Sunday, March 31, 2013

The word is vagina, again.

/sarcasm/ Talking about sex is dangerous.  We can't give those teenagers information about it or they will be doing the big nasty in the backseat of cars, on couches at parties, or behind the bleachers.  The most important fact we must conceal from their delicate minds is this:  Sex is fun.  /sarcasm/  Ike linked me to an article about a high school teacher facing disciplinary action for such things as saying the word "vagina" during a science lesson on reproduction, discussing the biology of orgasm, and talking about climate change.  Obviously the first charge is preposterous (how exactly can you discuss reproduction without saying vagina aside from silliness like 'vajayjay' or 'lady-parts?') but I expect the real problem was the discussion of orgasm.

There is an irrational perception out there that teenagers might not know that sex is a blast.  Perhaps if we only tell them about the nuts and bolts of reproduction they won't figure out that sex is a gigantic party and adults spend an outrageous portion of their lives chasing it... and perhaps not.  How one arrives at this position is a bit of a mystery considering that masturbation is a thing that kids do - no parent can possibly have missed that even if they do respond by saying "Don't touch your naughty parts or baby Jesus will cry."  Even ignoring that completely though you can't possibly miss the conclusion that sex is on everybody's mind. Look at the magazines in grocery stores, type in any search term into google, or watch any sort of TV show or movie aimed at adults and the constant presence of sex and our insatiable pursuit of it cannot be missed.  Teenagers know that we all aren't chasing sex just to make babies!

Orgasms rock.  We can't conceal that fact from teenagers no matter how hard we try and we shouldn't try in the first place.  Chocolate cake also rocks, as do deep fried Mars bars, candied bacon, and calling in sick to work to play video games.  You can't build a good relationship with a temptation by denying the temptation entirely nor can you emphasize good habits when you can't talk about the habit in question.  You can call in sick to work to play Mass Effect once a year and it is no problem.  You can eat candied bacon once a month and have no worries, or have a slice of chocolate cake every couple days.  Orgasms require a slightly different sort of moderation as you can have one every half day or so without issues (that's normal, right?) but other sorts of care and caution are required.  

I will say it again:  Orgasms rock.  The teenagers know this.  We can't stop them from desperately pursuing them.  All we can do is tell them how best to manage the inherent safety risks anyone chasing orgasms must deal with.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Devil you don't

People are afraid of Facebook and Google.  The level of knowledge they have about their users is immense and the world is worried about what is going to happen to that knowledge and how it will be controlled.  For example, it is now possible to accurately predict a person's IQ just by looking at their Facebook Likes.  (I know IQ is flawed, but predicting it is still both impressive and useful.)  Not just that, but all kinds of other things about us that we don't necessarily think should be obvious can be teased out of such data such as our political affiliation, whether or not our parents divorced, whether or not we use drugs, and our incomes.

Obviously we have a reason to be worried about this data being used in ways we don't approve of.  I would tend to agree with the majority that this is unfortunate but what people don't seem to get is how prevalent this sort of thing was already.  It isn't exactly hard to figure out what profession a person is, how much money they have, what their sexual orientation is, and other factors after only moments of communication face to face.  I should know since I did that for a living years ago.  An incredible amount of data that we have no control over pours out of us at every one of our meetings - Facebook likes offer a new data stream but the idea that before this no one could figure these things out is ridiculous.

People can tell an incredible amount about you with only tiny amounts of information.  Your name, the way you write, where you live, and who your references are are hugely important on a resume even though they cannot make use of facial tics, clothing, or appearance to give up information you want hidden.  We stumble through life blithely unaware of how much people can determine about us without our consent or knowledge; the only difference now is that we aren't used to that information stream coming from a website.  There is an implicit acceptance that the brand of your watch says volumes about you as a person but a fear that hitting Like on a brand of watch could somehow be a problem.

Sure it might be nice if all that could be eliminated, if somehow we could interface with one another in a sterile vacuum free of any information aside from that which we put in deliberately.  That isn't going to happen though, not least because people don't *want* to live in such a place.  You can have your sterile passing of information and I will take the messy, ugly, poorly understood real world.  Shared glances, knowing smiles, waggling hips, and raised eyebrows are part of my world and I want to keep them.  The same goes for trash talking people on Facebook posts and having awesome free email.

The information we reveal to the world digitally can be scary but when compared to what we are already used to revealing it isn't anything special.  This is a case of fearing the Devil you don't know rather than sound risk assessment, I think.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't push for good privacy controls on platforms such as Facebook and Google; we should, but we need to get over how dangerous companies knowing things about us is.  They don't know more than a talented salesman who talked to you for 10 minutes and you hopefully aren't terrified of *that*.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Preventing Harm vs. Freedom

On Saturday I talked about changes to Canadian marriage law.  Initially I talked about more mainstream effects but the comments went lots of interesting places, particularly when we got to talking about polygamy. Some important definitions:

1.  Polygamy.  One person married to multiple other people.  Often confused with the following:

2.  Polygyny.  One man married to multiple women.

3.  Polyandry.  One woman married to multiple men.  Relatively rare.

I read the Canadian law against Polygamy and it is completely nuts.  In short if you are present (not even participating!) at a commitment ceremony for three people you are guilty of polygamy and subject to up to five years in jail.  Five years in jail for *witnessing* three people committing love to one another.  You can get the same for just having a sexual relationship with several people concurrently - singles who are playing the field beware!  It is abundantly clear that this law is completely idiotic, especially because it explicitly states that the prosecution does not have to prove you had sex, intended to have sex, or even how you intended to commit to one another.  All they have to do is disapprove of your life and toss you in jail.  Obviously the government doesn't go around actually doing any of this crap.  They don't even usually prosecute serious religious polygamists so normal people doing reasonable things are in no danger but having this sort of crazy garbage on the books is dangerous because somebody will eventually try to use it.

The law is nuts but is there an actual argument against polygamy?  The difficult part of this question revolves around the fact that if polygamy is allowed it isn't equally split into polygyny and polyandry.  There are no societal issues if a few people of comparable ages and social status decide to form some permanent MMF and FFM triads.  Nothing bad happens.  The problem is that when you allow polygamy in general you get tiny communities like Bountiful where powerful old men marry multiple teenage girls who are under extreme social pressure to accept.  In such situations there is much greater abuse, child suffering, and the giant swath of problems that crop up when young men realize their mating opportunities are nil.  You want to wreck your society?  Convince all the 16-30 year old males that they have no good way to improve their lives and constructively build a home and family.

I don't see any good way to prevent the kind of terrible problems that crop up in religious backwaters that promote these sorts of destructive social constructs.  What Canada does not need is an archaic, overly broad law that criminalizes all kinds of perfectly reasonable things.  We can vigorously enforce existing laws against child trafficking, kidnapping, and coercive marriages but small religious communities are often insular and difficult to police.  You can't even fix the problem by making it illegal for old folks to marry 16 year olds because their marriages aren't legal in the first place.  Basically we are stuck cleaning up the mess that the nutters and abusers create because we don't want to deny other people their freedom of religion.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Divvying up the loot

Governments are on a slow path to recognizing alternate forms of marriage from the 'classic' definition.  Obviously gay marriage is the big one today but there are other small steps being made; in BC common law marriage is being upgraded to being exactly the same as official marriage.  The biggest difference is the 50/50 split of assets accrued during the common law marriage but spousal support and pension benefits are pretty important too.

I have seen some people complaining about this law as being good for con men/women who can get into a relationship and then demand half of their partner's stuff down the road but I think that sort of objection is utterly ridiculous.  For starters a confidence game that lasts a number of years and which is worth nothing if detected 18 months in seems like an unlikely proposition.  Not only that but this only matters if you can't get the mark to marry you; if you can manage to live with them for years at a time is it really so unlikely that you can't get a ring on your finger?

Really this is just a good step to protect people who have children in a common law relationship, particularly if one of them ceases working to raise the children.  After a breakup it is going to be difficult enough raising children alone without the added burden of a career that is broken or nonexistent and having no support.  While I went about getting married officially I don't think that there is any particular reason to enforce that.  If people want to get married, great, but we should strive to arrange things so that the people in a position of power (those with good careers in common law relationships) cannot abuse their position and leave their former partner out in the cold.  There is no need for an official marriage to be required to protect the vulnerable.

This got me thinking about polyamorous relationships and how complex marriage law can be when you consider them in the mix.  It is a little complex but certainly not impossible to imagine a cohesive set of laws for 3+ people marrying each other all at once but situations where 1 person is involved in several separate marriages are potentially insanely complicated to work out (graph theory applications!) and adding common law recognition into the mix is nutty.  If you have a married couple with a roommate who they sleep with, is the roommate part of their marriage as common law 2 years in?  Complicated!

While I would love for polyamorous marriages to be part of the law every time I sit down to figure out exactly how it would work I end up with a bunch of impossible problems and no answers.  I guess my hacked together solutions might be better than the current nothing, but making laws on the premise of 'well, this probably isn't worse than what we have...' isn't a great starting point.  If anyone knows of somebody who has worked this out in a coherent fashion I would love to read about it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Clean cut boys

A lot of people are talking about the Steubenville rape case.  The short form:  Some young men get a girl passed out drunk and rape her, take pictures, get convicted to a few years in jail.  Much of the media spends endless time talking about how tragic this all is for the rapists (because they are good at football) and pointedly ignores how tragic it is for the victim.  The internet then explodes with anger over how so much of the mainstream media engages in slut shaming, even if it is passive.

I gotta side with the internet.  These boys committed terrible crimes and deserve serious punishment.  While their suffering brings me no joy it is a necessary thing to prevent such crimes in the future.  We should spend our time feeling sorry for the real victim if we are going to feel sorry for anyone.

What I do think though is that this misplaced sympathy is easy to explain.  Obviously a culture of acceptance of rape as normal or no big deal is partly at fault.  However, I think that a big part of the reactions we have seen is simply due to the pictures the public has had access to when viewing this news.  I read a bunch of articles to see what exactly was portrayed and repeatedly saw a picture of two young, clean cut young men in nice suits and a picture of a girl passed out drunk at a party in casual clothes.  Even if viewers had no particular tendency ahead of time to sympathize with the rapists they sure would after seeing that portrayal of the people involved.

Imagine if the articles instead printed two very different sets of pictures, one with a teenage girl made up nicely in a fancy dress and the other with two high school boys half naked at a party with a beer in each hand  leering at the camera and making obscene gestures.  You know who everyone would suddenly be sympathizing with, right?  There is a reason that lawyers make sure their clients are shaved and dressed up fancy for court; people on the jury are far more likely to believe them innocent.

Of course we shouldn't have to dress people of either gender up in order for others to have sympathy for them.  We shouldn't judge people worthy of rape because they drink too much and pass out.  Yet, this is what happens.  Humans make snap judgements based on appearance that blithely ignore facts and reason.  What we should do is recognize this tendency and do our best to correct for it.  We all need to focus on what happened in a particular circumstance and try to ignore how the people in question appear.  It isn't something we are good at but the more we understand the ways in which we make bad decisions the easier it will become to mitigate this problem.

Pictures from:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Destroying a country with no shots fired

Cyprus has been having some financial difficulties and are now in the unenviable position of needing a bailout.    The EU and IMF were willing to step in with some conditions.  This story is nothing new as lots of EU countries have been bailed out with strings attached.  The strings have been painful and caused all kinds of strife but they have at least been very defensible:  Insisting that a government try to balance its books before loaning them money isn't crazy.  In Cyprus' case though things went to bonkerstown.

The EU demanded a one time tax on all bank savings between 6% and 10%.  (Even funnier, the tax is such that someone holding 99,999 pays 6,749 and someone holding 100,000 pays 9,900!) Not a tax on all holdings, or net worth, or investments, or anything else but specifically bank savings.  Can anyone predict what would happen next?  Well gee, I guess every resident of Cyprus will run to the bank, get their money out, and put it under their mattress!  Which they tried to do, until the government shut down the banks to avoid a run that would bankrupt every single bank in the country.  So now the country is effectively operating without banks, the citizens are righteously outraged, and revolution is on their minds.

How in the hell does an idea this colossally stupid get rubber stamped by so many people including the leaders of Cyprus?  Nobody in the entire chain of events noticed that this tax could be avoided by a full withdrawal?  I know that a flat tax on all cash and assets (as in Monopoly) wouldn't be practical but at least it wouldn't immediately cause a run on every bank in the country.

Sthenno was talking to me about this and he pointed out that this is tantamount to the government of Canada simply nationalizing Bell and Rogers and taking all of their money.  No foul, right, because the IMF officially sanctions the seizing of private property... hell, they require it!

The EU was an interesting experiment that sure seems to be unravelling at a ever increasing pace.  Having no way for a country to get out of nasty debt and deficit problems is a disaster.  There are really good reasons for countries that can't get it together to have their own currencies and be responsible for their own problems and this certainly provides a great illustration of that fact.  Not that leaving the EU will necessarily help those countries, mind, but at least the tensions between Germany and the rest of Europe wouldn't be going so bad so fast if they weren't in a position of enforcing lunatic policies on deadbeat nations.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Modern Man

Part of being a modern adult is owning a cell phone.  You look patently ridiculous when you have to ask to borrow somebody else's phone and then stand there staring at it with no clue how to operate it - I am not incompetent, really!  Somewhere along the way not having a cell phone went from being a thing some people do to being absurd and I don't know exactly when that was.  I do know that when we went to the hospital the receptionist didn't believe us that neither of us had a cell phone which kinda says a lot about how far behind the times we are.

Today Wendy and I went to visit a couple stores to check out phones.  We ended up signing up for a 3 year contract to get sexy Galaxy S3 phones for free and the ugly, ancient phone on my desk is going to get the Office Space treatment.  It is a strange thing, mucking about with phones in stores.

How do I type in a search term in Youtube?

Uh, sir, you click that thing right there.

Well, that is easy!

Because of course everything on my new phone is easy as soon as you do it and often maddeningly difficult until I do.  All kinds of random fools figure these things out though so obviously it can't be the slightest bit challenging but there is a real intimidation factor there when you just don't know the trick.  So now you can call me anytime.  You know, like when I am sitting at my desk reading things on the internet, you can totally call me on my cell phone.

Also for those of you who know me IRL my phone number is not changing, it is just being ported over on Wednesday.  If you want Wendy's number then contact her or me.

Until then I will be editing my contact list.  Hooray for all the work associated with extra convenience.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thought crimes

In the past few weeks there has been a lot of coverage of the cannibal cop in the US.  The short summary is this:  He planned to torture, kill, and eat several women.  He made specific plans to do so and abused his power as a police officer to forward those plans in ways that were illegal.  However, he never actually hurt anyone and his legal defence has revolved around the claim that he was merely pursuing a fetish with no intent to follow through.  That defence failed so he has been convicted of a number of serious crimes and will be in jail for a damn long time.  I certainly don't debate that he should be convicted but his case is a very interesting one in terms of setting policy.

How far, exactly, are we as a society willing to push this?  If we push too far we will be jailing half the population for looking up porn with kink equipment, BDSM, or (fake) coercion involved.  If we don't push far enough we could end up watching some truly horrible things unfold because we didn't stop them in time.  While the cannibal cop and those like him are scary sorts of people I personally am more worried about prosecuting people too much rather than too little.  The government resorts to violence to curb lifestyle choices that aren't significantly harmful (protesting, using marijuana, listening to copyrighted music) and that, I think, is the far more serious threat.

A good example of where these sorts of things become really tricky is pedophilia.  Obviously the act is heinous and needs severe punishment but prosecuting people for looking up information on their sexual desires is a really awful thing to do.  Unlike, for example, rape porn (which I find highly disturbing personally but which can be made without hurting anyone) pedophile porn necessarily causes extreme harm.  This is why I think actual child porn should be severely punished while animated child porn should be legal - we should not be the thought police.

When you hand the government the power to lock people up because they look at the wrong information or think the wrong thing you have to be completely certain they will never abuse that power and put other things on the 'wrong list' and I do not have faith in that at all.  Until recently that could easily have included gay sex, for example, and we can all agree that we don't want *our* sexual desires criminalized.  I just hope that cases like this don't lead governments to conclude that they need to monitor what we do and think more - sensational crimes tend to go that way with people demanding action and government delivering stupid policies in response.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Quilt

My family likes to make things.  This is an excellent quality to have in a family as it can lead to you having lots of really well made, durable objects in your home that are custom built.  Sure, you can buy stuff in a store, but can you help choose how it will be made and get it exactly right?  No you can not!  Yesterday my brother showed up at my place with a brand new quilt for Wendy and I made by The Quilter.  It is most awesome, what with being full of bright colours and being expertly made.  I am most pleased, yes I am.

Elli approves.

The cat also approves.

This is the backing of it, which is quite nice but not as pretty and colourful as the front.

And now I have an excellent new quilt that I love the look of.  The old one was getting really ratty and the colours were fading to greyish brown so the timing is excellent.

This came with the quilt.  Numerous and amusing details on the construction.  Man, that is a lot of sewing.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Feminism vs. Health: FIGHT!

I found a very interesting article the other day about the messages we send children.  The article was written by a mom who found a list her 7 year old daughter had written.  The list was a bunch of healthy foods to eat and exercises to do and was titled "Diyet"; there were no end of other cute misspellings.  The mom freaked out and went on a tear criticizing our society for telling her very young daughter that she was fat and needed to lose weight.

My take on it is pretty different.  The list wasn't entitled "I am too fat" nor was that implied anywhere.  All that was on it was a list of healthy food and activities like push ups, jumping jacks, and bicycling.  Moreover the words healthy diet are used quite regularly in education and even on TV.  Does a 7 year old who eats healthily and who has a high activity level need to have such a list?  No.  However, teaching kids that they should think about what they eat and try to get lots of exercise is a great idea.  Elli's school has a big book for each kid they use as an organizer and record.  Each of these books is packed with advice on getting exercise and eating healthy food as well as other 'be nice to people' type messages.  This seems to me to be a fine thing as encouraging a healthy lifestyle is a useful thing for schools to do.

There is no denying that unrealistic models of attractiveness are a particular problem our society struggles with.  We are making strides towards basing our valuation of women on who they are rather than how they look but by no means are we there yet.  It is important to do our best to make children, especially female children, understand that being extra thin is *not* necessary.  Obviously the issue isn't limited to women but there is no denying that they are judged more harshly and pressured more on that front.

I have a lot of mixed up feelings on this whole issue.  I generally find runway models to be way too thin for my preferences and I just think "Eat some cake or something..." and though Wendy oftens feels like she would like to be thinner I look at her and think "Do not lose those curves!"  Not like my approach is objectively better of course; saying to women that their breasts are too small is just a different sort of unfair standard than telling them that their thighs are too large.

In the end I think I must side with the health advocates on this one.  Telling children to exercise more and eat healthily is going to send a message that slender and athletic is better and round and soft is worse but I don't think we can avoid that.  Those habits need to be reinforced and as long as we are always careful to emphasize that this is for health rather than beauty we will be doing the best we can.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

At the speed of politics

Today a teacher at Elli's school sent around a notice to parents talking about Health Education, which doesn't really include explicit sex education at Elli's age but does start to touch on those topics.  The notice talked about something fairly interesting:  The curriculum has not been updated since 1998.  Fifteen years isn't enough time to change the fundamentals of sex but it sure is too long for much of what children are taught.  Consider that since that time gay marriage has been legalized and communication, instead of being restricted to letters and phones for most people, now involves twitter, facebook, and email for all.

Technology changes rapidly and is continuing to change ever more quickly as time goes by.  These changes propagate through our social systems with remarkable speed and it is important that we understand how the new ways of doing things affect us and educate our children appropriately.  The trouble is that politics does not move at the speed of technology; politicians and high level bureaucrats usually take huge amounts of time to change things.  Taken together this means that when our curriculum is tightly controlled by a central agency it is going to continue to lag behind society.

Of course Not all of that can be tossed at the doorstep of politicians because when changes are brought in right on the heels of a social shift people complain.  Changing the curriculum to support gay marriage will inevitably end up running afoul of religious fundamentalists who demand that their children not be taught such things.  The point at which a new idea is recognized as a good thing to teach and the point at which criticism of that idea can be easily ignored are too far apart and this means that those who feel they must pander to anachronistic bigotry resist change for quite some time.

To avoid this whole mess requires significantly empowering teachers and stepping away from a centrally designed curriculum.  When individual teachers are given the authority to change what they teach based on what is happening they can respond to new ideas efficiently in a way that a central bureaucracy simply cannot.  It will inevitably lead to a few teachers that teach things badly in their own special way but that is a small price to pay for all the rest of the teachers being able to teach far more effectively because their shackles have been removed.  We do want all children to get a good education but enforcing mediocrity on everyone is not the way to do that.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Feeling a little more strongly about cooking

I used to be really ambivalent about cooking.  All I wanted was a tremendously precise recipe to follow so I could stop paying attention and just do as it said.  It also freed me from actually being responsible for my 'creations' since as long as I follow the recipe perfectly it is not my fault.  Somehow in the past few years I have gotten a lot more possessive about cooking than that.

For Christmas Wendy and I got some 'soup cooking aids' which were essentially a tube of beans/peas/lentils and some spices with instructions on how to turn them into soup.  They look like this:

I started off suspicious at the extremely high cooking times and large list of ingredients I was supposed to provide.  I didn't have everything on hand so I ended up fudging a lot and making things up and the soups ended up sucking.

Damn soup mixes
They suck
I make great soup, and I just wanted to use them up, and I got bad soup
Not my fault
Blame the soup mix!

Kinda weird, playing the blame game with a random pile of soup mixes.  I never got this way before though, so I guess somehow cooking has become something I am defensive about.  It is a big part of my job at the moment so I guess that makes sense but still I never really thought I would get invested in cooking.  Somehow it always seemed like my attitude would forever remain "Meh, I won't die from what I make.  Good 'nuff."

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On making people productive

I just finished reading Drive by Daniel H. Pink.  It talks primarily about how to motivate people and get them doing their best work, primarily in business.  It was a quick read but solidly written and I think both businesses and people would do well to incorporate its lessons into their lives.  The message is that the old way of thinking that you can motivate people to do their best work by simply dangling monetary incentives or threats in front of them simply doesn't work for most jobs.  People digging ditches or making sales calls can be usefully motivated by these sorts of rewards because their jobs are very mechanical in nature but creative work is stifled by it instead.  The idea is that work involving imagination is best attempted with a lot of freedom to choose how to do the work, who to do it with, and what work to do.

I completely buy into the idea and having been in commission based jobs I am intimately familiar with the messes that get created when the wrong incentives are in place.  When it comes to things like making outgoing sales calls there is very little imagination or creativity so you pretty much have to pay by performance... and you can, because you can usefully measure performance day by day.  When doing work like writing however you can't just expect to pay 25 cents a word and get anything at all good out of people. More than that if you tell people exactly what to write, when to write it, and how it must be written you are going to get crap out the other end.  Tell me I have to push out 500 words about coal mining in China between 3 and 5 oclock and you will get your 500 words but tell me to write something awesome as soon as possible and you will get 1000 words and they will be better.

This is very well demonstrated by the constant messes that executives get into when they have huge bonuses associated with specific performance targets.  They shift the entire company around to put up a specific amount of profit for the last day in March instead of working to make the company successful five years from now.  When you have someone in a job with a lot of creativity and flexibility you need them to look at long term goals; your company is not defined entirely by the sales logged in March specifically so why are you trying to make sure that is the only thing the people in charge care about?  Moreover the size of their paychecks simply doesn't get you better people; while some CEOs are better than others you can't actually improve the quality of the person you get once you get past a couple hundred grand a year.  I saw this constantly both in mattress sales and medical sales - doing ridiculous and damaging things to get an order delivered before month end just to hit targets was the norm.

The great thing about unleashing people's potential through autonomy and general goals rather than bonus targets is that not only do you get better results in creative jobs but you also have much happier people.  It isn't just a way for an organization to get more out of workers but also a way for society itself to improve as everyone enjoys their work more.  Admittedly it doesn't do much for those flipping burgers or operating a widget machine but it is a big step forward for everyone else.