Monday, December 15, 2008

A Good Price For Butter

I wrote my first closed-book exam in a very long time today. It was... strange. I'm not sure how I did. L wrote an exam at the same time, although in a very different class. I remember now, though, how exhausting sitting and thinking and remembering and writing for two-and-a-half hours can be.

Afterwards, it was decided that we would have boiled celery for with dinner. This probably sounds weird to most of you, but it's something I grew up eating, although only at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. The two important things about cooking celery are 1) don't overcook it and 2) make sure it is swimming in butter. We had celery in the fridge, but I used the last of our butter a few days ago.

It was predicted that the temperature would drop by around 10ÂșC today, which it did between when we got home from our exams and when I went to get butter. So, out into the suddenly freezing night I went.

I also had to drop a movie off at the video store which was suddenly a lot further away than I remember it being. It then took much longer than it should have to j-walk across the street. This was mainly due to what was almost the world's slowest moving 7-car-pile-up on Bloor St. Thankfully, peoples' reaction times were marginally faster than their glacial progression down Bloor St and no such accident occurred, but it was pretty tense at times.

At the first grocery store I had to ask if they even carried butter at all, so skillfully was it hidden. With the milk? Nope. With the yogurt? Nope. With the cheese? Nope. Oh, there it is, in its own isolated cooler along with eggs, surrounded by non-refrigerated items. And the options appeared to be $9/lb organic butter or $10/lb organic butter.

So down the street to the other grocery store I trundled, exhausted, faithless in my fellow man and its butter supply. Where I discovered that they appear to be discontinuing my favourite flavour of Doritos. Or are experiencing some sort of drought. So I lined up with my butter and chips and salsa (which is a woefully inadequate Doritos replacement, I must say).

Finally, I got to the front.

"Butter is on sale, you know," the cashier informed me.

"But not this one?" I asked, weakly.

"No, Equality. $2.99. Go get some, I'll hold your other stuff here."

I considered briefly. I mostly just wanted to get home and stop caring about butter. Also, I have had less than stellar experiences with the Equality brand before, but really, how badly can you screw up butter? I'm not making icing, here. Frankly, $3/lb for butter is too good a price to turn down. I shoved my way back to the refrigerator, grabbed 2 lbs of butter, and shoved my way back.

I crankily handed the butter to the cashier. She rang it up with my chips and salsa. I paid her mostly in change. As I counted out my loonies, the not-unattractive girl whom I had cut off when I returned with my cheap butter looked at the cash-register.

"That's a good price for butter," she said to me, feigning incredulity.

Suddenly, I smiled. A cute girl was trying to strike up conversation with me in the grocery store. It's possible she was just really shocked about the price of butter and needed to tell someone, but I prefer my take on it. And sometimes it's nice to be reminded that you've still got it.

Uplifted, I told her it was and thanked the cashier for making me go back to get it and headed home to clog my arteries with boiled celery.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Love Is...

I am a determinist. To me, this means that I believe that, given a perfect snapshot of the position and momentum of every particle and subparticle in the entire universe, and also given infinite computing power and infinite time, it would be possible to extrapolate the history of the universe from start to finish. The problem with this, of course, is that you can't ever know the position and momentum of a particle.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have the best grounding in Quantum Mechanics. But, it seems to me that what this says is that there will be a random component to any observation one can make, not that there will be a random component to anything that happens. And so, I believe that randomness is a property of observation, not a property of any event.

I mentioned this to my friend, M*, the other day and she asked "What about love?"

"Love is just a chemical reaction."

"A chemical reaction?"

"Well, a series of them." I thought for a moment about what else it could be. "Although, I suppose there are also nuclear reactions. Wouldn't it be funny if it turned out the feeling of 'love' was actually the transumation of lead into gold inside your heart?"

* I have to admit that I was somewhat hungover for this conversation and therefore the quotes are rough paraphrases at best. I apologize if I have misrepresented the gist of anything anyone may have said.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Worst Thing That Happens To You All Day

So I borrowed some glassware.

I borrowed some glassware because I am involved in the Human Powered Vehicle* project. Some people on another HPV team suggested that we use butyl acetate for fusing sheets of styrofoam together. Unfortunately, buying butyl acetate is difficult. So the professor for whom I TAed this semester suggested I synthesize it. For this purpose, he loaned me some glassware.

Earlier this week, I was looking at glassware online, for myself, as I might like to do some distilling at home at some point in the future. I stumbled across the very kit I had been loaned. The price tag: CAD $788.

I didn't end up having to do the reaction — ethyl acetate seems to work well enough and is cheaply and readily available at the chemical store at the university. As soon as I realized that I wouldn't need to actually use the glassware, I decided to return it.

I tried several times each day this week but the lab tech who is in charge of the glassware was not in her office.

In the meantime, the kit lived in my lab on top of a hutch on the vacant desk next to mine. Safe, right?

My roommate and labmate, K, came home today and informed me that she had a rather crazy story to tell me. It turns out that one of the postdocs in the lab happened to lean against the aforementioned hutch at which point it collapsed. And down came cradle, glassware and all. Apparently there was almost nothing left.

So, best case, I look like an irresponsible tool and nobody ever trusts me with lab equipment again. Worst case, I have to pay for the equipment and nobody ever trusts me to TA again. I am invigilating an exam for that professor tomorrow, so I will find out my fate then.

I remember my dad once telling me, "eat a dead frog in the morning and it's the worst thing that will happen to you all day."

I also remember, even at a tender young age, responding, "Yeah, well, eat a live frog in the morning and it's the worst thing that'll happen to the frog for the rest of the day."

* Frankly, it should be called the Human Powered Bicycle competetion, but given that bicycles are human powered by nature, it sounds a bit stupid.
We are well aware that HPV has other definitions which have... less than savoury connotations. We sort of revel in it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spacing Out

I have, as my friend ~L* says, the November blahs. ~L is also a grad student. My classes are weighing very heavily right now. For one class I have a final presentation, a final report and a final exam all in the next two weeks. For another class I have a final project due just before Christmas. For the last class, I have a final report and a final exam. Plus, I'm expected to be making progress on my thesis. So it's high stress time. And the work is very interesting but there's Just. So. Much of it. It gets pretty overwhelming and I spend a lot of time just spacing out.

Sometimes when I'm spacing out, I think about people. Then I wonder if those people are thinking about me. It is, I suppose, an exercise in narcissism. Then usually I get distracted by a reference in a paper or my growling stomach or something shiny off in the distance.

I suppose Murphy's law dictates that the people I'm thinking about are probably not thinking about me at that time and that the people who are thinking about me are not the people who I'm thinking about at that time. But of course, there's no way to know, for sure, because testing it breaks it - if you call someone to ask if they're thinking about you, of course they are; you just called them. I think this is one of life's great cruel paradoxes, never being able to know if the people you're thinking about are thinking about you.

Also, I think I think too much.

*~L is not the same as L, my girlfriend. I call her ~L to distinguish her from L (the voice of reason) and also because that's how she signs her emails.

Friday, November 21, 2008

6 Month Lag

Today, I had to tell my students that they will be getting a new TA next semester, that I will no longer be assisting them in CHE204. That was kinda sad for me and some of them even seemed genuinely sad to see me go. Even though I probably marked harder than any of the other TAs, I think that, at least for some of them, they will remember me as one of the TAs they actually liked.

Later, L and I got talking about how, within a few hundred years no one will remember me or her. Unless we become really famous. I then pointed out that people have very short attention spans these days, and people would need to be reminded.
She said, "That's why I'm going to permanently carve a huge sculpture of my face in—"
"The moon?" I interjected.
"I was going to say the Earth," she clarified.
"Yeah, well," I pointed out, "it would take at least 6 months for google maps to pick that up, whereas everyone has to see the moon almost every day."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The New Deal

So it turns out I was partly right about going to grad school. I figured I would have a lot more time for things like sleep because, said I, "my thesis won't be calling me at 4 in the morning." Only this last part has turned out to be true — my sleep now comes, typically, in contiguous chunks, however, they are not very long chunks. Turns out I grossly underestimated the workload and took on an extra course I shouldn't have.

Also, my sleep isn't always completely uninterrupted. I woke up at about 4 in the morning a few weeks ago to being punched in the back of the head.

"Ow! You hit me!" I cried.
"Well, you were trying to put a silverfish on me," L explained.
"I was asleep!" I defended.
"Well, don't be mean to me in my dreams and I won't wake you up," she offered.
"Fine. Deal," I said, and I went back to sleep.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Keep Your Stick On The Ice

It is election day in the US. We had ours in Canada a couple of weeks ago. On that day, I was working for Elections Canada as a Registration Officer. It was my job to fill out the forms of people who had not received voter cards in the mail. By hand. For 12 hours.

One thing I noticed at the end of the democratic process is that my writing hand really hurt. Now, I am all for the paper voting process. I like transparency and paper trails. I am the first person to say that if Canada ever tries to switch to electronic voting, I will be the first angry person on Parliament Hill. But would it be too much to ask for typed voter registration forms?

The other thing I noticed at the end of that process is that I don't actually know much about the people in my country. If you were to extrapolate the makeup of the entire country from the people to whom I am routinely exposed you would find that almost everyone has a university degree, many people have advanced university degrees, that incomes are high, and that most people are quite technical. Also, that almost everyone is between the age of 18 and 38. I was shocked to learn that that isn't how the country looks. I live in a bubble.

I don't know why I think it's okay to put a graph in my anecdotal blog, but graphs do serve to illustrate points, sometimes, and I think this graph illustrates the point particularly well. I think everyone is between 18 and 38 because in my neighborhood, everyone really is between 18 and 38.

The point is this: it's all too easy for us to get caught up in our immediate environments. There are a lot of people on the planet and they are all different from you. They all affect you, and you affect all of them, even if it's in minuscule ways. It seems to me you can only truly make a wise decision about how to improve the planet, and thus improve your own chances for happiness, if you take them all into account, in some way.

Anyway, just some food for thought.

To quote a great man, "Remember, I'm pullin' for ya. We're all in this together."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

You Got Yourself Into This Mess...

I grew up in the land of consequences. When I was about 8 years old, my grandmother was taking drink orders for us kids at Christmas dinner. Being my smart-ass, 8 year old self, I asked for rye and water. So she brought me a (very small) glass of rye and water. I told her I was only joking, but she refused to bring me anything else until I finished it. And so I learned two very valuable lessons: 8 year olds don't like the taste of rye, and be careful what you wish for.

I think I kind of lucked out with my parents. A lot of people think they should be glad for all the times their parents were there for them, and I sure am (or I would be if I could think of any... kidding!).

What I am more grateful for is the times they weren't there for me. I'm talking about the times they said things like “you got yourself into this mess, get yourself out of it.” Because I learned that I could get myself out of those messes. I learned that screwing up wasn't the end of the world and that I was capable of a lot more than I thought. That life goes on. And I got to learn these things as a kid. Becasue of coddling by their parents, these are lessons a lot of people my age are only starting to learn for themselves and let me tell you, learning is a lot harder as you get older.

During those times, I'm sure I felt like I'd been abandoned, that my parents were jerks. I suspect it was as hard, if not harder, for my parents to watch me struggle than it would have been for them to step in. They were motivated, however, by wanting me to succeed later in life, ie, to get me out of their house.

I sort of feel like this is all a good analogy for the current market woes. People asked for capitalism, and by gum, that's what they got. Virtually unbridled, unregulated access to markets. And what did they do with it? They blew it. They took out loans they couldn't afford; they loaned money to people who couldn't afford it. They lied to each other; and they invested in things about which they knew not. People wanted capitalism but they didn't want to shoulder the responsibility and do their due diligence.

So now what does everyone expect? For mom and dad, AKA the government, to bail them out. Well, you know what I say? You got yourself into this mess, get yourself out of it.

Of course, the government doesn't have the same motivation my parents did. The government wants to keep people under their roof. Because that's where they can control them. And think of it this way: which is going to garner more votes now? The quick, easy solution that falls apart after 10 years or less? or the long, hard, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps solution which results in a much more sustainable economy where everyone gets a shot at being happy?

It's too bad, because I think now might be a good chance for the economy to learn that it's not the end of the world if the government doesn't bail you out. The way I see it is this: the price of capitalism is personal responsibility for all transactions. People didn't pony up and I suspect that what we get next will carry a much heavier price tag: freedom.

Friday, May 2, 2008

I Like Being Places, I Just Don't Like Going Places

I'm going on vacation. I need one pretty badly. I'm going to explore LA, which will be fun. I love visiting new places. The problem is that traveling really stresses me out. Right up until the plane is off the ground, I live with a constant fear that some horrible bureaucratic mess is going to keep me from getting to my destination (or home, if it's the homeward leg). One day I will probably write a posting which contains the story that is both a reasonable basis for this fear and also the evidence that I, of all people, should probably worry about that the least.

The last time I remembered seeing my passport was a few weeks ago after a quick shopping trip to Buffalo. I left my passport in the visor of my car after that. L and I had been packing all night and we were both going on the assumption that my passport was in my car. After getting ready for bed, I all of a sudden realize that I had my car interior professionally cleaned a week or two ago and that I didn't get a passport back in my bag of stuff I left in the car. I panicked, threw on some clothes and ran out to the car, which is a block away from my apartment.

It's raining out tonight. As I walked under my umbrella, a group of three strangers walked towards me. 
"Hurry up, man," said the first girl, obviously wanting to get out of the rain as quickly as possible. There was a guy close behind her who was clearly sharing the same sentiment. A few metres behind that came a guy who was limping rather than walking. 
"It's okay," he called to them, "don't wait up for your crippled friend or anything."

I got to my car, checked the visor, and quickly ascertained that the passport was not their, nor was it in the glove compartment or the console. 

I rushed home in a complete frenzy and started tearing up my sock drawer, which is where I usually keep my passport. Isn't that where everyone keeps their important stuff? Anyway, not there. Not in the bag of stuff I took out of my car before sending it to be cleaned. Not in the bag of random crap I keep around. Not in the box by the front door. 

"What if the carwash people stole it?!" I speculated.
"Uh, what use would they have for a stolen passport?" asked L, the voice of reason.

I continued looking under things and behind things and inside things.

And finally, after destroying my bedroom, my car, and some of my living room I discovered that my passport had been, all along, on top of my dresser. 

I hate travelling.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Too Many... or Not Enough?

I think I have a problem.

The other night I felt like I was having an unproductive evening because I'd only managed to clean my fish tank, plant my seeds in preparation for the end of the frost and make home made ice cream between work and bedtime.

I have too many hobbies. My girlfriend L suggested that perhaps I should start a hobby rotation plan. I pointed out that this would result in most hobbies being visited once a year or so. Which is fine for, say, photography*, but not so great for, say, my fish. So, instead, I have decided I'm going to start combining my hobbies. Blogging, as one of my hobbies, will have to start pulling its weight in the syngeretic hobby circle. This means that my blogs will start being about things. That's okay, I'm out of anecdotes anyway.

Incidentally, tonight's blog was going to be about bicycle mechanicking. Wheel building, specifically. Building a wheel is a simple, but sort of intense task. You get a hub, a rim, some spokes and some nipples. Oh, grow up. You then systematically thread the spokes through the hub and into the rim, until you have a self supporting structure. The components come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common wheels have either 32 or 36 spokes.

For "Guy Valentine's Day" L gave me a present — a brand new yellow
Velocity aero rim to go with my hot fixie wheel. (What did you think I was talking about, pervert?). So last week I stopped into the bike shop and bought a hub, some spokes and some nipples. Tonight I sat down with all my parts at my truing stand.

After threading 1/4 of the spokes I had, I discovered that I had run out of holes in my 32 hole rim, but had space for another spoke in the hub. Guess it's back to the bike store tomorrow. And this time I will count.

* I apologize to my friends who disagree, but I have to say, my camera will simply not die if I don't use it, whereas my fish, probably will die if I stop feeding and cleaning them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

This Is Not A Rant

So the other day I was sitting at my desk at work and my cell phone rang. It showed up on the call display as a local number which I didn't recognize. After answering, there was a brief pause, followed by a greeting in a very thick accent. It was Fido, wanting to know how my cell phone service is. Fido is my mobile phone service provider. They used to be a cute little upstart with good usage plans and no guerrilla marketing tactics. Then they were bought by Rogers.

After determining that I was largely satisfied with my service, except that it costs too much, the rep went on to tell me he could give me a free phone and a great plan for the next 24 months.

"But I have to sign a contract?" I prompted.
"Oh, no, sir, Fido doesn't have contracts. You would have an agreement."
"Ah," I replied, "and that's different from a contract?"
"Okay, and if I decide I want to cancel my Fido service next month...?"
"Oh, then you have to pay a cancellation fee."
"Well then, I can see how that is different than a contract. How about this? You put in my account notes that if anyone ever offers me a contr- sorry, agreement, ever again, I will cancel my service."
Unperturbed, he pushed on. "But sir, if you sign up for an agreement, I can offer you-"
I cut him off and repeated that if I was ever offered a contract again, I would cancel my service. He told me to have a nice evening, although to be honest, he didn't sound all that sincere. I told him the same. I was definitely not sincere.

This leads me to the lesson. This has come up a few times in the last month. Everyone seems to have a lot of misinformation about how cell phones work. Disclaimer: this rant really only applies to Canada.

Firstly, the "system access fee" is a scam. There was, in fact, a class action suit in Saskatchewan about how cell phone providers have been collecting this fee for themselves even though it stopped being a government levy many years ago. I was told once by a Bell rep that they split the cost of the plans into usage cost and system access fee because people wanted to know how the plan was divvied up, but I seem to recall that the plan that cost $30 before the split, cost $30 + $6.95 after. You also probably pay a monthly 911 system access fee. Even though you can dial 911 from any payphone for free.

Another serious point of misinformation seems to be about the difference between plans and contracts; or agreements; or shackles; whatever you want to call them. The important thing is that your plan and your contract are completely disjoint. And for those of you who thing this is completely obvious, I talked to two reasonable and intelligent people with two different misconceptions about this just this month.

A contract is just a statement that if you cancel your phone before N months (where N is usually 36) you will pay the phone company some large chunk of money. This renders you basically helpless in the event that the phone company wants to, say, charge you a new random fee for no reason. Keep in mind that it is usually stated explicitly in the contract that they can change your plan without notice whenever they want. So you may think you've signed up for unlimited something something for 3 years, but really, all you've signed up for is 3 years of getting hosed.

Your monthly plan is the usage you pay for. You can get a plan without having a contract. I have been without a cell phone contract for about 3 years now. And since there is now a law stating that if I change cell phone carriers, I get to keep my cell phone number, I have no reason to stay with my provider if I don't feel like it. They want to increase my fees? Too bad. I'll go somewhere else and it won't cost me $200 to cancel, even if I leave tomorrow. And I don't even have to change my number. I recently used that fact to knock literally $20 a month of my cell phone bill.

Sure, they'll offer you lots of little goodies to sweeten the pot: $100 off your cell phone cost; a $2 a month discount for the first 3 months. But you can get that same plan without a contract if you forego the $6 in savings and buy your own cell phone. At the time I bought my phone, Fido was selling the LG Chocolate for $200, if you signed up for a 3 year agreement. I got mine for $200 on craigslist, almost brand new. No agreement. Plus mine is unlocked, which means I can take it to any GSM carrier. Which, of course, limits me to Rogers of Fido.

The main reason that I recommend all this is that they are trying to get new carriers in the game. My fear, of course, is that because everyone is tied up in contracts already, any new carrier will find it impossible to sign up new customers. This will stifle competition, which will encourage the players we have now to continue to screw us. However, if, in a year or two, we get a new carrier with more reasonable rates and enough of us are free to leave our current providers, we may start seeing our rates come down. And that, in my opinion, would be a welcome change.

So the next time your cell phone company offers you some random thing if you agree to extend your contract, tell them to get stuffed. Buy your own cell phone and rest assured that whatever plan you sign up for will stay the same, even without a contract. Because if they start changing your plan around, you can just leave.

Please, feel free to post a comment with your provider and how much you actually pay per month, ie. your plan plus extras plus system access fee plus 911 fee plus whatever other ridiculous fees plus taxes. Post anonymously if you're embarassed about it. I'm curious, in any case.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

You Pays Your Money...

I visited the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls over the holiday. I played roulette. I love roulette. It's all shiny and spinny. It's one of the few games that can keep hold of my attention for at least as long as my money lasts.

I always love hearing people talk about odds and things when I go to a casino. I actually overheard someone say, "ooh, bet on black, it hasn't come up in a while." If you don't understand why this statement is completely false, I would strongly suggest taking a class in basic probability or reading a book called Chances Are... Adventures In Probability. Even if you already know why this statement is wrong, I would still suggest that book. It's quite entertaining.

Mom loves to inform me that roulette has terrible odds. If I really want to do well at the casino, I should play blackjack, she says. What my mother fails to realize is that I don't go to the casino to do well. In fact, before I've gone to the casino, I assume the money I'm taking is not coming home. Instead, I look at it as payment for entertainment; kind of like going to the movies.

One way I make sure I get my money's worth is by playing games that entertain me with shiny balls and spinning wheels. The other way I keep myself entertained is to ruin gambling for the serious players.

I hit on 14 at blackjack, for example. I once had a dealer ask me if I was sure I wanted to do that. People get so angry when you don't play properly. I have even been accused of taking someone's card. As though they knew what that card was before it came out of the shoe.

Another way I piss off the seasoned gamblers is to act really nonshallant when I win or lose. I won $125 on slots and the machine was whooping and hollering because that was the big prize on that machine. The guy beside me had a serious five o'clock shadow and looked as though his leg muscles had atrophied from sitting at the same slot machine for about a century too long. I looked around with a stupid, Mr Bean-like grin on my face while the machine did it's thing. The pro next to me reached over and hit the button to make my machine shut up.

"You have to wait for the girl to come around and pay you out, now," he said, with more than a hint of sour grapes in his voice.
"Okay. Thanks," I said, unwilling to let my winnings be sullied by this sour-puss. He looked at the machine again.
"Oh. No you don't, you didn't bet the maximum. You only won $125, you coulda had $250" he said with disdain.
"Oh well," I replied back with a big friendly smile. He made a noise of disgust and went back to pushing Bet Max with a grim determination that would make Sysiphus jealous. I wasn't about to be annoyed at what could have happened when I had just won $125. Given that I'd already written off the money I put into the machine, it was a pleasant surprise.

I am fond of saying that I never gamble what I can't afford to lose.

When I was 18 I started an RRSP. This is what banks like to call an "investment." They like to show you all these pretty graphs which say that if you put in $1000 when you're 20 you'll be a millionaire by the time you're 65. They try very hard to make the word "investment" sound like the word "savings" but really, it is a synonym for "gamble." My RRSP is comprised of what appear to be reasonably conservative mutual funds from Royal Bank. Up until recently it'd been doing pretty well.

Upon checking my online banking page today, however I discovered that perhaps I should have gone out and spent a few hundred dollars on a really good mayonnaise jar and burried my money in the backyard because there'd be more of it left in that case.