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.