Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A rainy Hallowe'en

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Safety, no matter how ridiculous

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Desk down

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

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When the Leviathan needs to come crashing down

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2012

The power of technology

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The aliens have landed

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I must obey the internet

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Freedom of religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lies, damned lies

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Leviathan

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mr. Money Mustache

My brother directed me to the Mr. Money Mustache blog yesterday.  He got this name somehow... perhaps by drawing mustaches on bills?  I often wonder where blogs get their titles.  MMM is devoted to writing about ways to live an extremely frugal livestyle such that you can retire very young.  He managed to accomplish this with a net family income of 160k over 9 years which is certainly quick and so he definitely has some credibility.  My brother assumed that I probably already read MMM since after all he suggests a lifestyle very much like the one I currently live and advocate but this is not the case.  While I find it interesting to read someone else's take on the pennypinching lifestyle I think a lot of what he says just isn't going to be interesting since I already do it.

Its nice to read things from people who agree with you but it doesn't do much for you in the long run.  I can't get a lot of benefit from an article about how to lower your electricity bill, especially because that is covered by my fixed condo fees anyhow, so although I want everybody to read MMM and do what he says I don't know that I will bother reading it myself.  MMM is kind of the opposite of my project to read the bible cover to cover a few years ago in that the bible was basically entirely full of things I utterly reject and yet I read it to gain understanding (as well as talking points to use to crush religious folks in arguments).  You can read to find things you agree with or you can read to find things that will expand your horizons but it is hard to find a source that will do both.

I do think that there are some lessons I could take from MMM.  He lives in a small town that allows him to live in an urban setting but still be able to ride a bike to all kinds of rural activities with ease.  I like living in a big centre for the public transportation but the fact that I have to pay to do many or most athletic activities is a real issue for me.  Sure I can run on the street, which is fine if you want to just run, but I don't.  Rock climbing, swimming, exploring, these things have much more appeal but there aren't available in uptown Toronto.  (Surprise?)  His writing really makes me want to move to a small town that would give me the dual benefits of being able to get around without a vehicle and access to nature.  I don't know how often I would be able to drag myself away from the internet to actually go out and climb a hill but having the option to do so would be really great.

It is all a matter of priorities and planning.  Just as MMM and I both prove you can live on a ridiculously tiny budget and still live very well if you set your mind to it.  He has an additional level of planning though which has him set up in a location that works perfectly for his needs.  Toronto is good and all but living in the centre of a huge city is not the best place to do things that require little or no cash.  Finding a place a little further from the middle of everything might be a really fine idea someday pretty soon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


I remember fire drills when I was young.  My parents would wave a match under the fire alarm and I would leap out of bed, open my window, and crawl out onto the roof.  They would be outside with a ladder to let us down from the roof and my brother and I would gratefully go back to bed.  My dad was a volunteer fire fighter so he was really keen on making sure we had a plan and knew the plan without any confusion whatsoever.  Drawing models of your home and detailing exits and fire contingency plans makes a lot of sense when you have a house but living in a condo makes a lot of the standard preparations seem ... bizarre.

Elli's teacher sent her home with homework to draw our home and detail our emergency plans.  In a condo on the 12th floor those plans were pretty boring.  Let's see, we could draw in all the windows just like the form asks, or we could remember that going out those windows is a 50 meter drop to certain death.  We could draw in all the alternate exits and different ways of getting out of the condo, or we could note that every room has precisely one door and there is only one way out of the place.  It just isn't the same to prepare when the only possible plan is 'Go out the door, down the stairs, and out.'  I guess when they send these plans home with kids they just ignore the fact that many of them live in condos or apartments that make the instructions quite silly.  There are things you can tell kids that live in apartments, of course, but the instructions are entirely focused around house fire planning.

The other funny thing is that in school they are taught to exit the building *immediately*.  In the condo we have exactly the opposite instruction:  Stay in place and do nothing.  The concierge will tell us over the intercom if we have to leave; otherwise we should sit tight.  Initially I thought this was a bit nutty but then I considered how bad it would be if, for example, everyone had to leave right away and people were forced to carry an invalid down 16 flights of stairs in a real hurry.  After the tenth person died from falling down the stairs because some buffoon lit a cigarette in the parking garage the policy of 'evacuate condo buildings right away' would stop in a hurry.

It feels like in many cases the schools simply assume that kids have specific lifestyles.  They are assumed to live in houses, have lots of relatives that want to purchase junk from the school in fundraising drives, and have parents that are desperately concerned about safety and legalities.  Of course some people fit any or all of those categories but I fit in none and it always strikes me as a bit odd that school policies seem to make these assumptions of parents even though they are so often false.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The valuation of time

Recently I have been wondering if the way people perceive a time investment is changing on a global scale.  In particular I consider the following scenario:  Somebody invites me to travel somewhere for an event and I don't want to go simply because I could do so many other things instead of commute.  If I am going to spend an hour getting somewhere, an hour getting back, and two hours at the event then the event had better be pretty damn good.  Instead of two hours spent on annoying travelling I could be killing internet monsters and taking their stuff so the two hour event needs to be a *lot* better than killing internet monsters to make up for how much worse the travelling is.

I know I think this way.  (I don't claim people should think this way, just that I do.)  What I don't know is if this sort of thinking has become more widespread as connectivity in our society increases.  I know that when I consider the people in my life that are significantly older than me I notice that they spend a lot more time travelling to places than I would ever consider doing and they put a lot more emphasis on goals over journeys than I do.  I spend a lot of time considering and evaluating each part of an activity including all of the set up and arrangements.  I don't use placemats because although placemats may look nice they need cleaning and washing and fussing over and overall I deem the benefits not worth it.  I could be spending that time levelling up!

When I read about what was considered the norm for housework 60 years ago my eyes just bug out of my head.  Cleaning windowsills monthly?  Dusting weekly?  Sweeping daily?  Are you off of your trolley?  I like a clean house but I can keep it looking entirely presentable with a pretty small amount of effort and I cannot fathom how I would spend thirty five hours a week cleaning.  Sure, a condo is way less work than a house but it isn't one tenth as much work.  I can't help but wonder if these norms were at least in part due to people valuing their time much less.  If you don't have anything interesting to do then it makes sense to clean the house more but when there are people who are wrong on the internet I can't see how cleaning the windowsills (again) is going to happen.  Facebook, email, forum wars, and video games all suck people's time away.

So is it just me?  Am I the only one who chafes at the idea of wasting time in traffic to the extent that I don't want to do anything?  It isn't the events themselves which are stopping me; this isn't an introvert thing.  When somebody wants to go to a movie at the theatre one block away I don't mind going because nearly all the time spent is going to be fun.  What I can't comfortably do is ignore the setup time for doing things that are far away or require lots of other prep.  What I don't see is people in previous generations doing that same math and arriving at the same conclusions and I suspect, but clearly can't prove, that it is due to the ubiquitous distractions that the internet provides.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bad advice

I am a devoted reader of Dan Savage's sex advice column.  He has a good mix of politics, freaks, and interesting debate on relationships and sex that I find consistently good.  Consistently good, however, is not the same as always good.  He got a question this week from a woman with strong pro-choice feelings in a relationship with a man who was moderately pro-life.  She wanted to know how to address this problem and if it should be a deal breaker for her.  Dan's advice?  Lie to him, tell him that she is pregnant, and see what shakes out.

I can think of other ways to torpedo a relationship more thoroughly like pepper spraying him, giving away all of his possessions, or showing his porn collection to his mom, but lying about being pregnant ranks way up there on the 'dump her now' list.  The trouble here is that sometimes people get so caught up in fighting an ideological war that they lose their perspective on the problems staring them in the face.  I agree that people who want to ban abortion are mistaken and it is critical that women be allowed control over their own bodies.  What I don't agree with is the idea that anyone who voices a pro-life opinion automatically ought to be treated like crap.  Dan is making a classic mistake by lumping in one person with the dangerous fanatics who have some superficial similarities.

Lots of people hold opinions that I don't agree with.  That doesn't mean that scorched earth tactics are appropriate in all circumstances.  When someone says that society should be run according to their own particular interpretation of ancient texts that codify and glorify sexism, racism, murder, slavery, etc. then I feel comfortable with enraged confrontation but there is a middle ground.  There are people out there who feel that there is some kind of benevolent supernatural force behind everything that touches on people's lives; they are mistaken but I gain little by fighting them directly and might gain much with gentle persuasion.

This is somewhat like the position of moderate Muslims in the US.  They often find themselves lumped in with the lunatic extremists when acts of terrorism occur but which certainly have no direct involvement in violent activities.  We need to make people aware that by supporting religion (or anti-abortion politics) they have a negative effect on the world by empowering the lunatics.  However, many of those can be converted to the light side with appropriate conversation and example.  Very few will be brought over by frothing rage or being an jackass though, and we need all the converts we can get.

One thing I find immensely cheering about this whole episode is the comments section of the post I linked.  Dan Savage has a lot of people that regularly comment on his posts and most of them think the world of him.  Despite that nearly everyone who posted made it clear that his advice was completely unacceptable.  In a world where people flock to defend embattled leaders regardless of what terrible things they may have said or done this is a breath of fresh air.  Dan is usually right but this time he was dead wrong.  The willingness to admit that someone in our own group is terribly mistaken even when they are attacking someone who holds opposite beliefs is a cornerstone in making good decisions, especially in politics.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Groupon - Confusion for sale cheap

Wendy subscribes to Groupon and regularly gets offers for all kinds of random stuff.  Sometimes these offers work out really well and sometimes... not so much.  The biggest problem with Groupon is that they present a coupon offer with the fine print acknowledging that you still have to pay taxes, tips, and other costs on your own.  However, the legalities of precisely how much you have to pay vary all over the place and coupon holders end up in annoying situations.

For example, I got a carpet cleaning for $40.  The guy showed up and called me asking how he would go about getting down into the building's visitor parking area; unfortunately my condo building doesn't have one of those.  I advised him about pay parking nearby and he got angry and upset because I was suggesting he pay for parking though eventually we managed to find him a spot in the back of the building to park for free for a short time.  When he came up he asked for the taxes to the tune of $10.

I was like, pardon?

Last time I checked when you apply a 13% tax rate to $40 you get $5.20, not $10.  He got offended when I asked why he was charging a 25% tax rate and gave me a long sob story about how Groupon only gives him half of the fee and then charges him $2.50 on top of that.  This sounds terrible for him and all, because spending a couple hours driving across the city to make $17.50 seems absolutely wretched, but how exactly is it my problem that he agreed to perform this service for $17.50?  If you can't make a profit at the price you are charging, perhaps you should charge a different price, no?

The legalities surrounding taxes on Groupon purchases are completely nuts, upon further research.  Some places force you to pay tax on the full amount, which was listed at a unbelievable $160.  Sorry folks, I am not paying tax on the 'regular price' which is used only as a red herring.  Some places only ask for the tax on the amount paid for the service, which would line up with how taxes work on every other purchase in the world!  When I go to The Bay and get a shirt at 50% off I don't pay tax on the 'regular price'...

The real problem with this in the end is that the Groupon is supposed to, in theory, get the vendor more clients by bringing in new customers for a bargain.  Instead we ended up irritated and bitter, not to mention confused, and have no intention of ever contacting this company again.  Even though the carpet cleaner relented and only charged me $5 in tax I found the whole experience distasteful.  I don't mind paying the taxes on things but it really bothers me to have a contract I can't get out of where the terms aren't clear.  If I can negotiate ahead of time I am fine with it but negotiating the price after having already committed to buy is a poor situation indeed.

Friday, October 5, 2012

So before we have sex you should know...

The Supreme Court in Canada just ruled that someone with HIV can potentially be prosecuted for aggravated sexual assault if they have sex without informing their partner of the condition.  This is even true if they use a condom, and is only mitigated if they carry a low viral load.  Advocacy groups for those with HIV/AIDS are opposed to this and feel that as long as a condom is used no disclosure needs to occur.  Normally when these sorts of issues come up I have a quick and easy answer but this one really has me stumped - should anybody with HIV be allowed to keep their condition secret if a condom is used?

Obviously giving somebody else HIV is really, really bad.  Even exposing them to significant risk of contracting HIV is a terrible thing to do and I agree that it should be considered a crime.  It is easy to say that everyone with any sexually transmittable disease should disclose that before they have sex; this would solve the problem of liability and severely dampen the problem of actual transmission.  The trouble is that if you have HIV and tell somebody that before sex you run a very large risk of them bugging out on you.  That particular conversation is not one I want to be a part of on either end.  Not only that, but we know that people don't disclose their risks on a regular basis.  A huge percentage of the population (estimates vary from 20% to 80%) has one or the other of the herpes varieties which would suggest that the great majority of sexual encounters should have a disease disclosure ahead of time... and that certainly isn't true.

So when we know that the population at large does not disclose having an STD before sex and we do not criminalize that activity.  Obviously transmitting herpes is much less important than HIV, particularly since your partner has a pretty high chance of having herpes already, but it is still a bad thing to do.  Occasionally I imagine what dating would be like and the line "So, I do get cold sores now and again, so I have herpes, but I don't have any now, which means the chance of transmission is quite low... wanna get freaky?" doesn't exactly fit well in the imaginary sex scene.

If I am not likely to utter that line myself (despite the fact that it is true) then can I really conscience imprisoning somebody for doing what amounts to the same thing?  On the other hand, having sex regularly with new people is not a right I think we need to protect and people should know what risks they are running when they have sex with someone.  I toss this around in my head back and forth and I just can't find an answer.  Somebody has to draw a line in the sand and usually I would be happy to make that decision but in this case I am pretty much content that someone else has to make the call.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Facing reality

Government policy and law exists to improve the life of its citizens.  Those creating the laws and setting the policy should, and usually do, take it as their mission to make things as good as possible for all of their constituents.  The biggest issue with making policy is not that people want to make things worse but rather that they persist in making decisions based on ideology instead of fact.  The war on drugs is a great example of this in action - governments funnel money to organized crime, spend enormous sums on enforcement, and imprison people for victimless crimes without ever stopping to think that their schemes simply aren't working.  People still regularly use drugs and can get high any time they want so what is the benefit in trying to stop them?

I saw a great little video on the BBC today about the second great example of this:  Prostitution.  A blogger who talked about her escort work for years is interviewed about her attitudes towards prostitution and policy surrounding it.  The interviewer continually tries to make the case that prostitution is bad but never even attempts to attack the *efficacy* of anti-prostitution laws, which is the only thing that matters.  We know that making seatbelts mandatory works at reducing deaths from car collisions so it is a law worth having.  Laws against prostitution don't work and cause all kinds of problems like funding organized crime and encouraging human trafficking so we shouldn't have them, idealism be damned.

Now I don't buy the idea that prostitution is wrong in the first place but we don't need that to feel that criminalizing it is wrong.  Should we regulate prostitutes to some extent?  Maybe have licences or get them to register or something to attempt to control the spread of STIs?  These are conversations that are worth having and honestly I don't have the answers.  Should we put prostitutes or johns in jail though?  Absolutely not.  We always should be looking at the results of our laws and not allow ourselves the luxury of wallowing in idealism while ignoring what we are actually accomplishing.

It is quick, easy, and clean to moralize on someone else's life choices and declare them worthy of punishment.  It is much harder to figure out if government interference would actually help the situation or merely be an expensive nuisance.  We owe it to ourselves to make our decisions about real effects, not idealism, because it is the real effects that matter.  Senseless, ineffectual prohibition may make a few people happier because the state officially does not sanction an activity they find unpleasant to contemplate but government doesn't have the mandate of salving people's consciences.  They have the mandate of making things better for all of us and they should keep that in mind.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

We have it good; also, what a mess in Iran

It is great to have the luxury to worry about trivial things.  I was reading today about the current financial crisis in Iran - not the worldwide one that has been going on for years but rather the fact that they have experienced 400% inflation in just a few months due to the economic sanctions imposed by most of the First World.  Of course disastrous economic mismanagement is probably a big factor but the Iran leadership and the US are trying to blame each other exclusively for the mess.  I read a bit about the situation there and it seemed utterly hopeless for the average person; merchants are terrified to sell anything because they have no idea what money is worth and everyone is worried about inflation becoming even more severe in the
coming days.  Being a crazy totalitarian theocracy certainly isn't helping their case and the more I read about Iran the more appreciative I become of what I have.

I was talking this week with another parent who emigrated from Iran a few years ago and the stories she told me were just beyond belief.  Living through war and crazy religious lifestyle enforcement police
are something I can hardly even imagine, let alone being willing to move across the globe to a new country where everything is unfamiliar and everyone is left behind.  I worry and fuss about Elli getting
involved in the right clubs and check out the Girl Guides for religious infection before I approve of her joining.  I get in trouble with various authorities because I want to go barefoot everywhere and don't like being told what to wear.  I get extremely bitter that my country is wasting funds on fighter jets instead of doing things that are useful.  Yet despite all this fussing there is no way Elli is going to be forced to join a religion, the restrictions on my personal freedom of expression are minimal, and my country has no plans to
*use* said fighter jets (which is a good reason to not buy them).

While it is sad that people are living through the mess that is Iran (and Iran isn't the worst place in the world to live, consider North Korea...) it does make me feel better about Canada that I have the luxury about worrying about so many small things.  I spend so much of my time fired up writing about some injustice or other that it is probably a healthy thing to get slapped about with a comparison that makes my rants seem unimportant.  I live in a good place, in a good time, and I should remember that.  It shouldn't convince me to be complacent though as we can always do better but realizing exactly how good I have it and how bad things could be is critical to maintaining proper perspective.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Kick the bottle without God

The Doctor sent me a question a little while ago.  She wanted to know what I thought about Alcoholics Anonymous (not for personal use, thankfully) and whether or not there were any alternatives that didn't require religious devotion.  Six of the twelve steps in the AA program explicitly refer to God and the meetings are often very religious so it must be really hard for any atheist who wants to use the program without opening disavowing their beliefs.  I figured that AA was a useful organization that had an unfortunate leaning towards religion but I figured that I should read a little bit about it to see what exactly was up with them.  Upon further inspection I think I should withdraw most of the goodwill I extended towards AA because their success basically hinges on attaching a bad idea to a good idea and marketing the whole thing as an inseparable whole.

The good idea, as it turns out, is to get people struggling with a problem to speak openly about their problem with other people who also have that problem and get support when needed.  It is hard to talk about really rough problems like addiction, depression, or other mental disorders with anyone who has not experienced them.  You just aren't going to understand the emotion if you have not experienced it personally and if you want to offer sympathy or support to someone who is relapsing it helps immensely to be able to talk about that from experience.  Having meetings where alcoholics discuss their problems and try to help each other is a huge win.

The problem is the rest of the program, particularly the part where you admit that you are powerless over the problem and ask God to change you to make it go away.  Calling upon a fictional character to deal with a problem for you is a mess, as is AA ramming religion down the throat of anyone who wants to take part in their services.  Certainly there must be some people who deal well with offloading all of their problems and the blame for their failures onto God but there are an awful lot who need exactly the opposite approach.  It feels to me much like the belief in life after death that Christians usually profess to believe in; they say that they are going to a perfect, wonderful place when they die and yet they are devastated when someone close to them dies and are utterly terrified of their own death.  They claim to believe but their actions show otherwise.  In the same way people might claim that God is the one who can save them from alcoholism but they know better deep down.  They feel guilty when they relapse and they feel ashamed of their addiction regardless of the ostensible blame shifting.

So does AA work?  Well, I found a bit of data that suggests that about 5% of people get to one year in the program still sober.  I personally count that as not a total failure, but hardly exciting, since any time one hundred alcoholics decide to quit in a serious way about 5% of them will be successful over that time frame.  It is probably better than nothing, (maybe not) but it is also probably worse than a program that uses the group therapy portion of AA without the crazy of AA.  Are there alternatives?  Yes, SOS, but I can't say how easy it will be to find a group in any particular area.  SOS's manifesto is below, and I like it.  So yes, there is another way, and yes, I give it my tentative stamp of approval.

General Principles of SOS

All those who sincerely seek sobriety are welcome as members in any SOS Group.
SOS is not a spin-off of any religious or secular group. There is no hidden agenda, as SOS is concerned with achieving and maintaining sobriety (abstinence).
SOS seeks only to promote sobriety amongst those who suffer from addictions. As a group, SOS has no opinion on outside matters and does not wish to become entangled in outside controversy.
Although sobriety is an individual responsibility, life does not have to be faced alone. The support of other alcoholics and addicts is a vital adjunct to recovery. In SOS, members share experiences, insights, information, strength, and encouragement in friendly, honest, anonymous, and supportive group meetings.
To avoid unnecessary entanglements, each SOS group is self-supporting through contributions from its members and refuses outside support.
Sobriety is the number one priority in a recovering person’s life. As such, he or she must abstain from all drugs or alcohol.
Honest, clear, and direct communication of feelings, thoughts, and knowledge aids in recovery and in choosing nondestructive, nondelusional, and rational approaches to living sober and rewarding lives.
As knowledge of addiction might cause a person harm or embarrassment in the outside world, SOS guards the anonymity of its membership and the contents of its discussions from those not within the group.
SOS encourages the scientific study of addiction in all its aspects. SOS does not limit its outlook to one area of knowledge or theory of addiction.