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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Mar 18, 2015

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Mar 11, 2015
This is what happens when you’re married for a long time

Apparently we’ve reversed personalities.

Me: Hey! There’s a truck across the street from a stoves and fireplaces shop! Shall we mount an assault? Do you want the distract-the-driver bit or the unloading-the-back bit?
Him: What?
Me: A truck full of stoves. And fireplaces.
Him: And you want one?
Me: I was thinking of all of them, actually.
Him: Just to sprinkle randomly about the house?
Me: Sure.
Him: No.
Me: You just don’t want to go outside.
Him: No.

Books 2014

I just realized I never did a books post for 2014! Ah well, better late than never.

Goodreads did this nice summary for me (click through the graphic for a full-size version which links to all the books), which shows that apparently I gave lots of books 4 stars and didn’t give any books only 1 star. I’d guess that this is probably more because I abandon what would be 1-star books pretty quickly rather than being an easy marker.

2014 books on Goodreads

The number is approximate; I’m sure there are a few books in there marked as abandoned and on the other side a few I didn’t bother to enter. Whatever. Reading is about pleasure, not accuracy.

Of particular note this year —


  • Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things. I would never have guessed that Elizabeth Gilbert had this book in her and I dearly hope she continues along this line. A really lovely book; even her science was good (I can overlook some bad science in an otherwise good book, but in this case I didn’t have to).
  • Kate Atkinson, Life After Life. A nicely done conceit. Some readers feel the war parts were too long but I don’t share that criticism. Hard to put down.
  • Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Starts off more or less straight but the humour and absurdity build and build. One of those ones to avoid reading on the subway if you don’t like giggling uncontrollably in public. There’s even an elephant. I give bonus points for elephants if they can be worked into the plot at all plausibly.
  • Jo Baker, Longbourn. Lovely and elegant.
  • Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened . Her wonky illustration style is so totally perfect.
  • The whole Peter Grant / Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich. Supernatural police-procedural mysteries with dry humour, amusing pop culture references and a clear love for London. The last one had enormous invisible carnivorous unicorns. (Apparently I give bonus points for all manner of absurd large animals.)


  • Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. All of Atul Gawande’s books are excellent, but this book about what does happen vs. what should happen in end-of-life situations is particularly good. Full of compassion and practicality.
  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Don’t be put off by the slightly hyperbolic title. There’s lots of interesting stuff in here about exactly how food is processed, and it’s an exploration, not a rant. Really interesting. It confirmed my hunch that most breakfast cereal is pretty weird stuff.
  • Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights . Just what it says on the tin. A good and very readable summary of some of the horrifying legal nonsense happening in the US and in what specific ways it’s problematic.
  • David Byrne, How Music Works . Insight into music theory as well as the workings of David Byrne’s singular creative process, and a well-thought-out summary of the pros and cons of the various ways to make money from music in the 2010s.
  • Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry, Last Chance to See: In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams. In 1990 Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine wrote the first Last Chance to See, which — in Douglas Adams’ inimitable style — explored various endangered species. For this follow-up book, Carwardine enlisted Stephen Fry, with predictably successful results. I’d offer some choice quotes but it would be hard to stop so I won’t start.

I’ll leave it at that. Feel free to plunder my Goodreads account for other ideas to read or avoid, depending on how your taste lines up with mine…

Presto is a pain in the [insert body part here]

Presto has been in the news quite a bit lately. I had a cranky-making experience with being unexpectedly out of tokens on a cold night and having the fancy Spadina streetcar-platform machine refuse to sell me one unless I had exact change (the machines CAN take Interac or Visa, but don’t — the option is greyed out), so I decided to be a sheep and try Presto. Hey, maybe it’s great! Baaa!

Well, no. Not so far, anyway.

I had to order a card online and register it in a rather protracted 4-step signup process. You have to create a whole account and there are separate passwords for the card and the account. I thought I’d get one for my kid too, but it seems that you can’t order more than one card at a time. Perhaps I missed the option; the interface is not exactly user-friendly.

Eight days later, the card arrived in the mail. You can’t set up auto-reload — which is really the key feature; never running out of fares because the card knows when it’s low on funds and magically grabs more from your bank account — until you activate it. But activation is a 2-step process: first you need to go online and enter a 17-digit number. Then you have to use the card, i.e. find a subway staton that has a Presto terminal and use it to pay for that trip. The terminal at St Patrick was broken, so I had to walk up to Queen’s Park to do this.

THEN you have to wait 24 hours until you can go online and set up auto-reload or do anything else to it. The auto-reload system makes you enter dollars and cents but can’t actually handle amounts other than full dollars — when I tried to enter $8.50, it barfed.

You can go online and check your balance, but this isn’t real-time either. The system only updates once a day so you’re always looking at yesterday’s data.

You can add more cards to your account if the cards are already registered; apparently their owners also still have them on their accounts and can log in and mess around with them too, so what a mess if you’re trying to keep your accounting straight. Oh, and the card expires in five years (why?).

If I still want a card for my kid, I get to go through all this rigmarole all over again, with the addition of annual in-person trips to Davisville to have the “concession” student fare applied to her card.

This is not the 21st century I signed up for. This is complete nonsense and is not a significant improvement over the current metal-trinkets-and-bits-of-paper system. I have no idea why we aren’t just buying some sensible transit-card system from someplace that’s figured it out — there are plenty to choose from.

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Jan 21, 2015

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Jan 07, 2015
  • "Motivated by the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb, participants were tasked with finding an…"
    “Motivated by the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb, participants were tasked with finding an archaeological enigma that lacks any historical description of its potential visual appearance. Without a pre-existing reference for validation we turn towards consensus, defined by kernel density estimation, to pool human perception for “out of the ordinary” features across a vast landscape. This consensus served as the training mechanism within a self-evolving feedback loop between a participant and the crowd, essential driving a collective reasoning engine for anomaly detection. The resulting map led a National Geographic expedition to confirm 55 archaeological sites across a vast landscape. A increased ground-truthed accuracy was observed in those participants exposed to the peer feedback loop over those whom worked in isolation, suggesting collective reasoning can emerge within networked groups to outperform the aggregate independent ability of individuals to define the unknown.”

    PLOS ONE: Crowdsourcing the Unknown: The Satellite Search for Genghis Khan

  • "Not only was hula a safe activity that improved functional capacity, participants also regarded its…"
    “Not only was hula a safe activity that improved functional capacity, participants also regarded its significant sociocultural aspects—even for participants who are not Native Hawaiian —as enhancing its value and meaningfulness. Learning the words of well-known Hawaiian songs provided additional long-term cues that encouraged “ownership” of the therapy and acted as practical reminders of the importance of exercise and lifestyle moderation while also offering new spiritual connections to the surrounding social environment.”

    Patient Perspectives on the Hula Empowering Lifestyle Adaptation Study

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Dec 24, 2014

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Tue Dec 23, 2014

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On touring high schools

Because my child is rather unbelievably already in grade 8, in the past couple of months we’ve seen, I think, twelve high schools, both public and private. The tours (and the schools) have varied from appalling to excellent. During the appalling ones I spent my time thinking about what makes a tour (and a school) good.

Things that are promising

  • The principal/admissions person/greeter at the door breezes past parents to greet the child first. Correct — it’s her schooling and her ultimate decision. We’re just along for the ride.
  • A minimum of adults speak — they trust the kids (of all ages) and let them do their thing. Bonus points if the female student president is clearly gay, ESL, beloved by all students, and intending a career as an engineer. And is followed by a grade 9 who’s been at the school for perhaps six weeks and might say anything at all about her experience.
  • Show me what you do instead of telling me.
  • Talk about what you do with kids while they are there instead of telling me all the things they do after they leave you. High school is not just a waiting room for university.
  • Talk about your teaching in terms of the kids’ accomplishments (“last year the kids won x robotics competition” or “we have three IB Biology classes because so many kids signed up”), not in terms of your own accomplishments and ego (“we win so many teaching awards!”).
  • Sell the experience your school offers. Tell me what you’re good at and which niche you fill. Don’t spend all your time talking about how hard it is to get in. Show me the stats and move on.
  • Talk about fit. Your school may be a great school for somebody else but not for my kid, and that’s fine, and we should all be clear about that and comfortable with it. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Stick to the niche you (hopefully) told me about.
  • Demonstrate your culture, don’t just talk about it. If you say you’re inclusive, let me see and talk to kids of all different kinds.
  • Show me that your student supports are proactive and not just reactive. Do you wait until kids are in trouble to offer help? Yeah, not good enough — why did you let them get into that state in the first place if your supports are so excellent and you know your kids so well?
  • Provide a program for the tour to tell me what will happen when (and, ideally, where, and even more ideally, in advance of my arrival) and who will speak.

Things that are not promising

  • You get the day wrong on your website so we miss your tour, and you do nothing but post a “sorry!” note on the door.
  • You’re very expensive but only ~80% of parents think you’re providing “good or excellent” education. Yet you trumpet this rather low figure.
  • Nobody is at the front door to welcome and guide visitors. If it’s a tour day, let me know I’m in the right place and at the right door by posting someone there.
  • There is nobody anywhere to guide visitors. Having one person inside who points vaguely down the hallway when the room I need to find is in fact upstairs, around the corner and down another long hallway isn’t helpful.
  • Your PowerPoint is a big series of “how not to use PowerPoint” examples. During one such horrorshow I leaned over to M and said “soon he’ll say ‘I know this is too small to read, but…'” and it was the very next slide.
  • Nobody seems to know who should be speaking and what they should be saying. They repeat some things and leave other important things out and argue about who is going to talk next or forget people entirely. Don’t waste my time or my kid’s.
  • Principal fails to introduce herself. Who is that mysterious person talking?
  • No students speak OR students who speak are obviously not reading their own words. I don’t want to hear schmaltzy prepared statements, I want to hear kids talk about their real experiences.
  • How do you teach programming? “Oh, we have separate groups for boys and girls”.
  • All you can find to hype about your school comes down to “we have nice grounds and are really into nepotism”.
  • Students all look the same (white, thin, able-bodied). I don’t care if your diversity is multi-ethnic, involving various forms of ability/disability, or more of an international-student thing, but it’s not healthy to have none at all.
  • Endless talk about hard, hard work, with regular all-nighters being required (in high school?! WTF) and university-level work — but only an OSSD at the end. What’s the point of pushing kids that hard if they don’t even get any advance university credit for it? Bizarre.
  • You do all kinds of advanced science — but hey, you’re balanced because you go to the opera once! Yeah, no. Those kids aren’t going to have the writing and textual interpretation skills they’ll need later. Trust me on this; I’ve TA’d for science classes.
  • “This is our pool and our fitness room, but we never get to use it really”. Fancy facilities are lovely (although utterly unnecessary), but not if they’re only there for show.
  • The student band is really, really bad. Sharp, flat and off time all at once. Don’t make me want to cover my ears and run away!

Fundamentally, it comes down to culture: how you treat people who take your tour tells me quite a bit about your attitude towards the kids. You’re demonstrating for me — and more importantly, for my daughter — what her next four years might be like. Don’t hedge, apologize or weasel — show us what you’ve got!

Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Wed Aug 06, 2014

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Neat Stuff from Elsewhere Tue Jul 29, 2014

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Quotation of the Day for July 2, 2014

“I think the deepest sacrifice of those that we ask to go to war is not the possibility that they may die or their colleagues may die, but the sacrifice of their normal unwillingness to kill – and in particular that when they come back we don’t want to know what it is that they’ve had to do.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theology and ethics at Duke University.

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The cheese stands alone

Quotation of the Day for June 21, 2014

“A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.”

– Clifton Fadiman

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Cross-stitch patterns are the plushies of the 2010s
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Yep, that’s an accomplishment

I just got back home after being on the road for three weeks. I was in Jordan in the Syrian refugee camps, the United Nations, I was signing books in Norway and in Sweden and in Spain. And I got home, and waiting for me was the board copy of “Chu’s Day,” which they’d just gotten for really little kids. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud holding this big cardboard thing where the pages are big and thick and you know the pages are going to get chewed on and sucked.

And your mind goes back 52 years, in my case, and you remember what the taste of chewing a board book is. I’ve made one of them. I’m a real author finally.

Neil Gaiman

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Why else?


Me: What? Why are you roaring?


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On the folly of not clearing the leaves in the street

This past autumn, my city decided they weren’t going to pick up the leaves that fall into the street in my neighbourhood. Normally they come by once each year after most of the leaves have fallen and enormous street-sweeping-leaf-picking-upping machines haul away the detritus. But not this year. Instead, as a cost-cutting measure the leaves were left to lie in the gutters. There are really a lot of leaves in my neighbourhood, since it features many large maple and oak trees and many of them overhang the street.

Fast forward to November. Now the leaves in the street have been driven over, parked on, and generally reduced to a thick fibrous mash covering much of the surface of the street. It’s very slippery to ride a bicycle on this mess.

Leaf mush

Then it snows. People drive over the snow plus leaf mash, turning it into a stiff slurry that slides to the sides of the street and freezes solid, blocking all the drains.

Then it snows again. Because the plows push the snow to the side of the street and because even when it does warm up a bit none of the meltwater can make it through the leaf slurry covering the drains, the snow builds up on top of the frozen leaf slurry. People park on it, crushing it into ice.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now we have a berm of solid ice a good 15 centimetres thick and two metres wide between the street and the sidewalk.

Ardagh Ice Berm

It’s taller than the sidewalk, so any meltwater from the berm and from people’s front yards can’t go anywhere. On warm days the sidewalk becomes an enormous deep puddle.

On the street side of the ice berm, the meltwater also has nowhere to go since the berm forms a solid barrier between the street and the (inaccessible anyway because they’re under six inches of ice and frozen leaf slurry) drains.

The temperature is supposed to reach highs above freezing for most of this week, with rain and perhaps more snow. What falls on the street will stay there, making a swamp; what falls on the sidewalk will stay there too, joining the meltwater from people’s front yards, forming deep puddles during the day that will freeze into treacherous slipperiness at night.

It is going to be a very big mess. There will be many soggy basements and many irate calls to the city.

I’m not sure what they thought would happen here — I predicted this very state of affairs back in October when I heard they weren’t going to sweep the leaves. And I would put quite a bit of money on the cleanup costing far more than it would’ve cost to sweep the leaves in the first place. Sigh.

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The ten most useful things I have learned from the Internet

…and from people with whom I converse there.

  1. The arrows on the Toronto PATH signs refer to the directions: north is blue, south is red, east is yellow and west is orange. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually told people this? My mnemonic is silly but in case it helps: blue is a cold colour so it’s north. South = red because of sunburn in southern climes. East = yellow for sunrise; west = orange for sunset.
  2. On most newish cars there’s a cunning little arrow next to the gas thing on the dash which tells you which side the gas cap is on. In the image below, it is on the left. Of course if you have your own car you probably just know which side it’s on but we drive a wide variety of Autoshare and rental cars and this saves a lot of tedious exploration.
  3. A housecleaner is possibly the cheapest and most effective kind of preventative marriage therapy.
  4. Bandelettes.
  5. Proper bra fitting. Key point: the whole adding 5″ to your underbust measurement is bunk. And you have to stoop & swoop. Then you have to throw out all your existing bras which have become suddenly hateful and go buy expensive new ones three cup sizes larger and two band sizes smaller.
  6. Menstrual cups. I always particularly resented that there is GST feminine hygiene products, as they’re a basic necessity and there is no equivalent product than men (and only men) must buy. Before you say “but condoms”– no, condoms are not equivalent; both men and women buy them and they’re also fundamentally optional in a way that feminine hygiene products simply are not. A DivaCup (stupid name, but never mind) can be bought once and used more or less forever — the recommendation to replace it annually is just plain silly. They used to recommend replacing it every ten years but I suppose they weren’t making enough money that way. Mine is twelve years old now and shows no signs of wear whatsoever. Also, they must have let their lawyers near the tips section: actually it’s perfectly fine in the dishwasher (wash it thoroughly first of course!) if it needs an extra-thorough cleaning, and medical-grade silicone is not going to be affected by a bit of vinegar or bleach either. Oh: cut the silly prong off the bottom; it serves no purpose except to irritate one’s labia.
  7. You can do calculations, unit conversions and a lot more right from the Google search bar.
  8. Do Not Feed the Energy Creature. Applies offline too, of course.
  9. If you adopt cats from a reputable rescue organization, someone else has already done the hard work of vetting their personality (and probably getting them spayed/neutered).
  10. Yes, this pastry recipe really is foolproof.
Apropos of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death

Me: I wouldn’t be able to pick Philip Seymour Hoffman out of a lineup. Well, maybe today I could. He’d be the slumpy one with the flies.
Husband: (spits wine)

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