Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson is Dead

I always feel weird when I see a headline like "Michael Jackson Dies." Dies; like dying is just one of those things he does. Something he makes a habit of including in his life. Sorta like, "oh, watch out for that dog, he bites." But maybe it's appropriate, because let's not forget, on top of his many contributions to entertainment, MJ is a crucial part of the history of zombiehood.

So yeah, once in a while, he dies. It's just a little more permanent this time.

I've seen some people acting nonchalant about this. Complaining that the story is dominating the news ahead of local or political stories. But come on. This is the bottom line: the arts are a crucial part of history and of what it means to be human. Michael Jackson was a crucial part of the arts; he created the best selling album of all time, for fuck's sake, and let's not forget his influence on dance, music video, and style as well. Therefore his life was of great importance, and his death is a globally signficant event. Billions of people will be affected by it. It's ignorant and naive to think that the media and individuals shouldn't be covering this and allowing it to affect their hearts.

Also: it's useful to keep in mind that while his contributions to humanity are not in dispute, his evil actions involving children are. He may have been a very bad person. He may not have. Maybe now we'll never know.

Look at Elvis's death. It's still talked about and disputed today. And I wonder how long it will be before the rumours about Jacko's death start; "evidence" that he killed himself, or he was murdered, or that he's still alive. Careers will be made impersonating him. Maybe in a decade, one of his kids will end up marrying the current Queen of Pop. In any case, he will live on; cheers to one of entertainment's greatest zombies.

Edit: See also:

iPhone 3GS Impressions

So I just got an iPhone 3GS. There are already lots of reviews of it out there, so I'll try to make my impressions about non-obvious things ... or at least use the word "fuck" more than other reviewers.

Bad things:

  • Why the fuck can't I sync my calendar and contacts (or music, if I really wanted to) over Bluetooth or WiFi? Plugging stuff in is so 2007.
  • Why the fuck can't anything bigger than 10MB be downloaded directly from the iPhone?
  • Why the fuck isn't there a play/pause button on the outside of the phone? I don't want to take the whole phone out and press 2 different buttons just to pause the music for a second. There's external volume control, and a perfect amount of space between + and - to put a pause button, which would duplicate the little remote on the headphone.
  • Speaking of which, why the fuck do the headphones suck so bad? The little remote / microphone on them is genius, especially when combined with voice control. It makes accomplishing any tasks that don't require a screen - like listening to music or making calls - easy to do without whipping out the whole phone. But the only way to get this functionality is to use the included headphones, which have just horrible sound quality. It's like someone barfed all over my music collection. This, and the lack of external control, makes it pretty useless as an iPod.
  • Also making sure it won't replace the iPod is the limited storage capacity. Maybe I'm just being nitpicky now, but I really really wish there was just one device that would do everything. All it would take is to make an iPhone with 160GB or so of storage. I know it would be expensive and/or heavy. I don't care. I'd pay for it if it existed.
Good things:
  • The novelty of being able to browse the web, email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., from a phone will take a long time to wear off. This is truly the stuff of science fiction. For fuck's sake people, we're able to access the recorded thoughts of millions of other people, and transmit our own thoughts, from anywhere we go. Almost any work of art, music, or literature created throughout history can be accessed at any time with a few taps and flicks of the finger. Just years ago that would have seemed like magic.
  • The compass usually works fine, and combining it with Google maps makes real life like a video game with a little map in the corner of the screen. I'm really looking forward to what sorts of applications can be created that use the magnetometer (and given my own research on geomagnetism, I hope there's one that simply measures the strength of local magnetic fields).
  • Typing on the iPhone is easier than I thought it would be. Even without physical buttons, I can type much faster than I ever could on my old phone.
  • Tethering is incredible. Without even taking the phone out of my pocket, I can use my laptop with full internet access almost anywhere. Useful given that most coffee shops around here still don't have free WiFi...or for getting work done under a tree in Victoria Park.
  • Voice control actually works! As I listened to music through the headphones that came with it, I wondered to myself, "hey, myself, I wonder if holding down the headphone button will activate voice control just like holding down the home button on the phone?" So I tried it, and voila, it gave me the little "talk to me" beep. "Play songs by Little Boots?" I mumbled to the air uncertainly. And sure enough, my iPhone said to me in a pleasant female voice: "Playing songs by Little Boots." I loved the phone before, in the abstract sense that one loves a beautiful piece of technology. Now I love it in the sense that it's something I can have conversations with.
  • There is no such thing as down time any more. I can catch up on email or Twitter, or even work on my novel, while waiting for the bus, or in line for coffee, or whenever. Or I could blog while taking a dump! HI!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Psychology of Your Rogers Bill

Here's a little lesson in what us psychology types call framing.

Suppose a company offers you the following deal on your utilities:

If you have cell phone service with our company, and you sign up for cable TV with us, you have the option to receive a 10% discount off the regular price on both bills as long as you keep both services. The only catch is that if you quit either service within the next two years, you'll have to pay back the 10% you saved.

Would you take this deal? Not so bad eh? Might as well take the 10% off. If you do end up quitting, you're just losing money that you would have had to pay anyway.

But let's say another company offers this deal:

If you only have cell phone service with our company, you are paying 10% more than the regular price. However, if you sign up for cable TV with us, you have the option to waive the 10% fee on both bills. You must also sign up for two years, and if you quit either service during that time, you will have to retroactively pay the 10% surcharge on all your past bills.

Would you take this deal? This one seems much worse. Risk paying a fee just to get the regular price? No thanks.

As you may suspect, the problem here is that both of the deals are exactly the same. They're just worded differently.  The only difference is what is considered "regular price", but of course this is a decision arbitrarily made by the company. They choose to frame the deal as saving off the higher "regular price", but this is logically equivalent to avoiding paying more than a lower price that could just as easily have been labeled "regular price."

This isn't just an intellectual exercise. The examples above come almost directly from Rogers Communications' "Better Choice Bundles" deals. My two-year agreement just ended, so now I'm being charged 10% more on all my bills. I can choose to sign up for two more years, but then I risk having to [pay back my discount / pay a cancellation fee] if I quit any service. The true value of taking the deal is somewhere between the two frames, in a cold mathematical weighing of the risks and benefits.

But I think I'll take a third option: quit my cable TV service while I can do so without penalty. Sure I'll be paying [10% more / regular price] for my internet bill, but I'll also not be paying for a service I barely use, and I'll be refusing to give into a company's cheap trick to get people stuck in their clutches for years on end. A company should get people to stay with their service by being a good service, not through financial trickery; I'll be glad to stop supporting it.

Quitting cable will also allow me to afford my sweet new iPhone.

Monday, June 22, 2009

So Happy Together

You know how it's supposed to be a romantic thing to say something like "I don't care what we do or where we go, as long as I'm with you"?

If I was in a relationship with someone who said that, I'd break up with them.

I get that the intention behind it is sweet. That love comes first, and the rest is secondary. While I do believe love conquers all, the rest can be important too. I want someone who I can go on adventures with; if they don't care where they go as long as I'm there, then their heart isn't really into going anywhere. I want someone who's happy with who they are and doing what they love. If what they're doing doesn't matter as long as I'm there, then they're defining themselves by their relationship with someone else, and not really passionate about what they're doing.

People who say "I don't care what I'm doing as long as I'm with you," they're the same ones who end up doing nothing together. Working dead-end jobs, sitting on the couch every night eating chips until they're chubby and unhappy. Soon they're blaming each other for their life problems, and it becomes more like "I'd be doing such better stuff if I wasn't with you."

No thanks. I'd rather this: "I have so many places I want to go and things I want to do, but it would be so much better if I did it all with you."


See also: Couple married in zero gravity.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Mathematics of Wrong Numbers

What is with getting calls for the wrong number?

I've dialed a wrong number once, maybe twice in my whole life. Most people would probably claim similarly low misdial rates.

I've received maybe 50 wrong number calls, minimum.

How does this add up? It must mean there is a small number of people making a large number of misdirected calls. Are there people out there who, instead of dialing a number, just mash the keypad and hope for the best? This is even more baffling in the age of cell phones, where you can just speak a friend's name and your robot phone will call them for you.

Perhaps there are some psychological factors going on. Misdialing is an embarrassing mistake, so surely my biased self-serving memory reconstructs more instances of other people making mistakes (receiving wrong numbers) than me making them (dialing them). However, I doubt that a subtle memory bias could skew the numbers by such a large order of magnitude.

Or am I just weird? Do most of you dial just as many wrong numbers as you receive? C'mon, you can admit it. Everyone (else) makes mistakes. Leave an anonymous comment and let me know. Maybe this could be the next psychology study in my series of completely unrelated research topics.

P.S. I tried Googling "wrong number" for a nice picture to go with this post, but all I got was like 500 pictures of these guys:

P.P.S. Deciding whether or not I should get an iPhone 3GS is killing me. Luckily they're sold out everywhere so I can postpone it until at least Monday.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I've been spending a lot of time in Montreal lately. This past week I was there for the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association. Here are the highlights of the trip, none of which involved the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association.1

The titular Mount Royal. Hahahaha titular.

Habitat 67 sounds like a bad action movie.

A Quebecois bee. Bouzzzzze.

I am squishing your head.

Apparently someone murdered a giant.

The massive dead skeleton of the Biodome.

Vertically growing plants fed with rainwater. Very cool.

The "resort". Apparently Solin Hall used to be a chocolate factory. It did not smell like chocolate.

La Ronde.

The Mouth of the Vampire, aka Vampire, aka Batman: The Ride We Couldn't Get The Copyright For.

This bug is wearing an ironic moustache.

Let's get a closer look at that.


At a house party, in the middle of an intense conversation I was barely even involved in, this strange dude pointed at me and said "hey, are you in The Cirque?" I guess I give off really intense circus vibes.

Is this statue flipping me the bird?

I think the fake crepe at La Ronde confused chocolate sauce with curry.

Avocado fries. More calories than you require, but delicious.

Montreal poutine from Montreal Poutine. Probably the best I've ever had.

I love Montreal, and it'll be great to get back there yet again someday soon. I'm grateful for the friends and family who made it awesome. You all kick ass.

1 OK, Elizabeth Loftus's talk was really great, inspiring stuff. I just didn't take any pictures at the conference.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cape Fear

What's the point of capes? I know people don't really wear them any more, unless they are vampires or Philip Zimbardo, but they must have been in fashion at some point.

All a cape does is cover your back in a thin layer of cloth. Why? For warmth? Because I've never really heard anyone complain about having a cold back.1 "Brrrr, my back is freezing! I wish I had a piece of cloth awkwardly tied around my neck to cover it up!"

The front side is the one that's usually sensitive to cold, so clothing is best layered on that side. That's why I propose that the reverse-cape come into fashion. It'd be a bit shorter than most capes, to prevent tripping issues, and double as a way of keeping bits of food, globs of mustard, and Cheeto dust off your shirt. Style and function. Also known as a bib.

1 Unless they are giving someone the cold shoulder BWAHAAAAHAAHAAAHAAAAAAAA!!!!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Review: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

Two of my favourite TV shows ever are Six Feet Under and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So when I heard that the creator of Six Feet Under was helming a show about vampires, I had to check it out. As predicted, I enjoyed the crap out of True Blood, which lead me to impulsively buy the series of books that it's based on.

The first book starts off with a pretty good opening line: "I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar." Immediately from there, it launches into the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a Southern small-town waitress with two disabilities: the curse of having to read peoples' minds, and a really stupid name. The first one is what first draws her to the vampire, because she can't read his mind, which she thinks is awesome because men are scum and they only think terrible things. And although not mentioned, the stupid name problem probably helps her to relate to Bill, which is a pretty dumb name for a vampire. After she meets him, people start dying, hell breaks loose, etc etc. You know the drill.

True Bl Dead Until Dark is written in a first-person style from Sookie's perspective, and indeed the novel feels like the rambling diary of a realistic, naive young woman who isn't particularly good at writing, being full of awkward sentences and tactless exposition. This either means: (1) Charlaine Harris is really good at simulating how much Sookie sucks at writing; or (2) Charlaine Harris just sucks at writing.

But let's just pretend it's (1) and focus on the positive. Partly because of the informal first-person style, Sookie's personality comes through, and the little expressions she uses and social conventions she frets over help to bring the Southern setting to life. I could've done without her agonizing over what to wear in every single chapter and the sickening mind-games she casually manipulates the males in her life with, but intentional or not, she at least seems like a flawed, real (albeit stereotypically female) person.

There is a murder mystery that ties each chapter together, but the characters seem more interested in short-term questions about cleaning the house, work timetables, and vampire ejaculation than about who's killing their friends and families. Some chapters can feel separated from the rest of the story, as if nobody remembers what came before. As a single book it's disjointed, and actually feels a bit like a big pilot episode, with dangling plot elements that exist only to set up future installments. But since there are plenty of future installments, and there is a TV series based on it, this episodic storytelling isn't entirely unwelcome.

The novel departs from the first season of True Blood in quite a few significant ways. Most obvious is the complete lack of Tara in the novel, the alternate reason for Bill's little trip late in the book, and the ending. There is also one plot element missing from the show, which is a great thing because, while I hate to use this word, it can only be described as retarded. Without giving anything away, it starts with "B"; anyone who's read it will know what I'm talking about. True Blood also added a few entirely new subplots that I thought worked as well, if not better, than what was from the novel. This gives me hope for the show, because many of the show's flaws were inherited from the book, and the creators' willingness to depart from it can only bode well for future seasons.

Perhaps I've been a bit snarky in describing Dead Until Dark, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. It's not a masterfully told story, but it does a few new things with the crowded vampire genre, and has just enough sex and violence to provide some cheap thrills. I recommend it for fans of the show looking to see what inspired it, or anyone else who likes cheesy vampire crap.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Freud and The World's First Documented "That's What She Said"

So I was reading Freud's book A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis because I had a particularly vexing question about the practice of psychology and went straight to the best source of information. Just kidding! Freud ruined psychology. More like Sigmund Fraud! HAH!
But for serious, I rescued the book from my parents' garage sale, and began to flip through it. The first page I read was p. 169, where the following passage appears:

"There is a well-known joke in which an intelligent Jewish boy, when asked who was the mother of Moses, answers immediately: 'The Princess.' He is told: 'No, she only took him out of the water.' 'That's what she said,' he replies."

Now I admit, I don't really get it. Either the myth of Moses is something I don't know enough about for it to make sense, or "took him out of the water" had some kind of sexual connotation in 1920, when the book was first published.*

1920! Well before "that's what she said" became the standard response to any remotely ambiguous utterance, popularized in shows like The Office. I thus declare Freud the original promotor of the "that's what she said" joke. The drug-fueled old man may not have been the best psychologist, but at least in other incredible ways, he managed to worm his way into our lives.

(That's what she said.)

* I know I know, it's not the same type of joke. It makes more sense as written here, and is actually kinda the opposite of the current iteration. But written like that, with italics and all, as the punchline to a joke, the similarities are too awesome to deny. DENYYYHIII

Friday, June 05, 2009

Never Gonna Give You Up, Keyboard Cat

The thing about internet memes is that they're not real life memes. I'd like to change that. What I will do is, wherever I go, I'll take a portable CD player with speakers (known to cool people as a boombox, or ghetto blaster), with the following tracks on it:

Track 1: Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up"

This is for when people ask why I'm carrying around a ghetto blaster. I will reply, "because I just attended a philosophy lecture in which I heard the most thought-provoking passage, and I felt a strong motivation to record it and share it with the world because, verily, it did change my life." Then I play track 1, and I'm all like, "Rick rolled, fucker! Hahaha, no, come back, listen to the whole thing! COME BACK FUCKER!"

P.S. Here is a very interesting video about argyroneta aquatica, the only known spider to live under water.

Track 2: The Keyboard Cat Song, by Keyboard Cat

Because life is full of so much FAIL, that it would be a shame to confine it to the internet. Keyboard cat's role is uncertain; is he mocking people who fail at life? Is he trying to make them feel better with a song? Or is he literally playing them off, trying to make them leave the stage like the music playing over a too-long speech at the Oscars? Perhaps we will never know, but I do know that whenever I see an old lady trip on the curb, or a bartender drop a glass, or someone struggling to push open the PULL door, track 2 is coming out.

Track 3: Yakety Sax (The Benny Hill Theme)

Because everything is funnier with the Benny Hill theme.

If you have no idea what I'm blabbing about:

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Storyblogging Carnival C

Hey look, a story of mine is featured in the One Hundredth Storyblogging Carnival over at Donald Crankshaw's blog. This is a regular event in which short stories that have been published through blogs are unleashed for all to see.

The story is Brains vs. Brawn, which you've probably already read since it's old and you love me. It's an extremely shitty autobiographical story that I wrote while going through the insanity of buying my first car. It's probably better to be on drugs when reading.

I was pointed to this carnival thingy by Mark Rayner, who also has a story featured there. His is pretty awesome.

Go! Read!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

It's Almost Like ESP, Day 2

Once again, I took part in Richard Wiseman's fun but flawed Twitter remote viewing study. Here's what I tweeted when he said he was at the location:

Here is what I drew (rotated to disingenuously enhance appearance of psychic ability):

And here is where Richard turned out to be:

Once again proving that I'm totally psychic. I'm probably remote-viewing you right now. Please stop doing that thing with your ear. It's just gross.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

It's Almost Like ESP

Popular psychologist Richard Wiseman is currently conducting a unique study that uses Twitter to gather research participants. He's seeing if his Twitter followers can engage in remote viewing to detect where Richard is located (explanation here). So the idea is that Richard goes to a randomly chosen location, then asks people on Twitter to use their psychic powers to give any impressions about where he is, then later choose which of 5 locations they think he was at.

When he gave the go-ahead this morning, I was happy to participate.  Here's what I tweeted to him:


I also acted like a real remote-viewer and scribbled a few drawings:

Then it came time to pick which location I thought he was at, out of these five:

Well look at that! My posts, railings, and concrete all over the place. But I thought the most striking resemblence was between my middle picture and his middle picture (C), so that's the one I guessed.

Unfortunately, that wasn't where he was. He was at D.  So if I am psychic, it's only for my future experience, not for remote viewing a real location.

Wiseman's experiment isn't really unique except for the Twitter aspect. Similar studies have been done many times, and strangely, usually find above-chance results (i.e., people are able to guess where the remote person is more often than if they were guessing). It's also full of holes and flaws in its methodology (so many that I hope the true purpose of the study is remaning hidden and this is all a cover story for a better study).  Still, it's good to see psychic phenomena - which the majority of people in the world believe in with little question - getting some attention and new technology applied to it. I think both religious and scientific bigotry have kept good research from being done in this area, and I hope we can overcome silly taboos to engage in more of it.

Go follow Wiseman on Twitter to participate - it's going for a few more days. Or see his blog for more details and results.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Book Review: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

I can't properly review Fifth Business, since: 1) It's often considered one of the best novels of all time, so obviously it's good; and 2) It's one of those books that I read when I was young - forced to in some high school English class - and it had quite an effect on me. Thus, I read it for the 2nd time through nostalgic eyes, and any updated opinions about it are sure to be biased.

Fifth Business tells the story of Dunstan Ramsay, an intellectually curious man who carries the guilt of the childhood accident in a small Canadian town that starts off the story. The novel follows him from childhood to old age, as he goes through war, academic work on the stories of saints, a traveling magic show, and more. Yet the title of the novel, Fifth Business, refers to the fact that he is never quite the main character. As explicitly defined late in the book, the fifth business character is the odd man out; never one of the main players in a story, but essential to the plot nonetheless.

On the surface, then, this is a simple story about the life of one unremarkable man, a supporting player to the stronger personalities around him. But on a deeper level, it's a complex study of several characters, full of Jungian archetypes, synchronicity, and questions about power, sexuality, love, and faith.

One thing I latched onto when I read this the first time, and I think has affected my career / education path, was Dunstable's desire to become a polymath. Reading it now, I see it's quite a minor point in the novel, but I was instantly drawn to the concept of a polymath and aspired to be one myself. From the novel:

"By searching the dictionary I discovered that a know-all was called, among people who appreciated knowledge and culture, a polymath, and I set to work to become a polymath with the same enthusiasm that I had once laboured to be a conjurer. [...] I beavered away at that encyclopaedia with a tenacity that I wish I possessed now, and if I did not become a complete polymath I certainly gained enough information to be a nuisance to everybody who knew me."

This passage stuck with me. And I think the thing with Fifth Business is that, as it follows Dunstan's journey through life, bringing up intense life questions, there will be something that anybody, young or old, can latch onto like I did. Everyone should read it at least once.

Here's another genius quote along the same lines as above:

"[...] I clung to my notion, ill defined though it was, that a serious study of any important body of human knowledge, or theory, or belief, if undertaken with a critical but not a cruel mind, would in the end yield some secret, some valuable permanent insight, into the nature of life and the true end of man. [...] fate had pushed me in this direction so firmly that to resist would be a dangerous defiance. For I was, as you have already guessed, a collaborator with Destiny, not one who put a pistol to its head and demanded particular treasures. The only thing for me to do was to keep on keeping on, to have faith in my whim, and remember that for me, as for the saints, illumination when it came would probably come from some unexpected source."

So many things to think about in that one dense paragraph. And I guess that's what I love about this book; it's a tiny chunk of that valuable insight into the nature of life.