Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hiding in the FedEx logo is something you might not have noticed...

No, not the arrow between the E and the x. Everyone knows about that. Can you see what the other thing is?

It's that FedEx is short for "Federal Express", but some marketing idiot figured it would be good to add another "Express" on to the end for good measure. I guess this is for the division of Federal Express that actually is Express and the other trucks all say 'FedEx / Eventually".

- RG>

Friday, November 08, 2013

One big CFL scam

Sorry football fans (and critics), this is about Coompact Fluorescent Lightbulbs, not the Canadian Football League.

I think I've documented previously that I can be obsessive about things. (In ironic contradiction to that claim, I'm not going to bother linking to an illustrative previous blog post.) I also like having some sort of validation (even anecdotal) of claims I make or causes I defend. That is to say, I am a critical thinker.

In this vein, I didn't vigorously defend the little mercury buggers when a certain friend of mine, the kind who, on principle, doesn't use a green bin, told me that he switched back to incandescent bulbs after trying a set of CFLs.

He told me he tried CFL bulbs once but it didn't last nearly as long as it was promised to last, so he switched back to incandescents. For those of you just joining this decade, compact fluorescent lightbulbs are those little curly bulbs that are supposed to provide the same amount of light for about a quarter of the electricity, thus saving you more money than the much higher cost than traditional incandescent light bulbs.

Like a good little environmentalist sycophant, I use the bulbs and generally go along with the groupthink that they're better. (There are various arguments about the mercury contained in the bulbs vs the amount of mercury released in the generation of electricity for the less efficient incandescents, but since I don't have air conditioning I like that they don't put off as much heat)

For the record, my friend also complained that they took longer to get to turn on (and, subsequently, to get to full brightness). I no longer notice this myself (i.e. I've gotten used to it) but I must admit that it does take a second or so for the lights to come on.

But about the price, I wanted to contradict my friend, and tell him that the lights are rated for many years, so he must have gotten a dud. And the bulbs have gotten better since he would have tried them. But I wanted to be able to say this with the confident knowledge that my own experiences with the things were consistent with this claim.

This was a problem.

Sure, one remembers generally replaces the lights in one's house, but given how long they last, who can really say with confidence how long any particular one lasts?

This guy, that's who.

For the last couple years, I've been writing in fine-tip Sharpie the date of purchase and installation on my lightbulbs, and hanging on to the packaging (which is necessary anyway because I need a way to stockpile the old bulbs, since I don't get anywhere near any place that takes returns of these things, even though there are plenty of places that sell them)

Lo and behold, tonight I replaced a bulb in my bedroom ceiling fixture, and written on the bulb was "purchased 2012-10-28 Home Hardware Glebe, installed same". It was from a Sylvania 3-pack of 100-watt equivalents, and the other two bulbs were still fresh in the package in my closet. Incidentally, to my friend's point, the packaging has a little "Instant On" sticker.

My bulb's usage did not have any of the contraindications: no "dimmer, electronic timer or photocell, illuminated switch, totally enclosed recessed luminaires, or where directly exposed to the weather". So, being just barely a year old, it died well before it's 9-year warranty. The fine print on that is based on "normal household usage in accordance with package and bulb directions", which is to say an average of 3 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I figure I use my bedroom light for more than 3 hours a day, but I'm pretty confident I don't use it for 27 hours a day, which is what would be needed to reach the bulb's 10,000 hour lifespan.

So okay, the bulb died and the warranty obviously applies. So where do I get my replacement? Turn back to the fine print on the side of the box: "if this bulb does not last for the time period guaranteed...return bulb, proof of purchase, register receipt and your name and address to OSRAM SYLVANIA Inc, 435 E. Washington St., Winchester, KY 40391-2298. OSRAM SYLVANIA will replace the bulb. This replacement is the sole remedy available, and LIABILITY FOR DIRECT, INCIDENTAL, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES IS HEREBY EXPRESSLY EXCLUDED [except in states where we're not allowed to exclude it]..." (all-caps original)

So for a set of three bulbs I bought for $14.99 plus tax, I'm going to have to spend how much to ship the bulb to fucking KENTUCKY?!? And that's just the first bulb; if I only use the other two one after the other, I'll have to wait another two years at the current rate to get through them to send all three back together. I mean, if I send in the proof of purchase etc with only the first bulb, I won't be able to get replacements when the other two die prematurely. But what if the other two bulbs last 4 years each? Then by the time I ship them back the warranty period will have been over, despite each bulb lasting less than half its expected lifetime.

But do you know how much it costs to ship things to the U.S.? I'm guessing somewhere between five and ten bucks at the slowest, cheapest rate. And then what? I'll get another bulb that will last a year, and for thirty bucks I'd have three bulbs plus three replacements that lasted for a combined total of 6 years when each one was supposed to last for nine?

I think my skeptical friend may be on to something, since thirty bucks could buy many many years' worth of incandescents (or would have, had Dalton McGuinty not banned them).

So let's summarize:
- bulbs don't last anywhere near warranty
- it costs as much or more to claim warranty as to just buy new bulbs
- BlackBerry's autoreplace changes correctly-spelled words for no reason
- you're not supposed to throw them out due to mercury, but there's you can't take spent ones back to where you bought them (for places downtown, at least)
- I'm still going to be using them

That last one is for two reasons: one, the heat factor. Two, they're still cheaper.

As five bucks a pop, if we assume 3 hours a day 7 days a week, and if we assume 5 cents a Kilowatt-hour, these 23-watt "100-watt equivalent" bulbs save me $4.21 per year over incandescents. Factor in the fact that I likely use it more than 3 hours a day and 5 cents a kWh is the rate before your hydro bill gets more than doubled by fees and taxes, it still saves me money.

So then the only unresolved question is, how do I punish Sylvania for this? I've already spent an hour writing this blog post, so that could be $20 or so of my own time. Why not go all out and play into their game. Here are some ideas:

- send the bulb in a bubble envelope so it will most likely arrive broken when they open the package
- waste at least as much of their time on the phone and responding to emails so their payroll costs match what I paid
- send by UPS with paperwork that triggers UPS to charge the recipient the fixed customs fee of $40
- hire a lawyer to sue them for $15 (hm... or a class-action...)
- send Sylvania a Canadian football

Ah, but this is all a pipe dream. Truth is, just like those weasels gambled, I don't really care to do anything about it, over a five-dollar-a-year investment in lightbulbs.

Except blog about it.

- RG>

Friday, August 23, 2013

On the economics of leftovers: it's probably better not to

At the end of dinner last night in a Chinese restaurant, there was the inevitable discussion about who will take home the leftovers.

As with other elements of bistromathics, this can be awkward, indeterminate, and occasionally testy. If not handled sensitively, everyone--including the person who takes the leftovers--can end up feeling worse off.

So for the question, "who takes home the leftovers," we are presented with a prisoner's-dilemma matrix of outcomes. Except the central assumption of the prisoner's dilemma is that everyone has the same goal: that a smaller prison sentence is better than a longer one. With leftovers, it isn't a given that each person will consider it to be a benefit to bring home more leftovers than fewer. For example, a vegetarian will not be interested if the leftovers contain meat. Or a monster.

At least the nature of Chinese restaurants simplifies the options by separating each dish into its own leftover container, so taking home a vegetarian dish doesn't necessitate taking home all the other dishes, including the meat ones. But it does add complications. With containerized leftovers, the question now must be broken down from "who takes the leftovers" to "who takes which leftovers?". In effect, the question gets multiplied by the number of dishes: "Who takes the chop suey," "who takes the fried rice," "who takes the fried tofu," "who takes the bird's nest?"

The other complicating factor is that some people would prefer not to take any leftovers home. So the question of "who takes home which leftovers" is further broken down into "who wants to take home which leftovers?"

The problem we encountered last night, despite being a small group with only one vegetarian, was that the vegetarian was interested in taking home the vegetarian dish, but nobody was particularly keen on taking home any of the rest. It eventually got narrowed down to whether I or another person was going to take home the non-vegetarian dishes. The other person had a regular lunch on Fridays, so they wouldn't be taking it in for lunch today. My fridge is generally where leftovers go to die.

So for both of us, the desire factor was low. We've already asked for it to be packaged, so somebody's got to take it. The question has at this point devolved again from "who wants to take home the remaining leftovers" (answer: nobody) to "to whom will the remaining leftovers be assigned for the purpose of being taken home?" In other words, who doesn't want them least?

Probability to the rescue!

I tend not to like labels, or categorizing things into black and white. Everything is probabilistic. Will I die tomorrow? I can't say no, but the probability is very, very low.

And one last assumption that had been hovering over the conversation was that whoever took the food home would eat it. So I offered up the fact that there's about a 50% chance of the leftovers being eaten if I took them home. I knew this and this was factoring it into my decision, but it was not known to the remainder of the group.

All of a sudden, this cemented the decision. My competitor for the leftovers didn't particularly want them, but if they brought them home the leftovers would get eaten (convenient, since this happened to also be the person who paid for the meal).

The central goal of leftovers is to not let the already-prepared food go to waste. A 100% chance that they will be eaten versus a 50% chance that they will be eaten makes the decision much easier.

Were it not for that, we might still be at the table wringing our wrists about who would take them home. At least we'd have something to eat.

- RG>

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My mother's maiden name was Phil

I'm one of those people whose last name is the same as his mother's 'maiden' name. I'm also one of those people who, because of this, decides against using his mother's maiden name as a 'security' question. Especially when something as important as my bank account is involved.

Unfortunately, Scotiabank is one of those companies that thinks that, in today's world of everybody splattering their biographies across the internet, one's mother's maiden name is a secret that can only be transmitted through the vault door at Fort Knox with an umbilical cord.

Some time ago, I changed what I had listed at my bank for "mother's maiden name" to something else. Damned if I know what I put. So every time I call up the bank, I have to explain this so they can skip over to another set of somewhat obtrusive questions (including "employer", of which I have multiple). Invariably, they don't care because as far as they're concerned, they have to ask me a question and I have to answer it, and they needn't concern themselves with the degree of difficulty of this question or the degree of security afforded by this.

But today, I was trying to buy something online when I was presented with a "Verified by Visa" confirmation screen—ostensibly for my bank—which required me to enter my "mother's maiden name". I tried a couple things but it didn't work. There was no 'back' button so I could pay instead with PayPal, so I had to close the window. When I called up the company to see if the purchase went through, they informed me that the response from VbV wasn't even necessary unless I had set it up with my bank.

Naturally, I went to my bank website to see if I could find out whether I'd set up Verified by Visa. I didn't realize that I was on my 'new' Windows 8 laptop (which I've since relegated to secondary status under the old, reliable Windows XP beast which it had been intended to replace), and I mustn't have logged into my bank account from that computer before, because it asked me for another security question.

Damned if I knew that one, either. Let's look at the list of security questions available (from which one must pick three, and subsequently all three of which must be answered correctly if one is logging in for the first time on a new computer, or on a public computer). Remember, a good security question is one that is easy for you to understand and difficult for an identity thief to figure out. Most of these fail:

Where did you go on your honeymoon?
What was the name of your elementary school?
What was the name of the street on which you grew up?
Obviously, some of those might be obscure questions for some people, but the ones that aren't mindnumbingly obvious are, by definition, difficult for the user to remember also (the obvious ones would be like the BFF one talks to and about all the time on social media or the high school graduation year in one's Facebook timeline or LinkedIn profile). For example, I have two grandmothers (as I'm sure most do), both of whom are still alive. If I used that question, when I go to answer it, would I remember which grandmother I chose? And would I have chosen the town she grew up in, the town she lived in when I was a child, or the town she lives in now? Will I spell it right?

My paternal grandfather's first name isn't so easy either. He went by an English name, a French name, and a a nickname, and the French one had an accent. When I try to remember what I put in there, do I remember the name I called him, or since banking is formal business, did I use his formal first name?

My cousins span two generations. Did I pick the oldest of all my cousins or of my more familiar younger group of cousins? Did I put only their first name or full name?

And as for elementary school and growing-up street, I went to at least three different elementary schools; I'm sure many people grew up living on many different streets. Or maybe someone's parents still live on that street where there's only one school nearby. Either way, it's either hard for me to remember or easy for a hacker to figure out.

The rest of the questions are even more wishy-washy:
What is the name of your first employer?What was the first name of your first manager?

What is the last name of your favorite teacher in elementary school?
What is the name of your first pet?
What is your favorite hobby?

What was the name of your first girlfriend/boyfriend?
I once applied for a summer job with the Ottawa Police when I was in university. I was told to list every.single.employer on the job application, and not wanting to lie to the Police, I did. My first one was a paper route. Actually, it was a flyer route. My first 'manager' was a lady who met me once at her suburban house to tell me how to do the job and whom I never saw or heard from again. The HR person at the police service told me that I was a stellar candidate but my references didn't check out because this lady whose name I had to dig through innumerable boxes of files to find didn't remember working with me. (That taught me the dual lesson of the importance of lying to the police and lying on job applications. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever gotten a job I applied for, except for a really rotten one...)

So when it's months after I set these security questions and I'm trying to remember the answer, did I put my first.job.ever or my first 'real' job? These are the types of questions I don't have to contemplate when updating my LinkedIn profile because I don't goddamn have one.

'Favourite movie' is one of the questions I remember Blogger asking me nine years ago when I set up my account, in order to put in my public profile (go figure, it's still there). I remember this because it got me thinking, "what a stupid fucking question is that?"

Please tell me I'm not alone, and that most people don't have a single favourite movie, book, hobby, etc. that hasn't changed in decades. If you have one dominant hobby, like knitting, it'd be easy for you to remember, but chances are you talk about it a lot and maybe you have a blog about knitting, so it would be dead easy for an identity thief to figure out also, so you wouldn't really want to use it as a security question. Or maybe, a year from now, you forgot that you set up your security question when you were in your quilting phase and can't figure out why "knitting" doesn't work when you try to type it in.

Oh, by the way, Scotiabank the Canadian banking company: in Canada, it's spelled "favourite".

In fact, the only one question of that batch I can think of that is fairly definitive and that's "What did you want to be when you grew up?" It's definitive because I became that. But damned if I can remember a year from now if I typed "curmudgeonly old man" or "grumpy curmudgeon" or simply "get off my lawn".

In fact, I think I asked them to put something akin to "get off my lawn" as the answer to "mother's maiden name" and thought it was pretty clever except that I've forgotten which kin I aput it to.


Another flaw of these security questions is how they're presented. If you primarily use one computer to access your online banking, and that computer is your personal one, and you don't have your browser configured to kill all cookies on exit, then you can set it to remember you so you don't have to answer the security questions each time. The problem is, when it does come time to answer these questions (say, because you had to reinstall your browser, or you got a new computer, or you're checking in from a wireless café), you don't remember which of the decisions you made in how you answered these questions because you haven't had to answer them in so long because it was disabled on the primary computer from which you access it.

This is a feature, not a bug, according to the call centre agent who reset my login tonight. She suggested that setting it to not ask me the questions again on this one computer would mean that I wouldn't encounter the questions again, and the implication was that I wouldn't have to worry about remembering the answers to the 'secret questions' at a. I guess the script Scotiabank gave her was written by someone who doesn't understand the philosophy of cloud computing (or Internet banking, for that matter) where you can access stuff from different computers.


I don't think the bank really cares about security, it just wants to have a cloak of plausible deniability in the event of fraud. I mean, who's to blame if my account gets compromised? If I went to my home branch (which evidently isn't the one I thought it was, though the phone rep wouldn't tell me which one it was) and asked them to change my "mother's maiden name" to my mother's actual maiden name—even though it's not the least bit of a security question for me—would they blame me for using security questions that are too easy if my account got compromised? Or maybe I would be protected so long as I've checked all the boxes. Not that I care. Even if the bank is responsible and reimbursed me for wrongful expenses, I would be the one who'd have to suffer the fallout from having his identity stolen, credit likely damaged, and the paranoia (or worse, the reality) that the thief might have used it to infiltrate other areas of my life.


I did have a security scare once. Long story short, it got me worried that my Google/Gmail account had been compromised. I discovered that Google has a feature whereby you can get it to send a six-digit number to your cellphone via text message whenever you log in, and you must enter this number into the login page before it lets you in. It can also send you the number via a phone call. As backups, it has alternate phone numbers and you can get a set of single-use codes in the event you don't have access to your cell phone. You can tell it not to do this on 'trusted' computers (you'll still need your password to log in).

Not only is this a very secure method of protecting your log in, but it also is a built-in way of telling if someone else is trying to log in to your account (it will certainly tell you they've got your password!). Not only is it secure, but it also doesn't require me to answer a bunch of silly questions.

Twitter recently enabled a similar feature, though it doesn't have the voice call or backup codes options, and naturally the first time I tried logging in to Twitter from another computer I was behind an impenetrable wall of steel and concrete, thereby missing the text message.

Why can't the bank do this?

Whenever I'm conducting a transaction at an unfamiliar retail store with my credit or debit card, I'm always worried about the security of my card. Is this a real card reader charging me 9.95 for the large pho or is it a dummy reader that's set up to record my card number and PIN? Sometimes I deliberately enter the wrong PIN the first time to make sure it rejects the bad code.

I am horrified by the 'paypass' credit cards where you just have to tap it and it takes up to $30 out of your account without having to so much as press a button, much less enter a code.

It would be much more reassuring if, each time my credit card was authenticated, I got a text message with the amount and store name.

In the meantime, I'll have to put up with the bank's ridiculous security theatre. I think I'll tell them my mother's name was Phil.

- RG>

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Picasa wasn't meant for people.

I got a new computer a couple weeks ago, taking the plunge from Windows XP to Windows 8 (which is another story in itself). One of the big things that worried me was my Picasa albums.

The last time I tried transferring to a Windows 7 (sic) computer, Picasa's albums would only restore on the new computer if the filename (including folder structure) was exactly the same, and Windows 7/8 doesn't let you name folders the same way as in XP. In other words, when it opened the album listing, it looked for the photo in the given directory, and promptly removed the photo from the album when it couldn't find it in the non-existent folder.

Luckily, since that time, Picasa for Windows has changed the way it handles albums so that it stores album data in the photo, or in a hidden file in the photo's folder (sic). This meant that my albums were restored. Not only that, but they managed to somehow list many of my photos twice. Which is better than not at all.

But the People albums photos are a different matter. I guess Picasa is meant for people who primarily take photos of other people, whereas mine, for the most part, aren't. I don't want to connect my photos with my Gmail account contacts or my (non-existent) Google plus account. Nevertheless, a while back (before Google plus even existed) I had spent a considerable amount of time putting nametags on people in many of my photos, diligently looking up the names of people I recognized but whose names I didn't remember, etc. As I added more photos, I'd occasionally add nametags to those photos also. This way, I could at least remember these people's names long after I forget who they are. (I also hate inheriting albums full of unannotated photos of people I don't know.)

After using Picasa for a while on this new computer, somehow the people albums caught my eye, and a lot of "person" albums came up that were called "". Each of these contained a handful of photos of people I do know, who had their own "people" album already. Some contain four or five photos of the person I know and a couple of other headshots of people I don't. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why these photos are like this; most of them aren't in albums or folders I've uploaded (and I haven't yet logged in on Picasa with the new computer), so it's not a permissions thing with my Google account...

After a brief search online, it looks like there's no fixing this, except the hard way: re-naming the people, which I started to do. Tangent:

(It is very difficult to bulk-rename people who are tagged in a Picasa album. You can select them and right-click and select "Move to People Album..." and then a list pops out of the context menu of people, but you can't search this list and the scrolling arrow is horrendously slow. Another way is to go into each photo, find the person in the photo, click on their head and type in their name. The least difficult way is to scroll the left bar to the people album for the desired person and drag the selected photos onto it. But there is no way to simply right click, or click somewhere, and type the name of the person you want to reassign these headshots to.)

Once you're done reassigning these people, you have to individually delete the empty people albums for "". In my case, a few dozen of these. You can't bulk-select them, and it doesn't prompt you to delete them when they are empty. Meanwhile, they clutter up the People album listing (at least they're at the bottom).

Then there's the whole part about "long after I forget who they are". The official Picasa solution of "you'll have to re-tag all these people" breaks down. I tag the people to remind me who they are. If I'm going to re-tag them, I need the nametag to tell me who they are. For example, there is a Citizen photographer in one of my photos whom I had apparently tagged. This is handy, because I can never remember which of them is which. This is why I tagged him. I presume I cross-referenced the Ottawa Citizen's photos of the event at the time and added his name. I can't re-tag him because I don't remember which of the Citizen's three or four regular photographers he is.

Luckily, I still have my old laptop and I haven't deleted my data off of it yet. (In fact, I still have all but my first computer, each of which in various states of preservation)

But of all the stupid things, holy gee! It's things like this that make me paranoid of changing computers, and when changing computers, of changing operating systems. The Windows XP to Windows 8 transition is manageable enough, but damned if I'm going to try switching over to Google Chrome!

I've still got a Windows XP install disc. Maybe I'll try installing that on the new machine and seeing if it doesn't blow up.

- RG>

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Homeopathy weak.

Apparently it's Homeopathy Week. I learned this from Ars Technica, of all places.

They're reprinting an extensive review of homeopathy from 2007.

I recall an incident where a friend of mine, who generally avoids silly stuff like religion and professional sports, remarking that his allergies were a lot better after he switched medications from his old homeopathic one. I kinda thought it was a joke, but it wasn't. When I tried to point out to him how plainly obvious it is that homeopathy is bunk, another friend chimed in, expressing skepticism, if not outright distrust, of modern, "conventional" medicine.

This really surprised me, because this other friend was even more sciencey. I would have assumed he'd at least know how homeopathy is meant to work.

That's why the Ars Technica article is great. It's a long read spanning 3 pages, but worth it. The article pokes away so much at the theories behind homeopathy that there's nothing but holes left. It doesn't just go over how homeopathy is an affront to modern medicine, but also how it's an affront to the scientific method, peer review, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Not to mention the obvious casualty: logic. I'm not going to try to summarize the article or describe homeopathy, just read the article.

I was rather disappointed to read, on page 4 of the April 2013 edition of Ottawa Woman magazine (whose issues and articles appear to require Flash and defy linking), an article called "Homeopathy during labour and birth". I won't do a detailed breakdown of all the parts of the article which offend me (been there, done that), in part because I'm not exactly the target audience. Suffice it to say that she gives a lot of advice that sounds to me like euphemisms for "placebo effect from such-and-such homeopathic mixture will make the mother feel better."

Okay, I don't want to go through the whole thing, but the passage that triggered my visceral cringing reflex (aside from the initial one I get at the sight of the word "homeopathy"), was "Some mothers will give birth not only with a midwife and a doula, but also with a hypnotherapist, acupuncturist, or a homeopath." It's good to hear that witch doctors, blood letters and phrenologists are not currently fashionable for childbirth (I have nothing against midwives or doulas, to be clear). It was only on a subsequent reading that I noticed this immediately follows the first paragraph, in which the author talks about how childbirth is a simple affair that can easily be cluttered with too many medical practitioners.

But I have to wonder how demeaning it is that a magazine feels it needs to promote such vacuous hoo-haw in order to consider itself a magazine that caters to women. I'll leave you to consider the implications of this suggestion.

The last point I wanted to make about homeopathy in this rant is that people often point to Health Canada's regulation of homeopathic remedies as an endorsement of homeopathy by Health Canada. It is not. Much as I'd like to say that the regulations are clear, they're at least understandable. And if you've got a cursory understanding in the field, you'll know what to look for.

A homeopathic remedy (which, to my dismay, can legally be called a "homeopathic medicine") must describe the 'active' ingredient, and must be at a potency of at least 12CH. If you haven't read up yet on homeopathic dilutions (Wikipedia), "potency" in the homeopathic world refers to how diluted it is. The higher the number, the more the ingredient has been diluted. From Wikipedia: "the greatest dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance is 12C, if starting from 1 mole of original substance."

In other words, Health Canada's regulations are designed to ensure that there is no more than one molecule of the 'active' ingredient per 6x1023 molecules of solvent (usually water). It's there to make sure it doesn't have any of the active ingredient in it (which is fine with the homeopaths, as they prefer to rely on the water's "memory") so that in case the active ingredient is toxic, at least the remedy won't do you any harm. Helpfully, Health Canada also requires the remedies to be labelled with a statement like "Consult a health care practitioner if symptoms persist or worsen", which is always good advice when administering a placebo.

So Health Canada will ensure that it's safe to take the stuff. As for efficacy, the Evidence for Homeopathic Medicines document from Health Canada states that, when a use is specified for the drug (i.e. "this is a dilution of bovine faeces, which is used in treating gullibility" as opposed to just "this is a dilution of bovine faeces"), the targeted condition—which cannot be one of the many major conditions listed in Schedule A of the Food and Drugs Act—must be effective based on one of various standards published by the Homeopathy industry. So Health Canada doesn't have any standards on making claims that homeopathic mixtures are effective at treating anything, so long as the homeopaths agree on it.

A certain skepticism of the medical community is healthy (no pun intended). I've even been known to myself. But it needs to be productive skepticism, like asking for evidence of the efficacy of something (as I did in my cryptic entry about the H1N1 vaccine linked in the previous sentence). The reaction my friend gave me when I called homeopathy out was not skepticism of conventional medicine, but pure distrust of it. If it were skepticism, I presume he'd have investigated the evidence for homeopathy's effectiveness instead of merely embracing it as an alternative to the thing he distrusts.

It is important to keep in mind that homeopathy originates before conventional medicine as we know it existed. Conventional medicine wasn't based on the scientific method, it was based on what was done to treat things in the past. You know, stuff like mercury, blood letting, and so on. Contrasted against that, doing nothing (which can be done very elaborately through homeopathy) usually yielded better results.

Unfortunately, now it's homeopathy that is acting based on an unchanged, unproven process, while conventional medicine has grown up. And homeopathy defenders, ironically, claim that as a benefit.

I'd go on, or at least go over this blog entry a couple times to strengthen the phrasing, if not the arguments, and maybe stick in something about how other quasi-medical people get grouped in—often willingly—with homeopaths, but it's getting late and my laptop's battery dying.

So unfortunately, I'll have to leave this blog entry like Homeopathy Week: weak.

- RG>

Saturday, April 13, 2013

If it weren't for Star Trek, I might not be yelling at my computer.

Because it's usually disguised as the present, it's easy to forget that we live in the future. Every now and then when I encounter a new unexpected piece of technology conveniently replacing a simple task, I'm momentarily reminded of this: Doors that open when you walk near them. Lights that turn on in a room when you walk into it. Locks are controlled by digital keypads. You can enter, use, and leave the washroom without touching anything but the toilet seat and the stream of water and soap. Many of these technologies have been around for a long time on an industrial scale, but they're now readily accessible on a consumer scale too.

And then, every now and then when the technology breaks down, I forget it again. It's easy to not contemplate the future when you're preoccupied with trying to simply open a door or turn on a light. Silly RG, they don't yell at technology in the future!

Other things from science fiction programs of yore are also available: modern PDAs, tablets and laptops far outpace anything Star Trek imagined in their respective form factors, and the combinations of things you can do with them have tremendous potential. Skype and FaceTime let you have live video conversations on demand with ease, and you don't have to have a console monkey in the room to put it up on the screen for you (I presume; I don't like user-facing webcams myself).

Even the famed communicator, which lets Captain Picard reach anyone he likes by tapping a button on his chest, is here: Apple iPhone 5 users have their very powerful and quasi-sentient "Siri". I don't use an iPhone, but I've had this function on my Blackberry for as long as I've owned one: I simply press and hold the button on my headset and tell it a phone number or the name of one of my contacts. My old Nokia brick phone prior to that even let me record up to 20 sound bites to associate with voice-dialing contacts.

I even rented a car recently which didn't have a key. There was just a fob I had to carry around, and the car knew I was near it and unlocked the doors for me. It knew I was inside the car to enable the "start" button that I pressed to start the ignition. These features were so unexpected they had to be explained to me by the clerk, and it took me even longer to figure out how to turn the lights on once it got dark, long after I'd left the lot. (It'll be interesting to see scrap heaps ten years from now filled with cars where 99% of the electronics and machinery still work but an out-of-production patent-protected fingernail-size part prevents the computer from letting you turn on the steering wheel.)

But science fiction's impact on our relationship with technology does more than just drive new ideas and foster automated convenience. I think it also drives our frustrations with technology, too.

Think about it. When you think about technology on the Enterprise, you think about how it works, right? What about when it doesn't work?

There are plenty of examples of futuristic technology not working on TV, sure. But when it does break, you usually know why (even if the character might not). If the cause is not something obvious like a catastrophic power loss, it's usually something nefarious. Someone has locked a control panel, or a villain has short-circuited the turbolift, or Moriarty has reprogrammed the holodeck. Sometimes there's some energy-based lifeforce that's screwing with all the systems in the ship that only creates the subtlest of symptoms. And even then, the characters usually have a workaround readily available, because unlike your journey through the doorway, the TV plot must go on.

How often have you watched science fiction and something went wrong for unknown, unexplained, and relatively benign reasons? In other words, because it simply isn't working properly? Not often, I'd say. There's no such thing as an idiopathic TV tech malfunction; everything happens for a reason—usually a malicious reason—and if you don't know already what that reason is when the character encounters the problem, you'll probably find out by the end of the episode.

So then think about your own experiences with technology. I, for one, couldn't tell you how many times in a week I go to do something with a computer, or my phone, or some other gadget, and it refuses to behave itself. I know how it's supposed to work and I've gotten it to work a hundred times before, but it won't do it this time. I spend hours trying to figure out what the problem is, trying workarounds, reinstalling things, only to eventually give up.

It still has power and is configured the same as when I last used it. It's responding to all my other commands. But it's not doing this one thing that I want it to do now. There must be a reason for the holdup, a malicious force at play, I just haven't figured out what force that is. I know there must be something because that's what I'm trained to believe by years of watching science fiction TV. Well, nobody else has been using my computer, and there are no supernatural forces at play.

Therefore it's the computer itself that must be the malicious actor trying to keep me from doing what I want. Occasionally one can blame the manufacturer or software designer, but neither of them are in the room and it's hard to curse at someone when you don't know their name. It's convenient enough, on the other hand, to blame the computer. All the other variables are controlled, which leaves the computer as the only thing that can change what's happening with my computer.

So after a frustrating few hours, wasted, trying to get my futuristic gadgets to perform my benign chores, I forget that we "live in the future". I forget that breakdowns of technology are only malicious on TV for plot reasons.

And I forget that people in the future don't yell at their computers.

- RG>

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Cursive Conspiracy

There was a small media blip about cursive writing recently. Namely, that cursive writing might go the way of the Canadian penny, in that schoolteachers won't be required to teach it in Ontario. And like the penny, good riddance. Even better, educators are finding that proper typing is a more useful skill, and I wholeheartedly agree.

When I went through school, we were told a number of things about handwriting. We were not told that it was important because it was part of the curriculum (the word 'curriculum' had likely not entered my vocabulary yet, not to mention the bureaucratic environment from which it originates) but because it was a skill we children would need later in life. We were told the same thing a few years further in about the importance of writing in pen instead of pencil.

For example, I distinctly remember being told in elementary school that we'd have to get used to writing in pen, in cursive, because we'd be required to use it in middle school. Which was true enough--it was--except that middle school required us to follow the same convention only insofar as the same warning applied, this time one tier up looking on to high school.

Then the cracks started to show in the plan. Here's a sample of my notes from a high school English class:

This one was in pen, but it sure isn't cursive. In fact, it doesn't look much like print, either. The illegibility suggests that our high school teachers didn't really give a fuck how we wrote (which, sadly, seems to still be the case). None of my other surviving papers from high school were in cursive, either (though admittedly, most of the samples were from math and science classes, where print--and pencil--prevailed). Nevertheless, I seem to recall (and this might be apocryphal) a teacher telling us that we could print if we wanted to, but warned us that we'd be required in university/college/life to write in cursive.

In university, they really didn't give a fuck (the feeling was mutual). In fact, they distinctly discouraged us from writing in cursive on our written exams because it was so difficult for them to read the writing of these young adults who had been habituated into writing in cursive for school assignments but never properly disciplined in its use. (As for spelling and grammar, I agonized through the mandatory courses therein at university because they were teaching what was obvious to me. These basic lessons had long been ingrained in those of us who had endured the classes of our high school's old-school crone, who--bless her heart--would berate the hell out of you if you didn't heed her lessons on the nuances of English grammar.)

I recently discovered some old notebooks from early elementary school. My second grade teacher required us to write a diary and hand it in. She would then write some comment in it. And, as my friend observed reading through them, I wrote responses to her comments, often rather deadpan.

It's actually quite neat to find this, because it's a record with specific dates of where I've been. When going through the cache of school notebooks that contained this Grade 2 diary, I discarded a few which had no dates. I suppose it doesn't really matter what the date was in this case, but now in the information age we like our precision, which is included tacitly with each electronic snippet we produce. With e-mails and electronic agendas and date-stamped photos, etc., if for some odd reason I wanted to know what I was doing on a specific day in the last handful of years, I have ways of finding out. On handwritten notes, I now write the date obsessively, even writing the date of an annotation of an earlier, dated, note (sometimes I'll even write on an undated note a date wherein I speculate the date of the original note). I refer to older documents often enough that it annoys the hell out of me when I find something undated, because usually when I'm doing so it's to establish a chronology. The dates in this old diary were likely a teacher requirement rather than a habit of my own, but it is nice to have them nevertheless.

One particular entry, dated February 24 (no relation), ninteen-mumble-mumble, is illustrative of both. I had written it in cursive, which I suspect was at the encouragement of the teacher. It was in pencil, not pen, but we did a lot of erasing and correcting in those early days. It tells the story of a grand fort my friend and I had built at his place.

To this day, I remember quite a few details about this event: one of my parents drove me over to his house, which was in the Glebe (the significance of which was unapparent to me at the time). I went up to the door, and his mother answered. My friend wasn't in yet, she said, but I could wait for him. In fact, I think he was building a fort and I was to wait for him inside while he finished up. Perhaps we did work on the fort, since I don't remember much of what happened between arriving, looking at some toys and discussing them but not playing with them, and being picked up to leave. Okay, so maybe I don't remember so much, but the event as a whole I certainly remember, and it is nice to have this contemporary documentation of it.

Discovering the journal entry, decades later, it reads out succinctly as "On such-and-such date, I went to so-and-so's house and we dug out a fort [stet]." The teacher commented on how it was a good idea to visit a friend, and I replied coldly beneath her comment, "it was his [idea]." That's at least consistent with my recollection that he had started the fort long before I arrived. Perhaps I should have elaborated further, but it's too late now.

I also illustrated the diary entry with diagrams of the fort, once in plan view from above, and again in close up (I made a lot of blank pages which I called "drawings" of snow in elementary school).

But aside from the precise date and the minimalist banter, the big surprise was one that had eluded me for years. It was a clue staring me, staring all of my young colleagues, in the face: the cursive thing was a sham. For all the propaganda telling us we needed to write in cursive, my teacher's notes to me were in print!
If only I had looked between the lines to see my teacher's misstep, paid attention not to what she said but what she did. All of that stress, all of that browbeating, all of those threats that we'd never make it in the real world if we didn't write in cursive. It was all a lie. The writing on the cake was in cursive but the invoice for it was in print!


My handwriting still resembles the spaghetti in the high school example. I guess by high school I had determined the precise balance of just how messily I could write and still make out what it said. That way I can get down as much of a thought as possible before the rest escapes my mind. I can write clearly when I need to, by the way, although straight lines of text still elude me.

Rather, I can print clearly, when I need to.Which isn't often. Cursive--I literally can't think of when I last used it, but probably not since before high school.

So kids, if you're reading this at home, and teachers tell you you'll need to learn cursive, don't listen. Learn to print legibly and learn to type. And for god's sake, learn to spell: all the good jobs these days require good communication skills and no one like to hire people who can't spell.

- RG>