I love my local coffee shop.

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Really there are two, the one near my office and the one near my house, but for all practical purposes they are the same. When I arrive they greet me by name, they ask if I want my regular order and on the few occasions that I want something different they know me well enough to make useful suggestions. They are nice, clean and friendly. There is really no practical difference between them.

But for one specific reason many people discount the one near my house. They are a Starbucks. I can only fault people so much for this. It was my practice for a long time to avoid “big brand coffee” in favor of the little guy but that changed when Starbucks entered my hood. They offered me a choice.

Before their arrival my only neighborhood option was a little mom and pop on the corner. On any given morning they were certainly going to be short on one of 5 things. Milk, cream, sugar, lids or change. The quality of service wasn’t too great either, probably because of the abuse the young lady behind the counter had to deal with from unsatisfied customers.

The store was so badly managed I found myself happy to see the big corporation move in to destroy the little guy. It forced me to question why I had so easily dismissed Starbucks prior to this. The only answer I could come up with was everyone else did.

Sure the money goes to a big corporation but why is it preferable to for my money to go to a person that does a crappy job? Truth is it isn’t. I’d be shocked if he gave his employees benefits, Starbucks does. He seemed to go through workers like underwear while the same people are working in the Starbucks after two years.

The more I think about it the harder it is for me to rule against them, sure I can’t stand the way they brand their “Ethos” water, the groups of school kids can be infuriating and we clearly have different musical tastes but ultimately I prefer the corporation in this case.

The funny thing is the local shop near work was originally owned by the same person that runs the crappy place near my house. And until he sold it, it was just as bad as his other store. It wasn’t until the new owner came and created a friendlier environment that it became a palatable option for me.

This has made me rethink why I do or do not like certain businesses. For me the two are the same if they treat me the same. And if they don’t I can’t see why I should support them.

But it seems that many people disagree with me. I’ve noticed that the Crappy Cafe is as busy as ever, there are clearly some folk that refuse to buy from a corporation even if it’s a better experience. That’s OK, it’s their choice and it keeps the line shorter when I’m waiting for my americano.

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Forward this blog!

•May 6, 2009 • 1 Comment

Dear friends, I’ve recently been asked to take part in a great opportunity and I’d like to share it with you. This is not the first time such an opportunity has fallen into my lap and I suspect I won’t be the last. These opportunities have been circling around the world for hundreds of years.

What are they? Chain letters.

A chain letter is basically any correspondence that asks you to copy it and send it out to many people. Chain letters can take many forms, let me explain these different types and how they can work for you.

Money Generating

In a common version these letters contain a list of five names. You are instructed to send five dollars to the person at the top of the list, take their name off and then add yours to the bottom before forwarding it to ten of your friends. Every time someone forwards the letter, you move up one space on the list until eventually you reach the top position and receive the money. Think about it, if ten of your friends send it to ten of their friends that’s 100 people, when they each send it to 10 other people that’s 1000 people. By the time you reach the top of the list there are 10,000 people sending you five dollars each, that’s $50,000!

How can you say no to such an offer?

This investment scheme has been around for years. It was invented in 1920 by Charles Ponzi and has been used ever since by investors such as Bernard Madoff. The method is proven to work, as long as everyone you send it to participates, and is honest and doesn’t put themselves ahead of you on the list.

It ‘s an opportunity that’s too good to be true!

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And they are not small-time either. As I mentioned earlier if you were to start your own chain, by the time you received your payoff there are 10,000 people involved. For the ten people you send it to, when they reach the top there are 100,000 people. After that the number increases to 1 million, and 10 million, and 100 million. With growth like that it’s a wonder the whole world isn’t rich! Isn’t it great to be part of such a large group?

How could such a great opportunity fail?

Luck Generating

These letters are forwarded to you just as the money type are, but instead of promising riches they offer luck and opportunity. Always written by great people these letters have circled the globe before arriving in your inbox. They share tales of the people who have followed the instructions and the luck they received which can take various forms such as financial success, improved health, and increased penis size. But beware, they also warn of the dangers of not forwarding the letter within the given time limit. Ignoring the power of the letter can have such drastic consequences as financial hardship, illness, or even decreased penis size.

How can a letter do such a thing? No one knows, but do you want to take that chance?

Fear not! The letter will certainly provide instructions and a promise that if you follow them you will receive the desired change to your penis.

Altruistic

This type of chain letter promises no gain for yourself but instead offers the opportunity to help an another person. According to chain letter folklorist Daniel W. VanArsdale this is the oldest type of modern chain letter. The power of the Altruistic letter lies in the small act required to provide a greater good. While it may ask for money many of them ask you pray or fulfill a simple request for a dying child. Not only are these the oldest kind of chain letter but they are also unique in that they are sometime true.

Consider the tale of Craig Shergold, an English boy dying of cancer whose dying wish was to earn the Guinness record for the number of greeting cards received. Who among us is so callous to deny this child his wish? In fact the power of the chain letter granted Craig his wish and in the 1990 edition of the book it came true with 16 million cards received (by 1997 the number had grown to 33 million). That’s not the end of Craig’s luck, in 1991 his tumor was successfully removed and he is now a healthy man.

But even that cannot stop the power of the chain letter. Letters for Craig’s request continue to be forwarded to this day, although his name is often changed and the request is usually for business cards. The love of the people is so strong that when someone used the address for the Children’s Wish Foundation they received so much mail (more than 100 million) they were forced to move.

Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

But beware! These are not always real stories. It is common for people to forward letters telling the tales of missing children with a plea for help. Amazingly these tales are usually not true. Often they are simply a sad tale of a child gone missing with an urgent plea for help and a photo of a cute child. Who could deny the chance to help find a missing child? Does it really matter if they are not actually missing, or even non existent? If for some reason that does matter to you, check out the resources at www.snopes.com. But beware these people are too busy telling the truth to aid in helping find non-missing children that don’t really exist.

Something for nothing

These letters contain an offer that requires nothing but the mass forwarding the of the letter. The most famous is the Microsoft email tracking letter. In this letter Bill Gates himself (!) asks you to help him test new software that tracks email. His generous offer states that if the letter is forwarded to 1000 people they will each receive $1000 dollars in compensation. Wow Bill, that’s a million dollars just to test your software, you’re a great guy. No wonder you’re the richest man in the world!

Bill’s offer has been so successful other companies have jumped on board. Companies such as Coke, Disney, The GAP, Honda, Nokia, Sony and Delta airlines are offering everything from free trips, merchandise, cell phones and game machines just for forwarding emails.

It’s almost too good to be true!

The downside

Alas, as with all goodness in the world there are people that just have to ruin it for the rest of us. These people are too busy mocking those of us that would jump at such opportunities. Naysayers I say! They feel that their “intellect”, “reasoning”, “research” and “ability to do math” is justification to make fun of anything that doesn’t fit into their precious “reality”.

Thanks to these “comedians” many of the chain letters circulating the net are simply not true. They contain stories of cavemen, the dangers of bread or unhappy wives looking for new husbands. They are more interested in using humor to perpetuate these letters than the traditional, time honored method of empty promises and false opportunities.

Don’t fall prey to these charlatans that believe the power of laughter is stronger than false hope. Because of them it is imperative that any chain letter you receive is examined carefully and only forwarded if you are certain the people receiving it will truly benefit from it.

Don’t be fooled!

Is Microsoft taking the gay out of gaming?

•March 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Microsoft has recently been accused of being less than accommodating to the gay community on their Xbox Live on-line gaming service.

Last week The Consumerist posted an article containing a letter from a woman named Theresa who claims she was banned from the Xbox Live for stating that she was a lesbian in her gaming profile (Xbox Live is the online service that allows you to connect your Xbox game console to any other user in the world, be they your friend or complete stranger). She claims she was harassed by gamers on the service who followed her into various games where they incited other gamers to turn on her. According to her, Microsoft was unwilling to help her deal with the harassment and instead suspended her profile until she removed her sexual orientation. (Note to The Consumerist. Banning someone is not the same as suspending them until they meet a certain requirement, even if it does make a better headline).

This is not the first incident of this nature. Last year two other gamertags were suspended due to the use of the of the characters G, A and Y appearing next to each other. (A gamertag is your persistent username on the Xbox live service) Two people identifying themselves as “theGAYERGamer” and “RichardGaywood” were forced to change their tags before being allowed back on the service. The RichardGaywood case is particularly surprising as it’s his actual name and has nothing to do with his sexual orientation.

Stephen Toulouse, the program manager for Xbox Live policy and enforcement (he’s the guy that holds the ban hammer), has this to say on his blog.

There’s been a ton of commentary on a Consumerist post about Theresa, an Xbox member who was suspended (not banned) from Xbox LIVE over expression of her sexual orientation in her profile. I don’t know the particulars, because the Consumerist article doesn’t give me much to work with from an investigation standpoint. But since most of the commentary has become rather emotionally charged, I wanted to talk about how things work inside Xbox because I think a lot of people are latching on to some kind of “Microsoft sides with homophobes” meme.

Our current policy for Gamertags and Profiles does not allow expression of sexual orientation under the Terms of Use. That applies to *any* orientation, straight or gay or otherwise. Gamers can however self identify their orientation in voice chat, where context for their statements can be provided.

The idea is your profile is visible to anyone on Xbox live, and because of that it should not contain content that might be considered inappropriate for younger players. That seems reasonable to me, considering that  Microsoft does allow sharing your personal info over in-game chat. You have the means to express your self to people you are interacting with but not to broadcast it over the whole network.

But still, should Microsoft force people back into the closet or perhaps to relive the schoolyard ridicule they were forced to grow up? Toulouse doesn’t seem to think so.

A few months ago when this first cropped up as something that displeased people, my team saw that although the policy was objective, it’s inelegant.  At that time we proactively engaged the LGBT community within Microsoft, as well as external LGBT groups to help inform our policy.

Some people say “hey it’s easy, just stop banning instances of the word ‘Gay’”.  We looked at that as a solution, the problem is when reviewing the complaint data historical record, we found that 95+% of the uses of the word “Gay” were pejorative. LGBT phrases and words were far more being used as insults than self identification.

And GLAAD agrees.

The online world provides unprecedented anonymity for people. They can, and do, say what they want. Unfortunately, in online gaming that has often translated to homophobic, racist, and misogynistic attacks.

Sony, Microsoft, and many others have been trying to address this by putting policies in place to prevent subscribers from using the online shield of anonymity to harass, verbally assault, and generally defame others. Are they the best policies? No. Are they working to improve them?

In the case of Stephen and Microsoft – they have been nothing but open, welcoming, and willing to discuss ideas for positive and inclusive changes during these conversations. Microsoft has invited GLAAD out to its headquarters in Redmond, WA, for multi-day meetings with developers, executives, and policy enforcers in the upcoming weeks.

As anyone that has played in open matches on the live service can tell you, homophobia exists (as does racism and misogyny). I personally have found that it’s not uncommon for some players to use terms like “fag”, “nigger” or “cunt” when they are bested by other players. I don’t think there is any real hatred behind their language (any more than a “your momma” joke indicates an actual desire to bed one’s mother), rather I feel it’s simply ignorant juvenile behavior (still, it’s inexcusable). But it’s there, it’s a part of the culture and Microsoft finds it unacceptable and is actively trying to deal with it.

With more than 17 million users on Live, Microsoft relies on two methods to help them stop these people. Software filters that search for keywords and complaints from other users. Filters will only work on text entered into your profile and are dumb when it comes to deciding context. Users can report behavior and in-game chat but like all forms of user reporting is limited by the number and demographic of the people that choose to make the reports. This may be the reason that, according to gaygamer.net, the service allows heterosexual gamertags even though it claims they aren’t permitted anymore than homosexual ones are. Simply put, no one is complaining about the straight people’s tags.

While I was disturbed by this story  when I first discovered it (as a paying subscriber to the service), further investigation led me to believe that it’s an other example of Microsoft trying to fix an unforeseen problem with their product, and while an answer has yet to be found they are looking. It is my belief that this problem arose out of an attempt to stop bigotry not as a desire to promote it. As Toulouse puts it.

we’re not some monolithic corporation trying to establish social mores.  We’re not enforcing censorship or bigotry.  In fact harassment of gamers of any type be it homophobia or racism or other, is expressly forbidden and my team will take action against it, up to and including a permanent ban.

As technology grows it often surpasses our understanding of how it might affect us and I think this a perfect exmple. As long as companies act responsibly and try to correct issues when they arise we should be patient and not overreact. Even if it increases our web traffic.

Non-lethal blogging

•February 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

At a news conference in Ottawa, the heads of The Canadian Police Association and The Canadian Association of Chiefs of police had a message for the Canadian public, Tasers are safe and every police officer needs them.

According to Chief Tom Kaye

“We reiterate that to date, there is no evidence, either scientific or medical, that a conducted-energy weapon has been the direct cause of death anywhere, at any time, on any person,”

Now I have mixed feeing about this subject. On one hand I’m in favor of safer means to protect the public and the police that serve us but on the other hand I have trouble seeing the message of these groups as unbiased.

I have no doubt that a Taser is safer than a firearm. There is significantly less risk of death with a Taser and the possibility of ricochet harming innocent bystanders is virtually nil. But my problem lies with the very concept of “non-lethal weapons”. The second you believe your weapon is non-lethal you are far more likely to use it. That attitude makes a Taser a dangerous device in my opinion.

From the Taser International website

“TASER devices have been used over one million times by either TASER International or law enforcement without causing a single death.”

Amnesty international disagrees, claiming more than 344 deaths have occurred in North America following Taser incidents.

“Tasers are not the ‘non-lethal’ weapons they are portrayed to be,” said Angela Wright, US researcher at Amnesty International and author of the report. “They can kill and should only be used as a last resort.”

“The problem with Tasers is that they are inherently open to abuse, as they are easy to carry and easy to use and can inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks,” said Angela Wright.

Amnesty International’s study — which includes information from 98 autopsies — found that 90 per cent of those who died after being struck with a Taser were unarmed and many did not appear to present a serious threat.

Many were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks — far more than the five-second “standard” cycle — or by more than one officer at a time. Some people were even shocked for failing to comply with police commands after they had been incapacitated by a first shock.

And there is addtional evidence that Taser international may not be the most upfront with evidence showing danger from Taser devices. In Ohio a medical examiner was sued by Taser interantional over official medical reports that claimed that Taser devices were responsible for the deaths of three men. Safety of Tasers aside, I’m very troubled by a company that tries to interfere with the scientific duties of medical examiner. If this person (or persons) is incapable of performing their duties then they should be fired, but to suggest that their reports can be “changed” to satisfy the desires of a corporation bothers me intensely.

According to Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino

“So much of the misinformation, the miscommunication, is driven by people who have never walked in our shoes … and could never pass recruit training,”

That to me illustrates the problem, Chief Fantino feels that my inability to “pass recruit training” somehow invalidates my ability to make rational judgments. That’s fallacious at best, and I’m supposed to accept his decisions on the safety of me and my family? If a violent offender is confronted in my neighborhood I certainly want the police to use a Taser device to apprehend him rather than drawing a firearm. That helps to protect me and my family. But if those same police officers believe that the Taser is risk free they are more likely to use the device when it’s simply not necessary, and that endangers us all.

Police Chief Kaye feels that when using a Taser

“There has to be some active resistance on people’s behalf. It’s got to be some kind of assaultive, combative behaviour

and

“They may have allowed it be used more as a compliance device. We’re suggesting that that’s not correct,”

That seems reasonable to me and helps me accept this device as a tool for law enforcement. Chief Kaye also brings up the notion that the Canadian deaths coinciding with Taser use, such as Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, may have been the result of Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome. SICDS is a condition caused by a state known as excited delirium where a prisoners mental and physical state can be exasperated by police activities such as confinement, pepper spray and Taser use, leading ultimately to cardiac arrest and death. Based on my limited research this appears to be a very real syndrome but to claim that a device such as a Taser has nothing to do with the resulting death strikes me a optimistic. I accept that the police have the means to use lethal force I simply want them to understand it and admit it. Currently their attitude seems to be that Tasers absolve them of that.

This issue strikes me as a false dichotomy, a situation where an issue is drawn as being either/or when in fact there is a spectrum or middle ground. I feel we need these devices, statistically we will all be safer if the police have them and use them responsibly. But if the Police always need to remember their mandate is to serve and protect us.

How can they protect us if they don’t recognize the inherent danger of one of their tools?

Chief Kaye seems to me to be a reasonable man, Chief Fantino on the other hand seems polarizing (as a Toronto resident I must admit he always has). Under the likes of Kaye we stand a chance to discuss the issues and our concerns and find a way to resolve our fears reaonably. We should embrace that because the alternative (Chief Fantino) seems unwilling to accept our opinions as valid.

He feels we haven’t walked in his shoes while failing to recognize his lack of time in ours.

Caveat emptor

•February 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

According to a BBC article, Gwyneth Paltrow has been seen with unsightly marks on her back. Fear not, they are there for a reason. The article points out that they are the result of a “treatment” known as cupping.

Cupping is the practice of heating the air inside a cup, usually made of glass, and then placing it on the body of the patient. As the hot air cools it forms a suction that holds the cup to the body and draws blood to the surface of the skin in the exact same manner as a large hickey.

“Why would Gwyneth do such a thing?” you might ask. Cupping has been used for hundreds of years (some say thousands) by people of many cultures as a relief from various ailments. According to the article it works like this.

The suction anchors the cup to the body and the area of skin covered is drawn up a few millimetres into the cup.

The cups are then left on the body whilst the area beneath is treated and the energy, or qi, is moved.

Qi energy is the basis of much traditional Chinese medicine (or TCM). It is a magical force that flows through the human body and can allegedly be harnessed to aid the body in healing. Qi cannot be demonstrated or measured and has never been proven to exist and yet it is the basis of a great deal of belief in the name of healing. You could claim the practice worked by manipulating a persons midi-clorians and you be no less scientific.

According to Jason Tarter and the Traditional Healing Centre here in Toronto cupping is mainly used for

the treatment of pain, gastro-intestinal disorders, lung diseases (especially chronic cough and asthma), and paralysis, though it can be used for other disorders as well.

His site then posts a list of ailments such as pediatric acute bronchitis, dysentery, acute and chronic gastritis, soft tissue injury, infertility, leukorrhea, common cold and facial paralysis. Though I must point out he never claims cupping will treat any of these ailments, he just lists them. To me this is a warning sign of a possible scam. And considering that many of the listed ailments are caused by infection, the most cupping will do is provide comfort while the infection worsens.

Cupping is a mostly harmless practice that provides the patient with a feeling of relief. While it does nothing for the body, if the patient believes it will often provide them with a placebo effect relieving them of discomfort while not actually treating them in any practical manner.

Why should we care then?

We should care any time a person makes a medical claim that can’t be verified. Modern medical treatment is built on the understanding that anything that may heal you might also harm you. As such, before a treatment is accepted as valid it must first pass a series of tests that compare it’s efficacy to it’s danger. By that rationale a treatment is either potentially dangerous or completely useless. In my opinion cupping falls into the latter category. While there is evidence of injury caused by cupping, it’s the result of an inept practitioner and not the “treatment” itself. But as I previously mentioned there is always the possibility that a person might postpone effective treatment while seeking scam treatment. So at best it may just be a rip off and at worst it may actually result in harm.

However when a respected news source such as the BBC publishes a credulous report of a famous person believing in such nonsense it lends credibility to the claims of it’s practitioners. The BBC didn’t solicit the opinions of anyone without an investment in the belief of cupping therapy. Not a single doctor, nurse or medical researcher.  They didn’t even report if Gwyneth was seeking this “treatment” as a means of therapy or if she just did it because it feels good. Her credibility is used to support the claims of cupping practitioners even without the support of her opinion. That is not journalism, that’s advertisement and with any advertisement I suggest that the buyer always beware.

Burden of Proof

•February 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The burden of proof is the idea that one party is responsible for proving, or disproving, a certain claim. In general the burden lies with the person making the new claim. In criminal trials, here in Canada and the US, this means it’s the prosecution (aided by the police) that must prove their case. This is essential if a person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty as an innocent person may have no actual proof their innocence, but still be innocent. For example, if you were accused of assaulting a person a block from your home during a time that you were home alone and sleeping, you would have no way of proving that you did not wake up, walk a block and commit the crime. That is why it is up to the police to provide some evidence that you were not only there but there at the time of the crime.

The legal system is not the only place that the burden falls on the person making the claim. In the realm of science the same burden applies. If I were to develop a theory it would be my job to prove it to the rest of the world not their job to disprove it. This gives us a solid and reliable base for our knowledge to build upon.

The world of pseudoscience however, doesn’t accept this idea. They make outrageous claims and then expect us to accept them on face. It’s a common argument from psychic proponents that science can’t prove psychics don’t exist. And they are right, (just as in the case of the sleeping man) there is no such proof. But science is not making any claim so there is no burden. For some reason though, psychics don’t think they need to be the ones to provide proof. I believe that this is for two basic reasons. One they don’t really understand the idea of burden of proof, and two most of them know they can’t prove it because they are fakes.

There are other groups that also ignore the burden of proof such as the vaccine denial movement. This group makes wild claims about medicines that have undergone rigorous testing and passed several clinical trials designed specifically to catch any possibility of the drug causing harm to people. They make these claims with no evidence beyond intuition and fear and they expect us to discontinue this practice without making any proof. We know conclusively that when people choose to not vaccinate their children, children die. Now I find the issue of vaccine denial interesting because the makers of vaccines do have a burden of proof, it is their task to show us that their medicine is safe and effective. And they meet that burden. Even after passing that test they are still open to attack from new data showing that they are in error but that data must be valid and accurate.

So far there has yet to be any psychic or anti-vaxxer that can prove their point, until then all we can do is wait and see. And I’ll get my yearly flu vaccine (as well as protect my children from measles mumps and rubella) while ignoring the psychic friends network.

Good vs. God

•February 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Late last year and this year several Humanist groups around the world have begun various ad campaigns to promote the idea of being good in the absence of god. Humanism is described by Wikipeidia as

“a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appealing to universal human qualities, particularly rationality. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.”.

In lay terms that means they belive in doing good towards your fellow humans for reasons of logic and morality and not because some books tells you to.

Because of this most Humanists are Atheist, and that seems to be a problem.

In Canada a group called Humanist Canada has decided to take part in the global campaign to promote goodness. In many Canadian cities they have bought bus ads that state “You can be good without God”. This has angered some, in fact Halifax Metro Transit has decided the ads are too controversial and will not run the ads and Vancouvers TransLink service has yet to make a commitment.

I’m puzzeled that any one would have an issue with a message to be good, that leaves me only to believe that it is the idea of no God that is causing this upset. But why? There isn’t a person on this planet that believes in every god, we all have an amount of disbelief. I’m certain that if I were to canvass in a local Catholic Church as to how many people believed in Ra the Egyptian sun god, or Zeus, or Thor I’d find that no one believed in those gods. The problem is when you directly challenge thier particular faith.

You see faith is a funny thing, by it’s very nature it requires us to accept without proof. And that goes for Atheists too, although we generally like to be logical and evidence based we cannot prove God doesn’t exist anymore than the Pope can prove he does. In the end it comes down to free will, we must choose to believe whatever idea feels best to us. And people don’t like it when someone else tells them they might have chosen wrong.

You can be good without God”, it’s an interesting message, in my opinion better than the British version “There may be no God, stop worrying and enjoy yourself”. In the British version there is a direct reference to the idea that there might not be a god. That is an actual challenge and I accept that it would upset people. But the Canadian version says nothing about whether God exists, it just says you can be good without him.

And is there anyone that wants people to not be good, regardless of their personal faith. Even the most devout must accept that there are non-believers, the question is do you want them to respect their fellow human or is it preferable for them to slide into a life that ends in tragedy and suffering? I can’t see how anyone that believes in the goodness of humanity doesn’t want to promote more goodness whether it be in a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Atheist.

Isn’t the most important thing that we are all good?