Thursday, February 27, 2014

Breaking through

Today Elli was telling me about a problem she had at school.  Someone in her class was apparently ranting at everyone about how Katy Perry is a bad person because she doesn't believe in God.  Elli was confused and upset by this.  A few years ago she had decided she believed in God (though what she thought that meant was unclear) but now she is a decided atheist.  She was really unhappy that people would call her, Wendy, and I bad people because of our atheism and we spent a while hashing it out together.  I tried very hard not to push any particular viewpoint because I wanted to see where she went with it on her own.

After a little while she concluded that telling people that they are mistaken or incorrect is fine but calling them bad people because of their religious belief or lack thereof was not okay.  It took her a bit to make that distinction but she got there and it made me really proud that she did so.  I have plenty of disdain for religion itself but there are lots of religious people who are good folks and I am glad she feels the same way.  It is important to separate our feelings about a set of ideas from all the people who are associated with those ideas.  There is a correlation between religion and certain types of terrible behaviour but it is not causation.

It made me think back to my younger years and some specific incidents with my parents.  I recalled a few times when I was wrestling with a particularly thorny problem and they sat back and waited even though they could have just stepped in and told me what to do.  I get that a lot better now.  Not only is it a good idea to let children learn to reason in this way - it is also a wonderful part of parenting.  Seeing a small person finally grasp a concept on their own without prompting is definitely one of the highs.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The source

It is certainly true that who says a thing is just as important as what is being said.  I can rant all day about sexual liberty and only those who already read my stuff will care.  If a soft spoken conservative churchgoer made the same argument though a lot of people would sit up and listen.  Recently I found an article talking about some studies that found exactly that; people surveyed based their opinions very strongly on how the writer identified.  In particular people who identified as feminists or environmentalists were given much less credit when talking about their particular areas of interest.

(Of course we should note that these studies were small and conducted on the usual pool of bored undergrads so all the usual problems apply yadda yadda you know the drill.)

This is a real issue with identifying publicly as an activist or supporter of nearly any cause.  It is helpful because it provides visibility and gives others a place to work towards but it tends to makes anything said by that person less impactful to others.  There is something seriously powerful in the action of identifying explicitly with a group that makes others deeply mistrustful.  I am confident that people would have the same sort of reaction to a banker talking about how the government needs to loosen financial control over banks - unless the person already buys into that argument they will dismiss it out of hand.

It makes me wonder about explicitly identifying myself as an environmentalist or a feminist.  My views definitely support those terms and yet I wonder if that doesn't end up causing people to discount what I have to say on those topics.  Essentially it boils down to the question of whether or not that explicit identification helps convince others of our point of view.  Clearly environmentalism and feminism are important but how important is the label?

I don't really feel especially attached to labels personally but this is probably due to privilege.  Both labels that I choose to adopt (gamer, geek) and labels that have been stuck to me (male, straight) just don't particularly feel important to me; this is obviously pretty easy when you can't imagine somebody trying to deny that label and many folks don't have that luxury.  Of course part of it is also just who I am - being fifty feet tall and made of steel (metaphorically speaking, one would assume) really helps when you want to ignore the verbal barbs that might be tossed your way.

Maybe I would feel differently if I conducted my life differently, if I spent more time charging the barricades rather than valiantly trying to slay the trolls.  Could be that doing so makes the label a lot more powerful but I can't say for sure.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Surveil me this

Recently I have seen a lot of people complaining that the increases in information technology we have seen in the past few decades have given the government unprecedented power over its citizens.  They have expressed the concern that as cameras get smaller and cheaper and as processing power increases that everything will fall apart and we will spiral into a 1984 style dystopia.  While I agree that many revelations in recent years such as the NSA scandals in the US and similar issues with CSIS here in Canada are worrying I think the overall trend is for the good.  Violence overall is going consistently down and I feel that technology follows a similar arc.  Not all signs are good but taken as a whole there is much to celebrate.

Consider that these days it is much harder for police to get away with brutality than in previous eras.  Any time the agents of the government decide to violate people's rights they know that nearly anyone nearby can be recording them.  Sometimes they try to remove all of the records and still fail because there are simply too many cameras everywhere.  It will not be long before it is entirely practical to have a miniscule camera recording every moment of our lives and government employees will need to accept that any time they abuse their authority they will end up splashed all over the news within hours.

It has been established that police violence drops precipitously when they have recording devices on them and there is a growing call for this to be the case so even absent civilian action I think we will eventually see police doing it themselves.  The greatest enemy of oppression is a free and informed citizenry who can howl and shout and force those in charge to rein in abuses wherever they are found, and in future those abuses will be found more and more consistently.  Of course recording will not prevent all abuse but it will allow us to cut off the worst abusers and curtail abuse from those on the margins.

Information technology is a weapon and like any weapon it can be used for good or for ill.  Lamenting its existence is pointless; rather we should spend our time and energy on making sure that those in power get as little chance to leverage the power of information as possible.  We should focus not on demonizing technology itself but rather the nefarious uses it can be put to.  Harvesting personal data from all citizens in order to justify spurious warrants or to further political agendas is disastrous, yes, but we don't stop that by smashing cameras or cursing Moore's Law.  We stop it by demanding that our politicians stand for freedom and individual empowerment for citizens and by raising a mighty ruckus when they fail to do so.  Furthermore we should use that very technological power to keep ourselves as safe as we can possibly be and doing so definitely entails leveraging progress to shine a light into all of the darkest corners of the world.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


I have been reading Julia Serano's book Excluded over the past few weeks.  It has taken a long time because the book is like a giant stack of broccoli - good for me, but difficult to consume in a single sitting.  Excluded talks about how feminist and queer movements can be made more inclusive, specifically to trans folks.  I read and reviewed Serano's earlier book Whipping Girl and I feel like the two books are really similar.  Both are heavy on big words and challenging concepts and neither is fun reading because both clearly illuminate so many things that are wrong with the world.

Serano talks about things in a way that meshes very nicely with one of my favourite catchphrases - it is complicated.  Biological determinism is wrong, because we know that men aren't born to wear pants, play football, and use wrenches.  On the other hand gender is not a strictly social construct because we can look at examples of people who were strictly socialized as one gender and yet absolutely knew that they did not fit that way whether because they were trans or subject to infant genital reassignment surgery.  The fact is that gender and the ways in which people discover who they are is complicated.  Acknowledging that explanations are long and difficult and that pat answers are hard to come by is a hallmark of a clear thinker and this book has plenty of acceptance of complexity.

Serano sits pretty close to where I do in a lot of ways because she is remarkably left wing in her politics but is entirely willing to call out people who are extremists no matter which side they are on.  She believes very strongly in everyone having the freedom to do what they want rather than a reactionary movement that ends up oppressing people in a different way than the current regime.  I feel very strongly that the most practical way to improve people's lives is to make small incremental changes to the system rather than declare that everything sucks and it is time to burn it all down in a revolution.  There is a long road to walk to societal change and while building a teleporter to get to the end right now has appeal I advocate instead just taking it a single step at a time.  Sociological teleporters have never worked and don't seem likely to start now.

This is a good book.  It is informative, logical, and true.  It doesn't go down smooth and easy though, and takes effort to consume like most self improvement projects do.  So if have some time and want some metaphorical broccoli I highly recommend Excluded.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sweet revenge

Today I was pushing my shopping cart around the grocery store, mind lost in a haze of numbers, and suddenly the wheel caught and the cart bashed into the shelf.  Glass jars rattled and clanged and I cursed and swore internally.  I looked around, sure that everyone must be watching me.  The customers must be giggling behind their hands, employees glaring, managers getting ready to boot my clumsy ass out.  Hell, the people walking past the store must have been peering in trying to figure out who the clumsy ass was.

I got the cart straightened out and continued my journey and again it randomly veered to one side, barely missing colliding with another shelf.  I furtively looked around, twitching, and noticed that my equipment malfunction went unnoticed.  I picked up my pace, trying to get everything done as fast as possible so as to be bloody done with this disobedient, recalcitrant cart.  I asked myself how such a simple device as a wheel can have such problems with occasional and unpredictable jamming just as the wheel caught again and the cart attempted another rapid an unpredictable spin.

Stepping back half a step I kicked the cart over, knocking vegetables and cereal across the aisle.  I pulled my Glock from my waistband and unleashed a hail of lead at the prone cart, shredding its sides and sending a spray of twisted grey metal scattering across the floor.  Not yet satisfied I dropped the steaming clip to the floor, reloaded and put another ten rounds through the wheels and handlebar.  Staring down with eyes red from rage at my mutilated opponent I smiled.  "How do you like THEM apples?"

I returned to myself and grumbled "Damnable cart, some day, I swear...." and pushed the infernal contraption up to the checkout counter.  I wondered if other people had seen that moment of fanciful fury or if it was over in the blink of an eye.  Some day if I ever get rich I am going back to that store and I will find that awful cart, slam down $200 on the counter and take it outside to show it what happens to machines that cause me such grief and consternation.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Going on patrol

I found a great post the other day about dealing with people's boundaries and their ability to communicate them as well as discussing the necessity for patrolling our own borders.  I think about this a lot and struggle with it on a regular basis.  We all have to deal with this when we are at a friend's house and aren't sure if they want us to leave or not and it often results in people sending subtle signals to each other that are often misinterpreted.  The thing about it is there is a real clash of utopian views of the world.  The most beautiful and least realistic view is that everyone should just be extremely aware of everyone else's needs and satisfy them without any communication necessary.  You see this in relationships all the time "If you really loved me you would *know* why I am mad!" but it is just as much a problem in non romantic situations.

The competing idealistic viewpoint is that everyone should just straight out tell everyone what they feel so that we can all make the best decisions.  This is great in theory but in practice people really do appreciate a person who can figure out what they are thinking without them having to come out and say it.  Moreover there is no denying that even people who really try to explain what they want often end up saying things that weren't meant to be hurtful but are taken that way.  I think this ideal comes a lot closer to being realistic because it doesn't assume we are all psychic but as history can attest it is by no means a recipe for nirvana.

I have an unusual perspective on this both because of my social group and because of the way my brain works.  I hang around with a lot of people who find fitting in to the standard social order completely impossible at least in part because there are a lot of folks who are on the autism spectrum somewhere and find social cues impenetrable.  Many of them are aware that they miss out on subtle hints that most people get and really want everyone to just say what they want because mind reading is so difficult.  I don't find it hard to pick up on cues when I want to but I despise having to toe the line so I find the idea that we will all just magically do what is right absurd.  I have a very strong bias towards straight talk because I lean so heavily towards Thinking over Feeling (from Myers Briggs personality types).

All this leads me to being extraordinarily blunt around a lot of my friends.  I tend to just tell them "Okay, time to go home, everybody out." when it is time for them to leave my place.  I hope and believe that this is a real relief because it means that when I haven't kicked anyone out it means I genuinely want them to stay.  No guesswork required.  Wendy and I operate similarly.  We will ask each other about whether or not we are comfortable with things and we expect each other to be bluntly honest.  I remember our first Valentine's Day together and she told me straight out to buy her nothing for it.  My work mates all told me that meant I absolutely had to buy her something but I figured that if she really expected that level of mindreading then I would be well rid of her and I ignored Valentine's Day entirely.  Thankfully I was right.

This does tend to get me in trouble with the rest of the world though.  I often end up in debates with people and argue my case passionately.  I know that no matter how they argue or what they say it will not upset me as someone challenging my point of view is fun rather than a threat.  Unfortunately many people don't feel the same and I end up arguing them into a corner.  This sometimes ends up with them upset and me confused because my internal dialogue can't fathom why they wouldn't just stop debating if they can't handle it.  I have this expectation that they will say "I don't want to debate this any more" if they want to stop and all the while they are sending subconscious signals that they really want me to just pack it in and accept their argument.

Expecting other people to police the extent of my comfort zone just seems like lunacy to me.  I can't deny the appeal of a link so deep and sensitive that people can seem to be entirely one being.  When that does happen it is a marvel.  We should not get caught up in pursuing that dream though because it is a fickle and ephemeral thing, wondrous to behold but temporary as a rainbow.  For the long haul there is nothing like honesty, blunt and harsh though it may sometimes be.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Modern families

A new milestone in legal recognition of alternative family structures has passed - a new baby in British Columbia was born with three legal parents on her birth certificate.  This isn't the first time more than two parents have ended up on a birth certificate but the others required legal battles and this was just a matter of jumping through administrative hoops.  It is interesting to consider how this may affect the legal status of polyamory and plural marriages in Canada.  Even though this particular case is a lesbian couple and a male friend it appears as though they could have put up to four people down as parents without any special restrictions.  The comments on the linked article are mostly very positive but there are a few folks who are horrified that a child might be raised by anyone other than one man and one woman who are their biological parents.

The bizarre thing about the fear and revulsion that some people seem to have towards this is that alternative family structures are nothing new.  Divorce may be up in the modern age but deaths in the 20-40 age range are way down and children being raised by people who are not their parents is a constant throughout history.  There may have been a brief blip in the middle of the last century where death rates were low and divorces were rare but the nuclear family being ubiquitous is not a constant but rather an historic aberration.  The power in our society rests very strongly with those who were young in the middle of the 1900s and who largely view that as a golden age but that will not last much longer.

We cannot stop people living in non nuclear relationship structures (and I can't see any reason why we would want to even if we could) so our only sensible recourse is to design government in such a way that it supports children as best it can.  That certainly involves legal recognition of the people that will be taking care of a child and not limiting it those people to the two whose genetic material combined to produce the child.  We all know that children end up raised by step parents, friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.  There is no reason to stop people who want to take responsibility for a child from doing so unless they have demonstrated some serious derangement or deficiency prior.

The argument was made to me that this may open the door to poly marriages because people will argue that if they can legally raise a child together they should be allowed to marry.  I certainly don't need any convincing that plural marriages should be legal and recognized but I do not think that people will be willing to accept that reasoning.  Being gay and wanting to have a family has pretty wide spread support but being poly and wanting to be married does not and I think that distinction will prevent that particular line of logic from working.  It is definitely a crack in the wall though and I firmly believe that progress is best made in such ways.  Small incremental improvements gradually change the world.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Spend that money

This weekend I had a bit of a setback in terms of Elli's training on money management.  We went to see Nut Job at the theatre, which was fun, and when we got out I intended to hit the grocery store and go home.  Unfortunately for my plans Elli immediately demanded that we buy a drink from the concession stand.  Not knowing how much drinks cost at the theatre (I just always assume the answer is 'too much') I wandered up to look and choked at the prices.  After I informed Elli that I wasn't going to pay $5 for a drink she then demanded to buy it herself.  Thankfully she has already blown her Christmas money so she lacked the funds.

After this revelation I was treated to a ten minute meltdown demanding popcorn because X's parents bought popcorn and IT ISN'T FAIR.  I even offered to make her fresh popcorn at home as soon as we arrived there but this was met with derision and scorn as only movie theatre popcorn will do.  We managed to make it to the lobby and there we had another blowout because the little trinket machine that wants loonies was taunting her, begging for change in exchange for a brief squirt of feel good hormones and a piece of plastic crap.

Finally we got to the grocery store and the true nature of the problem became evident as Elli shouted "I just want to BUY something!"  I have plenty of sympathy for wanting particular things.  There is nothing wrong with desiring something and buying it when you have the money, particularly when you aren't in the position of having to save up money for necessities.  What truly worries me though is that Elli honestly didn't care what she bought - drink, popcorn, toy, whatever, the only thing that had to happen was money had to be exchanged for goods.  It became almost comical when we went into the dollar store and the following conversation was had:

"Daddy, what is this?  I want to buy it."

"I don't know what it is, but how do you know you want it if you don't even know what it is?"

"I just want it!  What is it?"

"It is a pad to write on."

"I want it!  Can I buy it with my money?!?"


So Elli is now $2.25 poorer and is in possession of a random object she passed by in a dollar store.  I know she is very young yet to have absorbed the lessons I try to impart about saving money and but I can't help but be discouraged.  It is just that raw desperation to buy something, anything, that gets me.  The ability to delay gratification is one of the most important factors in predicting future happiness and I really hope to foster that in my child.  Seven is still young to have real discipline but still I worry.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

One step too far

I generally find myself siding with advocates for oppressed and marginalized groups.  I think it is important that we challenge ourselves to set aside our prejudices and grant everyone the the political and cultural freedom to just be who they are.  On the other hand there are times when I end up being really ticked off at advocacy that goes too far and this is one of those times.  I have been down the rabbit hole of blog links and found a fat advocacy blog post that epitomized advocacy gone to madness.  Essentially what is being said is that if you find yourself never attracted to a particular sort of person you are bigoted against them.  The specific case surrounds never finding fat people attractive but a more general case is certainly implied.

If anyone can't see why this is wrong right up front let us use me as an example.  I have never been attracted to a person I read as male.  Therefore, according to this theory, I am bigoted against males.  Hogwash and foolishness, obviously, and a classic example of people not being able to differentiate between prescriptive and descriptive.  I describe myself as straight because being attracted to a man has never happened to me.  This is extremely different from me saying that I must be straight because it is wrong for a man to be attracted to men; hell, I would much rather be bisexual / omnisexual / pansexual but describing myself as such would be inaccurate based on my history.

This is a tangled knot to sort out since we must carefully distinguish between the reprehensible "It's okay to be X, but I don't want to see it, hear it, or know about it", the unacceptable "Everybody has to be X", and the laudable "It's okay to be X but I am not X".  It is all about your own personal bubble.  You can do whatever you like inside your bubble but you need to respect that everyone else deserves that same freedom inside their bubble.  It is hard to accept that people will do things you don't like especially when those things remind you of past suffering.  Despite that challenge it is absolutely critical that we be clear about this:  No matter your history, no matter your convictions, you get to tell other people how to treat you but you do not get to tell them who they are allowed to be.

Freedom of association (in particular freedom of who you find attractive) is like freedom of speech or freedom of religion.  You may not like that somebody says nasty things, that people have a religion you disapprove of, or that they don't want to have fun naked times with you.  But we all must accept that others having those freedoms secures our own and as such we must not try to take their freedoms away or someday soon someone will come for ours.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Burn the land and boil the sea

Two points.  Firstly, brown is not exactly the best colour but it is necessary for this particular purpose.  Those in the know will understand.  Also, the shirt is probably better when Wendy is wearing it but Elli is quite cute in her shirt/dress from a show she has never seen.  We will fix that in a few years.

For those wanting an explanation for this strange little bit of nerdery - My name is Sky, the show's name is Firefly, and Why did it get cancelled WHY?

Monday, February 3, 2014

A fight over avocados

Standing in the grocery store today I was looking at avocados.  I have a plan to make my internet aggregate guacamole today and for that I need two avocados.  The sign on the box read "Avocados, 3 for $5".  Now I have a problem because no other price is listed on the box anywhere.  Does this mean that the usual price of $1.99 per avocado is in force if I only buy two avocados or can I get them for $1.67 each?  Unfortunately I know that either case could be true.  Sometimes when they put signs like this up it actually means that you get a deal for buying multiples and sometimes it is just a transparent attempt to get customers to buy more even though the price per unit is the same regardless.

I hate this crap.  Ending every price in .99 is irritating as hell but at least when I look at the listing I can determine exactly what the cost of a given item is.  When there is a sign that says 3 for $5 though I never know what exactly I will be paying if I buy two and those kinds of shenanigans enrage me.  I should be able to determine what price I will be paying for an item by reading the damn price listing.  That is why you put prices on the items, to tell people what the item costs.  If people reading it don't know what the items cost you have FAILED at listing prices.

I stood in front of the box of avocados trying to decide if I should make a scene.  I wasn't rushed for time so I was sorely tempted to call over somebody at random and then go up the chain to the manager to berate them for using these sorts of tactics.  After all, if everybody just walks on by refusing to make a scene then they will continue in their evil ways.  The only way I can try to influence this situation is to make add a ton of annoyance and frustration to using these sorts of tactics and hopefully that will tip the scale towards transparent pricing schemes.

Eventually I remembered that when I buy avocados Wendy often ends up fussing at me because I use them all for guacamole and she gets the dubious pleasure of watching her favourite food get carted away to be eaten elsewhere.  To solve this problem I need to purchase another avocado for her to eat, meaning that I need precisely 3 avocados.  While I don't mind the prospect of an argument with little chance of gain I probably don't want to lead off with

"Well, I want three avocados for $5.  But what if I only wanted two avocados?  What then, punk?"

It just lacks something in the panache department.  So I suppose the manager of the local Sobey's can take a deep sigh of relief as they will not need to face down a grumpy me lecturing them about the ethics of pricing.  Not today, anyway.