Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Back in the saddle

Christmastime is always rough on gaming.  Any time you have large numbers of people gathering for large spans of time there is going to be a bit of a problem keeping things up when mandatory events intervene.  This was always true when I was raiding in WOW as we would usually miss a week or two but this year was especially rough; I ended up taking a seven week hiatus from my DnD groups.  I had figured that having two groups would guarantee having some roleplaying to do though any given group might be spotty but events conspired mightily against me.  Each group shed a member or three and that never helps in getting back in the groove after some time apart!

The big thing I noticed was how much I depend on these groups as my social outlet.  I am perfectly content being alone the great majority of the time but I seem to invest myself very heavily in just a few people and activities such that when an activity ceases I suddenly don't see anybody anymore.  A few weeks after Christmas when I had not seen anybody but Wendy and Elli since my return flight I was going a bit batty.  It probably isn't healthy for me to place so much of my social life in so few baskets; much like the old saying about eggs I should ideally have lots more things to do and people to see in case of accidental breakage.

Sunday was the first day back to gaming and it was a great time, tonight the other group reconvenes.  The two groups are really dissimilar but I find both tremendous fun.  In group #1 we smash monsters and play the game like psychic ninjas trying to maximize our effectiveness and setting outrageous challenges for ourselves.  When we encounter a challenge we resolve it by either rolling dice "So what, I Intimidate this guy, I guess..." or simply killing everything in sight.  We advise each other on ways in which we could optimize our characters further and use our time together as a pure gaming exercise.

In the other group we have crazy romances, character conflicts and lots of really interesting roleplaying.  Some sessions there is really very little dicechucking or fighting at all as we spend our time talking through challenges or just having conversations.  Our characters have actual names too, unlike game #1 where the Pixie is called Tankerbell and the Warden is called Sky-Pounder-Warden.  Having both of these available to me is wonderful as I can indulge my number loving, system breaking urges on Sundays and my desire for a torrid romance on Tuesdays.  Now I just have to convince everybody else to never stop gaming again!

Monday, January 30, 2012

One very special country

I, being someone who lives outside the US and who isn't considered a right wing lunatic in my home country, like the Democrats more than the Republicans.  I was happy when Obama beat McCain in 2008 and although Obama is far too right wing for me to support on his own he was definitely the lesser of two evils.  Despite my high hopes he continually manages to do things that make me cringe in disgust or fear, oftentimes both together.  I read over his State of the Union address recently and I really do wonder how anybody in any country could read this sort of thing and accept it at face value.  This isn't unique to Americans of course as most countries hold an unaccountably high opinion of themselves; rather in the same way that 90% of people are sure they are in the top 50% of drivers.   Some of the things in that address that jumped out at me:

America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs - and as long as I'm President, I intend to keep it that way.

From the coalitions we've built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we've led against hunger and disease; from the blows we've dealt to our enemies; to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back.

We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings - men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

It boggles my mind.  Nobody could get along without America; otherwise who would start wars with other nations on completely fabricated grounds and demolish other nations who do the same?  Who would stand alone defending archaic systems of measurement against the entire world who has standardized itself in Metric?  (To be fair, Liberia and Burma are also holdouts.)  It is true that America holds a unique position as the most powerful economic and military power worldwide but somehow that has been construed to mean that everybody else needs America rather than the other way around.

The moral example of might makes right really doesn't seem like the sort of thing America should necessarily be touting as a contribution to moral authority.  It is true that there are regimes in the world that are worse than the one in America in terms of how they treat their own people but one would be hard pressed to find a regime that has done more damage to *other* people.  Did the North Vietnamese really need a 500 pound bomb dropped on their nation for every single person in the country?  Were the various bombing campaigns America has engaged in throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia somehow designed to convince us that America is good?  In my book murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians in other countries in pursuit of military or economic goals is much more akin to attempted genocide than a laudable moral example.

The fact that all people are determined to belong to either the group 'men' or 'women' is at least a widely accepted convention, though not accurate, but the assumption that all people belong to a Abrahamic faith is quite clearly and blatantly false.  Whether atheists, Wiccans, Taoists, Hindus and many others are simply assumed not to exist or are deemed irrelevant isn't clear but either way I don't much approve of a three way division of humanity into Jew, Muslim or Christian.

In the end this sort of hyberbolic nonsense dosed liberally with frothing patriotism isn't unique to America but it does seem to be at its worst there.  Canadians are known for being nonaggressive and accommodating and yet our politicians too paint us as the greatest of the great.  The difference may just be in plausible deniability; the Canadian Prime Minister can hardly claim we are indispensable to world affairs though I am quite sure he would if he thought he could get away with it.  I think being the sole superpower means that Americans feel entitled to speak of themselves as if their ascent is both deserved and eternal; they would do well to consider the fate of every other monolothic world power that has ever existed.  The Mongol Empire was mighty once too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A moon base, seriously

Newt Gingrich has promised the American people that if he is elected President he will make sure there is an American moon base by the end of his second term.  We hear a lot of outlandish promises from politicians like "We will increase revenues by lowering taxes" and "I will fund tax cuts by finding efficiencies that do not reduce services" all the time but rarely does someone who is considered a real contender come out with something so utterly ridiculous.  The US is facing a debt and deficit issue that can be safely termed catastrophic and there are monstrous cuts coming to every part of the government and yet good ole Newt wants to find a few trillion to establish a base on the moon just for show.  There is nothing there that could possibly be thought to be worth the cost at this point so the only real reason is to show off.  Perhaps Newt thinks that America needs to compensate for something?

I remember awhile ago in Ontario elections the issue of the Catholic school board came up and politicians were scrambling to come up with a stance that wouldn't alienate the Catholics.  It is terrible that we still have this situation with the province officially supporting religious discrimination and homophobia (among other things) but the politicians are too worried about the Catholic vote to get rid of it.  One of the platforms that was put forward was support for separate school boards for all religions.  This way the Catholic church won't protest since it will still get to push its particular brand of insanity and we can offer the same for Jews, Lutherans, Buddhists, Taoists, Flying Spaghetti Monsterists, atheists.... Oh wait, that is just as stupid and impractical as a moon base.  A real party was literally suggesting that they would have hundreds of school boards to accommodate every religious belief around.  Somehow the staggering cost and the issue of supporting random cults and such never came up in their planning sessions?

I have a huge amount of tolerance for politicians who say stupid things under pressure in debates and such.  They are trying to appear smooth, suave, intelligent and patriotic while answering very difficult questions in many cases.  It is hard to do and sometimes even really clever and competent people make mistakes in such a situation.  What I can't fathom is how idiotic policies like moon bases and separate school boards for Wiccans (not to knock their religion in particular, just their numbers, which are clearly not worth a school board) get out of the planning stages.  Surely they have somebody listening at their meetings who can figure out that these sorts of crazy projects aren't going to work?  It doesn't surprise me that politicians are nuts but it does surprise me that their handlers and assistants don't manage to have enough brains and moxie to convince the politicians that their ideas are going to sink their campaigns.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

High schools sucks

I have been reading a bit about homeschooling on Penelope Trunk's homeschool blog.  She says a lot of things that I would anecdotally agree with, like high school damages kids.  I had a lot of unpleasant experiences in high school and there are an awful lot of people I know that feel the same way but I still question the conclusion that everybody should homeschool their kids.  The trick is that there are, in fact, people who quite liked high school and just because thing X has big problems is no basis for choosing thing Y.  There are an awful lot of us who aren't particularly inclined nor especially skilled at teaching and a big advantage of having specialized teachers is that they are generally good at teaching and interested in doing so.  I don't particularly want to teach Elli full time for the next twelve years and I suspect that I would go quite batty trying to do it; other people are very different from me but I am sure that this is a common sentiment!

The question to my mind is not "Should everyone homeschool their kids?" because I think the answer is a resounding "No!" but rather "How can we make school better?"  There are plenty of different ideas out there but I think that this video presents some really good ideas; in particular we can start with dispensing with grades and grading as the primary organizing elements of schooling.  When I was younger I was disgusted with how the system did away with failing students who did not learn and perform but I have changed my mind in that regard.  I don't think that failing the kids who refused to learn would have helped them or changed their behaviour; they did not make their decisions based on rational, long term objectives but rather simply went moment to moment.  You can't cause an eight year old to work hard and study by having the possibility of failure at the end of the year as they will not do the work either way.  What you can do is try to give them the opportunity to do and to learn in the way that suits them best.

The daycare that Elli goes to seems fantastic in this regard.  They have the advantage, I suspect, of not having to submit grades and stick to mandated lesson plans like a school would but rather can simply do whatever it is that works.  They regularly tell us that the children have indicated interest in particular lessons, crafts or ideas and the teachers just run with it.  If the kids are finding ironing beads and the patterns they can make with them interesting then they do that; next week it may be books about dinosaurs or perhaps weather.  Regardless the kids end up learning all kinds of basic things like letters and numbers but the teachers take every opportunity to channel their enthusiasm for random topics into learning.

One thing I think is key here is that there is far too much to learn.  You can't learn all the facts out there but you can learn how to learn and how to think and making sure that the children are engaged and interested means that they get a lot out of the lessons.  Whatever facts in particular they miss they can pick up later when and if those facts are required.  No one ever failed in life because the didn't know the date Canada became a separate nation but many have failed due to lacking emotional awareness or problem solving skills.  We should focus on learning skills, not facts and prioritize interest over structure.

Warm air on the tummy

I do like the products of baking.  I finally managed to get a good handle on my bread recipe and can crank out respectable looking loaves of bread unlike the flat, thick loaves I used to be stuck with.  The food that comes out of the oven is great but the other products are wonderful too, particularly the warm tummy air.  After getting a loaf of bread out of the oven I crack open the oven door about ten centimeters so that the hot air comes flowing out of it and pours upwards and then I stand next to the oven and pull my shirt outwards so the hot air flows right up past me under my shirt.  It is almost like sitting next to a roaring fire, minus the flickering light and popping you actually get from a fireplace.  Am I the only one who relishes a warm column of air from the stove on my tummy on a cold winter's day?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fancy jam and shower water

When I read How Bad are Bananas? it became very clear that the best sort of environmentalism is not buying new stuff to improve efficiency but rather just buying less stuff.  Don't chuck away the old dishwasher to buy a high efficiency new one but rather run everything you have into the ground and only buy something else when the old one can no longer be repaired.  The CO2 footprint of making a complicated, large device like a dishwasher is actually a huge component (often greater than 50%) of it's total impact over its useful life.  Keeping this in mind I decided to try to implement this throughout my life even in small ways.  One result was hauling a large number of random jam jars out of my fridge.  I don't know if everyone is like this, but I always end up with random jars of jams and sweets and such from Christmas, birthdays and other random events.  Despite them usually being very good I almost always default to just getting regular jam out of the huge jar without thinking and the interesting jars of jams procreate somehow and end up slowly taking over.

All of these are random jars of stuff that I don't use but are in my fridge for one reason or another.  I have decided that I simply must use all of them or determine that they truly are foul beyond redeeming; simply stashing them until they go bad is not an option.  No more jam, mustard or sweet sauces will be purchased until all of the old have been put on something or other.  Tonight I made spicy soft tacos with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and beef.  What goes on spicy soft tacos?  Mango chutney of course, since it is in my fridge and needs to go on something!  Surprisingly I quite liked mango chutney on taco so at least that jar will be used quickly and without waste.  Many of these others are just fancy jam and will go on toast for the next month or so; whether or not I will ever find a home for VH generic plum sauce is a bit of a rough question.

Of course it isn't just jam you can do this with.  I also noted in the book that the energy used by having a hot shower is really quite huge (I do love a scorching hot shower) but after noting just how much hot water I have been flushing straight down the tubes I felt somewhat guilty.  My solution was to just keep the shower water in the tub overnight and let the heat in the water warm the condo up; it has the nice side effect of dumping a ton of moisture into the air too which is good in wintertime.  Now of course I have to deal with the issue of a dirty tub.  Leaving the shower water in all night leaves the tub incredibly grimy and full of bits of hair and other detritus and requires me to wash it all the time... which uses more water and bathroom cleaner.  Now I am left with some truly difficult (impossible?) choices such as deciding between conserving energy, conserving chemical usage or conserving both but living in filth.  Such are the dilemmas of those who aspire to great environmentalism by eating fancy jams and refusing to send shower water down the drain in a timely fashion.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager is something often trotted out in discussions of belief in religion.  The idea is that Pascal proposed that one should profess belief in religion even if you are an atheist simply because if you are correct in your atheism then it does not matter which way you go but if you are wrong and God is real then you had damn well better be religious!  The Wager fails spectacularly and simply because it is a false dichotomy; there are a gazillion different ideas about how one must live to please spiritual forces and one cannot hope to please them all.  It also seems unlikely to me that what an all powerful deity wants is someone who spends their life faking beliefs all over the spectrum trying to hedge their bets!

I read another amusing take on the Wager today that used a Homer Simpson quote to outline a new take on the Wager.  Fundamentally it is just "false dichotomy" written for the average person but it is well done and I like to see this sort of thing written up in general news sources.  A little more support for my cause, as it were.    It also doesn't hurt to show Homer Simpson being more clever than Blaise Pascal which certainly would be a rare event.

Power to the people

SOPA and PIPA are dead.  Boingboing has a great infographic about the transformation after the day the internet went dark in protest over the US government bills that were going to destroy or at least maim freedom online.  Enormous numbers of US citizens (and presumably a few people abroad who called in anyway) managed to change the number of Member of Congress opposed to SOPA and PIPA by a huge margin (31 to 101).  While it may be true that individuals can often be entirely powerless in political situations it is clear that people can and do have a tremendous effect when they move as a group.  Those who organized the internet blackout got what they wanted:  The people saw what was going on and made those in power understand that their jobs were forfeit if they pushed SOPA/PIPA through.

One person has little to no power but if you can rally a couple million to your cause you can effect drastic changes.  All you need to do is find enough bodies willing to man the phones to convince the people in power that they must vote for their jobs instead of voting for their bribes.  Hurrah for "democracy"!

Picture taken from boingboing:   http://boingboing.net/2012/01/19/how-the-internet-blackout-affe.html

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Prosperity Without Growth

I just finished reading the book Prosperity Without Growth.  It is a book designed to describe the fundamental flaws with current economics with regards to environmental sustainability and tries to come to some conclusions about how we can fix the problems we have encountered.  The simple summary is as follows:  Current economics is based on the idea of constant growth.  This growth uses up more resources and creates more waste every year.  There are limits to resources and waste capacity therefore we *must* at some point change our model to one where such growth is no longer required.

It is hard to argue any of the main premises of this book.  Tim Jackson very convincingly tells us that we cannot continue to increase our consumption of resources by a fixed percentage to infinity and that there are very good reasons to reverse this trend as soon as possible to avoid the catastrophes of climate change and environmental degradation.  He points out quite correctly that there are huge benefits to be gained in the developing world from economic expansion but that much of the developed world seems to gain no benefit in human happiness or prosperity from their extreme level of wealth.  I really respect how realistic Jackson is when he talks about how hard it is to massively overhaul the ways in which government, business, and people behave and I give him a lot of credit for not coming off like a revolutionary.  He approaches the topic logically and ends up at arriving at fairly extreme conclusions that I can't see any argument against.

The trouble is that even though Jackson is right that we need to very quickly change our world view and economic model to avoid huge problems I think his conclusion that it is feasible is wrong.  There is nothing logically or scientifically that would prevent society from accomplishing his goals but people who want a fancier gadget to impress the Joneses aren't affected by arguments by logic and science.  Not enough affected, at any rate.  The trouble is that he isn't asking something on the order of magnitude of fixing the ozone layer or avoiding acid rain.  We can't just retool our refrigerators or put scrubbers on smoke stacks, we have to give up flying almost entirely, completely overhaul the social rules that govern society, rewrite government priorities and mandates and scrap most of our current economics.  The level of sacrifice and change required is simply too much for people to accept in the face of long term consequences that mostly affect poor people living far away.

Of course we do have to change, and we will.  When the temperature really does rise and resources become more and more scarce we will eventually have to shift away from using so much and polluting so much.  I just don't think it will happen in the timeframe that Jackson is proposing, nor will it happen without substantial catastrophe to galvanize the masses into cooperating.  I think this book has a ton of fantastic ideas about how we could go about creating a society that can have prosperity without growth and happiness without environmental degradation.  If you are interested in the topic it is a great read.  Unfortunately I believe Jackson when he talks about how incredible the adjustments need to be and I don't think we are capable of making them as soon as he suggests we must.

Picture from Amazon:  http://www.amazon.ca/Prosperity-without-Growth-Economics-Finite/dp/1849713235/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327106443&sr=1-1

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What does rational optimism mean?

I read two blogs called Rational Optimist, one by Matt Ridley who is a fairly famous author that talks about environmentalism mostly and one by a much less famous American who talks about politics, religion and economics.  I feel like the descriptor rational optimist definitely applies to me but I wonder if most people would agree on what an optimist means in that context.  I have often described myself as an optimist and had people tell me that I was completely wrong as I often expect a very poor outcome from any given situation.  What I specifically aim for is being completely honest about what I know and what I do not know.  I know, for example, that the human experience has been consistently improving over known history.  We live longer, have more freedom and can connect with each other in so many more ways.  I also know that no matter what point in history you examine you find the same complaints about how society is getting worse, the younger generations are losing their morals, and things in general are headed for a reckoning.

That doesn't mean that nothing goes wrong of course.  We fight in pointless wars, we marginalize members of our society for their gender, sexual expression, skin colour, beliefs, culture, and ancestry, among other things.  Individuals commit all kinds of hideous crimes against others whether those crimes be as personal as a knifing or as sweeping as giving the order to 'kill them all.'  Despite all that things have gotten better and continue to get better.  There will be endless disappointments and steps backward but the trend over time for all of us is monotonically increasing and I expect it to stay that way.

I liken this progress to a drunkard stumbling home from the bar.  We are going to fall into ditches, trip over curbs, land in hedges and puke on our own shoes.  Despite the mess, embarrassment, and minor injuries though we are consistently weaving our way closer and closer to home and a nice comfy bed.  On any given moment we might see the drunkard doing something completely idiotic that obviously helps not at all and be tempted to despair but we must remember that slowly but surely progress is being made.  There will be endless people telling us that the drunkard will never arrive at their destination and countless examples of ridiculous exploits but we can look back at the weaving path the drunkard took and see the inevitable.

Bad things happen.  In any given situation something disastrous and terrible may come out of it.  There is no rational basis for being sure, for example, that we can get ourselves out of climate change, eliminate religion, or prevent any given war.  We can be quite sure that overall things will improve though, and in that way I think there is every reason to be a rational optimist.

A small point of darkness

Today the internet went a little bit dark.  Boingboing is black, google is showing a 'get rid of SOPA!' message (though I can't see it since it directs me to the .ca version) and many other websites are either shutting down or putting up special messages in a show of defiance against the lunatic laws poised to come into effect in the US.  The thing I find most hilarious is how much this will splash across the rest of the world if SOPA and PIPA actually do become law.  I could easily have this entire blog removed either through any random fool claiming copyright infringement or through Google deciding that their liability in having all kinds of bloggers who are posting illegal links is too much.  The fact that the crazy music and movie industries in the US are so likely to be able to shut down so much of the internet is truly nutty but there it is.

I can't do anything about this aside from yell and scream on my blog, which admittedly does nothing on its own.  If you live in the US and can actually call up your elected representatives and tell them what an idiotic thing these laws are you might actually have an impact since every one of those people is trying to get reelected and if enough people call and yell at them they might actually get the fear of the Flying Spaghetti Monster instilled in them.  So get on it.  There is nothing wrong with protecting intellectual property rights but there is no reason whatever to use the punitive and completely out of control measures that are coming down the pipe now.  We don't need every website that is accused without evidence being shut down and we don't need industry executives having veto power over anything created anywhere in the world.

I took this picture from http://ziggyny.blogspot.com/2012/01/stop-sopa.html  He took it from somewhere else undoubtedly.  I am quite confident everybody involved wants us to post it every damn place we can.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Living on the cheap

Today I was at Elli's school doing some volunteer work for the games club.  For some reason we have 12 Monopoly boards there despite the fact that the game takes forever, has a bazillion pieces and isn't good so we spent an awful lot of our time trying to assemble complete sets from the chaos and eventually pitching things into the recycling.  We had some interesting conversations while sorting through the bits about child rearing and such since it turns out that everybody else there was a stay at home parent with at least 2 children.  All of them found that their kids were massively different from one another.  They talked about having to maintain completely separate discipline and reward systems for each child and what a struggle it was to adjust on the fly to each child needing such opposite behaviour on their part.  It is a challenging thing I am sure though I have not done it myself.  I suspect it is a lot like being a manager in that there is always a disconnect between how you want to run things and how things need to be run to get the most out of your workers and different workers need different things.  No matter how careful you are there will be a balancing act between changing the rules for each person as necessary and maintaining a constant set of rules for consistency.

I talked a little bit about my only experience with this sibling difference:  My penny pinching and my brother's much more normal spending habits.  He is on the frugal side of average but I am freakishly so making him look like a spendthrift.  My parents could literally have handed me the keys to the vault and I still would have only spent $100 outside of food, books and lodging in my first university term; such refusal to spend money is simply part of my makeup.  The folks I was working with asked me how I did that and jokingly suggested I come by their houses and tell them how to live on so little which I thought was really funny because I haven't any idea what I would tell them.  What would I say?  Don't ever buy anything?  Spend all of your time playing old videogames and playing card games with decks you got for free?  I keep on wearing clothing with holes and stains until somebody randomly gives me a replacement for Christmas or somesuch - that isn't the sort of hint anybody needs or wants.

I'm not holding this up as an example of virtue either as it is just the way I am rather than something I work at.  I don't replace things mostly because I would rather use my old things than go out to a store and buy new things.  There just isn't that desire to go shopping and get new stuff in me for some reason.  I can enjoy a new thing when I get it but somehow I lack that normal desire to get new stuff.  Most people have to fight the temptation to duck into a store and buy something new that they see on display but I have to fight the temptation to never visit a store under any circumstances and be clothed only in rags.  There are plenty of books out there talking about financial restraint but I can't see myself writing one.  The book would start and end with "Stop wanting stuff and cultivate the ability to be content with poverty."  Yeah, that isn't going to fly.  For one I need 200 pages of crap that won't work to fill it in, and for two nobody would buy it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Being on time

On Saturday I went to visit some friends to play games.  The email invitation listed the start time as 1:00 so I dutifully planned my trip to get me there right on time and ended up being about 2 minutes late.  When I arrived the hosts were quite shocked to see me there and remarked on how strange it was that I was on time.

Thing is, they weren't surprised to see *me* arrive on time.  They were surprised to see *anybody* arrive on time because everybody else they know arrives late to things and calls from their cell phone to explain their late arrival and describe the time at which the actual arrival will take place.  Neither Wendy nor I own a cell phone so we have never gotten into that habit; when we make plans to be somewhere at a particular time we damn well follow through because there is no way to coordinate otherwise!  Without cell phones on each end it is quite a mess to miss an appointment because nobody knows if the other person will arrive soon, has already left, or perhaps is just asleep.  Once you have a cell phone though things change drastically.  You can be late because you can always find your date, you can figure out when they are coming and you never have to wonder if they are going to show at all.

Other people have remarked on this too.  They find it strange to meet with us because they are obligated to actually show up.  If we had cell phones they could just call us and tell us that they will be late or that they will miss the event entirely but since we do not they know that we will be waiting at the designated point at the proper time for a great while if they fail to make the date.  Strangely some of them seem to think this is a wonderful thing because it forces them to meet their commitments and stick to the schedule instead of being endlessly available for late minute changes and delays.  If you have to be there and excuses will not suffice you generally find a way to make it work.

This all makes me wonder if the improved communication offered by cell phones has this effect in a widespread fashion.  Is this a global phenomenon or am I just particularly particular when it comes to showing up at the appointed time and I coincidentally don't have a cell?  Wendy is much more willing to change plans at the last minute than I am; often she takes a preternatural delight in doing something crazy at the last minute while I scratch my head and ask "What was wrong with the plan again?"  Even given this people talk about how doing things with her is strange because the plan must be adhered to so I suspect this is more global than local to just me.

What do you think?  Has owning a cell phone (since you mostly all do!) made it such that you don't make appointments and do you see other cell phone users doing the same thing?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sneaky Science

For the past year I have had a family membership at the Science Centre.  Generally we have really enjoyed the experience with a few disappointments here and there and on our last visit a couple weeks ago our membership was about to expire.  On the way out the door a random staffer stopped us and asked us if we had considered becoming members.  On finding out that we were already members I was pestered to renew and offered a special rate only available to current members who renew:  $100 for the year.  The "Regular" price is $120 so this special one time only offer was a very big deal and paid for itself in no time don't you see!  I was not particularly interested in being pressured into buying something I am not sure I need at all so I passed on the "Never to be repeated!" offer.

Last night I got a call from the Science Centre offering me a special discounted rate on a family membership - $100!  Of course our membership has since lapsed so this isn't a special 'early renewal' discount but rather a 'please please please give us money' discount.  The funny thing is that the current membership pitch emphasized that I could delay the start of membership to any date I want rather than having to start it up today.  This makes the original pitch of 'renew before you expire' pretty weak, I must say.  The offer came from a real person who actually spoke English, which was a nice change for a telemarketing call, but the person in question was not a very good salesperson.  This is what you get when you hire random desperate students for minimum wage I suppose.  I fully expect to get pitched and sold when I go to a business or when somebody calls me out of the blue but I really didn't expect such flagrant pricing shenanigans from the Science Centre.  Somehow I have an impression of them as a bunch of geeks who just want to share their passion for science with the children of the world when of course they hire a sales director to get membership numbers up just like any other organization.

Despite their pitch being disingenuous and slimy I might still take them up on their offer.  Elli loves going to the Science Centre even though she often spends half of our time there pretending to be a beaver princess in their sad little 'beaver lodge' exhibit.  The science isn't really of much interest to her but it is a fine big place to play.  I wonder if I should try to leverage this to talk to somebody at the Science Centre about my concerns with the place and see what they think about them.  They really do need to get current science exhibits like climate change and the ozone layer up to speed and lots of exhibits need repairing in a big way.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Do they really believe what they say?

I read a good article about the US Republican party talking primarily about how the party has mired itself in ignorance and anachronism.  The article makes the very good point that since historically the Republicans have been the party of the religious right and have been able to count on the vote of fundamentalists they have managed to work themselves into a hole that it is very difficult to get out of because of the two party system.  Each candidate has to prove to the party's voters that they are the best and the easiest way to guarantee any given person's vote is to find a person who cares about a very small number of issues extremely passionately and then convince them that you are the best person for those issues.  There are plenty of Republican voters who base their whole voting decision on religious fundamentalism and since the other voters have a wide range of ideas the best way to become the leader is to appeal to the one issue voters and be a more extreme fundamentalist than everybody else.  You can try to appeal to people on all the other topics but it is extremely difficult to appear to be good on defense, social issues, economics and so on so the most successful candidates are going to try to outdo each other impressing the fundies.

This wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue in a multi party system.  If there were a decent number of parties then fielding a wild eyed frothing lunatic is sure to alienate everyone who isn't part of your religion but since you have a simple choice of A or B then even if A is insane a lot of people will vote that way anyhow because they don't vote B.  Canada has managed to elect a Conservative party that uses the same sorts of tactics as the Republicans - denial of science, refusal to pay attention to facts, insertion of religious dogma into politics and policy and other atrocities.  The advantage we have up north here is that there are three real parties right now and there have been several others in the recent past so voters have more of a choice.  If the leader of a particular party is clearly nuts Canadians can and will vote for somebody else to a much greater extent than the Yanks.  Because of this Stephen Harper has to downplay the religion and the fundamentalism to keep his support base pacified - there are plenty of people who vote Conservative who would find somebody else to vote for if Harper went too nutty on them.  Somehow this didn't stop us electing a Conservative majority who will proceed to do all kinds of terrible things but I suspect this is largely based on the left wing vote being much more divided between the centrist Liberals, the left leaning NDP and the marginal Greens.

Here in Canada the Conservatives could actually field a progressive right wing candidate and do well.  Right now they are essentially a despotism unfortunately so we seem stuck with Stephen Harper's egomaniacal behaviour and piss poor policies.  It would be completely feasible to have a Conservative leader who was really pro science and who made good, informed decisions and the party could do very well in such a situation. The fundies might vote for them less but the majority would vote for them more in such a situation and they could easily do much better than they have and might well make a very good government.  Canada's system of government isn't ideal by any stretch (we need the random vote!) but it is a damn sight better than a historically entrenched two party system which ends up being run by the most extreme people.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


When a government has to reduce spending it causes a lot of grief.  This has been a huge news item these past couple years of course, particularly in countries like Greece and Italy where their ability to get new loans to finance their debt is directly based on the government's ability to slash deficits drastically and painfully.  The thing that really bothers me about these sorts of announcements though is how incredibly lacking in context they usually are.  Case in point:  The Ontario government cutting $66M in grants to universities and hospitals.  This was portrayed in the media as a drastic and shocking cut with an expectation of a major backlash - and yet this represents only .4% of the provincial deficit.  While obviously it is going be a major annoyance for those involved we must not forget how tiny it is compared to how much cutting has to be done to stem the tide of red ink.  Remarkably this actually stems from an announcement back in November but is only now being picked up and portrayed as 'shocking'.

As this article says, the big trouble with these sorts of announcements is how much their impact is not related to the size of the monetary value at stake.  If the number was $660M or $6.6M the average person wouldn't react any differently and yet the difference to the budget is several orders of magnitude different!  The newspapers report these things and we make our voting decisions based on them and yet the articles have no way of accurately conveying how much the cuts matter nor much ability to get around the limited amount of outrage you can get from your readers in any given time.  If there are fifty cutbacks in a single day the headline simply isn't going to get that much more attention than if there is one and it hardly even matters what the total dollar value is.  All of this makes me very sad when I read articles that are outraged over cutbacks because not only are they generally useless to the average person they also fail to offer any sort of solution.  If you are certain that even though the government must cut back spending that a particular program must be saved, surely you can supply a place where the money can be found instead?  If you cannot then you must not really know whether or not the cut is sensible in the first place.

Perhaps the cutback in question is brutal and poorly thought out and perhaps it is precise and necessary but none of the comments or information we receive through normal news sources allow us to come to a reliable conclusion.  Everyone who is on the receiving end of a cutback has a tale of woe to relate.  A republic may be the best system of government anybody has tried on a large scale but it still makes me sad to see it in action.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Old Heroes

Wendy has been listening to the audio book version of Paladin of Souls, a fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I did not manage to hear the entire thing because sometimes she used her headphones but I was impressed by what I did hear mainly because the heroes were so well done.  Normally in high fantasy novels the heroes are sixteen years old and are plucked from a bucolic village in the middle of nowhere to become invincible engines of destruction once their magic powers are fully revealed.  More than that though they have adventures and relationships that are very much adolescent ones.  That is a sensible sort of hero to write since all of the readers either are teenagers or were teenagers but it certainly doesn't cover the full range of human experience!

This is the thing about this book that got me:  The characters are middle aged and they are written perfectly as such.  There is a love story going on throughout the novel but it isn't full of bright eyed idealism and "You are The One!" nonsense but rather is clearly between two people who have done it all before.  They have experienced marriage, love, sex, and betrayal before and are well aware that people can and do move on afterwards.  This attitude is one that comes from life experience and time and the author clearly shows her characters living and falling in love as adults do.

The characters feel like real adults in other ways too.  They aren't leaping in the middle of things and desperately trying to save the world as they have watched too many would be heroes be buried already.  They have a measured courage that allows them to do things that are dangerous and terrifying when they really need to without the childish belief in one's own invulnerability and blind indifference to risk.  I also have a real appreciation for an author that can write a gripping fantasy epic that does not rely on world threatening danger. Saving the world is fine and all but it makes it hard to imagine how the characters continue afterwards.  These characters do things that are important to them and to the people around them but it is clear that the world will continue to spin regardless of their involvement.  I think this amplifies the courage needed to do what they are doing though because there isn't the normal "I must sacrifice myself to save the universe!" reason for being brave.  The characters try to do the best they can with what they have to work with and that manages to be much more compelling for all that it is not world shattering.

A good part of an author's ability to write convincing characters is not making them too far from human.  When you read about heroes like Sparhawk, Rand Al Thor, Belgarion or Richard Cypher you get to hear about invulnerable supermen who can smash cities and lay waste to armies.  In Paladin of Souls you hear about people who have some small amount of power but are still quite afraid of a dude with a knife.  He has a knife!  He could cut me with that!  That grounding in respecting real world dangers makes the danger they are in much more poignant.

If you are a teenager you might not like this book as the heroes are likely boring and incomprehensible (much like your parents).  For those who have been around the block a few times though I highly recommend the heroes of Paladin of Souls.

Picture taken from wikipedia.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Recently I posted about links between religion and environmentalism.  Not to say that one causes the other or any such thing but rather just that these two things fill very similar roles in people's lives.  They both supply reasons for living and heuristics for making decisions that are very simple.  The Naturalist sent me a link to an article that highlights another common theme in the two concepts:  Righteous annihilation.  The article talks about many of the common current predictions of Armageddon and shows pretty clearly how there is a big similarity between the fall from grace of Adam and Eve in the Bible and they common environmentalist theme that the earth was pure until humans messed it up.  In both cases there is a huge price to pay for wrecking the Garden of Eden though what will enforce that price can be either God or some amorphous concept of earth, fate or Gaia.

When you actually look at the Armageddon scenarios that people talk about in the mainstream media though you don't end up with an interesting thesis on the similarities between religion and environmentalism but rather just a slap in the face with the fact that people are really crazy.  There have always been and always will be religious nuts who manage to convince others that they can predict the actual end of the world; no actual facts are necessary but a little time needs to pass between each for people to build up their gullibility again.  Things like the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 though don't come along every day and people who want to take advantage of fools need to seize the moment.  What I find truly maddening is not that some folks somewhere buy into "People thousands of years ago wrote a calendar and it has a big turnover in 2012, obviously earthquakes are coming!" but rather that these fools wiggle into real discussions as if the idea isn't preposterous.  If those Mayans were so damn prescient they why aren't they our overlords right now, hmm?  Surely they could have predicted and avoided whatever harm might have come their way?  But no, we end up seeing real scientific panels on unrelated subjects field questions about whether or not the world will end in 2012.

Humans as a group sure do have an appetite for apocalypse.  I will admit that I love disaster movies and I find stories about people who live in a time after the collapse fascinating but there is a pretty big jump between wondering what it would be like and buying pet insurance so someone will feed Rover when you are taken up into the sky in the Second Coming.  Probably we all just want to be important and we want our lives and our times to be the BIG ONES.  It is a hard thing to look up into the night sky and realize how utterly insignificant we are even if you don't consider the eventual certainty of maximum entropy.  Somehow by being a tiny part of the grand hurrah people sell themselves on the idea that everything they do is important.  Not everyone can actually win the contests we have between ourselves so people look for a contest they can't possibly lose.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Getting a little perspective is often a very sobering thing.  For example, it is hard to complain too much about the food situation here in Canada when you really understand that tens of thousands of people are dying of starvation in Africa every month.  McDonalds is pretty bad but it sure is a damn sight better than that.  In a similar vein I submit to you this link, which details how in Belarus the government has officially banned visiting any site on the internet that does not originate in Belarus.  Want to use Google?  Illegal.  Want to buy something from Amazon?  Illegal.  Want to use thesaurus.com?  Illegal.  Who the HELL thought that was a good idea?!?

The various 'control the internet' initiatives in this part of the world don't look so bad when you consider that monstrosity.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Solitude, in need of

Last night Wendy was worried about me.  She asked why I had been so distant lately and wondered if something was wrong with me.  Thankfully I had an answer and it was one that she can readily accept:  I really needed time alone.  I enjoy the holidays and I do like getting to see old friends and family but by the time the first day back to school and work rolled around today I was going a wee bit barmy.  Normally after my yearly trek to the great white north there is a fair bit of chillaxing going on and some quiet time but this year we had a good half dozen special occasions and events scheduled in the week following our flight home and they really got to be too much at once.  In particular I really need a good stretch of time where my concentration is entirely my own and this is a hard thing to do when there is a five year old running around.  At any time I can be seized upon to be a horsey, create food or clean up a mess and that necessity for being on call wears me down more than I like to admit.

I know it is getting bad when I look forward to vacuuming.  Not that vacuuming is fun, mind, but I do it when I am home alone and I can do it exactly how I want to, exactly when I want to, and nobody interrupts me.  It might make a lot more sense to long for computer game time but my subconscious has evidently latched onto vacuuming as the thing that signifies solitude and so I long for it.  My fantasies clearly need some work.

The most amusing thing came today when Wendy called me to tell me that The Banker was coming over to visit me to learn and play the new game I invented called Dot.  My immediate response was to be extremely bitter and feel terribly put upon, which is quite ridiculous because I *love* playing the games I build and I look forward to having really clever gamers like The Banker test them with me.  I know when I am mad that someone is coming over to play board games because I won't be able to vacuum that I need to sit alone in my condo for a few days!  The Banker actually did a great job and handed me my first loss in Dot and came within one point of toppling me in FMB on his very first game so it was a good time and I got some valuable testing in.  The endless party that is vacuuming will need to wait for another day.

I wonder how I managed to be a salesman for so long.  How did I spend every day talking with total strangers or passing time by chatting with fellow salespeople without going completely bonkers?  I have such a desperate need to escape the world and just be alone with my thoughts and my computer that I just can't figure out how I lived that life.  Who am I, really?

Below:  The new game, Dot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What Bible Literalism Means

I found a great interview with Penn Jillette on BigThink that talked about Penn's take on the religion of the various candidates for US President.  He talks a lot about religion in general and about how he views the candidates in particular but the critical thing to me is that he isn't particularly partisan.  He is a crusading atheist who isn't particularly pleased by Obama and doesn't buy some atheists' theories that Obama is really a nonbeliever who just pays lip service to stay in office.  As far as Penn is concerned it is almost as bad to be lying about believing in completely batshit crazy stuff (his words, though I completely agree!) as it is to actually believe in it.  He really doesn't want to vote for either option.

Penn focuses a lot of attention on the idea of being a Bible literalist.  He wonders how the candidates can portray themselves as such when none of them has a particularly strong record of throwing rocks at people with intent to murder on the basis of working on Sunday.  In point of fact I think that if Mitt Romney wandered into Starbucks and began to hurl stones at the cashiers he would not be labelled a 'Bible literalist' but rather 'a murderous psychopath' and put in jail.  So since these people, and in fact very nearly everybody else, don't actually believe in the literal word of the Bible what do they mean when they say that they do?  Penn portrays himself as simply being clueless here and asks them to tell him what he is missing.  He feels like he is missing a key or a point of translation somewhere and that if only they would tell him what 'Bible literalism' is supposed to actually mean that communication would be so much easier.  I don't know if he is being deliberately obtuse or is genuinely confused but the answer is perfectly clear.

"I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible."


"I support crazy assholes in my religion in their abuse of minorities and outsiders and their attempts to acquire power for themselves which is excused by convenient quotations from the Bible."

Nothing more complicated than that.  When you say you believe in Bible literalism you really just express support in a roundabout way for the greatest evil that comes from religion.  It is a political stance supporting a group and says nothing about the way you personally get your morality, code of conduct or information.  The Bible literalists are really what get my feathers ruffled because so often they are the ones responsible for the most awful crimes committed in the name of religion.  The casual hypocrisy of people who support their religion without believing in what it stands for is intensely frustrating but it is mostly just an enabler for the really bad folks on the fringe.

But scientific research is often wrong anyway!

Although I like the idea of finding new answers about the world around us we cannot deny that oftentimes the answers aren't very useful or we plain get it wrong.

Wired had a great article about this where the author talked a bunch about the various problems with medical research and how difficult it is for us to overcome our cognitive biases when we look for treatments for problems.  We desperately want to understand the world and we come up with narratives to explain events all the time even when there is absolutely no valid reason for them.  The problem is that we believe our own made up narratives and end up basing medical research on the ideas we hope are true instead of ideas that are grounded in hard data.

The thing that the article doesn't really hammer on hard enough I think is that profit motives really warp this whole thing much further out of control.  It is especially bad when scientists in the pay of Big Pharma make pitches for drugs that are as yet not properly tested but the profit motive can be seen throughout science.  Any researcher knows that their job and reputation are based on producing exciting results and that often entails believing your own hopes and dreams to be facts.  If you give up when it appears that your idea won't pan out you fail but if you just keep going with the fanatical belief that somehow it will work out you have the option of spectacular success - or failure just like before.

It is quite the difficult problem and although there are lots of things we can do better it isn't as if those new things are new or revolutionary; they are merely applications of old and proven rules of conduct and proof.