Sunday, May 31, 2015

Books read in May 2015


1. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 
3. This is Improbable Too by Marc Abrahams
4. The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge
5. The Myth of Alzheimer's by Peter J. White house with Daniel George 
6. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman 
7. Gilgamesh (Stephen Mitchell version)


1. Naked in Death
2. Glory in Death 

Teach me about the connotations of Orange County, California in the 1980s

When I was in elementary school (between 1985 and 1991),  this story-teller sort of guy came to our school and told us some stories.  When it came time to tell us the last story, he said we could choose between two: one was about a boy and his pond, and the other was about a big-city thief.  His tone and delivery suggested that the boy and his pond story was idyllic (and, by extension, boring) and the big-city thief story was exciting. My schoolmates overwhelmingly voted for the story about the thief, so he told us that story.

Afterwards, there was Q&A session, and someone asked him if anyone actually asked to hear the story of the boy and his pond, and he replied that it had happened once, in Orange County, California. His tone and delivery suggested that if you knew anything about Orange County, California, you'd understand why this was and perhaps find it humorous.

Of course, as an elementary school student in southern Ontario, I didn't know anything about Orange County, California.  In fact, I still don't.  This memory came back to me in the shower this morning so I've been doing some googling, and I still can't figure out any characteristics of Orange County that would make it clear why students there in the 1980s would prefer to hear a story about a boy and his pond. 

Anyone have any insight?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The international exit sign

I first saw this kind of sign in Frankfurt Airport in 1998.  I had just gotten off long flight and badly had to pee.  In my condition, I thought the sign pointed to the washrooms.  After all, where else would a person possibly want to run to?  I followed the arrows, running nearly as fast as the figure in the sign, and eventually found some washrooms, to my great relief! It wasn't until several days later, when I saw the sign in a context where it was clearly pointing to the exit and not the washrooms, that I realized what it meant.

They recently installed this sign in my apartment building, replacing the red EXIT signs that are more commonly used in North America.

And every time I see it, I feel like I have to pee.

Friday, May 29, 2015


Whistling is hard, at least compared with other ways of producing potentially-musical noise such as humming or singing or just opening your mouth and vocalizing. It takes more skill and experience and precision to produce the intended note than it does with humming or singing.

Whistling is also non-intuitive compared with other ways of producing potentially-musical noise.  When you see a pre-verbal baby vocalizing, you can see how a person might stumble upon humming or singing, but you can't see whistling just happening by accident.

And yet somehow, someone in human history figured out how to whistle.  And thought it was worth the trouble as opposed to humming or singing.  And, somehow, the idea caught on and now it's something that everyone is at least aware of if not capable of doing. (Unless it's cultural?  A quick google for whether there are any cultures that don't have whistling only turns up cultures where whistling plays a key role.)

And not only does whistling persist on a macro level, it also persists on an individual level.  There are people who, when they have a tune in their head that they want to express, opt to whistle it out instead of humming or singing or going "dodo dodo dooo".

I can't fathom why whistling is so normalized or why a person would opt to whistle rather than hum their current earworm, but it is an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The mystery of the Yonge Eglinton haters

The "density creeps" who have been in the news lately remind me of one of the mysteries of Yonge & Eglinton: people who deliberately move here and then complain that the neighbourhood has characteristics that it has had since long before they moved here.

In the density creeps story, that characteristic is density.  from the proposed development site are highrise buildings, which are part of the highrise cluster that was built in the 1970s, 20 years before the density creeps moved here.  There are also four 4-storey apartment buildings that appear architecturally to date back to the 1950s on that one block alone.

In short, the kind of density they decry, along with the attendant impact on property values and population demographics, were well-established in the neighbourhood long before they even arrived.

(Which makes me want to flag a lot of the commentary on this story with #JournalismWanted - many commentators seem to be taking the density creeps at their word that this new development is somehow significantly denser or significantly cheaper than the established neighbourhood, when this allegation could be disproven with a simple google, or by going to the site (conveniently located just 4 blocks north of Eglinton subway station!) and taking a quick look around.)

But the density creeps aren't the only ones I've seen doing this.  Far more frequently than you'd expect, mostly on the internet but sometimes just walking down the street, I hear people who live here and, based on demographics, appear to have moved here recently and to have had a choice in the matter (i.e. they're old enough and employed enough to live independently of their parents, but young enough that they definitely didn't move here before the 21st century) complain about things like density or highrises or chain stores or yuppies - things that have all been here since before the 21st century, and things whose presence you can easily detect by walking down the street.  If you don't like those things, you can see that the neighbourhood isn't for you the moment you emerge from the subway.

The other thing is, this isn't the cheapest neighbourhood.  If you want lower density or lowrises or fewer chain stores or fewer yuppies, there are other neighbourhoods that meet those characteristics and are cheaper to live in. So what are they doing here?

Despite the criticism from some quarters, this isn't the worst neighbourhood in Toronto.  We're generally closer to the top than to the bottom for indicators such as amenities, services, accessibility, quality of schools, quality of housing stock, infrastructure, lower crime rates, etc. 

I wonder if people in neighbourhoods that are worse in all these areas complain as much as the residents of Yonge & Eg, who, by all appearances, could totally choose to live elsewhere?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Various thoughts on various kinds of prejudice depicted in Call the Midwife (full spoilers)

1. In one episode, the expectant parents with the Medical Drama of the Week happen to be a black couple.  It's mentioned in passing that they're from another country, and their accent suggests somewhere in the Caribbean (I'm not familiar enough with Caribbean accents or history to narrow it to a specific country, and further details were not given on-screen.)  The husband is a bus driver, and they live in one of the nicer flats portrayed in the series (clean, well-lit, decorated, not overly cramped).  As I watched this, I appreciated that they managed to portray the real-life diversity of London in a matter-of-fact sort of way that wasn't limited to discrimination plotlines.

In the next episode, there was an Irish family that was living in squalor and destitution because people wouldn't hire them or rent housing to them on the grounds that they were Irish. My first thought was surprise that after people would even consider holding such petty prejudices so soon after WWII.  But then I was even more surprised that in a time and place where English people would discriminate against Irish people for employment and housing, black people could successfully get employment and housing!  It seems like black people would seem more Other to the white English majority.

They did show a black patient facing prejudice in a previous episode (I can't remember if they've shown Irish people not facing prejudice) and before the Irish episode I was able to handwave the fact that this more recent black couple wasn't facing prejudice with the intellectual understanding that showing diversity outside of discrimination plotlines is a good thing, but after the Irish episode, I had more trouble getting past it, feeling like we needed an explanation of why they didn't face discrimination.

2. In one episode, a young man was discovered to be gay when he fell into a police sting operation, where the police had an undercover officer hanging out in a public washroom trying to instigate a tryst. I'm well aware that homophobia was far more rampant in that era, but I'm surprised they'd consider that a good use of police resources!

3. In the same episode, the neighbourhood had their  Rose Queen festival, where tradition dictates that the new Rose Queen is crowned by last year's Rose Queen.  As it happens, last year's Rose Queen is the wife of the young man who was discovered to be gay.  As a result, there was vocal outcry about her participating in the Rose Queen ceremony.

I kind of surprised that the woman who unwittingly married a gay man wasn't seen as a victim.  I kind of surprised that the fact that she was pregnant didn't count in her/their favour.  But more than anything, even given the ignorance and homophobia of the era, I was surprised that someone would get from "Her husband is gay" to "So, naturally, we can't possibly have her fulfill the duties of the outgoing Rose Queen!"  It's so inconsequential, and so irrelevant to her husband, and so ephemeral, I was amazed that the people of Poplar had time in their busy, hardship-filled lives to think about it.

4. After Patsy attends a particularly emotionally devastating birth, she goes to visit Delia for comfort. She lets herself into the nurses' home where Delia lives, goes to Delia's room, and sits on her bed crying while Delia consoles her. After the first wave of sobbing is over, Patsy reassures Delia that she'll be out of there very early in the morning, so "no one will ever know I was here".

It surprises me that anyone in that era and setting would even conclude "Patsy is in Delia's room crying" = "Clearly, they're lesbians!" Patsy used to work in that hospital (and, presumably, used to live in that nurses' home) and, since Delia is her best friend, they've probably spent a lot of time hanging out in each other's rooms, much like the secular midwives at Nonnatus. And, since they're both young nurses, this probably isn't the first time one of them has had an emotionally devastating nursing experience.  If anyone wonders what's going on, they'd simply have to tell them the truth: Patsy just came from a delivery of undiagnosed twins, the first one stillborn and the second still alive, and after struggling to keep a brave face throughout the ordeal for the sake of the patient.  So now she's talking through it with her best friend and fellow nurse, just as they always did about emotionally-difficult cases when they worked together, in a place where they would have frequently hung out when working together.  Given that same-sex relationships weren't seen as "normal" or common in those days, I'm surprised that they think people would arrive at "They must be lesbians!" rather than "Poor Patsy, she had a rough day!"

5. But just a few episodes later, Patsy and Delia decide to get a flat together.  And they don't seem too worried about people finding out about their relationship.  "Lot of girls share flats," they say, "Not even a nun would bat an eyelid."  Again, I found this hard to reconcile with their previous fear of being caught talking in Delia's room together.  If you can't even be seen hanging out in your best friend's room in a way that's been established as perfectly normal among nurses who work together, aren't people going to raise an eyebrow when you start living together in your own flat?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The folly of condemning a boycott

There was recently a story tweeted into my feed about proposed "zero tolerance" for boycotting Israel.

This reminded me of something I've seen in US contexts: when there is a boycott of a business because of its business or labour practices, there are some commentators who say it's unethical to boycott the business in question.

This is ridiculous and unworkable.

I want to make it clear, I don't have a horse in this race.  To the best of my knowledge, none of the products I regularly buy or consider buying are from Israel.  All the cases I've heard of where people are talking about boycotts as though they're unethical have to do with US retailers that aren't available to my Canadian self.  I don't even have an opportunity to make these decisions, so I'm writing here solely as an external observer.  And as an external observer, I just don't see how boycotting could be unethical or something that you could have "zero tolerance" for, because of the very nature of a boycott.

What is a boycott?   It's choosing not to deal with a person or organization because you oppose some action or policy of theirs. (For syntactic simplicity, in this post I'm going to talk about boycott in terms of choosing not to buy from somewhere, but this can extend to all types of boycott.)

 So if boycotting is unethical or punishable, that would mean that, in order to behave ethically or to not be punished, you are required to buy from them.

And that's clearly unworkable.  The vast majority of people don't buy from the vast majority of sources the vast majority of the time.  Sometimes there's a better source, sometimes there's a more affordable source, sometimes there's a more readily available source, sometimes we simply don't need or want or can't afford the product in question.  If you're going to condemn people for not buying from somewhere, you'd have to condemn nearly everyone in the world.  (And on top of that there's the question of people who have bought from there but not recently. How do you tell if they've moved from buying to boycotting or if they just haven't needed to buy anything lately?)

At this point, some of you are thinking I'm oversimplifying things. After all, a boycott isn't simply not buying from somewhere, it's making a concerted choice not to buy because you oppose the source's policies and/or actions.

So let's follow this to its natural conclusion. If the anti-boycott people are okay with consumers simply happening to not buy certain products or services as a result of the natural course of their lives, but are opposed to us making the deliberate, mindful decision not to buy from certain sources to disincentivize them from behaviour we believe to be harmful, that would mean that the moral/legal imperative to buy from the source is triggered by the source's harmful behaviour.  If the source behaved in a way we considered appropriate, we wouldn't want to boycott them and therefore wouldn't be obligated to buy from them.  But as soon as they engage in behaviour we find unacceptable, we're obligated to buy from them in order to avoid engaging in the allegedly immoral/punishable act of boycotting.

Which is, like, the exact opposite of how market forces are supposed to work.  (Noteworthy because, I've noticed, many of the people saying boycotts are unethical seem to value market forces otherwise.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why are manufacturers pushing detergent pods?

I'm signed up for various free sample and coupon sites, and I've noticed recently that they are really pushing detergent pods, for both laundry and dish detergent.  Samples are only ever of detergent pods, never regular liquid or powder detergent, and now I'm finding sometimes you can only get coupons for the pods, not for the regular detergent.

I wonder why they're pushing them so hard?

I have found that, without exception, the detergent pods are far inferior to regular liquid detergent (and to old-fashioned powder detergent.)  They simply don't break up in the machine when used as directed, so you have a half a pod, a few clumps of detergent powder, and a not-fully-clean load of laundry or dishes. 

On top of that, detergent pods seem like they'd be more expensive to manufacture than regular detergent, because you'd have to make the different components and then combine them all into a pod and count out a specific number of pods into each container, whereas with liquid or powder detergent you can just manufacture it in bulk in a giant vat and dispense it into containers.

Even if there is some reason I can't see why some customers might prefer pods, why are manufacturers pushing pods to the exclusion of regular detergents?  What is gained by trying to urge us away from the more effective product that's easier to manufacture?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Stressing about stress

As you've noticed if you've been reading me these past few months, I've been getting stressed about various things that I think are too petty to be getting stressed about.

And, I realized, the very fact that I was getting stressed about these things was stressing me out.  In addition to dealing with or coping with the stressers, I was stressing about the fact that I was dealing with or coping with the stressers less perfectly than I thought I should be.

Because of that, this blog post was originally going to be about the balance of self-care vs. self-improvement. On one hand, maybe I should just take an "it is what it is" approach during high-stress times - deal with what's actionable, care for myself the best I'm able to, get through it, and regroup when life stabilizes.  On the other hand, I'm not going to become a competent and adequate human being if I baby myself instead of treating the areas where I'm not a competent and adequate human being like problems!

Then two things happened:

First, one day, about six weeks after my I got my computer back from the depot drama, I got out of the shower to find my apartment flooded with golden morning sunlight.  I put on my bathrobe, made a cup of coffee, and sat in the sunshine with my hot coffee and my wet hair, being warmed up inside and out.  It was peaceful and delightful in a way I hadn't experienced in quite a while.

Despite the fact that I have my morning coffee in the sunshine every sunny morning.

During one of my computer-less days during the depot drama several weeks previous, I'd been sprawled on the living-room floor in the sunshine reading the newspaper, and yearning for idle aimless internetting.  I thought back to when I was a teen, and sprawling on the floor in the sunshine reading the newspaper was one of my favourite ways to spend a weekend afternoon.  So I started worrying about what happened?  Why wasn't this good enough for me?

But in that contented morning sunshine several weeks later, I realized that the stress of the computer drama (and the stress over the fact that I was stressed by the computer drama) was actually making it impossible for me to enjoy the simple things in life like my morning coffee.  It's like when your Sim's "Tense" moodlet is too strong - you could be drinking coffee and sitting in a beautiful room and listening to music, and none of those things are going to outweigh the tense.  So I hadn't lost my ability to enjoy simple pleasures, I was just at a stress level that was beyond what simple pleasures could achieve.

The second thing that happened was my little breast lump adventure. Even in the shock of getting a telephone call telling me I needed a mammogram (when I didn't know that was a thing that could happen at that point in the diagnostic protocol), I wasn't nearly as stressed as I was with my computer out for repair and no fanfiction to tide me over.  Why on earth was this??  WTF is wrong with my priorities???

After some thought, I came to the realization that I wasn't as stressed during the breast lump incident because I felt like I was allowed to be stressed about it, so I wasn't stressing about being stressed.  I'm allowed to be stressed!  I have to get a mammogram at the age of 34 FFS!  So I just flipped the world the metaphorical bird, had comfort food and wine (for which I got carded - if there hadn't be a dudebro behind me in line, I would have actually called the cashier out on that), and got myself through that night and off to the clinic the next day. I'm not sure if anything else got done that day, but it didn't matter.  I went from thinking my first mammogram would be in 15 years to learning my first mammogram would in fact be in 15 hours, and I had to assimilate that information and deal with the mammogram process and all the attendant what-ifs.  I just got through it, regrouped on the other side, and life proceeded with as little stress as humanly possible under the circumstances.

Reflecting upon this, I realized a similar thing happened after my grandmother passed away.  My employer gave me a certain amount of bereavement leave, so I made the decision to use this time to process the experience however I needed to.  Apart from any duty to my family, I decreed to myself that I wasn't required to do anything specific during those days.  A day spent doing nothing but gaming, drinking, and eating cheese was totally allowed. A day spent in bed watching Eddie Izzard videos was totally allowed.  If I felt the need to do something completely uncharacteristic like take a long walk in the woods, that was totally allowed.  There was no wrong way to use my time.  And because I wasn't worrying about my day-to-day (I was allowed to do whatever I wanted, and if I found myself at a loss the system was still there), I didn't stress, just processed my bereavement as much as one can in six days and then returned to work on Monday.

So from all this, perhaps I can conclude that if I give myself permission to be stressed by the things that are stressing me, they won't stress me as much.

But, on the other hand, I'm very good at justifying self-indulgence. And I don't think you get to be good enough by telling yourself it's okay to not be good enough.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Another reason why early sex ed will lead to less early sex

This post was inspired by, but is not directly related to, this quiz testing how much you know about the new Ontario sex ed curriculum. (I got 9/10.)

Some critics of sex ed criticize teaching students about various sex acts at an age that is generally perceived to be too young to be engaging in those sex acts.

But it occurs to me that if your goal is to prevent young people from having sex, introducing the concepts early would probably help achieve that goal.

I was informed, via age-appropriate educational books, about the existence of various sex acts years before I was ready for them (which was a good thing, since I reached menarche years before I had the slightest even theoretical interest in sex), and every single time my visceral reaction was "Ewww, gross!!!!"  As I evolved in the direction of developing interest in sex, I had to overcome the "Ewww, gross!!!!" before I could develop positive interest.

I also learned of various other sex acts, via the internet, when I was older and ready to have sex.  In these situations, my reaction was either "Hmm, interesting..." or "Meh, not for me."  Even for the sex acts I find more distasteful (which are objectively more distasteful than any of the sex acts I learned about before I was ready for sex) I never reached the same level of visceral revulsion as I did before I was ready to have sex.

So if you want young people to not have sex, telling them about sex when they're young enough to think that it's gross will introduce an additional emotional barrier that will stand between them and their desire to have sex for a certain period of time.

Things They Should Study: do more apartments get too hot or too cold in shoulder seasons?

I was very happy to hear that the City of Toronto is consulting the public about indoor temperature bylaws for rental housing.  I'm miserable for a week or two every May and September because the weather is hot but my landlord is legally required to provide heat (and, therefore, can't have the building's air conditioning turned on.)  So I was all set to write a submission advocating for air conditioning to have precedence over heating during shoulder seasons with warm daytime highs and cool overnight lows.

Whenever air conditioning is available, I set my thermostat to 25 degrees, which is the highest it will go. And the air conditioning switches on nearly every single day.

In cool weather,  I set my thermostat to 20 degrees, which is the lowest it will go. And the heating switches on an average of once per year.  Some years it's one time, some years it's two times, some years it's zero times.  Last winter, it was zero times.

Therefore, I strongly advocate for air conditioning taking precedence over heating in the shoulder seasons.  Even if it gets cold in your apartment overnight, you can just snuggle up under an extra blanket.  Certainly a fair price to pay for being comfortable during the day!

But as I was writing this, occurred to me that this could be studied comprehensively for a wide variety of housing types.  Get residents of buildings of a wide variety of sizes, ages and constructions, with the sample including apartments with exposure in each direction (and corner units).  Have the study participants agree not to use heating or air conditioning during the study period, and to using optimal temperature management practices otherwise (e.g. blinds open to let the sun in if it's cold out, blinds closed to keep the sun out if it's hot out, windows open if you want the indoor temperature to move in the direction of the outdoor temperature, windows closed if you don't, minimize use of electronics and appliances if it's hot, etc.)  Then track the temperature inside the apartments, and have residents record their comfort level.

Perhaps they could come to a definitive, evidence-based conclusion about whether heating or air conditioning should be prioritized.  Perhaps they could come to a definitive, evidence-based conclusion about whether more people and homes get too hot or too cold in the shoulder seasons in the absence of appropriate indoor climate control.  Maybe there are patterns based on type or age of building, and bylaws that take that into account would be more appropriate. 

We already know the current bylaw does not reflect the needs of our current climate and housing stock.  We should take this opportunity to do research and identify what exactly our needs are, and write a bylaw that reflects that.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Things I Don't Understand: non-tossed salads

Sometimes when I buy a salad it's not tossed, it's organized.  All the tomatoes are together in a clump, all the cheese is together in a clump, all the cucumbers are together in a clump, etc.

I don't understand why a restaurant would do this.

The pleasure of a salad is the interaction between the flavour and the texture of the different ingredients.  The crispness of the lettuce, the bite of the tomato, the creamy smoothness of the cheese, the zing of the dressing...this isn't nearly as pleasurable when you end up eating all the cheese in one bite, or get a forkfull of nothing but tomato.

Yes, it's marginally easier not to toss the salad, but tossing a salad isn't terribly difficult when you have a properly-equipped commercial kitchen and are making dozens or even hundreds of salads a day.  In any case, it's certainly easier to toss a large batch of salad in a restaurant kitchen than it is for a customer to toss it at the table with only a fork, or for an office worker getting a takeout lunch to toss that salad in the tightly-packed takeout container at their desk!

Even if you don't like all the ingredients and want to avoid one or two of them, it's far easier to skip the red peppers in a tossed salad than to toss your own salad with only one utensil and no access to a large bowl.

Most places I buy salads from seem to pride themselves in their freshness, quality, and interesting combinations of ingredients.  So why not make the most of that by tossing the salads properly?

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Things They Should Study: does the societal move away from print newspapers affect how informed kids grow up to be?

I've blogged before about how a lot of my basic understanding of medical and political concepts comes from my lifelong habit of reading newspapers, and how my lifelong habit of reading newspapers comes from having them around the house when I was growing up.

This wasn't a result of parenting, it was a result of incidental proximity. My parents didn't try to get me to read newspapers are part of education or child-raising, they just had them sitting on the kitchen table for their own use.  I just started rummaging through them in search of comics, moved on to adjacent features like advice columns and lighter news, and by middle school I was reading the local daily every day.

I wonder how this will play out for future generations as more people move away from print newspapers?

Even if the kids' parents read newspapers electronically, that doesn't leave as much opportunity for casual discovery. If everyone in the household uses their own devices, there's no opportunity whatsoever.  If they have shared devices the possibility exists, but it's still less likely.  When you finally get a turn with the ipad, you're going to use it for gaming or social media as you planned, not to go look at the boring news sites mom and dad look at.  And with the move away from web towards apps, casual discovery is even less necessary because it's seen as a separate app.

Older kids will have the opportunity for casual discovery through social media, but I feel like that's not the same as the casual discovery you get from a newspaper. As I've blogged about before, I find that I read more articles in print that it would never occur to me to click online.  I also find that my social media serves as more of an echo chamber, reiterating and going into greater depth on my own opinions and interests.  Both of them have their function, but I feel like I'd be far more ignorant without the newspaper habit.

Of course, it's quite possible I feel this way because newspapers are my baseline.  It's very easy for me to see ways that non-newspaper people are poorly informed by their lack of newspapers, but it's possible that I'm poorly informed in ways I can't perceived by not being more app-centric or something.

That's why I think it would be interesting to study how (and if) the absence of print newspapers (but with the presence of informed parents) in the house when kids are growing up affects their informedness as adults.