A gift of the fae folk, I assume?

What is this thing?
What is this thing?

I tried to go to the Snowden talk at McGill a couple weeks ago. The lineup was too huge for us to get in, so we went to Thomson House, the McGill grad students’ pub, and hooked a laptop into a TV there to watch.

Seriously, what?
Seriously, what?

On the way back, in a pile of stones upturned by the construction between the Leacock and Brown buildings on the McGill campus, I found a little medallion marked with strange symbols. It has a pentagram on one side and Death on the other.

I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was left for me by the fairy folk, and that it’s a good omen?

How doing your taxes is like a singularity

One of the main projects of the natural sciences is to try to formalise complex physical systems in such a way that they can be used to make predictions about the future. For example, if you apply a force of x N to an object of mass y kg on a frictionless surface in a vacuum, the object in question will achieve a certain acceleration (x/y), and this will happen with predictable regularity. The discovery of such laws is one of the great aims of science, and some of the highest triumphs of the scientific age can be expressed in these terms.

In the natural sciences, the word “singularity” is used to refer to a point in a physical system after which the behaviour of the system cannot possibly be predicted. Stephen Hawking describes a singularity like a point in space-time where what follows “will not depend on anything that may have happened before.”

I feel like this accurately describes certain bureaucratic experiences I have encountered. Let’s take doing one’s taxes as an example. I feel like every year at tax time, something surprising and terrible happens, and I can never predict what. A year ago, I went in to get my taxes done by someone, and I figured I would get a generous amount of money back, as I did the year before. My personal financial situation didn’t change very drastically, I was still a student, and so I figured that at the least I would break even.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. I had to go to my financial institution and send a hefty cheque to the government. The explanation offered by the person doing my taxes was something along the lines of, “Well, you made a bit more money in the year previous, which triggered a whole lot of tax benefits, which resulted in a refund.”

I accepted that explanation, even though it doesn’t make too much sense on the surface. I would have thought that people who make more money would have to pay more tax, but that might just be me being naïve. These days, I’m convinced that there really is no way to predict beforehand what will happen, come tax-time. I’m pretty sure that even if you were to somehow produce a micro-physical duplicate of myself, with an identical financial history, we would both come out of the accountant’s office with a different result on our taxes.

So this year, I’m going into it entirely agnostic about what the outcome will be. If anyone asks if I’m expecting a big tax refund, I will explain to them that no one can know what will happen on the other side of the singularity that is doing one’s taxes.

Here are some other things that also constitute bureaucratic singularities:

Can you think of any other ones?

Weird thing to find in my readings for “Health and Physical Assessment”

My textbook for “Health and Physical Assessment” is called Physical Examination and Health Assessment (first Canadian edition) by Carolyn Jarvis. I’ve only done two readings from it, and it’s mostly what I expect. Largely, it’s written in a very scientific tone. It’s a textbook about anatomy, some common forms of illness, and techniques on how to assess a patient.

What’s surprising is something I found right in the middle of chapter 18, (thorax and lungs). The author uses an emotive, almost poetic voice to describe the baby’s first breath:

Breath is life. When the newborn inhales the first breath, the lusty cry that follows reassures anxious parents that their baby is all right.

(Jarvis, C. Physical Examination and Health Assessment. First Canadian Edition. p. 442)

The chapter continues immediately afterward in its characteristic, professional manner for the rest of the chapter, as if nothing happened. I read it, and had to go back to make sure that I didn’t imagine it. I don’t even know what they’re trying to get at with the whole “breath is life” thing. It’s almost philosophical, but then there’s no content there.

Just weird, that’s all.

My computer is messed up

Computer is messed up
Computer is messed up

Meet my computer, Fermat. Fermat is an old computer. I bought it in 2006, and it’s been through a lot. I’ve started to notice a number of funny things that it does. I like to think of them as quirks of old age, rather than as bugs.

For example, I noticed recently that the green light that normally indicates when the camera is on sometimes turns on even when the camera is off. In fact, it will stay on even though I restart the computer in an effort to turn it off. See attached photo.

It’s kind of creepy, like Fermat is watching me, even though I tell it not to.

Antibiotics and antivirals

More and more often these days, I come across articles about new anti-viral drugs that look really promising. Further, I’m sure we’ve all read or heard about the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance—strains of bacteria who acquire the ability to survive treatment with antibiotics which would otherwise kill the bacteria and cure the patient.

Since the discovery of antibiotics, bacterial infections have been relatively easy to treat, whereas viral infections have been something that can’t be treated directly. The treatment for a bacterial infection is penicillin, but the treatment for the common cold is bed-rest.

What I find interesting about these developments is that we may be entering an age where this is reversed: Bacterial infections may become difficult or impossible to treat directly, while viral infections can be simply and easily cured with drugs.

Ask a Québécois(e)!


Next time you have the chance, ask a Québécois(e) to tell you the name of the popular game pictured to the left in this post.

In English, we call it “foosball.”

In French it’s called “baby-foot.” I’m not saying that a literal translation of the French term for “foosball” would be “baby-foot”—the French don’t call it “pied de bébé.” The French say the English words “baby-foot” as their word for “foosball.”

I’m not sure why I expected the French word for “foosball” to make sense. The English word is confusing to me as well.

Thesis abstracts in both English and French

Well what do you know? I have to write a French version of my abstract for my thesis.

This means it’s time to go out and buy some Newcastle beers. I have a friend who’s a translator who enjoys Newcastle beer, and if I’m going to exploit my relationship with her for my personal gain, I might as well make it worth her while.

There’s no way I’m going to risk writing my own thesis abstract in French. In French, I’m most confident in my ability to discuss whether pineapples can talk:

GC [sic] Habs Go

GC Habs Go
GC Habs Go

I understand the desire to include the logo of one’s sports team of choice in the place of letters that are part of an encouragement to that team.

This only works, however, if the logo is not in fact a different letter of the alphabet than the letter it replaces.

For example, if a team’s logo was, say a stylised hockey puck, that could be used to replace the “O” in “Go [Team Name] Go!”

There’s just something unsettling about seeing the letter “O” replaced by a logo that is essentially a stylised letter “C” with a letter “H” inside it.

Why can’t one eat an egg with 油条?

When I lived in China, I would sometimes have a 油条 (yóu tiáo) along with my bag of hot soy milk for breakfast. A 油条 is a long, oily fried bread that you eat with your hands. It’s really good.

Whenever I would buy it, the vendor would always tell me that I shouldn’t eat it with an egg, and then she would laugh. I thought this was some sort of joke, but I never actually did eat an egg together with the 油条. Then, I went to a completely different vendor on the other side of town, and I was told the exact same thing—don’t eat your 油条 with an egg.

I was tempted, but never actually did try combining the two forbidden breakfast foods. I have a couple questions for my Chinese readers, or for aficionados of Chinese culture:

  1. Have any of you had an egg with 油条? What happened?
  2. Do you know why it is that I’m not supposed to eat them together?
  3. Is it out of some legitimate concern for one’s health?
  4. Is it a cultural superstition or a convention of some kind?
  5. Is this not even a thing? I mean, I might have misunderstood, or it might have been a huge coincidence.