The Cake is a goddamn lie!

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I once moderated a panel at a Star Trek convention that discussed the path our society needed to take in order to end up at the utopian society of the Star Trek universe. The panelist to my right said something to the effect that in order to achieve the Star Trek universe, both religion and nationalism had to go. Particularly irked were two Americans in the audience, one of whom suggested that anyone trying to take his religion could take it up with the business end of his semi automatic weapon. He actually said that. And these were fans. Discussing a TV show. (The panel only got more heated from that point BTW, and I was put off moderating for quite some time.) So I know it shouldn’t surprise me at this point that others take their respective hobbies so seriously, but it does.

I had to make a cake to take over to my mom’s. Now, I generally just use a cake mix, but this time I thought I would be marginally less lazy & make one from wholesome ingredients, so I scrolled through Pinterest looking for a basic white cake recipe. There were about a hundred possibilities on the first page alone but I followed a link to a site where a blogger was comparing three different recipes she had found online. She had baked three cakes and set up a taste test with family members. I read the post & the results of the taste test & found my winner. But in reading further on the site I found a thread where she had done a previous taste test which hadn’t gone so well. Apparently one of the recipes she had tested, which had come third of three, upset the originator of the recipe. A back and forth comment war ensued, down to such trivialities as the tester not having done the test in a heart shaped pan, which the recipe in question was optimised for. (With my cake mix level of baking skill, I can’t imagine what difference a heart shaped pan makes, but the recipe author was quite insistent.) No one threatened to pull a gun, but it was quite a war of words over cake. Cake.

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Congratulations, you’re a rounding error.

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Most staffers peek at WinQuote a few times a day. I mean, if you have 10,000 shares (and tons of staff members have way more) and the stock goes up a buck, you’ve just made ten grand! But then, if it goes down two dollars, you’ve just lost twenty grand. It’s a real psychic yo-yo. Last April Fool’s Day, someone fluctuated the price up and down by fifty dollars and half the staff had coronaries.
[…]
The stock closed up $1.75 on Friday. Bill has 78,000,000 shares, so that means he’s now $136.5 million richer. I have almost no stock, and this means I am a loser.
-Microserfs, Douglas Coupland

I browse over on Reddit & one of the subs I subscribe to is PersonalFinanceCanada. It has a lot of generally useful advice on money matters by people who know more than me about the subject, but it focuses a lot on investments. They advocate something called the Couch Potato model, which I gather is the bare minimum of effort people should put towards their investment portfolio. Now, I have some RRSPs & GICs; not all my money is just sitting in a bank vegetating, but I’m really not on board with the idea of investing in the stock market. I get that some people really do well with it, but it takes a considerable amount of effort, knowledge and skill to do it right. I have a full time job and enough hobbies to take up my time.

‘But it’s your money’ I hear you say. Well, trying not to come off as ‘it was good enough for my grandpappy’, people managed to get by fine without investing in the stock market for years. The quote at the beginning of this post, from Microserfs, has always stuck with me as perfectly illustrating the situation. The big winners in the stock market are the billionaires. Everyone else is chaff and rounding errors.

I believe the reason that investing is promoted as absolutely necessary, is so that everyone, even Joe Lunchbucket with one RRSP, actively cares about how the market performs. If you care about how the market performs, you are likely to vote more conservatively, so that things are better for large businesses in which you have invested. In my opinion, this is why ordinary people have been coerced (and there is no other word for it) into investing in stock portfolios. To not do so is made to appear foolish and short-sighted. You are chided for not caring about your money. Once people have their savings, however meagre, tied up in ‘the market’ they care about how ‘the market’ performs, with visions of their retirements going down the toilet. During the 2008 market collapse, many did, in fact, lose their retirement savings, money which would not have been lost if they’d just kept it in bank accounts. Billionaires probably didn’t even feel it.

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Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

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I had been holding off on reading The Martian, not because I thought I wouldn’t like it, but because I have an aversion to anything which is insanely popular (except Gangnam Style – I still love that thing). And last year everyone was talking about The Martian, telling me how good it was, and that I absolutely had to read it, which is a sure fire way to turn me off. But once that the publicity machine for the movie started, I caved, knowing I had to read it before the movie comes out. How did I deny myself this pleasure for so long? It is a perfect five out of five.

It’s only the mildest of spoilers to reveal that the plot involves a member of a Mars mission left behind when the rest of the team leaves, and his struggle to survive until the next mission turns up four years later. It’s engaging from the first sentence, the main character is charismatic enough that you start rooting for him right away and as far as I can tell the science is solid. There was no artificial drama, no characters with dark secrets, no contrived plot twists (however I’m going to go out on a limb and guess at least one of those turns up in the movie). It was just solid, well written & suspenseful. It was a binge read for me, and I begrudged every second that I had to do something else other than finish it. The secret of this book I think is the broad appeal. SF fans obviously would like it, but I think people who like military stuff a la Tom Clancy would like it as well. I am one of those people who always tried to read a book before I watch the movie, but if you skew the other way, I would still suggest you pick this book up. It’s not a difficult read and it’s really worth it.

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If not Basic Income, then what?

worker drone

I’ve seen the concept of basic income popping up in a lot of places recently, even mainstream news sites & magazines. I’m going to be completely honest & say that while I know basically how it works, I haven’t delved deeply into the details. So the general idea is that everyone gets a subsistence level income, enough for basic food & shelter (I don’t know about medical care – I assume countries with socialised medicine would keep it), but anything over and above the basic, a person would have to provide for themselves.
You can see the problems immediately. Basic food and shelter doesn’t cost the same everywhere. Shelter is more expensive in the cities and food is more expensive in remote areas. People with medical problems and disabilities would need specialised, and thus presumably more expensive, shelter and food. Would they make people move to cheaper areas? Would basic shelter mean barracks? The permutations are endless.
Then yesterday I see an article that says that we have reached the point where technology is actually eliminating more jobs than it creates. Unemployment (or under-employment) is an issue now but before long, even physical, low skilled labour will be done more cheaply by robots than hiring actual people. We see how companies, now, go to great lengths to hire cheap foreign workers rather than employing local people, so we know they don’t care about their community. If it were cheaper to replace foreign workers with machines, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So we can’t assume that companies will develop a conscience overnight and would prefer to employ people over machines. Once shelf stacking and barista type jobs are automated, what then? Already many office jobs are about 18 months away from being replaced by an algorithm. What do those people do when the next rung down on the employment ladder had already been automated out of existence? There are going to be a significant percentage of people who cannot, and may never, find any paid employment, let alone meaningful paid employment. If some sort of basic income is not considered an option, then what? There are times when I feel my field of study, Medieval History, was kind of frivolous, but there are also times when I feel it has given me the perfect toolbox to deconstruct the coming new dark ages.

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Papal history, now with added boobs.

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Now that most TV is over for the summer, the world of Netflix beckons the casual TV viewer. Netflix is both a joyous playground and a time sink of the highest order. Whenever I turn on Netflix I am reminded of the scene in Moscow on the Hudson where Robin Williams’ character, fresh from cold war Soviet Union, enters a grocery store for
the first time. He is so blown away by the vast amount of choice on display that he actually cannot make a decision. I’ve seen my SO, the nominal curator of Netflix in our household, decide to watch something. Half an hour later he’s still flipping through choices, unable to settle on anything. I know this happens to others too.

Once in a while though, we do settle on something. We are currently watching season 3 of Borgia. This is not Showtime’s The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons (which I’m sure is very good, though I’ve not seen it yet). This is a European production with European sensibilities (i.e. boobs) and actors of all nationalities and accents. It’s a little jarring at first to hear an American Pope Rodrigo, a Russian Lucrezia and a British Cesare, but you quickly get used to it, since the whole thing is so, so good. The supporting actors are equally compelling.

As with most historical productions, liberties are taken. It seems to be based on the most sensationalist of Borgia historiography, but when you have Game of Thrones to compete with, you don’t dare leave out the incest. And it does seem like a Christian Game of Thrones, what with the casual violence, rampant sex, gorgeous costumes and olde worlde architecture. All the famous licentious rumours are paraded front and centre in full colour and without shame. The ambitious Cesare is delightfully over the top, and looking ironically Christ-like. I’m not sure I’d recommend this to everyone – it’s certainly not for the devout Catholic not familiar with church history, or the easily shocked. But for those that like their historical drama LARGE, this is definitely worth a binge-watch.

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CSI: Neckbeard

hacker-neo

I learned a new euphemism a couple of weeks back – hatewatch. It barely requires explaining that hatewatch is when you watch a show you hate, expressly so you can pour your scorn upon it. I’d say CSI: Cyber is my hatewatch except I spend so much time laughing at it, that I can’t say I actually hate it.

I have been online since the early nineties. I search, shop, share and blog like a champ. But apparently I’ve been living in a blissful utopian dreamworld. Thank goodness I found CSI: Cyber; now I know I have to be afraid of baby monitors, Bluetooth tire sensors, Canadian online pharmacies, poker sites, wi-fi on airplanes, public charging stations, dating sites, remotely exploding printers, Uber, carnival rides, and Bluetooth in general. Disaster is only a keystroke away, as the opening credits say.

I want to hate this show – it’s just so bad. It revolves around an FBI unit that deals with cybercrime. Sifter, Peter McNicol’s character, is supposed to be the head of the unit, but spends so much time with a stunned look on his face you’d think he’d never touched a keyboard before. The female lead, played by the award winning Patricia Arquette (I still can’t believe she’s in this piece of crap) has a score to settle with hackers everywhere after one ruined her psychiatric practice and got her patient killed. The lead hacker is a stereotypical neckbeard named Krumitz (I swear they named the character that just so they can call him Krummy multiple times per episode) and his frenemy slash co-worker is a nattily dressed, reformed black hat hacker played by the rapper Bow Wow (yes, hackers can reform, but only if they go work for the government).  They spend each episode babbling about the ‘dark net’, and “hacking” furiously to catch the baddie of the week, which they always do, thanks to their 1337 skillz. There are other characters on this show, but they are so bland and tropey (rugged male lead, quirky cute female hacker), that I can’t even call up their names right now.

I have only ever watched a handful of the original CSI (which, I seem to remember involved a lot of dead hookers) so maybe I am not in the proper mindset to appreciate the badness  this show. But worse than its badness is the level of fear mongering propaganda it churns out week after week. Almost half the dramas on TV at the moment seem to involve three letter agencies, and act as shiny, slickly produced propaganda to convince people that there’s a terrorist behind every tree. So in case you missed that messaging, in case you managed to tell yourself that being blown up by some evil furriner will never happen to you, CSI exists to remind you that the danger lies right in the palm of your hand.

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I’m back on the Runescape horse

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I feel I must blame my nephew for my RPG addiction. Back when he was about 10, he was telling me about his favourite video game, Runescape. I sat patiently while he showed me how it worked & I watched him kill a few digital monsters. He wanted to set me up with an account so I let him create me a character. A couple of weeks later, before we visited his family again, I thought I should just have a little go, so I could humour the kid and say I did it, so I logged into Runescape.

Four hours later, it was time to cook dinner and I had to tear myself away, with much reluctance, from my slaying, mining and adventuring. I eventually levelled that character to 63 before I quit cold turkey.

I have subsequently played other RPGs but nothing matched the simple fun of Runescape.You don’t need a big install – it just runs in your browser. The graphics are perhaps not what you’re used to for other games, but the simplicity of use makes up for it. For a while, while levelling my original character, I had a paid account, but it was only $5 per month so it wasn’t a capital expenditure, and I never made in-game purchases or bought gold. I only played World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online when they became free to play. I’m also not a social gamer, so I tried to avoid the RPGs where you had to adventure as a team. Surprisingly, games that allow you to solo (and meet my strict medieval milieu requirements) are not common. Eventually, I deleted both LotRO and WoW from my computer, partly because they were a time-suck I didn’t need and partly because they weren’t as fun as Runescape (though LotRO beat WoW hands down for the fun factor – probably because I was already into the universe).
But the other night I was just looking for something to kill time while listening to podcasts, and so I wandered over to Runescape and created another account. I suppose I could have recovered my password, but I wanted the fun of levelling up another character again. So now I’m a n00b all over again.

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