Gotcha! This is why piracy happens


This summer, I took a two-week long course on systematic reviews and meta-analytic techniques for which there was some required software, in this case, Stata. As a McGill student, I was encouraged to buy the student version, which was about $50 for “Stata Small.” Not bad. I’ve paid more for textbooks. So I got out my credit card, bought the license, installed it on my computer, and ran the very first example command of the course. I immediately got a string of red letter error text.

The error message was telling me that my license did not allow me enough variables to complete the command. I checked the license, and it said I was allowed 120 variables. I checked the “Variable manager” in Stata, and I had only assigned 11 variables. (I checked the variable limit beforehand in fact, and made sure that none of the data sets that we’d be working with had more than 120 variables. None of them came close to that limit.)

So I emailed Stata technical support. It turns out that the meta-analysis package for Stata creates “hidden variables.” Lots of them, apparently. So many that the software cannot accomplish the most basic commands. Then they tried to up-sell me to “Stata SE.” For $100 more, they said, they would send me a license for Stata that would allow me to run the meta-analysis package—for realsies this time.

I asked for a refund and decided that if I really needed Stata, I would use the copy that’s installed on the lab computers. (Now I’m just using the meta package in R, which does everything Stata does, just with a bit more effort.)

For the record: I am perfectly fine with paying for good software. I am not okay with a one-time purchase turning me into a money-pump. I thought that the “small” student license would work. All their documentation suggested it would. If I had upgraded to “Stata SE,” would that have actually met my needs, or would they have forced me to upgrade again later, after I’d already made Stata a part of my workflow?

It probably would have been okay, but the “gotcha” after the fact soured me on the prospect of sending them more money, and provided all the incentive I need to find a way to not use Stata.


A few years ago, I bought a number of pieces of classical music through the iTunes Store. I shopped around, compared different performances, and found recordings that I really liked. This was back when the iTunes store had DRM on their music.

I’ve recently switched to Linux, and now much of the music that I legally bought and paid for can’t be read by my computer. Apple does have a solution for me, of course! For about $25, I can subscribe to a service of theirs that will allow me to download a DRM-free version of the music that I already paid for.

This is why I won’t even consider buying television programmes through the iTunes Store: It’s not that I think that I will want to re-watch the shows over and over and I’m afraid of DRM screwing that up for me. It’s because I’ve had some nasty surprises from iTunes in the past, and I can borrow the DVD’s from the Public Library for free.

For the record: I do not mind paying for digital content. But I won’t send you money if I think there’s a “gotcha” coming after the fact.

I’m really trying my best

People who produce good software or music should be compensated for their work. I don’t mind pulling out my wallet to help make that happen. But I don’t want to feel like I’m being tricked, especially if I’m actually making an effort in good faith to actually pay for something.

Since DRM is almost always fairly easily circumvented, it only punishes those who pay for digital content. And this is why I’m sympathetic to those who pirate software, music, TV shows, etc.

Yes, it’s racist

Judge Eliana Marengo recently told another human being that she had to be stripped of her identity and publicly humiliated in order to have her case heard in a court in Québec. That is to say, the judge refused to hear the case while she was wearing a hijab.

For clarity, Article 13 of the regulations of the Court of Quebec make no reference to headscarves. This was just one judge’s decision to make life harder for another human being. And it was racist.

Wait, how was it racist?

This is a point that people keep refusing to understand. I have written previously about how you can be substantially racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. without ever actually making reference to a person’s race, sex, orientation, gender, etc. This is exactly the same thing.

A policy that makes life harder for one group of people is discriminatory against that group, regardless of how obliquely that group is singled out in the wording of the policy itself. And it’s still discriminatory even if that policy contains an ostensibly non-racist/non-sexist/etc. counter-example to ward off suspicions of racism, sexism, etc. (Cf. the Charter of Values and conspicuously large crucifixes).

It is laughable that Marengo invoked equality to justify her racist abuse of power. She deigned to instruct us in righteousness by telling us, “The same rules need to be applied to everyone.” To get an idea of how the rules are applied to everyone in Québec, I have compiled Table 1, below.

White people do religious stuff in the public sphere in Québec all the time. Nobody minds. Nobody gets upset. Certainly nobody refuses to give them the basic justice that all humans are due. But when one private person of colour wears a hijab to court, suddenly a) it’s fair game to publicly humiliate them and strip their identity, and b) it’s hitting below the belt to call it “racist” when it happens.

Table 1: A convenience sample of conspicuous religious accommodations in the province of Québec, indexed by race

Religious thing Private or public? Who did it? (Race) Is it okay in Québec?
Prominent crucifix in legislature Public White Okay!
Giant cross overlooking biggest city in province Public White Okay!
Big white cross dominating the provincial flag Public White Okay!
Nearly every street and city named after a Christian saint Public White Okay!
Private person wearing hijab in court Private POC “This is unacceptable! Religious people are always demanding more and more accommodations. This is not about race at all!”

In defense of #selfies

Someone felt good enough about her appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule her for that.
Someone felt good enough about her appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule her for that. HA HA.

It is fashionable these days to tease people who take selfies, or to look down one’s nose at those who do take selfies, or to dismiss them as juvenile, feminine, vain, or generally bad for reasons unspecified.

You’ve seen it before. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. You see someone pull out a phone to take a selfie, and you make a joke about it, or someone complains about how “everyone is always taking selfies.”

There’s a sort of a snobbish “I’m better than that” attitude that comes along with all these condemnations. The commentator looks around after the comment was made, grinning in a most self-satisfied way, as if he has said something most original and daring. There’s a smug, superior, aren’t-I-clever-for-going-against-the-grain vibe that I get from people who say things like that, and I just can’t deal with it anymore.

First off, when you condemn selfies and those who take them, you are not saying anything clever or original. It’s not funny. It’s not illuminating. You haven’t picked out some interesting and unremarked-upon feature of human experience that no-one else has noticed. (Not that I’m claiming that any of the following ideas are original to myself either—plenty of other people have had reasoned pro-selfie positions. Consider this more of a rant than a claim to an original philosophy.)

Further, you are not some brave individualistic rebel among a flock of narcissistic sheeple. If anything, this makes you more like a corporate shill, helping to ensure that a new generation of young people is intimidated into believing that they have good reason to be insecure (and thus prepared to spend money to make that feeling go away). There are, after all, entire industries whose business model depends on encouraging our insecurities and preying on them. So if you’re feeling smug about being the lone wolf who’s bucking a terrifying trend of vanity, you should consider that every single person you’re criticising has been told “you’re not good enough and you should feel bad about it” in a million subtle (and also a million not-so-subtle-and-corporately-funded) ways for their entire life.

When you say things like, “No one wants to see your selfies,” you are not actually commenting on the value of the photographs that you’re disparaging, even if you think that’s what you’re doing. You’re coming closer to making a commentary on your own value as a friend, though. With a statement like that, you’re saying, “I don’t care about you, how you look, or what you’re doing. I don’t care that you felt good about yourself today.” And when you say things like that, you’re telling everyone in earshot that they shouldn’t expect positive feedback or encouragement from you.

It’s the same sort of attitude that you get from people who say things like, “Don’t tweet about what you had for breakfast,” or “You don’t need to make a Facebook post every time you go for a run.” You know what? If you care that little, no one’s forcing you to use social media. You can leave the party if you’re not enjoying it.

And this is why the whole thing is hypocrisy: When you say, “How egotistical—my friend posted a selfie,” what you are really saying is “I don’t care about my friend—if they’re feeling good about their appearance, or what they’re doing, or if they just want some positive attention from their friends, then that is unimportant or offensive to me somehow.” And that attitude—trying to make someone feel bad, just so you can have the satisfaction of looking down your nose at them—is so much more self-absorbed than posting a selfie.

As for me, I do care about my friends, and when I see a friend’s selfie go by on my Twitter feed, I want my first thought to be “Aww, isn’t that cute,” and not “How can I make that person feel bad?” That’s the kind of person I want to be.

The Kübler-Ross stages of grief and an open-source solution to the death of Google Reader

Over the past week, I was actually in the middle of writing a blog post about how I sometimes toy with the idea of switching to Ubuntu, just so that my technological life is not entirely beholden to any particular company’s corporate whims. I didn’t quite finish that post before Google very famously killed off its well-loved news aggregator, Google Reader. Most users of Google Reader are going through the classic Kübler-Ross stages of grief:

  1. We all experienced the initial shock and denial. (“What? There is no way they’re shutting Google Reader down.”)
  2. Anger followed.
  3. Then the bargaining.
  4. Next people will get sad about it. They probably won’t blog sad things about Google Reader, though, out of fear of looking pathetic.
  5. As far as acceptance goes, lots of people are now trying to profit from this, by selling their own alternatives to Google Reader. Digg has decided to make building a new aggregator a priority. Users are largely scrambling to find another reader.

My solution to the Google Reader problem

I used to use Newsfire before I switched to Google Reader, but in the time that has elapsed since then, they started charging $5 for it. That’s not a lot, but then I was getting Google Reader for free, so I kept looking. Besides, Newsfire is a newsreader that’s all stored locally on my computer, and my ideal solution would be cloud-based.

I looked around at the currently-available web offerings, and I couldn’t find any that were very appealing. I nearly despaired myself, when I found an open-source web-based solution.

This won’t work for everyone, but it will work for anyone who already has access to a web server with the following capabilities:

  • Apache
  • MySQL
  • PHP
  • Cron jobs

I installed a copy of the open-source RSS reader, selfoss on my web server, and I have been using it instead of Google Reader. I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve had to make a few changes already, but it seems like a good solution to the problem. Here are the advantages, as I see it:

  • Web-based, so it will work on all my devices
  • It’s hosted on my own server, so it will work as long as I keep paying my hosting bill
  • The software won’t be “updated” (read: altered arbitrarily) unless I want it to be
  • No one will decide later that there needs to be ads on my news reader

Good luck in finding a solution to your Google Reader problem!

This happens every single time I write a blog post on WordPress

Has this happened to anyone else? I swear, it happens every single time I try to write a blog post on WordPress.

  1. Type most of a paragraph
  2. Try to switch to another tab by pressing command-2 or another number
  3. The WordPress text editor interprets that to mean, “Convert this paragraph to a level-2 heading”
  4. I press command-Z to undo the accidental formatting
  5. The WordPress text editor interprets that to mean, “Undo the accidental formatting as well as the last 30 seconds of typing”
  6. I try pushing command-shift-Z to redo it
  7. Command-shift-Z does nothing
  8. Angrily re-type what I already typed, 30 seconds ago

It’s pretty standard across browsers that the keyboard shortcut command-[1–9] selects the [1-9]th open tab in that browser window. This is a bug, not a feature.

Catch-22 in mental health: An open letter to Andrew Williams, CEO of Stratford General Hospital and Randy Pettapiece, MPP

Dear Andrew Williams and Randy Pettapiece,

Recently, my father was hospitalised for schizophrenia in the psychiatric ward at the Stratford General Hospital. This was good news. It was a welcome change after months of increasingly abusive and dangerous behaviour on his part that affected the entire family. Not only was he suffering from disordered thoughts and paranoid delusions, he lost his impulse control with regard to money (and some other things as well). Due to his condition he lacks the ability to deal with his own finances. He was admitted to the Stratford General Hospital and shortly thereafter, a medical tribunal determined that he was not competent to make his own medical decisions. My mother was assigned to be his medical decision-maker and power of attorney.

Yesterday, we found out that some unscrupulous lawyer visited the Stratford General Hospital to arrange the papers so that my dad could transfer his medical decision-making and power of attorney away from my mother, and give it to another patient on the psychiatric ward. As far as we know, this other patient is just some guy that my dad met less than two weeks ago when he was admitted. The name sounds made-up, though, so for all we know, it’s not his real name. This “other patient” could even be a delusion of my dad’s.

Needless to say, we were upset.

We contacted the lawyer to ask him what he thought he was doing. He said he didn’t do anything—that it was my dad who made it happen, and that he had training to determine when someone was competent to make such decisions. We will be inquiring about what legal options we have against this individual.

When we told our own lawyer about the problem, his administrative assistant broke out laughing, because it was such a ridiculous turn of affairs. He advised us to get a letter from dad’s psychiatrist, and on the basis of such a letter, it would be possible to have this transfer of power of attorney reversed. This seemed reasonable. On contacting the doctor, we were told that he could not release such a letter, since my dad has requested that his medical information not be shared with us (one of his paranoid delusions is that we’re out to get him), and my mother no longer had her status as his medical decision-maker and power of attorney.

In the face of this Catch-22, we’re not sure what to do next. As of today, the doctors at the Stratford General are still refusing to provide a letter indicating my dad’s condition, because they are afraid of being sued.

I’d like to emphasise at this point that the unscrupulous lawyer got paid for what he did. Paid with money. He came in to the locked ward of the Stratford General and walked out substantially richer, thanks to money he took from a person who was determined by a medical tribunal to be incapable of making his own medical decisions.

If someone walked into a hospital and found an old woman with dementia and exploited her condition for his own financial gain and gave her nothing in return, that conduct would be reprehensible, but it still wouldn’t be as bad as what this lawyer did to my dad yesterday. Not only did he take money from someone whose mental condition renders him incompetent to handle his own financial affairs, but he made it a thousand times harder for us to get my dad back on his meds to stop the paranoia and abuse.

So, Andrew Williams: When do your doctors plan on doing the right thing for their patient and his family?

Yours angrily,

Benjamin Carlisle

(Edit 21h00—the original version had more cursing, but as my friend advised, “Try not to swear so that your interlocutor doesn’t have an excuse to dismiss you.”)

E-thesis final submission

This week, my goal was to make final submission of my thesis. All the actual work on the document was finished. I just needed to figure out how to hand it in. As per instructions on the GPS website, my thesis has to be submitted in PDF/A format.

For those of you who are unaware, a PDF/A is not the same thing as a PDF. What’s the difference? It’s more expensive of course.

The thesis has to be converted to PDF/A using special software to ensure that it can still be opened in the future. So, in order to submit my thesis, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies recommends that I buy Adobe Acrobat Pro, at a cost of $101.38 with tax—and that’s the reduced student price.

And the most frustrating thing about this? According to the instructions, “Standard PDF files will be rejected unless the thesis was written in LaTeX.” For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you will recall that up until February, I was using LaTeX to typeset my thesis, and it was a painful and scary transition for me to move to Microsoft Word part-way through.

So ultimately, it came down to a choice between trying to convert my thesis back to LaTeX, or spending $100 to avoid all that hassle.

Laziness won, of course.

On Thursday, I went in to the bookstore and bought the software. When I first installed it and tried to convert my thesis, I got an error. Acrobat couldn’t convert my thesis. This seemed strange, since there wasn’t any strange formatting in it. I fiddled with the settings, tried restarting, but the very expensive software wouldn’t do it. Fortunately after a half hour, it auto-installed an update and after that, the conversion went as planned.

So as of yesterday, I have submitted my thesis to McGill. It’s over! Those are all the requirements for my master’s in bioethics! The only thing that’s left is my supervisor clicking “accept.”

By the way, one of the most satisfying things about making final submission of my thesis is the fact that I can take the ugly EndNote app out of my computer’s dock. It was such an eyesore! :P

Offensive message at Stratford’s Canada Day ceremony

Last week I went to Stratford, Ontario to celebrate Canada Day with my family in my hometown. The weather was beautiful and I got to see a bunch of old friends.

Behind City Hall, there were food vendors, booths from various organisations around Stratford, and live music and dancing. Some were done by actors from the Festival, and other acts were done by fiddlers and tap-dancers from around Perth County. I understand that they were recruited from a festival that was going on nearby.

Partway through the event, one of the groups of dancers came on stage, and there were two boys in the dancing troupe. After they finished, the person who was emceeing the dancers made a comment that still bothers me. She said in a very tongue-in-cheek way, “Look at that—those two boys are pretty smart, aren’t they? Learning to dance with all those girls.”

The audience laughed, while I looked around in horror.

What’s offensive about this comment is the suggestion that it’s not okay for boys to learn to dance because they like dancing. That would be beneath a man’s pride. That would be womanly. There are some things that men don’t do, and dancing is one of them, and if a boy enjoys that, he should be ashamed of himself.

But learning to dance in order to pursue sexual congress—that’s another story. You can still be a man if you’re dancing in order to get in a woman’s pants. It just means you’re really shrewd about it, that’s all.

Two things immediately come to mind that are really problematic about this:

  1. This sort of thinking is fantastically demeaning to women. It puts women in the place of being a sexual object to be pursued by men. Not only that, but these girls were about ten years old! Why on earth is this even being hinted at?
  2. Having attitudes like the one I outlined puts boys in a position where they have to rationalise all their actions, preferences and their own identity through the lens of manhood. Not only that, but it emphasises how fragile someone’s manhood actually is: If just the act of dancing publicly is enough to threaten it so much that it needs to be rationalised by appeal to the subjugation of women, then you are sending the message that a person’s manhood is a very fragile thing indeed, and that it’s okay to turn a few ten-year-old girls into sex objects in order to preserve it.

I would actually be interested in knowing if there’s a way to quantify how much violence can be shown to be directly causally related in a non-controversial way to some guy trying to defend his own manhood. These comments are not benign.

Two more things that annoy me about Microsoft Word for Mac 2011

Okay, I promise that after this, I will stop posting about the shortcomings of Word. Just two more things, I swear. And they’re little things too.

Horizontal scroll bug
Horizontal scroll bug

First, every time that I open a document (a new one, or a saved one), the horizontal scroll bar seems to indicate that I could scroll just a little bit to the right, or that I’m not quite zoomed out far enough to see the entire document.

This is, of course, not true. The instant that I resize the window, Word realises that the width of the document in view is the  full width of the document, and removes the horizontal scroll bar, but it really bothers me that it’s always there. I shouldn’t have to resize my document window every time I open it up, just to get rid of the horizontal scroll bar. It’s sloppy.


Save as
Save as

Second, if I push command-N, which makes a brand-new Word document, then save it, without changing any of the formatting or even entering any text or doing anything to it at all, I get a “Save as” sheet like the one shown in the attached image.

What I don’t like about this is that the default settings give me a yellow exclamation mark in a triangle and red warning text that says, “Compatibility check recommended.”

To get rid of the red text and yellow triangle, I need to click on “Compatibility Report …” then run a compatibility report, and of course, it turns up that there’s nothing to worry about, and it goes away.

Why should Word give me a warning when I don’t do a single thing that could possibly offend it? I’m trying to save a blank Word document. I should only get red letters and yellow exclamation marks in the case that I’m doing something strange. Maybe if I had inserted a linked document or a table or something like that, then I could expect it to warn me that saving it would have some compatibility issues.

Then again, maybe this is a commentary on the compatibility of Word with other versions of Word.

It’s the little things that really make me wonder about this software.

Doctor shortage in Canada

It is widely known that there is a shortage of physicians in Canada. The doctor shortage is not an accident, however and it was not unforeseen. It was engineered, planned in order to cut costs for the medical system—if there are fewer doctors, there are fewer people to order expensive medical operations, after all.

That’s why there are so few spots in medical schools, and why I currently don’t have a doctor, and when I talk to anyone in the medical system about trying to get one, the most helpful thing I’ve been told is “good luck,” and “in the meantime, go to the McGill walk-in clinic and hope there isn’t much of a line-up.”

Now that there’s an election going on, I would seriously like to know what each of the political parties has to say about opening new spots in medical schools, and doing something about the doctor shortage. Has any of them made this a significant part of their platform? I’ve only been reading what the CBC puts in their RSS feed on the election stuff.