Sunday, December 30, 2012

Old and tired

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Solving the wrong problem

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Being Awesome

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

More generally speaking you should strive to be awesome.

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

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

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

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

You're welcome?

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One evil dude in a fancy suit

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where Tiny Tim once sat

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Learn 2 rite, f00l

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wonderful things

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hardass for life

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Too much freedom

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Blind Hate

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Give me your leader

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I want to live somewhere else, she says

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

I hate it.

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

Monday, December 3, 2012

Learn 2 Math

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mandatory reading for teenagers

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

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

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

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

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

Blog refunctional

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

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