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.