Monthly Archives: December 2013

“Some” assembly required

So this is totally cool. I really love engineering and the cool stuff Engineers come up with.

Like this.

Okay, that’s definitely a desk that just seemed to come out of thin air.

And some kind of shelving to the right. Are you serious, box?

That’s definitely a bed being produced before my very eyes.

That’s right. Engineers have pretty much found a way to put the necessary contents of a bachelor apartment into a “box” about the size of what a professional magician would bring on stage with them. Amazing. I’m sure people looking to fit comfortably into an apartment in Manhattan would want to know about this. The only downside is I imagine it takes a fair bit of time to unpack and set it all up. And I’m pretty sure I’d need some kind of map or diagram to de-assemble it properly!

Check it out, and maybe consider a career in engineering? 🙂

bedroom packed





bedroom unpacked

Has Utah cracked homelessness?

This has been making the rounds on social media lately – “Utah Is on Track to End Homelessness by 2015 With This One Simple Idea”:

Utah has reduced its rate of chronic homelessness by 78 percent over the past eight years, moving 2000 people off the street and putting the state on track to eradicate homelessness altogether by 2015. How’d they do it?

The state is giving away apartments, no strings attached. In 2005, Utah calculated the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while the cost of providing an apartment and social worker would be $11,000. Each participant works with a caseworker to become self-sufficient, but if they fail, they still get to keep their apartment.

Now, I’m no economics expert (even though I’ve taken a few economics classes), so I tossed this over to a friend of mine from college who is specializing in economics (though he’s about as anti-socialist as one can be).

His response:

They misuse numbers to make this look better than it is. First and foremost, the $16,670 they supposedly spend on the average homeless person for jail and E.R. cannot be compared with the $11,000 it supposedly costs to run this project. This doesn’t reduce the odds of going to prison or getting hurt to 0, so they’re still paying for both, and at best they can say that the $16,670 might be reduced a little, but not realistically by more than $11,000.

Also, the people who take advantage of this are not the same people who are getting thrown in prison, so they’re comparing averages to a non random sample which could make anything look good. Then they claim that it removed 2000 people from the street. Most homeless people don’t stay homeless for that long. Only the most severe cases stay on the streets for 8 years. If the project hadn’t been there, most, if not all of those people would have still found homes in that time.

Misusing numbers makes things look good to people who’ve barely learned any statistics. If they did a proper test, they might even find out that this increases homelessness. Who knows. You know what would actually reduce homelessness, get people off the streets, and reduce costs for the state? Ending the war on drugs.

He and I don’t agree on a lot when it comes to matters like what this article talks about, but we do agree on that last part. The war on drugs has been an utter failure.

Things Mentally Strong People Avoid Doing

Great article from Forbes, “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid”.

I’m just going to put the bullet points here and you can read the details at your leisure. I agree with all of these:

1. Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
2. Give Away Their Power
Shy Away from Change
4. Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
5. Worry About Pleasing Others
6. Fear Taking Calculated Risks
7. Dwell on the Past
8. Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
9. Resent Other People’s Success
10. Give Up After Failure
11. Fear Alone Time
12. Feel the World Owes Them Anything
13. Expect Immediate Results

Clothing chemicals and choose who you support carefully

Speaking of activism, I have some comments from the other side (sort of).

Recently I came across this video about the chemicals used to make the clothes some (many?) of us wear, and what a toll they are supposedly wreaking on the environment.

I was watching the video, trying to remain skeptical. At the end, it turned out the video was made by GreenPeace (I was watching it on another site so this wasn’t obvious).

If the video is true – and I believe it’s probably at least somewhat true, though also possibly exaggerated and sensationalized – then it’s certainly worth taking heed of.

But what I want to say separate from the video, and on the topic of activism and activist groups, I have noticed a trend (which also happens to exist in the news world). Whoever is first to the microphone tends to end up leading any given cause. Similarly – the first reporter to cover a news story and get mass media coverage, whatever they report – or don’t report – is what most people remember. No matter how many corrections or retractions come after.

Let me explain the idea I’m getting at:

1. GreenPeace – I don’t know if they were first, but they’re definitely one of the most well known. I’m very pro-environment. I sold my last car 4 years ago and have been biking and taking public transit since. I recycle and compost. I’d get a solar panel for my apartment if that was a possibility at the building I live in. I feel guilty every time I’m forced to buy bottled water. That all said, I don’t fully support GreenPeace. Why? Well, partly because of their tactics. Same reason I like religious people who don’t preach or chase you around with pamphlets. You shouldn’t have to do that if you have a legitimate message. Yes, public demonstrations and public activism is necessary, but publicity stunts and PR campaigns can be done wrong. And being sensationalist about a legitimate message will turn a lot of people off who would have otherwise agreed with you and taken heed of your idea. If you have to make a big deal, you may have a less legitimate message. The person who screams loudest gets the most attention, regardless of what they are saying.

2. PETA – same deal. I’m pro animals, I believe animals should be treated ethically, we shouldn’t wear them as fashion (just for the sake of it), and in an ideal world, we would eat much less meat, but not none. I would ideally follow a model like what cave men and natives did – hunt for food, for clothing, to make tools out of bones, use every part of the animal possible to pay respect to it for giving its life to sustain ours. Cave men and natives did it, we in modern society just industrialized and commercialized it.

PETA is too aggressive about their cause (and as a result, their supporters tend to be as well), and often it seems that they rely on sensationalist, polarizing, even patronizing ads. I’ve heard the argument made, and I agree, militant vegans may actually do more harm to their cause than good. Just as it’s hard to convince someone to go from not exercising at all (or being a frequent consumer of meat, to finish the metaphor), to running 7 days a week and lifting weights 7 days a week, you have to ease into a transition out of an established dietary pattern. And making people feel guilty or ashamed for their lifestyle isn’t helping anyone. Positive changes come only when people want the change, not when they’re forced or guilted into it. Offer a solution, offer simple baby step suggestions towards the desired outcome. As people if they would like to make a change, if they say yes, offer your help, if they say no, leave them alone – you’ll only waste both of your time/energy and theirs.

Again, I think the current situation with animals, factory farming, leather coats and barbequeing being practically a religion in some places, it’s not so good, I’d love to see it change, but I can’t get behind PETA because they’re just pushing too hard, using a blunt force marketing style (they could really stand to have some young creative social media type savvy). In fact, one of their ads says “Whips and chains belong in the bedroom, not in the circus”, and the internet of course comically responded with “PETA – because apparently you should respect animals, but not women”. I’m all for a healthy, liberated sex life, but come on, you can do better PETA. I look at their ads sometimes and I sigh or groan. It sometimes feels patronizing. It’s all or nothing, there’s no room for compromise. This is rarely a good strategy because it serves to create friction and people either dig in or they tune out completely because they don’t want to get dragged into the fray and not be able to get out.

3. Autism Speaks – The more I read about this organization, the more I dislike them. They started out innocently enough, wanting to help families affected by the difficulties that come with Autism. But at some point, possibly during the whole charade of the “Vaccines cause Autism!” debacle (which turned out to be bunk), their “goal” seemed to switch to finding a “cure” for Autism (arguably that would help the families, but is Autism something that needs to be cured? Myself and many others don’t think so). This organization brings in a lot of donation money, both from corporate sponsors as well as desperate families, but their mission is arguably completely misguided.

Temple Grandin, a famous “Autist” has been arguing that Autism is a matter of how the brain is actually wired on the neurological level, not a “disorder” as it has been classified for so long. Autism Speaks seems to be ignoring this, and anyone who fails to do their research will likely stumble upon Autism Speaks first, and end up supporting their cause, which I’d argue is actually to the detriment of Autism at this point. I’ve seen their email newsletters, they persisted in hammering on the fear aspect, claiming a rising Autism epidemic, making a “cure” more important than ever. But Autism doesn’t need to be cured any more than Dyslexia (a very similar neurological setup) or ADD. The people with these brains (and their families) simply need to learn how to think around the difference, learn to harness the unique power their minds possess. I have plans to do a more complete writeup of Autism later (I’ve done a lot of reading about).

Point being – just because an organization is the most well-known public face of a cause that you believe in, doesn’t mean you should automatically support them. I don’t say I’m a PETA supporter, I’m an “animal rights” supporter. I’m an “environmental advocate”. Few organizations get everything right. The same thing can also apply to politics, religion and many other issues. You want to figure things out on a case by case basis. Don’t just pick one side because it’s easy. Think about it, make an educated decision. It’s not good to blindly follow any cause, and just because one group got to the front first doesn’t mean they’re legit.

Inspiring ways to cope with loss

We often praise artists for finding creative and inspiring ways to look at and deal with loss and tragedy, to take a bit of the sting out of the sadness of death, war and other dark aspects of life and humanity, and replace it with at least a little bit more hopeful, forgiving, acceptance.

Here is another such project which is really beautiful so I wanted to share it.

“A Celebration Of A Mom’s Love, This Father-Daughter Photo Series Will Rip Your Heart Apart”

In 2009, newlyweds Ben and Ali Nunery — dressed in their finest wedding regalia — posed in their new, as-yet unfurnished home in Cincinnati, Ohio, for wedding album photos. Ben’s new sister-in-law, Melanie Pace, a professional photographer, snapped a series of gorgeous pictures of the young couple. “Those images represent some of the happiest moments in my life,” Ben wrote on his blog. “It was the beginning of what we planned on being a long and happy life together.”

Sadly, however, this wasn’t to be. The couple was soon informed that Ali had a rare form of lung cancer. In 2011, just a year after their daughter, Olivia, was born, the young mom — then just 31 — passed away.

But this year, Ben says he is finally ready to say goodbye to that house, one so full of memories — both sad and sweet. He knew, however, that he and Olivia couldn’t just move out without marking the occasion in some way. So he called his sister-in-law again, in the hopes that she would help him recreate the photographs he once took with Ali. This time, he would pose with 3-year-old Olivia, the other love of his life.

Get a tissue ready, this is a real tear-jerker.

(EDIT – forgot to actually link to the article originally, I have fixed this)

Protest first, prove legitimacy, party later

My friend Karen has a blog called “Domestigoth”, and she writes about some interesting things. She has a post about the psychology of being an enabler, one about expectations of genius, and one I just read last night about falling out of love with an activism movement.

The way she couched the issue at hand spoke to me and made me think of the broader topic for possibly all causes:

Don’t get me wrong; the weekend is always full of fun events.  When I’ve attended Pride celebrations in the past, I’ve always had a pretty good time.  But it just seems more and more that Pride has lost touch with its roots, becoming a mass-media fueled circus of stereotypes.  And in the places where glimpses of those authentic roots can be seen, they’ve stagnated, not keeping up with the times of a changing world and society.

My biggest problem with Pride, as it exists today, is that I’m no longer sure whether it’s helping with the cause of acceptance and integration.  Pride arose out of the oppression of the 1950s and 60s, when there were no laws protecting against sexual discrimination, and being openly gay (and especially cross-dressing) could get you arrested as a “sexual deviant”.  One of the driving forces behind the formation of Pride Weekend, in particular, was the Stonewall Riots, when violence erupted following a particularly brutal police raid on a well-known gay establishment.  And so in the beginning, Pride was about being confrontational and in-your-face.  It had to be.  Gay people were facing violence, and were tired of just lying down and taking it — they wanted and needed to fight back, in a very real and physical sense.

And later in the post:

I can’t help but feel that in the face of such stereotypical images, non-heterosexuality hasn’t been accepted by the general public … it’s just been shoved into a convenient and comfortable category.  Gay people are harmless.  Just let them have their parties and their hair gel and they’ll be happy.  And so people tolerate gayness … but they don’t accept it.  It’s kept separate from them, hermetically sealed off away from their “family values”.

And I think she caught onto something I had noticed but had struggled to put into overall context. Today, thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to speak out about a cause, but it’s also easier than ever in our modern “any excuse to have a party is a good excuse” culture, to co-opt and derail a cause by making it into a party, rather than a protest. Protests don’t have to be aggressive or violent, certainly, but they also shouldn’t eventually devolve into something resembling the antics in a frat house on a Friday night.

Now, to be totally upfront – I don’t drink, I’ve never been drunk, I’ve never been high, and I still don’t see any need to change that in my life. I admit when I was younger I was very well influenced by propaganda that all pot smokers were useless burnout stoners, and my experiences around alcohol as a kid/teenager didn’t help either. Basically, I’ve had more negative experiences around “mind altering substances” than positive ones, and have made a deliberate decision to live a fully sober, clear life (to quote Warrel Dane, “there is no stronger drug than reality”). To not get distracted or sidetracked by these things. I don’t feel they’re necessary for happiness, but I also don’t begrudge those who choose to partake, when done responsibly. But I am seemingly very much in the minority on this.

I think what we need to remember, and strive for, and not get pulled away from, is that activism is a community effort, a sharing of the battle for change to benefit everyone. My suggestion would be to do your protest or demonstration first, and then have a party after to celebrate the progress you’ve made. I don’t know that the party and the demonstration should be simultaneous. Yes, Gay Pride (as an example) has become much more accepted, and sure let them celebrate this progress, but more work still needs to be done and by the sounds of it, it’s basically just an all day party now. As Karen pointed out, it has become like a cordoned-off circus that is easy for outsiders to ignore and dismiss, because they’re not really protesting anymore, they’re just preaching to their own choir.

Another great example is how 2013’s Nuit Blanche art festival got overrun (from many accounts) by “drunken surburban kids”. They weren’t interested in the art, the ideas, the message, they were interested in screwing around, causing trouble, and laughing at others’ expense. Again, not everyone who drinks is destined to ruin it for everyone, but I think in these situations, the people in charge need to watch out for troublemakers who show up with intoxicant already in hand.

Yes, making it a party gets more attention and exposure, but it also reduces legitimacy. It makes it easier for the media to downplay the cause as unrealistic, unfocused and not needing to be taken seriously (a la the Occupy Wall Street critics).

That’s why I think you should save the party for after the protest, because then it’s much harder to denounce the cause, and it forces outsiders to take it more seriously. I just keep asking myself “why do we as a society feel the need for constant excuses to get drunk and forget our troubles?”. Do we have too many troubles to cope with? Not everyone does, but do the majority? I think we need to address that, rather than seemingly continue to let the trend snowball in the wrong direction.

Fight for your right to have cake, then it will be all the more delicious when you get to eat it in peace!

That’s just my $0.02.

Curiosity Recap (Week in Review Dec 29, 2013)

recapsmallGood notes jar idea from reddit – here’s something to try to remind you of all the positives of the year past
Quora question: why might aliens not have made contact? – an interesting answer to this question
Banana Pandemic – the future is precarious for our favourite yellow fruit
This week in solar: Glass – a new solar power capturing device that means a brighter future for green energy
The mask you live in: Documentary about Masculinity – Every man you know should probably watch this
How much faster would your commute be if the train didn’t have to stop? – China seeks to make that a reality
Grab Adobe Photoshop CS2 and Creative Suite for FREE – registration on required, but otherwise totally legit
Perspective from a Nurse – why it’s ultimately better to be in the waiting room than not
Censorship is dumb, you can help fix that – by donating and supporting this documentary project about unjustified censorship (NSFW)
I think I’m having Deja Vu – you’d think you’d heard this before. Probably because you have
Post Christmas Reading List – a few books I got for christmas, as well as one I’m currently working on
20 Photos of Beautiful Human Compassion – Your weekly dose of inspiration
Beginner’s Primer on WordPress and other blogging platforms – My write-up (from somewhat hazy memory) of the experience of teaching myself the platform and launching this site 2 months ago
Things I did in 2013 – My recap of what I did with much of my time this year
Hellsongs, it’s not what it sounds like! – I feature a cool band that’s doing something you don’t hear every day. They’re kind of a hidden gem, in my humble opinion
Living on One Dollar – A new documentary about poverty through the eyes of “first world” young adults who go and “walk the walk”
LOL My Thesis: How to not take yourself too seriously – a humorous look at what some people spend many years of their lives on
Want to know what your dog is thinking? – Company is developing a device to read rover’s brainwaves and tell you what they say
Moral Matters and what they tell us – a thought experiment to make you think WWYD?
“This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement” – you be the judge

Still plenty more in the backlog but I’m spent. Happy Sunday!

“This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement”

Speaking of perspective and moral questions, I came across this recently and wanted to share. It’s a large image (so I can’t repost it here properly with it still being legible), but I wanted to share it and encourage you to read it.

It starts with this statement:

“If you can afford an iPhone or an iPad, then you shouldn’t be on Welfare. This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement”

A back and forth commences which offers great perspective (in my opinion), and it may not change your mind if you agree with the above statement, but if you’re on the fence, or looking for good counter arguments, you may want to read it.

Moral matters and what they tell us

Found a long article (that’s not easy to sum up, but very interesting and worth a read) that I want to share with you. It’s titled “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” on The Atlantic.

The article references a few books, as well as a classic moral thought experiment called “The Trolley Problem”:

The thought experiment—called the trolley problem—has over the past few years gotten enough attention to be approaching “needs no introduction” status. But it’s not quite there, so: An out-of-control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person. Would you—should you—pull the lever?

Now rewind the tape and suppose that you could avert the five deaths not by pulling a lever, but by pushing a very large man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body would slow the train to a halt just in time to save everyone—except, of course, him. Would you do that? And, if you say yes the first time and no the second (as many people do), what’s your rationale? Isn’t it a one-for-five swap either way?

Greene’s inspiration was to do brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem. The results suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains, whereas people who chose the more utilitarian solution—keep as many people alive as possible—showed more activity in parts of the brain associated with logical thought.

Later in the article is this bit:

Ariely and Kahneman spend lots of time in their books on financial and other mundane decisions, whereas Greene is focusing on moral matters. It’s one thing to say “Isn’t it crazy that you’ll drive 10 miles to save $50 on a $100 purchase but not to save $50 on a $500 purchase?” It’s another thing to say “Isn’t it crazy that you’ll dutifully kill a guy by pulling a lever but refuse on principle to give him a nudge that leads to the same outcome?” The first question is about self-help. The second question is about something more.

Again, the article is fairly long, but very interesting and I recommend reading it if you have time. I quite enjoy these sorts of thought experiments because I like to try and work out what I would do and why before being thrust into the situation with a time limit that will likely only serve to strain my ability to think in a calm and rational manner to make the right choice.

In having thought about it (and not read the book for the deeper analysis), my thought is that I would both be willing to pull the lever, and push the person off the bridge.

This is of course ignoring the possibility that the one person whose life is being sacrificed could be Einstein and the 5 lives being saved could all be terminally ill infants, but that’s obviously far more complex and that’s a situation that is much harder to prepare for in advance.

Want to know what your dog is thinking?

I thought this was a joke when I saw the headline “Dog to English Translation Headset Gets Funding”. Apparently, it’s totally legit.

A company named Emotiv is developing a device (which they are calling “No More Woof“) that will work pretty much like the baby translator on The Simpsons did with babies, and tell you what your dog is thinking.

And not unlike the simplicity of the device from that Simpsons episode, this one will be pretty simple as well:

“Some of the most easily detected neural patterns are: ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m curious who that is’ and ‘I’m excited,'” NSID writes on its Indiegogo page. “To be completely honest, the first version will be quite rudimentary.”

If you’re interested to “get in on the ground floor”, head over to their IndieGoGo page and contribute.

UPDATE – Apparently this sort of device has already been invented and is already sold on Amazon. I haven’t read the reviews, but I would suggest doing so before buying it!