Friday, July 31, 2015

Books read in July 2015


1. The Alzheimer's Diary by Joan Sutton
2. The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
3. Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan
4. The End of Memory by Jay Ingram


1. Calculated in Death
2. Ceremony in Death

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Things They Should Invent: sitting pants

I recently read an article about a designer who's making clothes for people in wheelchairs:
The mainstream clothing that we buy is cut and drafted for standing. It’s something we don’t think twice about. When we sit down our clothes get all mess up. What I mean by that is that with pants they cut you in your gut and they ride down at the back; Or with a long coat, it will get all bunchy at the front.
Until I discovered Reitman's Comfort Fit, literally every single pair of pants I'd ever worn cut into my gut and rode down in the back when I sat down.  And, since I've spent the vast majority of my life in a classroom or at a computer, that meant my pants were uncomfortable the vast majority of the time.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who spends far more time sitting than standing, especially when at work or in school.  I don't know what sitting pants would look like on a person who's standing up, but some people may well be willing to make the sacrifice.  Added to that, there are situations in which people have to look good sitting down but standing up is less relevant (talk show guests come to mind, and I'm sure there are others).

I'll bet this business and others like it could expand their client base and probably earn higher margins by making sitting pants for non-disabled people who simply spend a lot of time sitting.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


I had a teacher in high school who always wore high-waisted, pleated pants, and I thought they made her look frumpy. This teacher was the kind of person who would otherwise have come across as youthful and with-it - she was under 40, savvy, up on her students' pop culture, able to discern who had a crush on whom, meticulous with her hair and makeup - but I thought these pants were so aging and out of touch.

It occurs to me that teenagers today probably think the exact same thing about me and my boot-cut pants.

I have noticed recently that when I see boot-cut, flared or wide-legged pants being worn in media from 10-15 years ago, it seems a bit out of place.  But, nevertheless, I feel badass in my own boot-cut pants, and frumpy in skinnies.  So I keep wearing what makes me feel badass, even if Kids Today might be laughing at it. Flares are scheduled to come back in a few years anyway.


I blogged previously about the recent trend among young women of wearing high-waisted pants with shirts tucked in.   I recently found out why they do this: they believe it's slimming because the well-defined waist emphasizes how small their natural waist is.  This flabbergasted me because, with my fashion awareness having happened just as the last shirt-tucking trend waned and shirt untucking (with narrow shirts) came into fashion, I think an untucked shirt is more slimming because it creates a smoother line, and a tucked shirt is less slimming because it creates a sausage effect.  In one of my journeys down an internet rabbit hole, I landed in a fashion forum populated by young women where people posted comparison pictures to prove that high waists and tucking and belting was more slimming, and I genuinely felt that these pictures demonstrated beyond any doubt that an untucked shirt was more slimming.  We're looking at the exact same thing and seeing it as a complete opposite!

I'm not going to link to the examples I saw, because it isn't appropriate to send my adult readership to look at pictures of teens and scrutinize their figures with the general message of "See how these kids think they look slim but they really look lumpen!"  So, instead, I'm going to show you two pictures of actress Angie Dickinson from the 1950s:

Angie Dickinson (right) in a belted bodysuit
Angie Dickinson in a non-belted bodysuit

I think the outfit on the left is less flattering, specifically because of the belt. To my eyes, the belt creates a sausage effect with the soft part of her belly above and below, making her tummy below look sticky-outy, and the fleshy bit above look like a roll of fat.  Obviously this effect is very minimal on Ms. Dickinson - it's far more pronounced on a person with a more average figure - but you can see the hint of it here.  In contrast, I think the outfit on the right is more flattering because it creates a smoother line without any bulges of flesh.

However, people who choose high waists and tucked-in shirts see the picture on the left as more flattering, because the belt is cinched tightly around her waist, showing just how small her waist can be made to go. They'd see the picture on the right as less flattering, because it doesn't necessarily demonstrate the minimum possible circumference of her waist.

This isn't just an evolution of fashion trends, it's a complete change in what different people perceive when looking at the exact same thing!  It will be interesting to see how the fashion choices of the belt = thinner contingent evolve as trends change and, eventually, a high waist and tucked-in shirt once again become signs of frumpiness.  I've blogged before about differing generational perceptions of pants length. Maybe in a decade or two, we'll also have differing generational perceptions of waistlines.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Idea density

I've been reading about the famous Nun Study of Alzheimer's disease, and specifically about its findings relating to idea density.

As part of the study, they analyzed essays that the nuns wrote when they were in their early 20s, and found that nuns who didn't get Alzheimer's had higher idea density in their essays, and nuns who did get Alzheimer's had lower idea density.

An example of a sentence with high idea density, taken from this article:

"After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent."

An example of a sentence with low idea density:

"After I left school, I worked in the post-office."

Interpretations of this finding tend to view high idea density as equivalent to better language skills. But when I read about this, my first thought was that some nuns may have been able to write a more idea-dense essay, but chose not to.  They may have thought a simpler style more appropriate to the purpose of this essay.  They may not have enormous colour to add to this one particular subject.  Maybe they didn't have as much time as they would have liked.  Maybe the pen they were using was uncomfortable to write with. It's possible that their writing style may even have matured away from frills - I know when I was younger, I went through a phase of writing ridiculously (yes, even more ridiculously than now) in an attempt to emulate of the Victorian authors I was reading at the time.

Even if we accept the assumption that high idea density equals better language skills (I'm reminded of the much-attributed "Please excuse the long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one."), we have no way of knowing how many of the subjects had higher linguistic ability but chose not to use it to its fullest extent for that particular essay.  What if the true predictor of Alzheimer's is instead whatever process leads the subject to assess that particular essay assignment as more conducive to a simpler writing style?

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density correlation persists over generations.  The various examples of high idea-density sentences I've read seem old-fashioned to me (probably reflecting the fact that the nuns wrote them in the first half of the 20th century), while the low idea-density sentences seemed more timeless. 

Actually, it might also be a function of the specific education the subject received. Someone being trained in writing today would be guided away from certain stylistic elements in the high idea density example given above (although not necessarily from idea density itself), and these elements seemed fairly common in the various examples of high idea density sentences I've read from this study.

It would also be interesting to see if the idea density pattern holds up in other languages.  In my French writing classes, I was nudged towards a higher idea density than I'd land on naturally, although I never find myself wishing for lower idea density as I translate French to English. Other languages might gravitate to lower or higher density for syntactic or cultural reasons, which might change the correlations with Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ideas for the Damage Control LW who wants to avoid disclosing her surgery

I didn't notice this Damage Control column when it first came out, but I have an idea for the letter-writer:

I am in my early 30s. As a teenager, I was quite obese (300 lbs), but I am very grateful to say that I have been slim now for several years. But my body still “bears the wounds” of my previous weight: lots of loose skin, a sagging chest, etc. Special garments were needed to hold it in. I recently underwent the first of two surgeries to correct my loose skin, a procedure called a body lift. I took a month off work, and was paid through the company’s short-term disability plan. Though I did say it would be the first of two surgeries, I did not tell people at work the exact nature of my surgery: I think there is a stigma attached to cosmetic procedures. I did get the odd “soft inquiry,” but kept mum. My dilemma is that my second surgery involves a lift and augmentation of both my bum and breast area. How do I handle telling my boss and co-workers without revealing too much or coming off as cold and closed off? Also, how do I respond should I get comments about my new appearance? While I fear negative judgment about being “paid to get a boob job,” this is a private issue that has a long history.
 The columnist recommends sending a mass email with an explanation, which I strongly disagree with.  Sending this email might give the impression that your private parts are open for discussion, not to mention that people could feel sexually harassed if they started receiving unsolicited emails about their colleagues' private parts. It might be appropriate in certain cases to tell the whole story to one or two selected colleagues one on one, if the subject should come up in an informal private conversation (depending greatly on context and the nature of the specific interpersonal relationship).  It's even plausible that in some offices, with some specific combinations of interpersonal relationships, it might even be appropriate to tell everyone at happy hour or around the water cooler.  But this isn't a subject for an email. I never thought I'd say this, but email's too formal.  If you disclose, it should be in an informal context that's marked as outside the scope of Business.

But as I read the letter, an idea occurred to me for a two-tiered sneaky approach that could be used if she chooses not to disclose the actual nature of her surgery.

Basic sneaky approach: come up with a cover story about how recovering from an unnamed surgery might cause your body to change shape.  For example, "My doctor recommended Pilates to help me regain strength in various areas after my surgery." True but secondary would be best (e.g. if you don't eat as much when recovering from surgery), but false but plausible would work too. Think about this very carefully, so it's consistent with any observable changes to your body after your first surgery and the changes that will be observed in your body after your second surgery, and script a delivery that will allow you to segue away from the topic of your surgery onto other topics (e.g. "But I've only ever tried Pilates mat work, I've never been to a gym where they use those machines. Does your Pilates class use the machines?  What's it like?")  Once you've worked this out, drop it into conversation with a co-worker or two next time the opportunity arises.  Then, if the rumour mill starts discussing the change in your body shape, an explanation straight from the horse's mouth is readily available.

Advanced sneaky approach: do some research and find another kind of surgery that could plausibly require two procedures and have similar recovery time and other observable effects to what your colleagues can observe about you.  I don't have the medical knowledge to come up with a real example, so I'll use a fake example: boneitis.  Suppose you do some research and discover that boneitis surgery can require two procedures, at similar spacing, with similar recovery times, and can result in a similar change in physical appearance.  Now, if you're ever in a situation where people are inquiring about your medical situation, you can hint in the direction of boneitis.  Don't explicitly say you have boneitis! Instead, present as someone who has boneitis and wants to be discreet about it, so that if people google the hints you're dropping, boneitis will come up near the top of the results.

Obviously this is a bit complex, and whether you actually want to do it will depend on how secret you want to keep your medical situation and your own capacity of subterfuge. But it is an option if you're finding it difficult to say nothing, but don't want to actively disclose.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Unnecessary TTC announcements

I was riding a subway northbound on the Yonge line. As we travelled from Davisville to Eglinton, the driver made an announcement: "Attention all passengers: we are currently bypassing Spadina station in both directions on both lines due to a police investigation."

Problem: We were heading north from Davisville to Eglinton, which is directly away from Spadina station.  To be affected by delays at Spadina station, a passenger on our train would have to get out, board a train heading in the opposite direction, and travel quite a few stations.  It's highly unlikely that anyone would do this!

Back in my commuting days, I've been on trains where this happened quite a few times - the driver announces a delay that's behind us, or heading in the opposite direction, and therefore is not going to affect our train at all and isn't going to affect any of the passengers unless they get out and switch to a train heading in the opposite direction.  These aren't system-wide loudspeaker announcements, like you hear made by a pre-recorded voice when waiting on the platform.  These are announcements made specifically by the driver of our one train.

I don't think they should make these announcements. 

One thing I've noticed since I started following @TTCNotices on Twitter is that the vast majority of delays are cleared very quickly, often within just a couple of minutes. I also learned, back in my commuting days, that even delays for which shuttle buses are called are often cleared so quickly that it's better to wait them out than to get on a shuttle bus.

So I think having drivers make a specific effort to announce delays that don't apply to the train will just make passengers unnecessarily worry and stress and think the system is unreliable.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the audio quality of driver announcements is not as good as that of recorded announcements, so it produces some unnecessary "Wait, what did he say?" moments.

If any passengers are going to be affected by the delay in the opposite direction or behind us, they'll have plenty of time to find out when they're waiting on the platform for their opposite-direction trip, or when they look at one of the video screens on the platforms, or when they check Twitter.

But I think nothing is gained by having drivers make an announcement just within their train when the announcement definitely does not apply to that train.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Things They Should Invent: emails that self-delete once they've expired

1. Sometimes I get coupons in my email that are only good for a limited time or on a certain day, or if I spend a certain amount of money.  Often when I get them, I don't immediately know whether I might be making any purchases that qualify. But then, a few days later, I realize that I might possibly have a coupon that matches a purchase I'm going to be making.  So I search for my email, but the results turn up hundreds of coupons (since I never delete anything) and I don't know which ones are still valid and have to open more emails than should be necessary to determine whether there is in fact a relevant coupon.

2. Sometimes I email someone and get an out-of-office message.  If I'm subsequently sending group emails that are only relevant immediately (as opposed to something they'll need when they get back from their absence), I like to leave the people who are absent off the email list.  The easiest way to see who is absent is to visually scan my inbox and see whom I've received Out of Office messages from. (They have a distinctive icon in Outlook, so I can tell at a glance.)  But, again, the problem is that I can't tell at a glance if the out-of-office is still in effect, so I have to open more out-of-office messages than necessary to determine who I should leave off the group emails.

Proposed solution: optional expiry dates in emails.  If the content of the email is expired, the email is deleted from the recipient's inbox.  This would apply automatically to out-of-office messages - once the recipient is back in office, the out-of-office message is deleted from the recipient's inbox.

Variation: recipients can have the option to turn off the self-deleting (either as for all emails in their inbox or on an email-by-email basis), but the default setting is self-deletion once the email expires.

Or if that's just too much to handle, a technological solution for the out-of-office problem would be for automatically-generated out-of-office messages to state the return date in the subject line. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Why young LCBO workers still card me?

One of the things we did in my Sociolinguistics class in university was analyze print advertisements.  While analyzing an ad for some kind of beauty product, the prof asked us who the target audience is.

"Women at the age where they are just starting to see fine lines on their face," said one of my classmates. 

"And what age is that?" asked the prof?

"Late 20s," said one of my older classmates.  The other older classmates and the prof all nodded and murmured assent.

I was rather surprised that the beginnings of wrinkles would turn up while you're still in your 20s, but, being only 19 years old myself at the time, I had no actual frame of reference.

My own fine lines began showing right on schedule,  at the age of 27.  And, since I became aware of them, I also began noticing the presence or absence of lines on other people's faces.  I must have seen people with fine lines before, probably including those of my classmates in that Sociolinguistics class who could attest expertly to when fine lines start making their appearance, but it was never a factor that I took specific note of when processing a face as a whole.

It occurs to me that this might be the answer to the mystery of why younger LCBO workers keep carding me when older workers stopped long ago!

If the younger LCBO workers are like my younger self, they might not notice my fine lines as evidence that I'm no teenager.  But they'd be more likely to notice my acne since they've most likely been through acne themselves.

Similarly, people who haven't started greying yet might not notice my few individual grey hairs (I didn't notice random strands of grey on people who were anything less than salt-and-pepper before I started greying myself), but the fact that my hair is long, which is culturally marked as youthful, is readily apparent to anyone of any age.