Xenophiles and Xenophobes

April 28, 2011

Almost all the way through the alphabet now – just two more days left after this in the A-Z Blogging Challenge.  So for today, the letter “X”: xenophiles and xenophobes, two sides of one coin, or perhaps more literally two sides of a gaping chasm.

Those who know me IRL will be able to tell you which side of the gap my feet are firmly planted on:  I think they’d say I’m a certified (or perhaps “certifiable”…) xenophile.  Yup, I do love me some foreign stuff.  Foods, drinks, fillums, books and the places they come from – oh, and the people in those places too.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the stuff closer to home – plenty of things to love here too.  But you can carry that a bit too far… and end up on the other side of the Great Divide, over in xenophobia land.

Now, I’m not talking about just being disinterested in that stuff over yonder, but full blown mistrust and hatred of foreign things, people and their cultures.  It’s just not right.  And it doesn’t even need to cross a border to show its ugly face – as a person of mixed race parentage (i.e. part of a visible minority), I can assure you I’ve experienced it often enough throughout my life even in the country I was born and raised in (that would be Canada, eh?).

Xenophobes are fearful of anything not like themselves – foreign countries, their peoples and cultures are all targets of their irrational prejudices, but so too is anyone or any group that doesn’t conform to the xenophobe’s image of “just like me”.

In some respects, things have improved over the course of my life – the advent of the Interwebs and the WWW for example, have opened new horizons and peoples’ eyes to what lays beyond the edge of their metaphorical garden; at the very least the exposure will help desensitize them to foreign things and perhaps understand them better with the resulting realization that they’re not really threatening after all.  But there’s still lots of progress to be made, and as the song by the band War says “Why Can’t We Be Friends?



April 27, 2011

We’re all rounding the last turn onto the homestretch of the A-Z Blogging Challenge with the letter “W” today, and I’ve chosen to write on three Ws: the World Wide Web, and the Internet in general.

WWW logo by Robert Cailliau (released to the public domain)

First, thanks are due: to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with creating the World Wide Web at the beginning of the 1990s, and to Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who are known as “The fathers of the Internet” for their pioneering work that led to its creation.

Of course, I wouldn’t be blogging without either of these existing, and despite having lived a large part of my life before the creation and phenomenal growth of the Internet and the Web, it’s difficult to remember the time when it wasn’t there.

What’s more interesting to me than the technology which enables the Internet and the Web (although I still marvel that it works as well as it does, or perhaps that it even works at all given the many potential points of failure in routing all those bits and bytes across the globe) or the explosion in online commerce that it’s brought (a two-edged sword, but that’s a discussion for another day) is the way it has enabled personal connections and the growth of communities.

I can honestly say that the bulk of the friends I now have were connections that have been made, one way or another, through the Web.  Not much more to say than that, really – other than to observe that perhaps the greatest contribution to society that technology makes is to intermediate those personal connections.  To paraphrase a well known ad campaign – Internet connection: $50 a month; Having a conversation with people across the globe: Priceless.

Vegetarians and Voters

April 26, 2011

“What”, you ask, “do vegetarians and voters have to do with each other?”

Well, apart from the obvious – they both start with “V”, the letter of the day for the A-Z Blogging Challenge – they are both about choices and outcomes.

Eating a strictly vegetarian (or vegan – hereafter any reference to vegetarianism can be assumed to include the more restrictive prescriptions of veganism unless otherwise noted) diet is a matter of choice, just as eating meat products is a choice – and there are further choices within the confines of each type of diet which lead to different outcomes: conditions like obesity, malnutrition or heart disease being the result of poor choices.

For example, a poorly planned vegetarian diet can be high in fat, potentially increasing risk of obesity. As well, there are some nutrients like essential amino acids which can’t be synthesized by the body.  These are readily found in meats, as well as dairy products and eggs, but are only found in a handful of plant derived foods – fortunately, the correct combination of foods (beans and rice, for example) in a vegetarian diet can combine to deliver these essential amino acids.  But not understanding this can lead to malnutrition.

There are certainly benefits – both physical and possibly psychological (if you object on moral grounds to eating foods derived from living creatures) – to a well balanced vegetarian diet, and even choosing a “mostly vegetarian” diet can have very beneficial effects on health.

And that brings us to voters – they also have choices, which result in outcomes.  In this case, however, it is often much less easy to determine whether a particular choice in an election will have a positive or negative outcome.  The fear of making the wrong choice often seems to lead voters to throw up their hands and not exercise their franchise, leading to poor turnouts and a government elected without the support of the majority of the population.

In Canada, we are presently in the final few days of an election campaign and there is once again a real possibility that voter turnout will be extremely low.  If you’re eligible to vote in the federal election, I urge you to make the small effort required to get out and vote.  I won’t try to sway you to vote for any particular outcome, but if you don’t vote you will have no say at all in what the results will bring in terms of future policies and the fundamental nature of the country we live in.

If You Love Canada Vote May 2nd, 2011

I’ve already cast my ballot in one of the advanced polls – if you have too, congratulations.  For the rest of you, make sure you get out to vote on May 2nd, 2011.

User-fiendish Design

April 25, 2011

The letter of the day, for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, is “U”.  I wasn’t really sure what would be a good subject, and then I thought perhaps it was time to inject a small-scale rant about one of my pet peeves.  Feel free to keep moving on by if this doesn’t interest you, I won’t be offended.

Now, in designing things – physical objects, software interfaces and gizmos that incorporate both of these – much has been made of “user-friendly design“.  And yet I often find examples of what I call “user-fiendish design” – things that seem to have been designed expressly to make their use difficult, obscure or downright unpleasant.

I won’t single any one product out here – your experience with the same product may be profoundly different than mine – but I’m sure you will have run across a few that provoke an “Ah-ha! I know exactly what he means” reaction.

Most often, I suspect, these user-fiendish designs are the result of “design by committee” – there’s no overarching coherency to the design; as they say “Too many cooks spoil the broth“.  That’s not to say that a design which is the product of the vision of a single individual is automatically going to be better – it could just end up being coherently bad (although I can tolerate that better than the alternative – at least if it’s consistent, interactions with it can be learned more easily than where the same action produces different results depending on where the interaction takes place).

Since I would expect that most people who are designing things for other people to use have good intentions (they say “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions), I can only surmise that the existence of user-fiendish products is simply an indication that there are a whole lot of unique ways of looking at the world and the things we interact with.

And I can only hope that any of the various things I have been involved in the design of over the years haven’t left too many people muttering “user-fiendish design” under their breath while using them.


April 24, 2011

As in Sir Terence David JohnTerryPratchett, OBE – author of, amongst other works, the Discworld series of novels.

First, back up a few decades.  When growing up, I read quite a bit – both books and magazines.  The magazines were largely of the Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated ilk at first, supplemented and then finally replaced by specialist car magazines like Road & Track, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and various British motoring magazines.  As well, I read a lot of comic books and humour magazines – Mad, Cracked and National Lampoon.

Books were generally of the science fiction genre – Asimov, Heinlein (in particular, his books ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ and ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ were instrumental in shaping my worldview – something that persists to the present day), Clarke (in addition to Clarke’s writings, I have to cite the Stanley Kubrick movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ as another seminal influence on my development – I was fortunate enough to see it in the Glendale Cinerama theatre in Toronto when it was first released; quite an experience),  Anderson and so on.  Later on, spy thrillers and the like – le Carré et al.   Non-fiction? I don’t recall any, outside of textbooks.

For quite some time (largely during my first marriage, while raising our two sons) I don’t think I was reading nearly as much – well, unless you count the innumerable readings of Richard Scarry stories and the Mr. Men/Little Miss books at bedtime. Oh, and I can’t omit Groundsel by Fergus Hall – that was one of the older son’s favourites.

After a while I did start reading more again, mainly mysteries – the Matt Scudder series and others by Lawrence Block, the Gideon Oliver series and others by Aaron Elkins (and a couple written with his wife, Charlotte Elkins), the Matt Cobb series and others by William L. DeAndrea (including a couple written under the nom de plume of Philip DeGrave – ‘fill de grave’, get it?), and so on.

And around then I also discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld through The Colour of Magic, the first in the series.  Usually, I’d rip through a new one in a short time and then end up jonesing for another – once I’d caught up to the ones that had already been published, it was tough waiting until the next one came out.  Fortunately, Sir Terry has been a prolific writer and the wait was tolerable.

Prolific, that is, until recently.  Sadly, he’s been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and as a result his output – understandably – has slowed.

More and more I’ve been reading non-fiction – in part because the authors whose works I most enjoy (Elkins and Pratchett in particular) are not releasing many new works, leaving a gap to fill.  I’ve tried finding fiction by other authors, but it’s been hit-and-miss, with mostly misses – there haven’t been any that really captivated me recently.  Non-fiction, whether it’s a technical book that I’m reading to learn something specific or a more topical work, lets me expand my knowledge and that’s something that always interests me.

And let me end the “T” post for the A-Z Blogging Challenge by saying “Bugrit, millennium hand an’ shrimp” – this was supposed to be posted on Saturday, but the day turned out to be a busy one and by the time I got to writing it ended up running into Sunday (well, at least it is where I am – for those of you who are at least a couple of timezones to the west, it will still be Saturday…)


April 22, 2011

Today’s topic, using the letter “S” for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, was eluding me until a few moments ago.  And suddenly the word “sophistry” presented itself to me like a bolt from the blue.

It may have had something to do with some subconscious percolation (I had listened to the interview earlier in the day) of a point made by Guy Kawasaki (yes, that Guy Kawasaki) on the latest podcast episode of the CBC Radio programme Spark.  He was speaking with Spark’s host, Nora Young, about his latest book, Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions.

Enchantment, he says, is what you want to do in order to win people over to believe in and be delighted by whatever it is you are trying to promote (in the broadest sense – nothing pejorative intended by the use of the term here).  His book (full disclosure: I haven’t read it yet, so the following is just what I gleaned about the contents from the interview) is about the techniques you can use to successfully create enchantment.

In the interview, at about the 11:35 mark (you can listen by clicking on the play button in the section of the blog post titled “How To Be More Enchanting”), Nora asked Guy about the ethics of enchantment, and in his response he goes on to talk about people who use the techniques of enchantment he describes in the book to unfairly take advantage of people and further their own interests over those of others in the guise of doing something good for them.

Which, if you read about sophism and sophistry is pretty much the definition of the current usage.

And why, in particular, might this have come to mind? Well, at the time of writing this, we here in Canada are in the midst of a federal election – and without being overly specific (to avoid branding myself as a political crank) about which party leader I believe is the most egregious user of sophistries in enchanting a credulous public, let’s just say one of the key pillars of their communication platform involves being here for the country.


April 21, 2011

This will be a short* post for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, which is now up to the letter “R” – as in racing; more specifically motor-racing, and even yet more specifically Formula One (F1) racing.

If you’ve been following my blog, you should have realized by now that I’m a gearhead – a somewhat conflicted one at that, but nonetheless still passionate about cars and making them go fast.  And that can be fast in a relative sense – there are plenty of racing series for cars with modest speed potential that make up for it with close competition and dramatic action, with the objective to be faster than the next person rather than just fast (or slow).

Anyway, if you follow F1, you’ll know that they’ve tinkered with some of the rules and other aspects of the sport in order to increase the number of opportunities for passing – which is, in principle, Not Such A Bad Thing since passing is all about Being Faster Than The Other Bloke.

Some of the changes they’ve made seem though, to me anyway, a bit of a kluge, but I have to admit the results of the first few F1 races this season tend to indicate that There’s Something To This – despite Sebastian Vettel having more or less pwned his rivals at all three races to date and looking likely to retain his position as world driving champion, there has been some exciting racing going on.

And if you don’t follow F1 but are interested in finding out a bit more about it, can I suggest you take a look at either the BBC Sports F1 site or the ESPN F1 site?  Each has qualities to recommend it (as well as a few warts, but nothing evil enough for me to want to dissuade you from checking them out – after all, YMMV) so do have a look at them both.

Short because I’m a bit knackered tonight due to having had to make a quick – as in: I left a little after noon on Tuesday, returned home noon on Thursday – trip across 3 time zones and back for a job interview.