“Green”: You’re Missing the Point

I stumbled across this post today, asking about whether one of those coffee makers that consumes a new disposable pod for every cup (pot?) of coffee is “green”.

Ooh, miss! Miss! I know, miss! I know! Pick me!

No. No, a device which consumes a non-recyclable plastic cup in a process which normally only consumes a piece of paper (or even nothing disposable at all) is not green. It’s just not. REDUCE is the first R. Did you know they’re in order? Of course you did: reduce > reuse > recycle. There is nothing green (environmentally-conscious, sustainable) about this kind of coffee maker. There is no way to make it sustainable apart from buying their reusable filter and using regular coffee, which is exactly what they don’t want you to do because they mark up the price on their little pods like crazy, just like every other processed food is marked up like crazy.

I read on:

Specifically, how do they shoot hot water through a plastic cup with no harmful leaching from the plastic, including BPA?

See, now you’re somehow (I blame the hippies) getting greenness (environmental-consciousness, sustainability) mixed up with chemophobia (irrational fear of things you don’t understand). There is still some question of whether BPA is the boogeyman we’ve been led to believe it is, and further even if it is, we’re still not sure if it’s getting into our bodies through oral exposure or some other avenue. That may or may not make you feel better, but either way, that has no bearing on the environment.

My point is, don’t say “green” when you mean “contains no oogedy-boogedy scary chemicals”.


The Tangled Web

The big news for today is that Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam on Firefly, just came out of the closet.

Maher […] recalls that when he began his career […] he was advised by his publicists, who were unaware he’s gay, to keep his girlfriend out of the spotlight to not compromise his appeal to a female demographic. Maher says he decided against being honest to his publicist because earlier his manager, who also didn’t know of Maher’s sexual orientation, had told him to get a girlfriend so people wouldn’t presume he’s gay.


Redistribution of Wealth

On May 31, Emma Waverman tweeted this:

My friend is a Principal in a underserviced Toronto jr school. She needs $2000 to FEED her students for the rest of the year. Anyone?Tue May 31 19:27:45 via UberSocial

And I thought something like, “Holy shit, @2000?” I thought, “Holy shit, $2000?” because at our school summer fair we raised $1300. At the bake sale table. Never mind the barbeque and the silent auction and the bouncy castle and the games, we raised 65% of the money Emma’s friend needs to feed her school’s kids for a month, selling brownies and cupcakes for three hours.

It seemed a little ridiculous not to try to help. So I sent email to our School Council president and treasurer, and to the principal, asking if we could help. The response was overwhelmingly positive: the treasurer said we could give some money and also ask the other schools in our area to donate; the principal suggested setting up a donating jar at the Freezie Friday table; and in her typical no-bullshit style, the president of the school council dropped $500 of her own money on the table. Emails flew back and forth, working out the logistics, and this rainy morning I woke up to this tweet:

Thanks to @amyrhoda and her school’s parent council. The kids at my friend’s school have enough to eat for the rest of the school year. #wowTue Jun 07 03:34:36 via HootSuite

I’m not sure exactly what amount of money came from which source, but we did it.

But there’s a catch. Our next School Council meeting is on June 14, which means we did this without consulting the council. Now, our contribution was (as far as I know) only $500, and we came up with a plan to cover it if the council retroactively refuses to donate this money, so technically it’s fine. But I’m pretty sad that we have to even make a contingency plan. “In case of ungenerousness, break glass.”

The Ontario school funding formula is broken (thanks to Mike Harris); schools just don’t get the money they need. To make up the difference, families in some schools have stepped in with fundraising efforts. But a lot of schools don’t have access to the kind of fundraising expertise, connections, or cash that others do, creating a two-tier public education system where the rich get richer and the poor stay hungry. Some “have” school councils quietly contribute to “have not” schools, but despite repeated efforts on my part and the part of other parents, we have been unable to convince our school council to do the same.

I don’t think it’s because we’re fundamentally ungenerous. The fact is, we’re not a rich neighbourhood in the sense that Forest Hill and Rosedale are rich. Yes, we have a lot of money, but we work damn hard for it–we’re bankers and lawyers (and software developers), not idle heirs and socialites. So we do tend to hold on to our money. But I believe if we (the school council) only managed to frame the idea of giving properly, we could get the rest to agree to it.

I think funding something specific and finite, like a breakfast program for a particular school, would be simple and appealing enough to convince parents to part with a little bit of our money. It’s much more satisfying to contribute to something you can picture than something nebulous; that’s why the charity appeals on TV always feature one specific kid (or dog).

So I don’t honestly expect that we’ll be retroactively refused that meal program money, although we might (fairly enough) be questioned as to whether we intend to quietly and without consultation give away any more of our money. That will be a good time to say, “No, but let’s plan to give a specific amount to a particular need, so we can share the wealth in a structured manner.” Maybe this time they’ll go for it.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

There was an article today on parentcentral.ca about children dying when they’re left in hot cars. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, but the article is interesting because it talks about the number of children who were left because their parents forgot they were there:

The parents of more than half of almost 500 children who died from being left in hot cars from 1998 to 2010 simply forgot their kids were in the vehicles, experts report.

and about the fact that people think it could not happen to them, following this train of thought:

Forgetting your child is something only a bad parent would do. I am not a bad parent. Therefore I would never forget my child.

This is, perhaps, a comforting line of thought, but it’s  flawed. An empty rear-facing car seat looks identical, from the driver’s seat, to a rear-facing car seat with a sleeping baby in it. If you’re outside of your usual routine, tired, sick, or distracted, it would be quite possible—unlikely, to be sure, but possible—to walk away from the car believing that your child is safe at daycare. Maybe you’re not the usual dropper-off, maybe you thought you dropped her off but actually didn’t, maybe when you pulled out of the driveway you immediately started thinking about that big sales call or review meeting and were already in work-mode before you hit the highway. It can happen to anyone, not just flaky people, or stupid people, or irresponsible people. Just because a mistake is tragic and ugly and hard to think about, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The above line of thought is not just flawed, though, it leads to a terrible consequence: neglecting to provide reminders to yourself that your child is in the car. If you think this only happens to bad parents, and you’re not a bad parent, then why remind yourself not to do it? But think how simple it would be to get in the habit of throwing your purse or cellphone on the back seat. You retrieve your purse, you remember your baby (who isn’t there, of course, because it hardly ever happens) and voila, it’s all good. Bad thing (that would never happen to you, of course) averted.

Does Geek Culture Reinforce a Fixed Mindset?

I just read “Nerds, we need to have a talk” at Thingist. It’s about the author’s perception of geek culture as excessively critical, judgemental and impatient with newbies and amateurs. I haven’t been part of geek culture for a long time, so I can’t comment on whether his perceptions reflect the general community, but I can certainly vouch for that attitude at the undergrad level.

One passage from the post struck me. The writer is describing his attempts to learn how to skateboard:

One day at the skatepark I was sitting off to the side just watching everybody else and kind of wishing that I wasn’t there. One of my best friends, Steve, came up to me to ask what I was doing.

“Oh, man, I suck at this. I’m just going to practice at home or something. I don’t want to get into anybody’s way.”

“What? Dude, you look like a weird-o just sitting over here, and you’re not going to learn anything by just staring at that thing. If I ever catch you sitting on this bench again, you’re not invited to the skatepark anymore.” (There were probably quite a few more vulgarities, but this was the gist of it)

I have never seen this attitude in the geek community. It’s always been “You’re doing it wrong, and you should give up because you suck at it.” or “if you’re not using $hip_new_language, then you’re a loser.”

“You’re doing it wrong, and you should give up because you suck at it.” That was pretty much my religion between age 8 and 24; I gave up on so many skills prematurely because I wasn’t immediately good at them.

Maybe it started because I was overpraised, but it never occurred to me until now that the geek culture I immersed myself in in university might have reinforced my mindset, by reinforcing the fear of “looking stupid”.

(As it turns out I never did manage to get past the “looking stupid” phase of becoming a programmer, largely because I didn’t realize that if I kept plugging away at it, I would eventually improve.)

Stranger Danger Wins Again

Yesterday Toronto got its collective knickers in a knot about the Doctor Who-ishly named #wanderingboy. The story is, at 8:30 am someone spotted a little blonde boy (“around 5”) alone and crying near Eglinton and Avenue. They reported the sighting to the police — two separate people called and reported the boy — and the police leapt into action, asking the media and citizenry to look out for this poor abandoned waif (who no-one had actually reported missing).

For the rest of the day there was a great deal of retweeting and clucking and concern – who is #wanderingboy, where is #wanderingboy, let’s all look out for #wanderingboy. The police canvassed local businesses for security video of the boy. Later in the day a report came out that the same boy (how could they tell?) had been seen with a man, 40-45, in a trench coat. At 8:30. So was he alone? Or not? I’m still not sure.

Later still, almost inevitably, it came to pass that the boy had been at school all day; he was never lost.

In the midst of it all I tweeted that I wasn’t sure if the #wanderingboy thing was sweet or creepy. I settled on creepy.

If you see a little kid crying on the street, for god’s sake stop and help the goddamn child. A crying child is not a matter for the police! A crying child is not like a crazy person or an unattended piece of luggage, not to be approached except by professionals. You can actually just go up to them and ask if they’re okay and if they need help finding their adult. (That’s what we’re called at school — “Do you see your adult?” “I see my adult!”)

I know, I know, stranger danger. You don’t want to approach the child because you think you’ll be accused of something, or you’ll scare the kid. You know what, fuck stranger danger. You know you’re not a creepy molester, I know you’re not a creepy molester, and the kid and the kid’s parents will in all likelihood figure out pretty quickly that you’re not a creepy molester. In fact, the odds of you being accused of being a creepy molester are probably only slighly larger than the odds that you are a creepy molester, which is really small. The sad fact is that stranger danger fear has made the world a more hostile place for run-of-the-mill miserable children who could use a hand, in the name of protecting children against the vanishingly small danger of being snatched by a stranger.

For more about how the overblown fear of everything is making life worse for kids, read Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, and then check out the Free-Range Kids blog.