Thursday, May 31, 2012

Religious freedom (the freedom to be bigots)

Catholic schools in Ontario have been given a much needed kick to the ass by our premier.  Dalton McGuinty's new legislation is going to make it mandatory that clubs within the Catholic school board be allowed to have the word 'gay' in them - this was necessary because the church decided that gay-straight alliance clubs were not allowed.  To quote Dalton:

"I am accountable to all faiths, I'm accountable to people of no faith.  I'm accountable to all parents."

I wasn't sure that this would actually go through.  The premier is Catholic, his children are Catholic school educated and his wife works in the Catholic school system so it wouldn't have been a shock to me if he let the Catholic board pull their hateful BS and prevent straight kids from showing support for homosexuals.  That isn't going to happen though, even though Dalton is getting some real heat from Catholic bishops and is being pilloried in the right wing news for impinging on religious freedom.  To quote a bishop:

"We simply ask that diversity be respected in our society"

by which he means that Catholics ask that they have the right to mistreat, marginalize and openly discriminate against homosexuals.  That's what diversity means folks, you heard it here.  It makes me want to promote my own particular belief of 'burn down all Catholic churches' and ask that my beliefs be accepted in the name of diversity.  It boggles my mind when I see news articles quoting religious leaders who argue that they are being persecuted because the state is trying to prevent them from persecuting others.  I see this stuff far more often in the US where Obama is regularly characterized as waging a war on religion but it does crop up here too - the only real difference is that the bible thumper vote here is less powerful and less geographically concentrated so they don't get the same airtime.

Strangely enough I actually found a right wing rag which believes in codified bigotry against homosexuals advocating that the government stop funding Catholic schools and simply have one public school system.  Their argument roughly went that this was a good idea so that the government would have to get out of the business of regulating and being responsible for those schools - they could then get on with being intolerable jerks without Dalton McGuinty's interference.  I couldn't agree more.  Get rid of the Catholic school board and let those who really want to pay for indoctrination do so.  The rest of the regular kids who aren't being brainwashed can get regular schooling like the rest of us and we can use all the extra money to make things even better for those who don't want to fork over the cash for a religious 'education'.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Actual safety concerns

Normally I rant about how things are too focused on safety, particularly safety that is really about legal butt covering or plausible deniability instead of a real cost benefit analysis.  Yesterday I saw something that really got me wondering where the safety inspector was at Elli's school.

There is construction going on at the school as they are swapping to all day kindergarten in the fall (exactly when Elli will be done kindergarten, naturally) and they need to add on room to accommodate the additional students.  As I was dropping Elli off I saw a large crane lifting a huge metal section of stairs about ten meters long into place in the new construction.  It must have weighed thousands of kilos at the very least and was slowly being moved into place by the crane next to a new unsupported brick wall two storeys tall.  The children were playing in their sandbox in the playground... three meters from where the stairs and the brick wall were.

I was standing there at a reasonable distance watching and suddenly realized what utter lunacy was going on.  Sure, if everything works perfectly the crane lifts the stairs into place and everything is fine but if the stairs bash into the brick wall it could easily fall and kill half a dozen kids.  Obviously in the great majority of cases nothing goes wrong but it is bloody insane to be using heavy machinery with children pretty much directly under the work area.  One of the workers not directly involved ran in and started screaming at the others to put the stairs down and lambasting them for being idiots; while this was certainly warranted I was the one who had to rush to the kids and yell at them to run away from the construction zone as neither the teachers nor the construction workers seemed to be doing that.

The construction has constantly kept parts of the school locked up for absolutely no reason and regularly directed us not to do things that are no danger at all.  We have to escort 11 year old children to school and back because they aren't 'safe' going home alone even if home is on the same block.  Nobody can come to the school in bare feet because of the 'toxic' chemicals on the floors.  When it comes time to hoist huge objects with cranes around though the kids get to play practically under the huge object in question.  Quite the case of misplaced priorities.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Paying for medicine

Yesterday I took Elli to the doctor and got her a prescription for an antibiotic.  Recently Elli has been on a few different antibiotics to try to fix her up and they cost $25, $35, and $55 respectively.  Although obviously it is wonderful that we have the option of spending a little money to cure an infection like this (unlike humankind for the past 100,000 years) the $55 price seemed to me to be a bit high since it is only a few milligrams of stuff after all.  This is probably a bit irrational of me because when we are talking about only a few milligrams of material I can't see why $25 is more reasonable than $55 other than I am more used to the former.  I asked the doctor if there was a generic version that was cheaper; she was aghast at the cost and spent quite a bit of time checking her books and calling the pharmacy to try to figure out if that price was right and if so, why.  I don't know if she did this for me because she thought that the price was just out of line or because she thought that the price was out of line for me being as I sure don't look like I have any money.

I had a similar experience awhile ago when I was getting a prescription for an antibiotic for a lung infection from a different doctor.  He asked me if I had drug coverage and when I answered no he explained that the best drug was $200 but there was a reasonable alternative for $30.  I think he figured that if his patient was dressed poor man style and had no medical coverage they simply might not be able to afford $200 for treatment.  That wasn't the case for me and I paid to get the better stuff but I have no idea what the difference in efficacy actually is.

I wonder how often doctors are forced into taking these sorts of things into account.  I am sure it is easy to recommend the best and most expensive treatment for everything but clearly that becomes a problem eventually regardless of who is paying for it.  If society pays then we end up with a truly crushing cost of medical care and if the individual pays they may end up not getting treated at all or breaking themselves financially.  I suspect that must be a really tough position for a physician to be in when they look at a person and know that the best solution from a healing perspective is not feasible economically.  In particular doctors must end up having to guess as to what their patients need and can afford and those guesses can easily be wildly wrong.  I know this for certain as my 'money radar' became really quite acute when I was in sales but I still read people wrong here and there and any mistake I made wasn't conflicting with professional ethics (hah, professional sales ethics...) or binding oaths.

At least here in Canada the great majority of serious medicine is covered by the state so doctors aren't so often forced into the economics of health; it must be a much worse conundrum when profiteering insurance companies and individuals without any coverage are the norm.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rose coloured glasses

Wizards is putting out a new version of Dungeons and Dragons sometime in the next year or two.  It is currently being playtested and I have some information on how it will work.  Essentially what they are doing is giving up on modern innovation and going back to the dreck that they put out in the good old days.  The reason they are doing this is that a few years ago they put out DnD 4th edition which was a huge deviation from their historical offerings and people complained - a lot.  On forums everywhere there was whining about how the new system was too hard, too easy, too simple, and too complex.  Of course the real issue for most people is that it was different from what they were used to and no attempt at objective comparison was made.  The people have spoken and what they apparently want is what they remember from when they were kids so Wizards is going to serve that to them and hope they like it.  It won't work at all well.

People have irrational ideas about how things were in the good old days.  Memories fade and only vague recollections of good times and general happiness remain, which is a good thing because it softens the blow of tragedy and lets us continue on with our lives in the face of things never going quite right.  Although this is a useful mental defence mechanism we should try not to use 'the good old days' as an argument in any serious setting.  Marriage has been going down the drain and young people have stopped respecting their elders for as long as humans have had marriages and respect; though many things in our society change we can be sure that a rosy and irrational view of the past is a constant.

When a company decides to base their product decisions on people's nostalgia I think they are really headed for a cliff at high speed.  If you polled people about whether or not life was better back in the days when they were young you would regularly hear about how great it was but if you actually try to implement anything like that it will be a complete failure.  You liked the 1970s?  Care to turn in your cell phone, cut off your internet, ramp up discrimination, decrease environmental quality, and have 2 channels on TV?  Didn't think so.  There are usually small things that you can pick out that are actually feasible like having a person answer the phone when you call a company instead of an answering machine - turning back the clock on that was actually very successful for many companies.

It is sensible to look back at the past and find things we liked to try to improve modern products and systems.  There are lessons in the past that we never seem to get through our heads - see financial meltdowns of 1929 and 2007.  That doesn't mean, however, that when people talk about the good old days that we should actually try to recreate them wholesale.  Figure out what specific small things that worked and try to use that information.  Going back to the bad old days is a recipe for disaster for Wizards in particular because we don't need slightly different rules for 1970s roleplaying games - we have those already everywhere we look.  We need the best game, not the one that old gamers remember fondly while wearing rose coloured glasses.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Violence on TV

Elli likes to watch videos in the evenings.  We generally try to keep it to a minimum but plunking her down in front of the computer is just so much easier than entertaining her personally.  Recently she has taken to watching the Simpsons and her reactions to the show have been really fascinating.  There is a lot of sentiment out there that violence on TV begets violence in real life but I don't know that this is true.  Elli takes the extreme cartoon violence totally in stride but flips out over the situations involving suspense or social conflict.

When Itchy and Scratchy are on the Simpsons' TV they decapitate each other, stuff bombs down each other's throats, toss each other in acid, and commit any number of other heinous crimes.  However, they are always whole and hearty five seconds later so it is abundantly clear that these acts have no impact.  Elli watches them and thinks they are a bit funny and it seems to affect her not at all.  This is not the case when there is an element of suspense, though, like when Homer got his arms caught up inside vending machines.  Elli was really panicked and upset at the thought that Homer might have to have his arms chopped off to get them out; he is a real character and the event felt like it would be permanent so it got her excited whereas an anvil on the head simply does not.

The other thing that got her very emotional was watching conflict between Homer and Marge.  There is plenty of other conflict in the show that didn't usually get her worked up but the shows where marital stress was being highlighted were really troubling for her.  When Homer was spending lots of time with Lurleen the aspiring country music star and Marge was freaking out over it Elli had real trouble dealing with it.  I had to explain the basic idea behind marital agreements to her to try to calm her down as she understood that Marge was extremely angry but obviously couldn't understand the reasons why.  She knew that there was a credible risk of them breaking up but the idea of infidelity isn't really something she fully understands yet; I don't know exactly how much of that I should explicitly explain!

What this really tells me is that you can't talk about violence on television or in media in simple body count terms and expect to understand what effect this has on kids.  The people making the shows obviously wanted the scenes that Elli found disturbing to have emotional impact and the scenes with random decapitations to be humorous and they succeeded.  The creators can choose their level of emotional impact without needing to resort to violence at all; this is something we can certainly observe in the way that adults watch tearjerker and action films and are sometimes rendered nonfunctional by the first and bored by the second.

Media can very obviously influence our emotions and attitudes but watching Elli watch various shows has really taught me that simple ideas about what those shows entail are often completely missing the point.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Loan sharks and credit saviours

Today I picked up the local free newspaper to read on my transit ride.  The back page had an interesting smattering of ads on it that read as follows from left to right:

Debt Consolidation
Bad Credit Welcome
Credit Approved

Credit Problems?
Reduce Your Debts
Consolidate all your debts into one small monthly payment

Need a loan?
Bankrupt?  Proposal?  Bruised Credit?

Debt Relief
Are you drowning in debts?
$500 Loan and more
No credit refused

What I love is that the payday loan companies are advertising directly beside the debt relief people.  Want to get yourself into debt trouble?  We can help!  Want to get back out of debt?  We can help!  Badly in debt and want us to lend you money at outrageous rates?  We can help!  Sometimes the debt relief ads in fact are from payday loan places that use debt relief as the leader to get people with bad credit to take a look and then try to sell them on even more overpriced debt.

We have loansharking laws in Canada that in theory prevent these kinds of abuses where companies exist only to prey off of those with poor financial skills, no self control, or innumeracy.  In theory.  In practice the laws simply don't work.  They stop credit card companies from charging interest rates as high as they want but they don't stop mostly legal loan sharks from stacking on penalties, administration fees, and other costs to push the real cost of a loan to hundreds or thousands of percent over a year.

The fact that these companies not only exist but can afford massive amounts of advertising to draw in their suckers tells us that our current laws are failing and we need to get them updated and given real teeth.  This isn't a matter of freedom but rather a matter of people victimizing others and providing nothing in return.  Nobody has a better life because payday loan places exist and we all are worse off when we provide desperate people more rope to hang themselves with.  You can't completely prevent real criminals from loaning people money and demanding ridiculous returns on it but you can get semi legitimate thieves like this out of business and we should do so.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Learning about lack of privilege

Recently John Scalzi made a post to explain how life is for those who aren't straight white males (SWM) to those same SWM people.  He talked about how it is like a video game and being a SWM is a lot like playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty setting - people give more weight to your opinion, you get more money for no reason, things tend to go your way.  He specifically wants to avoid the word privilege in his post and in the discussion that follows but obviously it is the core of the issue.  The best way gain an understanding of someone is to walk a mile in their shoes, of course, so how would a SWM like me gain such understanding?

There is an event where men walk in high heeled shoes to generate awareness about violence against women.  It gets attention of course because they look utterly ridiculous in high heeled shoes and it raises the question:  Why is such foolish, outrageous footwear expected of one gender and expected to be absent in the other?  In particular, why are the reactions to people stepping outside of stereotype so strong and negative?  I asked Wendy if I should do this sort of thing and she told me that I should not, but rather put on fake breasts, makeup and a dress and go out that way instead.  I don't know if she intended that I actually try to pass as a woman, as that would require considerably more doing, or simply look like a man in drag.

Clearly crossdressing isn't going to give me the perspective of someone who has lived an entire lifetime as a non SWM, particularly since it doesn't cause people to treat me as a woman, minority, or gay person.  I think it might give me some perspective on how people who refuse to conform to gender norms are treated though, and it certainly could get me some experience on doing things with considerably less privilege than normal.  I do all kinds of weird things that have people treat me strangely already like go barefoot everywhere but these things that I do now are all done because they are actually more comfortable or better in some way.  Putting on a dress isn't that - shorts and tshirts are eminently practical clothes and I have no interest in dresses outside this experiment.

I don't especially want to go to tremendous effort to disguise myself so I think if this is a project I wish to undertake I should probably not consider trying to pass as female.  Not least of course because I am one of those people for whom it would be exceedingly difficult.  I don't know that I could pass for a minority outside of a very professional makeup job (even then...) and I also have no clue what I could do to convince a random person I was gay without being ridiculous.  (Hey random person!  I'm gay! So, ummm, yeah, react naturally to that.)  Strangely the fact that this would be a big deal to many people is making me want to do it more.  People shouldn't care whether or not my clothes violate gender norms but they do care.  A voice inside my head tells me I am obligated to call them on their prejudices and make a scene.  That voice is the one that gets me in trouble.  

Of course, it is easy for me since I can go back to my normal mode any time I want.  This isn't about being allowed to live my life, just about learning a bit, which makes me appreciate how hard it must be for trans folks and others who violate these sorts of norms constantly.  I have the fallback of "I'm doing a social experiment, you have a problem with that?" and other people don't.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

No time to post, busy levelling up

Diablo 3 came out on Tuesday.  It was arguably the biggest computer game launch ever and with good reason as the game finishes off a monstrously popular trilogy of games and is published by a (perhaps the) top game company. Normally in the past I would have set my alarm for 3 AM so I could be online and playing the instant the servers go live but not this time; Elli was sick and I figured that me being out of sorts and exhausted from playing all night wasn't a good idea.

But when I woke up at 6 AM and realized the game was live... well, I couldn't sit back and not play, now could I?  What kind of a geek would I be then?  It turns out the servers weren't especially working for the first hour anyway so I hardly missed any time anyway.

There are probably people wondering if this game is only going to be available for a week or something - otherwise, why the rush to play in the middle of the night?  Rather I am going to be playing this game for thousands of hours over years, most likely, and certainly will develop (if I haven't already) a serious addiction.  That enormous time investment seems to make it more likely, rather than less, that I desperately need to get started right away.  I don't know that I will deem the amount of time I have invested in it as 'enough' for quite some time yet.

It is a wonderful game.  Much like the previous installment the environments are visually appealing and the monsters are horrific in appearance; the artwork is excellent to my mind.  Of course I see the pictures once and then everything fades into an endless stream of numbers.  Threat values, angles of attack and retreat, damage per second maximization, these are the only things that really register after I get in the zone.  All the work they put into voice acting and art and story and eventually it is just a field of numbers a la The Matrix.

I may not be writing much over the next little while... that is, except when Wendy commandeers my computer to play Diablo 3 herself.

Picture from:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bag the mayor

Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, is up to his old tricks.  He runs government like a business see, when he sees business owners charging money for things he leaps in to put a stop to that!  His current beef is the mandatory 5 cent charge for disposable plastic bags at stores.  Since the initiative was put in place to stop businesses always giving away bags and to convince people to use reuseable bags the number of bags used in Toronto has dropped from 557 million per year to 216 million per year.  Rob Ford feels however that the law has 'served its purpose' and needs to be removed.

I can't fathom it.  We have a law that dramatically changed the habits of the citizens of Toronto for the better both improving our impact on the environment and reducing the workload of city workers and he wants to trash it... because apparently it was a one shot deal?  Reduce usage for a few years and then go back to business as usual?  Plenty of times when politicians do something stupid I write it off under 'obviously got bribed' but is there really any chance that Ford got bribed to do this?  Why else would he want to end a program that is all benefit and costs nothing?  I can't imagine the bag factory is bribing the mayor of every city to end or resist these programs.

Sometimes the politicians in charge are purely self serving and greedy.  Those aren't great, but they are better than the completely crazy and random folks like Ford.  At least with a purely self interested person you can predict what they will do and try to manipulate them into not doing it but with a madman like Ford you never know what nutty thing he will do next nor what it might take to stop him.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cooperating with the thieves

Ziggyny sent me a good, though perhaps overly long, article on get rich quick online scams.  I had always wondered how exactly those people who give seminars and sell books on making money with no expertise made their money - after all, the books aren't free to make and you can't see all that many of them.  It turns out that people who are moderately famous as 'internet gurus' or 'financial trainers' can make a ton of money just handing names and addresses of people who bought from them to hard sell con men.  You buy a book for $40 and promptly your name, phone number and address gets sold to every scumbag in the world who will contact you to try to get you to max out your credit card to make an 'investment'.  The real money isn't in the initial scam, which is worthless but not especially harmful, but rather in generating leads for the cons that will cost you thousands.

It saddens me to see just how prevalent these scams are.  The constant spam of 'try this one weird trick to lose 5 pounds of belly fat a week' garbage appears on all kinds of sites along side 'get ripped fast', 'random student makes $400 per day posting links on the internet', and 'this lady discovered the secret to getting rid of wrinkles, doctors HATE her'.  It isn't just on piddly little blogs like this one or even on small sites trying to make pocket change off of ad revenue but rather big business on Facebook, major news sites and other sites on a scale that would make you think they could filter out the obvious trash.  These sorts of sites have a real income stream and should in theory be able to figure out that they are helping criminals cheat desperate or naive people but they don't seem to be concerned.  Not that I particularly count Facebook as being on team good of course; they are perfectly happy to sell personal information for profit so it makes sense for them to help crooks do the same.

This is actually one of the reasons that I won't consider putting ads on my blog.  For one the income level would be laughable at best and for two I would feel at least partly responsible for what appeared on my page.  I know that all kinds of unethical garbage would be hawked from the sidebars of Brightcape in order to net me my 25 cents a month if I opted in so I haven't any interest.  The fact that these shady advertisers continue to be able to afford to pay for internet ads suggests that they are very successful and that means any company that works with them is straight up helping their readers get scammed.  If I see this sort of thing on any page where I think I can actually get information or results from complaining I will, and I encourage you to do the same.  Not that Mark Zuckerberg is going to stop letting thieves prospect on Facebook because I ask nicely but there are plenty of groups out there who probably just don't know what these terrible ads are actually about.  I assume most people just figure these companies are selling worthless junk that doesn't especially work (which isn't great but I can't expect people to stop buying things that won't improve their lives!) rather than setting up high impact scams for the people who can least afford to be scammed.

Prosecuting these people is extremely difficult because they are located all over the world and constantly shift companies, offices and names.  This isn't something the authorities can clamp down on effectively.  The only thing we can do is be informed and take small steps like complaining to sites that run these ads to try to choke out the jackasses out there who run these nefarious schemes.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Don't make me think

People don't think nearly as much as they think they do.  Most of our decisions are made by very simple heuristics, are extremely repetitive, and barely even register on our conscious minds.  Whether it is driving a car or buying groceries we spend the better part of our lives on autopilot.  This isn't a bad thing in general because we simply can't afford to think about everything we do.  Thinking is hard and letting our subconscious heuristics deal with most decisions is easy.

You can see people breaking out of autopilot easily if you present them with a decision that they don't see very often or change the parameters of a decision to be outside their comfort zone.  They look up, focus their eyes, and usually get an irritated expression on their face as they realize they are going to have to work for it this time.  Some of the time they will simply resolve the situation by going back to a heuristic that really doesn't apply instead; this is easy on the decider but often generates foolish decisions.  Parents tend to do this all the time when children do things that are out of line because actually sitting down and figuring out how risky / annoying / messy the child's latest desire is can be difficult.  "You can't do that because I said so."  It applies just as much to politicians, of course, because they desperately try to avoid decisions that require real thinking because it is likely they will end up being wrong.

It's tough because especially as a parent you end up in situations where you simply don't have the mental energy to fully evaluate all the risks and benefits of whatever crazy thing your kid has decided to do.  They want to jump in the river, so you say no.  Maybe it isn't a problem because they will have lots of time to dry out and the river is small and slow but figuring that stuff out takes energy and they will never cease coming up with strange things to request that might be a problem.  The difficulty is that when we use simple heuristics to decide to keep the kids out of the river we vastly overestimate the chances of catastrophic things happening (drowning) and fail to notice the subtle good that comes from letting children sort out their own mistakes and trials.  This makes parents frustrated because they just want to enjoy what they are doing and instead they have to either be autocratic or think all the time and thinking is work!

Now that the weather is getting nicer I see the same thing when I go out barefoot.  People get flustered and upset at my bare feet even though it cannot possibly affect them in any way; it is strange and unusual and forces them to think and they don't like it one bit.  They just want me to conform so they can go back to slotting me into their normal 'tall white dude' box and forget about it.  They worry that I will do something crazy and they worry that they will do something wrong because their normal strategy says nothing about what to do with a barefoot person who isn't homeless and muttering to themselves.

Not that there is anything we can do about this.  People need simple heuristics to make decisions and can't possibly think carefully about everything they do and we really don't want them to try.  I wish though that the first response to being pushed out of autopilot was curiosity instead of hostility.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Time to get hitched

Huzzah for Obama. 

He finally came out and voiced his support for gay marriage and only needed his vice president and members of his cabinet to already have stated support for it as well as waiting almost a full year since he changed his mind last June.  It is sad that Obama decided that he supported gay marriage so long ago but could only be goaded into actually acknowledging it by peer pressure - even then it is fairly sure that if the polls weren't so rapidly shifting in support of it he would have kept his mouth shut.

It is an interesting situation to watch.  Even in the past two years national support for gay marriage in the US has skyrocketed from 41 to 49 percent and it is a pretty damn good bet that in 2016 the Democratic candidate will make gay marriage a part of their platform if it doesn't happen in 2012.  They might not believe in it personally but they will believe in the polls - politicians are predictable like that.

It is a good thing to see and I hope we see more of this sort of adjustment in future.  Opinions on social matters are changing more rapidly now than ever before in history, largely due to the internet I suspect, and since we see a strong trend towards being a more inclusive and tolerant society I figure things will continue to improve faster than ever.  There have been bumps and setbacks of course and there will be again but the trend is undeniable.  The one thing that really worries me about positive social change is that too much of it may be based on continuing economic improvement.  When we are all rich and getting richer it is not so hard to look out for the marginalized people in society but that seems to go by the wayside when times get 'tough'.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Punishments and bluffing

Today I was volunteering at Elli's school and discovered that some of the students were being punished for failing to stack up their chairs properly at the end of lunch time. Their punishment seems an appropriate one at first glance:  They were simply denied chairs and had to eat standing up.  It has the advantage of getting the students who actually do stack their chairs involved in convincing the slackers to shape up; generally I find that cracking down on problems is easier when you get kids to use peer pressure to get others to get in line.  The trouble is though the kids didn't seem put out by the arrangement as far as I could tell because they are small enough that the chairs don't fit them and table height is just fine for a standing meal.  This arrangement means extra work for the janitor because she has to show up at particular times and clean up all the chairs herself without any help stacking rather than just doing it all at the end and having the students do some of the work at least.  To my mind this is a real issue with any punishment; if the punisher ends up being more put out than the one being punished you have real potential for problems.  What do you do when they call your bluff?

Back when I was in grade six or so somebody stole twenty dollars from another student's desk.  My class was legendarily ill behaved so they decided to do something unprecedented and refuse to let us have recess time at all until somebody confessed.  Surely some of the students knew who the culprit was but as I was an unpopular nerd I certainly had no clue.  Regardless of that we ended up inside without any break for several days and the class began to go berserk.  The teacher got no reprieve at all and the students were going bonkers but the school did not want to back down.  The problem was that any student that confessed at that point would have been not only severely punished by the authorities but also by their classmates so nobody was going to confess.  So now in effect the students had called the school's bluff and the school was royally screwed; if they gave in they would have lost all credibility and if they didn't the class would get progressively worse.  Eventually the class got so fed up they took a collection and got twenty dollars together... thankfully the school took the opportunity to back down with a shred of dignity and didn't press the case for a confession.

I feel like failing students and forcing them to repeat a year is another example of a punishment that simply doesn't work.  The fear of failing will get a few students to work a few times but the great majority of the time the students will work or not according to their desires and the fear of failing a year simply doesn't factor into it.  The amount of effort required to use the fear of failure against them and the difficulty in dealing with students that do fail seems like a much greater burden for the administration than the benefits would make worthwhile.  If you really could get kids to work harder just by threatening them with failure it would be great but even when failure was an option in years past there were still plenty of slackers and malcontents.

I know I struggle personally with the issue of never threatening a punishment that I am not willing to go through with; it is tempting to make dire threats to get obedience but getting my bluff called is not an experience I relish.  Strangely I have found that the most effective strategy is to threaten to think of something nasty.  If I tell Elli exactly what the consequences of disobedience are she often refuses to do as requested but simply saying "If you do X I will have to think up a punishment and you won't like it!" regularly works.  Apparently she can think of all kinds of incredibly nasty punishments that I lack the imagination to come up with myself.  Unfortunately in a bureaucracy like a school that strategy is not going to work.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Parents aren't hero material

I was listening to a Geek and Sundry episode a couple days ago and the folks on it were talking about the lack of female heroes in fantasy books.  A big part of the criticism was that female heroes, when they did appear, were pretty much required to be young virgins because any woman who is sexually active and especially one that has children simply isn't hero material.  Heroic fantasy definitely has a standard story that involves a young man in his late teens without stable parents who goes out into the world, discovers his latent magical powers, defeats his evil nemesis, and gets the beautiful girl in the end.   They talked mostly about how women are invisible in this standard tale and especially how women aren't able to do anything but be a mother once they have a child; their other roles or priorities are totally erased.

I agree that standard fantasy narrative places women in a secondary role but I think the idea that mothers aren't allowed to do anything interesting is less of a fact than *parents* aren't allowed to do anything interesting.  Of course if you happen to be both a woman and a parent you get a double whammy.  How often is the hero in a fantasy book a person that has young children to take care of?  Basically never, of course, and I think that is at least in part because we place a very large moral priority on taking care of one's own children.  People who abandon their children are bad, and heroes are supposed to be good, so it becomes very much more difficult to create a sympathetic hero who leads off with a very substantial bad act.  Men do have a little more leeway here because it is more acceptable in the standard tale for a man to run off to fight evil while the woman is not granted the same freedom.

Despite the gloom and doom though there are exceptions.  Paladin of Souls, which I wrote about before, is a fantasy story in which the heroes are middle aged folks whose child rearing days are long past and which does a great job of portraying how a hero who isn't eighteen years old would act.  Another good example of fantasy stories against archetype is a series by Sarah Monette starting with Melusine which has a gay main character.  These stories exist, though they are unfortunately drowned in the sea of 'young man finds magic gets girl'.

I will admit I have a soft spot for the classical story.  I daydream about magical powers and saving the world and I am a fan of beautiful women so unsurprisingly the fantasy of 'young man finds magic gets girl' is going to find a receptive audience in me.  I enjoyed the stories about Belgarion, Rand Al'Thor, Richard Cypher and Sparhawk back in the day but these days I really want something a little less bad.  I guess this is why I like A Song of Ice and Fire so much; the classic hero characters have no particular ability to stay alive more than anyone else and it isn't at all clear who should be considered to be on Team Good anyway.  It is a complicated, messy story with all kinds of people of varying shades of grey doing things that have crazy and interesting consequences.  It feels a little more like a world full of characters than a predictable narrative taking an obvious course.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sick children

Elli has been sick for six days now.  She has been hanging around home sleeping a lot and feeling wretched.  Sick children evoke really powerful emotions in people that are very much akin to 'cuteness'... at least initially.  When she gets sick I want to take care of her and protect her and watching her find some peace in sleep is incredibly satisfying.  I am perfectly happy to fetch her water, clean up her messes, read her stories, and generally act like a servant.

For about three days.

After six days of continuous illness that satisfaction with helping and waking up five times a night for various reasons has quite gone away.  I should perhaps be a better person, more willing to be patient and able to deal with a sick little one.  I am not, though.  The real issue is that with Elli home all the time and constantly needy I never get my flow time.  I can't focus my mind on anything interesting when I have to be ready to fetch and carry on a moment's notice.

I listened to a speech by John Cleese yesterday about creativity.  He talked about many different ways to encourage creativity and one of the ones that most resonated with me was setting aside concrete blocks of time.  Having a specific block of time, 3:00 until 4:30, for example, allows a mind to really go into flow and to set aside worries and interruptions.  I certainly believe that this is a great way to encourage creativity but I think that is more of a function of finding flow.

I know that when I have someone around the house who is constantly calling me for various things I just can't get myself into a good frame of mind.  I can't really settle in to a deep trance and fully involve myself in things when I know I am likely to be pulled out at any time.  It isn't even a matter so much of the amount of time so much as it is about having certain time.  If I know I must be aware of the world and responsible for what is going on outside my focus I lose my edge and never really get as deeply in as I need to.

Hopefully the next day or so will see Elli fully recovering and heading back off to school so that I can get back to my alone time.  Regardless of what I am doing the ability to throw myself wholly into something, anything, will be most welcome.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Paying the bills

Student debt is a big topic these days.  President Obama recently put on a show where he slow jams the news to talk about keeping interest on student loans low and Quebec has a big protest going on where students are freaking out over tuition increases.  Students obviously feel like they should not have student debt for years and years after they graduate; naturally their self interest lies in having minimal possible debt.  The trouble is that student debt has to be supported one way or another as we can't just wish it away with no consequences; somebody always has to pay the bill in the end.

In the same way there is real concern that pension plans and healthcare costs for our elderly are going to rise completely out of control over the next decades as our population ages.  We have come out of a time period where many people expect to retire at 55 and are looking at most people wanting to enter the workforce somewhere around 25.  If those people who start work at 25 with student debt don't want to pay much interest on it then they are simply going to have to put up the difference in taxes to the government anyhow.  There is no free lunch.  This panacea of graduating from years of university education, entering the workforce with minimal debt, retiring early and being supported by the government from age 65 to 85 just doesn't add up unless we are all happy paying enormous amounts of taxes throughout our working lives.

It is a tricky sort of topic.  Clearly there are benefits to retiring early and being very well educated but as my Econ 101 prof used to say, what is the cost?  The cost is that the people taking advantage of both of these things have a fairly small part of their life where they are contributing money into the pot and many years where they are taking it out.  It just isn't sustainable as a model for all citizens.  Of course any given person can potentially manage this, especially if they are particularly careful with finances, but to believe that the population at large can all get university educations and retire early is irrational.  That is, it is irrational given our current standard of living.  We can easily survive on a fraction of our current incomes if we pare down our lifestyles and that would have lots of great environmental effects - humans using too much stuff is the driving factor behind our climate change issues and nearly all other environmental challenges.

That isn't the sort of line the government can deliver though.  Students don't want to hear that the government won't support their debts, workers don't want to hear that taxes will go up and retirees don't want to head back to the grind nor give up their benefits.  At some point though we are going to have to address the unrealistic expectation of leisure and wealth combined that people have.  You can have leisure (like I do, say) or you can have wealth (like most people do, say) but there is no way to do both.