Monday, April 30, 2012

What privacy are we entitled to?

I regularly read the rational optimist blog (not matt ridley's) and found an interesting article there today.  Frank Robinson is a libertarian in the US who has many opinions in common with me (religion, mostly) but also is a lot different from me in that he agrees with lots of things the Republicans do, though he also disagrees with many things they do.  He wrote today about how he finds it abhorrent that the government spends time searching around for readers of child pornography because only the creators of child pornography are legitimate targets of enforcement.  In his view the government and law enforcement have absolutely no business looking at the private matters of citizens who aren't actively engaged in hurting anyone else.

I like a lot of libertarian ideals.  I like the idea that the government should never infringe on people's privacy and that people can sort things out by themselves... but I don't think that this philosophy, taken to extremes, makes for good policy.  Child porn is bad.  Really, really bad.  Being sexually attracted to children is not a crime of course, and it shouldn't be, but I do think that consuming child porn should be a crime.  It would be great to not have weapons or soldiers at all on the basis that weapons and soldiers only hurt people but being defenceless eventually leads to catastrophic results.  In the same way it is great to have maximal privacy and have our computers be utterly sacrosanct but I think the benefits of having the government try to clamp down on child porn wherever it is found are too great to be ignored.  It is a bad enough thing that it is correct to punish both the creators and consumers in an effort to prevent the practice entirely.

In Canada even viewing cartoon pornography where anyone involved appears to be under 18 is criminal; this seems utterly bonkers to me.  There is a gaping chasm between using children for porn (which is reprehensible) and clicking on a video you find after googling "Simpsons porn" (which is silly).  Right now our laws don't make a distinction between silly and evil and that is a problem.  People don't get to choose what they find attractive and repression does not eliminate desire.  This, I think, is something that the government has gotten entirely wrong in this picture.  The concept of 'gateway drugs' as a reason to ban marijuana never held water and I don't think 'gateway child porn' does either.  It isn't in good taste and I don't like it but I don't think that being a Conservative is in good taste either and I don't get to make that illegal.

As the regular newspaper reports of child porn can attest there are lots of people out there who are inexorably attracted to this stuff.  They can't help it despite the incredible risk and life destroying punishments that wait for them.  We can't cure them, we can't eliminate them from the populace.  All we can do is try to give them safe outlets that don't hurt anybody and lock up those that do hurt children and toss away the key.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Heal Me

Back when I was working for MedCan, a private medical firm here in Toronto, I often booked people for medical appointments that were utterly unnecessary.  The job, in fact, pretty much required that I spend my time trying to get everyone to be tested for everything as often as possible because the company made money from each test.  Even then I was still regularly in the position of denying people tests that they desperately wanted.  I remember once there was a man in his 30s who wanted a PSA (prostate specific antigen) test done and I continually told him that although the doctor could ask for it if it was necessary we would not be doing it standard for anyone under 40.  There was a long and involved fight back and forth between this man and MedCan with him demanding the test and us telling him we could not ethically give it to him.  I think that rich people demanding healthcare that isn't helping them is a real problem nearly everywhere regardless of whether or not you have universal health care.  The PSA test isn't even particularly justifiable on the populace at large, let alone those who fall outside the normal parameters.

This article got me thinking about the matter again and really showed how bad private healthcare can be.  The author talks about how in a hospital he worked at a woman came in with the complaint that her breast had fallen off and asked to have it reattached.  Clearly the individual case is horrifying but far worse is the note that the hospital didn't particularly panic because this wasn't out of the ordinary.  Poor women who get breast cancer have this (automastectomy) happen on a semi regular basis because the cancer goes years without treatment and the hospital was used to dealing with it.  That is the reality of private medicine; the rich getting tests that stand to make their lives worse, treatment that doesn't help, and fancy sandwiches in waiting rooms while the poor die of treatable illnesses.  Even in Canada we have the issue of administering tests and 'cures' that simply aren't justified even if the cost were zero but it gets much worse when you have patients who are desperate and uninformed and the system is run for profit.

Innumeracy is as much at the heart of this as anything.  People don't understand statistics and so they want treatments and tests without understanding that once false positives and other certainty issues are factored in that many things we do in medicine aren't producing any statistically significant benefit.  I don't have a lot of hope in that situation ever being resolved though because if we can't get people off of credit card and payday loan debt I can't see how the much more complicated issue of medical statistics is ever going to be understood by the average person.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cold Hands

Do you have problems with cold hands after blowing up bad guys? 

Loved ones push you away because of your frozen appendages?

Bitter about not clicking fast enough with chilled fingers?

There is a solution:  Gamer Mitts!

Everybody needs a pair of Gamer Mitts!

I get cold hands when gaming and I never really knew why until recently.  I knew that Wendy shrieked and told me to go away when I touched her after playing WOW and I knew that my hands felt like ice during games but the cause was not something I actively sought.  Wendy knitted me some Gamer Mitts and they worked as advertised:  My performance was better because my hands stayed warm (warming up before playing computer games is apparently a thing?) and there was much less pushing away and shrieking.  

On tuesday night I was out gaming and Guitar Salesman finally filled in the blanks for me; while doing any really demanding mental task the brain gets all the blood and extremities get less.  The harder the game is and the more I have to think about it the worse the colds hands will be... which makes sense, since my hands aren't frozen all the time, or even all the time when I am at the computer.  I do wonder how much further that goes though.  There are days when I spend 6 hours playing really intense video games and if my brain is being pushed hard enough to deny much of my body proper circulation I might be doing other things to myself.  I have been really tired since I started playing a lot of Mass Effect and it is definitely an intense experience... perhaps I have been making myself exhausted simply by using my brain too much.

That's a new one for you.  Video games don't rot your brain, they wreck your extremities and make you tired because your brain is working *too* hard.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Going mining

It looks like Star Trek fever isn't restricted to Newt Gingrich or failed French presidential hopefuls; Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and filmmaker James Cameron are planning to get out into space and mine asteroids for rare resources within just a few years.  Their plans involves building a bunch of powerful telescopes to check out nearby asteroids and eventually mine them for platinum and gold primarily.  NASA is trying the same thing and will spend 1 billion to get 60 grams of material; last time I checked gold wasn't worth a 500 million dollars an ounce and that is the cost *if* it works.

What boggles my mind is that people want to mine rare resources from objects so incredibly far from home.  It isn't just a matter of hoisting things into orbit because on earth if something breaks you just buy more parts and get some person to fix it while up in space if something breaks you chuck millions or billions in the bin to replace it.  It isn't as ridiculous as colonizing space of course because until Antarctica and the ocean floor are completely colonized the idea of space colonization is preposterous; it is actually possible that at some point getting resources from asteroids could be economically viable as resources on earth run dry.  We aren't there yet, nor anywhere near it, but it it an eventuality that humans will someday face.

It is simply a matter of the relative costs of stuff and energy.  Stuff is cheap right now.  Anything that can be dug up out of the earth is dirt cheap compared to something that must be gotten out of space and there just isn't anything up there that we can use that isn't available here on earth.  This equation will change as energy costs do; with no new innovation the price of energy will go up and up as fossil fuels become harder to get to and things in space will become even more costly.  If we develop fusion in the next decade or so or perhaps find some even more amazing energy source then we could potentially arrive at a point where the geographic availability of resources becomes the limiting factor instead of  the colossal energy investment required to get into space.

Unfortunately for space adventure when energy gets cheaper it gets easier to dig deeper and refine more and get more resources from the earth itself.  There is certainly a point where there is so little of a resource on earth that heading out to space makes sense but before it becomes economically sensible the price of energy needs to drop by an order of magnitude or three.  Not that I object to billionaires building telescopes and thinking about big projects of course; better than buying a dozen yachts.  I just think it has no chance whatsoever of actually turning a profit barring us inventing magic wands.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The French barometer

I had a houseguest this weekend who was in Toronto to vote in the French presidential elections.  I was somewhat shocked that he would travel 4 hours each way to vote and even more so when I found out that the second round of voting is in a couple weeks and he will travel here again.  The French had a turnout of 80% for the vote which is more than Canada has had ... ever?  I guess the French take their politics more seriously than we do here since this is actually a lower turnout than they have had in the past.  I sure wouldn't travel that much to vote as I have a hard enough time finding the will to vote when I just have to walk two blocks!

A lot of people are using this election as a important marker for political movements across Europe.  The far right National Front party candidate came a solid third place which isn't good enough to get onto the final ballot but certainly shows that there are a lot of people taking an isolationist, blame the others stance.  The National Front wants to withdraw from the Euro and go back to the franc and has a lot of the same rhetoric we see in other extreme right wing nationalist parties in european politics.  I think these parties are really dangerous to stability and encourage divisive, damaging thinking - blaming foreigners and surrounding nations for problems are poor decisions but the crazy anti-immigration platforms we can see in all kinds of European nations are frightening.  

It is easy and convenient to blame all of your problems on 'those people who are different' and unfortunately that sort of scapegoating seems to be rapidly rising in popularity across the pond.  Canada hasn't really developed a party like that, probably because although we have our crazies who blame the immigrants for everything there is a pretty strong public sentiment supporting a multicultural society; we actually don't have that many people who have been here more than five generations or so.  The US certainly has plenty of extreme nationalism in its politics but you find it quite firmly entrenched within the Democrats and Republicans; they have no need for fringe right wing nationalist parties.

It is a worrying trend.  As economic uncertainty increases people seem to be drawn to extremists with messages of hate and who rely on scapegoating vulnerable minorities... I wonder how much of the worldwide trend towards socialism, multiculturalism and peace is rooted in constant economic growth and increasing prosperity.  Unfortunately it seems like there is a very strong correlation there.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bad, then good, then bad again.

While walking through the grocery store today I noticed a newspaper talking about the group Underearners Anonymous.  I was dumbfounded... a support group specifically designed for people who habitually don't earn much?  A collection of folks who are artists, aspiring actors/actresses, or generally incompetent?  It is one of those things that made me shake my head and wonder what the world is coming to.

When I got home I checked out their website and found out that it isn't much like that at all.  Rather it is a group designed to help people with a wide range of issues that prevent them from being economically comfortable that mainly seem to focus around self confidence and self worth.  It talked about people who habitually asked too little for their services, gave away their time for no reason, etc. and ended up in bad situations.  This sounds great!  Having a place for people to discuss problems like this and try to find support and solutions seems like a good thing.

But wait.

Just like Alcoholics Anonymous they have a 12 step program for recovery and the program mostly involves admitting helplessness and asking God to fix everything.  I do like a few of the 12 steps like admitting to having a problem and trying to make amends with others hurt by the problem but most of the rest is rubbish.  I have no use for God in pretty much any respect but there are definitely levels of dislike.  Thinking that there is something beyond the realm of the physical that created everything and is benevolent?  Mostly harmless.  Thinking that there is a person of infinite power who can fix you but bases their decision to do so on either random chance or your participation in specific rituals and maintenance of particular beliefs?  Preposterous and dangerous.  If we sit around waiting for God to fix our problems we will be waiting a long damn time; we have to do it ourselves.

Note that I don't think that AA or UA for that matter is an evil organization.  I expect they do good things overall but they could do those things without all the religious baggage.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flipping and Flopping

With Mitt Romney being the Republican candidate in all but name now I did some thinking on how people perceive politicians who change their minds.  Romney is extremely well known for changing his positions on various topics back and forth; years ago his platform could easily be described as middle of the road and he was very 'soft' on traditional Republican practices like being anti-abortion and anti-gay.  Nowadays though he is a hardcore right wing bible thumper, presumably to appease the masses of fundamentalist Christians voting in the Republican elections.  He has been accused of being a flip flopper and if anyone deserves that moniker I think he does... but why is that such a bad thing?

There are lots of reasons for a politician to change their stance on a topic and most of them are good ones.  Perhaps they were convinced by other people that they need to act and think differently.  This is usually going to be a good thing because while there are fanatics and selfish people who clog up any issue with bad information on both sides there are usually a substantial group of people who actually try to figure out the best answer and communicate that.  If a politician is convinced to change their minds by experts or advisers I think they will end up doing the right thing more often than not.

A politician could also be changing their views based on polls or changes in public opinion.  The public, by and large, is wrong about many things and ends up voting for circuses instead of sensible investment but politicians are actually tasked with implementing the will of the people.  They are supposed to listen to the public and even though the public is going to be wrong a good chunk of the time I don't think that we can really fault politicians for changing their minds based on what their constituents want.  The dramatic flip flop of political opinion that destroyed SOPA in the US just a short time ago illustrates a very positive example of this.

We often claim that we want politicians who have vision and who get things done regardless of public opinion or naysayers but I think that is a very risky sort of road.  A monarchy is a fine system as long as the monarch really does have the best interests of the public at heart and is clever enough to come up with the right answers and a politician with vision is similar.  If their goals are good and their methods are sensible then things go very well but when their goals are awful or ridiculous (for example, Rick Santorum's entire platform) then things go very badly indeed.  A flip flopper for a leader isn't likely to bring about a Golden Age but it isn't likely to tear a country apart either.

Clearly everybody wants a politician who is a passionate visionary with goals and ideals exactly the same as the voter in question.  We don't really know what we will get when we vote somebody in though so I generally figure I should hedge my bets and vote for somebody who is less likely to really screw things up even if they are less likely to do something brilliant.  If I have a choice between a visionary and a flip flopper (while knowing nothing else about them) I will take the flip flopper.  Too many of the visionaries out there envision a dystopia for me to be entirely comfortable putting one at the helm.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A seat for the landfill

Recently Elli has gotten big enough that our child car seat has become unnecessary since we need to move to a simple booster seat instead.  I figured that since the seat was still in perfectly fine condition that I would hand it off to somebody else to use; it wasn't cheap and there is nothing wrong with it.  Sthenno has a child of roughly the age that would make such a transfer make sense so I offered it to him.  He was happy to get it particularly since free is a very good price.

A couple days later he emailed me to tell me that the seat exchange would have to be cancelled.  It turns out that selling or giving car seats to other people when those seats were built before the most recent set of rules is illegal.  Yes, that's right, not 'not recommended' nor 'potentially less functional' but actually illegal.  Moreover any injuries done to someone in an illegally acquired seat are not covered by insurance companies.  While I love to hate on insurance companies most of the time I can't imagine they are at fault here; obviously they shouldn't be covering illegal car seats.  The problem is that perfectly functional seats are illegal and that my seat in particular is going straight into the trash instead of being used.

This sort of thing makes me insane.  Car seats are a substantial chunk of stuff and represent real money spent.  Whether your argument is that we shouldn't waste people's money or huck perfectly functional objects in the landfill there are good reasons to dislike this situation.  What I wonder is if these rulings were pushed through under pressure from the car seat companies.  Much like the recording industry and the SOPA fiasco in the US the car seat companies stand to increase profits substantially if they can get the government to step in and control the market for them; in this case to destroy any secondary market.  The more often they can change the rules the better because every time they do there is a bunch more of their product in the dump and a lot more people who have to purchase again to obey the law.  Even if the rules don't change at all people are generally going to be really worried about accidentally running afoul of these laws and insurance penalties and are going to buy new seats so as to avoid any chance of disaster.

The safety crusaders are here to bubble wrap the entire world, regardless of cost.  Note that last word.  I don't object to being safe, but rather to the idea that incurring any cost is acceptable for any amount of safety.  That attitude is far too prevalent these days, particularly in government.  We should spend money for safety, but we should spend it in the most effective places since our resources are limited.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Learning can be very depressing

I read an article last night about broadening gender and racial representation in Dungeons and Dragons and got to thinking a lot about racism and sexism.  In that particular article it was pointed out that historically DnD books were filled with white men fighting evil; Tolkien wrote all dark skinned people as evil and most women as helpless and that 'style' certainly has continued.  There is a real ray of hope in the more recently issued Pathfinder series which contains a good mix of men and women and also has plenty of people who are very much non white.  My immediate reaction was positive; of course it is good to portray minorities and women in game books, particularly if you want your gaming group to be welcoming to anyone other than white dudes!

The comments were an interesting read but I encountered a position I found really puzzling.  Some commenters really believed that these changes to break the white man mold in DnD were actually a problem:  They thought that this was basically rescue fantasy because the real problems in the world were not the ones being addressed.  I get that.  When we make sure that a paladin in the next DnD book is a black woman we aren't helping minorities and women have income equality, equality before the courts, or even equality in how they are viewed by other people.  Changing pictures in DnD books is a small thing.  I think though that enormous projects covering decades or centuries and involving nearly every living person are not something people can deal with head on.  I can't set out every day with the goal of saving everyone from prejudice; it is too much and too impossible.  I can set out to try to make sure that roleplaying games have diversity though, that is a goal that can be accomplished within my lifetime and which feels like something I *should* do.

Wendy linked me to a post about George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  I love this series.  I have waxed eloquent (or not so eloquent, depending on the reader, I suppose) about it in the past.  Reading the extremely angry post about how sexist and racist ASoIaF is made me mad.  Not rational mad, mind you.  Irrational mad.  My toys!  Stop saying that my toys suck!  When you call something I love sexist and racist and creepy it gets me really keyed up, unlike if you call something I love 'of poor quality'.  You don't have to agree with me on quality but words like sexist and racist really do have a huge impact.  I had a desperate urge to write a comment something along the lines of "Argh you are wrong and here are the million reasons why and you SUCK!"  That wouldn't have been especially useful.  Instead I looked up a post that refuted it and felt a lot better.  I can totally understand why the author of the first post got a tremendous amount of hate from the fans of ASoIaF though as I attempt to be aggressive but civil on the internet but many, many people have no such goals and less self control.  Not that I am condoning being an asshat on the internet but I can totally see where it comes from.

Discussing this eventually led me to this post by John Scalzi about how female writers and bloggers face anger and bitterness much more than males on the internet.  The discussion in the comments is extremely long and filled with a lot of back and forth between generally well meaning men who try to grapple with an issue they have a fundamental blind spot on and a lot of women trying to make them understand.  Of course there are also plenty of horror stories of the terrible messages containing death / rape threats and brutal put downs that get sent to women online.  It drives me bonkers because I *want* to understand.  I want to be able to see how women who are really afraid every time they go outside see the world.  I can't get a grasp on the topic unless I can be in their shoes at least to some extent but that worldview is inaccessible to me.

I am not afraid of alleys, or nighttime, or strangers.  I will walk pretty much anywhere without concern.  In my mind, the world is a fairly safe place and other people are often an inconvenience but practically never a danger.  I know rationally that huge amounts of that is male / white / hetero / cis / large man privilege (some of it is surely just confidence / overconfidence) but I can't just shake that off at will.  How can I even engage in this sort of discussion given that blindness?

It is depressing as hell.  It is depressing because there is so much crap out there happening to people.  It is depressing because try as I might I just can't see it from the victim's perspective and my brain continues to tell me that things can't be that bad... since my experience tells me things aren't that bad.  It is depressing that even though I think of myself as more enlightened than the average bear I still reaction to reading these things with internal aggression and disbelief.  The world is sometimes a crappy place and the conviction to do right is not enough.  Reading about all this stuff for hours and hours seems like a good education but it sure does make me feel like crap.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A passion for careers

Today I stumbled upon two very different arguments about having passion for your work.  One is a talk by Larry Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo.  I was in Larry's Econ 101 class and was endlessly entertained by his lectures; he was known far and wide for being a professor who both really knew his topic and also managed to entertain.  At least part of his appeal was his willingness (eagerness?) to call everybody idiots and tell them exactly why what they were doing was foolish.  His talk, unlike most TED talks, was not meant to be a feel good, inspirational talk but rather a cold reminder that the great majority of people fail utterly to realize a great career and that it is all their own fault.  He did title it "Why you will fail to have a great career" after all.  He believes that to realize a great career (note he never equates great with profitable) you must find your passion and follow it.  He further believes that there are a great many excuses people use to avoid finding or following their passions and goes on at great length to tell us about these failings.  Classic Larry Smith.

The second article was written by Penelope Trunk and is titled "The myth of career passion and how it will derail you".  Her take is entirely the opposite of Larry's as she thinks that the most important thing to do is to devote yourself to becoming fantastically good at something, anything, and to find engagement in your job.  Rather than drift around looking for the panacea of 'passion' Penelope figures that the best way to love your job is to simply find something you can tolerate and that you are good at and become the best there is.  Specialists make more money than generalists and Penelope thinks that making more money is extremely important.

I figure they are both wrong.  Finding a job you are passionate about is a great thing but it isn't the only thing.  Larry has the idea that if you can somehow locate this passion and then follow it that all the rest of your life is a trivial consideration; I think that is a path to unhappiness for most people.  You may be passionate about saving people from burning buildings but simply not be able to deal with the crazy hours involved in being a firefighter.  You may be passionate about creating art but be quite unable to handle the uncertainty and self discipline required to be self employed.  Sometimes the requirements of following your passion are simply not worth the benefits.  There *are* benefits though to doing something you are passionate about and many times people run away from those passions for the wrong reasons.  Not following your dreams because you are worried about disappointing other people or because your dream job isn't of sufficient status are likely to be terrible decisions.

Penelope has it right when she talks about finding flow and how important it is to happiness.  People who become amazing at a job and can lose themselves in doing it are usually very happy.  The thing is though that everybody has different preferences and talents and it is far, far easier to become fantastic at something you love and are good at than something you are indifferent to and mediocre at!  I could have become an accountant; I have the requisite skills.  I could also have become a game designer.  I could have worked hard, become a good accountant and eventually found a good spot but it is easy, trivial even for me to find flow when building games.  If anything I think becoming a game designer would have been trouble because I wouldn't have ever left the office!  Searching for something that grabs you, that you love, is a fantastic way to become excellent at it and to find that state of flow.

The short version is that finding the perfect career is complicated.  Neither desperately searching for passion nor ignoring it is the best way.  By far the best route is to develop a weighting function and weight passion alongside any number of other variables.  It is complicated, like most things, and defies a simple sound byte.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Christian thing to do

Recently on Facebook this article got linked to me.  It refers to this other article titled "I'm Christian, unless you're gay."  There was a reply to the Facebook post indicating confusion; the title of the article (I'm Christian, unless you're gay) was unclear.  Initially I thought it was very strange too; is the author talking about changing religions based on who he is talking to?  After a moment though it hit me that this was a use of an anachronistic use of 'Christian' that means being a good person.  For a long time this was common usage in the Western world and you can easily see it when reading books from a century ago.  Being a good Christian person is supposed to mean you are nice to people, treat them as you would want to be treated and forgive them for their crimes.

Of course this is a ridiculous little bit of conceit because I have never seen nor heard of any evidence that suggests that Christians treat other people better than any other religion you could name (same goes for philosophical stances that aren't religions like atheism).  Neither treating other people well nor treating other people badly originated or was popularized by Christianity; it has no claim to moral authority based on history.  Its claim of moral authority based on divine inspiration is of course much more contested though certainly equally false.

I think this sort of nomenclature is much like saying grace before meals.  It is likely to remain in force within religions but is rapidly fading away from popular culture.  The assumption of Christian membership is no longer reasonable and is quickly becoming less so as time passes and the ranks of atheists and 'ostensibly belonging to a religion but really agnostic/atheist' grow.  Based on the author's writing it is clear that he comes from a highly religious family and area which would explain the usage of Christian in this sense.  It is interesting to see that growing up in that sort of environment influences the words he uses so powerfully that his article titles can be difficult to understand for those without that background.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Illiteracy is a pretty minor problem in Canada these days.  It is quite the problem for those who are illiterate of course but there are not very many of those people now.  Innumeracy, on the other hand, is still a huge problem and honestly the majority of the population suffer from it.  Consider the following front page news article in a local newspaper:

Data shows not all local hospitals are stacking up when compared to peers across the country. - 11 of 18 GTA hospitals fall below the national average at preventing inpatients from dying within 30 days of being admitted for a major heart attack.

Taken from the Toronto Metro weekend edition, April 8.

This data is presented as if somehow it is useful or meaningful when it fact it is neither.  Since we expect 9 of 18 hospitals to fall below the average *no matter how good hospitals in general are* the chance of having 11 of 18 below average for any given area is extremely high.  Average is not bad, it is normal and there is no reason to panic if we aren't better than average.  We also have no idea how far below average the GTA hospitals were.  If the 11 'bad' hospitals were running at 99% of average and the 7 'good' hospitals were running at 200% of average we could safely say that the GTA hospitals are amazing... on average.  Since we have no idea how they actually compare to the national average though this statistic is completely worthless.  The article goes on further to talk about Lakeridge, the worst performing hospital, which falls below the national average on 13 of 21 indicators.  If the worst hospital is actually ranking above the national average 8 of 21 times I think the only thing we can conclude is that hospitals are generally of pretty consistent quality when it comes to keeping heart attack patients alive!

What drives me bonkers is that there is some real news in this article that is completely overshadowed by the statistical spewing.  It is good to know that hospitals have developed a series of indicators to determine how well their patients do and they are looking at each other's performances to attempt to improve.  Great!  That sounds like an idea that will help keep people alive and healthy simply by sharing information effectively.  Once that has been communicated however there is little to no value to spewing meaningless numbers around aside from stirring up the populace and making people upset.

There are two things that we can take away from this:  One, that people like to read useless statistics and can't properly figure out which ones are meaningful and which are noise.  Two, the writers and editors of newspapers know this and deliberately cram their stories full of numerical junk that can't be falsified but doesn't contribute anything to the discussion either.  I wish that media stories would be better about this sort of statistics porn but the fact is that until we get a population that is educated enough to reject this tripe in favour of real data (or an admission of not having any real data!) it is going to fill the evening news, the internet and local rags forever.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A step towards peace

There is a crack in the facade of the worldwide war on drugs.  Finally.  In the upcoming Summit of the Americas several national leaders will be pushing for an end to the entirely unnecessary and unsuccessful war on drugs; there is little hope that Obama will actually accept any notable changes to the US strategy of tossing away money to imprison people for victimless crimes but it is a good sign.  It is unfortunate that Obama is in such a delicate position politically at the moment because I think that is a sure sign that we can expect nothing innovative in terms of drug policy.  His 'Obamacare' legislation may well be struck down by the Supreme Court and the economy continues to be mediocre, sure signs that he will face a real battle in the upcoming election.  Unfortunately that means that he will stick to the old strategy of interfering in other countries affairs and loading up the prisons because that is popular.

Thankfully there are a few countries that are more courageous in this matter like Switzerland and Portugal who have very successfully implemented strategies of treatment and education instead of war and which have had amazing results both in terms of cost savings and reduction of drug use.  Eventually the fact that the war on drugs simply doesn't work will help spread these strategies and countries like Canada will fall in line even if the US does look on in disapproval.  I would love to say that the US will follow suit, though rather later than sooner, but I am not actually sure this will happen.  The death penalty is considered a dysfunctional, inhumane anachronism throughout most of the world and yet it remains in force in the US; I think that there are enough similarities between the two ideas that the same thing will happen.

To my mind it comes down to the desire for revenge.  It is clear that sometimes innocent people are killed when the death penalty is in effect and yet it is supported on the basis of taking an eye for an eye.  It isn't cheaper and it causes no end of injustice but people support it because they want revenge.  Same goes for drug use.  Rather than paying to treat users (which is cheap and more effective) people would rather have revenge and put the user in jail (which is expensive and less effective).  Some countries, cultures and individuals have a greater desire for revenge than others and when revenge is considered of paramount importance then all kinds of terrible decisions are made.

All that is also predicated on the assumption that there is something to get revenge *for*.  I can get high by sniffing gas or glue or just by taking a couple daytime cold medication pills I can buy at the drugstore.  None of this is illegal.  Using marijuana is illegal though, and for no reason other than it was illegal before.  Of course crack and heroin and other drugs are really dangerous but so is downhill skiing, sniffing gasoline, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.  We need to get past this idea that Prohibition is a sensible state of things and accept that people will do drugs no matter what the government does about it.  All we can do is legalize it (to strangle organized crime), tax it (more revenue, huzzah!) and treat those who do end up addicted (which we do anyway).  I am allowed to go to a ski hill, go too fast and break my leg and the government puts a cast on my leg and sends me on my way.  Lets respond to me smoking up exactly the same way and skip the whole revenge shtick.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Remembering badly

Humans have much more confidence in their memories than is really warranted.  Do you remember any really interesting facts about the Titanic sinking, for example?  I certainly had a few memories of it which I assumed were probably all true (clearly Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't actually on it when it sank...) because presumably I kept those memories from textbooks and such, right?  Not so much.  After reading a bbc article on the sinking and the myths that surround it I was forced to conclude that what I really knew after seeing the Titanic movie and reading many articles and books was pretty close to zero in terms of substantive fact.  I had plenty of ideas swirling around in my head but my ability to sift the actual facts from movie tidbits has vanished.  Even if my memory for data was perfect, which it most assuredly is NOT, then my memory for the sources of my data is so full of holes that I can't trust anything I recall.

I recall reading recently a study that looked at eyewitness recollections of events.  Researchers got people who witnessed an event and who were convinced they would remember it forever to answer questions about it and then followed up much later on to find out how long their memories would remain.  After 16 months their answers to questions about the event had degraded to the point that they only got 50% of the answers correct. It is pretty reasonable to characterize their memories as no better than random guesses at that point even though their confidence in their memories was almost entirely intact.  And this was for an event that the observers were sure would stick with them; how bad must our memories be of events we didn't ascribe much importance to at the time?

Even if our memories didn't degrade we would do well to disbelieve eyewitnesses.  They have an unfortunate tendency to fill in gaps with assumptions and guesses which are often informed by events that happen afterwards and vastly overestimate how accurate their understanding of the situation was.  I think this is largely due to a very serious misunderstanding of our memories; people often think of memories as pictures that are stored in our brains but they really don't work that way.  We don't have a matrix of pixels filled with colours but rather a collection of emotional impressions and fragments of ideas jumbled together.  We might well remember a striking colour or object but even that simple idea will often be corrupted or mistaken; we really do remember emotions with associated objects and not photographs.

I find it funny that sometimes I have memories that are truly flagrant lies.  I remember stories (like the story of the groinpost, for example) from university and I recall the incident.  I remember the whole scene... except I was never there.  I have heard the story told so often and so vividly though that my mind has constructed the entire thing and the memories of it are just as real for me as the people who were actually there!  It makes me really grateful for modern police investigations; they aren't perfect but I shudder at what masqueraded for justice back when an eyewitness who saw the event in bad lightning at long distance (and who today would get glasses) was considered *good* evidence.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Crime and punishment

A couple blocks away from my house there was a terrible car crash two days ago.  I would say 'accident' instead of 'crash' but that would be terribly inaccurate; the driver was a 19 year old who was drunk and driving at immense speed when the crash occurred.  He hit a pole so hard his car was ripped into several large pieces and large chunks of the vehicle were scattered all over the area.  Despite that he walked away with only minor injuries; his passenger was not so lucky and was instantly killed.  He is facing a number of extremely serious charges and will likely spend a very large portion of the next decade of his life in prison; it might even be a lot longer than that.  Justice?  I don't know.

Obviously this is a tragedy and society's paramount goal needs to be preventing these sorts of disasters from occurring but I wonder if long prison sentences actually accomplish anything in this type of case.  We need to establish that there are terrible punishments for crimes but in many cases once the crime is committed there isn't much to be gained by actually going through with the punishment.  In a case like this it is likely that the perpetrator in question is wracked with remorse and he will almost certainly face great difficulty going forward. Everyone he knows will be well aware that he caused someone else to die because he made terrible and foolish decisions and moreover he will be aware of that failing all the time.  There is no escaping this sort of thing.

It is the sort of dilemma you often see in games.  It is important to establish to other players that you cannot be pushed around and that you will react in a punitive, irrational way to being attacked and yet it is rarely a good idea to do that when the situation arises.  Society needs to establish tremendous punishments as deterrents (though in many or most cases the deterrent is irrelevant to the decision to commit the crime) but following through has tremendous costs for society as a whole and for the individual in particular.  There are people who are terrible and unrepentant enough that they must be imprisoned for long periods or forever but they are a minority of those in prison I suspect.  In most cases it is better to try to keep people integrated into society rather lock them up and throw away the key.

We should be grateful for a system that allows judges leeway in this sort of case.  Sometimes it is clear that a defendant really did make a stupid decision with no ill intent and is unlikely to reoffend; in most cases a light sentence will be by far the greater good.  I would guess that this is the case here from the little we know from the news article but obviously that is hardly conclusive.  We also need judges to be able to step in and deliver punitive judgements when necessary as sometimes the accused is really quite beyond redemption.  I wonder what it would be like to make those sorts of decisions on a daily basis.  It would be really hard, I think.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Three at one time

A few days ago Elli asked me "Daddy, where did the first human come from?"  The answer, of course, is that it is very complicated and there isn't exactly a first human.  Being able to say "Well dear, God made Adam and Eve" would be much simpler but instead I find myself trying not to get too deeply nested into scientific definitions.  I can try to give a simple explanation of evolution but I end up saying "generation" or somesuch and then Elli asks what *that* means and we get all tangled up without ever really answering the first question.  Heck, even ignoring the fact that she doesn't understand the concepts of mutation, generations or heritability of traits we have the issue that she doesn't really have a good concept of numbers bigger than 10.  She can count to 100 but I don't think numbers that big have an intuitive meaning for her; when I say that the first human was hundreds and hundreds of generations ago she probably thinks it happened about when her great grandma was born.

I finally got some semblance of an explanation of evolution completed by talking about babies and mothers instead of generations and she follows up with "Where do babies come from?"  This one should be easy for me; I know exactly what to say and the terminology shouldn't prove such a barrier, right?  Well, I ended up mentioning 'egg' in reference to a human egg but she took it as a chicken egg (quite understandably, though it sure made things confusing) and it took a bit to sort that out.  I finally noticed that she was giving me her 'I know the answer but I want to see what you will say' look and figured out that she remembered very well the explanation she got from Wendy a few months ago.  She was just unconvinced by the whole penis in vagina thing and wanted to see if Daddy would give the same explanation Mommy did.  It seems our stories matched up well enough though and she eventually stopped being suspicious; whether or not she believes me or is just convinced that we are both involved in some bizarre conspiracy is unclear.

I figured I was home free; after all, how many tough questions could I get in the space of five minutes?  One more, it turns out:  "Daddy, where do people go when they die?"

"Well Elli, when people die their bodies stop moving and their brains stop thinking.  We can still remember them and the things they did still matter but they don't do new things anymore."

"And their bodies rot away until there are only bones left!"

"And then we can dig up the bones!"

"Dig dig dig dig dig DIG!!!"

So it seems that me trying to come up with the perfect answers for her questions just isn't that important.  After all that careful phrasing and racking my brains for just the complexity of expression she is only interested in digging up human bones.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Yes, your lordship

Sometimes things go on sale that really shouldn't be on sale.  Sometimes you can buy a politician to get legislation you want (looking at you, Disney) and sometimes you can buy human organs on the black market.  Other times you can only buy the right to put Lord, Laird, or Lady in front of your name.  That's right, if you aren't satisfied with the pedestrian Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss you don't have to settle for years of schooling to get a mere Dr. before your name, just slap down $49.99 and you can own a 30 cm x 30 cm plot of land in Scotland and the title that goes with it.

This is genious marketing.  You sell something practically valueless (random scrubland in Scotland and some paperwork) for real money and the person who buys it gets to have a grand old time telling all their friends they want to be called 'Laird Someguy' for a month or so.  This might be a scam... but even if it is, who cares?  All the buyer wants is plausible deniability anyhow so as long as the paperwork looks legit it doesn't even matter if they are technically entitled to the title or not; nobody official is going to call them on it anyway.

Lounge Day

As has happened every year for the past 10 years this coming Good Friday is Lounge Day.  This means that a very large number of gamers from the University of Waterloo will be going back to the Lounge where we whiled away our days and skipped classes so many years ago.  We will be playing games, catching up and wondering how it is that so many of us have moderately grown children despite still being irresponsible game addicts.

Children have made an appearance quite regularly in these past few years though they don't tend to last as long as the rest of us; although quitting at midnight would have been 'going to bed early' in years gone by that is generally when things get packed up these days.

One and all are welcome to come if you want to play games with a big gamer crowd.  Comfy Lounge, 3rd Floor of the Math and Computers building, University of Waterloo, Waterloo.  Probably starting about 11:00 AM and going to midnight on Good Friday.