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Some disjointed thoughts on needles and pitchforks

This Won't End Well

A month or so ago, I was part of a discussion on … some social justice issue, I don’t remember exactly what, and I felt calm. Some policy thing hadn’t happened as fast as someone wanted. My comment was along the lines of: but we’ve moved the needle. It’ll move again.

And I felt ok with that, because at this point I am old enough to have seen various other needles moved a little bit, over and over, until it actually meant something real and produced real results. Marriage for our LGBT+ friends, for example. Lots of things around tobacco policy. Full-day kindergarten. Pick your favourite issue. I mean, we’re even making progress on basic income.

I guess I was feeling that moving the needle a millimetre at a time was getting us somewhere real. I think I’ve made the error of middle age, the one that says it’s ok to put down the pitchfork and take up the quill.

We can’t ever put down the damn pitchfork, it seems.

I know the pendulum (to switch metaphors) swings. I know that for every advance, there’s always backlash before we can really move on.

Right now I’m starting to draft some thinking around evaluation for some national projects in the general social justice field and I’m thinking about using backlash as an indicator.

Until recently I had a nice thick file of hatemail from several decades ago when I ventured to work on things as innocuous as keeping Women’s College Hospital as its own entity or keeping Toronto un-amalgamated.

Yes, even in the 1990s a substantial number of folks thought I should be raped, tortured, dismembered and/or killed for advocating that women control an actual hospital and felt quite free to tell me so. It was an unending cascade of threats, 100% by men. A nice thick file of hatred and threat and vitriol.

I kept the letters as a reminder that we were succeeding. That we weren’t preaching to the choir, that the message was out there. And I keep saying that backlash is a sign of progress. How can I incorporate this into evaluation plans for this project? How can you measure backlash?

By elections, apparently.

It’s nice to think of backlash as an indicator of progress but I have to keep thinking: how do we move past backlash (this severe and this close to home) into real progress — into a society that is less and less based on fear and scarcity and zero-sum accounting and more about supporting everyone to live a good life?

How do we keep moving the needle towards a country which works to support its residents instead of tearing everyone down to the lowest common denominator? How can we prevent a Canadian Trump?

It’s a fragile needle, our progress indicator.

Twenty-one years ago, I sat in an Environmental Studies grad school seminar discussing when — not if, when — climate change would reach its tipping point. Collectively, we said: 30 years.

More and more I think we were right. Nine more years of the status quo and we’re pretty much fucked, climate-wise.

“No wonder the undergrads find us depressing,” noted the professor.

But we were right. We’re watching the world go over a climate cliff — no scientist even questions this, although we might argue about the details — and here we are electing people who think the planet is some sort of unimportant externality, who prioritize the economy as if an uninhabitable planet can continue to produce double-digit growth forever, as if new modes of living won’t also produce economic opportunities, as if we can ignore carbon dioxide permanently over 400ppm. More magical thinking. This is four years the planet can’t afford.

And yet people drive to pipeline protests. Sometimes I think there is no winning.

I found myself feeling real anger towards Americans casually declaring they’d move to Canada. Yeah, no. We’re not your consolation prize. You stay home and fix your country. They need you — if you leave, don’t you see you’re moving the needle in the wrong direction? If you have enough points to succeed in Canadian immigration, you’re probably not the sort of person who needs to leave. These are the kind of people Canada welcomes as immigrants. Stay. Act. Fight.

And take care of those of you who DO need protecting. They need you.

People — privileged people, of all stripes; people who have the leisure to contemplate policy — sometimes forget that all policies kill people. You can kill more or fewer people, and you can kill more of one kind of person or another, and you can kill people through action or inaction. But in order to make the best possible policy, you need to know the reality of it — you need to look at established fact and evidence and then make your best guess about what’s going to happen if you enact your policy, because systems are complex as well as complicated and we can’t always predict everything.

Policies based on ideology divorced from evidence and fact almost inevitably kill more people, because people’s lives are (imagine that) lived in reality and not within the bounds of ideology. It’s not wrong to be terrified when people are appointed or elected who vow to make policy based on their own imaginations instead of on the available evidence.

Generally, I think it’s a good idea to try to make policies that kill the fewest people. It’s apparent that not everyone agrees. I know that; I know it’s true and yet every time dangerous people get elected I always end up sitting here in stupidly naive shock.

I haven’t seen raw fear as an election reaction before. Fear, real fear, accurate, personal, deep fear for one’s life — this in a democracy; that’s the new thing that’s come out of this election. Possibly it’s also a new thing to elect someone who hopes his policies do kill people.

I’m not sure how it’s feasible to work to move the needle with such a person in charge — barring the pitchforks.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

But also I think we need to keep working on moving that needle, millimetre by millimetre, even when it seems pointless or hopeless. Taking care of ourselves and taking care of everyone else. Not losing the vision of something better. Calling out assholery and discrimination when we see it, when we can. Love is love is love is love and let’s not forget that.

(Don’t put down the pitchforks.)

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Book review: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, by Violet Blue

sggp coverI read a review copy of this (it comes out August 25), so the text isn’t necessarily final. Still, I’m quite confident that I can recommend it: it’s a good overview of basic privacy principles and techniques. It pays special attention to the ways in which girls and women are targeted online.

There’s a useful list of bits of information you should never share online, coverage of data collation practices, a good discussion of privacy settings, and some ninja tricks for people who want to go beyond the basics.

I disagree with Blue on only one point: she recommends setting up an autoresponder to tell people you’ve changed your email address. I disagree. They’re a blunt tool and — unless you can set your email program only to autorespond to those in your contact list — provide every spammer and scammer who hits your old address with a direct path to your new one.

I’m also a little worried that some of the techniques might require more specifics. Often the instructions given are quite high-level, and I wonder if the average reader of this book will be tech-savvy enough to follow them easily. But that’s a minor quibble and one that can probably be resolved by some quick Googling on Average Reader’s part.

I’ll add one very recent addition to the useful-tools collection: I’ve been testing the EFF’s browswer add-on PrivacyBadger for the past week and have been very pleased with it.

Overall, this book is a quick read and sensible advice. It hits the mark, emphasizes the importance of paying attention to privacy without being judgmental, and provides a collection of useful tools and resources. I’ll get a copy for my daughter.

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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.

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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 —

Fiction

  • 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.)

Non-fiction

  • 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…

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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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  • "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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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!

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PTSD

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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