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.

Completion inefficiencies—going for the last one percent

Humans are very good at making most processes 99% efficient. It’s the last 1% that’s hard to figure out. The last 1% of the job takes the most effort, causes the most stress, costs the most money and produces the most waste.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Internet inefficiency

For example, humans invented the internet. Cities, countries, even different continents can connect and share incredible amounts of information constantly. This is an example of what I mean by a process that is 99% efficient. Maybe even more than 99% efficient.

And yet, connecting that vast network to the computer in my apartment can be painfully difficult. That is an example of what I mean by “the last 1%.” The telephone pole just outside my building has wires that, if properly connected, will get me on the internet. It’s only metres away from me. And yet, it took months for Bell to finally figure out how to connect my internet properly because the wires in my apartment building are messed up. (It’s still somewhat messed up, although not as messed up as before.)

Social media and the Vancouver riot

Another interesting example is the case of the Vancouver riot: Police are pretty efficient at catching and taking people away to be processed by the justice system. When the police are looking for you, generally speaking, they catch you. (Bounty hunters in the States are even better.) The inefficient part of this process is finding and identifying people who break the law. When my van was broken into, two summers ago, the police took my information, but really, there was nothing they could do. They just don’t have eyes and ears everywhere. They can’t always be watching, and so some criminals get away with breaking into my van and stealing the GPS.

The recent Vancouver riot is a clear example of what happens when this inefficiency is taken away. More than 100 people were arrested by Vancouver police as a result of the use of mobile phones during the riot. Some have even suggested that the increase in use of mobile phones with cameras have caused a decrease in the rate of crime generally.

It turns out that in some cases it might not be such a bad thing that Big Brother is watching.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”

Consider the case of food distribution. Farms are very good at efficiently producing food. We’re pretty good at putting that food on trucks and getting them to grocery stores without losing very much in the process. It’s the last step, at the grocery stores themselves, where the efficiency drops dramatically. If you go behind any supermarket, there are always dumpsters full of expired produce, eggs that break, meat that goes bad.

Imagine if your house had a Star-Trek style replicator, where you pushed a button and whoosh, a machine produced the food you like best, one “food pixel” at a time, heated by a laser beam and drawn from a food printer cartridge. These could be frozen and kept indefinitely. No more spilling—no more waste. No more trying to choose the best tomato or the ripest avocado. Just buy a cartridge of the right stuff, and away you go.

This isn’t even sci-fi anymore. 3D food printers exist, although they’re really expensive. We could have incredible control over the efficiency of food production and the consistency in quality in food with such a system. We could give consumers exacting control over portion size and nutritional completeness. In situations where food aid is required, such a system would have great benefits as well.

I imagine logging on to the iTunes Food Store, syncing my recipes with my replicator and then receiving a notification on my iPhone when dinner is done printing.

Trying to park my car

Having moved to the island of Montréal two years ago, one of the most frustrating things for me was trying to park my vehicle. Here in Montréal, people will just bring their car to a stop on a major thoroughfare and turn their reverse lights on. If they do this in front of you, it’s because they want to park on the side of the road and need to back into their spot. They expect you to just go around them.

Parking is not just a problem in Montréal. Cars are wonderfully efficient at getting you from point A to somewhere within about 500 metres of point B. To actually get to point B, you usually have to backtrack a bit, circle the area for 15 minutes, find a spot, then discover that the spot is only available for 20 minutes at a time anyway, and even when you do find a spot to park (usually for a price) you have to walk a good while to get where you’re actually going. Then you have to remember where you parked, and hope that no one breaks into your vehicle to steal your stuff while you’re gone.

Airports are a prime example of this. They have officers at the entrances to airports whose only job is to make sure that people don’t just park their car in front of the door leading to “domestic departures.” You’re allowed to stop your car, pull your stuff out, kiss your loved one and then drive off. That’s all. If you’re going to park the car, there’s a huge inefficiency of the other person having to wait for you while you park it, and if you don’t want to have to bother with that, you have to either get a friend to go out of her way to help you, or you have to hire a taxi at great cost to yourself.

In response to this problem, I’m somewhat intrigued by Google’s driverless car project. I don’t think that this will solve the problem I have outlined in its entirety (even if this project succeeds), but I would be very happy to see the day where I can get in my car, tell it my destination, jump out when I’m in front of the building I’m going to and watch it drive off to find a parking spot on its own.

Process Efficient part Inefficient part Solution
Internet connexion Communication between large centres The last few metres from the telephone pole to the back of your computer Wireless internet
Crime investigation Arrest and processing of already-identified suspects Identification of criminals Camera phones + Facebook
Food distribution Mass production, distribution to retail venues Sales and consumption 3D food printers
Automotive transport Travelling, especially long distances Parking Driverless parking
Table 1. Examples of completion inefficiencies

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:

A synopsis of Thor

Last night, I saw Thor. Here is a synopsis of the movie: God sends his son to earth, who dies and is resurrected, saves mankind and ascends to the right hand of the father, where he reigns on high until he will return again. (In the Avengers.)

Wait. I think I read that before somewhere.

Thor wasn’t life-changing, and it was somewhat formulaic, but it was passable. There were no obvious plot holes, and there was lots of punching and smashing and attractive-looking humans. (If you’re into that sort of thing.) I recall thinking at one point that the music was partly plagiarised. Some of the things that were supposed to be funny weren’t. Oh well. I did like Loki. I found that by the end I was rooting for him, and hoping that he would turn out to be the hero in the end, through his trickiness.

A funny thing happened to me at the theatre. For those of you who haven’t seen me recently, I’ve recently buzzed my hair to a length of approximately 3mm. I blame my current hairstyle for what happened at the theatre.

A guy came in wearing a red bandana on his head. He sat down as close to me as he could (my big black leather jacket was occupying the intervening seat—thank goodness) and he asked if I was “Justin Timberlake.” (Justin Timberlake is an American musician who has his hair buzzed short in some of the photographs that I found on Google.)

I told him that I’m not. He stayed right next to me the whole time, and after the film, he tried to make awkward conversation with me a number of times. I think he seriously believed that I was this famous person. He followed me around a little but I lost him by the time I got to the métro station.