Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Summer 2010: A bit of a hiking trip!

Here's the route:

View Larger Map

It's still - clearly - in the "pipe dream" phase: to walk, over the course of several weeks, from New Orleans to Chicago. Still, my friend Nez might be up for it.

1,571 km total (976mi)

Averaging between 3.5km/h and 4.0km/h on foot, 8 hours per day, that's 30km per day. Not an excruciating day's walk. So:

30km per day
6 days per week

That 52 travelling days. Taking one day off per week to rest and adding half a week's buffer in case of a minor setback, that's 65 days. 65 days on foot from New Orleans to Chicago.

This isn't a wilderness trip, so we don't need to take extensive supplies with us. We'll need to be carrying clothes, a tent, packs, water, cooking equipment, and a day or two's worth of food. We could easily keep our pack weight down below 35lbs.

We could actually do this. It's just surreal.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chi, Woo, Kung Fu and God

Truth isn't everything.

It's an almost counter-intuitive thing for a skeptic to say, but in some cases truth can be outweighed by the benefit of a lie. The main arguments that I usually see for certain ways of faith-based thinking seem to pivot on the crux of two things:

1) The belief is objectively true: God does exist; vaccines cause autism; the your future is predicted in the stars; a supernatural Chi force runs through meridians in your body.

2) You're objectively better off believing that it's true: A life with religion is more full; believing in Chi flow can help you break concrete with your bare hands.

By the way I have categorized these things, it's clear that I'm operating on the assertion that the things listed above fall under the category of magical thinking. The focus of this post isn't to show the fallacy of believing in the objective truth of these kinds of claims; many people have gone into the minutiae of each issue in much greater detail, and with much more powerful logic than I would. This post is about the second category of argument: that there can - in some cases - be a demonstrable and objective benefit to believing in something that is not objectively true.

The martial art of Kung Fu - among many others - focuses on channeling the flow of a magical force, Chi, to do things would normally be considered to be impossible. Practitioners can often break wood and concrete with their bare hands, rest their weight against a sharpened spear by their throats, and hammer nails into wood with their bodies.

Does that prove that Chi exists? No, of course not. Now we understand the Newtonian concepts of force, acceleration, and kinetic energy. The fact remains, though, that a doctorate in Physics rarely bestows a professor with the ability to smash concrete with his forehead. Chi, it seems, proves to be a useful sort of cognitive shorthand for the massive amount of equivalent mathematical calculations for applying force with your own body. Chi may not exist, but Kung Fu can help you to do things normally considered outside of the range of human capabilities.

You could even test it experimentally. A double-blind study would be effectively impossible, because the experiment's subjects would obviously know whether they were practitioners of a martial art or whether they were the control group. But seeing as how the main purpose of a double-blind experiment is to compensate for placebo effect, I think we could write it off as superfluous; you've either got a broken piece of concrete, or a broken hand - placebo don't enter into it. A simple blinded study, however, would have pretty predictable results: Shaolin Monks can fuck shit up.

In short, Chi isn't real, but it can still help you.

I think there's a valid argument to the idea that truth isn't everything, and that the benefit of believing something that is objectively untrue can make that belief worthwhile. However, it would still be fallacious to conflate proof of a belief's benefit with proof of its veracity.

In this way, kung fu seems to represent an enormous outlier among the many other forms of magical thinking, in that the benefit of its belief can be objectively measured. Nobody would argue with the fact that if your goal is to break a brick with your body, you're better off knowing kung fu than not knowing it.

How do other forms of magical thinking such as religion, homeopathy, and astrology compare against kung fu? Not well. "Natural Medicine" and Astrology can and have been easily subjected to controlled study, and both have failed, with flying colours, to show any efficacy beyond the Placebo/Barnum effect and random chance. Astrology is nothing more than vague cold-reads guessing at random chance. No atheists that I know lead any less happy a life for their lack of superstitious belief in a god. Controlling for medical history and lifestyle, you're statistically about as well off going to a homeopath as you are doing nothing, and substantially less well off than going to see a real doctor who knows what he or she is talking about.

The funny thing about homeopathy is that the reverse used to be true. Before the advent of germ theory, vaccination, and basic procedures of hygiene and sanitation, mainstream medicine once did more harm than good. Common now-debunked treatments for various physical and mental illnesses once included bloodletting, lobotomy, electroshock (which has been discontinued in all but a select few rare cases where it can actually potentially help), and avoidance of bathing. If you lived in the 18th century, you'd often be better off having a homeopath playing magician and effectively doing nothing than you would going to a doctor and being bled by unsanitized equipment.

Eventually, though, the mainstream of medicine came to test treatments ojectively. Those treatments that did not prove to be effective were discarded, and those that worked were incorporated into the canon of modern medicine. Homeopathy is still making things up and doing nothing, and so has been surpassed by modern medicine as the treatment of choice for any reasonable person who wants to deal with something like AIDS, cancer, or internal bleeding.

It's 5:45am right now, so I'll get to my point.

I'm not a practitioner of kung fu, but if I wanted to break things in cool and objectively measurable ways, I'd be better off it I were.

I'm not a denizen of the 18th century, but if I were, I'd be better off going to a quack doctor selling me water and snake oil that did nothing than I would going to a doctor who wanted to open up my blood vessels with a dirty needle.

It's mostly a rhetorical point, but a belief doesn't need to be true for it to be a worthwhile one; it needs to be either true or demonstrably beneficial. I feel extremely confident in saying that in the modern world, most forms of magical thinking (god, zodiac signs, homeopathy, &c.) fail in both regards. Kung Fu (believing in Chi flow) and homeopathic medicine (when - and only when - compared to the mainstream medicine of a couple centuries ago) are not the rule, but the exceptions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Queer Idol is hetero-friendly.

I just applied to audition next month. This should be awesome. I'd probably get past the first round just by virtue (you know what I mean) of being the only straight man there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Random thought: Blues Pilgrimage to Chicago.

Toronto to Chicago. I bet I could walk it in a month.

That's all.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Jenny McCarthy is an idiot. A really hot idiot.

I've been away. Maybe I'll make it up to my imaginary readers.

Friend and blogger Tall Penguin recently wrote about some amazing travels that she's considering, and her concerns about the vaccines that she needs for the trip:

With two years of possibly not having to work spread out in front of me, I am entertaining ideas of travel. This became a very real possibility this past weekend when a friend offered to show me India in November when he goes there for his sister's wedding. I am excited about this prospect. But it's raised a fear in me that I didn't realize I was going to have to confront. Vaccinations.

If I'm going to experience world travel, there's a whole lot of shots I have to get. And it's not that I'm afraid of the needles. It's my fear that vaccines could be somewhat damaging to my long-term health. Having got hit with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my teens shortly after having a Polio vaccination, I have had a hard time shaking the idea that the two may have been connected, even though there is much scientific research to dispel any connection.

I have done a fair amount of research on the vaccination issue and feel that while vaccinations are generally safe, there are risks involved. So, I'm going to book myself an appointment with a travel doctor and learn all I can about the vaccinations I'd require to travel abroad, the benefits and the risks. All said and done, I am of the opinion that there are always risks involved in any choice and I can't keep myself back from fully experiencing my life just because of the potential risks.

Don't swallow the alternative-medicine snake-oil, Penguin, no matter how much water it's diluted with.

Here's where I tell you where I stand, based on my understanding of the facts. Take it or leave it.

Immunize. Vaccinations are probably responsible for saving more lives than anything else in the history of medicine, with the possible exception of basic sanitary procedure.

Things like measles, smallpox, and polio are just far-away ideas now, and they don't seem all that scary. The reason they're not all that scary is because vaccinations have effectively eliminated smallpox from developed countries, and all but decimated many other diseases which once killed people in huge numbers.

India is country with first-world areas within a literal stone's throw from people living in medieval conditions - dying of medieval diseases. Black Death still exists there, and there have been outbreaks of it within the last two decades.

For Canadians like us with little actual exposure to crippling and lethal epidemic diseases, it's easy not to get worried about them. They're still out there, though. They're only not here because of vaccination programs initiated in the Western world within the last few generations.

Weighed against the enormous life-saving benefit of vaccinations are the mainly unsubstantiated claims that there is a link between immunization and long-term physical or neurological health problems. The loudest rants come from people like your commenter "V," and former Playboy model/celebrity anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy, who are convinced that there is a link between modern medical vaccination programs and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

There have been numerous medical studies that have shown that there is no realistic link between vaccination and ASDs, and every time a study comes back and shows no causative link, anti-vaccine activists will either scroll down the vaccine's list of ingredients and pick out another chemical boogeyman, or else argue that "there's more to understanding your health than controlled, double-blind medical studies."

It's bullshit. The first vaccine ingredient to be touted as the cause of an "Autism Epidemic" was Thimerosal. There was no real evidence for a link, but it was removed anyway from just about all vaccines but influenza's. This happened over a decade ago in Canada, and ASD diagnoses haven't gone down.

I spend half of this last summer working with kids on the Autism spectrum, and I saw many parents and otherwise superb colleagues who bought into this frightened mob-think.
There's nothing to lose by getting vaccinated by getting immunized before going to India, and everything to lose by skipping the vaccines.

I'm solidly with Umlud and CyberLizard on this one, and I'll happily second Umlud's suggestion that you check out Orac over at his "Respectful Insolence" blog (http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/). He's a surgeon who has written extensively on the subject.

My advice is to be skeptical of anyone who touts "alternative" medicine. The main reason alternative treatments are alternative is because they can't go through a controlled study showing anything more than placebo effect. Most treatments and medicines that can pass such a test are incorporated into the canon of mainstream medicine. There's no mainstream conspiracy to disprove things like homeopathy; if there were anything to it, Big Medicine would be more than happy to make money off of it, and would push for its full acceptance.

The medical community is about as embroiled in controversy over the safety of vaccinations as the scientific community is about the controversy of the origin of the human species - that's to say, an overwhelming majority standing on the side of the evidence, with a small handful of degreed whack-jobs getting attention for being "mavericks."

You know me. You know I'm not a conformist for the sake of conformity. It's just that there's no actual reason to skip your vaccinations, and a lot at stake if you do.

I'm not a doctor, though. Neither (clearly) is "V," and neither (presumably) are Umlud or CyberLizard. Orac is probably a doctor, but pseudonymous bloggers don't exactly display their medical degrees for the world to see.

Trust an actual doctor.

And bring me back strange and exotic forms of alcohol.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Enlarge your P3N15!

So can we? Of course not. If I took all the thought that I devote to my penis, and applied it to something useful to society, there'd probably be no more cancer.

When I stumbled across an archaic post of PZ Myers' on his Pharyngula blog, my subconscious was ecstatic with glee. Finally, another excuse to focus on my penis!

The gist of PZ's post is that research seems to suggest that while across different species, sexual selection shows a consistent pressure towards larger size in male genitalia, the varying effect of natural-selection pressures will drive size down.

The burden of bearing a massive penis

A couple of recent studies in fish and spiders have shown that penis size is a matter of competing tradeoffs, and that these compromises have evolutionary consequences. Guys, trash that e-mail for penis enlargement services—they can make you less nimble in pursuit of the ladies, or worse, can get you killed.[....]

[....]The authors measured [the spiders'] peak speed in short sprints, and found that it shot up from 2.7±0.2 cm/s to 3.8±0.3. They also had impressive improvements in endurance. They'd chase spiders with a soft brush until the poor fellows collapsed in exhaustion and would move no more. Spiders with two intact pedipalps [dual spider-cocks] would flop down after 17 min 30 s±55 s. Lose one palp, and they could keep running for 28 min 30 s±45 s. Even more severe, spiders with two palps died.53% of the time after collapsing, while the unipalp runners only died 12% of the time[....]

[and now for the fish-dick portion!]

[....]Given a choice, females flirted with the large-gonopodium male 81% more often than the small-gonopodium male. You knew that would be the case, didn't you?

[...]That advantage doesn't come for free. They also measured burst-speeds in startle-escape responses, the fast tail-flick dart fishes use to get away from the lunge of predators…and the large-gonopodium fish were significantly slower. That large object hanging off the fish represents a good bit of drag, reducing speed, maneuverability, and endurance, and may also be something to catch the eye of predators.

This study went a step further and looked to see if gonopodium size has consequences in the real world. They sampled populations from lakes and ponds that were either free of piscivorous predators (the open bars in the chart below), or contained beasts that would chow down on Gambusia (the black bars), and measured gonopodium size. Males in predator-free waters had gonopodia that were on average 12% larger than their more harried conspecifics.

The lesson is clear. If you live in an environment where you can afford to be slow and lazy, sexual selection can take over: the females will preferentially mate with the fish with the larger gonopodia, driving up the average size over generations. If you have to be nimble and swift to stay alive, natural selection will cull out the males with oversized genitals.

Thinking out loud: I'm not a biologist by training - or involved in any of the sciences for that matter, so if I make a colossal error in my thinking... My bad.

Genital size can vary between localized groups within the same species based on how much pressure is exerted by natural selection and the ability to be nimble and swift.

Does that really seem to transfer over empirically to humans?

A natural hypothesis to make would be that a population's genital size would be affected by how long ago that area switched from hunting and gathering to general agriculture.

There are probably few things that exert natural selective pressure towards being nimble and swift than hunting does, and any man that's ever run naked (or commando) knows that having your cock constantly slapping your thigh is a little impeding.

On the other hand, sustained agriculture would significantly reduce the effect of natural selection on the need for speed and agility.

You would expect that, in an area where humans have engaged in agriculture for hundreds of generations, you would see that sexual selection had outstripped survival pressures.

Where hunting and gathering had been the primary means of survival, you'd expect that natural selection would have, on average, a slightly diminishing effect on genital size.

Does the hypothesis hold up? Look at the difference between averages in Africa and Southeast Asia. I don't remember where I got this, but I remember reading somewhere that the averages differ between 10% and 20% (up to around an inch).

Southeast Asia has been engaging in regular agriculture for thousands of years, whereas humans were largely hunter/gatherers in Africa until more recently. Yet it's people of African descent that average slightly more than their Asian counterparts.

Based on that alone, the hypothesis doesn't seem to hold up.

Then again, we're looking at only two data, and many potentially confounding variables. (Climate, clothing, diet, etc.)

Still, if the main factor determining male genital size really is the surival pressure of speed and agility, then you would expect that pressure to outweigh any others.

Or maybe several thousand years don't leave enough time for differences in importance between natural selection and sexual selection to affect heritable phenotype.

hehehe... Penis.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

With a Little Help from my Friends

I just got back from the Joe Cocker concert at Casino Rama.

Here's the thing about Joe Cocker:

The most powerful songs have this soul-slamming crescendo, the kind of note or short riff that closes your eyes, tenses every muscle in your body, and slams your throat into your stomach.

Whitney Houston hits that soul spot when she goes "...and AAAAAAAAAYIAYEEEEEEEE will always love you...."

Clapton kicks off Layla with it (The Derek and the Dominoes original, not the new unplugged crap.

It's that visceral sound that make the high point of a song, when you dig down deep and give it every ounce of your soul. Some artists find that note a few times in their career. It's tough to describe, I know. Joe Cocker lives in that crescendo. That's what makes him Joe Cocker. His power is in that range of force and verve that the best artists pull off for 3 or 4 seconds - tops- in their best songs.

The guy looks absolutely spastic once the music comes on. He'll walk on stage, introduce himself, greet the entire venue, and look perfectly normal. At the first note of music, though, his entire body winds itself into a writhing, rocking cross between what looks like Autism and Cerebral Palsy.

He's 65 now, and he has still got it!

It was about a two-hour drive up to Orillia, and about three quarters of that en route back; it was worth every mile of the trip to see the Sheffield legend perform live.

These aren't from the performance, but they're a few of my favourites:

God, the man's good.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Zero Tolerance" is going to make spineless pussies out of my entire generation.

From the Globe and Mail:

Black belt teen strikes back at bully, and rallies community against racism

KESWICK, ONT. — The 15-year-old black belt thought he was doing his tormentor a favour when he elected to fight back with his weaker left hand.

He had heard his white classmate throw an angry racial slur in his direction after an argument during a gym class game of speedball, and now the student was shoving him backward, refusing to retract the smear.

The white student swung first, hitting the 15-year-old with a punch to the mouth.

The 15-year-old heard his father's voice running through his head: Fight only as a last resort, only in self-defence, only if given no choice, and only with the left hand.


This happened in a small rural town just north of Toronto - a town that already had problems with anti-Asian racism and hate crimes. Long story short, the Korean boy broke the bully's nose. While both students are under suspension, it is the Korean student that faces expulsion for ending a fight that he didn't start.

Nearly the entire student body staged a walk-out in a demonstration against racism.

I've been in exactly two real fights in my entire life: only once have I ever thrown the first punch.

This wasn't a friend, or even a friend of a friend. It was somebody that I had no choice but to deal with at work on a regular basis. The man had a tendency to make Jew jokes. Only they weren't said in jest, and since I was the only person there with any Jewish background, they were clearly directed at me. It didn't take too long before I began to be bothered by it.

I thought back to what my parents told me about dealing with bullies: "Walk away," "tell him to stop," "ignore him," "tell the teacher." I was always told to walk softly, but never told to carry a big stick. I don't think my parents were just preaching platitudes: they probably would have followed their own advice. I didn't.

If I failed to stand up for myself, I risked communicating to everyone else that his behaviour was tolerable. It was a short-term summer job in a small town where minorities are rare, and his example wasn't the one that I wanted to see set for the dynamic of the rest of the summer.

So at one point I'd had enough, and I let him know: "One more like that and I'm going to break your nose. "

A simple "Dude, that's enough" may have sufficed, but it could just as easily have been interpreted as me registering lip-service objection. Telling the guy that it bothered me enough to want to hit him left no room for interpretation: I wanted him to stop.

The thing was, he didn't.

A few minutes later, he made a crack about how to arrange the seating for a short drive around the corner. (Something about fitting me in the ashtray.)

A few seconds after that, he was on the floor.

Then I levelled my anger at the other men in the room: "Thanks for all the help, guys."

And it exactly then that I learned something. They hadn't been letting our concussed co-worker get away with racism because they were okay with it. Far from it, they were giving him a pass because they were following my lead. The only surprise that anyone had registered was at the fact that I had waited so long to do anything. They had been noticing it the entire time, and simply responding with the same passivity that they saw me display.

In the end, we both got fired. Here's how my boss explained it to me in private:

"We have zero tolerance for violence here. If there's a problem with racism, you're supposed to file a harassment complaint."

He paused for a while.

"You're supposed to file a harassment complaint. Off the record, though, the prick had it coming. Sometimes it's better to be pragmatic, and sometimes you've just got to draw the line. I'd have done the same thing.... Off the record, mind you."

Sometimes it's better to be pragmatic, and sometimes you've just got to draw the line.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Fine Art of the Haggle: Reprised

A little while ago, I wrote about an experience I had at a sales kiosk in Yorkdale, and how the prices are far from fixed.

Well, just about everything I guessed at was vindicated when, shortly after, I ended up working a few months at a similar kiosk. I got to see the other side of the equation.

I left the job about two weeks ago, and just came across this post from SomedayNurse, whose blog I'd never read before:

Beware the Mall Kiosks of Death

Have I got a deal for youYou think you are safe. After all, this isn’t a dusty marketplace in Calcutta. This is a shiny indoor shopping mall blasting AC and Top 40 Muzak. Sure, there are things to buy everywhere, but they are all in safe stores were the merchandise itself may be seductive, but no one will bat an eye if you leave without buying anything.

When I think of Mall kiosks, I think of bored teenagers sitting on their cell phones in front of carts of Designer knock-off sunglasses or cell phone accessories. But these guys are slick. Predatory. Young and beautiful, with syrupy accents and hard eyes.

My sister told me about the time she was manipulated into buying a 25 dollar jar of Dead Sea salt scrub from a beautiful Israeli woman who promised my sister the skin of a goddess in five minutes a day. I laughed at her that she could be conned like that.

I am so sorry, lil’ sis. I understand now that you were powerless to resist.

I have really curly hair, and the young man at the Colourful Kitty (yes, I said Colourful Kitty) kiosk asked if I wanted him to straighten it “for fun.”. I didn’t have to stop. I never stop at kiosks. But the straightener was kind of cool. I’d never had my hair completely straight. I haven’t wanted my hair to be straight since I was about fifteen.

The straightening iron did a great job, but he wanted way too much for it. He said I should make him an offer. Even as it was happening, I was thinking how interesting it was that I that someone who considers herself as a critical thinker was allowing herself to be hustled like this.

The worst part was, I didn’t even want the stupid thing that much.

Now I have stick-straight hair and my wallet is minus a days wages. At least it’s a nice straightening iron. If I ever cut my hair, I might actually use it.

[....and in the comments section]

Phaedron Says:
April 28, 2009 at 12:57 am

I actually worked for a short time at a similar Kiosk in Toronto, Canada. It was fun: my job was practically to flirt with girls all day to pump up sales.

The funny thing is, I actually wrote about a kiosk that I encountered on my blog (http://phaedronrising.blogspot.com/2009/02/fine-art-of-haggle.html)... About a week before I ended up starting a job at a similar kiosk!

So? Here are some of the things that I learned...

There's often a colossal margin at an Israeli-style kiosk between a product's "list price" and the minimum price at which a salesperson can actually sell the product. Those prices are never listed in a way that you can browse through without talking to the salesperson.

The salesperson needs to make a lot of snap judgements about a potential customer very, very quickly. The best thing to do is offer the product at a high margin, building enough room into the sale to pay for "free gifts".

There are two main ways of dealing with a price-based objection:

1) You (well, I) would use the margin between the higher "list price" and the minimum price at which the product can be sold to pay for those "gifts".

2) The salesperson can be willing to lower the price.

The first approach is much more common, and here's why:

First, the salesperson knows that 90% of the time that the customer has a money-based objection ("I can't spend that much"), it's not true. Maybe she can't spend that much AND get that cute top she wanted. Of course, she is not going to say that, so she couches the objection as a one-dimensional issue of cost. By adding in those freebies - already paid for by the large margin of the sale - the salesperson can, in effect, sell 3 or 4 things at minimum price while letting the customer walk away with the feeling that she's gotten a fantastic value.

Second, the salesperson can lower the price. This will only happen when he truly believes that you don't have enough money to pay the higher price.

It's a sales structure that we're so unused to in Western retail - the idea that prices are rarely fixed: the price at which an item can be sold becomes, ipso facto, its real price. We're used to seeing a shining red widget on a shelf with a $42 tag on it, and everybody pays the same. In a kiosk like this, the same item will sell for $130, $50, and everything in-between throughout a salesman's day.

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it's "unfair," but even in North America, we have a culturally accepted example of this sort of flexible-equilibrium price structure: real-estate.

The price of a house is - by definition - what people will pay for it. We're just not used to seeing hair-straighteners, nail kits, makeup or skin care sold in the same way. Our initial reaction is to think it's fair for houses, but unfair for a skin cream, and it usually stems from the fact that the item sells for more than the cost of producing it. Nobody bats an eye, though, when a house sells for more than its construction cost.

The same house could, under circumstances dependent on nothing more than the situations of the seller, the buyer, and the general market, have a $150 000 range that it could potentially sell for. It can feel unfair at a kiosk only because we're not used to the same sales structure being applied on a retail level.

That's why it's so important to make the customer feel like she has "won" the deal.

But do you want to know the most interesting thing that I found while working at a kiosk? People that bought, almost always returned for more. The hardest part is for a salesperson to get that person to make that first purchase!

And when the first sale is made at an expensive price, the customer walks away feeling like they have something extremely valuable: it's the feeling of having that $130 luxury skin cream. She won't want to go back to the $40 stuff she was getting at her local store.

Truth is, what the kiosks are great at is taking a product that's moderately better than the competition, and commanding a substantially greater price for it. Of course, the overhead on a kiosk is far lower than a store at a mall, so the kiosk *could* technically afford to sell a higher-quality product for the same price as the competition. But why would they? In the case of consumable goods like skin care or makeup: if it's sold for the same price as the competition, a customer will assume it's of similar quality to the competition's.

It's the people that you sold to at a "discount" rarely return.

Jonathan Coulton - Baby Got Back (live)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Don't let The Man get you down


As I write this, I'm sitting in a ServiceOntario waiting room, counting the long minutes until it's my turn at the Drivers' License test. Surprisingly, internet access is abundant and free.

It turns out, you can't lounge in Ontario's graduated-licensing process forever. The only difference here between a G2 partial license and a full G is that with the full G, you are restricted to 0.08% blood-alcohol content. With my G2, it was set at zero.

To be honest, for all the stupid shit that I do, road beers isn't among them. That's probably why I never saw much motivation to get the final road test over with.

Well, now I'm paying for it. I've got to re-take all of the license tests from scratch. More importantly, I've got to pay for them all again. The one saving grace, I guess, is that I don't have to go through the mandatory 8 and 12-month waiting periods again.

So here I am, waiting for my vision test and written examination. What do you do at a stop sign again?

The only forseeable problem is that the test includes a million obscure road signs that I haven't studied since I was sixteen five years ago. Let's see if I'm still fit to drive.

After passing this, I'm still back to a "learner's permit" until I re-do my first road test: I can't fucking drive without an experienced driver beside me in the car.

If this messes with my plans for Miami in June, I am not going to be a happy man.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Villagers, rejoice! I'm not drooling blood anymore.

I think I'm going to have my newly-extracted wisdom teeth set into cufflinks. That way, the next time I'm arguing with an creationist or ID'er, I can just point at my cuffs and say,

"See these? You're an idiot."

A little less wisdom: Okay, God?

I just had my wisdom teeth out. It hurts like a motherfucker. The general anaesthetic and the Nitrous Oxide are wearing off, leaving only a general contempt for everything.

So, just as I sometimes whack my broken toaster on the off-chance that it will learn its lesson, I'm going to write an open letter to God on the off-chance that he exists.

As the capital G suggests, I'm addressing the god of Judeo-Christian tradition. I will, however, happily accept replies from other gods, demigods, or their non-corporeal messengers.

To: God_Allah_YHWH@gmail.com
CC: shiva_destroyer_of_worlds@yahoo.in; buddha_belly@hotmail.cn; prince_of_darkness@microsoft.com; mjollnir_man@gmx.com
BCC: Eric "Slowhand" Clapton

Why, God, why?

Why would you have given me a special subset of teeth that cause nothing but pain? Is there just a little of Job in all of us? It it a vestigial reminder of some Original Sin?

I've got to say, I'm a little vexed. I know you have a Plan for all of us, but for the life of me I can't figure out how my wisdom teeth fit into it.

Pain, I thought, was a necessary result of free will. But this had nothing to do with free will! There's no choice that I or anybody else I could have made differently that would have avoided this, save for to have had these teeth removed years ago.

I can't drink alcohol, I can't have a cigarette, I can't chew solid food; I'm in pain, I'm still a little high on laughing gas, and frankly, I'm more than a little pissed.

Feel free to let me in on the joke if I'm missing anything.

Sincerely, Phaedron.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Phone Dump

Hell of an open. I fully intend to try this.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let's Get It On, Wendy Colonna with a solo acoustic cover

A great cover of one of my favourite songs.

Wendy's an amazing singer, and I just had to email her for the chords to this =p

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Fine Art of the Haggle.

Some prices are fixed. Some aren't. Knowing the difference helps.

Yesterday I was at the Yorkdale, a local mall in Toronto. While sifting through the meandering populace for cute girls' numbers, I came across a kiosk booth selling cosmetic skin products from the Dead Sea.

Now, I'm not one of those prissy primping douchebags; I don't gel my hair, spray-on a tan, or spend long tracts of time in front of my mirror. I'm a man. But I do care about the way I look and I do have mildly dry skin in the winter, so when the saleswoman approached me as I walked by, I let her reel me in a little for a closer look.

We bantered a little: about what products I already use (limited to a simple pre-shave scrub and my shaving cream), and about the astonishing fact that nearly all the standalone kiosks in the mall are manned - or womanned - by full bore, to-the-core, Hebrew-speaking Israeli expats. Then she worked her pitch.

After a demonstration of a face-cleansing product, she went went into her the-list-price-is-$130-but-I'll-let-you-have-it-for-$60 routine. Here's where I was suddenly faced with options:

1) I could take it for $60. The product wasn't something that needed to be used anywhere close to daily, and it seemed to be a very good one from the demonstration. It was probably worth the $60 she pitched for it.

2) I could walk away. Sure, it was a great product, but $60 can buy a lot of beer.

3) I could negotiate.

Now, knowing when price-negotiation is an option means assessing a little bit about how the sale is structured. When a wage or salaried employee makes a sale, there's little incentive for them to enter into a negotiation: they get paid whether or not you buy what they're selling. The situation changes, however, in either of two cases: if the salesperson works fully or partially on commission, or is the salesperson owns the business and sees a perfect correlation with the profit margin on a sale and the money in their pocket.

Many kiosks like that one are either corporate or franchised, and most of the sales staff work on commission. The lady working there probably made 20%-35% commission of any sale made above cost price, so she has something to gain from any sale above that price, and everything to lose if I walk away.

It seems trivial to analyze when we're talking about a face cleanser, until you realize that the biggest financial decisions you will ever make in your life fall into the same organizational category. Buying a house or a car both entail working through either a commissioned salesman or a commissioned real estate agent. The difference is only a matter of degree.

The incentives on each side of the consumer and the vendor are important to understand. The consumer has demand for a product, and if the perceived value of that product exceeds the cost, he will buy it. If it costs more than it's worth, he'll fuck right off.

On the other side of the equation is the vendor. The vendor has a derivative sort of demand in the transaction: the revenue or commission earned from the sale. If that revenue exceeds what the product costs them, they profit from the sale. If it doesn't, they'll tell you to fuck off.

The negotiating room, in our case, is the margin between the list price ($130) and the vendor's cost (probably between $15 and $30). Within that range, the game is zero-sum. The difference in those two numbers will either end up in my pocket, or be divvied up between the sales lady and the owner - assuming it's not the same person. It's in that magical margin that negotiation takes place.

She had made the first move. The $60 pitch didn't come out of nowhere. From before we'd even made eye contact, she had began analyzing me. Did I wear clothes that indicated discretionary income or did I look like a moneyless waste of time? Did I carry myself in a way that indicates confidence or do I project insecurity and the impression that I'm a bit of a pushover? Did I seem like the type of person who would be interested in her products in the first place?

All of those calculations - and a whole lot more, I'm sure - ran through her head from the time she first saw me to the time she offered me the skin cleanser for $60. If I'd given her a different impression of myself and my interest, it could just as easily have been $100, or even $50. Maybe, if I seemed interested enough and willing to pay it, she'd have neglected to pull out the price list and offered me dermatological salvation for a mere $150.

But I wouldn't have paid $100 for it; I wouldn't have paid $75. And if I buy the product, anything less than $60 is money in my pocket.

I pushed a little, and she pushed back. I ended up walking away having traded the skin cream for $40 of my hard-earned cash.

So beyond my hefty preamble, here are a few insights I've gleaned about price negotiation.

Demand Asymmetry. When either the consumer or the vendor cares more about the transaction, they end up with less money in their pocket. If the mall were more crowded, and there were tons of potential customers strolling by with less of a spine than me, she'd have been happy to hold firm at $60, take it or leave it. If there were a competing business with a similar product nearby, and she'd have held firm at $60, I'd likely have walked.

That really is the biggest sticking point in a negotiation. You have to be willing to walk away. If you're convinced that you can't live without what they're selling, and there's no better place to get it, the salesperson will pick up on that. And you can bet your ass they'll have a high asking price. What's important to understand is that there are very few things you can't live without. She's not selling the only glass of water amidst miles of desert sand.

And you have to be willing to actually make a counter-offer. It's astounding to me how many people never do. We, in our modern Western culture, are so used to fixed prices that we take them for granted, and seldom even think to bargain. She has been doing this for a while, and has likely calibrated her price pitch very well-tailored to her assessment of the customer. Most of them - if they'd sat through the impressive demonstration - probably took the price at whatever figure she named.

Be the exception to the norm. Know how the incentives break down, and be willing to walk away. If the seller wants more than you're ready to give up, then do so: actually walk away.

If there's one piece of advice I can offer for people making a bigger purchase such as a car, here it comes. After you do some solid research on some options you're interested in (you should always do research, and never only have only one option), go to a few of your lesser choices first. Treat them as practice runs. Unless you're offered an unbelievable deal, you'll probably end up walking away from those. When you finally walk in the doors of the dealer selling the car you're more interested in, you've already internalized that I'm-willing-to-walk-away-from-this-deal-if-you-
try-to-bend-me-over-and-fuck-me-in-my-wallet frame of mind.

The salesman will pick up on that. And you'll benefit as a result.

Negotiation isn't shameful. It's the purest distillation of the free market. It's part of the economy that makes modern society possible.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Former Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary

When Facebook Memes Attack!

"The "Rules" : Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you. Copy and paste this and then go to the notes section of your profile."

1. My body's sleep schedule seems to run on a 25-hour rhythm. If I have no pressing reason to get up for an extended period of time, I'll be waking up at 9am, then 1pm, then 4pm, then eventually later, until it cycles all the way back.

2. I'm in the Army reserves. It's like no other job on this planet.

3. English is my second language.

4. I'm the only person I know that shaves with a straight razor. They've got a bitch of learning curve, but once you're through it, the result is phenomenal.

5. Apparently, I was "Most Promiscuous Brother" of AEPi's Ottawa chapter, 2007/2008. There was a vote. For once, I abstained.

6. Karaoke is my guilty pleasure.

7. I don't leave answering machine messages. There's no reason why, I just don't. I've probably left 5 in the last year.

8. I've had my M2 license since I was 16. If I don't do my final road test soon, it's going to expire.

9. I procrastinate. It's ridicu... fuck it.

10. I'm teaching myself - slowly - guitar.

11. Songs that recurringly get stuck in my head:
"Proud Mary," Ike and Tina Turner
"City Blues," Brian Wilson and Eric Clapton
"You Can't Hurry Love," either the Phil Collins cover or The Supremes' original.

12. Dvorjak and Dr Dre are next to each other in my iTunes. My taste is eclectic.

13. I've been to Israel 15 times, and I'm STILL eligible for Birthright.

14. I put all my private thoughts in a blog, but I don't share it with people I know in real life. Tried that once, it didn't go well; for their own good, nobody should ever know what I'm actually thinking.

15. When I have the time, I take hot showers that last easily 45 minutes, sometimes 60. I'm not even masturbating in there, just chillin'.

16. Questionable Content. Favourite web comic.

17. If I've got the time, the money, and the means, I have never turned down a road trip.

18. I've been to the fundamentalist Christian "Creation Museum" in Kentucky. Great shit.

19. I've been arrested.
While on a public bench.
For trespassing.

20. I love my bathrobe. It's big and purple, and I'm wearing it right now. I take it anywhere I'm staying for more than a night. I've driven across Tennessee in it, and I was the one driving.

21. I've elevated public nudity to high art, and I don't have to be drunk to streak.

22. My addiction, aside from nicotine, alcohol, and carnal sin, is raw oyster. Sit me down in front of them, and I'll eat oysters until you run out of shellfish, or I run out of money.

23. My cell phone and laptop don't get turned off.

24. I'm swearing off Hamilton Karaoke bars for at least two weeks. Those of you who were there know my reasons.

25. I am the least organized person you will ever meet. At my last place, all my floorspace went missing.

26. I'm terrible at math.
27. I'm invisible.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

No Pants Subway Ride 2k9

It's a given, I think, that everything's better without pants. I just didn't realize how true that was until today. Not really.

Imagine you're riding the subway. Toronto's in particular, but it could just have easily been any other in the world. The normal routine drudges on until somebody, all of a sudden, walks onto the subway car without pants.

Generally a little disconcerting, I'd guess. Until at the next stop, a few more pants-less people nonchalantly stroll onto your subway car.

And then it really starts to get wierd. People keep trickling in from platforms all along the subway line - missing their pants - until your subway car is full of dozens of people going about their afternoon commute partially nude.

You ask one of them what the hell is going on. He tells you he forgot his pants at home; hell of a coincidence about the others, eh?

And as you ride North on the Yonge line, more and more people keep coming onto the subway car wearing nothing but their skivvies from the waist-down. The tan-less tide reaches a blinding crescendo of bare legs at Davisville station, and the next thing you know, they've all gotten off the train at Eglinton. You keep going along your route. They've turned around for the return trip downtown.

So what the hell was that?

Improv in Toronto
. More specifically, the Toronto chapter of Improv Everywhere, the people responsible for the notorious Grand Central Freeze: hundreds of undercover IE "agents" froze in spot, forming a two-minute tableau that just generally confused the shit out of everyone.

The No Pants Subway Ride started in Improv Everwhere's city of birth, New York, in 2002. It grew over subsequent years, spreading across the world's metropolises like a bad strain of the clap at a good Catholic school.

Today was Toronto's second year of the NPSR, and hundreds of people gathered in Queen's Park to take part. We were divided into groups, and began our march to the Queen's Park subway stop.

En route to our pre-determined platforms, we took off our pants.

I got off at Wellesley with my pants in my bag, and waited for the second train that was to collect all the participants. Whereas the first train was witness to a few dozen people spontaneously taking off their pants in the subway car, the second saw only a successive tide of half-nude commuters piling on at each stop.

When we got to Eglinton Station, we turned around and went straight back downtown.

[I'm in this photo. Find me if you can!]

A bunch of us went to the College Street Golden Griddle afterward for pancakes to celebrate our victory. Then we went to the pub next door to celebrate the fact that we still weren't wearing pants.

And it was magical.

Of course, the photos are on Facebook.

Monday, January 5, 2009