Tuesday, April 29, 2008

501 reasons to hate the streetcar

Andrew Coyne on taking away transit workers' right to strike:
But even if it did achieve the goal of ending service disruptions, all that would ensure was uninterrupted TTC service: slow, infrequent, obstructive (Toronto is the only city in the world where traffic improves in a transit strike, since the streetcars are no longer blocking both lanes), and unpleasant.
That's a mild -- but only mild -- exaggeration. I've never understood why this city insists on operating railed vehicles as though they were buses, thereby combining the disadvantages of both. Nor why transit "advocates" have fought tooth and nail to keep the streetcars -- and to expand the streetcar system -- without fighting equally hard to see that they are operated efficiently.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On sucking chest wounds

On announcing his retirement from the military, Gen. Rick Hillier compared the pain of leaving his profession to that of a "sucking chest wound". [G&M via Paul Wells].

An ordinary human might think of that as kind of a weird metaphor. However, I'm thinking the good General was made to watch the same first aid video that I had to watch fifteen years ago, as a fresh recruit at the Canadian Forces' Officer Candidate School. Naturally, one of the injuries being treated in the video was the "sucking chest wound". For the rest of my (short, undistinguished) military career, the phrase "sucking chest wound" would get a laugh out of any of my colleagues.

The video made quite the impression. I remember the treatment to this day: you're supposed to find a plastic bag and tape it over the wound, but don't seal the bag tightly over the wound or else fluid builds up (the consequences of which were graphically illustrated in the video as the "victim" coughed up a bunch of fake-looking blood).

Also, apparently the technical term for such an injury is pneumothorax.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Just say no.

Apparently 20% of top scientists are now taking performance-enhancing drugs, such as Ritalin, without a medical need for them. [WebMD]

Here's a memo to all those who are popping the pills to write the papers and grants. I'm not going to get all Olympicky on you and claim that your research results are tainted because of what you're doing. Science is science, as far as it goes, and that's the problem.

What you're doing is far more subtle and vicious. You're using a chemical means to push yourself ahead a few places in the pecking order, to a place where you wouldn't be if you weren't taking the drugs. And since we're all competing for the same jobs, the same grants, and the same tenure, your actions have serious professional consequences for me. The raised expectations created by your drug-taking may eventually force me to take the drugs myself; and while you may be okay with the side-effects, I'm not keen on them being forced on me. Taken to the extreme, we could have an academy where everyone has to take Ritalin just to get ahead, but because everyone is taking the drugs, the pecking order is exactly the same as it was before. In case your drug-addled mind can't make the connection, here it is: it's a classic case of the Prisoner's Dilemma. And you're the first one who chose to rat out your comrade.

One might suggest that I am guilty of the same thing, in the form of coffee. But in fact this is evidence supporting my thesis. I freely admit that I am a caffeine addict, in the technical sense: I experience withdrawal symptoms when it is unavailable. So is essentially every high-achieving professional person that I know. We are addicts not because we want to be, but because we have to be: the caffeine helps us sustain an unnatural level of alertness, which is necessary to compete on the same playing field as all the other caffeine addicts. From the example of coffee, it's easy to see how another drug might have a similar game-changing effect, to the extent that high achievers would effectively need to take them just to compete. And unlike coffee, whose side effects are mild and which is known to have some health benefits, the side effects of prescription stimulants tend to be nastier (including, in many cases, a chance of psychosis).

To those who are taking these drugs, I say this: You selfish bastards. What you're doing is not only rightly illegal, it is immoral: you force your choice on others by distorting the playing field. You are creating an academy where nothing matters except getting ahead, whatever the cost. In the short run, that's no example to be setting for students, and in the long run, it can only be corrosive to the reputation of the academy, as well as of scientific research in general.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


"Reading Slashdot these days is like visiting the IT guy at work. He's infuriatingly smug and cares passionately about stuff you don't care about, and views your lack of interest as further confirmation of his intellectual superiority." [Time: Most Overrated Blogs]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On stupid questions in exams

I am, at this very moment, invigilating my final exam, and putting up with the litany of questions from the students, all of which either: (a) are basically asking me to tell them the answer; or (b) are easily answered by reading the question slowly and carefully, sounding out each word in your head, one at a time.

Inevitably it's the same few people who ask all the questions, and I can't shake the feeling that they're trying to get some advantage. Strong statements on the exam, such as "Ask no questions, if something is unclear make an assumption" do not dissuade these questioners. And you have to go up to them when they put up their hand, in case they need to go to the bathroom or something.

I would love to implement the following system. Every time you raise your hand, I put a red mark on your paper, which results in a one-mark penalty. The penalty applies whether I choose to answer the question or not. I have the right to waive the penalty if you actually found a significant error in the exam.

It would never fly, though.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dear Nintendo

Playing your otherwise excellent game "Zelda: Twilight Princess," I've reached a stage where the hero is sometimes required to wear heavy boots to do certain tasks. Here is one example:
  • Hero stands on a floor switch. The switch moves a little, but does not activate.
  • Hero's companion suggests that he is too light to activate the switch.
  • Hero puts on heavy boots. Now the switch is activated.
But here's the thing. I'm carrying the boots. How is it that putting them on my feet makes me "heavy" enough to do something, as opposed to schlepping them around in my pack?

It kind of reminds me of this.