Monday, December 30, 2013

So pretty

It often disturbs me to watch adults deal with children, in particular girls.  I just got linked to an article about focusing on wardrobe and looks when speaking to young women and how damaging a message it can send.  
"You are so pretty"  
"You will be a heartbreaker some day"  (Why is that even a good thing?!?!)
"That is such a nice dress"
"That braid makes you look beautiful"

These messages are sent in lieu of actually dealing with what the girl in question wants or does and frame her value or lack thereof in terms of appearance alone.  Boys are rarely addressed in this fashion once they are no longer infants and quite frankly the incessant drone of "your baby is so cute!" is frustrating regardless of gender.  Who cares if the baby is cute or not, and since nobody says your baby is ugly even if it is the statement of cuteness is irrelevant.

One thing that is part of this whole issue is the framing of all things in terms of career.  If a kid draws a house, they must be an architect.  If they play spaceship, an astronaut.  To my mind this reinforces the idea that we are our careers and that all activities, no matter how mundane, should be framed in terms of their career advancement possibilities.  Sometimes a spaceship game is just a spaceship game; it needs no added purpose to be worth playing.

It can be challenging sometimes to engage with children because they can't usefully bemoan Rob Ford's latest antics nor offer an opinion on the latest large man on the local sports team to injure themselves on the field of play.  They can, however, talk about what game they like best, what books they have read, or what sorts of things they do for fun.  In asking these sorts of questions we make it clear we want to know what *they* care about instead of framing all interactions in terms of career and prestige which only the adults care about.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Paradise lost

Every year when I go to visit my parents during the Christmas season we end up watching The Muppets Family Christmas.  It has been an interesting saga over the years because my father tried to tape it from TV a long time ago and the attempt ended with some bumps and oopses - several key scenes are missing due to trying to cut out the commercials.  You hear that younguns?  Back in my day we used VCRs to tape from TV, and we liked it!  Since then several other versions have been purchased and we still watch the show even though the presentation is different in each version.  It is a performance laden with memories and emotions from a time long past.

This year I watched it with different eyes and was saddened.  I speak about the scene where Burt and Ernie are delivering Twas The Night Before Christmas dressed up as Mama and Papa.  Burt lost the toss so he had to dress up as Mama and was completely humiliated by the experience - not only was he desperate to avoid making an appearance but the audience laughed at him uproariously when he did come out.  It twists inside me that even though Sesame Street is so often progressive they felt it was obvious that a man wearing women's clothing was a despicable creature that everyone would laugh at.  After all, who would want to be like a woman?  Surely no one with a choice would tolerate such a thing.

I cannot paint the show with a blackened brush without getting it all over myself of course.  I laughed at Burt year after year as he desperately tried to avoid the shame of being in clothes designed for a woman; I am as guilty as anyone.  It is yet another event in the saga of my life where I wake up and realize what terrible things I have done, what wrongheaded beliefs I have held, what foolishness I have committed.  Next time I watch Muppets Family Christmas I will take that particular scene out, if only in my head.  I will substitute a scene where Burt strides confidently onto the stage and stares down the audience with a steely gaze instead, certain that his friends and colleagues would never shame him for how he dresses, gender conforming or not.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Celebrity law

Alan Turing has been officially pardoned.  Back in 1952 Turing was convicted of committing an indecent act, which more accurately was a conviction for being in a same sex relationship.  While it is a tremendous miscarriage of justice either way it is perhaps worth noting that the police chose to charge him after he reported the circumstances of a robbery.  They didn't even have the excuse that he was 'shoving it in the faces' of the rest of the populace.  Turing was a groundbreaking cryptographer and mathematician so there are many people who campaigned for a pardon for him for years; surely this must be a good thing.

This pardon is a good thing but it highlights the terrible fact that tens of thousands of other people, some of whom are still alive, were convincted of the same crime and will not be pardoned.  I am glad that the UK is finally acknowledging that Turing's conviction was unjust but it should not have been an announcement reserved only for the famous and talented.  Does the unknown person of whom history has made no note deserve a pardon less?  Shall we search the records trying to determine who is important enough to warrant justice and who is not?

There are good reasons to pardon a person.  "Was wrongly convicted" or "Was convicted of a an unjust law" are good reasons.  "Was good at mathematics" or "Helped us out a lot in a war" are not good reasons.  If we are going to pardon people who were convicted of being gay then we should start by pardoning all of them, not by picking celebrities off of the list for preferential treatment.  Access to justice being determined by fame is a terrible thing whether it be O.J. Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, or Alan Turing.  We all deserve justice and I truly hope this serves as leverage to convince the powers that be that codified, legalized bigotry is wrong no matter who suffers from it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

We all have to suck it up

My dad read an interesting story from a book he is reading to me tonight.  It talked about a cop who had a particular way of getting revenge on people who drove by him and yelled out "PIG!".  He would write up a fake parking ticket for them and then just toss away the portion that is supposed to go to the driver; eventually they would end up paying a ticket they never got or arrested for unpaid tickets far down the road.  We talked a bit about how we treat the police and whether or not they deserve special respect.

I feel like a key part of the reason that the police commit terrible crimes against civilians and get away with it is the sense that they are entitled to take revenge in this way.  If a bartender decided to fake a crime and try to pin it on somebody just because that somebody called him a nasty name we would roundly condemn it.  The same goes whether or not the profession in question is accountant, homemaker, or pilot.  However, when it is a cop involved some people feel they are justified in abusing their power to get vengeance for something as minor as an insult.

Police do not have a job that is unique in terms of danger; many jobs like fishing are vastly more dangerous.  Police do not have a unique position in terms of public service either - we would not accord the right to abuse the law purely for spite to a nurse or a postal worker.  If we want the police to act in a responsible and fair manner we all have an obligation to treat them just like we would any other citizen doing a job and insist that they treat each other the same way.  Any other citizen faced with a random insult simply has to grumble and walk away.  Police should do the same and we should hold their feet to the fire when they do not.

Contempt of cop is not a crime, just as contempt of salesperson is not a crime.  Cops need to learn that lesson and all of us need to make sure that they hear the same thing.  Only when cops play by the same rules that the rest of us do will they truly earn the respect of the population they have sworn to protect.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Overcome by curmudgeonliness

I just viewed and listened to a neat new video.  It is a rendition of Little Drummer Boy by a fantastic group of voice artists.  I was blown away by the the sound, particularly given that they don't use any instruments.

Seeing this really cracked open some of my prejudices.  I certainly enjoyed the video and I have a particular soft spot for this particular song of all the religious Christmas songs but still I had a visceral reaction, an irritation towards the subject matter.  I hate the idea of people treating a hereditary dictator with reverence but the idea of simply playing music, of offering a gift of skill and beauty, as a replacement for traditional gifts of cash and goods feels so *good*.

I think most people would tell me to enjoy a song I clearly like sung by a group I suddenly fell in love with and stop being conflicted.  After all, it isn't as if me being enraged by hereditary monarchy is going to realize any great benefit.  It is just a thing I do and while it is justified it isn't doing me any favours.

Then I found out that they specifically edited the song to reference "Little Baby" instead of "Baby Jesus".  I guess that really nails this particular case shut - time to just listen to it again without the internal grumping.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The teacher

Elli's teacher is retiring tomorrow.  It is fascinating to me to watch because it is such a powerful event for her.  She is a very firm disciplinarian, to the extent that many parents I have spoken to feel intimidated by her presence.  Needless to say she controls a classroom of small people vastly more effectively than I would be able to.  It has been a very interesting short while seeing her prepare to transition from teaching to retirement as her emotions shine through the unshakable aura of certainty and authority she usually projects.  It is obvious that she truly loves teaching and helping children learn and grow and that she is reluctant to give that up.  She combined that presence, that force of order, with a tremendous compassion and desire to see all of her charges thrive.

Over the last few days she has been giving away all of her classroom materials to other teachers and to the children - Elli acquired a Jacob's Ladder and a strange spelling block toy from her.  It must be a powerful and difficult thing to watch those you spent so much time and energy working with carting away the tools of your trade, the savings of a lifetime.  All those pieces carefully conserved for just the right moment, flying away to new homes where they may end up just tossed on the heap (or, of course, loved very much) and even though we all know we should not become too attached to things no one can deny the power of that event.

Often I hear or read the opinion that teachers are mostly just putting in their time, collecting their cheques, waiting for that golden pension.  There are teachers that fit that mold to be sure, but this one was certainly not paid enough for what she produced, nor can any reasonable person deny that she has earned a rest.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Die Rudolph Die

This past week Elli's school had their holiday concert.  Traditionally this is a concert that has the following formula - one class does Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, one does Jingle Bells, one does Frosty the Snowman, one does Away in a Manger, etc. but all the while everybody pretends it is a holiday concert instead of a Christmas concert.  This year was different, particularly the music teacher who managed to conduct the singers with his hands, sing the cues, and play the piano to supply all the music all at the same time.

It was, as usual, pitched as a holiday concert but the lineup of songs was completely different.  There was one song that referenced Christmas but was new to me otherwise, there was one song about Hanukkah, and the rest of the songs were all kinds of random.  Some people felt like it wasn't a proper Christmas concert but I bloody loved it.  I have heard about Rudolph and his bioluminescent schnoz about a billion times and I am glad to not have to hear it again.  I am also glad to see explicit acknowledgement that there is not just one holiday around this time of year.

It is nice to see that somebody finally started walking the walk.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas and this year it finally feels like that is a real thing instead of just being given lip service.  I celebrate Christmas myself but I am glad to finally go to a holiday concert where I don't feel like I want the traffic cop to pull out a shotgun and blow Frosty's head off to see if ambulatory frozen water requires an anthropomorphic shape to remain 'alive'.

The kids by and large are already completely subsumed in Christmas and they are glad for a chance to do something new and interesting I bet.  Personally if I want another bad rendition of a Christmas classic I will just go stand around a department store for an hour.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The end of mailman / dog jokes

Canada Post has decided that walking up to people's houses to deliver letters is a waste of time.  They are getting rid of that service entirely in light of the massive plunge in mail volume due to the internet and are going to deliver to mailboxes on street corners instead to save money.  They are also going to ramp up the cost of delivering letters to a dollar.  Many people are up in arms about this for a variety of reasons both fiscal and humanitarian but I have not yet seen a single argument that makes any sense.

The first argument that seems to be creeping up is that the elderly and disabled people will be unfairly inconvenienced by this change.  I find that very unconvincing since people with mobility issues currently have to deal with getting to a mailbox on all rural routes, in many suburban routes, and in fact for 66% of Canada Post's delivery service area.  It isn't ideal but clearly people figure out a way to get it done.  People are also upset that workers will be fired and good jobs will be lost but since all job cuts will be handled through attrition this holds no water.  There are endless choruses of "Think of the families!" which is both nonsensical and irritating - should be we unworried about single people?

There is also outrage over the cost of a dollar to send a letter.  Quite frankly the idea that a company will pick up a letter from a box near me, fly it across the entire country, and deliver it to someone in a far away city for a single dollar is absolutely astounding to me.  How much service can you possibly expect for such a miniscule cost?  There is also an interesting demand that Canada Post continue the money losing home delivery and make up the cost by becoming a bank as well as a delivery service.  I don't have any particular objection to post offices offering small scale bank services but I can't see why any new revenue generated from such banking should be used to continue to pay people to carry letters right to each person's door.

The age in which a person walks to your house to give you a letter is over, done.  Such information can almost always be sent via the tubes of the internet much more efficiently and cheaply and flying chunks of dead tree around the world as the standard of communication is heaving its last dying breaths.  It is time we moved on and thankfully Canada Post is moving with us instead of just following tradition and trying to foist the cost of doing so onto the public.

The mathematics of being a jerk

On Tuesday I was heading into the subway when I was faced with a snap decision - the doors were closing and I could leap towards the train and probably end up being caught in the doors or just stand there and wait.  In a move that should surprise no one I made the leap and the doors closed on me as I was halfway through.  They opened again of course as I squeezed myself onto the train and then a few seconds later we all chugged on our merry way south.  Then I began thinking about whether or not this makes me a jerk for making everybody else wait a few extra seconds to get on their way.

Obviously the inconvenience I cause to others is small but there are a lot of others being inconvenienced.  I estimated that there were two hundred people on the train and that my little escapade delayed their travel by about four seconds.  Eight hundred seconds of delay is roughly thirteen minutes of wasted time and since the next train is likely to come along in six minutes or so I wasted seven minutes of total human time.  Mathematically speaking it looks like I am a jerk.

There are complications of course.  If there is already somebody else getting caught in the doors and delaying the train then my aggressive move costs nothing and is entirely pragmatic.  This scenario seems highly unlikely given the particulars of the platform I was on but is not out of the question.  The more relevant issue is the probability that I make it just in time and avoid catching myself on the doors.  Clearly in retrospect that probability is 100% but when making the decision I did not know that; I knew for sure that I would get on that train but not how clean the entry would be.

I wonder if I am the only one who reacts to getting caught in train doors by counting the other passengers so I can determine if I am a bad person or not.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Science, misunderstood

I found an article on the bbc recently that pushed my respect for the average citizen even lower.  The article talks about how China is getting their space program in gear and discusses their plans to land people on the moon in a few years.  Aside from national pride there isn't much reason to actually send people to the moon but it is an endeavour that captures the imagination of the populace and gets them interested in science at the very least.  Then I read the comments and I became very sad indeed.

It turns out that some people are worried that the Chinese will start mining the moon and get ahead of all the other nations.  Whether this is framed as racism or nationalism makes little difference since the proposition of profitably mining the moon is so utterly preposterous.  The really sad part is that other people began to complain that mining the moon might have unforeseen consequences here on earth due to changes in the tides.  You see, mining the moon makes the moon smaller, and that will change the pull of its gravity on earth!  The fact that we would certainly end up putting more stuff on the moon to facilitate this mining then we would ever get off of it surely has never entered their consciousness, much less the fact that the moon is HUGE.  The moon has a mass of 7*10^22 kilograms.  Imagine we mined a quadrillion tonnes of random stuff out of the moon.  It would still have a mass of 7*10^22 kilograms!  A quadrillion tons is a truly absurd, monstrous amount and it is multiple orders of magnitude below being a measureable difference.

Then of course was a hilarious collection of ignorance surrounding people living on the moon.  People seem convinced that the earth is becoming so polluted and depleted that we will soon need to live somewhere else.  None of these folks notice that even if there is incredible runaway climate change and we dump nuclear waste in the oceans for funzies and we burn all the fossil fuels that all the other planets are a few hundred degrees to warm or cold.  And they have no air, or the air will disintegrate us.  Or they have no surface!  Or they have no water!  And they don't have things like fossil fuels and factories and homes.  They will never, ever, until the earth is vaporized when the sun goes red giant, be a better place to live.

And all these people vote and have ideas about how we should run things.  Ack.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Precisely two

I have written a lot over the past few years about nonmonogamy - that is, relationships that involve more than two people.  I have consistently found that the sort of people that write and talk about polyamory are the same as any fringe group anywhere in that they all have a gripe with mainstream society but the infighting between them is the fiercest of all.  For example, poly folks complaining about other poly folk not doing it right.  You know there is some real attention getting focused on polyamory because in an article about how Katniss Everdeen should be able to have two boyfriends instead of having to choose between them people complain in the comments about how poly folk are oppressing them and not respecting their monogamy!

There is a big trend towards talking about having more than the standard two people to a relationship but there is just as much of a need to talk about people who aren't in any relationship at all.  Both of those types are going against the grain but the perception of them from the outside is quite different.  People with more than two in their relationships tend to be seen as hedonists with no self control and people who are single tend to be pitied and regarded as unfortunate or broken.  Things go both ways though, as always; poly folk tend to view monogamous types as unevolved, ignorant, or repressed and singles sometimes characterize them as mired in commitment.

All these attitudes suck.  Obviously there are a lot of people out there who are desperately searching for their one and only soulmate because that is what the dominate cultural message pushes even if they aren't particularly suited to it and that is unfortunate.  The solution though is not to tell people that they have the wrong number of partners but rather to just keep on insisting that there is no right number.  Nobody should be saying that you need to have two in a relationship, nor should they be advocating more than two, nor one.  There is no number of partners that will make everybody happy and trying to set one, any one, is a disaster.

The simple fact is that different people have vastly different needs and what relationships they end up in depend greatly on who they meet and their current situation.  If allowed to settle out without any particular goal in mind people's relationships end up in all kinds of interesting places and there is nothing wrong with that.  Our entire society, both those in mainstream relationships and those on the wild side, need to accept that other people's relationships are going to be strange, incomprehensible, and different and as long as you aren't part of that relationship you might as well smile and nod.  Trying to interfere is only going to get you ignored, resented, or both.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Celebrity news

In celebrity news today, actor Paul Walker died in a car crash.  In related news people are very angry that everyone is talking about Paul Walker instead of the other person in the car.  After all, why are we so focused on the fact that a celebrity died instead of the less famous person beside him?

See, here is the problem.  Roughly one hundred people are killed every day in North America by car accidents.  Of course they don't get national attention; who could keep up with it?  Paul Walker, while completely irrelevant to me, was in a very tiny way relevant to many people.  They care a lot about the Fast and Furious movie franchise perhaps.  Regardless there is no uncertainty about why people care and why this story was reported - people would actually recognize the name of the dead person.  I don't particularly think that following celebrity news is a worthwhile endeavour but I can see the logic in printing the news of a celebrity's demise because folks, rightly or wrongly, want to know.

Also if you really want to draw attention to how nobody pays cares when random people die but do care about a famous person you really ought to consider that making a poster of the guy *who died in a car with a famous person* might not be the place to start.  You are doing it WRONG.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kids and their music these days

Elli has fallen in love with Selena Gomez.  A year ago or so Elli was all about Justin Beaver (Yes, that is what she said, not a typo) but now she is all about Justin's ex girlfriend.  In particular Elli is obsessed with the song Naturally.  She loads up grooveshark and then asks me if she can play Naturally over and over again as she sits next to the computer singing snatches of music along with Selena.  I feel like I am missing out on a cultural benchmark in my life, the point at which I growl at my kid that music in my day was good and the crap that she listens to is no good.

Thing is I really don't mind Selena Gomez and I have been known to listen to a single song on endless repeat myself (usually Sandstorm).  I doubt very much that music obsessives will credit her with any great and lasting impact but her songs sound nice and are catchy.  I really can't claim any sort of high ground here either as the last time somebody asked me what my favourite artist was I answered Bon Jovi.  Which, I should note, was dangerous because my answer nearly caused the asker to veer off the road in amazement at my poor taste.  Don't ask me about music while driving if you really care about music.

Thankfully she does try to play her music too loud so at least I get to fuss at her to turn down the damn volume.  I don't have to miss out *entirely* on being a grumpy old killjoy.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My conscience tells me to be a jerk

Elli got a note from school this week telling me that she is going to be suspended unless I get her vaccinations up to date.  Unsurprisingly this is just a paperwork / bureaucratic error as she has had all of her necessary shots.  I got updated paperwork and resolved everything so no suspension is forthcoming but I did have a bit of a fit when reading over the notice that was sent to me about this whole mess.  It read

"if this student needs an exemption from immunization against any disease listed for medical, religious, or conscience reasons"

This blew my mind.  Obviously there could be medical reasons why a particular child couldn't have a vaccination and that seems perfectly reasonable to me.  The point of vaccinations is to improve medical care after all!  The idea that you can get a child out of immunizations for 'conscience' reasons seems utterly absurd to me though.  So what, your conscience tells you that you should expose children to deadly, sometimes fatal, diseases because you don't like exposing your child to a momentary bit of pain?  Deal with it, life is full of pain and we are in the business of minimizing it.  Your conscience doesn't like putting things in your child's body?  Have you managed to get them to give up eating and breathing then?

If you really, seriously want an exemption from getting vaccinations then feel free to pull your kids out of school.  We can't force you to get needles but we can tell you that you aren't allowed to put everyone else's kids at risk just because you can't wrap your mind around the moral imperative of avoiding terrible plagues.  If you want to put a word out there for people who want to skip vaccinations on the basis of "I don't feel like it" then use selfish instead of conscience.  That pamphlet should read "medical, religious, or selfish reasons" instead.  That would frame it in exactly the appropriate way.

Religious reasons, obviously, is exactly the same as conscience reasons except that you have an organization standing behind your selfish behaviour couching it in terms of obedience to God.  The only practical difference is political clout.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Show them the good stuff

I got involved in a Facebook debate about porn today.  One of the main topics of contention was the effect that porn has on young folks who view and take their sexual cues from it.  The trouble with porn is that although it doesn't resemble real world sex particularly each individual porn film isn't a problem - similar to the Bechdel test (In a movie are there two women with names who talk to each other about something that isn't a man).  It is fine if a single movie fails the Bechdel test but it is terrible that so many fail it.  It is fine if a random porn film is a guy pumping away at a surgically enhanced woman and then coming on her face but it is terrible that the majority of them end that way.  We can't regulate the porn industry to fix this because we *really* don't want to make rules about what sort of sex is okay and what is not.  We also can't ban porn because that would be impossible and would violate our freedom of expression.  So what can we do to try to get realistic images of sex into the minds of teenagers to give them the impressions we want?

I think the answer is that we deliberately show teenagers the porn we want them to see.  They are viewing porn on their own on average between the ages of eleven and thirteen anyway so it isn't as if this will be the first time for the great majority of them.  If we want them to see images of normal looking people who aren't surgically enhanced, who have body hair intact, and who have sex in a way that isn't designed to appeal to straight male fantasies then we need to show it in sex ed class.  This should come along with a standard lecture about the reasons that people have sex.  This is conspicuously absent from the standard curriculum which talks about all the reasons not to have sex, how STIs happen, and how babies are made.  That is great and all but until we acknowledge the elephant in the room (that sex is fun and that sexual desire is normal) they aren't going to listen to us.  Nothing gets a kid's attention quite so quickly as admitting something they know is true but which everybody pretends not to notice.

This could even provide a really useful springboard into other topics.  Including a film depicting gay and/or lesbian sex in the curriculum is a good way to talk about how sex really isn't about heterosexual babymaking and about how relationships are not confined to a man and a woman.  Sex is for entertainment primarily and emphasizing that both sex and relationships are mostly about pleasure, security, support, bonding, and fun would be a good thing I think as it would get us away from the escalator model of relationships that doesn't work for so many people.  Heck, since I am already far beyond what is currently possible we could use this as an opportunity to talk about nonmonogamy as an option too.  Being open and honest about all the possibilities that exist for relationships, sex, and love seems likely to get them to be open about their confusions and questions too and that can only be helpful.

Now I really want to be a sex ed teacher for a highschool class.  I would blow their minds.  Also, I would get lynched by mobs of angry parents.  (How dare you tell my kid the truth!  My omissions and deceptions are designed to push them along the life path I approve of!  Rabble rabble!)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Making those dollars work

I saw a very interesting TED talk today by Dan Pallotta.  He argues that the way we think about charity is mistaken, in particular that we should only worry about how much money charities make rather than worrying about what percentage of donations are consumed by overhead.  He argues for paying the people working at charities drastically more in order to attract talent and spending a lot on advertising because it increases the size of the charitable pie.  It sounds good at first glance of course because if you can get a great new CEO for $300,000 a year and spend $200,000 more on advertising a year but net $1,000,000 more a year in donations you are $500,000 a year ahead.  Marvellous!

Except when it isn't.  The trouble is that charitable giving is not an infinite wellspring and charities do not operate in a vacuum.  If I donate $100 to a charity that very likely means that another charity is not getting my $100.  That isn't universally true of course as you can redirect money from the for profit sector to charity but an awful lot of the additional money coming in from a highly promoted event is likely to come at the expense of other charities.  On the books of the charity doing the event it looks great but on the books of other charities it looks mighty sad indeed.  The same sort of reasoning applies to paying charity CEOs a lot of money to attract talent.  In theory this would be great if there was actually a strong correlation between pay and talent in a CEO but that simply isn't the case; people making hiring decisions for a top position with very hard to measure performance don't end up with better people when they have a bigger bankroll. (Sometimes they do, but sometimes they get the opposite.)

Also in this case the source must be considered.  Pallotta ran a for profit company that helped charities raise money and has been widely criticized because he was often only returning 10-20% of donations to the charities in question.  That abysmal a return rate is exactly why people want to make sure their donated dollars are going to charities with low overhead.  People are very leery of their donated money getting mostly handed over to pay people to run events, distribute leaflets, design marketing campaigns, and call them at dinnertime.  Many people consider Pallotta's efforts to be little more than a scam and I find myself agreeing with them.

I don't think that overhead percentage is the only useful metric of a charity.  There are many things to think about when it comes to donating money and I completely understand that sometimes charities need to invest in growth and infrastructure to support their activities.  That said I don't think that applying failed models of corporate governance to charities is at all the right approach.  Paying CEOs a ton hasn't resulted in companies all making lots of money and universally good decisions.  Throwing dollars at advertising agencies does no one any good.  Sometimes the need to keep overhead low does hamstring charitable efforts but it does ensure that what we get out the other end is a great return on our dollars and that is what the average person wants.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Leave the playing to the playas

Canada and the US (I assume much of the developed world is the same but I don't know for sure) have a problem with pensions.  We currently operate under a system where there is a patchwork of different systems in place to support elderly people who can no longer reasonably work and those systems are starting to burst at the seams.  The news is full of articles on Detroit and Chicago which are having massive problems with paying for pensions for their workers but all kinds of cities, states, and provinces are feeling the same crunch as the obligation to pay people for thirty years after they have retired adds up.

There are many ways to tackle this.  One obvious one is to move to defined contribution instead of defined benefit as a model.  Each year the employee works the employer puts a fixed amount of money away instead of guaranteeing money for life.  This avoids employers sinking themselves by kicking payments down the road to make things work now.  If employers actually have to have the money on hand they can't make promises that won't be kept and this is good for both sides since a default is a disaster for everyone and that doesn't happen under defined contribution.

The trouble with that change though is it continues to assume that the standard model for taking care of the elderly revolves around playing the stock market.  I think this is a fundamentally flawed assumption because I see little to no benefit in having average citizens *with no applicable knowledge or expertise* trying their hand at investing.  All this accomplishes is the creation of a gigantic industry including banks and investment firms that is devoted to taking a percentage of those investments for no return.  Of course people who want to invest can and should be able to do so but the the government plan for taking care of the elderly should not rest on the assumption that nearly everyone will do so.  Investing is a fine thing for investors and is just a parasite on normal people.

A standard model that I am much more comfortable with would be one where the government supplies a much larger base amount to those over retirement age.  This of course has to be paid for some way and I would pay for it by increasing income tax on those from lower middle class on up with of course the largest increases coming from the top.  The idea is simple - instead of assuming that average people will invest large sums into the stock market we tax those sums and distribute it to the elderly instead.  Cut out the waste in the middle and get rid of the randomness of the market in determining how people live in their later years.  Leave worrying about a market crash to the economists and the big investors rather than people who just want to know if they will be able to eat when they get old.

Simply put I think that the market as a standard vehicle for preparing for one's later years is a mess.  It should be available to those who wish to use it but it shouldn't be considered a necessity for anyone.  Get the market out of the equation and increase base government stipends and huge gold plated pensions won't be necessary much less a crippling load on those cities that planned poorly.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hooray for being a hardass

I got a call yesterday from our insurance company that handles our condo insurance.  They informed me that my November payment had not gone through because my credit card did not work and further that they were going to charge me $50 for their trouble.  This was, admittedly, kind of my fault.  The bank mistakenly decided that we no longer qualified for a student Visa and changed our card around a short while ago so we had to get new Visa cards.  I could have called up the insurance company and given them a new credit card number but failed to do so.  Of course I have little interest in paying $50 to a company that has made nothing but profit off of me for eight years so I decided to put the squeeze on them.

Insurance Agent:  I cannot remove this $50 charge.  It is company policy.

Me:  Well, that is too bad.  I guess I should think about what I should do then.

Insurance Agent:  Can I get your new credit card information so we can get your insurance active again?

Me:  No, I think I need time to figure out if I should do that.  Give me your number and perhaps when I get insurance again I will contact your company.  Of course if you could waive the fee I would sign up again right away...

Insurance Agent:  Well, I suppose I could talk to my manager and find out.

Me:  Good, call me back when you have done that.

Unsurprisingly I got a phone call today confirming that the manager in question okayed the removal of the $50 fee and we have condo insurance again.  It makes me sad that I have to engage in bluffing and bullying with my insurance agent like this.  I had no intention of spending the time and effort of getting a new agent or finding a new plan but having done negotiating I know how to properly lay out a threat.  It pisses me off that what determines how much I pay for things is my willingness to be a hardass.  Whether it be buying furniture, getting phone service, or even figuring out your salary the most important thing is being good at putting the screws to people.

I hate hard negotiating but evidently I will do it to save $50.  Hypocrisy ahoy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Flipping out over bedtime

Lately Elli has taken to going to sleep in my bed.  (Well, the bed belonging to me and Wendy, but that is just so awkward a turn of phrase.)  Unfortunately she regularly turns bedtime geography into a bit of a mess as she twists and turns trying to decide which bed to fall asleep in.  Either way she ends up in her own bed after a short while so which choice she makes is of no importance to me but the act of choosing a bedtime locale is quite the challenge in her mind.

Recently I tried a bit of a shortcut to making decisions:  I introduced her to flipping coins.  She was instantly fascinated by the idea of deciding things randomly and took to it immediately.  Even more so she seems to have grasped advanced coin flipping right away.  For those who aren't aware basic coin flipping is simply using a random number generator to make decisions.  Clean, easy.  Advanced coin flipping is using a random number generator to tell you what you wanted in the first place.  If you flip heads and think "Awww, I really want to flip again...." then you had best do whatever tails was going to make you do.

The very first time I flipped a coin for her to decide which room to go to bed in she immediately called for a reflip and gave me a secretive and somewhat sheepish grin.  She knew deep down that she wanted to go to sleep in my bed and it became obvious once the coin was in the air.  Now this is the standard for me when she can't decide; flip and coin and then reflip as often as necessary until she gets the result the really wants.  Thankfully she isn't so up on the cheating and I can, if I am careful, generate the result I know she wants pretty reliably with a bit of sleight of hand.  I let the first flip be as random as a coin toss can be and then just make sure it lands the other way the second time.

I don't want to run that 1 in 1024 chance of having to flip ten times after all.  Once you know what you want, git er done.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Scam fight

The internet is full of scams.  Facebook and Google both make billions posting ads for rapid muscle growth, effortless weight loss, hookup websites and more.  Recently I got linked to an article about Google's illegal revenue and the problems that exist with the 'products' they help to sell indirectly.  The best part about the article was the links at the bottom which, when followed, led me to a variety of different scam websites purporting to sell cheap vacations, hot women looking for easy hookups, penny stocks, and brain exercises.  Use an article about scams to funnel people into scams - gotta love the internet.

I discovered though that all is not well in scamville.  Some of the residents are fighting with one another and it makes me howl to see it.  Following those links I found an 'article' linking me to where I could find lots of attractive married women who desperately want to have sex with me.  Who could say no to that?  Unconvinced, I Googled "Married Hall Pass scam" and found a website talking about how is a scam!  Good thing I have these fine people to direct me to a real, serious, legit site where you can hook up with hot married women right now.  This fine website has quotes on the front page such as

I was tired of hearing about other lonely housewives' hookups and wanted to have a few of my own. Now that I’m on Hornywives I hookup any time I want. Naughty housewives have all the fun and now I’m one of them!

Just as a note, if you ever want to try to kill me via choking you should probably lead off by getting me to read quotes like this while eating cornbread.  It was a close call.

Now here is the thing I am wondering.  Are these folks all the same company?  After all, if somebody Googles " scam" they aren't going to buy from you but maybe you can direct them to another website that also scams them in exactly the same way and that will work fine.  Certainly you want to make sure your Google rank for that phrase is higher than anybody else's because at least then they won't get real advice.  For all you conspiracy theorists out there - this is what a real conspiracy looks like and the only people that get fooled are the desperate and ignorant.

Oh, and just for completeness, Googling " scam" takes you to a fake page that talks about how the website isn't a scam at all!  (Not a guarantee.)

Monday, November 11, 2013


When it comes to free markets I tend to be a flip flopper... or maybe a switch would be a better term?  Sometimes I rant against irrational government interference like subsidies for specific industries or bailouts for giant banks that made stupid bets and other times I demand better and more rules from on high.  I think the reason I end up disagreeing so much with people on both sides of the political spectrum is I really do view both government and free markets as tools rather than goals.  They are both useful but neither produces particularly good results on their own.  The end goal is not government, nor commerce, but rather human flourishing.

It is easy to see examples where either entity causes no end of trouble.  Back in the 'communist' days in Russia the fact that the government controlled production so tightly was a disaster.  People worked building widgets that nobody needed and then lined up for bread because there was never enough.  If they had possessed the freedom to simply open up a bakery and start making bread instead of widgets things would have been much better for everyone.  On the other hand a completely unfettered market will often end up with a giant monopoly that uses price controls, leverage over vendors, and other unpleasant tactics to quash any competition and we all know how miserable an experience a monopoly tends to generate for anyone dealing with it.

What we need is both government and free markets used at the right time and in the right place.  We need governments to enforce that food makers put truthful information about their products on the packaging and we need free markets to decide how much to make and what types.  We need governments to set safety standards for vehicles and free markets to decide what sort of vehicles to make, where to sell them, and for how much.  In short we need governments to mitigate the negative externalities that plague those involved in free markets and to otherwise let markets go and do their thing.

Both entities have value and are necessary but both will create a dystopia if used exclusively.  Just like my toolbox for fixing things includes screwdrivers as well as a hammer, a drill, and a measuring tape my ideal set of guidelines for creating a society includes many tools of which free markets and goverment regulation are two.  Any time somebody says "We should do X because (free markets / government regulation) are good" you should be extremely suspicious.  Neither is good nor bad, just as a hammer is neither good nor bad.  It is a tool and the measure of the usefulness of a tool is the outcome it generates, not the tool itself.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The downside of upside

I know that medicine in the US is heinously more expensive than medicine in other nations that have national healthcare.  What I didn't know is exactly why.  There are lots of things that contribute to the discrepancy between the unparalleled spending in the US on healthcare and the mediocre returns but it turns out the biggest one is the very thing people so often trumpet as its greatest attribute:  Competition.  I read a fascinating article that gives numbers to the other things that are often blamed for the cost of healthcare like malpractice suits, reimported drugs and uninsured care.  Those things only make up a small fraction of the cost though, and it becomes clear that the real cost is that hospitals make up prices and people end up paying them.

There is a broad assumption that many people make and which underpins right wing economic philosophy that letting corporations do what they want without restriction will automatically bring about low prices and good results.  It is a veneration of the free market as a source of good in essence; almost a religious belief in the power of unrestricted exchange.  There is no denying the power of exchange as it is a massive force in the improvement our lives have seen in the modern day.  The trouble comes when people follow that fact with the incorrect assumption that the freedom for corporations to do whatever they want will somehow tap into the well of goodness that exchange brings and generate good outcomes for people.  It *can*, but often it does the exact opposite.

In the case of health care people simply can't or don't make rational economic decisions.  They end up paying enormous sums for relatively insignificant procedures because they only find out the price after the procedure.  They make poor decisions on which health insurance plan actually provides value for them because they don't understand medicine or the medical system.  There simply isn't room for practical and effective comparison of prices and benefits when it comes to medicine (especially emergency medicine!) in people's lives.

In the case of health care the only rational choice to maximize the greater good of people is for the government to provide a default option.  They keep prices in line and avoids people making catastrophic mistakes with their health which the government ends up paying for anyway.  Simply put, free competition is a fine thing (and there isn't enough of it in many, many sectors).  However, it doesn't always work and worshiping it as a universal source of goodness is not appropriate or effective.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hitting the crack pipe

So Rob Ford is big in the news this week.  It turns out that the mayor of a major city coming out and admitting to crack use is a big story, particularly when he can't really say when or how he did it because he was in a drunken stupor.  A drunken stupor being one of Ford's most common states this doesn't narrow it down a lot; could have been pretty much any day really.  As I have said before I don't think this actually changes my opinion of the man either as a person or as a mayor.  He is lousy on both fronts but it is his utter incompetence at the job that irks me more than substance abuse.  Whether or not those substances are controlled or illegal doesn't enter into it.

I read a few articles about the whole debacle and it was surprising how many Torontonians came out to defend Ford in comments.  One particular gem I found was this:

As long as you keep doing a great job Mayor we (50% of Toronto) dont care if you leisurely have a toke or not.

This is of course true.  We don't care if Rob Ford has a toke or not as long as he keeps doing a good job.  Unfortunately he has been doing a crap job on any number of fronts which is exactly the problem.  Though this quote was designed to support Ford it really makes my point for me; the issue with the mayor is his unsuitability for the job and not his personal problems.

Ford's run in the next election is going to be epic.  Everybody will be out for his blood and they will be able to come back to every statement he makes with "but at least my friends aren't extortionists and I don't do illegal drugs...?" in addition to the arsenal they had before which included things like Ford's homophobia, racism, anti-immigrant stances, innumeracy, and incompetence.  If he does get reelected then it will paint a dismal picture indeed of the Toronto electorate.  Before you assure me that he can't get elected again I should note that people thought that during the last election too.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The game belonging to Ender

Ender's Game is out and of course this had led to a flurry of chat about whether or not the odious views of the author Orson Scott Card should be grounds for boycotting the movie.  Card isn't just an opponent of legalized same sex marriage - he advocated that sodomy laws be kept on the books so that people who did not conform to cultural standards could be imprisoned.  The dude is full on bigoted and crazy.  However, that isn't enough to convince me to boycott the movie.

The book (and the movie from what I hear) really don't have anything at all to do with Card's terrible beliefs.  If it was a book all about God burning gay people for being bad then yes, I would boycott it.  However, if you look carefully at every author you have ever enjoyed and examine their politics you will undoubtedly find that many of them who are currently alive have highly objectionable viewpoints and the great majority of the dead ones do too.  Shakespeare was probably a real jackass if you dig deeply enough.  Are you boycotting pretty much everything until you properly vet the full writings, opinions, and actions of the author in question?  I bet not.

So if you, like me, think Card is an asshole then what you should do is watch the movie if you want to and ignore it if you don't.  Talk, blog or write about what a jerk he is and how much you hate his ideas loudly and publicly.  Donate a dollar to an organization that promotes same sex marriage if you like - that will be a vastly greater sum that any amount of your movie ticket that gets spent on causes you hate.  Don't conflate watching a movie that is apparently reasonable but not superb or boycotting said movie with doing something important.  Or just lie and tell everyone you are boycotting it and then go see it anyway after donating to a cause Card hates; then you get the best of all words.

Personally I probably won't see it.  I loved the book and it was very impactful on me as a teenager but I kind of doubt the movie will be anything but a bunch of special effects wrapped up in in a veil of disappointment.  Rather than boycotting the movie I simply am not going to care very much.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Russel Brand has been big on the internet recently because of an interview he did where he espoused radical left wing sentiments like not voting because the system as it is currently is too awful and corrupt to support in such a way.  He advocates for a revolution instead of participation.  Predictably the responses have fallen along party lines and the extreme left wing folks are largely praising him as a genius and the right wing folks are calling him a lunatic.

I like his basic tenets pretty well.  He wants those governing to be more responsive to the needs of the people, to more evenly distribute wealth, and to better protect the environment.  Noble goals, and ones most of us support.  There are plenty of people talking about Brand, some criticizing his sexism while agreeing with his politics, and some just trashing him because he has no actual concrete suggestions, just criticisms of the current state.  I personally think that ideas on how bad things are have little interest unless they come along with some kind of plan that doesn't involve revolution.

It is easy to call for a revolution.  Glorious revolution, striking out against the bad guys and standing up for what is right!  Of course before the first shot is fired it is easy to imagine a revolution creating a utopia where the person or people who end up in charge feel exactly as we do about everything; after all, isn't that what the revolution is about?  The trouble occurs when we actually look at what happens in revolutions.  Death, suffering, and regression on environmental standards are the norm and unfortunately even when that cost is paid little improvement actually happens.  Normally the revolution is crushed by the incumbent rulers having accomplished nothing.  Even when it works it regularly ends up installing ruthless tyrants instead of a perfect benevolent government.  Just ask the Russians or the Egyptians if their revolutions created an ideal world.  Just because you can imagine a nebulous wonderland that could occur after a revolution does not mean that it will happen.  Even if you win it is highly unlikely that those that end up in power will think as you do or share your aims.

So yes, I agree with Brand that many of our institutions, laws, and customs are deeply flawed.  I agree that there are many things we could improve.  What I disagree about is that revolution towards an unstated goal is a sensible response.  Working within the system is slow, frustrating, and often futile.  That doesn't mean that picking up a gun and attacking the evil oppressor is better; it is romantic but romance has little to do with good policy.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is sigh and keep on trudging through the muck.  It won't get you all kinds of Likes and Views but it is how peaceful, happy societies are built.

If you don't believe me go and look at the track record of idealistic revolutions over history.  It is full of tragedy and completely lacking in utopian societies created from the ashes of evil regimes.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Some competence and some more incompetence

I was worried about how our appointment at Sick Kids Hospital would go on Monday.  The continuing incompetence of the administrative folk had me concerned about the overall experience at the hospital.  Of course the medical people there are much better than that but it seems to me that with enough incompetence in bureaucracy you can seriously affect patient care.

Thankfully the experience was fine.  Getting injected with radioactive goo was quite a trial and required attempts on both arms but eventually worked.  I debated trying to add some levity to the situation by joking about how Elli might turn into some kind of superhero a la Ninja Turtles, Spider Man, The Hulk, etc. but I don't think she actually has those cultural references yet and I might really confuse her.  In the end despite the pain and admissions of screwups it finally worked and I was really impressed with how well Elli took it.  It is tough when medical professions admit they are having real difficulty doing something right but although she was upset she held it together.

The rest of the medicine went off really well.  They had a selection of videos for her to watch while she was scanned which is fantastic (and that sort of thing is one of the reasons Sick Kids is great) and the doctors impressed me.  As usual the thing that I really approved of was their reticence towards excessive intervention.  They talked about the specific outcome we want and openly debated the necessity of further testing based on the middling results we received.  This is something I greatly value; physicians who recognize that testing has a cost and that it should only be done when the expected result is overall positive rather than always done as a precautionary measure.

Then my faith in the institution was trampled on again as I received a phone call to book yet another test.  The person on the other end couldn't usefully describe what the test was for, what it might entail, or indeed anything at all about it.  I get that people manning the phones don't have medical qualifications but at least they should have access to a popup window so they can give a canned description of a test.  After all, what use is a four letter acronym to a parent who wants to understand what it is they are booking?  I only need very basic information to make an informed decision and I couldn't get even that.  People love to complain about useless bureaucrats but you sure as hell notice when the bureaucrats aren't doing the job right - the challenge is to notice it when they aren't making mistakes at all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Worrying levels of incompetence

Elli has been going to the Hospital for Sick Kids periodically over the past while.  Nothing serious each time, just trying to finally solve some ongoing issues.  A few months ago we set up an appointment for several tests including an ultrasound all for tomorrow the 28th.  Six weeks ago we got a phone call asking us to come in quickly for other tests including another ultrasound.  I was puzzled but the person on the line insisted it was right so in we came.

After doing the tests the nurse gave us results and talked about our next steps.  I was somewhat confused and asked about the second set of tests that were booked for the 28th.  She had no idea those tests were even scheduled, and we had to go chat with some administrative folk to figure out what was going on.  It turns out the hospital had called us in for the exact same ultrasound that was already booked for the 28th.  No one could figure out why we were booked for the same procedure on two different days.  I got the folks there to cancel the second ultrasound and rearrange our day on the 28th so it would make sense and all seemed fixed.

Then a week ago I got a reminder phone call about an ultrasound booked on the 28th.  The exact same ultrasound that we had already completed and which I had cancelled weeks ago.  The caller seemed confused and was finally able to figure out that we had other things booked that day and asked several times if I wanted to cancel the ultrasound for the 28th.  This boggles me.  Did I cancel it for real before?  Is the cancellation going to work this time?  If I go in on the 28th are you still going to try to do the ultrasound?  I have no idea at this point.

I assume this administrative boondoggle is not reflective of the work of the actual physicians and nurses.  I hope so anyway.  Perhaps my friends who are in the health field can chime in on that.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How does one hate a country?

Wendy recently sent me a quote I found very enjoyable.  It was a line from Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

"How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? The it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession... Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope." -Estraven

It is essentially another way of phrasing what I have said many a time - that basing one's love of or concern for a person on which side of an invisible line they were born is foolish and destructive.  While "I love Canadians" is a fine thing and all I can't find any justification for not saying "I love people" instead.  The first implies that your love of a person you don't know is contingent on the approval of an immigration official or the line agreed upon by a bunch of old guys hundreds of years ago.  If they agreed that the border should be the fiftieth parallel instead of the forty ninth should one suddenly cease to be so concerned about those Canadians living right near the US right now?  Strange indeed. 

I harp on this because I think nationalistic thinking truly is a danger.  It is far harder to condone drone strikes, bombing runs, or terrorist acts against someone who is just a person than it is to condone them against a person that is categorized as Other.  The more we agree that people we don't know should all be treated similarly the harder it becomes to assault them and the less buy in politicians can accept for wars or other atrocities they propose.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The changes, they are coming fast

Human culture has always changed and shifted.  There never were 'the good old days' where everything was perfect up until the latest generation ruined it all with their bad music, laziness, and disrespect for their elders.  However, it really does seem that the pace of change is becoming ever greater as time rolls forward.  The rate of dissemination of information continually increases as technology does and although there will always be resistance to change that resistance strikes me as being less and less.

I started thinking about this because of two articles I was randomly linked to over the past little while.  One is about a serial cheater who cannot stay faithful but who is engaged and hopes that married life will reform him.  This, of course, is idiotic as anyone who has been in a long term marriage can tell you - the desire and need for intimacy outside the relationship goes up, not down.  The second article is one about a married man who has been cut off from sex completely and so he cheats to get those needs met.  Much more defensible, certainly.  However, in both cases what I expected to read when I checked out the comments was pages of "I hate you asshole cheaters can die in a fire" and what I found instead was an awful lot of people saying "Why don't you have an open relationship?  Everybody is doing it."  Of course, there were folks spewing invective but not nearly so many as I would have thought.

Of course one of the challenges is that cheating is still recognized as a single thing by many people.  I see a world of difference between being utterly denied sex within a marriage and getting it somewhere else and just plain old cheating.  Breaking vows and lying are bad, but there are excuses I will accept.  Just like all the other little white lies we tell each other all the time like when we are falling apart emotionally and we answer "How are you?" with "Just fine" there are reasons to lie that are acceptable and reasons that are not.  "I have been told to never have sex again" is a good reason and "I was horny" is not.  Much like "You look great in that dress" is a perfectly fine lie and "I totally did not kill my auntie for the inheritance money" is a bit of an issue.  Cheating has degrees of badness and I think people are beginning to see that more now as more alternate relationship models become mainstream.

It is a strange thing to witness a substantial change in public sentiment.  Even five years ago I would not have expected to see this but it seems to pop up pretty regularly.  I have heard it said that the polyamory movement (as much as there is such a thing) is about 30 years behind the gay rights movement and that seems reasonably accurate.  If that holds true Canada will be legalizing plural marriages around the year 2034.  I figure 20 years is probably enough to sort out the crazy legal entanglements that such an endeavour would entail so it seems plausible.  In this scenario Russia will be legalizing plural marriages sometime around 2100 or so...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

So I was wrong

On Tuesday I made some predictions about the potential US credit default.  Obviously I was wrong as they managed to get themselves together sufficiently to agree to pay the bills they already agreed to pay.  Now we have the fun time of waiting three months until they have another showdown and do the whole thing one more time.  Huzzah and such.  I guess in retrospect my error was not in listening to opinion polls enough.  The Republicans took such a beating in polls regarding the shutdown and default that they desperately needed to get out and were willing to give up their crusade against Obamacare.  Perhaps had both parties been equally affected we would have seen my vision come to pass, but now we will never know.

In Canada on the other hand Harper is planning to introduce legislation that would make running deficits impossible.  I am hugely in favour of mandatory balanced budgets but I don't think this tactic is actually going to work.  Any government willing to run a loss can just repeal the law anyway and apparently the legislation is going to have built in loopholes for times of economic downturn.  I am not convinced that codifying the rational assumption that deficits are only temporary passes to get past crises is useful because of course we shouldn't have been running deficits all those years and of course the government would have found a way around it if they could.

We just have a fundamental problem that they are the government.  Any rule that is put in place to prevent them from racking up debt like removing their ability to issue bonds at all is something they can decide to ignore, change, or remove.  I feel like we need something absurd for it to actually work, something along the lines of "If the government runs at a loss or passes an unbalanced budget parliament is dissolved, an election must occur, and every currently sitting member of the ruling party is banned from federal public office for life and forfeits all pensions and other compensation."  The only thing that might actually work to stop them being irresponsible is to hit them where it hurts:  Get them in the pride, or the wallet if pride won't work.

Realistically they are all going to do what governments have always done.  They will rack up debt foolishly and either have their financial system collapse, inflate their way out of debt, or just default and tell everyone to suck it up.  Until the populace at large completely gets behind the necessity of a balanced budget it won't happen, and that means being willing to defund your favourite government program to make it happen.  I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Comparing apples and Babe Ruth's batting record

Conan O'Brien talked about how the new GTA5 video game has made more money already than any book sold in the last year.  He jokes about how J. K. Rowling ought to make a murder and mayhem themed Harry Potter book to cash in on some kind of theoretical be a gangsta phase.

I get that Conan is just trying to make a joke but it really bothers me when people make these sorts of comparisons because some of those viewing them really don't get why it isn't remotely useful to make them.  If comparing a single novel to GTA5 is useful perhaps we ought to compare the net profit on an international oil firm and a local bakery?  GTA5 was not created by a single person writing for a few months or a year, but rather the product of huge numbers of people over many years.  A game of the scope of GTA5 is made at most once a week(?), while new books are published at a rate of 700 per day.  Now, if somebody wanted to calculate the return on capital invested into GTA5 vs. particular books I would be vaguely interested and I suspect that books would handily top that list since the biggest hit books cost little more for initial production than the flops.

Stepping aside from that particular example though I feel like this is a real issue with the way news is passed on to the masses.  Clearly if you want a hard, rational reporting of issues you shouldn't be trying to get it from Conan (and I like Conan, that isn't a slam!) but people tend to take these sorts of things and run with them and then end up all kinds of foolish places.  Obviously even if I could start censoring news outlets I wouldn't want to do so but I very much wish they took their obligations to give people context more seriously.  As an example, if somebody dies from a possible Ecstasy overdose they are nearly certain to get media coverage whereas someone who dies from aspirin is highly unlikely to be noticed.  Whenever deaths from drugs are reported we really should tell everyone how often perfectly legal drugs kill people to provide crucial context.  Somebody dying from Ecstasy is bad, but it is often used as a way to promote drug criminalization without accompanying stats on other perfectly legal drugs.  If every time the news reported a death from overdose of an illegal drug they also reported how many people had died of legal drugs since the last time they ran such a story we would have a *very* different set of drug laws.

Context and comparisons are hugely important in news reporting.  People don't know much about anything and providing those comparisons lets them process new information in a useful way.  We really need to get better at using those comparisons without horribly distorting the facts though, and this is on both news outlets and the public.  Newsy type folks should report more usefully and people should be less willing to swallow idiotic comparisons.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

This is why world government would be a disaster

So the US is inching ever closer towards a credit default and the resulting convulsions of the world economy.  Even if a deal could be reached at this point, which is by no means assured or even likely, it is highly probable that individuals could delay the implementation of such a deal beyond the Oct 17th deadline.  Clearly there will be massive stock market disruptions and a lot of people, particularly those invested in 'extremely safe' US treasury bonds, will have their portfolios smashed.  My feeling is that as soon as that happens people will scream loud enough that any economic fundamentalists who are busy delaying the implementation of a deal will stop and things will return to normal.  You know, the new normal, where the US is set to default again in a few months and the parties get set for another round of being obstructionist, grandstanding jackasses.

Here is what I am wondering about though:  Will the value of treasury bonds actually decrease in the event of a short term default?  The last time this sort of thing happened and the US got its credit rating lowered treasury bonds actually went up because everybody panicked and ran to the safest thing they could think of, ignoring the fact that the panic was caused by the safe thing being deemed not so safe.  It is truly hilarious when you think how that played out.

Credit Agency:  "The US might not repay its bonds."

The World:  "This worries us. Buy US bonds en masse!"

An actual default though seems like it might get the world past the tipping point of confidence.  I wouldn't be shocked if the borrowing costs of the US rise dramatically after even a short and relatively small failure to repay.  The real question is what the investors of the world will view as the new guaranteed investment if/when the US is no longer considered a sure thing.  There simply isn't another country in a position to offer that sort of confidence and everything else is a gamble.  When even a US treasury bond isn't secure it will be hard to imagine what an investment advisor will recommend as a safe and guaranteed option to round out a portfolio will be.

I am going to make a set of predictions on what will happen in the next little while - let's see how close it comes to reality.

1.  There will be a failure to pass the necessary bills in time to avoid a default due to filibustering by a few random hardliners.

2.  Stock markets will see a precipitous crash as the US is forced to default.

3.  The crash will cause people everywhere to scream at politicians and they will very rapidly pass bills to fix the debt ceiling and get the government back to work.  The final bill that does pass will reduce spending some but will not significantly touch Obamacare.

4.  The borrowing costs of the US will rise and investor confidence in the US treasury bond will noticeably plummet.

5.  There will be a longterm drop in world stocks with confidence taking several years at least to come back.

Not armageddon certainly but not a party either.

And this is what brings me to the title of the post.  When just a couple of people have the ability to totally bork the world they will eventually take the opportunity to do so.  All people are interconnected and all governing entities will periodically do idiotic things so the safest thing is for there to be many smaller governing bodies so the stupid things will be spread out over time.  This way we will be always living with a small number of failures but generally we will chug on just fine.  The US government itself has become too big to fail and there is nobody around who can bail it out; just imagine how bad it would be if we had a world government that got to that point.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Words of love

The words we use to describe love are really pretty silly.  The thing that gets me most riled up is unconditional love, particularly when it is held up as an ideal rather than an option.  Unconditional love, if you look at the literal interpretation of the words, clearly implies love regardless of any change in conditions.  This is often utter lunacy, sometimes is just wrong, and certainly doesn't deserve to put upon any sort of pedestal.  Love of a person regardless of their characteristics bothers me in the same way faith does - fundamentally it is about holding a viewpoint regardless of any reasons to the contrary.  You *should* change your opinion of someone if they decide to stab you with a fork, blow up a bunch of random folks, dump toxic waste into a river, or make really bad yo momma jokes.

Now of course people don't usually mean unconditional love when they say unconditional love.  They usually mean "I love you a lot and I will keep doing so even if you do things I think are weird or silly."  They reserve the right to stop loving should the target of said love do any of the heinous things described above.  In this way unconditional is abused in much the way literally is; we all know that what is being said is not what is meant but we understand anyway because we have context.  I am one of those people that doesn't mind the word literally being used to mean 'sort of like this but not exactly' because I can tell when it is being used this way.  Unconditional love though bothers me because people often seem to think it is literally true when it is clear that this is not the case.  (Using literally in its dictionary sense here, in case you need clarification.)

Fundamentally unconditional love robs the relationship of much of its meaning since it implies a love based around a body, a sack of chromosomes, a bloodline, or a particular sack of meat, rather than basing it on the personality and actions of the person in question.  If someone claims to love me unconditionally they are claiming to love the body sitting in my chair and not my motivations, my passion, my wit, my thoughts, or my dreams.  Those things all can change to become something terrible, twisted, and terrifying and I very much want to be loved for all that I am, not just for the somewhat temporally continuous mass that my mind inhabits.

Parents may well take umbrage at all this but examined closely even parental love is very unlikely to be unconditional.  You might well feel an unconditional responsibility towards your children, or an unconditional concern about them, but unconditional love implies that there is nothing your children could do to disrupt that love and thinking that no such thing exists probably implies more about your lack of imagination than anything else.  My love for my child is not unconditional.  The conditions under which I would stop loving her are extreme indeed but they exist; I certainly do not expect to ever encounter them and I hope very much I never learn my exact limits but I know those limits are out there somewhere.

I don't want to be loved unconditionally in the same way that I don't want to be needed.  I want to be loved conditionally and wanted.  Both those things imply an active choice that can be revoked and that very possibility of revoking them makes the fact that they exist now a thousand times more sweet.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Much disappointment about nothing

This past Saturday I had a nerd games party at my place.  Wendy and Elli were up north at a Brownie camp for the weekend so it was time for some crazy non-kid-interrupted gaming.  I did my usual thing of inviting people in waves - how many people are in later waves depends on how many people say they are in from earlier waves.  In theory this allows me to make sure I have enough people attending but not too many people attending.  I seem to have something like a 30% acceptance rate to party invites but unfortunately that does mean that sometimes I invite ten people and get nine who show and sometimes I get one.  Neither is really what I am looking for!

After three waves of invites I ended up in the situation where I had two people confirmed showing up for a couple hours and one person probably showing up for a couple hours with no overlap between them.  Unfortunately very few people responded at all so I couldn't realistically reschedule since presumably some folks might be planning on coming without my knowledge.  This is not a recipe for a successful party!  I was pretty bummed out at that point because I only have so many weekends I can host these sorts of things and to have invited ~18 people and to have no real party come together was not so much fun.  I ended up being pretty maudlin and irrational internally, letting my brain wonder if I have done something to really offend a whole bunch of people.

Things worked out really well though.  I ended up with eight people staggered somewhat over the course of the day which worked out just fine.  I got to play my much beloved Puerto Rico and CRUSHED a world champion by a *massive* two point margin.  *Massive*  Winning a really tight game of Puerto Rico is one of the sure fire ways to pick up my mood and it has the advantage that no nudity is required.  What I want to avoid is the organization struggle of having a party where I really have no idea who is going to show up.  Obviously my strategy of waves of invites really doesn't work unless I get reasonably quick responses both Yes and No so I need to figure something else out.  I guess I need to default to 'invite a bunch of people and hope'.  This works better in a space where I can actually host a lot of people if that is what shows up - one more reason to buy a house someday I suppose.  That is, unless anybody out there has a good idea for how to get around this particular challenge.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Something wonderful on the internet... who knew?

The Columnist told me that there was a video on the internet I desperately needed to see called "Fuck me in the ass because I love Jesus."  This video is NSFW as one would rightly expect from the title.  It was one of those videos that destroys a day because after viewing it you may end up cruising Youtube looking for everything by Garfunkel and Oates, the two musicians who perform it.  I lost an afternoon watching everything of theirs I could find and burst out laughing on a constant basis.  They don't restrict themselves to lampooning teenagers who think that anal sex is a way to be pure in the eyes of God either - pretty much everyone is subject to their particular brand of mockery and scorn.  It reminds me a bit of Russell Peters' comedy routine in that although they are truly offensive it is hard to be bitter as they mock themselves as much as anyone.  So if you are sitting around thinking that you really need another excellent distraction then click that link.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bashing those Americans for some reason

On Monday I lamented the state of American politics.  I got to thinking about how much I focus on the happenings of the nation to the south of me and considering whether I have been approaching my posts on the topic in the right way.  Obviously there are good reasons to focus on the US including but limited to their unmatched military might, their economic clout, the fact that their culture is similar enough to mine that I can understand them, and the sheer volume of information about them that hits the airwaves.  The big kid on the block also won't get much in the way of defenders since everyone likes to tear them down.  If I focused on trashing Kazakhstan, for example, people might be really confused but everybody expects me to rag on the US barring other information being available.

The thing that gets me so riled up is that the US has so much power in terms of information that isn't being used to make the world a better place.  If Canada does something terrible then people mostly don't hear about it but when the Yanks do the same thing it is splashed across the news worldwide.  That kind of exposure has immense power which can be used for good or ill and that is why when I see individuals refusing to use that power to make the world a better place it tears me up.  I look at the power Obama wields and desperately want him to use it to end assassinations, torture, unlawful imprisonment, spying on civilians, and war and when he does the opposite it kills me.  Harper on the other hand does plenty of terrible things but he lacks the influence to change the world and set an example for others to follow.  I can see a road to a better world and I want so much for those in the best position to push us along that road to take the opportunity.

So though talking about the US is quite reasonable I think I need to be more careful *how* I talk about them.  Trashing their political situation is going to go over easy because there are truly very few people who think that the US political system is doing everything right and that includes highly patriotic Americans.  I also like to slag their tendency to start wars with random nations across the world and although there are folks who would disagree with me on that point I really have no patience for their views - bombing the hell out of cities in poor countries isn't a valid strategic option, it is just evil.  On the other hand sometimes I paint the citizens of the US with a very broad stroke and that really isn't fair.  While there are plenty of people there who do support reprehensible policies there are also plenty who don't and are simply unable to change the status quo.  A random US citizen may decline to go to war in Iraq, they might even protest the war in Iraq, but they can't *stop* it from happening so it isn't fair to belittle them just because they were born on the other side of an invisible line from me.

It is difficult because inflammatory rhetoric and grandstanding is a great way to get attention and views.  The more careful and correct I am the less people care what I say.  This is why scientific reporting is such a mess:  Very few people want to read about margins of error and 'more study needed' as they really want to read about 'cancer is cured!' instead.  Being careful and correct is strongly correlated with being boring, sadly.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Shutting down

So it looks like the US government will largely speaking shut down tomorrow.  There are plenty of things to say here about financial policy, Obamacare, and other facets of the showdown between the Democrats and Republicans but I think the critical thing this highlights is how much of a mess two party politics is.  In most countries you simply would not see this because voters would savagely punish any two powerful parties that between them arranged to destroy government services in such a ridiculous and petty way.  Needless to say a single party that controlled the government would be utterly finished if they let such a thing happen but if there were a third option, any option at all, the Democrats and Republicans would not be doing what they are doing either.

It is that fundamental issue of not having any options that leads to disastrous consequences.  It isn't quite as severe as simply having a despot ruling with an iron fist (the ultimate of 'no option' scenarios, surely) but it isn't that far off either.  When the only thing a party has to do is make a particular other party look bad politics ceases to be about doing things that make people happy and centres around wrecking things in a way that can be easily pinned on someone else.  Again, if you have two parties doing this and there is someone else reasonable to vote for people will take that option.

Canadian politics isn't perfect of course but it benefits greatly from having a number of real parties.  The Conservatives and Liberals would happily have spent all their time mudslinging at each other but they can't realistically do that when there are the New Democrats throughout the nation and the Bloc in Quebec.  They had to spend time talking up their own plans and lauding their past successes, which is exactly what we as voters want.  Mudslinging still exists but no party can rely on scandals on the other side to guarantee votes; they really do need to prevent their own scandals to have any chance.  That doesn't make them perfect or even particularly good but it does curb their excesses substantially which is a good thing.

There is nothing on the horizon changing the status quo though.  The government will cease to function, people will be livid, and they will blame whichever party they already hate.  This catastrophe will not have the sort of effect we would hope - that politicians who cannot compromise to get critical things done get their asses kicked out of office.  It will lower the world's opinion of the US just a little bit more; not that the citizens of the US are overly concerned with that of course.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Doing the job too well

Tonight I went to a parent's council meeting at Elli's school.  We were talking ahead of time about how it usually goes, that is a ton of people show up on the first month and then most of them discover that volunteering is a lot of work and it ends up being the same people as before but with a new face or two.  Unfortunately this time all the usual volunteers showed up, the folks who have worked really hard in past years, and only one new person showed up.  When it came time to volunteer for all the jobs that have to be done it was all the same folks as last year except for those that have moved on so now the work is just going to be divided between fewer people.  It is immensely frustrating to see how much has to be done and to realize that the people who are benefiting see no reason to help out.

A joke was made that if we really want a big turnout to a meeting we need to make something go really wrong the week before.  Cancel a bunch of normal services or a big event perhaps, or maybe bring some new and absurd rule into force.  That way we can get all the people who are willing to be outraged that things aren't working and channel some of that energy into getting things done.  Of course we aren't likely to do that but it does feel like the better job we do the less likely we are to get people to volunteer.  Everything is going just fine at the school, why bother getting involved?  Hint:  Because the people making things go well are going to burn out if you don't.

It is a tough situation because obviously everybody at the meeting was really interested in making things work but really didn't want to be the one shouldering the burden again.  Even if there had been three new folks willing to sign on for small projects I think it would have made a world of difference to the ten or so regulars because it would show us that somebody else is willing to step in and take some of the load.  Nothing gets a volunteer rocking like some new energetic people wanting to learn the ropes and nothing gets a volunteer down like the certainty that nobody else will come along and continue the work once they cannot.  Nobody wants to be part of an organization that is on a downward course.

It is nice to have a tight group that works together but it is hard when new blood is really needed and it isn't forthcoming.  Unfortunately I can't be the one to step in and make everything work - I have the time and expertise if it came to that but I have been down that road and I know where it leads.  It does not lead to happiness and suitable work/life balance when I try to save a struggling organization all by myself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The hierarchy of video game sins

Grand Theft Auto 5 launched recently.  Everyone seems to be of the opinion that if you like a game where you get to be a violent lunatic running around a dystopian city murdering, robbing, and destroying indiscriminately it is a great game.  There is just one fly in the ointment:  In order to get through the game you need to guide your character through a graphic torture scene where you use a variety of implements to inflict horrors on another person.  People have predictably flipped out over this but I think they haven't any ground to stand on.

It is clear that torture scenes are troubling.  In World of Warcraft where a very tame 'zap the guy till he talks' scene was instituted people freaked out and the torture scene in GTA5 is an order of magnitude more brutal.  People really do not like torturing others - something about the intense suffering involved really triggers sympathy in a way that combat does not.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that in games when you fight enemies they rarely show any sign of suffering or damage until they are dead.  There are two states for an enemy mook:  Attacking you furiously and lying on the ground.  Being sad or terrified doesn't figure into it, unlike in real life.  In a simulated torture scene though the person being tortured is desperate, scared, and mentally falling apart and that triggers sympathy in us that never appears in stand up fights.

Given that I think it is extremely understandable that we have more empathy for a torture victim than a random person gunned down in a moment of savagery but I don't think that means that it shouldn't be portrayed.  If we are okay with games making entertainment out of massacring pedestrians then we really can't be too picky about torture which certainly is lower on the badness scale than mass murder.  Just because a thing is more disturbing does not mean it should be banned.  It does mean that such a game should have a 18+ rating on the box because that rating is in part meant to reflect how disturbing it is though.

Games need to be able to depict desperate and savage occurrences.  They aren't everyone's cup of tea but that isn't the point - just like in film, books, or other media we have freedom to create whatever stories we desire as long as we don't hurt real people.  With that freedom in place many games are going to show horrendous violence and that is okay.  Just like in other media you aren't required to view it if you don't like it.  I have no desire to play through GTA5 myself but I think that it is important that others be able to and we need to resist foolish knee jerk reactions that blame violent video games for real life situations that are entirely unrelated.