Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sex at Dawn

Unlike yesterday's book this one gets a recommendation.  Sex At Dawn really made me think about myself and the ways in which I view sexuality as well as being really informative on the subject of the general human tendency towards monogamy.  There is a huge amount of pressure in our culture to view any relationship outside of two people together forever as crime of some sort where obviously someone has been wronged.  In particular we see religious figures preaching the necessity of monogamy and the angelic state of two people fulfilling each other's every need for their entire lives.  There is a narrative that insists that this is the natural state of humankind and that going outside that natural state is dangerous and immoral.  That narrative is wrong and Sex At Dawn very convincingly shows why and how.

The greater part of the book is dedicated to debunking the myth of natural monogamy by talking about primates, medicine and forager societies.  If we look at bonobos and chimps we see all kinds of evidence that suggests that early humans were anything but monogamous.  In particular our large penises, shaped to remove the sperm from a previous lover from the vagina, show that our ancestors were not monogamous and there was much competition to be the one who successfully impregnated the female among the many males who had sex with her in a given cycle.  Gorillas, on the other hand, have micropenises which have no particular design features to suggest sperm competition - they fought their battles with physical might beforehand and have no reason to think the female might be impregnated by another male.

All the talk about the many societies where nonmonogamy is/was the norm is really quite interesting and I found the medical and scientific data to be convincing but as usual it is the psychology that really got me going.  The later parts of the book talk about modern relationships and the ways in which our physiology makes us really quite unsuited to maintaining monogamy over the long term.  Men are turned on and have higher testosterone levels when they experience novelty and variety.  Those high testosterone levels can give a feeling of euphoria; the high of a new relationship.  Over a lifelong relationship there is virtually guaranteed to be a time when men are exposed to an opportunity to be nonmonogamous and the high from that opportunity is amazingly difficult to resist.  This isn't because the relationship was bad or because its participants failed but rather simply based on biology.  This really shifts the discussion of monogamy or not from the realm of morality to the realm of logistics.  How can we create a situation where people can have flings with people other than their partner without damaging their primary relationship?

The book offers a number of clues from societies where monogamy is not practiced.  Many of them arrange specific times, situations or relationships in which people can have sex outside their primary relationship.  Sometimes the option is only available during certain events or only between certain age or social groups.  This makes sure that although people can get the high and excitement of sex with other people it has firm social boundaries that prevent it taking over primary relationships.  This is of course difficult to bring into our society because of the strong boundaries in place enforcing monogamy.  We don't have widely accepted ways in which people can have sex with random others - prostitution is considered dirty or unacceptable where it isn't outright illegal and honestly most of us want someone who wants us, not just someone who will take our money for fifteen minutes of work.

Reading all this stuff really got me further away from the camp of 'I will never love / have sex with multiple people concurrently'.  When I was young I really bought into the moral argument but now I don't.  Many nonmonogamous relationship styles aren't particularly workable but there are plenty that are and we need to have the courage to find the best place for ourselves regardless of what most other people are doing.  This is particularly true when we look at the history of marriage in Western societies and notice that lifelong monogamy hasn't ever really worked for most people anyway.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deceiving Ourselves

Usually when I pick up a new book it is because Wendy has insisted that I read it (she insists on far more books than I ever get through though) or because I have it recommended by a friend or on a blog I follow.  This particular book I randomly picked up at the library because the title intrigued me for some reason; it turns out that I should probably rely more on recommendations than personal whimsy.  Fooling Ourselves is a book about the various ways in which humans deceive themselves.  The author leads off with some fairly withering criticisms of religion and the other standard ways we insist on believing what obviously ain't so, which appeals to me, but then goes and manages to be somewhat boring and wrong in curious ways.

Boring isn't necessarily much of a criticism.  There are plenty of topics that are very hard to write interestingly about, which I can attest to with the number of blog posts I try to start and abandon because they are crap.  Thing is, I am really interested in the topic of self deception, particularly as it relates to Religion, Politics and Terrorism so in theory I am the sort of person who really *should* be enraptured by this stuff.  Unfortunately I wasn't, so I imagine most other people would find it close to unreadable.

I did find some things really intriguing though, especially the ways in which the author reveals his dearly held preconceptions.  He argues pretty convincingly that fundamentalist religions tend towards cognitive simplicity (not the same as intelligence).  When the only answer you need for anything is "God made it that way" or "God wants it that way" and things are either Right or Wrong without shades of grey you are going to tend to be cognitively simple.  Unfortunately the author is too American and sees Christianity in far too positive a light compared to Islam.  He sees suicide bombings and terrorism as a sign of Islam being even worse than Christianity, as if bombing cities from a US warplane is somehow acceptable, moral behaviour while strapping dynamite to one's own chest and destroying a marketplace is unacceptable.  The difference here is that Muslims would happily bomb Christians with planes if they could, but they can't, so they resort to whatever means they have at their disposal.  There is one particular quote that makes me laugh:

My hypothesis is that monotheism is associated with cognitive simplicity.  This is most clear in Islam; in Christianity cognition is a bit more complex because of the trinity.  In India, where there are 100,000 gods, there is the most complexity.

Right.... the fact that Christianity has a Trinity makes them cognitively more complex.  I would buy that some of the religions in India might promote more complexity because they lack the authoritarian answer "God did it" and actually promote understanding outside the framework of an Angry Man in the Sky who is the Boss.  The idea that Christianity is a step up because in some arcane way they define God to be part of a trinity is completely bogus though; it is just a way for the author to promote his own social group as less of a disaster than the others.  If a religion emphasizes that there are no simple answers and that any belief or tradition, no matter how much conviction is behind it, must be open to criticism and potentially abandonment then you will see cognitive complexity there.  Simply acknowledging "I could be wrong and I will change my mind if the evidence warrants it" is the key; whether or not you see your Angry Man as manifesting as three parts or not has no bearing on the issue.

I certainly don't give any credit to Islamic states and the various atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion there but neither do I doubt what the US would do if the religious folks had unlimited power.  All I have to do is read Rick Santorum's campaign promises to know that there are plenty of people who would happily create a savage theocracy that oppresses anyone who isn't rich, white, Christian, straight, cisgendered and male.  The difference there is the same as the difference between bombing with planes and suicide bombing; the zealots and lunatics in Western nations don't do as many horrible things simply because they lack the means, not because they lack the desire.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Determination of quality

You need a fair bit of expertise in a particular topic to really be able to appreciate just how good a true master really is.  A random person watching the best player of a particular game in the world playing against someone else who is merely quite good is often going to have absolutely no idea which of them is superior unless they can see the score and maybe not even then!  Someone without a trained ear for music (like me, say) won't be able to reliably tell the difference between the best violin player in the world and someone who is merely ok.  Snopes had an interesting little article about the time when Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, played in a subway station for free and got mostly ignored just like every other busker.  The funny thing was that people were actually surprised that the passersby paid him little mind - since he could sell out a concert hall with tickets at $100 they assumed everyone would go nuts for him playing in a subway station on a 3.5 million dollar violin.

This just goes to show how deluded people are about what we can actually perceive and what we assume is true based on cues around us.  There are obviously some people at a violin concert who really know the violin and would have been able to identify Bell's superior skill in the subway but they are a vanishing minority.  Even then they might have thought nothing of it unless they recognized him in particular since they are on their way somewhere else - time is of the essence.  Nearly every other person passing by couldn't possibly tell how good Bell actually is and even if they could there is no reason to assume they are going to be dumping $100 bills into his violin case nor making a scene.  So what if some busker is absolutely awesome at the violin?

The other thing that gets me is the assumption that we pay a lot for fancy performances specifically based on the quality of the performance.  The experience of a show is composed of many things including the experience of dressing up, anticipating the show ahead of time and being in a crowd of people who appreciate that particular form of expression.  If I strictly want to hear Bell play the violin I can listen to that any time by hitting up YouTube or a music store - just hearing it is nothing special.  The special thing is the whole experience.  I guarantee if people knew Bell was playing it would have been a huge thing because people would have set aside the time for it and expected to be part of a big, excited crowd with common interests.

More than anything I was amused at the surprise when parents dragged their children away from the subway station performance.  Have these people ever tried going anywhere on public transit with children, or taken any long trip for that matter?  The absolute last thing you want is the kid in question dithering over yet another random thing on the way while fussing that they are tired and want to be there already.  Encourage Elli to listen to a violin performance when I am at home?  Sure!  Encourage her to stop and park next to a random busker?  Unlikely!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Natural Sleep

It turns out there are a lot of unintended negative consequences of modern technology.  Obviously there are the ones we hear about all the time like obesity and climate change but there are also weird things we hardly even know about like sleep pattern changes.  This article talks about how people used to sleep in chunks, usually two of them, with a break in the middle of wakefulness.  People would tend to socialize, play games quietly or have sex during this intermediate period and then go back to sleep for the second half of the night.  Apparently it was even a big deal for people to try to break their children of this two sleep habit at some points!  That is all changed now of course because of light.

We no longer have 12 hours a day on average of time when little work can be done.  We aren't limited by the sun, the elements nor the season in our labors so there is a real incentive to cram our sleep into as tiny a space as possible of our day.  We are, by and large, massively sleep deprived as a society as a result.  I can tell you for sure that if the power went off at dusk I would get a hell of a lot more sleep - and like most people probably a lot more sex too.  When you have 12 hours a day of darkness (or more like 15 in the winter) you eventually run out of wanting to sleep and have to find something else to do!

Though it might be healthy for us in a lot of ways to turn off the lights at night we certainly aren't going to do that.  Whether or not this shows that we are dumb or driven I can't really say.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Score one for Einstein

Last year there was quite a kerfuffle on the internet about an experiment at CERN that showed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light.  This was a big deal of course if true but mostly the reporting was "Einstein was wrong!!11!!" with a picture of Einstein with big crazy hair.  The odds on bet of course was that the experiment was slightly flawed in some way rather than 'physics is all wrong' and now it sure seems like this is the case.  Apparently the GPS equipment for the experiment wasn't working correctly which would explain the assumption of faster than light travel.

Of course this isn't about Einstein and it was obvious from the outset that the experiment itself made some kind of error whether it be mechanical or mathematical.  The experimenters certainly deserve credit because they stated (paraphrasing here) that clearly they must be wrong but they couldn't figure out where and the result was incredible if true.  Score one up for science:  Get a crazy result, publish with appropriate misgivings, find your error, admit it.  In this case it is just the internet and the reporting at fault, not the scientists.  The speed of light really is the limit, Star Trek fantasies notwithstanding.

Now we need a collection of incredulous articles titled "Einstein was right after all!"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Drug me up

When I was young I acquired a deep hatred of mood altering substances.  I mostly attribute this to watching my classmates in grade 6 sneak booze through school to go to parties with much older people; I was ostracized by these people and came to associate booze, cigarettes and drugs with 'people I hate and who hate me'.  That uninformed attitude hung on for a long time though admittedly I still have no patience whatsoever with smoking.  I like to think my feelings on these issues have become more informed by facts and practicality than tween angst these days but it is clear I still have some old prejudices left behind.  I read a comic today on that very topic which basically said that there is no particular reason to think that using drugs is somehow 'losing control of your feelings' since your feelings are chemical reactions in your brain over which you normally have only nominal control anyhow.  By using specific drugs to change my mental state I am actually taking control of my emotions rather than simply letting them fly.  I sat and thought about that for a bit.  It is clear to me that there is still something irrational buried deep in my brain that wants to be free of such chemical manipulation.

Some people can just let their emotions be a lot more comfortably than others.  Today Penelope Trunk wrote about the various medications she has tried for her collection of mental conditions (Asperger's, borderline personality disorder) and was very open about the effects these different drugs have had on her life.  Penelope has extreme issues with normal life and can be a lot more functional when on the correct drugs and I think it is really excellent to have someone so influential write honestly and openly about their mental health issues and potential solutions.  Depression and other mental disorders are so often erroneously linked to moral failing that it is a very hard thing to admit in public; much of the worst part of depression is how difficult it is to admit to and talk about.  People have a hard enough time speaking about getting cancer or other such diseases where personal fault is rarely implied and when people admit to depression personal weakness is often blamed, adding to the troubles of the sufferer.

I have been depressed in the past but never took drugs for it.  Like many or most people in that situation I didn't really realize the situation I was in until long afterwards.  Whether or not I could have benefited from medical assistance back then I will never know.  Thankfully I don't have that problem now and I don't see it returning; it likely wasn't depression in the clinical sense so much as a lasting sadness creating by my specific circumstances.  Wendy has suffered from depression throughout much of her life and in particular had postpartum depression after Elli was born.  We had some really difficult discussions and tried everything else we could think of before Wendy decided she needed to try anti depressants to deal with the problem.  It hasn't been perfect or easy but things have notably improved and I think Wendy is a good example of someone who can really have a better life when drugs are used to help take the edge off of her depression.

It should be noted that I don't particularly trust drug companies.  There are success stories of various medications for mental disorders and there are horror stories too.  I certainly didn't want Wendy to try antidepressants until we had given everything else a try first; those things just didn't work well enough.  Some people are not particularly benefited by drugs, some people are made worse.  That said, I now keep a really open mind about what we can and should try to help people deal with mental disorders and I have no problem with alcohol or soft drugs when used responsibly.  There are plenty of good things that can come from changing our brain chemistry when it is done right.  Of course we have the responsibility to take our cues from pretty much anybody but the marketing department of Big Pharma, that goes without saying.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Revolution porn

Awhile ago I talked about "Mommy porn" which is the depiction of famous parents (Angenlina Jolie and Brad Pitt, say) on the covers of magazines with their incredible careers and packs of beautiful children.  Of course they don't actually raise those children themselves, so this is really just a ridiculous fantasy, hence the name.  A couple days ago I stumbled on an article that is of an entirely different type and which I think warrants the title "Revolution porn".  The article talks about the desperate situation in Greece and the violence and destruction that has been going on there.  It includes a picture of a police officer being burned by a fiery explosion created by some protester's homemade bomb.  The thing that makes my mind explode is that the author *celebrates* the violence, indeed he would have been crushed if there weren't arson and violent revolution in the streets of Athens.

The ridiculous fantasy here is that by burning down your neighbour's house or by trying to murder police officers you are striking a blow against the rich bankers who rule the world.  You aren't.  There are certainly police officers who are bad people that abuse their power to support awful regimes but the great majority of police really are normal people who are willing to do a hard and dangerous job to protect people from each other.  It must be tremendous fun to sit in an office in a country that is in pretty good shape and wax poetic about how wonderful it is to be a violent revolutionary and how much those random police officers deserve burning but the reality is something else entirely.  It is a fictional situation, one that is inspiring from a great distance and without thinking too much.

Random violence is not a useful response to this situation.  There are situations that do call for violent responses but your country's politicians trying to run a balanced budget does not warrant chucking firebombs at people.  I can almost imagine the author of the article sitting at his computer desk saying "Heh heh, they are totally burning those cops, heh heh" like a Beavis and Butthead video.  Is it understandable for someone to feel this way?  Sure!  There are plenty of people who want to see someone sticking it to the man and are glad they can do so from a long way away.  We shouldn't credit this desire with any more a glorious name than Revolution Porn though, because that is what it is.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Boys and girls

I read an interesting article today about gender based attitudes and teaching styles in schools.  It talks about how a specific teacher dealt with a gender variant child and what they learned about their themselves by carefully examining the issues once they became personal.  I liked it a lot.  Gender is an extremely important concept for small kids (and everyone else, too!) and no amount of simply ignoring the issue will keep their minds off of it.  Wendy and I decided before we had Elli that we would raise her as gender neutral as possible: No pink outfits, no Barbie dolls, and no gender based expectations of her.  Fat lot of good all those intentions did!  She only wants to wear pink, is interested in nothing but shiny sparkly princess unicorn ponies wearing fancy crowns and jewellery, and wants to wear dresses all winter inside her snow pants.

Moreso than her obvious acceptance of societal gender norms though she is desperately interested in gender roles in all ways.  When a boy does something she talks about how boys do that thing.  When I tell a story about an ogre she wants to know what gender the ogre is.  Any time she describes something that happened to her she is careful to frame it in terms of gender roles and stereotypes.  We do our best to tell her all the things we want her to believe (and which we believe) about people being able to have whatever sort of life they want regardless of gender and that gender roles and tendencies are never requirements or universal but our words fall on deaf ears.  She *wants* to divide the world into simple boxes and gender is an easy way for her to divide up people.

That isn't to say I think teaching these things is wrong or even hopeless.  I am sure in her later years when she is capable of more nuanced understanding she will recall our attitudes if not necessarily our words.  We have had conversations with her about homosexuality, transgender people and other such topics that she doesn't have a close personal experience with and I hope that this will convince her to eventually believe that is it okay to be nonconformist even in these most fundamental ways.  Right now I think she would be quite comfortable with gay people or gender variant people but she would probably be completely unable to square that with her day to day habits of defining everything in terms of boy vs. girl.  Aside from trying to shove a bunch of LGBT people into our daily lives I don't see a lot of ways to accelerate that reckoning; eventually she will have to reconcile her incompatible ideas when it hits her in a really personal way, as we all do.

For the moment she is still a very stereotypical girl who is interested in growing up, meeting a prince and becoming a mommy.  Not that finding a heterosexual partner, getting married and having kids is so bad (I quite like it, thanks) but someday we hope that she gives up on being rescued by Prince Charming for other dreams, whatever those may be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Siding with Child Pornographers

Apparently I am on the side of child pornographers.  This, according to the Canadian public safety minister Vic Toews, is because new legislation in Canada is designed to stop child pornography so Canadians can either:

"stand with us or with the child pornographers."

You heard it right, if you oppose a government bill you are supporting child pornography.  In this case the government bill makes it legal for law enforcement to monitor all phone conversations and internet communication without a warrant.  Because, you know, the police don't lack the tools to catch child pornographers now, you see.  Perhaps it is because judges won't grant warrants when the police have solid grounds to believe someone is creating or distributing child pornography?  Or perhaps it is just that the government wants the option to spy on any person at any time without reason, oversight or a record.

This government boggles my mind.  Generally speaking they toe the conservative (note the small c) line of smaller, less intrusive government.  They want people to fend for themselves without the government interfering and they want to encourage self reliance.  They are also extremely motivated by protecting people's privacy, like when they ended the long form census which provided critical, *anonymous* information to hundreds of government programs and charities across the country.  They are apparently against privacy though when it is actually relevant, as in the case of police monitoring a person's email or private phone calls without any sort of reasonable grounds.

The hypocrisy maddens me almost as much as the actual policies.  Ending the long form census was either just randomly idiotic or a deliberate attempt to reduce the information available such that the government can make any decision they want without being contradicted by facts; depends on how conspiratorial you feel.  This new bill is about giving law enforcement information and denying it to everybody else; the common thread here is the government deciding that it gets to know everything that happens and nobody else does.  It is time for them to admit that they aren't for or against privacy but rather just looking to increase government power in any way they can and are willing to use loaded terms like privacy and child pornography to justify it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

End the war (on drugs)

If we ever needed more reason to stop the War on Drugs, here it is.  Ten years ago Portugal decriminalized all drugs and changed their national strategy to one of rehabilitation and treatment instead of incarceration.  The result:  Drug use is down by more than half.  Rather than paying to incarcerate 100,000 people Portugal is now paying to treat 40,000 people.  Those people being treated still have jobs, social lives and hope for a better future instead of a criminal record and years of isolation.  The cost to the state in direct terms is drastically less both in terms of police, court time and jails and the benefits are incredible even if you discount the massive reduction in drug use.  There is no doubt that jails are brutally expensive and socially destructive affairs so they should be employed only when all else fails.

We should also consider how much better off the addicts are when their drugs are legal.  Getting people involved with violent criminals to support their habits is going to generate all kinds of problems from increasing the power of organized crime to creating worrying issues with quality.  Being an alcoholic is bad, but if we imagine that every alcoholic had to go to the mafia to get their booze and then sometimes ended up becoming a criminal as a result we can see how crazy fighting the war on drugs is.  Mixing desperate addicts with organized crime is a recipe for disaster.

I wonder if Portugal has had a change in how criminals are portrayed in media.  It is dead common for the bad guy in action movies to be a drug lord here in Canada and I wonder if that is true around the world.  If being a professional seller of drugs was no longer illegal would our heroes in books and film would start fighting a new type of baddie?  Imagine an alternate world where we tire of the constant accidents and occasional death that results from downhill skiing and criminalize *that* behaviour.  Would we see a new generation of action films where the final evildoer is someone providing illegal access to pristine powdery slopes for those who just can't get enough?

If people want to get messed up they can sniff glue or gas, buy perfectly legal alcohol or just take a couple cold tablets from the drug store (those mess me up good!).  You can't stop people doing dumb things, getting addicted or being high by pursuing the war on drugs.  What you can do is push people who are doing stupid things into hanging around with criminals, provide money for biker gangs and give leverage to violent, dangerous people.  We need to take Portugal as an example and stop this pointless war.  People love the idea of 'justice' for those that step outside the lines but it is far more efficient and effective to simply treat those who go too far.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Athens burns

There are some disagreements on what exactly is a rational stance for a random Greek citizen to take given the mess their country is in currently.  I feel like they need to follow the lead of the EU and aim for serious austerity measures to try to get funding to pay their bills but clearly there are plenty of people, Greeks in particular, who don't buy that.  I completely believe that lots of people there want to protest and are extremely upset about their situation; their economy is melting down and their government seems to be run by foreign bankers.  I think we can all agree that this situation does not warrant arson and armed conflict however, and that is their situation now.  On Sunday 34 buildings in Athens were on fire and the police were involved in running battles with protesters, criminals and malcontents in the streets of the capital where they were regularly being attacked with petrol bombs as well as rocks and other improvised weapons.

It is something of a worst case scenario for a modern economy where usually the trend is ever upward.  There are always plenty of countries where economically speaking things are very rocky but this sort of collapse and descent into barbarism is really unusual.  I wonder if these sorts of things could be predicted somehow based on the nature of a country and the culture of the people there.  Greece certainly has all kinds of aspects of its character that suggest that financial prudence is going to be a tough sell.  Any country that has an unspoken agreement that the government won't bother to collect taxes on election years is going to have issues when people are looking for German quality financial restraint.

Greece may well be the keystone in the whole world economic construction, the thing that is stopping a even greater collapse from coming.  They have demonstrated that a first world nation, even one backed by the EU, can collapse spectacularly.  Not just collapse economically, of course, but also socially and politically.  If Greece had been willing to take a 50% writedown in exchange for real reforms I think things would be much more secure for all the nations teetering on the brink but with the capital burning and the country in chaos nobody can be sure that any nation will be interested in paying back what it owes instead of just declaring bankruptcy.  What the EU desperately needs is a clear, unmistakable signal that nations that get in trouble dig themselves out instead of just throwing in the towel.  That certainty may well be the sole thing that keeps Italy, Portugal and Ireland afloat and Greece seems like it will not provide it.  The EU needs investor confidence and every day that Athens burns that confidence evaporates.

What would I do if Canada were in the same situation?  If the government were slashing salaries, pensions and indeed any other expenditure to the extent that the Greek government is?  I think my answer would be to just sigh and keep going; I am not the protesting type, particularly when that protesting seems to be synonymous with arson and looting.  Paying back their debt and reforming their finances may be a huge burden to the Greeks but I think they are on the path to revolution and destruction, not financial independence.

Photo from:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine's Day, once more

It is almost Valentine's Day, which means two things.  First off it means people will be shoveling money to Hallmark, flower companies and purveyors of crappy candy, balloons and heart shaped trinkets.  Secondly it means I need to write my annual rant on how much this holiday sucks rocks.

Elli needed to bring Valentine's cards to school for her whole class this year.  They sent around a class list so that we would be sure to get cards for everyone; this is nice in that the unpopular kids don't just get left out as they did so much in the past but it is crappy in that every kid is going to get ~20 paper cards they will immediately throw in the garbage.  There isn't a good way around this that I can see... I can avoid paying for cheap, trashy mass produced cards by doing them up myself but it only costs $5 for cards and candy for her entire class if I buy the junk and way more than that if I buy decent art products to do it myself.  Because I procrastinated to the last minute on buying all the junk hoping to find a way around it I ended up being stuck buying cards that came with lollipops attached so now I am not only killing trees to celebrate the worst holiday of all but also poisoning the children.

I went to her teacher at lunchtime hoping to have her tell me that candy was barred from the Valentine's envelopes and that they were refusing to promote the Cadbury lifestyle but I had no luck.  The teacher was happy to take candy and it looks like all kinds of kids got the same sort of thing Elli did and they will all be celebrating Valentine's Day at school with a deluge of high fructose corn syrup.  These sorts of events leave me really stretching for an answer that works for everyone; I want to communicate to Elli how crappy this event is without leaving her miserable because she is singled out as the one kid who didn't give anyone else cards.

"My Daddy hates Valentine's Day and shouted lots of incomprehensible things about environmentalism and Type 2 Diabetes... that is why none of you get cards or candy from me."

I just don't think that is going to fly in Kindergarten.  I think avoiding this holiday really needs to be supported by the school because when they send around the class lists and make sure to constantly remind the children to bring in their Valentine's gifts they really put the parents in a bind if they don't support it.  Not that I particularly expect the school to back me up on this one of course, but I can dream.

There you go, my yearly rant.  If you want something on the same topic that is funny instead of a vitriol infused diatribe then I suggest watching this:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Big things and small things

The Naturalist sent me a great link today to a site that lets you scroll through a set of pictures and descriptions of objects in the universe sorted by size.  It goes right from Planck length through quarks to humans to planets to galactic superclusters.  The nice thing too is that this isn't all dry science as the descriptions are fun and sometimes silly.  I really enjoyed plowing through it and reading the various descriptions of the astronomical features involved - I have some sense of how big things are out there but I was completely blown away by how utterly enormous some of the stars are in comparison to our own.  There sure were a lot more orders of magnitude between quarks and Planck than I really had intuitively understood there to be.  This is the sort of thing that I think most people can click around in and enjoy but should be mandatory for kids to look at while they go through school.  Seeing just how far out of our normal range of experience these things are can give you a real appreciation for what scientists do and just how much we can learn about the universe when we set our minds to it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kill Montezuma!

Wendy loves to tell me what to do when I am playing games.  Recently I have been playing a lot of Civilization 5 and she has taken to watching me play sometimes asking me to explain why I am doing things and sometimes to give me advice.  You might think if you know the two of us that I would be the one who is constantly attacking the enemies on a relentless campaign of destruction and that she would be advising me to make peace; you would be wrong.  She takes tremendous delight in ordering me to start wars with everybody and wants nothing more than to see me extinguish enemies completely.  A little bit of conquest, taking some land, killing some soldiers, these are not enough for her; she wants annihilation.

I totally get the desire to watch someone play a video game and kibitz.  It doesn't have to be a video game though, I really enjoy sitting quietly while people work on problems of all kinds.  Just being silent, in the presence of a person who can talk sometimes but who is focused on a task I can observe is very soothing for whatever reason.  There are some games that this does not work at all for like World of Warcraft or Portal, for example, but I love watching tactical games like CiV and roguelikes like Diablo.

I remember one person in university in particular who absolutely loved watching others play video games, so much so that he characterized himself more as a video game watcher than a video game player.  He could talk with great authority about the tiniest minutiae of games he had never actually played because he spent hours watching people work on the hardest challenges those games had to offer.  We all get that to some extent as I can talk at great length about Star Trek (despite not considering myself a fan of the series) and surely everyone else absorbs information in the same way from those who share their hobbies.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Sucker

There is an old saying in Poker that goes something like this:

If you sit down at the table and you can't spot the sucker in five minutes, you are the sucker.

I was out the other night with some friends and we were talking about the tendency of relationships to break up when one person or the other finds somebody outside the relationship they would rather be with.  In my life I have been ditched for somebody else directly in three of three cases and did the breaking up without anyone else in my sights in one of one cases; hardly a good statistical sample size but I suspect it is pretty representative.  Obviously it isn't doesn't always hold true but it is clear that a great number of relationships cruise along in 'damaged but still flying' mode and then actually end when one person discovers somebody they would rather be with instead.  Of course sometimes this involves cheating beforehand but often it does not - there are no end of examples of people breaking up and then immediately hooking up without doing anything technically against the rules.  That is, of course, unless you think that 'noticing somebody else is awesome' is against the rules, which I don't.

I was thinking today that you can write a saying for a relationship breaking up that sounds remarkably like the Poker saying.

If you are involved in a breakup and you aren't all set to hook up with somebody else, your partner is probably all set to hook up with somebody else.

Note in both cases there is a notion of being a sucker, in one case implied, in the other case boldly stated.  People generally feel bad when their former partners hop right into another relationship and sometimes this is just because they are suspicious of what might have happened ahead of time and sometimes it is simply because they want their former partner to be heartbroken rather than relieved.  I don't think that looking at it from a sucker / shark point of view is a particularly good idea though.  More useful than laying blame is to just accept that people do hook up right after breaking up and that once it is over there is no point in getting twisted up over it.  Not that this ideal case is going to prevent any of the usual jealousy, bitterness and regret of course... just wishful thinking.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting ripped fast all over again

Awhile ago I wrote about sites that sell supplements aimed at making men look muscular and sexay.  Of course they are all ridiculous scams that attempt to get you hooked on a product for free or practically free and then charge outrageous monthly fees if you have not jumped through a succession of hoops to opt out.  They always include a bunch of before and after pictures designed to show someone who is at best average looking who suddenly acquires abs of steel.  This video shows how you can easily make the sort of transformation you see on these scams happen in less than 5 hours - in reverse.  It involves spraying your body with cooking oil, eating junk food and timing your workout appropriately.

Of course the pose has everything to do with it too.  You can add a ton of pop to your picture just with a little bit more flex and a slightly different posture and facial expression.  I was always curious in the past about these pictures because I wondered if they were really taken by someone who worked out hard for months to improve but claimed it was done by the supplements or if there was something else at work.  It turns out with a little bit of knowhow and showmanship anybody can put up an amazing set of before/after photos in just a day. Well, any man wanting to put up a muscle mass set of photos can anyway, I don't know for sure how much of this would successfully translate to women's pictures.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Toy Insurance

Back in my career as a mattress salesman I sold quite a lot of mattress insurance.  It wasn't presented that way of course, but rather presented as a service for cleaning or repairing your mattress should you damage it in some fashion.  It was very clear to us that the margins on this product were absolutely nuts and although it was a much smaller price than the actual bed a quite substantial amount of the money to be made by salesperson and company was in the insurance.

This sort of thing is everywhere from addons to your new vehicle to extra insurance on your laptop; a short while ago I was even offered insurance on the $5 batteries I bought.  In virtually every case the company makes a killing on these addons and the customer gets ripped off.  There are a few people who end up breaking their laptops and who are willing to send them to the shop for a couple months to have warranty work done but by and large this is just money down the drain from the customer's perspective.    That is, until now.  Yesterday I was pitched an insurance addon for the first time that actually made the product *worse*.

This unicorn makes all kinds of sounds when you push its button like:

"I love flying."

"Let's fly to the castle."

"Isn't my hair pretty?"

"I love it when you comb my hair."

"Let's play together."

ToysRUs offered me toy insurance on this treasure for the low low price of $2.99 so that if it breaks I could come back and get it replaced.  This was not a deal I was interested in, in fact I almost laughed out loud at the cashier.  The trouble with their sales pitch is that they actually needed to reverse the benefit.  If they had told me that for merely $2.99 they would *guarantee* the toy would be broken within a short timespan I might have bought in.  After hearing the unicorn's inane chatter for a few hours I was just hoping for some kind of "accident" to finish it off.  $2.99 is a small price to pay to shut the accursed creature up for good.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Yom yom health food

Sometimes you need to eat things that don't taste so great to eat healthy.  I eat a lot of broccoli and it is not bad but I sure would rather be eating chocolate bars, bacon or ice cream.  Sometimes though you can eat healthy things and they just taste like MORE.

These are kale chips.  Bits of kale, chopped up, coated lightly in olive oil and salt and baked.  Much like potato chips they are incredibly addictive and when you eat them it feels like they are just a vehicle for salt and oil but they have the distinct upside of being quite healthy for you.  Kale on its own is fairly bitter and honestly a pretty hard health food to stomach but when chippified it is most excellent.  There is a fair bit of chopping and baking and dishes for the raw weight of food involved but it seems worth the effort as they are yummy!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Security" Council

The UN makes me crazy.  I was reading about the UN proposed action in Syria aimed at getting the oppressive regime out and some kind of democracy in here and found what is unfortunately par for the course in UN politics:  The Russians are threatening to veto the action even though it has already been watered down to try to make it more palatable to them.  The reason?  They make a lot of money selling weapons to Syria, of course!

The fact that the Security Council members (France, UK, US, Russia, China) have a veto over UN actions really destroys the credibility of the UN right from the outset.  Those countries have an agenda to prevent others from getting nuclear weapons while wielding those weapons themselves, are huge arms dealers and regularly and without any pretense use their vetoes to force the UN to do things in their national interests.  In particular the US and Russia have used their vetoes liberally, largely to spit in each other's faces.

What a mess.  The old League of Nations didn't have this sort of super powerful core and it was demonstrably unable to perform its mandate but I don't know that a responsive world organization that caters to a few powerful, dangerous countries is particularly better than one that takes a long time to do things.  There has been conflict for decades now over letting new countries into the Security Council but of course that would require getting everybody's approval since otherwise VETO and so far nobody has managed to get in.  I don't ever expect anybody to get in of course because the only good reason for a Security Council nation to get a new member in is if it will improve their position somehow and surely the other members will veto anything that erodes *their* position.

Barring some tremendous calamity we aren't likely to get anything else to work with.  We seem stuck, for the moment, with a huge bureaucracy that is willing able to order up some beatdown for poor, weak nations that get out of line and which is completely impotent when a Security Council member invades another nation on a flimsy pretext.  Perhaps the term "Bully Council" would be more appropriate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Priorities, or lack thereof

When I want news I generally head to the BBC.  While I can do with the Globe and Mail online if I want Toronto specific news I often find their coverage simply too small scale to hold my interest - which isn't saying it is bad, just not to my taste.  Today I was dismayed by the BBC though in a way that is far too common throughout all of news media and probably always has been.  The big banner story at the top was about a soccer match that Manchester United won 2-0.  The blurb talked about how Manchester won based on some penalties and named players and included the mandatory action shot.  Below it was a much smaller story talking about how soccer fans in Egypt rioted after a game and 74 people were killed while the stadium burned around them.

The score of a soccer match is somehow bigger news than a savage riot being started by a soccer match where security personnel trying to protect the home town players were stabbed to death and many people were trampled during the mad panic?  Of course this isn't new, nor even unique.  It is just striking because both announcements were about soccer and if the marquee post had been about a hockey game I might not even have noticed it.  Of course when many (not most, surely?) people talk about the news what they really want is sports results.  There are simply too many people dying for no good reason in other parts of the world for most of us to worry about each incident but there are an awful lot of folks interested in who won the big game last night.

Professional sports make me crazy.  Pounda regularly tries to sell me on the "Football as turn based strategy game" line and while I completely buy that he is right I find it hard to reconcile that with all the insanity that goes along with it.  I think if sports teams didn't manage to successfully hold cities hostage in demanding new stadiums and infrastructure or if the fans didn't behave so bloody badly I might have more patience for it but that all seems to be part of the package.  Of course the stars of professional sports behave badly too but it is the fans that really get to me even if they don't decide to take knives to soccer games and commit murder on the pitch after an unfavourable result.

I probably dislike professional sports even more just because they are so broadly liked.  Presumably if the great majority of the populace ignored them and they were struggling for any sort of recognition I would be able to get into the games more easily; I have some real prejudices against doing the same thing everybody else does.  This seems to be one of my defining characteristics.

Picture from the BBC website: