Friday, March 30, 2012

Pennies be gone

I have been ranting to people for years about how we need to get rid of the penny.  It is expensive to make (1.5 cents per penny!) and valueless.  It isn't even worth the time to lean over and pick one up off the ground since a normal person makes half a penny a second while working.  Why would we have a common piece of currency that is so worthless that it not be used to buy anything, nor even a significant fraction of anything?

Apparently the Canadian government has come around to agreeing with me and made the decision to get rid of the penny.  They actually did it in a way that is extremely sensible I think because they mostly just going to stop minting pennies and slowly let them trickle out of circulation.  There is a theory that removing the lowest denomination of coin from a currency causes inflation.  Since the penny was the lowest denomination of coin for a very long time I don't particularly buy this argument.  Pennies in 1915 were worth about 21 cents in today's dollars so unless there was a massive, constant inflation problem due to not having a small enough currency unit back then I can't see any significant inflation coming from trashing the penny.

Over time people will have less and less pennies to use and eventually businesses will start charging amounts divisible by 5 cents after tax to avoid needing pennies at all.  Either that or businesses will start rounding off everything to 5 cent increments, either way is fine by me.  One thing that does concern me a little is that the government is apparently relying on businesses to figure this out on their own instead of supplying a guideline for making change.  If the government stipulated that businesses must always round up, round down, or round normally for change then everything would be fine but leaving it wide open means there will be some unnecessary confusion.

The thing that is unfortunate to my mind is that the government hasn't simply gone whole hog and trashed the nickel too.  Getting rid of the 1 cent and 5 cent coins all in one go would still leave us with a smaller unit of currency than was available for much of Canada's history and would reduce further the amount of weighty, nearly worthless metal we all end up carrying around.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I have a schedule that normally keeps me getting to bed at the right time.  It goes something like this:  I sit at my computer playing games until Wendy gets up to go to bed.  Once she does this I play out a couple more turns and then go to have my shower and sleep.  No problem!

The issue comes when Wendy gets addicted to a new game.  This happens a couple times a year or so and every time it does it throws me off because she starts staying up later in "Just one more turn!" mode and I never get my signal to go to bed at a reasonable hour.  I know I have a clock right in front of me, and beside me, and on my wrist, but that simply doesn't get me out of my "Just one more turn!" haze like her wandering away does so I end up staying up way too late.  This past week Wendy has been wrapped up in Mass Effect 1 and we have not been getting enough sleep.

I end up feeling sick and gross, grainy eyed and stupid.  What's more it turns out that acne (in me at least) is linked to sleep very tightly and I break out when I stop sleeping enough.  I can even tell the difference in my face after having a long nap during the day like I did today; afterwards I *look* better.  Doing this sure isn't about lack of knowledge because I know that I feel better and even get more done in the day if I have 9 hours of sleep instead of 8; the additional rest makes me far more productive than the extra hour of awakeness would.

Somehow I need to develop a signal that makes me go to sleep without waiting for Wendy to go to bed first.  I know that clocks and alarms won't do it as I have tried that; when I am home alone I mostly end up staying up far, far too late regardless of my intentions.  Everybody has their weak points, things they cannot resist.  For some it is doughnuts, for some it is shopping, for me it is taking just one more turn.  Seriously, I will go to bed after this turn, for real this time!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Moral Dilemmas and Student Life

I often think of interesting moral dilemmas that might come up.  For example, what would I do if Sthenno called me up and asked me to help him secretly bury a human body somewhere?  I wonder how often people end up going down the wrong path in life because they want to help out a friend or relative and end up way over their heads.  I made small bets with myself over the question "If anybody I know ended up getting me in deep trouble with the law because I tried to help them, who would it be?"  Today I found out who would take me on that first step towards lawlessness:  Wendy.  This morning she got me to steal from a random person we don't know who lives on her path to work and carry the hot goods home.  Here they are:

You might be thinking "Wow, Sky stole a case of wine and drank all eleven bottles this morning? What a beast!"  You might be thinking instead "Sky stole a case of empty wine bottles?  WTF?" in which case you would be right; I stole a case of empty wine bottles from some random person's front lawn.  It reminds me of my time as a student in Waterloo when I was coming home at six in the morning one day and saw a neighbour putting a cruddy but functional chair out for the garbage.  I walked up to him and asked if I could take it and he quite happily gave it to me.  I suspect that living right next to a university with poor students on all sides he didn't find this behaviour strange.  Free garbage chair, yes!

There is, of course, a solid environmental rationale for stealing people's garbage.  It is far better to reuse than to recycle so we can count ourselves as being good citizens for stealing these wine bottles for wine making.  It wasn't so much out of some environmentalist agenda that we stole these bottles though but rather because it let us save money on buying them from the 'make your own wine' outfit for $1 apiece.  Ah, the student life; getting drunk on the cheap.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Santorum and true belief

Rick Santorum continues to amaze me.  The US Republican race has been mind blowing so far but Santorum really takes the cake as being the one who is the most crazy because he really does seem to believe what he says.  I get the abortion thing.  I am pro choice but I completely understand where the pro lifers (the ones who don't murder doctors) are coming from.  The people who are against contraception, on the other hand, totally boggle my mind.  Most people don't get abortions and it is fairly easy to see an awful lot of the population fooling themselves about it because it has never affected them directly; contraception is *everywhere* being used by *everybody*.

Santorum wants to ban contraception.  Unlike his desire to ban pornography, which is crazy but at least probably not dangerous, a ban on contraception would absolutely devastate the US.  Teenage pregnancy rates would skyrocket, legal and illegal abortions would go through the roof and STDs would suddenly become a plague.  Maybe in Santorum's world people who aren't married and wanting children shouldn't have sex but looking at history there is no denying that people who aren't married and wanting children DO have sex, lots of it, and banning contraception would have hilarious and sad consequences like syphilis becoming a household word again.  Even if you don't think that world population is an issue you can't deny the enormous problems that condoms help prevent.

Of course this doesn't matter because nobody thinks that a president can get elected on a ticket of banning contraception.  Santorum is a homophobic religious nut who has managed through the arcane and disastrous politics of an entrenched two party system to get himself a worldwide platform to espouse his madness.  He hasn't, however, got much of an aim to actually win the presidency.  He is following the directives of his invisible angry man in the sky even if they lead him to utterly alienate everyone but the far religious right.  You aren't going to get swing voters (who are, for the most part, using contraception currently!) to vote for banning contraception even if you can get them to sign on for criminalizing pornography.

The argument always comes down to the government controlling sex.  Santorum thinks his contraception policies are fine because people just shouldn't have sex aside from the married heterosexual baby making kind.  And we all know that people won't do things that have potential bad consequences later on, especially when the payoff is an orgasm right now...  right?  Banning contraception is tantamount to banning sex and that just ain't gonna work.  You can tell people you are banning a lot of things for their own good and they will buy it but they are *never* going to vote for a ban on sex.

Which is why I hope desperately that Santorum wins the Republican nomination.  I want to see an election where the Obama's entire campaign is

"My opponent wants to ban sex... Guess I win?"

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advertising works

Watch this ad.  Seriously.

Most ads make me sad or bored.  Some ads make me want to hit people in marketing or venerate them as towers of glorious evil.  Then there are ads that are so awesome I immediately go to the company's website to buy the product.  I don't care if it isn't that great, people who make ads like this deserve my money once and if their product sucks they won't get it a second time.  Unfortunately these folks can't get my money because they only ship to the US.  Learn to ship to Canada fools!  I will buy your stuff.

Also, razors seem like one of the craziest scams ever.  I can't fathom how they can cost as much as they do so the fact that somebody is selling (hopefully?) decent razors for a fraction of the price of drug store ones is encouraging; it means that hopefully the razor companies will be forced to offer products at prices that make sense instead of running a crazy money factory.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rob Ford getting his due

Two years ago I talked about how Toronto had elected a homophobic, racist jackass as mayor on a campaign of "I will slash spending while lowering taxes without any loss in services!"  Unfortunately what we got when we elected Rob Ford is someone who slashed revenue and then tried to close libraries, subsidizied day care spots and pretty much everything else in his bid to cut the budget.  No great surprise but when you slash budgets from libraries there is going to be a loss in services!  Crazy talk, I know.  At the time I was really concerned that Ford was going to make a royal mess of the city because the city councillors were all lining up to back him figuring he was the new darling of the masses.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Ford has managed to turn the city council against him in spectacular fashion.  Since the mayor's office largely holds symbolic power and only one vote he actually can't do much when the rest of council decides to stick together.  He used his power to appoint people to the Toronto Transit Commission board and fire the head of the TTC so council removed his power to appoint people, put new people in place and trashed Ford's idiotic and financially impossible transit plan.  Now they are working together to restart the transit plan Ford unilaterally killed when he came into office and pretty much preventing him from doing anything at all.

This is good news from the perspective that Ford is no longer in charge of Toronto in anything but name but it is bad news in that it makes the voters of Toronto look like a bunch of fools.  We elected a guy on a platform of magic and free ponies and now we get to deal with the aftermath of a split council and a city leader who can't get anything done because no one respects him.  I wonder how many people who voted for him are upset because he promised massive tax cuts with no loss in services to go with it.  If there are any they need to face up to the fact that they fell for a scam hook, line and sinker.  Hopefully when the next election rolls around people will remember how awful things go when you elect someone on impossible promises and disgust and look for somebody with actual leadership qualities.

Dentistry throughout the ages

I recall stories from my parents about how going to the dentist was a really awful experience when they were young.  Their impressions of the dentist were not positive, to say the least.  I never particularly liked going to the dentist when I was young but it wasn't a big deal - I am lucky to never have had an fillings necessary but I find it boring rather than frightening.  Yesterday I had to go to the dentist and Elli's reaction was a bit strange.

"When are we going to the dentist Daddy?"

"I am going to the dentist Elli, you are going to school."

"But that isn't fair!  I want to go to the dentist too!"

Then she threw a fit because she wanted to go to the dentist.  She sees going to the dentist as a fun adventure with treasure at the end (the dentist has a treasure chest for kids).  Quite the change in just three generations from fear to indifference to joy.  I never thought I would get the opportunity to threaten

"Be good or you won't get to go to the dentist!" 

and have it actually work.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wheat and bad science

Awhile ago I talked about a new trend in popular diets:  What elimination.  The idea is that wheat consumption causes all kinds of issues like metabolic syndrome and celiac disease as well as general malaise and lack of energy.  The most notable book in this movement is Wheat Belly, which blames much or most of Western society's health problems on wheat and the negative effects it has on human biology.  So should we all go about eliminating wheat from our diets?  Based on the 'evidence' Wheat Belly has to offer we certainly shouldn't.  The trouble with this book is that it isn't completely fictitious; it blends a lot of truth with some exaggeration and wishful thinking to create a narrative where people are the heroes and wheat is the villain.  Clever, simple narratives are great for stories but no so great for science.

The first sign I had that this was more a scam than real medicine is the use of testimonials.  You can generally be sure that if an argument relies on 'this guy did this thing and then something happened' without any identifying details or error bars that the argument is full of it.  Many pages of the book are devoted to descriptions of individuals who were supposedly very diet conscious and exercised constantly but were obese and who lost weight like magic when they stopped eating wheat.  Even if these are true (and we have no way of knowing) they leave out very important facts.  When these obese people cut out wheat were they only cutting out multigrain bread or were they cutting out starbucks treats, 6 donuts a day at the office, McDonalds burgers, etc.?  Whether or not you think that wheat is a supervillain you have to agree that much of the crap we eat is wheat based and if you just cut out the crap you will get thinner, wheat or no wheat.  Total wheat elimination is generally going to mean eating home cooked meals way more often and losing out on much or most junk food which is itself going to do good things.

The other big issue with Wheat Belly is oversimplification of complex issues.  Throughout the book the author tells us that the government has been telling us all to eat complex carbohydrates to remain healthy and get thin.  If you believe the narrative of the book then you must assume that everything that came out of government sources since the eighties has had only one message:  Eat more wheat.  Of course this is baloney because official Food Guides certainly talked a lot about eating vegetables (yes!), milk (unnecessary), and avoiding excess sugar, salt, and other additives (yes!) in addition to complex carbohydrates.  That message is a little bit too complicated though and doesn't support the story of wheat as supervillain and government as mindless minion so it isn't told.  Keep the message simple and the language emotional and you will convince more people than properly footnoted facts ever will.

The fact of the matter is that wheat is a major ingredient in all kinds of really crappy food substitutes.  Many of us eat way too much wheat as a result and are also unhealthy.  You don't need to cut out wheat entirely to improve your health, just stop eating garbage and substitute spinach instead.  Cutting out wheat will tend to correlate to improved health but correlation =/= causation.  Wheat Belly fails to understand this basic principle in spectacular fashion.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Get Drunk While Wearing Green Day

Normally I have a serious amount of disdain for both drunken student parties and St. Patrick's Day but it has been elevated to new heights.  On this St. Patrick's Day (also known as Get Drunk While Wearing Green Day) students in nearby London, Ontario had a gigantic riot, burning a vehicle and feeding the fire with gas and electronics.

Do you understand what you have done you fools?  Your behaviour managed to make normal St. Patrick's Day frat parties look *good*.  Normally we don't expect much out of those and would count ourselves lucky if all that happens is some breaking of furniture, some puking on sidewalks and an excessive amount of noise but this year we successfully added battles with police and exploding vehicles to the mix.

Most holidays deserve a pretty healthy bit of disdain.  Valentine's Day is nothing but a worldwide guilt trip designed to part people from their money or make them feel bad about being single and Easter has pretty much devolved into a gluttonous celebration of high fructose corn syrup - that is, when we aren't being thankful that one third of the Angry Invisible Man In the Sky was only pretending to be dead.

I think St. Patrick's Day may well be the worst of the lot.  Inspired by a catholic missionary and celebrated by excessive consumption of alcohol; there is little to love.  At least Easter has the tradition of the Easter Egg hunt which is a very pleasant little diversion.

The nail in the coffin

It turns out that neutrinos do not, in fact, travel faster than the speed of light.  Ludicrous internet claims of time travel, the end of causality and other nonsense can be put to rest as a new test has found with quite some certainty that the furor in September over neutrino speed was entirely without merit.  We found out a short while ago that the original CERN test was in error and now a new test has confirmed a new measurement of neutrino speed clocking them at exactly the speed of light.

So science works, huzzah for that.  Now we just need internet memes of 'turns out scientists were right' to travel at the same speed and with the same ferocity as 'Einstein was wrong!!111!!'.  I suppose I am not alone in thinking that this is never going to happen.  I suppose when scientists are right very regularly and wrong every so often people just aren't going to be interested in the boring 'everything going along as normal' news.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Back to backs

This morning I was walking across the kitchen toward the computer when I was suddenly seized by incredible back pain.  I shuffled towards my chair and just stood holding on to the back of the chair for several minutes not feeling like it was feasible to sit down - anything but standing at ~10 degrees off of vertical was simply impossible.  Finally the pain subsided enough for me to sit in my chair and eventually I lay down on the couch for awhile.  Over the course of the day things have improved so that now I just have a stiff back and move around slowly with a bit of sporadic pain here and there.  I have had back pain before, though never anything serious, and this really gives me a new appreciation for why so much unnecessary intervention has been performed on backs over the past few decades.

If my leg hurts I can just avoid using it, same for most other body parts.  Generally with local pain it is possible to soldier on and do things differently but back pain is utterly crippling.  When the pain first arrived I just could not move nor even think particularly clearly and although there is no reason that the pain arrived nor any sign of what caused it I was completely helpless against it.  If this was something that happened regularly I would certainly be desperate to get rid of it and I am sure my doctor would feel the same.  Unfortunately for the great majority of otherwise asymptomatic back pain there generally isn't much anybody can do about it.  Rest sometimes works, normal activity sometimes works, painkillers sometimes work, but we just don't have any magic bullets.

I used to be surprised that people were willing to go through surgery for back pain since it clearly wasn't endangering their lives and recovery from surgery isn't fun, never mind the actual cutting itself!  Most people suffer from back pain at some point or other and everybody wants there to be an understandable reason and a cure.  Unfortunately we relied heavily on scanning people's backs and trying to surgically fix their imperfections without really registering that everybody has back imperfections and they don't especially correlate to pain.  It is easy though to make these sorts of decisions when you are far away from the problem and much harder when you see people paralyzed by their pain who are desperately hoping you can provide a solution.  Here's hoping my little episode is a singular one as I sure don't look forward to having to live with it on a regular basis and I doubt very much there is any relief medical science can offer aside from painkillers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Canadian shame

Canada is set to fail where the US so recently succeeded in spectacular fashion:  Smacking down an attempt by the government to put ridiculous copyright laws in place.  SOPA died due to a massive internet strike and subsequent deluge of calls to legislators in the US but bill C 11 here in Canada looks like it is going to go through, stupidity notwithstanding.  To be fair to my country C 11 isn't as bad as SOPA.  It actually has a bunch of good things in it that modernize and appropriately regulate copyright but it has a gigantic failing point in that it enshrines the digital lock as something that is illegal to circumvent.

If C 11 goes through as written when you buy a DVD with DRM installed on it and then decide to copy it to your hard drive you will be breaking the law.  Despite the fact that you own the DVD and are looking at it by yourself on the exact same screen you have broken the law by circumventing the manufacturer's attempt to lock the material.  Even if you purchase a song on a device that later becomes obsolete or unusable you will be unable to legally transfer it to a working device.  This nonsense is clearly pandering to the music and movie industries who figure that the government should be doing their enforcement for them and should be doing so even against all sense and reason.

The bill will be finalized soon and as expected the copyright lawyers working for industry are circling the government with fistfuls of cash trying to sell punitive and irresponsible additions to the bill.  They would love to have SOPA type laws in it that force people accused of copyright infringement to have their internet access removed; proof is not required and the idea of innocence until guilt is proven is only a suggestion.  If the Conservative government was actually interested in fact based decision making or even just doing things for the common good they could perhaps be relied upon to strike out the offending clauses and make the bill a really good, progressive piece of legislation but we all know that isn't likely to occur.

One hopeful note is that the digital locks portion of the bill may actually end up being unconstitutional.  I am by no means an expert but a lot of people are saying that it is so out of line with the rest of the bill and so unfair that it will likely be struck down by the courts as soon as it comes before them.  The government has no business making laws that punish people for doing things that corporations don't want.  If a corporation wants this to be enforced they can simply get everyone making a purchase to sign a contract and deal with it through civil court like everybody else.  The government has no damn business being the enforcer for unsigned contracts between buyer and supplier.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A strange kind of bravery

Being a pedophile has got to be one of the more brutal burdens a caring person could bear.  Just like with any other sexual orientation (including straight, of course) the sexual attraction to children isn't something people choose.  Even those who see nothing wrong with it morally surely see how difficult and dangerous indulging is likely to be and it must be a thousand times worse for those who know how abhorrent acting on their impulses would be.  You can choose what you do but you sure can't choose what you want to do.  Dan Savage fielded a letter from a pedophile who was determined not to act on his impulses but was very much tormented by them last week and I think it is a really powerful example of how much of a disaster subsumed sexual desires are.

Rick Santorum was pilloried and had his name forever associated with 'the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the product of anal sex' for comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia in 2003.  The thing is, in some ways homosexuality is exactly like bestiality and pedophilia - of course so is heterosexuality!  The difference obviously lies in that people can engage in heterosexual or homosexual behaviour that is consensual, harmless, and joyful while the same cannot be said of bestiality and pedophilia.  The fact that these desires cannot be wished away, nor 'cured' through therapy nor removed in any other way we know of is clearly visible every time a new religious anti gay bigot is found having a drug fueled homosexual tryst.

I am lucky as hell.  I want to have sex with women.  I have a preference for redheads, blue eyes, a curvy shape, and pale skin.  I have the right to marry and have sex with someone who fits those preferences (and the luck to have fallen in love with someone who fulfills most of them) and the rest I can at least indulge through porn if I want to.  Pedophiles have no such freedoms or outlets.  They can never allow themselves to live out their fantasies and even their virtual outlets are banned; rightfully so as clearly child pornography cannot be tolerated.  I don't know how I would behave if my desire for women was considered heinous and unforgivable by society let alone if I considered it so myself and I have a deep respect for those who successfully shoulder that burden their entire lives.

This underlines the fact that we cannot get rid of our sexual desires.  We can only accept that the drives we possess have a tremendous power and that when we prevent people from doing what they want to do we create tremendous suffering.  We have an obligation to allow those with nonstandard desires to act on them whenever they can do so with consenting partner(s).  In the case of desires that cannot be realized morally we should give whatever support we can to the people who have them.  It takes a tremendous amount of bravery and will to live with such a burden and we would do well (and likely have many less cases of abuse) if we were better set up to support people in their trials.

Normal can suck it.  What we need is for people to admit that we are all a bit freaky in one way or another, support each other in dealing morally with our quirks, and acknowledge that for some people it is much harder than others.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Truth ruins my fun

I have lots of memories of highschool that are tied up in the ancient FWCI building.  I remember fighting duels against Koosh in the art room with a meter stick clasped firmly in each hand, imagining myself to be some sort of fantasy hero. I remember arriving at school early and sleeping in the corner of the basement that had a warm water pipe underneath it making the usually frigid concrete floor warm and inviting; I kept an afghan made by my grandma in my locker to wrap myself in.  I have good memories of playing endless games of Risk on the floor during my spares and bad memories of trying to join the basketball team and being a real failure of a basketball player.

The school closed a few years after I moved on and in my mind it sat there, forlorn and empty, its halls no longer echoing with laughter and tears.  When I daydream I sometimes thought about getting myself a pair of bolt cutters from somewhere and sneaking back into the old school to wander around and immerse myself in history and memories both sweet and bitter.  I thought about sitting on the bench near the music room, napping in a few of my old niches and trying to remember which classrooms contained which teachers back in the day.  This reminds me of one of my favourite BNL songs.

Recently an old friend from Thunder Bay visited and told me that FWCI had been turned into condos.  This shouldn't matter to me at all as of course I was never actually going to get myself those bolt cutters and break in; pleasant daydreams are one thing and actual break and enter is another entirely.  Regardless of the unrealistic nature of my dreams they are now tainted, made dark with impossibility.  I can't fool myself into thinking that some day I will return and things will be just the way they once were; I must face the fact that the world has moved on and you can't go home again.

Truth is a fine thing but it sure has a habit of smashing perfectly good fantasies to little bitty pieces.  Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Healthcare Future

Our ability to predict a person's future from their DNA is getting better and better.  There are a lot of really intriguing consequences of this for the way in which our healthcare systems are administered.  As the linked article says I suspect this will herald the end of the American style privately insured healthcare system.  There are two possibilities as far as that goes:

First, that the insurers are allowed to use genetic information when setting policy costs.  If this happens then we will see the 'capitalist ideal' of people paying appropriately for their risk.  This will likely price many people completely out of the health system and will lead to incredible abuses of power as individuals and companies wrestle to taint research results and lab tests in a desperate high stakes bid to arrange premium rates to their advantage.  This seems like an utter disaster that would escalate costs even above their current ruinous levels.

The second possibility is that patients have access to their genetic information but companies will not; this rapidly leads to healthy people opting out of the system as the companies are forced to price for the least healthy people.  Very quickly insurance becomes impossible in this scenario because spreading risk across the whole spectrum is no longer feasible.  Quite simply only the extremely rich would be able to afford insurance against most serious illnesses and ordinary people would be stuck insuring themselves only against things that have no genetic component.

Both of these situations range from disastrous to untenable.  Given that I fully expect that over the next couple decades we will see nearly all advanced countries who aren't already on the universal healthcare program to join up.  In a system fully funded by the government people can safely get their genetic information and use it to try to manage their health without worrying about conflict with insurance companies.  Clearly there is waste and abuse in a fully public health system and people who happen to be healthy whether it be from genetic lottery or lifestyle choice do subsidize those who are unhealthy but the benefits outweigh the cost by far.  Eliminating the excess overhead of private companies and the intense arms race between patients and their insurers is easily a large enough gain to eclipse any additional costs of the public system.

One really troubling trend is that new treatments are becoming so much more costly than before.  As research and new ways of healing people come to rely more and more on extraordinarily expensive equipment I expect we will see that healthcare become gated not by knowledge but by cost.  Every new test that becomes available and every new affliction that we can cure creates additional strain on the system.  Public systems do not have infinite funds and at some point in the near future I think we will see more and more researchers coming up with new cures and tests that work but which will not be funded strictly based on cost limitations.  More knowledge is a wonderful thing but the pace of innovation is going to outstrip our ability to fund everything we discover.  How our governments will deal with that time bomb is a question I have no answers for.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What is the scam?

When companies make me offers I like to play the "What is the scam?" game.  Usually I am not interested in buying but even if I am I make the assumption that the company is trying to screw me over in some way or other; I am rarely wrong in this.  It is a fun game to try to sort out what their angle is.

Yesterday the phone company called me up to offer me a new deal.  Instead of renting a modem from them for $5 a month they wanted me to pay $50 up front for unlimited modem rental forever including all services, replacements, etc.  Since this is Bell I am sure this isn't outright fraud - they will actually let me use the modem forever without paying more.  What is the scam?

I initially thought that that they assumed I was going to cancel my service within the next 10 months.  Unfortunately for that line of thought I have been with them for years and presumably the average customer isn't swapping around *that* often.  I have a better idea now though; I suspect that they are just trying to get the monthly bill down to make it harder on competitors if I do decide to shop around.  Once they have me hooked on a bill at $40 Rogers could steal me away at $35 but if I buy into this modem deal Rogers has to come in at $30 to make it worth my while in the long run.  Presumably a lot of people who swap companies compare their current monthly bill with the best offer of the competition and this manages to lower that bar just a little.

Bell will clearly lose out on some of their customers who keep their service for years and they will win with a few customers who cancel service before 10 months is up.  I guess they figure that they can make up any difference in greater retention given the lower monthly rate.  It is unlikely that they actually have good data on what this does to retention long term though so I suppose somebody up high in management decided to take a big bet and hope to earn their bonus before any long term consequences could come back and bite them in the ass.

The other possibility is that Bell is going to phase out the use of modems due to some technological change in the next few years anyway.  This would let them get some cash right now and avoid losing out long term because modem charges would be a thing of the past.  I have no technical reason to think this is true but it sure would help them hedge their bets.

A big part of me hates that companies spent so much time trying to confuse and bamboozle people out of their money but a small part cheers; playing "What is the Scam?" is a ton of fun.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Punish them

Canada is all set to go back in time.

Back in time, that is, to an era where informed people actually thought that harsh penalties for minor drug crimes and big jails were going to clean up society and make things better.  In this era though we know that the war on drugs has utterly failed to stop drugs from being available and has mostly managed to spend enormous sums of government money and put a lot of young people in prison.  Prison, we should note, is a place that destroys people's lives and turns minor offenders into lifetime criminals.  If the government were considering how to spend 45 grand a year I wouldn't start out with "Destroy one person's life and push them into serious crime."

That said, the new Conservative C10 crime bill is set to pass into law in Canada.  We will see mandatory prison sentences for growing as few a six marijuana plants and lots of people will end up doing long terms in prison where they can look forward to getting out with terrible employment prospects and lots of criminals contacts.  Wonderful.

It is hilarious when people around the world are looking at Canada in confusion.  Ummm, didn't you guys get the memo?  Lots of other countries have tried that tactic over the past few decades and it has clearly just supported violent crime and been a terrible drain on their economies, not to mention not lowering the rate of drug use!  Nonetheless we are pushing ahead with outdated, foolish laws that do nothing to achieve their ostensible goals and make life worse for everyone.

All this so that Stephen Harper can look tough.  He promised to get tough on crime and he is going to look tough no matter the dollar cost, no matter the social cost and no matter how ineffective it is.  We don't need a leader who is tough.  We need a leader who makes effective decisions for improving the lives of everyone living in this country.  Hopefully a few years from now we will get someone like that but for now we are stuck with spending money to create career criminals so that we can prevent people from using harmless recreational drugs.

Missing the best response

A few days ago Republican radio personality Rush Limbaugh got a lot of press for being exceptionally rude on his show.  A law student named Sandra Fluke testified before Congress advocating that the government mandate health insurance covering the contraceptive pill.  Limbaugh went off on her calling her a slut and a prostitute and suggested that asking the government to pay for the pill was tantamount to asking to be paid for sex, hence the prostitute comment.  Obviously Limbaugh is an idiot but I think the responses to the situation by other people were really interesting.

This being the US the situation is split very cleanly across party lines.  The Democrats condemn the remarks, as we would expect, and the Republicans suggest that the words slut and prostitute may have been ill advised but generally Limbaugh's point stands.  The Republican leadership candidates refused to condemn Limbaugh but rather suggested that perhaps they "wouldn't have used those words" and other such vague evasions.  Normally I would assume that Limbaugh would see nothing but benefit from this sort of controversy since it got him a lot of press but it turns out a lot of big sponsors pulled their advertising from his show because they don't want to be associated with someone who so casually hurls serious insults at people testifying before Congress.

Here is the thing that gets me:  Why didn't any of the Republican leadership candidates offer the following statement?

"While I agree that insurance should cover the pill when prescribed for medical necessity (like in the case of ovarian cysts) I don't think it should be mandatory that insurers pay for the pill purely for contraceptive purposes."

I am a pretty hardcore left winger, especially by US standards, and I can't condemn this position.  It isn't *my* position but someone who wants health coverage to cover health issues but wants contraception to be paid by the user is reasonable.  That is the sort of position I can understand.  It manages to not condone promiscuity (which the Republicans are terrified of) but supports taking care of women's health at the same time.  Right now the Republican candidates are all busy in a race to the bottom to alienate every non fundamentalist woman in the country... shouldn't somebody notice the opportunity to collect a chunk of the female vote?  Or say, the votes of men who care about women?

I don't get confused when politicians lie and cheat to get votes.  I do get confused when politicians refuse to take a tack that occupies a nice middle ground without offending half the voters.  I get it that Republican candidates can't say they support contraception in any form if they want the crazies to elect them but I don't get why they don't try to placate the crazies and score up some votes from everybody else when the opportunity presents.  You can see that sort of behaviour here in Canada, where the Conservatives, despite having a big core of fundamentalists, walk a fine line to try to keep religion / homophobia / racism out of their politics.  They have bonkers policies but they do seem to have the ability to get the middle spectrum folks to vote for them, enough to get a majority government anyhow.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I need to remember, not innovate

Lately Wendy and I have been trying to avoid eating sugar.  The trouble with avoiding sugar entirely though is that we both get snacky in the evening and really want something to munch on.  Carrot sticks are fine and all but if we rely on something like that we will eventually end up shoveling chocolate into ourselves at a frantic pace; we need something that doesn't have sugar but is tasty enough to keep us satisfied.  Enter popcorn.

I suspect that commercial popcorn probably has lots of undesirable things in it as convenient foods are wont to do.  As such we bought a big bag of popping corn, added salt and oil and voila, we have a snack that avoids sugar and is delicious.  It takes an awful lot of eating to fill up on popcorn what with it being 95% air but we eventually manage it as the mostly empty pot below illustrates.

The thing that really got me was that the hardest part of managing to not eat sugar but still have treats is remembering the solutions I already had on hand.  I knew about popcorn but it didn't pop into my mind when I initially wanted to have a snack without added sweetener.  It makes me wonder how much the information available in our society today helps us when we need ideas.  We already know so much and so often we just need a reminder rather than a completely new idea.  The internet is remarkable at telling us things that we didn't know before but is it actually good at helping us remember what we already know when we need to know it?

What we really need, I think, is a repository of information that provides simple solutions for everyday problems rather than the endless reams of data (both true and false) that our current sources of information have available.  Whether or not it is possible to improve the quality and utility of data to the extent I dream of is unclear to me; obviously we can put everything online but I don't know that we can organize that information in ways that are optimally useful for us.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Are people really so awful as that?

On the newsstand today I saw a People magazine cover with the following shocking news:  Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are struggling with their upcoming marriage plans.  Angelina is insisting that the dress be black, that there not be wedding cake, and that Brad doesn't get to pick the ring.  Angelina is obviously trying to sabotage the marriage idea because all of this is so very shocking.

I know that cake and white dresses are the norm and all but is it really so unbelievable that a rather eccentric set of celebrities might alter their wedding plans from the norm in such trivial ways?  The thing that gets me is that I trust the editors of People.  If they put this rubbish on their front page it almost certainly is exquisitely tuned to make the masses go wild.  For some reason the readers of People actually think that somebody choosing a nontraditional dress colour or dessert at a wedding is big news.  I won't even touch that apparently the world is shocked at a woman choosing her own ring...

I had cupcakes at my wedding and I would have been perfectly content for Wendy to show up in a snowsuit, naked or anything in between.  It turns out that the first dress she found that she liked happened to be white and we found chose gold rings though, so score those two for normal behaviour.  The idea of being in a froth over a woman wanting to choose her own food and clothing for her wedding just makes me want to weep for humanity.  Even when People runs front pages that are just "Look who has cellulite!" it doesn't disappoint me in the way this cover did.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I am not a big fan of secrets.  I regularly struggle with the conflict between my desire to say everything on my blog and my obligation to not say things that those close to me want to keep secret.  I harbour the conviction that a completely honest and open lifestyle is a great way to make you a happier person; knowing that people accept who you are rather than who you pretend to be grants such freedom and confidence.  This belief often leads me into conflict with people who are extremely attached to privacy, particularly when it comes to the government or corporations acquiring their secrets.  The fact is that I don't mind if corporations or the government know everything about me, I only mind if they abuse the information.  It turns out though that the easiest way to keep people from abusing information is to simply deny that information in many cases so I end up supporting privacy for security's sake rather than privacy's sake.  Unfortunately some secrets must be kept because there is no way to safeguard abuse of the secret once it is out.

Secrets have immense power over the people that protect them.  My view is that you can rob those secrets of their power by exposing them and freeing yourself from the fear of being found out.  The trick is that my secrets do not offend people enough for me to worry about any sort of retribution.  There have been times and places in which I would have been attacked for the truths about me but here and now is not one of those times; I don't know what it would be like to harbour a secret about myself that would be truly dangerous to reveal.  The power that secrets have and people's desperate desire to tell them to someone has never been so obvious as it is at PostSecret.  This is a project where people create postcards with their most intimate secrets written on them and submit them to Frank Warren and his PostSecret project.  He reads them and posts them on his site for all to see.  Some examples:

230 days clean and counting   never fucking again

I can't tell my family the cancer's back.  I'll beat it first.

I'm adopted.  They say "We love you"...  ...But I've always felt like another piece of baggage in the house... just tagging along.

These are powerful secrets to the people involved.  They and the artwork that goes along with them have stories to tell.  The things that absolutely blow me away are confessions like these ones though:

Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead.

I will never be as good at anything as I am at killing people.

Madness.  Clearly somebody could have made this stuff up but I doubt these are fake.  After watching the twin towers fall and knowing that you could easily have been inside wouldn't you think that you could just walk away from your life and leave everyone thinking you died there?  Very few people would want to do that I imagine but a lot of people would see that possibility and wonder. That glimpse into a miserable person's life, that one moment where they decided to leave forever is breathtaking.  I was amazed at how powerful these secrets were and how many people were desperate to tell someone, anyone, their secret.  Read some of the secrets at PostSecret if you have not before - it is an incredible sight.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sometimes the Sun is right, sort of

The Toronto Sun is the local right wing newspaper.  They are big on Christianity, gun ownership, punitive punishments for crimes and lowering taxes.  A familiar tune to be sure and it is no surprise that I find their reporting to be a joke at best, a travesty at worst.  Sometimes, however, the Sun is right.  A little.  Recently in nearby Waterloo a four year old child drew a picture of a person holding a gun.  She identified it as a drawing of her father who uses the gun to fight bad guys and monsters.  Based on this evidence her father was arrested when he came to pick her up at school, strip searched, charged with illegal possession of a firearm and tossed in jail.  Children's services came in and took his children away for questioning.  Surprise, surprise, the police found no gun at his house.  He had done nothing wrong and there wasn't a tiny shred of credible evidence at any point that might have pointed to his guilt.  The Sun has a report on it here.

I must say I agree with the reporter in his reaction to the story initially.  The police searched the home without a warrant and arrested a man with no evidence whatsoever.  This is a complete overreaction by the authorities and reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of children's behaviour.  If a child says "My daddy hits me" and has bruises, you obviously call the police!  When a child draws a picture of a gun and says "My daddy uses this to kill bad guys and monsters" you smile and nod and move on with your day.  People who take care of children have an obligation to look out for the child's best interests and be aware of parental abuse but they must also avoid taking everything that small children say at face value.  They make things up constantly and often have a poor ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

The next step is a doozie.  After noting how ridiculous this situation is the reporter goes on to ask "Are we living in a Communist Dictatorship?  I never ask those things lightly..." and from that point on pretty much went pants-on-head crazy.  Just a heads up for anyone out there who uses Communist as a catch all to mean "bad", Communism is a government type that doesn't work.  Much like Democracy it has been stamped onto various nations while retaining no shred of the original intent of the system.  Communism isn't evil, it is just a government type that works for small communities and not for countries; just like Democracy.  Criticizing the systems that lead to this arrest is certainly reasonable but chucking around the word Communist as a catch all slur just makes you look like a uninformed rabble rouser.  Which, to be fair, is usually what the Sun is all about.

Normally I would be suspicious of this if it had only been reported in the Sun but the Star (the local left wing rag which commands little more of my respect than the Sun does) reported in a similar fashion, managing to leave out the Communist comments and the rant about responsible gun ownership.  The question I ponder is whether or not this was a failure at the micro or macro level.  Is the school actually required to alert the police with such shaky evidence of wrongdoing and are the police required to react the way they did?  Are we looking at a failure of judgement on the part of minor bureaucrats or a disaster of lawmaking and liability?  Given my encounters in the past with rules and laws aimed at preventing exposure to liability under the guise of 'safety' I guess it is a mixture of both.  Probably the laws surrounding this issue are foolish and the people implementing them are too desperate to cover their asses at the same time.