Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Books read in February 2017


1. Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel
2. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
3. Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette


1. Reunion in Death
2. Purity in Death
3. Brotherhood in Death

Things They Almost Invented: pre-sliced frozen pizza

I previously came up with the idea of pre-sliced frozen pizza. You can't cut a frozen pizza, but a whole frozen pizza is more than one person should eat in one sitting. And pizza loses a significant amount of yumminess when you reheat it. (And single-serving mini pizzas have too much crust for the amount of toppings/too little toppings for the amount of crust.)

Today I found something that can fulfill the same function: Dr. Oetker Ristorante Ultra Thin Crust pizza.

It isn't pre-sliced, but the crust is so thin I could easily snap it in two with my bare hands! It's not as precise as cutting it in half, but it's certainly a workable way to not have to heat up the whole thing.

If you're in the market for frozen thin-crust pizza but don't want to eat the whole thing or reheat the rest later, I recommend giving it a try.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I would never think of borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour. Here's why that's a good thing.

A while back, a politician said that she moved out of Toronto because she felt it lacked community, citing as an example “I would never go next door and ask my neighbour for a cup of sugar. It just wouldn’t happen.

This led to a brief flurry of journalists attempting to borrow sugar and documenting the results, but I didn't give it much thought, until it bubbled up in my mind in the shower today and it occurred to me:

I would never, ever even consider knocking on my neighbour's door to borrow a cup of sugar, literally or metaphorically. It just wouldn't happen.

And the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with my neighbours. And absolutely everything to do with my neighbourhood.

I chose my neighbourhood because it's easy and convenient. And part of being easy and convenient is having stores that sell and services that provide nearly everything I might ever need all within the immediate neighbourhood.  I can get a boxspring, a biopsy and a bridesmaid dress all within easy walking distance.  And, more importantly, I can get sugar - or any other foodstuff I might need - within a two-minute walk, 24/7/365.

Many urban neighbourhoods - especially high-density neighbourhoods - are like this.  There's no need to bother your neighbours because the neighbourhood infrastructure and amenities meet your needs.

That's a sign of a successful, functioning community, where people can get what they need through the normal mechanisms and infrastructure, without having to even consider imposing upon the kindness of - or being at the mercy of - those who happen to be in the vicinity.

Monday, February 13, 2017


Last spring, I experienced thigh chafing for the first time in my life.

Due to my disproportionately long inseam and dislike of the current trend of tight pants, it turns out that on most of my pants the gusset fell below the bit at the top of my thighs that was chafing, meaning that the legs of my pants couldn't serve as a barrier to protect me against the chafing. What few pants I owned that did have a high enough gusset were made of unpleasantly rough or unbreathable material, which may have even made matters worse.

I clearly had immediate need of softer pants, and they probably needed to be more fitted so the gusset would stay right at the very top of my thighs and protect the area being chafed. But the last thing I wanted to do when every step was painful was go pants shopping!  So I went to multiple websites with generous return policies and ordered multiple pairs of yoga pants, one of each plausible pair in my usual size and one a size smaller.

Over the next few days, a wide selection of yoga pants arrived at my door. I tried them on and kept everything that worked for me.  It turned out my idea of going a size down was unnecessary (I hadn't bought new yoga pants in years and they're more fitted now than they were last time I shopped for them), so I returned everything in the smaller size and some of the things in the larger size.

Shortly after that happened, I started getting coupons and offers and recommendations for maternity wear.  I guess I triggered an algorithm somewhere - frantically shopping for yoga pants and opting for the larger size in every case is totally something a pregnant lady would do! 

This was all about nine months ago.  And now I'm getting coupons and offers and recommendations for baby things!  Even though I haven't bought yoga pants or maternity wear or anything comparable in the meantime, apparently online shopping algorithms are the kind of people who count months.

I wonder how long this will persist for? Will I be getting offers for toddler things for a few years, followed by back-to-school offers and high school graduation offers?  Will they start trying to sell me those conception monitors if I don't shop like a pregnant lady for a few years, on the grounds that my non-existent child should have a sibling?

Maybe I should use Privacy Mode when googling for baby gifts just in case...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What if different kinds of lies were like apples and oranges?

Conventional wisdom is that politicians lie.

But when we say this, we usually mean "They don't keep their electoral promises." They say they're going to do something and then they don't, or they say they aren't going to do something and then they do.

But sometimes politicians lie about objective, observable facts.  And this is a problem, because they aren't just stating objectively incorrect information, they're also using the objectively incorrect information as a basis for questionable policy.

For example, a politician says there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses in their area, and therefore libraries should be cut. However, the fact of the matter is that there are more Tim Hortonses than libraries in their area.  And even if there were more libraries than Tim Hortonses, that wouldn't necessarily be a problem. And even if the ratio were a problem, perhaps the solution would be more Tim Hortonses.  And maybe the ratio is even a problem the other way - maybe there aren't enough libraries.  One possibility is that there are more libraries than Tim Hortonses but still not enough libraries (for example, if there were two libraries and one Tim Hortons, that wouldn't be enough libraries for the entire city.)

It creates a stream of hypotheticals that the people least likely to be willing or able to stay fully informed are least likely to be willing or able to follow. If you focus on debunking the clear, objective lie (more libraries than Tim Hortonses), you're implying that the problematic logic that follows (that more libraries than Tim Hortonses would be a problem, that libraries should be cut) is not a problem. If you focus on the problematic conclusions, you're implying that the false premise is accurate and failing to call out the politician for a glaring objective falsehood.

But not enough people see this lying about objective facts as a massive deal-breaker problem that needs to be immediately and drastically nipped in the bud, because we're coming from this baseline conventional wisdom that of course politicians lie.

This makes me wonder how our political discourse would be different if these different kinds of lies were completely different concepts in our language and concept system. We can, of course, describe the different kinds of lies that exist using words and phrases, like I've done above, but they're all lies.  What would happen if they were different concepts, like apples and oranges? Yes, apples and oranges have things in common (they're both round and sweet and edible, they both fall into the broader category of "fruit" in our concept system), but they're clearly different things in our concept system.

If different kinds of lies were apples and oranges, no one would say "Of course that politician is oranging, everyone knows that politicians always apple." No one would say "Why are you calling out that politician for oranging but not that other politician for appling?"  People could be aghast that the politician oranged without even having to address the conventional wisdom that politicians apple, because they're two completely different concepts.

I wonder what our political discourse would look like then?

I wonder if there are any languages where different types of lies are completely discrete concepts?  I wonder if the cultures where those languages are spoken also have the conventional wisdom that politicians lie?

Monday, February 06, 2017

Things They Should Invent: platonic meetup app for women attending events alone

Sometimes it can be logistically inconvenient to go to events alone. It can be a lot easier to go as part of a group, so you can hold each other's place in a general admission audience or keep an eye on each other if the situation turns questionable. These inconveniences are felt particularly by women, what with dealing with purses and keeping an eye on your drink and getting home safely at night.

Sometimes when I'm at a place alone and I need a buddy, I form a temporary alliance with another woman who's also there alone. I'll hold your place while you go to the bathroom, then we'll trade. Would you join me in walking back to the subway after?

But you can't just blindly assume there will be someone there to serve as a buddy when you need one. So sometimes, when I'm uncertain about going as a woman alone and I can't find someone to go with me, I end up not going.

What if there was an app for that?

I envision two parts: one that's kind of like Meetup, and one that's kind of like Grindr, but both platonic-only and women-only.

The Meetup aspect (which doesn't have to be an app - it can and should function as a website) is for people who are considering attending an event but don't want to go alone. You click on "I'm interested", you see a list of other people who are interested, and you can get in touch and make plans. (Potential safety feature: you can indicate on the website who you're going with, so the website has a record. I'm not a superfan of facebook integration, but maybe your facebook friends can see who you're going with?)

The Grindr aspect (which has to be an app because it's location-based) is for if you're already at an event and you want a buddy.  Maybe the crowd is more of a crush than you anticipated, maybe the walk back to the subway is scarier at night than it looked on Google Street View, maybe you don't dare brave those portapotties alone. You sign into the app, indicate where you are and that you're looking for a buddy, and see anyone else present who's looking for a buddy.

Of course, as with so many things in life, the challenge is the creep factor.  How do you keep out people who are just looking for single women, either for a hookup or to find vulnerable people?

The only idea I can think of initially is a nominal membership charge (like Metafilter's $5) that has to be paid by a credit card with a female name on it. But, obviously, there are problems with that. How would whoever or whatever is responsible for determining if a name is female tell that Jean Augustine is a woman but Jean Charest is a man? What about the poor girl whose parents decided to kre8tively name her Bruce? It would also marginalize people who don't have credit cards, or aren't at liberty to use credit cards for this, which would include minors. If, for whatever reason, a 15-year-old girl is going somewhere alone and feels the need to reduce the risk or difficulty of doing so, she shouldn't be shut out of a tool for doing so because she's a minor.

But if there was a way to keep the creeps out, it could be incredibly useful.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How Google can solve the "post-truth" problem in one easy step

Google searches contain the option to refine results time posted. On the results page, click on "Tools", then click on the little drop-down arrow next to "Any time".

This means that Google maintains "last updated" metadata for the pages it crawls.  Which means that Google can sort results by date.

Google can use this power to combat the "post-truth" problem with one easy step: allow users to sort search results from oldest to newest.  That way, the very first instance of a particular combination of keywords will be right at the top.

This will make it a lot easier to see when a story or an alleged fact has been fabricated out of whole cloth, because the first result (or, at least, the first result that actually refers to the thing in question) is very recent and originates from the person making the false statement.

It would also be an incredibly useful feature to have in Google's Reverse Image Search. Often I do a reverse image search to find the origin of an image that's circulation, but the fact that even Google's relevance algorithm tends to favour novelty means I get pages and pages of results from social media. If we could easily show the oldest instances of an image first, we could quickly identify cases where someone is posting "This is what's happening right now" when really it's an image taken in a different country several years ago.

Google already has this data, as evidenced by the fact that it allows you to refine results by time posted. Any computer can sort by date. All Google has to do is put an "Oldest First" option on its interface, and everyone will be able to fact-check with a single click.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Advice for "Too Stressed For This" from Captain Awkward

Hey, Captain. I’ve got a bit of a social conundrum and would appreciate any tips/scripts to help me deal with people I don’t want to talk to at all.
Short back story: My husband is a youth minister at a church. We have been living in the church parsonage rent-free for the past 8 or 9 years in exchange for monitoring the property, and him not getting a pay check. Over Christmas, the church burned down. A week later, the pastor and a deacon came to us an explained (very poorly) that due to state building codes, the church cannot be rebuilt in the original location, and the only other property the church owns for building is where the parsonage sits. They told us they would like to start removing the parsonage by March; but please don’t tell anyone about this because they hadn’t decided how to tell the church body, or even when to tell them-they seemed to think that two months is sufficient time for a single income (me) household with two children and a person who is a wheelchair user (my husband) to find a new place to live (it isn’t, we’re still looking).
Current problem: While my day job sometimes schedules me for Sundays, there are still weekends I have off, and due to not being right next to the church, if my husband is to perform his duties, I have to take them to church. Our girls also like going to church. I do not. I am feeling a lot of anger and bitterness, as well as depression, because this couldn’t have come at a worse time. Now, when I am at church, I find myself needing to act like I enjoy being around various groups of people who are a) willing to give a family a bare two months to move, and b) are exhibiting more ideological differences with each passing day (I’m sure given the current political climate, most everyone can guess why) that I find more and more difficult to deal with. I have already left off social media outside my online bookstore owner persona, but I can’t leave my husband and kids to always go to church alone-then my husband has to deal with people commenting on my having to work (it’s so dreadful) or asking where I am and if I’m okay (I’m not, but they don’t want to hear that anyway).
Any ideas/scripts how I can politely tell them to leave me alone and give me space because we are not on the same page, when I’d really love to have an epic breakdown and tell them exactly where they can all go?
Thanks bunches
Too Stressed For This
(she is fine as pronoun)

Dear Too Stressed For This:

Until you are comfortably settled in your new home, your excuse for skipping church will always be that you have to move.  When people ask your husband where you are, he should always answer "She couldn't make it - there's so much work to be done because we have to move in March." When people comment to your husband on your having to work, his response should be "Yeah, what with the expense of having to find a new place to live, she has to get all the hours she can." When people ask you "How are you?" your response should be "A bit stressed about finding a new place. You?"

Basically, the goal is to get out the message that you have to move and haven't found a place yet (not to mention all the work and expense). The reason for this is in some churches people help each other, and in some other churches they like to believe that they're the kind of people who help each other. On top of that, a church is a network.  There might be someone in the church who has a home for rent or knows of someone who does.  If they don't know you're going through this, they can't help you.  But if they know that you're going through this, they might help you.  (Given what you hint at about their politics they may well not be helpful people, but if they don't help you you're no worse off than you were before.)

You say that your pastor and deacon told you not to tell anyone that they plan to remove the parsonage. You don't have to tell anyone that. You just have to tell them that you have to move.  If pressed, you can say "We aren't authorized to discuss it yet - the pastor should be making an announcement soon."  Best possible outcome is that there's pressure from the congregation for the pastor to disclose, and, after they've disclosed, to take better care of your family. Worst case, the pastor is mad at your family.  But, as one of the Captain Awkward commenters mentioned, what are they going to do? Not pay your husband for his work and leave your family homeless?

Yes, you don't want to deal with these people at all. You want them to leave you alone and let you get on with your life.  But the members of this church might be a resource to help you solve your current problem. Since it's the church that created this problem, you should take full advantage of them.  Then, after you're settled in your new home, you can cut them off and/or work on finding a new church and/or work on your husband finding a new job.