resuscitating people who have no chance at ever leaving their hospital room again (nor enjoying their stay), we pour money down endless holes.  Fortunately the great majority of these holes can be plugged simply by making sensible decisions but unfortunately we allow patients to make the determinations rather than doctors.  Sometimes the patients (or their families) make the right choices and sometimes they do not.

Patients used to have far less autonomy and in many cases that was a real disaster.  Physicians were the ones making final choices and, of course, they sometimes got it wrong.  No matter what system of decision making we use there will be mistakes made but we must strive to find the point where the greatest good is being done.  Letting people be informed and make decisions is good but letting them beggar the system with their errors is not.

We don't like to talk this way; much of our public discourse on the topic is filled with platitudes that assume that a literally infinite amount of money is available from the government if they would just be nice enough to hand it over.  That obviously isn't the case and the faster we can acknowledge that letting patients set fire to public funds *hurts other patients* and get a more responsible system in place the better off we will all be.  The greatest good includes telling people "Sorry, that treatment is inappropriate and we will not perform it" more often than we do right now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Blind Hate

We had some folks over for dinner a couple nights ago and they got to selling me on TV shows.  They particularly thought that Wendy and I should watch Battlestar Galactica together though there was one big hesitation; they figured that since the show takes a turn towards religion in the last season that I might hate it. Our guests, it turns out, have been subject to some of my more vitriolic rants about religion and they assumed I would not be willing to tolerate a show that made a big deal out of mysticism.

My answer, though, was a question.  "Is the religion in the show true?"

That is the key; the truth of the matter.  I design fantasy game worlds all the time and they do not come from a real world scientific background.  In the beginning often starts with anthropomorphic, omniscient deities rather than a large kapow.  The difference is that in my fantasy worlds gods are REAL.  They do interfere with mortals, grant wishes, smite their enemies, and cause all kinds of problems.  Magicians in made up worlds aren't entertainers or charlatans; they can actually cast fireballs to incinerate their enemies!

My dislike of religion isn't anything to do with me thinking that universes that evolve out of abstract mathematical principles rather than Angry Man in the Sky have more inherent legitimacy; if there really is an Angry Man in the Sky I want to know about it and I damn sure will believe in him.  Legitimacy comes from truth, and the best tool we have been able to devise to figure out the truth is science.  Someday we may come up with a better tool, in which case I will happily use that.  Results concern me far more than methods.

So I guess I will like Battlestart Galactica if the religion in the show reflects reality.  The universe that show exists in is completely different from our own though it has many striking resemblances.  I don't actually know how the show plays out as yet but I assume in their universe the religion is based on something real; whether or not that makes for a good story is another thing entirely.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Give me your leader

The world is ending.  The Mayans, who apparently were wrong about pretty much everything but could somehow predict the end of the world, have told us that it is all over in just a few days.  Australia's Prime Minister confirms it:

Oh, wait, no, it turns out that not only is the world going to continue on just fine but also the Mayans didn't predict the end of the world.  Even if they did... are we seriously basing our lives around the long term predictions of people from the stone age?  I should not that the track record of people who believe some guy who says the apocalypse is nigh is very poor indeed.

Also, how do I exchange Canada's Prime Minister for one who makes public speeches mocking random fools who believe in this kind of nonsense?  Also one who talks about imminent zombie invasions.  Man, I either need to move to Australia or get her to come here and run things.  Maybe Julia Gillard wants to be the new mayor of Toronto?  I don't even care what her politics are.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I want to live somewhere else, she says

Elli has been complaining that she doesn't like where we live and she wants to live someplace else.  Our condo itself is fine, it would seem, but she really, really hates the construction we have to pass by every day on our way to school.  They have a wooden wall up that protects the sidewalk in theory but in practice the air is clogged with dust all the time and just passing by the place leaves me feeling gritty and unpleasant.  Unfortunately we aren't likely to get past it anytime soon since there are two more gigantic building projects due to go up on our four block walk to school over the next couple years.  Add to that the possibility of a new underground mass transit system going in right under us and things could be a bloody mess for a long time.

I hate it.

I won't by a NIMBY though.  They need to build these buildings and put in that mass transit.  Urban intensification is a very good thing environmentally speaking so the only objection I can realistically muster is that it is personally inconvenient right now.  It is an odd sensation though, watching my world change around me.  Having grown up in the country where things changed very slowly and consistently it is a really strange experience to have new buildings suddenly appear in a relatively tiny timeframe.  Although that did happen now and again when I was press ganged into building a gazebo, say, it just didn't feel the same way.  The gazebo was personal but this massive bout of construction is a world that is going to become radically different in a really annoying way and it doesn't give a crap about what I think.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Learn 2 Math

I found a very amusing article on the BBC today.  It talked about education in the US and in particular how the current generation entering university can no longer expect to be better educated than their parents; college and university enrollments are lower than they were before.  A tragedy, to be sure, as it would no doubt be wonderful if we could expect forever increasing educational durations for future generations... but that pesky problem of percentages capping at 100 keeps cropping up.

Nobody seems to have bothered to consider that you can't have more than everybody going to university.  When you have only a tiny fraction of your population going to university as was the case a century ago it is very easy to push the rate up.  When you reach 70% enrollment you suddenly realize that some of your population just isn't interested and you can't actually push much further.  What exactly were people expecting?  Were we somehow going to have 150% of the population in university in 2050?

Certainly some metrics of health and well being are ever increasing and have no hard limits that we can see.  My access to information is going up and up and because bandwidth and server capacity aren't remotely near any sort of cap I am sure I will have even more information I cannot possibly find time to access as the years go by.  Percentages, on the other hand, have this pesky problem with being bounded.  Math can be a harsh mistress.

There are real problems with education in the US.  Access to it is becoming too strongly based on family wealth and the cost of churning out graduates with no relevant skills is too high.  What is not a problem though is the fact that not everybody goes to university.  Everybody getting a university education is neither possible nor desirable.

If you want a real problem to solve, talk about how journalists who are functionally innumerate write articles about education citing statistics designed to get a rise out of people skimming articles instead of conveying useful information.  Solving *that* problem would lead to a far better educated population than cramming more people into universities who really shouldn't be there in the first place.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mandatory reading for teenagers

I just found a new book that should really be mandatory reading for science classes in schools.  It never will be, of course, because it talks frankly about how completely ridiculous a lot of alternative medicine is and homeopaths and fraudulent 'nutrition experts' have too much clout and too much to lose to let this sort of thing slide.  The basic idea behind the book is to talk about how the scientific method is used in experiments and the ways in which it is regularly ignored.  The author talks all about the total lack of evidence for things like homeopathy, the way in which the placebo effect works, and how big pharma distorts evidence (or outright lies) to get its 'medicine' to market.

It reads like a book that would be perfect for high school science, though honestly if everybody in the world read it I am sure the world be a better place.  A whole lot of quacks and charlatans would be out of business and scientific and medical advancement would certainly improve.  If you already know a fair bit about how to do science properly including very basic ideas of sampling bias and such from statistics you won't get anything out of the book except some fun and terrifying examples, but for the average person this is going to be a gold mine.

Before you go telling me that nutritionists have useful things to say, keep in mind:  Telling people to eat lots of veggies, moderate alcohol intake and don't smoke is great.  We don't need nutritionists for that, and unfortunately many nutritionists specialize in very specific and completely unsupported advice.  Antioxidants! (Bogus)  Green leaves to oxygenate your blood!  (Greens are good, but not because of that!)  Cut all wheat from your diet!  (Not a terrible idea if you just replace it with veggies, but how is that different from 'eat more veggies'?)

This is a great crash course on being skeptical of silly, outrageous, or simply spurious claims of health benefits whether peddled by your local wellness expert or some giant company.  We all need this information.  Well, all of us but the folks making a fortune peddling snake oil.  It kinda kicks them in the wallet.

Here is a great video summarizing a lot of the points of the book in 15 minutes.

Blog refunctional

So for those who tried to click on my blog normally, has been nonfunctional for a week.  Apparently Google has boned up something pretty good on blogger and redirects are being a real problem right now.  I blame Pounda.

For the moment I will just post on the current address and things should work fine.  Once those folks stop sliding down their fireman's poles and slides and getting their free beer from the fridge maybe they can fix me?  Of course I completely lack any credibility here since blogger is free and complaining that you can't get a free service to do random extra stuff seems ... to lack much punch, as far as complaints go.  It is just great fun to mock people who have such a ridiculously awesome workplace though.  They can take it, or not, but either way they are playing foosball during work hours so they probably will get over it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stand Your Ground

Oh, those Floridians (Floridans?  Florins?  Floridae?) are at it again.  This time a middle aged white man drove up to a van full of black teenagers and started arguing with them about the volume of their music.  He decided that rap is really that bad, got a gun out of his car, and fired 8 rounds into their vehicle, killing one of them.  Of course afterwards he concocted a story about how he was defending himself from a bunch of unarmed teenagers who 'threatened him' so the only reasonable action he could take was to open fire.

It seems, from what I have read, that the perpetrator's chances of actually getting off under Florida's Stand Your Ground law is pretty slim.  It is telling though that a man drove up to somebody, yelled at them, gunned them down, and now there is a real chance that he will walk free because he can say he 'felt threatened'.  Well obviously, I mean black people, they must have had sawed off shotguns in that SUV somewhere, right?  Madness.  This should not be a case of 'maybe he will get off, but probably not'.  It should be a case of 'open and shut, 25 years unless he pleads guilty for a bit less.'

How can people in Florida not notice that if this man had not had his gun that *nobody* would have gotten hurt that day?  The primary function of hand guns is to turn disagreements that would otherwise end with somebody getting called a jackass and somebody else giving the finger into a visit from the coroner and prison time.  Hell, maybe someone would have gone hog wild and given somebody else a black eye... but in Canada nobody but the people involved and maybe a couple gawking passerby would even know it had happened.

It seems an unbelievably myopic viewpoint to imagine that the world will be a better place for having guns and laws like this.  Even if for some reason you end up in a place where the law comes up you stand a damn good chance of being the corpse, not the defendant.  This law gives other people the right to gun *you* down just because you have a gun in your possession.  I suppose that never comes up though, in gun fantasies.  I have daydreams about being a crazy ninja fighting bad guys and in those daydreams I always win.  When it comes to actual decisions though I don't let my daydreams convince me that I am actually a good shot nor that being a good shot has any significant impact on my ability to survive a real firefight.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ford over man, Ford over

I have ranted about the disaster that is Toronto mayor Rob Ford on plenty of occasions.  I dearly hope that this can be the last time for mayor Ford has been removed from office for a violation of conflict of interest laws.  A lot of people are enjoying the scene of the mayor who promised to cut the fat and end the gravy train being turfed for misuse of city resources for personal projects but it makes me a little sad in two ways.

First off, I won't be able to look to the local news for my daily source of comedy anymore.  When the mayor can't be relied upon to be clueless, unpleasant, hypocritical, bigoted, and dangerous, what will be the source of mirth for Toronto?  We might have to resort to people who are *trying* to be funny instead of Ford.

Second, this means that my dream of one day opening a newspaper and reading about Ford being caught doing coke off of the stomach of a nonwhite immigrant male prostitute dressed as a sexy bicyclist is at an end.  Sure, he might still end up doing that, but it just isn't the same when a random guy does that as when the mayor does it.  (Damn those immigrant male prostitutes taking jobs from real Canadian male prostitutes... ?)

I don't know about you but after I wrote that paragraph I felt the compulsive need to Google 'nonwhite male sexy bicyclist' and see what pops up.  The internet is wonderful!

There are actually a lot of people defending Ford because the issue that brought him down was actually a pretty minor one.  He used city resources to solicit donations for the high school football team he volunteers for as coach and then voted against doing anything about it in council.  Of course the lesson we can take away from this is that sometimes a person can get away with an endless stream of awful things and be brought low by a seemingly minor transgression as in the case of Al Capone.

The one unfortunate thing in all this is that two years might be long enough for people to forget.  Ford will be allowed to run for mayor again in 2014 and I think two more gaffe and disaster filled years would have been enough to get him booted unceremoniously from office.  If someone else steps in for two years Ford might be able to salvage a decent campaign again in 2014 and win on the back of the suburbs pushing for a tough talking, gay bashing, angry white man.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

But Science!

On Friday I watched Ice Age:  Continental Drift with Elli.  It is a cute and silly movie about a bunch of talking animals during an ice age that are unlikely friends.  I couldn't help but rage at the movie much of the time though for their heinous abuse of science.

I get that the animals need to talk.  I even get that sloths, mammoths, tigers, and squirrels need to be friendly towards one another even though apparently the tiger lives on ... air?

What made me crazy though was the other bits.  Ships made entirely of ice that cross oceans on a whim.  Said ships being steered by a tiller.  Note that these ice ships have no sails and hence cannot use a tiller in any way whatsoever!  They are just big blocks of ice that zoom across the ocean for no reason and can be easily steered around tight corners.  Arghlfarghl.

Also, the giant walls of ice that move across the landscape during an ice age do NOT move so fast that a running animal will be crushed beneath their relentless advance.  It took a long damn time for ice sheets to cover the world during the ice ages and running away from them at top speed was never a necessity.  Let's not even get started on the abuses of Newtonian mechanics when it comes to the velocity of large animals flying through the air...

Of course I did like the movie.  It was silly, and sappy, and fun.  I wish though that the makers of kids movies would differentiate between the obvious and necessary violations of science like talking animals, lions not needing to eat flesh once they decide to be friendly, etc. and the unnecessary ones.

Damn, I am going to be one hell of a curmudgeon when I get old.

Picture from:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Technical difficulties

Hi all.

Brightcape isn't working right now.  If you read my stuff via a feed reader you can still see this, but otherwise it is not working.  I am trying to figure it out, and will keep posting in the interim for those who use feed readers.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It was real

I had a weird bunch of stuff happen to me over the past couple weeks.  It started with a random woman walking up to me at Elli's school:

Her:  Are you Sky?

Me: (not recognizing her at all) Yes....

Her:  You are a game inventor, right?

Me:  (wondering if my friends are playing a practical joke)  Yes....

Her:  I can get you a contact in a big games company to pitch your games!

Me:  (this has to be a joke, where is the hidden camera)  Great!

Her:  Gotta go, catch you tomorrow!

Me:  Wuzufuh?

So it turned out to be entirely legit and I went to pitch my games to a game company.  The world is a crazy place, it turns out.  In the end the company was not remotely interested because they build toys and I build strategy games; they don't sell what I make.  I got some advice I definitely won't take on how to make the games more saleable as mainstream games and some advice I should consider using for selling them to anyone.  I don't mean to malign the advice but I don't build toys for kids for the same reason I don't play football professionally - I suck at that activity and should never pursue it for profit.  Unfortunately the advice for selling my games to big game companies involved building a complete prototype with full art and production value which probably comes to a grand in cash and hundreds of hours of work.

I dunno.  The opportunity to pitch my ideas was cool but I am really not sure that I actually want to be a freelance game inventor doing all that other stuff to push my games.  For one, freelance game inventors generally get paid worse than janitors on an hourly basis and for two the majority of the job would make me want to scream.  Doing all kinds of negotiation, networking, and hounding of producers sounds like a nightmare (If I wanted to network all the time I would go into real estate or something) and doing art and sorting out production is a pain in the butt for me.  I have enough trouble just doing the trivial print, glue, and cut that my current models require.

While the opportunity was good it seems like I really have the option of either just continuing to build games as a labour of love or turning my game building into something that isn't much fun and has a terrible hourly rate.  So far I have been very much sitting on the labour of love side and I think I want to stay there.  Someday I might decide to earn money again but if I do it will probably just be getting a 9-5 job.  I enjoy the ability to lock the door, walk away, and completely bury my job too much to find the entrepreneurial lifestyle appealing I think.

Really all I want to do is massage numbers until they are beautiful.  Somehow I need to fall randomly into a job where people who make games just want the games to be made right and don't mind dealing with a temperamental 'game artist'.  Good fracking luck, I'll need it...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Geek victory

I used to get my news from the BBC.  They tend to have a much less biased take on world events than news sources either here in Canada or in the US but they do have the problem that soccer and other 'leave the house' pastimes get a lot of air time.  Who does that?  Anyway, I found a news source much more to my liking.  Instead of 'random guy who plays soccer (yes, soccer, not football) did something' I get people geeking out over new game launches and crazy science in addition to the international politics and economics stories.  Also, they manage to be consistently amusing while also being informative; its like Kryptonite, except backwards.

Here is the pure goldmine though:  The comments on the videos there constantly focus on whether or not the reporters are 'legitimate' geeks.  Are they really hardcore game players who can be trusted to tell us what they really think or are they just posers who want very badly to be a game nerd?  Gotta say, that seems like a victory for team geek when instead of begging to be taken seriously we are vetting the credentials of people who want to report on stories we are interested in!

Also, who cares how much real gaming experience these people have anyway?  Aside from geeks with an axe to grind against remembered villains from high school, that is...  The point of a show is to be entertaining and informative; if some random person wrote the script and an actor delivered it competently it makes absolutely no difference to the content OR the entertainment.  This just in:  Christian Bale isn't *really* Batman but the movies he makes where he pretends to be Batman are awesome.

This is how you bake a great news cake:  A big dollop of truth, a small handful of interesting, plenty of funny, and a small sprinkling of sexy on the top.  Mmmmm, delicious newsy confections.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Game of Friends

Elli had her sixth birthday party today.  The kids mostly seemed to very much enjoy themselves and things were quite successful considering how tightly we had to pack 7 loud, excited kids into our fairly small space. Lots of the game we played were pretty traditional like dress up, pin the horn on the unicorn, scramble for candy out of the pinata, and decorate cookies with icing.  There was one activity in particular that the kids kept trying to do that I had to put the kibosh on though:  The Game of Friends.

The way The Game of Friends works is that the person whose birthday it is tells everyone their exact ranking in friendship.  "You are my #1 best friend, you are my #2 best friend..."  After that the people at the lowest rungs of friendship get to cry and feel left out.  Good game!  There were a couple of girls at the party (the ones who were pretty sure they were #1 or #2) who kept trying to get Elli to play The Game of Friends and I had to wander in and forbid them from doing so.  That would have been a great conversation at pickup time:

"So, why is my daughter crying?"

"Well, the kids spent most of the party playing a game designed to make your daughter miserable."

"Ummmm, why were they doing that?"

"Well, you know, it makes the popular ones feel better when they ostracize and belittle others, and we don't want the popular girls to feel bad after all..."

I just don't get these things.  When I was young there was plenty of jostling for status and favour amongst the boys but it was always hidden behind screens of violence, sports ability, disobedience, and pain suppression.  This raw, open competition for social superiority is really new to me.

Also, insert all the usual rants about excessive presents, handouts for partygoers, and sugary treats.  You know the drill.  :)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rallying around Israel

I really don't get the intensity with which politicians in both Canada and the US rally around Israel.  The rhetoric during the US election surrounding this issue was nutty with each candidate trying to outdo the other in making promises to do anything to crush the enemies of Israel.  Of course the Canadian Prime Minister just decided to condemn 'terrorist attacks' on Israel and express support for them defending themselves.  His formula appears to be entirely based on 'Jews good, Muslims bad' with nothing else involved.

It drives me batty.  Is it terrible that Palestinians fire rockets into Israel?  Yes.  What I can't figure out is how people manage to get away with so ardently defending Israel when it fires its own rockets into Palestinian territory and kill people.  There is no point whatsoever in trying to establish who hit who first as we would have to go back thousands of years.  The only thing that matters is that everybody needs to stop murdering everybody else.  Characterizing one side as the terrorists and the other side as the valiant defenders of freedom as both sides random blast each other's civilians is disingenuous at best, downright evil at worst.

So what causes politicians over here to be so incredibly focused around Israel's fate?  There are plenty of other nations suffering internal strife and the one sided sabre rattling we see around Israel simply doesn't appear elsewhere.  Is the Jewish vote so easily manipulated and so critical?  I ask that question because I don't really know... it seems likely that politicians figure they could lose the entire Jewish vote if they don't express total solidarity with Israel but aren't they likely to lose a ton of Muslim votes at the same time?

My most important criteria for voting is 'who will incinerate less human beings'.  Politicians could really sell me on voting for them if they would stop supporting military action by powerful nations against weak nations on what seems like an entirely religious or racial basis.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

1% Inspiration

A little while ago I read a blog post by Charles Stross.  He ranted a bit about how everybody misunderstands writers, romanticizing the profession without any sense of the reality.  In particular he emphasized that he doesn't give a crap about people stealing his ideas.  Hell, I know what his idea is for his next Laundry novel:  Mild mannered British hacker turned spy finds clues that something horrible and magical is going to destroy the world and foils the evil plot.   The idea, as he says, is worth 1% and the other 99% is the grunt work and sweat required to see it through.

I am sure learning that the hard way.  I have lots of great ideas for games all the time but actually turning them into a finished product is an incredible amount of work.  I am just starting to get people together to playtest the latest iteration of my role playing game (vaguely like Dungeons and Dragons) and it was a rude awakening when I linked them to the documents I had been working on.  They found all kinds of vague rules, incomplete ideas and straight out typos.  I have been trying to get more stuff written down but just keeping up with all the comments and corrections that came in has been draining away my time far too efficiently.

Book ideas are really worth approximately nothing.  They are one of those things that everybody has and which nobody wants - economics might have something to say about the value of such things.  The value is in taking an idea and putting in the hundreds or thousands of hours required to expand on it, smoothing it, editing it, and finally getting it out there for people to read.  Clearly you aren't going to get far without a good idea but that is like saying you can't start a campfire in the woods without oxygen - certainly true, but lacking oxygen (or a book idea) is never going to be the thing that stops you.

There may be a slowdown in the number of posts I produce over the next little while due to this very thing.  It turns out that figuring out some cool mechanics for a RPG is easy and writing an entire 300 page RPG manual is ... quite another.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bad influence

You stay away from that boy!  He is a BAD INFLUENCE!

How many of you heard *that* from a parent when you were young?  Even if you haven't, that line is a mainstay of sitcom parenting.  Honestly I don't recall hearing it myself, mostly because I was a geek who was friends with other geeks.  When your buddies just want to sit around eating junk food and rolling dice it is unlikely to get your parents all worked up...  I suspect, though I can't prove, that it is far more often 'stay away from that boy' than 'stay away from that girl', though that is largely due to parents being overprotective of who their daughters date.

I figured that as a parent I wouldn't bother with such statements.  Why bother telling a kid to stay away from the bad kid when that will likely just cause them to want to hang out with the 'rebel' even more?  Does the line ever actually work?  What I didn't plan on was wanting to use the line when my child was a mere five years old; I was really pretty sure there would be no temptation until she brought home a biker with a criminal record.

The best laid plans rarely come to pass though, particularly when they are made with little to no information or experience.  Elli is having difficulties recently with another kid who is getting her in trouble.  I already had to have a one to one talk with the vice principal about Elli misbehaving and listen to her teacher lecture her about not letting other people drag her into their mischief.  Isn't this supposed to come along a LOT later?  Of course you can't just shift the blame to somebody else all the time.  It may have been the other kid's idea but that roll of toilet paper didn't throw itself.

I have to really clamp down on my lunatic impulses.  I want to shout "There are good kids at school!  That one, over there.  She is good!  Follow her around instead!" but obviously that tack is going to get me absolutely nowhere.  The lure of mischief and being the centre of attention is too strong and Elli cannot seem to extricate herself.  I am reminded of another parent who was floored because she had prepared long and hard to protect her child from bullying and to deal with tears but had no idea how to handle her child *doing* the bullying.  If only they would stop being so unique and just fit into a nice, clean pattern things would be so much simpler.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The naturalness of being straight

One of the foolish, misguided, and factually challenged things that homophobes use to denigrate homosexuality is that it is unnatural.  The claim is that in the natural world homosexuality is nonexistent and only the perversity and sinfulness of mankind leads us to accept homosexual behaviour.  Of course this is nonsense and easily disproved by rampant homosexual behaviour in many species, particularly other primates.  Unsurprisingly heterosexual behaviour is by far the norm (that whole needing to reproduce thing) but the natural world certainly leads us to think that homosexuality is a thing that happens.  Last night I found the most wonderful thing in the newspaper that takes these discoveries to a whole new level:  Gay parents adopting children in nature.

Not only is this a picture of cute penguins, it is also a picture of two gay male penguins in a long term relationship who adopted a abandoned penguin egg.  That's right, gayness is busy 'ruining' the institution of marriage and the process of child rearing at the South Pole just like it is in the rest of the world.  It makes me smile to read such things.  Not that logic is likely to have the slightest effect on bigotry of course but I find great joy in reading about unexpected situations like this and silently cheering.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

TV time

Since Wendy and I have been sick so much these past weeks we have been watching a lot more TV than ever before.  Of course we don't have a TV nor any other way to generally access the programming everyone else relies on so we had to employ a different strategy that combined information gathering techniques and petty larceny.  Here is the plan:  First off, you find a bunch of people who watch TV and have good taste.  Then you ask them to tell you what the best series on TV is that is at least 3 seasons old.  After that, you borrow their copies of the series and watch all of it back to back!  It turns out their answer goes something like "Well, obviously you have seen Arrested Development, so I guess the second best is Community..."

This week we are addicted to Community.  It is a well crafted comedy but I find it particularly engaging because it reminds me so poignantly of my university years.  The group that the series focuses on isn't exactly the same as my group of university friends (the lack an old, dementia ridden, racist, sexist lunatic for one thing) but the shenanigans they get up to take me back.  Just the culture of having immense reserves of time, plenty of energy and imagination, and a lack of anything resembling a long term plan sure strikes a chord.  It doesn't hurt that a couple of the actresses in the group are hot, hot, hot either.  They manage to be 30 years old and still convincingly play 18 year olds... makeup can do wonders?

Having decided that we need to consume season 2 in a serious hurry Wendy and I began to investigate Netflix and I was pretty astounded at the price.  How is it that cable companies manage to get $60 a month from people and Netflix only costs $8?  I guess it is just sports programming and the news that draws in the cable crowd?  I can't figure any other reason to fork over so much money when so much slightly dated but awesome programming is just sitting there waiting to be consumed with gusto.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The voting booth is the not the key

Everywhere I turn today I see election coverage.  The resounding message is "Get out and vote!"  Of course plenty of people will happily tell you to vote for their candidate over any other and they obviously want to say "Please vote if you are voting for my guy, otherwise... die?"  The trouble with this silly rhetoric is that getting people out to vote isn't doing much for anybody.

Getting people to learn about the issues, challenge politicians, and force the powers that be to be accountable for their BS... now that is a goal worth reaching for.  Getting a bunch of people out to polling stations doesn't help anything at all unless those people use their voting power to actually get something useful done.  There is a fundamental missing of the point going on here that needs to be corrected.  We should not be desperately trying to get people to the polling stations.  We should be creating a political system where an individual vote matters and encouraging people to use that leverage as a springboard for learning and activism.

My vote in the last election here in Canada was immaterial.  Never mind that I have a vanishingly small chance to cast the deciding vote even in a close election, my riding was completely certain to go Liberal and it did.  If we had a system like proportional representation I could at least know that even in a landslide my vote helps the people I vote for to some small degree.  I could stop voting strategically to support corrupt behemoths and instead look at who I actually want calling the shots.  Maybe I would go crazy and vote Pirate, or Communist, or whatever, but at least I could tell the big parties that they actually need to convince me to vote for them and not just against their biggest competitor.

You want people to vote?  The best way is to make their voting be important and convince them to become invested in the process.  The actual getting to the voting booth will take care of itself.

Monday, November 5, 2012

5 Fracking weeks

I have been sick for five weeks today.  After three weeks I went to the doctor who told me that there is a bug going around that lasts 3-4 weeks and I felt a little better about my extended illness but now I am beginning to doubt once again.  I guess this is where I insert my 'I got the flu shot and got sick' sob story and get out my tinfoil hat.  The problem with being sick so long is not the physical impairment but rather the morale problems that eventually crop up.

Will I ever be well again?
Why me?
What did I do wrong?

Humans, having evolved for quite some time around the concept that the only really dangerous predator out there is other human beings, look for reason and stories everywhere.  My brain desperately wants there to be a reason that I am sick, a perpetrator in the shadows, some kind of plot.  It really isn't well programmed to accept that tiny creatures have infected me and that sometime in the reasonably near future my own tiny creatures will karate chop them into oblivion.

I assume it is the same kind of desire to find patterns and meaning in events that leads us to search for blame and plot behind a simple cold and also to posit a God.  Unfortunately although desperately searching for patterns probably saves us regularly when someone is actually scheming it leads us down the wrong path all the time.  Evolution leaves us with traits that are good for survival and reproduction but unfortunately not traits that are well tuned for seeking out the truth.  We aren't well equipped for dealing with raw chance and impersonal randomness that may wipe us out or lavish rewards upon us for no reason whatsoever.  Unfortunately for our hunter / gatherer equipped brains the world really is just random.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Believe in America

The American election is front page news everywhere.  The BBC has been covering it nonstop for half a year now, devoting a permanent chunk of their news page just to American election coverage.  I would suspect in fact that they give more coverage to the American election than to their own.  The Globe and Mail here in Canada felt obligated to publish an endorsement of Obama and around the world news sources and even leaders have chimed in and thrown their weight around.  Clearly the American election is potentially very important for other nations because America is so critical to both world finances and world peace.  That is, they are likely to start bombing random nations and be a major force *against* world peace.  However, I think that just by paying so much attention to them we are actually propping up their unsustainable system.

One of the most outrageous occurrences in world finance occurred some time ago when the American credit rating was lowered.  Everyone expected that the value of their bonds would drop since of course if they are less likely to repay then the value must go down; the principles of economics are clear on this matter.  Instead the value of their bonds went *up* after the credit rating hit because everyone was so terrified of a crashing market they ran to the safest investment in the world - American government bonds.  If this were any other nation their value would have started plummeting and the absolutely outrageous deficit spending would have come to a screeching halt... but not America!  The belief in an invincible superpower and their eternal reign is still strong and that belief causes all kinds of ludicrous behaviour.

Just imagine if the world decided that it was time to stop loaning America money it obviously will never repay.  (It might print a gazillion dollars to repay the loans and cause a currency collapse, but the value will never be returned.)  Their budget would have to be slashed by a solid 40% just to get back to par and that sort of action would undoubtedly create a massive crash in revenues, requiring further cuts, etc.  The only thing preventing instant and total collapse is the irrational belief that America, and by extension the current fiscal order, is impregnable.  It isn't.

So what you really need to worry about is not that the wrong person gets elected in America.  What you really need to worry about is the rest of the world no longer caring who gets elected in America.  When that happens you know they are headed for a collapse that makes the recent hard times look like a birthday party and the rest of us are going to experience a whole lot of that pain too.  As long as we all maintain this fiction that American hegemony is everlasting and inevitable they will continue to abuse it to maintain an even greater bubble that the one that so recently burst.  All stories end; we just don't know how many chapters this one has left.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Put in pot, cook

There is a book I should write for people like me.  That is, a book about how to cook when you need to cook a lot and don't particularly care for cooking or how food looks but do care about how healthy your food is and how it tastes.  The book would be titled "Put in pot, cook" and would basically be a bunch of recipes that entail chopping up ingredients, putting them in a pot, and cooking them.  Nothing complex, nothing that displays well, and chock full of healthy and tasty.  When my parents were teaching me how to cook they really tried to emphasize the importance of making the dinner look presentable and keeping colour in mind but it absolutely didn't take.  I will happily eat grey sludge as long as it is tasty and healthy.  I recognize that I place importance on one sense (taste) and none on another (appearance) and that this is entirely arbitrary.

The trouble with my curmudgeonly ways when it comes to food is that Wendy gets very excited about new recipes that look good.  She likes reading food blogs and buying recipe books and ends up all pumped up about a new recipe she wants me to try because it looked so delicious in the pictures.  I, on the other hand, just get irritable that I need to figure out a new recipe, keep new things stocked in my kitchen, and in general do something outside of my rut.  I *like* my rut, dammit!  I am aware that I deserve no sympathy whatsoever for my plight of having to cook new and interesting dinners once in awhile but since the internet seems mostly about having a forum to bitch about nothing...

The obvious solution to the problem is to have Wendy be the cook and me work.  She could be creative, or boring, or whatever when it comes to food and I would just be happy to have something to eat.  It is a little more complicated than that though because she cares about other things too like having a career, and doing things that matter, and getting out of the house.  Those things just don't mesh well with sitting around the house cooking.  Sitting around home building games nobody will ever play, on the other hand, has some very nice synergy with getting meals on the table in time.

Science fiction sometimes suggests that in the future we will all eat grey, featureless nutrient cubes and real food will be considered an anachronism.  Most people, I suspect, would have a lot of trouble with that and would really miss the physical experience of eating.  Not me though.  Sign me up for some food cubes and give me more time to do things!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A rainy Hallowe'en

Shortly I will be headed out to the yearly candy gathering event.  This year the edge of hurricane Sandy will be providing us with endless rain, special delivery.  Thankfully a couple of days of grey, rainy weather is all we seem likely to suffer from so I should probably be extremely grateful; New Yorkers are dealing with collapsing buildings, flooded subways, and massive power outages.  I found it hilarious that a report on the devastation in New York concluded with a picture of the suffering Toronto has endured... a car that got hit by a tree.  One car, one tree.  (It wasn't Hobo's car, which is perhaps a first for him.)  This year, like every year so far, Elli will be going out as a princess.  I would love to see her do something else, anything else, but I feel like it would be exceedingly silly for me to try to twist her arm just so I can go buy her extra stuff she will only use once.

Hallowe'en really brings out the humbug in me.  I see all kinds of people dressed up in crazy unique costumes and have no interest whatsoever in doing so myself.  It all sounds like an awful lot of work for very little gain. I spend much of my life wandering around looking bizarre and getting all kinds of strange glances and it would seem I have no desire to do so on the one day of the year when it is socially accepted.

It isn't *just* the lack of desire to dress up that gets my goat though.  It drives me nuts that people give out so much complete crap to kids when better alternatives are not allowed.  If you try to give out tasty but even marginally healthy things like homemade cookies they will be thrown out right away even though the one person on the street handing out said cookies is guaranteed to be the one person who can't poison any children.  When they find poison in a Mars bar who do they prosecute?  Who knows?  When they find a homemade cookie there is only one person to look up!  That is all entirely aside from the problem that random people poisoning children with homemade Hallowe'en treats is entirely fictional.

We need a lot more of people lowering their inhibitions and relaxing clothing norms while wandering the streets together at night and a lot less 'Jam those kids fully of Nestle products'!  Is my old and cranky showing?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Safety, no matter how ridiculous

Elli's school recently had a big renovation of their play equipment.  Mostly I really approve of the changes because they went from an old wooden structure that was primarily a series of platforms for the kids to stand on to a all metal design that is full of all kinds of crazy athletic opportunities.  Instead of a fort the kids have a climbing wall, monkey bars, crazy spinning wheels to hang off of and other great choices - it is all about movement and acrobatics now.

The one thing that really confused me about the construction (aside from why it took a grotesquely long time to complete) was the design of the sandbox.  You see, when I design a sandbox I design it with four sides.  Not these folks though, they go with three sides.  Now you *could* design a good sandbox with three sides, if it was a triangle, but these guys simply built a square sandbox and left one of the sides out!  Unsurprisingly the sand spills out everywhere and makes a gigantic mess... who could have guessed?

It turns out this isn't hilarious incompetence but rather ridiculous government over regulation in the name of safety.  The fence surrounding the structure was built first and after the sandbox was put in it was noticed that if the fourth side was added to the sandbox it would render the fence too short and ostensibly unsafe.  Apparently there are regulations about fence height that must be strictly adhered to and this 1.5 meter fence is simply not up to the task of containing toddlers.  Installing a 15 cm sandbox edge would mean that the children (if they spontaneously develop rocket boots?) could stand on that edge and leap over the fence.  Oh no!  The danger!  They would end up in the schoolyard, at least 50 m from any road or other possible hazard.  Which is only IF they could get over the fence which is completely impossible.

So the builders left the side of the sidebox off and sand spills out everywhere.  Official bodies that regulate children's care desperately need to back off and take a reality pill.  It is nice to try to make sure our children are taken care of but we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot to do it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Desk down

I tried a standing desk for about a week and a half.  The theory was that it would make me healthier and fix my unfortunate obsession with sitting in front of a computer for extended periods - unfortunate, that is, for my long term survival prospects.  In practice I really liked the style of standing up in front of the computer and found doing work or goofing off that way was comfortable right up to the point where my knees started aching.  After about four days of just sucking up fairly substantial discomfort I took the box off the desk and went back to a chair.  I obviously need some more elaborate arrangement in order to have a standing desk that works, perhaps something where I raise and lower the desk regularly so I spend no more than an hour standing or sitting in a row.

For me it seems lifestyle improvement projects are easy or hard mostly on the basis of time.  Cutting back on sweets wasn't hard because it didn't interfere with my obsessions and just required me to substitute eating a carrot for eating a cookie.  Adding exercise into my routine is bloody difficult because I need to stop doing things that are awesome (killing pixel enemies and taking their stuff) and start doing things that are boring (yoga, pushups, running).  The standing desk was the same, pretty much, because I didn't mind the effort of standing while at the computer but I sure did mind my knees hurting enough that I just couldn't do so anymore.

I need some kind of stair climbing machine or something that allows me to do a serious workout without interfering with my endless desire to soak up information... also without destroying my knees.  I am part of a generation that has the realistic possibility of extremely extended lifespans and I fully intend to live long enough to see if that pans out; I must find a way!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When the Leviathan needs to come crashing down

I watched a little video a few days ago where some folks were talking about the idea of legalizing prostitution.  One of them was very much for it and the other was obviously squicked out by the idea - he had no concrete reason why prostitution should be illegal but felt like keeping it the way it was made sense.  I completely disagree with his conclusion because even if you don't like prostitution it is clear that making it illegal causes hideous problems for the people involved in it (mostly women, of course), funnels money to organized crime and most importantly doesn't prevent prostitution at all!  The real issue though is not prostitution or the legality thereof but rather the idea that it is reasonable to make things illegal simply because they make you feel uncomfortable.

There are an awful lot of people out there who really buy into that.  The reasons for many things being illegal are flimsy at best or nonexistent at worst but because people believe that it is necessary to inflict horrendous punishments on others who do not conform these things persist.  Somehow the leap is made from "I wish people didn't do that" to "It is necessary to spend enormous sums to ruin people's lives when they do that".  It comes from the notion that some things are inherently sacred and that certain actions, despite the fact that they hurt no one, are inherently wrong.  I talked about this before, the idea that left wingers tend to believe that morality comes from being fair and helping people and right wingers tend to think that morality is also derived from following orders, helping your tribe, and accepting things are inherently good or evil.

One tremendous benefit to deciding things based on fairness and helping is that we can usually agree on what that would entail.  Mostly people can sit down and figure out roughly what would help people and what would be just and come to a reasonable compromise but when you introduce tribal thinking, following orders, and sanctity into the equation it is normal and expected that people will come to completely incompatible solutions.  I think that we should help Torontonians, you think we should help Vancouverites.  I think we should do what my boss says, you think we should obey yours.  I think we should worship crosses, you think we should sacrifice bulls to Thor.  There is no middle ground nor any chance of compromise - when we make decisions this way we are bound to come into irresolvable conflict with anyone outside our own social group.

When we make decisions about law we need to make them not based on what makes us feel weird nor what we think of as wrong.  The law, if it is to be consistent and just at all, must be based on preventing harm.  This is a relatively new thing as law for most of history was largely a way for the powerful to oppress the weak.  At one point the *entire* Toronto police force was fired because they had become entirely political thugs who fought for one candidate or the other!  These days we know better and we can be better than that.  When we make something illegal it must be based on preventing the harm the action would cause, not fruitlessly trying to prevent people from doing things that make us feel uncomfortable for no good reason.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


There are miscarriages of justice all the time.  People get imprisoned for crimes like prostitution or possession of marijuana and society ends up paying a ton of money to ruin people's lives... for what?  Because we don't like their private choices about how they want to live?  There are at least a number of people who think we should punish those acts by imprisonment though.  In Italy there is a whole new category of crime being punished - failure to be omniscient.

Three years ago Italy suffered an earthquake.  Seismologists in that nation did not provide timely and accurate warning of the event ahead of time so they are going to prison for six years.  The charges, apparently, ignore the fact that nobody has ever successfully demonstrated the ability to predict an earthquake.  It has never happened.  So these people are going to prison for failing to do something that no human has ever done and which no human on earth currently could do.  That is a level of scapegoating that is hard to fathom.  It makes sense that when somebody is murdered, for example, people want to have a particular person to blame it on and feel better when someone is arrested.

But this is an earthquake!  We *know* that nobody did it!

If anything the Italian police should be putting the Pope on trial.  After all, he has a direct line to the Almighty and presumably should have been able to ask for a veto on the earthquake, or at the very least an accurate timeline.  I have my doubts on their ability to meander into Vatican City and arrest the Pope though (also this would probably end up in declaration of war!) but arresting the Pope makes an equal amount of sense.

The worst part about this is that it isn't just going to destroy the lives of seven scientists but also make doing science in Italy completely crazy.  If you fail to predict something bad happening in your field you can be imprisoned even if there simply isn't any reason to think you could have predicted it.  This is a terrifying prospect for anyone doing research, to be held criminally responsible for events that are completely out of your knowledge or control.  It is a disaster for Italy, a disaster for research there, and a very sad state of affairs for justice when the courts are willing to convict people for not being God.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The power of technology

Technology lets us do all kinds of fantastic things.  Mostly that seems to revolve around even more efficient sharing of cute cat videos and porn but sometimes something totally insane and original pops out.  If you haven't seen Gangnam Style you MUST watch this.

So, this video came out on July 15 and has 500 million views.  Now I see on Facebook that Tominoes wants me to watch the best Gangnam style parody.  The things that blows me away is that this parody, roughly 3 months later, isn't some dude in his basement parodying something.  It is a huge production with tons of actors and actually looks fantastic.  Whether it is actually the best Gangnam Style parody is a question I will leave to the academics but what nobody can deny is that these days when some guy makes a crazy parody of something the internet manages to spit out serious productions that compete to be the best parody of the parody in only a couple months.

Everything is getting faster at an exponential rate.  What will this be like in twenty years?  Random crazy video comes out, 5 billion people watch it, and high production quality parodies of it arrive next week?  How fast and how big can we get?  Also, anyone who says they can predict the future by examining current trends is dreaming.  Could *anyone* have told us this was coming?  Hell no.  People as a group are just way too complicated.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The aliens have landed

I always found crop circles to be ridiculous.  The idea that they represented some kind of alien vandalism was preposterous until it happened to me last night.  I walked into the living room from the kitchen and saw a carpet circle, a close cousin of the more famous crop circle.

How can it be anything else?  An inexplicable circular pattern right in the middle of the living room?  Nothing says aliens like geometric structures that have no readily apparent source!

The circle is darkened and the fibres of the rug are melted.  Clearly a tiny UFO landed here and its thrusters burned a hole into the carpet to create this perfectly round area of cooked plastic.

There can be no other explanation.  Prepare to be kidnapped, probed, memory wiped, and experimented upon.  Our alien overlords have arrived.  Anybody want to give me a big advance on the book deal?


Perhaps a pot of fresh, piping hot popcorn was placed onto the rug.  Perhaps said pot was a wee bit too hot and the guests at a party were treated to a unanticipated smell of burning plastic.  Perhaps the carpet will need to be replaced sooner rather than later, and perhaps there won't be a book deal after all.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I must obey the internet

The internet tells me many things.  It says that with by knowing just one weird old tip I can lose tons of weight, put on massive amounts of muscle, earn $400 a day part time from home with no skills, and get a quick pardon for any criminal history I might have.  I feel it is safe to not listen to the internet on these topics. The internet also tells me things that are true and I feel obligated to act on them; this probably makes me live longer but certainly doesn't make me happy in the short term.  Just recently I read that sitting is bad for you.

This, certainly, isn't news on its own.  The interesting part is that sitting isn't just bad because it sets you up to be obese and suffer from those attendant complications - I can't get away from it just because I have an outrageously active metabolism.  Sitting itself is very bad for you in ways that aren't entirely clear because we understand the correlation but not necessarily the medical reasons.  You can't fix it by engaging in big bursts of exercise nor by eating well as both of those things help but even people who eat well and pump iron die young if they spend the rest of their time sitting.

This is obviously a huge problem for me because I spend an awful lot of my time sitting.  I don't have a car so I can't succumb to the lure of driving everywhere but I don't actually leave my house much so it hardly matters!  I decided that sitting at my computer all day every day is something I have to fix so I decided to go for a standing desk.  Clearly I am not going to give up my addiction to the computer so another solution was required and a standing desk sounded intriguing.  First I went out to the local Solutions store that sells packing and organizing stuff and bought the best object I could find for the job, a giant white tub.

I, being a certified genius, figured that I could just perch my monitor, keyboard and mouse on this thing and then take it off of my desk when I wanted to convert it back to a sitting desk.  The tub was a big failure though because it was not strong enough and the lip around the top edge was really a pain.  I was considering where I would store the tub when not in use and I thought, "Hey, I could store the giant tub on top of the wooden toolbox since they are about the same size!"  A few seconds later I began to wonder why exactly I bought a stupid plastic tub when I have a flat wooden box about the same size already in my condo....

Now I have a surface that is both sturdy and flat.  I gave it a whirl on Thursday and Friday and it is remarkably nice to stand while reading and working.  After a while standing there though I nearly keel over when I try to move and my lower back seizes up completely.  I hope long term I will be able to work like this with less discomfort because otherwise I am going to live longer and spend much of my long life gimping around like an old man.  Maybe this just illustrates how badly I need to do this and get myself used to actually having muscles engaged for a significant chunk of the day.  Only one way to find out.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Freedom of religion

There is a really tricky balancing act that we all do to find the ideal spot between freedom of speech and protecting people.  Both things are admirable goals of course but both are usually presented as fundamental rights even though they cannot both be fully enacted at the same time.  As the saying goes, my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.  There was an interesting example of this today on the BBC website where they talked about a man in Turkey who is currently being charged for making derogatory comments about Islam.  The case seems kind of murky to me even though I normally come out swinging in defence of people who insult religion because he wasn't some new atheist standing up for himself but rather just an asshole.

"I am not sure if you have also realised it, but if there's a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, it's always an Islamist."

There isn't a lot to defend in that.  I don't hold with religious belief but this is roaring away from free speech towards hate speech at great speed and with some recklessness.  It seems very clear to me that this is the sort of thing that shouldn't be a crime but this guy isn't some martyr for freethinking - he just happens to be bigoted against people who do things I don't approve of.  

I end up talking up both sides at various points.  I was upset about Canada weakening its enforcement of hate speech but I thoroughly support Blasphemy Day where freethinkers everywhere speak up to support the right of everyone to insult, ignore, or be disdainful of religion.  It is critical that nothing be sacred in the eyes of the law or justice; we all need to be able to express our views on any subject or belief in an open manner without fear of prosecution.  Of course at some point that freedom crosses over from "Your belief is mistaken" into "We ought to go beat up that guy because he thinks something we don't approve of" and then the authorities do need to step in.

Pretty regularly there is a push for international anti blasphemy laws that thankfully haven't gotten anywhere.  The major problem with them is that they would end up having to actually decide what is blasphemous and what isn't and since what is sacred to one religion is blasphemous to another they will have a rough time coming to any consensus.  They are also going to have the problem of that if it ever came down to it there would be a large group of atheists pushing their Flying Spaghetti Monster (this link is full of comedy gold, by the way) religion that has a tenet of 'eating food that isn't spaghetti is blasphemous' mucking up the proceedings.  Presumably those pushing for such laws feel that their religion would get to set the rules and other religions would just quietly step aside; I deem this unlikely.  Religions themselves ought to be terrified of blasphemy laws because that is a very substantial step down the path of state mandated religion and when that happens you have to consider that it might not be *your* religion that gets mandated.

Much as the big mainstream religions would like to think of themselves as special and different we all know the difference between a religion and a cult is the number of members and nothing more.  It matters not at all how ludicrous or awful your belief system is, if you manage to attract enough followers you metamorphose into a real religion.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lies, damned lies

I tell Elli untruths constantly.  I don't think they are appropriately called lies because I have no intention of actually fooling her but I definitely spend a lot of time saying things that are not true.  She was fussing about her legs being cold after her bath and I talked about trading them in for a new pair of legs.  She didn't believe me at first, but when I told her that the new leg store was beside Canadian Tire she stared at me wide eyed and asked "Really?"  No, not really, but it was fun to get her to imagine what colour of legs she would buy there.  She settled on legs of exactly the same colour as the current ones because she doesn't want to have different legs - reasonable enough.

I do this for a few reasons.  First off it is a lot of fun for me to try to tell her untruths that are right on the edge of her understanding.  If I tell her that the moon could fit in her pocket, she knows that I am fibbing.  If I tell her that it is about as big as her school she really doesn't know the truth of the matter and has to try to sort out if I am telling the truth or not.  Normally I would assume that she could easily realize that there aren't any leg stores out there but the added 'fact' of the store being near to Canadian Tire pushed her over into being unsure.  It is a game I play to try to say something that she can just barely figure out isn't true and I enjoy trying to hit that mark.

The other reason of course is to teach her to never believe anything anyone says on the basis of 'somebody said it so it has to be true'.  Clearly we have to accept people's word on small things because we can't fact check every statement but when important decisions are being made you have to assume that people might not be telling the truth.  It is important to develop a healthy skepticism of things people say that just don't seem right, and also a little bit of doubt about things that *do* seem right.  I want her to know that I will always let her in on the joke but that even when someone in authority says something in a utterly certain tone it isn't necessarily correct.  Of course when that person is running for public office you can usually assume that anything they say that seems squirrely is entirely false; see leadership debates in pretty much any country.

It is funniest when I end up telling these sorts of whoppers to other kids.  Apparently not all parents have fun making things up to see if their kids can tell what is true and what is not so when I try this with other kids they nearly always fall for it hook, line, and sinker.  I have had to apologize to other parents when their extremely credulous kids got some nutty idea into their heads and refused to believe it was a joke - so far they have always thought it was funny but someday I am going to dig myself into a big hole.  Hopefully what Elli takes away from this is the habit is the knowledge that the sincerity of a person's statement has nothing to do with the truthfulness of it.  Truth is tested by science, not zealous presentation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Leviathan

Do hackers help make the world a better place?  I learned today that the hacker group Anonymous revealed the person that they think is responsible for the online bullying that caused teenager Amanda Todd's suicide.  People paid attention and the person named is being severely harassed and attacked by the populace at large.  If they are right and the nailed the person responsible should we credit Anonymous with being helpful or freak out that cyber vigilantes are running around doing things the police should be doing instead?  Obviously if they are wrong then it is a massive disaster all around but don't we all cheer a bit inside when vigilantes nail the bad guy?  Hell, pretty nearly the entire action movie genre is based on mavericks taking down evildoers outside the bounds of the law using extreme violence.

In the book The Better Angels of our Nature it was fairly convincingly proved that a major factor in violence declining in our society is the Leviathan (the state).  The Leviathan breaks the cycle of retribution because people believe that the government will intervene to right wrongs and that both prevents them trying to get revenge themselves and also convinces them that they should not wrong others in the first place.  When your victim does not have to rely on themselves for protection you gain nothing by getting the first strike in and can expect to be punished regardless of who you are.  This mostly works on the basis of confidence:  In countries where people believe that the justice system is effective and fair and when they think the government can be trusted with a monopoly on the use of force crime is extremely low.  The trick is that people must believe in the Leviathan for it be effective regardless of its actual actions.

Given these facts I think we should not celebrate the victories of groups like Anonymous.  They generally support things I believe in (including tracking down pedophile internet stalkers, say) but by their very actions they undermine the confidence people have in the Leviathan and the benefits that generates.  When people think that vigilantes are necessary and that the police cannot get the job done themselves then those things become true and crime gets worse.  Much as we love to cheer for the selfless hero who goes after justice regardless of the rules we have to recognize that the police operate under many constraints because those constraints are necessary.  We don't want the cops of yesteryear and we don't want to have vigilante justice, even cybergeek vigilante justice.  The system isn't perfect by any stretch but that means we need to work on improving the system, not breaking down the public confidence that lets it be effective.