Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books read in December 2015


1. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
3. The Trouble with Brunch by Shawn Micallef
4. After the War is Over by Jennifer Robson


1. Imitation in Death
2. Remember When

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Things They Should Invent: streetlights with time-sensitive variable brightness

I was walking down a residential side street at about 5:30 pm in the bleakest depths of December, and I found it uncomfortably dark.  The street did have perfectly normal streetlights at perfectly reasonable intervals, but I found myself wishing the lights were significantly brighter.

Of course, the problem with making the lights significantly brighter is that they're right in front of people's houses.  No one wants a giant floodlight just metres from their window in the middle of the night when they're trying to sleep.

But what if they could program the streetlights so they start out brighter in the early evening and get less bright as we transition towards bedtime? We could have a safe, well-lit rush hour even in bleakest midwinter, while still making it possible for people who have a streetlight in front of their house to sleep comfortably at midnight.

In the summer, when it doesn't get dark until 9 pm, the streetlights wouldn't have to start out as bright as they do in the winter, but they could still dim as the hour gets later.  In other words, the streetlights are the same brightness at 9 pm in June and at 9 pm in December, they're just brighter at 5 pm in December (but completely switched off at 5 pm in June because it's still bright and sunny out.)  They wouldn't ever get darker than they are now, they'd just get brighter during hours when no one is anywhere near ready for sleep.

We already have the technology. Dimmer switches have existed for decades (I was originally going to title this "dimmer streetlights" but that would make it sound like I just want the streetlights to be less bright), and programmable dimmers already exist in household products such as the Phillips Wake-Up Light.  If they can deploy this technology on a large scale in streetlights, our streets would be safer and more user-friendly for the vast majority of users.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The real fantasy of Pemberley is the servants

I've fallen down a bit of a Pride and Prejudice rabbit hole lately, exploring fanfictions and historical background information.

While I do enjoy poking around in the Jane Austen universe from time to time, unlike many Pride and Prejudice fans I never found Mr. Darcy particularly dreamy.  He proves to be kind and honourable and madly in love with the protagonist, all of which certainly come in handy, but doesn't have the je ne sais quoi that it would take to make me fantasize my way into Elizabeth's place.

However, in my recent revisitation, I realized the actual fantasy of being mistress of Pemberley isn't having Mr. Darcy for a husband - it's having Mrs. Reynolds for a housekeeper.

Mrs. Reynolds has been serving as Pemberley's housekeeper since back when Mr. Darcy's parents were still alive, and has kept it running smoothly even after his mother died.  This means that Pemberley can run smoothly without a lady of the house, but also knows how to accommodate a lady of the house.  So the position of mistress of Pemberley can be as much of a sinecure as its incumbent wants, and as much of an apprenticeship as she wants.

Being the mistress of a well-run estate is pretty much the most prestigious role in life that someone in Elizabeth's position could reasonably dream of. So imagine you end up in the most prestigious role in life that you can reasonably dream of, and the support team is in place to ensure that you will succeed. Even if you do nothing, the endeavours under your responsibility will succeed and you will get credit for it.  If you want to actually do the work, they can train you up so you can do it independently, and if you want to introduce your own ideas, they know how to adapt to that.

On top of that, the presence of Georgiana means that, despite the absence of a "lady of the house" for many years, the estate is equipped for there being a lady in the house.  They no doubt have a maid who knows how to do hair, an existing business relationship with a local dressmaker, a horse who is accustomed to a sidesaddle rider - all kinds of things that it would be convenient for Elizabeth to have in her home and less convenient to have to acquire from scratch.  On top of that, Georgiana probably knows a little something about being the lady of the house at Pemberley, but, since she isn't out yet, she doesn't officially hold the role (and would never expect to hold it in the long term since she'll likely get married and be mistress of her own household) so she wouldn't feel usurped by Elizabeth.  Mrs. Annesley probably also knows a thing or two about being mistress of a household since she's an upper-class lady and a "Mrs." herself, and part of her role is likely to prepare Georgiana for her future. But, at the same time, Mrs. Annesley is an employee, so she is incentivized to help Elizabeth succeed as well.

Compare this to the situation of Jane and Bingley, who are going to buy an estate of their own and start the Bingley dynasty from scratch.  Neither of them has ever run a large estate before (except for Bingley's time leasing Netherfield, which doesn't entail running the whole thing.)  Probably neither of them has ever hired a whole staff of servants before, and the servants they do hire won't necessarily know how to run the place optimally since no one has run that estate before (or, at least, not for the Bingley family). Caroline Bingley is around and has been mistress of the Bingley household (formally, because she's out), but because of that (and what we know of her character) she's likely to feel usurped, so she's less likely to be a useful resource for Jane.

None of this is hideous hardship, of course, because they are rich, but Jane does have to put in effort and diligence to succeed in her role as Mrs. Bingley, whereas all Elizabeth has to do to succeed as Mrs. Darcy is nothing. As long as she doesn't insist on overruling her experienced household with subpar ideas, she will succeed gloriously.

Friday, December 25, 2015


This post contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Big Bang Theory. If you follow the show but haven't been spoiled for this episode yet, I highly recommend not reading this post.


I got spoiled for last week's Big Bang Theory, so I knew going in that Sheldon and Amy were going to have "coitus", as Sheldon likes to put it.  I had some speculation about this that didn't end up getting blogged because life got in the way, but there was one thing I didn't see coming, and actually didn't realize was even possible: the writers created a situation in which the sex was actually better for both people because one party wasn't actively into it.

Mayim Bialik (who portrays Amy) has blogged about how people keep asking her "Is Sheldon good?"  But the first thing that popped into my head when I got spoiled is "Is Amy good?"

As we know, Sheldon is a finicky person with a tendency towards self-absorption. If he's half as particular about his sex as he is about his meals, it's quite possible that an inexperienced partner like Amy won't be able to meet his expectations first time around - especially if, like nerdy virgins since time immemorial, he's been getting ideas from the shadier parts of internet.  What would that do to the relationship? What would that do to Amy's self-esteem?

I was also contemplating whether the writers would hand-wave this by making them both end up being surprisingly good together. (They're intelligent people, they would have researched, if they used good sources instead of porn and happen to have certain physical compatibilities, it might just work out fine the first time.)  Then I was hoping the writers wouldn't overdo it and make it a joke that awkward nerds might be good at sex.

I was also pondering the situation from the other direction: what if they're not able to have good sex together at the outset, but the show chose to explore that?  Not every couple can always have good sex together the very first time, and the likelihood of it not going perfectly increases it when it's a first time for both. But this isn't something you often see depicted in media or fiction, so it would be an interesting approach to take. Then I was hoping that the writers wouldn't overdo it and make it a joke that awkward nerds have awkward sex, or make it cringingly horrible with Sheldon's finicky nature.

However, the Big Bang Theory writers did something that I didn't know was coming: they had Sheldon come up with the idea of having sex with Amy as her birthday present.

Normally I dislike the dynamic of a sex act being a gift and it's certainly not something I'd want in my own private life.  But, by making it a gift from Sheldon to Amy, they eliminated the problem of Sheldon's finicky nature.  He doesn't actively want sex for himself, so he doesn't have highly specific needs and preferences like he does with seating arrangements and bathroom schedules and take-out food. He's simply interested in making the experience work for Amy - kind of the sexual equivalent to accompanying your partner to a high-school reunion or something (which is quite an emotional/interpersonal milestone for Sheldon!)

The fact that Sheldon (as the person who's less enthusiastic about sex) came up with the idea of having sex on this particular occasion himself, without any pressure or suggestions from Amy or anyone else, goes a long way towards mitigating the any potential distastefulness of the "sex as a gift" dynamic.  It's also somewhat mitigated by the fact that both parties are nervous and tentative beforehand, and that we learn that the experience ultimately exceeded expectations for both of them.

Another fantastic choice by the writers and producers is that the combination of script, editing and choreography gave us no indication of exactly what sex acts they engaged in, or whether they were perfectly successful or it was a trial-and-error kind of situation. This was an excellent choice because it attends to the audience's emotional needs.  Certain people have certain feelings about certain sex acts, including feeling that certain sex acts are degrading or humiliating or other negative emotional baggage. It would probably ruin the heart and sweetness of the scene to see a likely-asexual character engaging in a sex act you consider humiliating or degrading as a birthday gift for his partner. As it stands, all we know it that Sheldon was at peak emotional generosity, both parties were nervous beforehand, and both parties were happy afterwards. And every viewer can fill in the blanks with whatever fits those criteria in their own worldview.

Despite the fact that I still think it would be helpful for sexual novices if the spectrum of media portrayals of sexuality included occasional (and sympathetic) depictions of  unsuccessful first-time sex, I think the writers did right by Sheldon and Amy.  And I hope that the physical part of their relationship can now fade into the background where they can explore it in private, much like the show did when kissing was introduced into their relationship.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015



IF TODAY IS YOUR BIRTHDAY: This year you will greet some positive changes in your life. You’ll need to learn to look at the big picture more often. Your ability to learn comes out as you adapt to new ideas, cultures and perhaps new developments in your chosen field. If you are single, you might connect with someone who is very different from the type of suitor you have chosen in the past. This experience will be a real eye-opener for you. If you are attached, you find that more acceptance and trust builds between the two of you. Your in-laws could play a significant role in your life. GEMINI might wear you down with his or her constant chatter.

Don't aim for the top of the tree, aim for the stars. Your potential is limited only by your imagination and your imagination is limited only by your willingness to dream. What is it you want most from life? Go out and get it over the coming 12 months.

Saturday, December 05, 2015


I've decided to adopt the French usage of Daesh to refer to the organization that recently committed terrorist attacks in Paris.

This article gives a good English-language explanation of why.  In short, they're not actually Islamic and they're not actually a state, so we shouldn't give them an importance they don't have.  Plus, the word "Daesh" (which is an acronym of the group's Arabic name) can mean "a bigot who imposes his view on others" in Arabic, which is appropriate.

I find each of these points sufficiently compelling in and of itself, but, on top of all that, we have the fact that Daesh dislikes being called Daesh but France prefers that usage. Under the circumstances, I think it's especially appropriate to disregard Daesh's preference in favour of France's.

It occurs to me that it would be interesting to extend this principle. What if there was a general rule that the victim of any offence gets to choose the name or terminology used to define and/or address the perpetrator?

This would be optional (so the victim isn't in the situation where now they have to decide on a name for the perpetrator on top of everything else!), and perhaps there would have to be limitations, like the name you give the perpetrator can't be worse than the offence they committed (so you can't insist that everyone address the guy who blocked your car in the driveway as Pedophile) and they get to resume their own name after the consequences of their offence have ended (so if they kill someone the name change is permanent, but if they fixed your shoes wrong and you had to go back and get them redone, the name change only lasts until you get your properly-fixed shoes back.)

Assholes have been known to use names and forms of address to insult, belittle, or otherwise disrespect people (e.g. calling a grownup woman "miss", misgendering transpeople, insisting on addressing people by their birth name even though they changed it, addressing people by their spouse's surname even when they didn't opt to take their spouse's surname.)  So why not use this power against the assholes?

Unless, of course, that would just make us no better than the assholes...

Friday, December 04, 2015

Things They Should Invent: open source all discontinued products

Sometimes, for various reasons, companies decide to discontinue a particular product, because continuing to manufacture it is no longer an optimal business choice.  Perhaps it's not profitable enough to be worth manufacturing any more, perhaps they prefer to focus their business efforts on other things and it's just not worth continuing to put resources into that particular thing.

The problem with this is that the product is no longer available to any consumers who may still want to buy it.  We're completely at the mercy of manufacturers to continue manufacturing the products that work best for us, and we're left in the lurch when they decide to change their business direction for whatever reason.

Solution: whenever a company discontinues a particular product, they should be required to make the source publicly available for free.  The "source" c\would be the recipe for a food product or beauty product, the pattern for an item of clothing, the technical specifications for a piece of technology, etc. - whatever information is needed to reproduce the product.

This kind of information is usually proprietary, because if the source were available anyone could just make the product themselves and the company wouldn't make any money.  Which is a reasonable rule within the framework of a capitalist society.  However, if the company chooses not to make the product available any more (and, therefore, opts out of making money on it), they shouldn't get to hold it hostage and prevent anyone from ever using it again.

If the company's decision to discontinue the product was in fact advisable - because there isn't demand, because their other products are superior, because the revenue generated by the product doesn't make up for the expenditure and trouble of producing and selling it - then it shouldn't make any difference if they release the source.  But if their decision to discontinue the product was inadvisable, the rest of us shouldn't be punished for their inadvisable business decision.

Variation: if a company alters a product rather than discontinuing it, they have to release the source upon request to individual customers who contact them.  So, for example, the pattern for the my old, beloved Victoria's Secret underwear wouldn't be posted online because they still make the product, but I could email them and say "Your new cotton panties don't work for me - they're itchy wedgie machines! Please send me the pattern of the previous style," and they would be required to send me the pattern so I could make them or have them made myself.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Books read in November 2015


1. The Marvels by Brian Selznick
2. Euphoria by Lily King
3. The Fame Thief by Timothy Hallinan
4. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling)


1. Portrait in Death

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The 35% minimum

An article about the Catholic school board introducing a minimum mid-term report card grade of 35% gave me a lot of questions, despite the fact that it's completely irrelevant to me

First, I found myself wondering how common this situation even is!

How many students are actually getting a mark of under 35%?  How many of them are going to be able to pull their mark up to a pass by the end of the semester?  And why 35%, of all numbers?

Also, when I was in school at least, teachers entered the mark for each assignment into a spreadsheet, which weighted them accordingly and calculated the student's overall mark.  The overall mark was not subjective; it was the mathematical result of the mark one each test and assignment.  Because of this, you could figure out how many points you needed to get on an assignment or exam or during the rest of the semester to reach a certain grade.  (During bouts of senioritis, this was also used to calculated where you could slack off.)

So if a student's real total is under 35% but their report card shows 35%, they might use the 35% to calculate how well they need to do in the second semester to pass the whole course.  But if they really have some unknown number less than 35%, they won't get the mark they expect when all the numbers are plugged into the teacher's spreadsheet. Is there some mechanism in place to address this problem?

I'm labelling this post "journalism wanted" because, even though the situation has nothing to do with me, I left the article with way more questions than I went in with.  And if I have all these questions, surely the people affected have even more.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Toilet plungers

I was in a Home Hardware (where I don't shop very often, because it's less convenient than many other stores), and one of the items I was looking for was Draino. (An occupational hazard of having long hair!)  I looked on the shelf with all the other household cleaning products (which is where it always is in supermarkets and drug stores), but couldn't find it.  So I asked an employee, and he took me to the very, very back of the store, where there was an assortment of drain decloggers alongside a wall of toilet plungers.

Which raises the question: why are the toilet plungers at the very, very back of the store?  The items at the very, very back tend to be those that you need the help of expert employees for (i.e. the middle-aged full-timer with half a dozen DIY renovations under their belt, not the teenager stocking the shelves), and toilet plungers don't seem to fall into that category.

So why are they at the very, very back? Walk of shame? Or are they frequently shoplifted by people trying to avoid a walk of shame?

Or are they just trying to make sure people don't think it's a poo shop?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition VIII

I was trying to brainstorm this one a while back, but a simple, elegant solution came to me in the shower.

12.  If you lie to someone about their own thoughts, feelings, motives or experiences, you have to shut up for 24 hours. You are not allowed to talk in the presence of the person to whom you lied about themselves during this time. If the lie was communicated by mass media or another non-verbal medium, you're not allowed to use the medium in question in a way that will enter their sphere of awareness for the next 24 hours.  So if you tweeted the lie, you can't tweet for 24 hours. If you mentioned it in a TV interview, you can't talk on TV for 24 hours.  (So if you're a politician campaigning, be careful when you say "Torontonians want X")

For every subsequent offence, this 24-hour period is doubled (e.g. 48 hours for the second offence, 96 hours for the third offence, etc.)

The person to whom you lied about themselves is has the discretion to permit you to respond to a direct query on a case by case basis, but if you lie to them during this time it counts as a subsequent offence, and the punishment for the subsequent offence is doubled.  Sentences are served consecutively. (e.g. If, during the 24-hour period following your first lie, they give you permission to respond to a direct query and you lie to them about themselves in your response, you have to serve another 96 hours after the first 24 hours expires.)

13. Sometimes, people who say assholic things claim that they're the only one brave enough to express that opinion, when in reality no one else is even thinking those assholic thoughts.

People who do this should be treated like they're too cowardly to do every single thing that it has never occurred to them to do, with whatever the attendant social consequences of not being brave are in their circle.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Paternity and participation

Just a few of the many thing that exist in the world:

1. People who think that a good sense of humour means not holding back when it occurs to you to make a joke, and that uttering every potentially-humorous thing that occurs to you, no matter how worthy or advisable, is laudable.
2. People who think that being present in your children's lives is sufficient to constitute good parenting.
3. People who think it's disgraceful that Kids Today allegedly get trophies for participation.

I've noticed that Category 1 seems to correlate with fatherhood, to the extent that really pathetic jokes that aren't even worth the breath it takes to utter them are called "dad jokes"

I've noticed that Category 2 seems to correlate with fatherhood, to the extent that people think the character of Cliff Huxtable is an exemplar of fatherhood solely on the grounds that he's seen on screen interacting with his children.

And, in my own experience, the majority of people (or, at least, the loudest segment) in Category 3 are men. I don't know how many of them are fathers, but most fathers are men.

So I find myself wondering how many people fall into all three categories, wanting kudos for mere participation in humour and/or fatherhood, but complaining when the same thing is offered to their children.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Help write the next New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition

Last week's Carolyn Hax chat mentions in various places parents scolding adult children with variations on "That's not how I raised you!" (They're scattered throughout the chat - easiest way to find them is by doing a Ctrl+F for "raise".)

This statement does a lot of things.  It disregards the adult child's very selfhood by treating their choices like nothing more than the result of the parent's input rather than being a function of their own personality and decisions and humanity.  But then it turns around and, with tone and delivery blames and scolds the adult child for the input not having been adequate to produce the desired output.

If you point out this logical fallacy by pointing out that, within that framework, it's the parents fault that they didn't get the desired outcome and therefore not something to scold the adult child about, you're accepting the parent's premise that the adult child isn't a human being with their own selfhood and is instead merely the result of the parent's input.  If you point out that when you have a human child the result is an autonomous human being, that simply intensifies whatever they're scolding about in the first place.

It's dehumanizing and based on a logical fallacy that feeds upon itself.  I think it needs a natural consequence but can't think of one at the moment.


The Toronto Star ipad app problem

The Toronto Star recently came out with an ipad app, and they seem to be pushing it pretty hard, perhaps even prioritizing it over everything else.

The problem is that this renders some content inaccessible to people who don't have ipads.

If an ipad user tweets an article from the Star, it provides a link to the ipad version.  If you're reading on a computer, it doesn't autodetect that and direct you to the web version, or provide a link at the bottom to the full version like many mobile websites do. The ipad link doesn't always provide the full text of the article, and (so far, at least) when I've searched the Star website for the headline or the lede, it hasn't turned up anything. 

There have even been one or two times when an article is teased in the print version of the newspaper, and they tell you to go to the ipad version for the full story!

So it seems that there are Toronto Star articles that can't be read in the print newspaper, on a computer, on a non-ipad tablet, or on a non-ipad i-device. They can only be read on an ipad.

Which is not a negligible inconvenience for people who don't need or can't afford ipads!

An ipad costs several hundred dollars. (Currently, the prices in the Apple Store range from $329 to $1429.)  My experience with other Apple products has been that I can only get a few years of use out of them, and I see no indication that this would be any different for ipads.

So the Star is creating a situation where, to get access to all the journalism in your local daily, you need to pay at least $100 a year to another, unaffiliated corporation for a device that you may well have no other need for.

Do the owners of the Toronto Star own Apple stock?

I'm also wondering how this will affect googleability and archivability. Since I can't seem to get at them via web, it seems they aren't googleable. Can you access old articles in the app, or does it give you solely today's content? (I have no idea, because I don't have an ipad.)  Do they turn up in library periodical indices so they'll be available to people doing historical research in the future?  If the Star writes an article about your kid's awesome science project or gives your play a glowing review, is there a way to save the article for posterity? Even after the ipad is obsolete?

Puddle-proofing crosswalks

In the winter, big slushy puddles tend to form in crosswalks, making things difficult for everyone. Pedestrians crossing at the crosswalk have to attempt a grand jeté or ruin their boots, people walking near the intersection get splashed by passing cars, it's just no good at all.

So what if they put the storm sewers actually in the crosswalk, where the water seems to want to be?

If it would cause accessibility issues, they could put the sewer grates at the apex of the corner, where it would be directly in your path if you were trying to cross diagonally but easily avoidable if you're crossing within the crosswalk. 

Another option would be to raise the corner of the road slightly.  Maybe instead of having a cutaway on the sidewalk, they could raise the level of the road and create a ramp within the gutter zone rather than within the sidewalk zone, or maybe they could meet each other halfway.  Then water would have no reason to accumulate right where people are walking. 

Another option would be to have the entire gutters be lower than the road but covered with a grate at road level.  So instead of the water flowing along the road until it reaches a storm sewer (and causing puddles if it reaches an impasse), it flows along below road level, and has a lot more leeway before it causes disruptive puddles.

It's time for a more realistic First World War narrative

A while back I read an article (which I'm kicking myself for not bookmarking!) postulating that the people of Great Britain were so psychologically traumatized, individually and collectively, by waste and horror and pointlessness of the First World War, that society collectively imposed a meaningful narrative upon it. They just couldn't cope with the idea that all this waste had been for nothing, so over the "Never Again" message intended by the creators of Remembrance Day, they superimposed glamorous sepia-toned Dashing Young Heroes, Fighting For Our Freedom.

That explains so much!

But, while I do thoroughly empathize with the need to control your narrative to get through the day, it's getting to be time to retire that narrative.  The last surviving WWI veteran died in 2012, at the age of 110. If there are any WWI survivors left in the world, they're pushing the century mark and, because they were so young at the time, may not even remember the war.  We're either approaching or have already passed the point where there's no one left whose psychological trauma needs to be attended to with this more-meaningful narrative.

The 100th anniversary of the end of WWI is coming up in a few short years.  Think pieces will be written. All we have to do is not include the sepia-toned heroism in the think pieces.  Talk instead about waste and tragedy. Talk about how it didn't even need to be a war, even by the standards by which things sometimes need to be a war.  Talk about how the ignorance of eager young recruits and the short-sightedness of governments led them to charge in, expecting a Jolly Good Adventure, with no idea what they were getting into. Talk about how this all destroyed individuals and families and communities and societies and physically broke Europe and created the conditions that gave rise to nazism.  Maybe even talk some more about how people at the time had to impose a narrative of meaning and purpose to cope with their psychological trauma.

The unfortunate side effect of this imposition of a narrative of meaning on WWI has been that the waste, horror and pointlessness are not as much at the forefront of subsequent generations' minds as they should be. This creates a situation where subsequent generations are just as ignorant as the WWI-era recruits and governments who charged in expecting a Jolly Good Adventure and ended up in hell. And this ignorance may well affect decisions about whether to get involved in future warfare - thinking that WWI had purpose affects our mental ratio of "purpose vs. pointlessness of war", so we might be more likely to see purpose (or assume there must be purpose even though we can't see it) in a potential future war.

By restoring a more accurate narrative of pointlessness and waste, we'll reduce the chance of making the same mistakes in the future, which is the best way to honour all those who were killed or destroyed in or by the First World War.

What if some copies of popular library books didn't have a space on the shelf?

If you follow me on twitter, you know I've been getting irritated with the Toronto Public Library having only ebooks and no print copies of certain titles. I find reading electronically inconvenient, and the app you have to use to read library ebooks extra inconvenient. So far, if a book hasn't been available in print, I just haven't added it to my list.

But I was quite baffled to find that Down the Rabbit Hole, the anthology containing the latest In Death novella, is not available in print at all!  In Death is a long-running series with over 50 titles, and every single title, including the anthologies containing the other novellas, is available from the library in print. But not this one.  Even the next book, Brotherhood in Death, which isn't due to come out until February, is already on order and holdable in print.  There's certainly precedent!

This is especially mysterious since the library has publicly spoken out against unfairly high ebook prices, so you'd think with ebooks being unfairly expensive they buy more print copies and fewer electronic copies.  (Or, since libraries are given a limited number of uses for each copy of an ebook they buy, they'd at least give customers the option of reading on paper if that's what they prefer.)  In the press release, the Chief Librarian is quoted as saying "Ensuring universal access to information in all its forms is key to public libraries’ mandate."  Surely ensuring access to information in all its forms includes in print!

But a comment conversation here made me think that the reason for not getting paper copies of everything might be lack of physical shelf space! Which gave me an idea...

If the problem is in fact shelf space, what if, for books where the library acquires a large number of copies and anticipates many times that number of holds, a certain number of copies aren't assigned a space on a shelf in a branch?  They just circulate throughout the holds system and are sent to the next customer in the holds queue. These kinds of titles rarely make it to a library shelf in the first few months of their life anyway - they're either checked out, on a hold shelf, or in transit.  Perhaps the computer could be programmed to prioritize these "non-shelf" books when allocating which book will respond to the next hold.  This would also increase the likelihood that "shelf" books (i.e. those that are assigned a space on a shelf in a branch) will be found by customers who are browsing the shelves, rather than being off circulating in hold land.

Once the ratio of holds to available copies gets below a certain threshold, the non-shelf books are pulled from circulation and sold, as already happens eventually with a certain number of copies of books with high initial demand.

So what does this achieve?  If not all copies of high-demand, high-circulation books need a space on the shelf, there's more space on the shelf for other books.  So titles that are perhaps less important and have less demand can have just a few spaces on the shelf, thereby making it possible to have a non-zero number of print copies and for customers to enjoy the book in their preferred medium.

For example, the library currently has 138 copies of Devoted in Death, the full-length In Death novel that comes before Down the Rabbit Hole. Currently, there are 45 holds on this title, but almost all the copies are checked out (and those that aren't are on the Best Bets shelf), so if some of the copies of this book were non-shelf, they'd still be doing their job, two months after release date, and probably for at least another month (assuming no new holds).

When Down the Rabbit Hole was first released, there were 80 holds for the 20 available copies, which means it will take 4 lending periods (12 weeks) for everyone to get a chance to read it. Let's use a conservative estimate that 10% of those holds are people who would prefer to read in print but are putting a hold on the only version available. (I suspect it's far more given the hold patterns on previous anthologies, but for the moment let's assume the library has a good sense of where the demand is.)  If the library had just 2 print copies of Down the Rabbit Hole, these hypothetical 8 people who would rather have print copies could also get a chance to read the book in their preferred format within 4 lending periods, thereby providing equitable access in all formats.

If the library designated just two copies of Devoted in Death as non-shelf books, there would still be at least one copy for the shelves of each branch, and there'd also be room on the shelves for two print copies of Down the Rabbit Hole. The non-shelf books would be in full circulation for several months and then could be put straight into the used book sale - where maybe they could even charge a bit extra for them because they're still recent bestsellers.

If this were done on a larger scale, with a small number of non-shelf copies of high-demand titles, then perhaps the library could have one or two print copies of every book, so that everyone could access every title in their preferred format with no negative impact on the availability of high-demand titles.

Good morning!

Here's what I'm doing today and why.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

What if one day they'll accommodate intellectual disabilities like they do physical disabilities?

One of the reasons why I'm so obsessed about pensions is, if my grandmother's trajectory is any indicator, I'm looking at nearly 20 years between when dementia makes it impossible for me to work and when I finally die. 

In the shower this morning, it occurred to me that, with the aging population and declining economic security and employment quality, I'm not going to be the only person in this situation.  And, since the baby boomer generation will pass through this before I do, I'm not even going to be one of the first people in this situation.

What if all these factors align to create a society where dementia (and other intellectual disabilities) are seen as disabilities to be accommodated in the workplace, and the mechanisms for accommodation become common knowledge.

It sounds impossible now, but, (at least to those of us who aren't up on such things) most disabilities sound impossible to accommodate until someone figures out how and people get used to seeing it in action.  (How many of us would have thought of a seizure response dog, or running blades?)

With today's technology, I could continue to work as a translator if I lost my eyesight or if I lost my hands. And society is moving on a trajectory from less accommodation to more accommodation. Maybe one day they'll figure out a way to let me continue to work if I lost my mind.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Things They Should Invent: objective quality and maintenance standards for official residences

With the change of government and arrival of a new Prime Minister, 24 Sussex Drive has been in the news again.  Apparently it's in very poor condition and in need of extensive repairs, renovations and upgrades, but successive Prime Ministers have been reluctant to have the work done because they don't want to be seen spending public money on their residence.

A solution would be to set objective standards both for the quality level that needs to be maintained and the amount that needs to be invested in upgrade and renovating the building.  These standards would be set by people who are experts in building maintenance and heritage preservation, without any involvement by political leaders, so the Prime Minister (or, whenever possible, the National Capital Commission) is just following the rules.

As a starting point, here's a basic framework my shower gave me:

1. Baseline state-of-good-repair standard: This is your basic health, safety, functionality, and "this is the 21st century" standard. If the building doesn't meet this standard, it is to be immediately brought up to standard regardless of the price.  For example, the building needs to be free of asbestos and other poisons, have no leaks or infestations, warmer than 20 degrees in the winter and cooler than 25 degrees in the summer, etc.  Could be based on or inspired by similar existing standards for rental housing, public buildings, etc.  The decision to carry out these repairs is made without the involvement of the Prime Minister or their family, similar to how tenants often get notices from their landlords saying "We will be turning off the water for three hours on Tuesday to repair a leak." The baseline state-of-good-repair standard is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision, to make sure it still reflects modern baseline expectations for housing and public buildings.

2. New resident refurbishment allowance: Every time a new Prime Minister moves in, they are permitted to spend a certain legislated amount of money adapting the house to their family's needs.  One option is that they're allowed to spend up to a certain limit on changes from a list approved by the National Capital Commission.  An option with less political fall-out (inspired by employers who give employees on business trips a per diem rather than having them file expense receipts) is to simply hand over the allowance, have the National Capital Commission provide a list of what changes are and aren't permitted, and the Prime Minister's family can do whatever they need to.  It might actually be more efficient that way by saving on red tape justifying why they need to paint this room yellow or put heavier curtains in that room.  The amount of the new resident refurbishment allowance is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision, to make sure it still reflects the needs of a family moving into a new home.

3. Regularly scheduled renovation/upgrade fund: A set amount of money is available at a set interval for whatever renovations/upgrades the building needs most, beyond state of good repair.  The renovations/upgrades are decided jointly by the National Capital Commission and a representative of the current Prime Minister's household. (The optics would be better if there's a housekeeper or someone like that who is very familiar with how well the building works and fulfills its functions but doesn't benefit personally from any upgrades, but if there isn't any such person any resident would do.)  The amount of this fund is reviewed and updated at a fixed interval, by non-political people who are qualified to make this kind of decision. Depending on the amount and the frequency with which it is used, it may be permissible to bank it for later use, or borrow from the next round, if a major expense should arise.  Not every Prime Minister's household is necessarily involved in using this fund - just whoever happens to be Prime Minister when the time to use the fund rolls around. For example, if the fund is only used in years ending in 3, then Jean Chrétien's household would have used it twice (in 1993 and in 2003), but Paul Martin's household never would have used it.

In addition to these amounts, the Prime Minister's family is permitted to spend their own money as long as the changes they make meet the approval of the National Capital Commission.

Because the quantities and frequencies of investment are legislated (or, at least, set out in some kind of official policy), it wouldn't be the Prime Minister's fault that the money is spent - the rules are just being followed.  (The rules could be written in such a way that it is the National Capital Commission that is required to spend the money, not the Prime Minister's household.)  And this heritage building would be kept in decent conditions and be able to fulfill its official and ceremonial functions without being a source of national embarrassment.

This framework could also be used for other official residences, just replace "Prime Minister" with the dignitary who resides there and "National Capital Commission" with the organization responsible for managing the residence.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Thoughts on rereading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in over 20 years

This post contains spoilers for To Kill a Mockingbird, and refers to comments that I've read about Go Set a Watchman. However, I haven't yet read Go Set a Watchman, so no spoilers for Go Set a Watchman please!

I decided to reread To Kill a Mockingbird in anticipation of Go Set a Watchman (for which I'm still about #200 on the library hold list, so no spoilers please!).  I was no more than 13 years old when I last read it, which may be have been part of the anti-racism unit in Grade 9 English class or may have been part of my personal project in middle school to read classic novels (which my middle-school self defined as "old and famous").  I felt fluently literate at that age and, looking back, my adult self would have told you that my preteen self was fluently literate, but I was surprised to see a number of things that I either missed, lost, or forgot.

For example, I failed to notice that Atticus is also a politician, in that he represents Maycomb County on the state legislature. When I read the book 20 years ago, I think I interpreted "going to the legislature" as just something lawyers do from time to time, not as a whole other career.  That's actually our first clue that there are far more aspects to Atticus than To Kill a Mockingbird lets on.

I also failed to notice that Boo Radley had a father who was alive and present and an active character during the time covered by the book.  I don't remember how I previously interpreted "Mr. Radley" and the cementing of the tree hole.  But I perceived Boo Radley as a scary old man (which a creepy 30-something would have been to my preteen self), so it simply might not have occurred to me that a scary old man could even have a father.

I remembered it as having been explicitly stated as courtroom testimony that Bob Ewell raped Mayella, but it was never stated outright - it was something I read between the lines, and there's little enough stated outright that it's also totally possible he just beat her!

On the flip side, the first time through I failed to perceive that Boo Radley had killed Bob Ewell and Sheriff Tate was covering it up to protect Boo from the scrutiny of a trial. I don't specifically remember how I read it as a kid, but I'm assuming I read it literally - Boo Radley rescued Jem and Scout, and Bob Ewell did in fact fall on his knife because, like, he's a drunken simpleton.

(Interesting that my preteen self could read between the lines for incestuous rape but not for the cover-up of a murder! I think we can blame Paul Bernardo for that - this was during the time when he was loose, so rape was very much on my mind, but it had never once occurred to me that a police officer would cover up a murder.)

Another thing my preteen self wouldn't have noticed: Calpurnia grew up near Finch's Landing. Atticus says at various points that Calpurnia is "like family". With my adult self's knowledge of how the world works, it occurs to me that it's possible Calpurnia is in fact a blood relative.


I haven't read Go Set a Watchman yet, but I did catch some headlines and snippets of reviews, many of which expressed dismay that Atticus was or came across as racist.  Before my reread, I figured this is realistic solely on the grounds that Scout is a small child in To Kill A Mockingbird and small children are less likely to see flaws in their parents than grown adults are.

But upon rereading, I could totally see how Atticus might get there.  There is certainly evidence of segregationist and misogynist attitudes.  They aren't outright malicious, they're more paternalism, which I didn't notice at the time because in my child-self's experience, that was simply how grownup men are.  But from an adult perspective, I can see how that attitude wouldn't stand the test of time. 

However, the thing that struck me the most about Atticus Finch is that he doesn't really want to be Atticus Finch, he just wants people to think he's Atticus Finch.

In other words, Atticus Finch the man doesn't actually want to constantly and truly live and think and do everything that a person would have to live and think and do to be Atticus Finch the masculine ideal who is worthy of being portrayed on screen by Gregory Peck.  But he does want people to look at him and say "There goes Atticus Finch, the masculine ideal who is worthy of being portrayed on screen by Gregory Peck."  The book explicitly states that he doesn't actually want to defend Tom Robinson, he's assigned the case by the person in charge of assigning defence lawyers.

Scout and the portions of Maycombe society who didn't want to see Tom hang and many real-world readers have lauded Atticus for providing Tom with a proper defence. But really all he does is point out that Tom's one arm doesn't work. While that is a crucial point, it occurs to me that a better defence may well be possible (perhaps incorporating a wider variety of evidence?), but our eight-year-old unreliable narrator wasn't able to imagine such a thing.  What if Atticus wasn't actually trying to properly defend Tom, he was just making a point of being seen to defend Tom?

Similarly, at one point Atticus sits outside Tom's jail cell at night to drive off people who are coming to lynch him.  The lynch mob comes, words are exchanged (with the involvement of Jem and Scout, who followed Atticus to see where he went), and the lynch mob leaves.  Then Atticus goes home with his kids.  Leaving Tom unprotected for the rest of the night.  Atticus says that's because the lynch mob isn't going to come back, but what if Atticus wasn't actually trying to protect Tom, he was just making a point of being seen to protect Tom?

Dirty lens: what if this performative aspect extends to his parenting?  What if he doesn't actually want to do the emotional labour involved in being a good father, he just wants to go through enough motions that he can feel "Look at me, I'm a good father!"  He lectures Scout about the need to see the world through other people's eyes, but still speaks derisively of femininity in front of her. (For example, joking that women don't serve on juries because they'd ask too many questions, to his daughter who's in the process of asking him questions.)


Based solely on the Scout we met in To Kill a Mockingbird and without having yet met 26-year-old Scout in Go Set a Watchman, I also think one possible outcome is that Scout may also come across as racist one day.  Maybe not in Go Set a Watchman, but sometime in the future, maybe when she's a senior citizen in the 21st century.  (She'd be in her 80s today.)  She comes from a place where her father was seen as heroic and/or radical for going through the motions of defending Tom Robinson. She comes from a place where it was perfectly reasonable (and, in fact, the polite option) to call people "negroes".  She comes from a place where a perfectly reasonable explanation of why a child doesn't have a lunch to eat is "He's a Cunningham." If she's not exposed to and open-minded to the evolution of society throughout her life, she could totally end up as someone's cringily racist grandmother in her dotage.

Actually, I didn't notice the inappropriateness of the "He's a Cunningham" moment the first time I read this book 20 years ago. The teacher had already expressed disapproval that Scout could read and write, which set me up for feeling that Scout is right and the teacher is wrong.  I don't know if I recognized the situation as "Scout is announcing in front of the whole class that the one boy doesn't have a lunch because he's poor," because of the cognitive dissonance of that happening in a situation a where Scout is right and the teacher is wrong.  I think I read it as "Scout is explaining a cultural nuance that neither the teacher nor I grasp."  (I also might not have recognized "a Cunningham" as a surname, because referring to people as "a [surname]" is completely outside the scope of my experience.)

But rereading that scene and realizing how unreliable our narrator was, I also find myself wondering if perhaps there was something wrong with the way Scout reads and writes, and that's why the teacher wanted Atticus to stop teaching her?  No reading or writing problems are ever explicitly mentioned, but the fact that it's assholic to announce in front of the class that this one boy has no food because his family is poor is never explicitly mentioned either.  (Various people scold Scout for doing so, but people also scold her for reading and wearing overalls and playing outdoors, so the fact that she was scolded didn't make my preteen self automatically thing it was objectively Wrong and Bad.)


Another thing I failed to notice about Scout the first time through is that she learns some social graces over the course of the book.  When Atticus and Calpurnia go to tell Tom's family that he's dead, Scout helps Aunt Alexandra keep their tea party running smoothly, so the ladies in attendance have no idea anything is wrong.  She's also able to be gracious to Boo Radley when he's in their house towards the end of the book, and, reading it as an adult, I think this is more a performance of etiquette than genuinely feeling comfortable with him.  Scout seemed to have learned performative social graces fairly quickly, which sets her up for becoming extremely skilled at them as an adult.

We'll see how many of these thoughts end up being accurate as soon as approximately 200 Torontonians finish reading Go Set a Watchman.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Books read in October 2015


1. Letters to the Midwife: Correspondence with Jennifer Worth, the Author of Call the Midwife
2. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt
3. The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny 


1. Seduction in Death 
2. Reunion in Death 
3. To Kill a Mockingbird 
4. Purity in Death

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Post-election round-up

Campaigning that reached me:

- 1 flyer from each candidate in my mailbox or under my door
- Multiple phone calls from each candidate. The NDP candidate left a message (which I think is a strategic error - many people find voicemails annoying) but the others didn't. I do appreciate the fact that all candidates phone lines that display their names on call display so I could screen accordingly.
- A man in a red t-shirt knocked on my apartment door at once point. I don't know if he was a Liberal canvasser or just a strange man who happened to be wearing a red shirt, because I don't open my door to strangers.
- I saw only one sign in my riding, for the Liberal incumbent, but it was taken down when the house was sold.  I also saw one sign each for the Liberal and NDP candidates in windows of an apartment building in an adjacent riding.  (Yes, even with riding distribution, my neighbourhood is still irritatingly fragmented among multiple ridings.)
- My candidates were really irritating on Twitter.  They kept sniping at each other and subtweeting. I felt like a kid trapped in the back seat of a car while family members argued.

Traditional post-election simulator tests:

Using the percentages available on the Elections Canada site, the simulators produce the following results:

Too Close to Call

Liberal: 138
Conservative: 120
NDP: 71
BQ: 8
Green: 1


Liberal: 131
Conservative: 126
NDP: 78
BQ: 2
Green: 1

(Also, was the Hill+Knowlton simulator really annoying for anyone else this year? It kept jumping around on the page every time I moved a slider.)

Actual results:

Liberal: 184
Conservative: 99
NDP: 44
BQ: 10
Green: 1

As with the last federal election, the prediction and simulation models don't seem able to properly process surges.

Thoughts on the results:

I'm still pondering this surprisingly large shift from NDP to Liberals.  Did a whole bunch of people feel moved to vote for the Liberals or against the NDP?  Was it because the Liberals were campaigning left and the NDP was campaigning right, as happened in the last Ontario election? (Although it seemed to me that this shift wasn't nearly as strong as in the last Ontario election.)  None of these phenomena seemed pronounced enough to cause such a drastic shift.  Or were so many people strategically voting against the Conservatives incorrectly (i.e. by using national polls rather than looking at the situation in their riding) that it actually ended up being correct?

If it's the latter, I certainly hope the new government's statement about this being the last "first past the post" election proves to be correct, because adding the factor of other people who might strategically vote incorrectly to your strategic voting strategy is just too complicated! 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Voters' Resources (Canada 2015 edition)

This post is post-dated. If the date and time indicated for this post have not yet passed, there may be new material below it.

Getting Started

Election Day is October 19!

First, go to the Elections Canada website and type in your postal code to find out if you're registered to vote, your riding, your candidates, and where to vote.

If you have not received your voter information card, you can still vote on election day, you just need to take ID. Note that ID requirements have changed since last election. However, you do not necessarily need photo ID.

Your employer has to give you enough time off to ensure that you have three consecutive hours off during polling hours.


The web design trends of 2015 make it difficult to provide a single link directly to parties' platforms (although they're reasonably easy to navigate to visually), so this time I'm providing links to the parties' official websites.

Bloc Quebecois
Conservative Party
Green Party
Liberal Party
New Democratic Party

To help you figure out which party is best for you:

CBC Vote Compass
Political Compass: compare your results on the test with the Canadian political parties chart
I Side With
Maclean's Policy Face-Off

Not all these tools use the same issues or interpret the platforms or relative positions of the parties exactly the same way. It's useful to take all of them and see where they differ, see where they surprise you, and use that information to focus your research.

Strategy and Predictions

My "How to Vote"
My "Where to Vote"
My "How to Vote Strategically"

Riding-by-riding predictions to help you with strategy:

- The Election Prediction Project
- Hill and Knowlton Election Quarterback (previously called Election Predictor). You need to input poll data into this tool. Poll data is widely available in the media, and in some of the other tools linked here.
- ThreeHundredEight
- Too Close To Call
- Toronto Star election forecaster. For individual riding projections, scroll down to "Riding Projections", then select your province from the Y axis of the chart.

Other interesting sources

- Pundits' Guide
- Election Almanac

This post will be updated through to Election Day as I find more information. Do you know of anything else that should be included here? Are any of the links dead? Let me know in the comments!


I dressed in my usual black and purple election day outfit, but then decided to violate my "no party colours" rule by wearing my late grandmother's birthstone ring.  She was a huge fan of voting (and of dogs), so I thought it would be appropriate to bring her with me.

As in previous years, I planned the longest justifiable route, with some errands along the way, to maximize my opportunity to pet dogs.  (For those of you just tuning in, the more dogs I pet on the way to vote, the better the election outcome.)

But zero dog-petting opportunities presented themselves!  The dogs kept being led away from the sidewalk onto the grass, or across the street from me, or otherwise on trajectories that I couldn't reasonably intercept.  The only interceptable dog I encountered was in the middle of pooing! 

I began to wonder if I'd thrown off equilibrium with the ring, so I went home (perfectly justifiable! I was carrying groceries and there was a line-up outside my polling station!), put the groceries in the fridge, and took off the ring. I'm still not sure if that was the right decision. Then I proceeded to the polling station by a perfectly reasonable route that happens to have high dog potential.

It did have high dog potential, but, again, none of them were interceptable. I saw like 20 dogs in 2 short blocks, and I couldn't reasonably pet any of them. In desperation, I passed a shade too close to a large dog that was part of a family with a crying baby, trailing my fingers a shade lower than natural in the hopes of getting a quick pet in even though they clearly didn't want to stop because they wanted to get home and take care of their baby.  But I misestimated our respective heights and missed.

The line to enter the polling station reached outside, which I've never seen before.  I had a voter's card, so once I was inside I was directed straight to my poll.  There was no one else waiting for that poll, so I was in and out in two minutes.  However, there was a very long line-up for people who didn't have voter's cards.

This means lots of new people are voting.  I hope that's enough to outweight the back lock of zero dog pettings.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What if minimalism is a retail conspiracy?

There's a lot of "minimalism" lifestyle that suggests you should keep only the things you use most often and get rid of the rest.  Lately it's been trendy to call this clothing approach a "capsule wardrobe", and I've heard of similar approaches to kitchens, toiletries, and general household goods.

But I find myself wondering if it's all a conspiracy to get people to ultimately buy more stuff.

If you get rid of something because you haven't used it in years, then you'll need to buy a new one the next time you need something like that.  For example, I keep an dark winter coat that I haven't worn in a decade, just in case I'm ever in a situation where my standard red coat wouldn't be appropriate. I keep warm winter boots that I haven't worn since the 20th century just in case I ever need warm winter boots. If I didn't keep these things and then had to go to a funeral in the winter, or had to walk outdoors in the cold for far longer than usual, I'd have no choice but to go on a frantic shopping trip and buy a new dark coat or warm boots.

You'd have to buy even more stuff if you went minimalist on things you use all the time. For example, when I originally discovered Victoria's Secret cotton panties, I stopped wearing all my other panties because they were nowhere near as perfect.  But I kept them in my underwear drawer.  Then, when Victoria's Secret changed the design, making them uncomfortable and useless, I still had other underwear that fit me and was at least marginally acceptable.  If I hadn't had any other underwear, I would have had to go through a costly, irritating, and time-consuming trial and error process. It isn't always readily apparent that underwear is unsuitable without wearing it for a day, and because I need clean underwear every day I'd have to buy multiples of each potential new underwear rather owning zero clean, hole-free pairs of underwear.  And, because you can't return underwear, I'd just end up spending a whole lot of money on a bunch of useless, uncomfortable underwear, and possibly not even end up with anything better than what I owned before I switched to VS.

I'm sure retailers would love if everyone had to shop like this, but I'd find it irritating.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

New Rules: Natural Consequences Edition VII

11. If Driver A honks at Driver B in a situation where moving would cause Driver B to crash into something or someone, Driver A (and their vehicle and their property) instantly sustain the cumulative total of whatever damage would have been sustained by Driver B and innocent bystanders (and any other vehicles or property) if Driver B had moved in the way Driver A wished.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Things They Should Study: how does the gig economy affect productivity?

In economics, they often talk about productivity, most often bemoaning the fact that it isn't high enough.

I wonder if anyone has studied the effect of the gig economy on productivity? Because it seems like it would have a strong negative impact.

For example, a freelance translator has to not only translate, but also handle marketing, advertising, billing, online presence, inquiries from prospective clients, and all the administrative aspects of running a business of which I'm unaware. In comparison, a staff translator spends nearly all their time translating, and their employer's administrative staff deal with most of the rest of that stuff.  So it's easier for the staff translator to be more productive.

I'd imagine the same would hold in most occupations.  And, on top of that, the shorter the gig is, the less productive it is.  If industry standard is six-month contracts and then they transition to three-month contracts, workers have to spend time looking for work (rather than doing work) twice as often, and employers have to spend time hiring twice as often.  More and more person-hours are being spent on the non-productive tasks associated with connecting people with work rather than simply spending the time on work.

I wonder if anyone has yet studied this enough to quantify it?

Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Vote Strategically

This post is part of my Voters' Resources post.

Some people vote for the party whose platform they find most suitable (the Best Party). If that's what you're trying to do, this post isn't for you. Go vote for the Best Party.

Other people try to prevent the party whose platform they find most harmful (the Worst Party) from being elected, by voting for the party that's most likely to defeat the Worst Party (the Compromise Party). This is called strategic voting.

The most important thing about strategic voting is that your strategy has to apply to the reality in your riding. The media feeds us national polls for breakfast every day, but they're not directly relevant. Regardless of what the rest of the country is doing, your vote will only be used to elect the MP for your own riding. If your riding is already disinclined to elect the Worst Party, there's no point in a strategic vote - you'd just end up making the Compromise Party look more popular than they really are.

So here's what to do if your priority is stopping the Worst Party from winning:

1. Ask yourself: "If I don't vote, who's going to win in this particular riding?"

If the answer is a party other than the Worst Party, vote for the Best Party. If the answer is "the Worst Party" or "it's too close to tell," go on to step 2.

2. Ask yourself: "If I don't vote, who's most likely to defeat the Worst Party in this particular riding?"

This is your Compromise Party. Read their platform. If it's acceptable, vote for the Compromise Party. If it's not acceptable, vote for the Best Party.

Remember: ignore the national polls; think only about the situation in your riding!

So now you're thinking:

"But how do I figure out what's going to happen in my riding?"

There are a number of resources to help you do this. Check them all out and see what they say about your riding.

- The Election Prediction Project
- Hill and Knowlton Election Quarterback (previously called Election Predictor). You need to input poll data into this tool. Poll data is widely available in the media, and in some of the other tools linked here.
- ThreeHundredEight
- How did your neighbourhood vote? (If you're voting strategically, you still have to look at the whole riding rather than the individual polls, but this is still interesting)
- Too Close To Call
- Toronto Star election forecaster. For individual riding projections, scroll down to "Riding Projections", then select your province from the Y axis of the chart.

Prediction sites update constantly, and I will be updating this list as I find more prediction sites, so check back again closer to election day.  Know of any sites I missed? Share a link in the comments!

Friday, October 09, 2015


I recently saw a video of my 1-year-old baby cousin running up and down a small grassy hill in her local park.

It's quite evident from this video that going up and down a hill is an acquired skill.  She's very clearly working on mastering the balance and motor skills involved, and still learning the effects of gravity and momentum.  Sometimes she stops and seems overwhelmed. Sometimes she has to put her hands down, or sit down and scoot on her bum for a bit. Sometimes she has to stop and move perpendicular to the slope of the hill.  Sometimes momentum overtakes her and she falls flat on her poor little face, giggling all the while.

Watching this, I remembered that sometimes when I was a kid, walking up or, especially, down a big hill seemed far more dramatic than it does now. It felt somehow risky, as though there was a good chance that I might fall. But seeing the situation through the eyes of my baby cousin, I now realize I felt that way because my hill-climbing skills weren't as developed as they are now.

This gave me an interesting idea: what if, at some place and time in human history when people moved around far less than they do now, there was someone who had never climbed a hill?  Perhaps they grew up in the kind of place where you can watch your dog run away for three days, and simply never had cause to stray far from home.  Surely this must have happened to someone, somewhere, within the full range of human experience.

And what if someone who had never climbed a hill then had to travel far away from home and encountered a hill for the first time when they were well into adulthood?  They'd be all "OMG, what's that?  That's unnatural! The gods must be angry!"

And then when they tried to climb the hill, they'd probably get it wrong for the first few times.  Their brain wouldn't know how to bend their legs and shift the balance of their bodies, at least not perfectly.  They'd probably fall down.  It might even look impossible to them, like walking straight up a vertical cliff face looks impossible to us.  They might be standing at the top of what looks to us like a perfectly innocuous hill, getting a wave of vertigo if they look down, going "Are you sure this is safe?"

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Compromises from this week's Ethicist

When I read this week's Ethicist, I kept coming up with ideas for compromises.

My husband’s sister died recently, after a short, unhappy life. In her will, she asked that her ashes be scattered in the ocean near a place she lived during one of the brief happy times of her adult life. Instead, my mother-in-law interred the ashes in a family plot near her home, saying that she needed a focal point for her grief. I realize that life is for the living, and none of us believe that my sister-in-law is watching the proceedings from on high. But I nevertheless feel viscerally appalled by this cavalier contravention of her last wishes. Am I right to be upset? Do we have ethical obligations to the dead? NAME WITHHELD
I wonder if a reasonable compromise if a survivor wants to keep ashes but the deceased wanted them scattered would be for the survivor to keep them for the time being and to provide in their will for the disposition of the ashes in accordance with the deceased's wishes.  Interring them wouldn't be appropriate, but what if the mother kept them in an urn on the mantelpiece for the rest of her life, and then stated in her own will that they were to be scattered in the ocean per her daugther's wishes?

I am a librarian at a large public university. Our library administrators, following a current fad, plan to radically ‘‘downsize’’ the library collection (i.e. throw out a lot of books). Essentially, anything in the general collection that hasn’t been checked out in the past few years is going straight to the trash-hauling bin. I believe that this poorly planned weeding project will do serious damage to a very valuable public resource and that if local researchers knew the scope of devastation underway, they would have strong objections. I have been outspoken enough about my opinion to be in hot water with said administrators. Do I have an ethical responsibility to persist in whistle-blowing? How much personal trouble am I ethically obliged to cause for myself in order to oppose an administrative decision that I believe is not just damaging to our organizational mission but stupid and wrong? NAME WITHHELD
What if, before throwing out the books, they attempted to give them away?  Inform the university community and any other networks of local researchers, and let them salvage whatever they want before it goes straight to the dumpster.  That's not to say that doing this would completely mitigate any detrimental impact, but, from a purely pragmatic perspective, LW's employers may well be more receptive to "Here's a zero-cost way to improve the optics of our plan while better fulfilling our mandate!" than they would be to "No, your plan is bad and wrong! Don't do it!"

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Where to Vote

This post is part of my Voters' Resources post.

Some people (such as university students renting housing in the community where they go to school or have a summer job who also still have their parents' house as their "permanent address") are in a situation where they could legitimately vote in one of two possible ridings.  This post is intended to help them decide where to vote.

Note that voter ID requirements have changed since the last federal election. Current ID requirements can be found here.)

Where to Vote:

1. If one of the ridings is a really close race, vote in that riding. If both are close, vote in the riding with the closest race. If neither is really close, follow the instructions below.

2. Of the parties running candidates in your riding, decide which one has the best platform that comes closest to meeting your needs and your vision for the province (hereafter the Best Party). Then decide which one has the worst platform that is furthest from meeting your needs and deviates the most from your vision for the province (hereafter the Worst Party). You are judging the parties as a whole, not the individual candidates in your riding. Assess each party individually without regard to possible strategic voting - that comes later.

3. Based on your own needs and your own vision for the province, decide whether it is more important to you that the Best Party win, or that the Worst Party does not win.

4. If it's more important to you that the Best Party win, vote for the Best Party in the riding where the Best Party is least likely to win.

5. If it's more important to you that the Worst Party not win, and the Worst Party has a chance in either of your ridings, vote for the party most likely to defeat the Worst Party in the riding where the Worst Party is most likely to win.

6. If the Worst Party doesn't have a chance in either of your ridings, vote for the Best Party in the riding where the Best Party is least likely to win.

Tools to help you figure out which party is most likely to win in your ridings can be found in the How to Vote Strategically post.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Things They Should Invent: user manuals for new homes

For most of the first-time homeowners I know, their first major expense was the result of being unaware of a kind of preventive maintenance that was required.

Solution: whenever a builder builds a new home, they should provide a manual listing all the preventive maintenance that's necessary, how often it needs to be done, and how, exactly, to do it.

 At this point, people usually point me at the Tarion checklists, but they're close to useless if you're a newbie.  For example, the first item in the fall checklist is "check exterior finishes".  What exactly is an exterior finish?  How do you check it? Do you just look at it, or is some kind of testing procedure required?  What exactly are you testing it for?  And if you find a problem, how do you go about fixing it?  (Also, what's the timeline like to fix it?  Do you have to fix it right away or can you wait a day/week/month?)  And is this even something that applies to my condo, or is just it for house people?

I want detail, in writing and with useful illustrations.  As an example, simplified from reality (and therefore possibly not perfectly accurate):
HVAC filter

There's a filter on your HVAC system that needs to be changed once a year to keep your HVAC system running smoothly.

1. The HVAC filter can be found inside this access panel. [illustration]
2. Open the panel by pulling on the left side, as shown. [illustration]
3. The filter is below the access panel. If you look down, you can see the top edge of the filter. Remove it by pulling it upwards, as shown. [illustration]
4. If the filter is visibly dirty, replace it. Replacement filters can be purchased from [source] under part number [number].
5. Insert the new filter by sliding it back down into the bottom of the access panel, in the direction shown [illustration].
Builders should provide instructions at this level of simplicity and clarity for every single kind of maintenance for which homeowners are responsible.  This would significantly reduce the expense and inconvenience of unnecessary emergency repairs, thereby making homeowners feel better about their builder.

Since many of the elements in the maintenance manual will be identical for every home built, and since builders tend to construct homes en masse (either with highrise condos or new subdivisions), the cost per home would be negligible and could easily be passed on to buyers without them even noticing. And since builders likely reuse elements in different projects (for example, my builder has multiple highrise projects in progress as we speak, each with multiple hundreds of units, so I doubt they're going to use a completely different HVAC in each) they could spread out the cost even further.

At this point, some people are probably thinking "But once you get used to being a homeowner, you don't need a manual. You know how things work! That's a lot of effort for something that's just needed by beginners!" 
But think about how many things do come with manuals. Microwaves and phones and TVs and office chairs and alarm clocks and wrinkle cream and frying pans all come with instructions.  So why doesn't the biggest purchase we ever make, which affects every aspect of our life every single day?

If it turns out the manual contains information that's new to you, it's a lifesaver!  And if it doesn't, you just tuck it away in a drawer somewhere like you do with the manual for your coffeemaker or your ceiling fan, and maybe when it comes time to sell your home, the next owner will think it's a lifesaver.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Books read in September 2015


1. The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother and Me by Cathie Borrie
2. Muse by Jonathan Galassi
3. Little Elvises by Timothy Hallinan
4. Serving Victoria: Live in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
5. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
6. Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson
7. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton


1. Conspiracy in Death
2. Loyalty in Death
3. Witness in Death
4. Thankless in Death
5. Judgment in Death
6. Betrayal in Death
7. Interlude in Death

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to Vote

This post is part of my Voters' Resources post.

1. Of the parties running candidates in your riding, decide which one has the best platform that comes closest to meeting your needs and your vision of Canada (hereinafter the Best Party). Then decide which one has the worst platform that is furthest from meeting your needs and deviates the most from your vision of Canada (hereinafter the Worst Party). You are judging the parties as a whole, not the individual candidates in your riding. Assess each party individually without regard to possible strategic voting - that comes later.

2. Based on your own needs and your own vision for Canada, decide whether it is more important to you that the Best Party win, or that the Worst Party does not win.

3. If it is more important to you that the Best Party wins, vote for the Best Party. If not, continue to the next step.

4. If it is more important to you that the Worst Party does not win, assess the Worst Party's chances of winning in your riding. Not in the country as a whole, just in your riding. If you feel that there's too great a risk of the Worst Party winning in your riding, vote for the party most likely to defeat the Worst Party. If you feel the risk of the Worst Party winning in your riding is acceptably low, vote for the Best Party.

Remember: do NOT use national polls to inform any strategic voting you might choose to do. Your vote is only effective in your riding. No matter how earnestly you vote, you cannot cancel out votes in another riding. Vote strategically only if the situation in your very own riding demands it, regardless of what the rest of the country is doing.

Links to party platforms will be provided in the upcoming Voter's Resources post. Further information on how to assess parties' chances in your riding and other aspects of effective strategic voting are provided in the How To Vote Strategically post.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Things They Should Invent: reconcile Vote Compass and Political Compass

When I took the Vote Compass quiz, I was surprised to see that the relative positions of the Green Party, Liberal Party and NDP were different from their relative positions on Political Compass.

I want to make it clear: I'm not complaining that one of the axes is inverted (although it is) or that the scales are different (although they are).  I'm saying that the positions of the parties relative to each other are different on the two tools.

On Vote Compass, the Green Party was the furthest left economically.  In other words, if you drew a line of best fit through the plot of all the parties, their order, from left to right, would be Green, NDP, Liberal and Conservative

On Political Compass, NDP was furthest left economically.  In other words, if you drew a line of best fit through the plot of all the parties, their order, from left to right, would be NDP, Green, Liberal and Conservative.

They can't both be right. Someone, somewhere, must be missing something.  And it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an ordinary voter to figure out who might be missing what.

I'd love to see the Vote Compass people and the Political Compass people get together, discuss their interpretations of the platforms, and arrive at a consensus about the relative positions of the parties.

Both tools are trying to achieve the same thing - trying to give voters objective information about which parties best align with their own political views. They could better achieve this, and appear more objective and more credible, by pooling their respective expertise and arriving at a consensus.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The first jokes

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side!
That was the first joke I ever learned, when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old.  Before I learned that joke, I had never even heard of the concept of a joke. While googling to learn about its age and origin, I was surprised to discover that it is in fact an anti-joke. Expectations at the time were that the answer would be a humorous punchline, not a simple, practical statement of cause and effect.

But, just like "to get to the other side" was once novel and revolutionary, the basic riddle/joke format of asking a person a question to which you expect an answer so you can give a humorous answer instead was also once new and revolutionary.  Someone, somewhere in history, was the very first person to do it.  And someone was the very first person to think of it!  They not only wrote the joke (and it must have been a good joke for the format to persist), they also thought of the whole format.

I wonder how that very first joke went?  Since it was unprecedented, the person being told the joke probably gave a serious answer to the question, having no way of knowing that anything else might be expected.  Did they get the joke?  Did they think it was funny?  They might not have since it was so unprecedented (and they might feel a bit perplexed or made a fool of because they thought they were being asked for actual information and acted accordingly), but enough people thought it was funny that it stuck.

Q: Knock knock!
A: Who's there?
Q: Boo!
A: Boo who?
Q: Don't cry, it's only a joke!

That was the first knock-knock joke I remember ever being told, also when I was around 3 or 4 years old (probably the same day I learned about the chicken - I have fuzzy memories of a revelatory day when I learned all about jokes), and I didn't get it because I didn't know that "boo hoo" was meant to be onomatopoeia for crying.

Knock-knock jokes also require precedent to function, since they require audience participation. I don't remember being explicitly taught the script, but I must have either been taught it or seen it repeated on TV.

But someone thought of the knock-knock joke, and taught someone else the script so it would function (or, like, wrote it into a play or something).  And, somehow, it stuck!

Someone made the first pun.  Someone was the first to use sarcasm. (And, possibly, someone else was the first person to use it successfully.) Someone was the first to fake farting on the grounds that they thought it was funny.  Someone thought of and carried out the first practical joke.  (It may even have been one of our primate ancestors - I'm sure at some point a monkey has slipped on a banana peel!)  And all of these stuck, and got perpetuated.

What's even more interesting is that an unknowable number of other types of jokes that we've never heard of must have been thought of and attempted throughout human history, but they didn't stick because they weren't funny enough.

And this is still going on!  It's quite possible that right this minute, somewhere in the world, someone is thinking of and attempting an all new type of joke that no one has ever thought of before, only to fail utterly.

It's also quite possible that right this minute, somewhere in the world, someone is thinking of and attempting an all new type of joke that no one has ever thought of before, and it will succeed and spread!  Memes (in the sense of pictures with words on them that circulate on the internet) were developed within my adult life.  Those videos where people caption a Hitler movie to reflect current events started after YouTube was invented, so that's within the last 10 years (and quite possibly much more recently).  Someone might, this very minute, be inventing the next knock-knock joke, which, decades or centuries from now, will be retold by a preschooler who has just learned of the very concept of jokes.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Things They Should Invent: different heating/air-conditioning by-laws for different kinds of buildings

My apartment retains heat.  It holds onto the heat generated by appliances and electronics and me, and heats up as the morning sun shines through the windows.  In the summer, temperature gets warm enough for the thermostat to turn on the air conditioning turns every single day when there's morning sun (and many days when there isn't).

However, because it retains heat so well, in the winter the temperature gets cool enough for the thermostat to turn on the heating an average of one day per year.  Last year it was zero days.  And it only gets that cool if we have the confluence of two sunless mornings plus strong easterly wind plus I don't use the stove during those days.

Because of this, I feel quite strongly that air conditioning is far more important than heating, and would like residential tenancy by-laws to be rewritten so that they don't prioritize heat over air conditioning.

However, not everyone feels this way.  Quite often when I mention it on the internet, someone complains most vehemently that heating is clearly far more important than air conditioning! People would freeze to death if they had to be in a building with no heat, they argue.  I've never been in such a building myself, but they must exist to lead people to feel that way.  If everyone was warm, it wouldn't occur to them that could could be a problem

I previously blogged that they should study whether heat or cold is a problem for more buildings.  But now that I think about it some more, that's actually a red herring.

What they should really do is give buildings a rating for how likely it is to get too warm vs. too cold, and have different by-laws for buildings with different ratings.  Ratings would be determined by an inspection of the building in the summer and in the winter, or some other similarly reliable method. Repeat inspections may be required every X years if buildings evolve or deteriorate enough to justify this.

It could be a simple system with only two ratings ("air conditioning priority building" vs. "heat priority building"), or three ratings ("air conditioning priority building" vs. "heat priority building" vs. "neutral building"), or there could be a more nuanced scale where buildings are given a rating between 1-5 or 1-100 or whatever makes sense.

Using an extremely simple example, suppose buildings are rated "air conditioning priority" or "heat priority", and suppose they continue to use the current calendar-based by-law system rather than switching to a temperature-based system as some recommend.  Heat priority buildings would continue with the current system where the landlord is required to provide heat between September 15 and June 1.  But in air conditioning priority buildings, the landlord would only be required to provide heat between, say, November 1 and April 1.  Or, perhaps, the landlord would be explicitly required to provide air conditioning between May 1 and September 15 (with no explicit requirement of heat, as an analogue to the current lack of explicit requirement of air conditioning).

Basically, the by-laws should be flexible enough to take into account the fact that different buildings of different construction may require different courses of action to provide a comfortable home for tenants.  A one size fits all rule won't work in a city that ranges from Victorian detached houses to glass highrises.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Parental influence is terrifyingly persistent

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I asked my mother why the word "university" has the word "universe" in it.  She told me that it's related to the word "universal", meaning "for everyone".  (Which is fairly accurate, according to the OED entry. There are more nuances, but it's a perfectly reasonable explanation if your audience is a small child.)

So I thought about this, and about what I knew about universities.  I'd been on a university campus before, and I knew there were a wide range of people there.  There were old people with beards and white hair, people like my father who worked there, grownups who were younger than my parents walking around in crowds and sometimes doing silly things, and kids like me who took swimming lessons and gymnastics classes on campus. When my parents talked about their time as university students, they mentioned having classmates and professors from all kinds of different places all around the world. And my parents themselves sometimes took continuing education classes at the university.

In short, all kinds of different people from all kinds of different places of all kinds of different ages doing all kinds of different things.  My mother's explanation seemed accurate: universities are for everyone.

What's interesting is the lifelong impact that this little conversation had on my thinking.

Once upon a time, a friend of mine had to kill some time between appointments and was trying to figure out what to do. She was near a university campus, so I suggested that she go on campus and find a coffee shop or a library or a quiet corner with a seat and some wifi.  She was reluctant to do that because she was older than the typical university student and felt like she'd be out of place. But I was completely baffled that anyone could ever feel this way - universities are for everyone!

In my own university classes, we had our fair share of mature students.  I didn't think to question it, because universities are for everyone. I later heard some classmates talk about being weirded out by the presence of older students, and I was shocked into speechlessness that anyone would feel that way. How is it not glaringly obvious that universities are for everyone?

And even now, as an adult who is older than the "older" students whose presence weirded out my undergrad classmates, even knowing that there are undergrad students who feel that way, I wouldn't hesitate to go back to school if I should ever find myself in a situation where it's the correct decision for me.  Because I know, intrinsically and instinctively, that university is for everyone.

I'm quite certain my mother wasn't intentionally trying to instill in me a sense of comfort and belonging at institutions of higher education.  I wouldn't even be surprised if she didn't actually know that the word "university" was in fact derived from the word "universal", and was just saying something that sounded plausible to get me to shut up because that was the 4738th question I'd asked her that day.

But, nevertheless, I internalized this passing remark to the extent that my brain doesn't even question it, even though I know full well that it's just a passing remark that I unduly internalized and that many people in the world believe it to be untrue.

Isn't that terrifying?