Archives for the month of: February, 2013

Firstly, I’m not a physicist or cosmologist.  I enjoy reading about physics and cosmology because I’m interested in the implications for technology and because I want to be able to spot when stupid philosophers and fiction writers make huge, unfounded claims based on small scientific oddities.  One thing that my very casual study of cosmology has taught me is that common sense is not reliable.

I remember sitting around a campfire with my brother and grandfather talking about the expansion of the universe.  Of course only now do I understand why it is that theories of the universe are done with experimental physics and not guys sitting around campfires.  We were talking about the redshift that Edwin Hubble discovered in the 1920s establishing the expansion of the universe.  (If you don’t know about the red shift, google it.  It’s fascinating.) The conversation that followed went something like this:

Grandfather: So when we look out into the universe we see that all the galaxies are flying away from us?

Brother: Yes.

Grandfather: Does that mean that we’re in the middle?

Brother: No.

Grandfather: Why not?

Brother: …I don’t know.

I pondered this question for weeks!  Where is the middle?  If we’re not in it then wouldn’t the galaxies on our side of the middle all be flying away from that middle in the same direction?  It took Lawrence Krauss’ video lecture called “The Universe From Nothing”  to explain to me exactly why we’re in the middle.  When it was explained I almost fell off my chair with the surprise of how obvious it is.t16_expansion_dotsThe trick is to get outside the universe.  Imagine the universe as a two dimensional object.  If all the galaxies were in a grid and spaced apart equally. (A) Then imagine that the grid expands so that the space between each galaxy is larger but still equal. (B) From universe has indeed expanded around a center point.  But from the perspective of any one galaxy, all the other galaxies are farther away.  You can see this by superimposing the expanded universe onto the original and aligning any galaxy with itself.  (C,D)

The common sense answer, that we’re in the middle, is the same common sense that told astronomers that the earth was the center of the solar-system.  It’s the bias of being the observer.  If you’re looking at something big, wherever you’re standing looks like the middle.  The mindset is even manifest in our language: when someone is lost at sea they are “in the middle of the ocean.”

You are in fact not in the middle of anything at all.  The universe is a humbling place.  Most importantly, common sense is not a pathway to truth.  It serves for everyday things but, for any question worth talking about, you have to leave your common sense at the door.

Some people say that common sense isn’t too common; I say it doesn’t make much sense.

By Request:

Words are constantly transitioning between languages.  One of my favourite examples is the chaise longe often pronounced  chase lounge.  It began with the french pronunciation which is like shez long, which is just a long chair, and has been evolving into the chase lounge, which is a specific asymmetrical upholstered sofa.

In the case of the chaise longe I don’t really mind because it’s not just a long chair.  The french and english terms refer to different categories of furniture so there needs to be different terms.  This is not the case for the word I want to discuss today.

I make something of a hobby of knowing coffee terminology.  Different coffee drinks have many wonderful names with wonderful stories that go way past the menu at Starbucks.  Americano, for example, is a drink of watered down espresso originally served to Americans for whom espresso was too strong in European cafes where drip coffee was mysterious.

Espresso is the English word for what France, Italy, and Spain call cafe.  It only means one thing in the English word.  Espresso is an Italian word meaning pressed.  But because the italian word sounds like our English word express, many North Americans, perhaps even most, pronounce the word express-o.  All you have to do is read the letters:  es-press-o.

In my humble (not) opinion, we are not so far into the evolution of the word that we cannot correct this simple mistake.

For some reason, many people cannot pronounce the word mischievous.  I’ve also found that it is one of the most adamantly defended mistakes in common English.  If you don’t already know, here’s the problem:

A mischievous person is a person who is fond of causing trouble or mischief.  The word is easy to pronounce.  It’s three syllables: miss, chiv, and us with the stress of the first syllable.  But people want to say it like there’s another letter stuck in there.  If it were spelled mischievious then you could pronounce it in four syllables: miss, chee, vee, us, with the second stressed.  Unfortunately for these people, these wrongees, that’s not how it’s spelled.

And don’t think that this is a case of regional differences.  Some words, like aluminum, have alternate spellings in different parts of the English speaking world (British: aluminium).  These words at least could prompt discussion.  Miss-chee-vee-us is wrong everywhere.

Sometimes people try to correct the error by pronouncing the word in three syllables, miss, chee, and vus, with the stress on the second, which is less wrong but still pretty wrong.  I suspect the sticking point is that second syllable spelled chiev.  People for whom reading is more prominent than speaking sometimes struggle with derivative words because they lose their phonetic spellings.  Mischievous comes from mischief. Both the pronunciation and the spelling are derived from the root word, hence mischief-us.

Perhaps you would get it right if you practiced the proper pronunciation.  Say mischief-us ten times.  Remember: no matter how loudly you insist, you’re still wrong.  Google it.

Disclaimer: I love Toronto.  I find the city inspirational.

Now the truth.

As a writer, a night hawk, a coffee lover (read addict), and a recovering insomniac, I find myself living up to the writer’s/hipster’s cliche of hanging out in busy downtown cafes typing or scribbling on a nearly daily basis.  The combination of wi-fi, espresso, and an environment where curling up and falling asleep is frowned upon is irresistable for a brilliant nairdowell like me.  When I lived in London, I was a five minute walk to a cafe with wi-fi.  If i was craving variety I could walk ten minutes for a change of scenery.  If I wanted good coffee, I had to go across town (East Village Cafe in old east village or The Black Walnut in Wortley are my favourites if you were wondering).

But now I live in Toronto,the glorious clutural hub of this great nation, where there is a Starbucks on every corner and a hip, organic, fair-trade, independent cafe next door to each Starbucks and I can never find a place to sit down and work!  My favourite cafe, Pamenar in Kensington Market, is almost always full.  As a result, the wireless network gets bogged down.    Thus Toronto’s cafe problem is like its traffic problem: Torontonians don’t drive because the traffic is always so bad.

Maybe the problem is that there aren’t enough street corners: population density is much higher while available store-front remains more-or-less the same.  Maybe entrepreneurs see the incredible frequency of cafes and wrongfully assume that another cafe couldn’t possible succeed.  Maybe no matter how many cafes open, there will be an endless supply of dirtbag artists to fill their tables.

I believe some creative solutions are in order.  Many businesses go to the second floor when streetlevel realestate is at a premium. If every Starbucks had a Second Cup above it I just might  be able to find a quiet place to work.  Why not close Yonge Street in the summertime and allow cafes to expand their seating into the street European style.  Another solution may be to stop selling food.  Many perfectly good study tables are occupied by worthless panini munchers and salad scarfers who contribute in no way to Toronto’s dirtbag culture.  Getting rid of the food and sticking to coffee would build raport with your core customers, like me.

These are my humble suggestions to the cafes of this city where I no longer feel at home.  Take a lesson from my favourite cafe of all time:  Synergy in Wortley Village.  All they sold was thick syrupy espresso, there was always a seat because no one went there, and the dirtbag staff were no more inclined to kick you out after three hours than you were to buy another two-dollar coffee.  It’s long gone now but while it was open it was truly an oasis.

My question to you: are there any hidden corners of your home town where you can escape the crowds and relax with a good book and a cup of joe?

Language is an inspiring thing.  Nearly every word contains a titbit of geographic and cultural history of the people who utter it.

I write a blog.  But where does the word blog come from?  Well that’s an easy one.  Blog is a shortened form of the term web-log.  The web-log was created as an online, public journal which is displayed chronologically.  It’s a log or journal that’s on the web.

But where does the word log come from?  A log is a detailed record of day-to-day events.  The term comes from military history where the crews of aircraft and ships before that would record the events of the day in a book.  According to Star-Trek, this military terminology will continue into the 24th century.  Most episodes of Star-Trek began with “Captain’s Log.  Star-date 24.55. . .”

But why are these books called logs?  Well long before GPS, when seamen wanted to calculate the speed at which their ship was traveling, they used a piece of equipment called a chip log.  A chip log is a quadrant shaped piece of wood attached to a spool of string.  The string has evenly spaced knots all along it to enable the measurement of distance.  The chip log is thrown out into the water and stays more-or-less in place as the boat sails away.  By counting the knots that pass in a given time, early mariners could calculate speed.  The chip-log is a more advanced version of the original piece of equipment: a log.  The speed was recorded daily in a book called the log book.

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But why is an unshaped tree called a log?  Well there are two popular theories.  Some etymologist believe that the english word log is a modified version of the Old Norse word lag meaning “a felled tree”.

Those who doubt this suspect that it’s simply a word that sounds like something big and heavy.  Many nordic words in the English language follow this pattern like rock, clod, club, etc.

Unfortunately, that’s where the trail goes cold.  Never forget that words aren’t just sounds you make to represent things in the world; only the consensus dictates what they mean today but the consensus is narrower than you think and today is a moment in historical time.  Every word has a cloud, a cluster of denotations and connotations.  To know them all is to speak and write with greater clarity.

If you know any words with wacky etymologies, or any words that puzzle you and you’d like me to look into the origins and post about, share it in the comments below.

First, let me say that I love graffiti.  I think that the only sane thing to do with giant walls is to turn them into giant canvases.  I think that when you consider that people pay to have murals on their walls and to have graffiti washed off their walls, it seems more and more like a censorship campaign meant to whitewash urban culture.bathroom graffititoilet graffiti

But why do you scribble on the bottom of cafe toilet lids with magic marker?  What is the purpose of an illegible graffito in a bathroom?  Why would anyone go into a bathroom, notice dozens of scribbles on the walls and fixtures and think, “Gee!  What would be really great is to make this lavatory just a little more divey!”

Graffiti, when properly executed, is symbolic anarchy, freedom, courage, and a love of art above all including the law.  If you paint your own wall, you’re an artist.  If you break the law to make art, you’re sticking your neck out in the name of art.  But as with all symbolic gestures of defiance against the law, they only work then you might get caught.  If you vandalize a bathroom, then you have found the one place where it is nearly impossible to get caught and decided to jot something down with no message, no skill, and no value.  It’s cowardly and pathetic.  You’re just making the world an uglier, dirtier place so that you can feel like a bad-ass without the risk of consequences.  Please stop.

So to all the graffiti artists making social, political, and artistic statements by intentionally breaking the law with visible and artful graffiti:, keep up the good work.  The world needs to learn that graffiti is an art form and that public walls are ideal canvases.

And to all the graffiti a-holes who scribble on toilets: grow up.  You don’t get bad-ass points for breaking the law if there’s no chance of getting caught.  You’re just making everyone else’s BMs less comfortable.

As an ongoing parentee and a candidate parenter, I’m fascinated by the discourse, between the purveyors of parenting, the folks on the front line, and the people who study it academically.  Where do their opinions line up, where do they differ, and in what ways has my personal success been affected by it all.

Disclaimer: My parents, both of whom read this blog, are loving, caring, and supportive.  Neither is perfect, but you can’t argue with results am I right?  I’m even good at keeping my ego in check! (That’ll be important later.  You’ll see.)

My Facebook feed was recently graced with an article from the Huffington Post entitled “Five Big Discoveries About parenting in 2012” and I, hopelessly devoted to the scientific method, jumped at the chance to see the many ways in which common sense, folksy wisdom, and good intentions have left me unable to cope with the difficult century ahead.  I was not disappointed.  Before we begin: parents, you can not use how great your kids are as a measure of your parental success.  All parent’s think their kids are great. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s my breakdown of all five points:

#1 As freedom wanes in children so does creativity.

The article states that since the late 1980s the creativity of North American children has been in steady decline.  When individual children are examined, there is a strong correlation between freedom and creativity.  

Now at this point parents and children alike will be patting themselves on the back saying either “I gave my children…” or “My parents gave me enough freedom to be creative and enough rules and structure to learn discipline and the value of hard work.”  Maybe, maybe not.  There was no study on discipline and hard work.  But you have to live with the knowledge that you would have more fresh, new ideas if your parent’s hadn’t been so strict with the bedtime or had let you wear your favourite Ninja Turtles shirt to school every single day.  For me, this point simply proves what I’ve thought for years, that hard working A+ students all rise directly to unfulfilling middle-management positions while the stoned poets and social rejects all end up either ruling the world or waiting tables.

#2 Overly coddled children grow into incompetent adults.

Kids that are told that everything they do is wonderful, that they are special, and that they can do anything in life, can end up dysfunctional.  Basically, self-esteem has to be earned and not gifted.  Kids who get self-esteem without ever earning it expect a lot and aren’t willing to challenge or modify themselves to get it.

This one really rung true with me.  I belong to an entire generation of kids that was told that we can be whatever we want when we grow up.  If the cliché is true, it’s a backlash against the pragmatic and realist parenting style of the generation before which put all of our parents into stable jobs with pensions and company cars all the while killing their hippie dreams.  As it happens, we are also the generation that gets to swallow most of the fallout from the ongoing recession.  That’s a big ugly pill for the millions of part-time baristas with degrees in humanities, music, or modern dance.

Parents also apparently should allow their kids to fail, suffer, and do dangerous things (You hear that mum?  Mountain climbing is good for my psychological growth!) because that’s what builds genuine self-esteem.  If it’s as bad as I think it is, my generation might actually be the end of western civilization.

#3 Fostering delinquency in our young by being too controlling

Authoritarian parents, parents who value obedience and discipline, are creating delinquent children.

That means that “Because I said So.” is actually a profoundly harmful answer to a child’s question. (I wish I had known this at fourteen.)  It’s no surprise to me at all that parents who demand obedience raise disrespectful children who spit on authority.  Parents who don’t value obedience end up with kids like yours truly who don’t so much spit on authority as much as believe that authority is a social construct designed to give the loud power over the smart.  If you want your kids to respect you, explain your rules.  If you can’t explain your rules, they’re bad rules and the kid wins.  Hoorah!  Sorry, did that get personal?

#4 Parents misread their child’s emotional cues.

Optimistic parents tend to think that their kids are optimistic while worried parents tend to think their kids are worried regardless of what the kids are thinking.  Parents project their feelings onto their kids.

I remember going to sleep uncovered and waking up sweating under a heavy blanket.  My mother had come along, seen be unswaddled, thought “I’ll bet he’s cold!” and covered me up.  It never occurred to her that I actually considered my coverings before venturing into sleep. (Love you mom!)

Sometimes empathy is wholly hurtful.  It’s a good thing to have but you can’t communicate with empathy alone.  That’s why we invented language.  It seems to me that a lot of parents normal empathy becomes grossly enlarged when empathizing with their own children.  Timmy cuts his finger and mom screams in pain, Johnny doesn’t make the basketball team and dad is heartbroken.  It is important to know that however good or bad you feel for your child, they’re feeling… well, whatever they are feeling: something else.  This probably means also that parents don’t listen to their kids, which is a shame because they really do say the darnedest things.

#5 Being too afraid to joke around and have fun.

Joking, particularly using non-verbal cues like tone of voice, helps toddlers learn how to communicate.

Ever met a person who doesn’t know when you’re being sarcastic?  Now we finally know who to blame!  This, it seems to me, falls under the category of “Kids: they know more than you’d think”.  As toddlers, they’re not only learning the words and syntax of language, they’re learning the subtext: every look, posture, tone of voice, and sound that makes up most of our communication.  If you want to know how little of our communication is in language, try having an in-depth emotional conversation in texts.  Irony is part of life and it seems that parents who avoid it are doing their toddlers a disservice.

I, like many of you, come from a long line of mothers and fathers.  It’s easy to forget that when you’re thinking about your kids or your parents.  It’s the big picture that makes me comfortable making this hilarious critique: the knowledge that every kid decided what his parents did wrong and swore never to repeat their mistakes only to discover, after raising his own family, a generations-worth of new mistakes already made.  Someday my kids will be able to tell me all the things I did to mess them up.

Despite all this, I’m a contented, well-adjusted adult with a great relationship with both my parents and I’m intent on making a bunch more little mes to torment me the way I would torment me if only I knew me because the one constant, the one thing that will always be good for little ones, is kindness.  When psychologists prove me wrong, I’ll sterilize myself and disown the scientific method.

I’m a very calm person.  I rarely get angry, upset, or even annoyed.  If I have a dispute with someone, I feel only sadness if I wish to work it out or disdain and pity of they were wrong.  If someone has a chance to get under my skin and start digging, I’ll most likely just leave and if I can’t I’ll become very quiet.

My temperament has often made me the subject of amateur psychologists who would diagnose deep emotional problems like repressed anger or deeply buried malcontent.  I’ve never understood why this has to be the case.  Surely they all must understand that being angry is not a good thing.  If this is true then I’m not dysfunctional, I’m exceptional (as has long been my suspicion).  I suspect this is just another case of people projecting their feelings onto me: if they would be angry they assume I must be, if I don’t look angry I must be repressing it.  The most common solution that people propose is to let it out.

Well I’ve been delighted to learn that letting your anger out may in fact make you more angry.  It was Stephen Fry hosting QI who tipped me off.  He suggested that letting out your rage, or catharsis as psychologists have called it, makes you more aggressive.  An article in psychology today confirmed these findings.  Enraged people, when invited to punch a punching bag, will act significantly more aggressively in a game where other players are abused by the honking of a horn.  The theory is that acting out makes an emotional connection between feelings of anger and aggressive actions.

That’s not to say that you should deny your feelings.  Admitting when something is wrong, it seems to me, is rather important.  But the physical manifestation has never been shown to have any benefit, and has been shown in some cases to make things worse.

So, in defense of all the cool cucumbers out there, stick to your guns.  You needn’t let out a primal scream when something gets under your skin.  Just stay stoic, bite your tongue, and let it pass.

Well I’m done.  I ate only plants for two whole weeks.  I must admit I did cheat on two occasions.  I unknowingly ate a cookie with some sort of processed egg product in it.  I read the package after the cookie was eaten.  I felt bad about that.  Then I ate a veggie burger with lots of veggies on it at a vegetarian restaurant only to realize half way through that garlic mayo isn’t vegan.  I finished the burger and went home.  I felt bad about that one too.

Here’s what I learned.

Eating vegan doesn’t make me lose weight; it actually made me gain a little.  It doesn’t help me get out of bed in the morning as some have claimed.  It doesn’t improve my energy level, it doesn’t give me superpowers like that guy in Scott Pilgrim, and after two weeks I was still totally craving the dead bloody flesh of my fellow semi-sentient earthlings, my genetic brothers and sisters.  It didn’t really change my life at all except that shopping for food is really annoying.  One thing has changed now that It’s over though.

Meat is now poison for me.

That’s right.  After two weeks off the stuff, every time I have tried to eat meat it rots my guts and uses all my bog roll.  This veganism experiment, then, has had an entirely negative impact on my life, making some things much worse and nothing really any better.  I suspect that in the future I’ll continue to eat meat only occasionally, each time swearing to myself that I won’t do it again.  In the end, perhaps my culinary love and digestive hatred of dead animal will be good for my heart.

Here’s a short message to meat eaters:

Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean that I am an animal rights advocate (Conversely, just because you do eat meat, you are at least a little immoral.)  It doesn’t mean I like to wear hemp, it doesn’t mean I enjoy the musical stylings of Jack Johnson, it doesn’t mean I like to smoke drugs, it doesn’t mean anything.  There are a myriad of reasons not to eat meat.