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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My presidential prediction


Apparently I think Barack Obama is going to win the presidential race this year. I wasn’t at all sure I’d decided, but last week my back was to the wall and I was forced to make my prediction.

Why? Was my political editorial column for the NY Times late? Was I in the green room waiting to go on as a guest on The National? Did I need to put my money down on some sort of really boring office betting pool? No. Something much more important was happening.

I was gaming. The session was taking place in December 2012, I was the Game Master, and the identity of the President of the United States was required. So I made my call, and now I’m going to be held to it. Lauded as a genius if correct, mocked as a fool if wrong. Gamers have long memories, and they love to ridicule (why do you think Monty Python jokes still hold true around the gaming table, even after nearly 40 years?). Granted, my choice basically amounts to “heads or tails” in terms of options, but I’m sticking with the “Obama” side of the coin.

The power of incumbency is a major factor on his side. I believe sitting presidents who choose to run for re-election win almost 70% of the time, so this coin we’re flipping isn’t exactly balanced. More like rolling 1-4 on a six-sided die. (Or needing a 7 for a saving throw. Pretty good, but nothing I’d want to risk my life on.)

It doesn’t help Romney’s cause that, in spite of his almost comic-book square jaw and salt-and-pepper hair, he has no human appeal. He doesn’t share the cold, dead eyes of our own Stephen Harper, but there is a certain aura of the robotic around him. Though he claims to be born to human parents in Michigan back in ’47, he might just as easily have been assembled in some mad scientist’s lab from the body parts of 1920s movie stars. Put some “Intel Inside” to run the machine, and power him up. Even his political views are as changeable as your preferred internet browser: can anyone believe his Governor 2.0 operating chip wasn’t replaced with Republican President Vista before the campaign began?

This lack of charisma might be explained by the silver spoon carrying the platinum spoon he actually gets fed with, but watching the news you get the impression even the wealthy elite are kind of put off by him. Mitt was probably the kid at prep school everyone WANTED to beat up, but were afraid if they did, his dad would buy their houses and put them out on the street. Nor do Romney’s pleading, desperate efforts to relate to the “common man” help him at all, most probably because he’s so out of touch with their wants and needs that he actually calls them “common” when he thinks of them at all. In another era, Romney would have been entirely at ease, one suspects, riding across his manor looking for a chance at prima nocta.

Ultimately, this contest will be decided on the weakness of Romney rather than the strength of Obama. Poor ol’ Richie Mitt has a lot working against him, all of it self-created. At least he’s not going to become a drain on that Republican-hated safety net when he fails to land this gig.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

White-washed $100 bill


Anyone out there a fan of Community? Have you seen any of the episodes that feature the college mascot, the Human Being? It is a creation by the dean (and his mad assistant, Pierce) to sculpt a representation that all humans can relate to. They did their best to scrub the Human Being clean of any traits that might be indicative of his ethnicity. Even the maleness of the Human Being can be called into question, as it lacks any of the stereotypical gender attributes. The result is an extremely disturbing and creepy apparition.

Chevy Chase and the Human Being

See? Imagine that thing rushing toward you during a basketball game. Inspiring school spirit is the last thing you’re likely to see.

I’m reminded on this fictional experiment in stereotype “white-washing” because of the recent snafu over at the Bank of Canada. If you haven’t been following it, here it is in a nutshell: they recently altered the image of a fictional person on the new $100 bill because it is their policy not to depict people of “a particular ethnic origin.” This image was deemed to be “too Asian.” Therefore, it was given its own version of “white-washing,” emphasis on the white. The result is ethnically “neutral.”

I get it. White people, for the moment at least, are the dominant ethnicity in Canada. Therefore Mr. and Mrs. Cracker (and their 1.7 children) are “normal” and not seen as ethnic. So much for the “Global Village” idea. How can it escape Canadians that the world is filled with people that aren’t white? If you put a representative sampling of the world’s population into a jar, there wouldn’t be very many white jelly beans (maybe 1 in 7 or so). If “ethnic” is equated to “minority,” that counts.

There are a lot of problems here. Believing “white” isn’t ethnic is one. Another lies in the Bank of Canada policy, clearly written by someone who has magically been alive since the days of Confederation, before we had to deal with all this pesky non-white immigration. How can you possibly--EVER--depict a person without indicating “a particular ethnic origin?” They could be wearing gloves and a balaclava, I suppose. Not exactly an inspiring symbol, though, to have our money proudly displaying bank robbers performing day jobs.

I grew up in the days when pencil crayons included “Flesh” and “Indian Red” as colours. Things have improved. Band-Aids no longer harps on the “realistic flesh tone” of its products, for instance. Compared to race riots and apartheid and segregation, this whole "Asian on the $100 bill" thing is pretty small potatoes. But they still shouldn't have changed it.


Monday, August 13, 2012

The True Olympian


It’s all over. No more Olympics. As usual, we have another American victory. Why is that? Being a nerd, I amused myself by looking at the final Olympic standings from a couple of angles. My primary motivation is to find a way to massage the numbers to make Canada look better (spoiler alert: I fail). It wasn’t our nation’s best performance. As one news reporter pointed out, we’re getting more bronze medals than ever before! (Such a Canadian thing to say. Hey, we’re third, but we’re doing very well at being not quite the best.)

So how to manipulate things? The most obvious way is to use the American system of counting medals. By raw numbers, we place 13th overall. Not bad, compared to a showing of 36th using the “gold standard” method the Olympics officially uses. But Canada is a small country in terms of population, and while our per capita wealth is quite high, our national coffers aren’t as deep as some. So what happens when we adjust medals for those factors?

For simplicity, I used the Olympic method of counting. Gold medals determine your standing, with the others used only to break ties. Here’s the way the Olympics actually went:


Country
Gold Medals
United States
46
China
38
United Kingdom
29
Russia
24
South Korea
13
France
11
Germany
11
Hungary
8
Italy
8
Australia
7
Japan
7
Canada
1


I’ve included Canada in the list, even though there are actually 25 countries between ourselves and Japan. Below see how things appear once I adjust the medal counts based on comparative population. Since China has the most people, their total stays the same and the rest get a boost based on the discrepancy between their own population and China’s. Here are the top people now:


Country
Gold Medals
Jamaica
2694
New Zealand
2020
Hungary
1197
Croatia
1010
United Kingdom
630
Cuba
612
Kazakhstan
589
Netherlands
505
Belarus
449
Australia
428
South Korea
350
Canada
39


Our standing improves a couple of places (early 30’s now), still behind the US (they have 197 medals in this “population model”). We do beat China, though, by a single fictional medal. Jamaica is obviously doing quite well with the limited people they’ve got (what is it about hot countries, I wonder, that makes them capable of running so fast? If I were living in Jamaica I’d never move faster than a slow amble from one air-conditioned building to another.)

Now let’s try adjusting the original standings for national production. Nominal GDP gives us:


Country
Gold Medals
Jamaica
5600
North Korea
5550
Cuba
1166
Kazakhstan
980
New Zealand
840
Ukraine
835
Belarus
830
Croatia
700
Russia
240
United Kingdom
203
Iran
186
Canada
9


Once again, Jamaica rules. They are certainly making the most of what they’ve got. Our own standing drops well below 36th: we don’t get much bang for our production dollars. China has 106 medals, the US 46, so both those nations cease to be big winners.

I didn’t bother going for per capita GDP. If I had, Luxembourg would have kicked serious butt. This whole project is simplistic, but it’s entertaining (to me, at least) to see that using variable criteria, the Kings of the World suddenly don’t look so good. The US and China (and us, to a lesser degree) have a lot of advantages other nations don’t enjoy. That’s what makes the victories won by the “small fish” like Jamaica even more impressive. (With a fraction of our resources and population, they still snatched up 4 gold medals in the real world.) Is this just because the Olympics does its best to create a level playing field?

As a result of this “analysis,” I declare the true winner of the 2012 Olympics to be... the United Kingdom! Why? The UK is the only nation that appears on all three lists of the “Top Twelve.” They placed 3rd in the real world, 5th in “Population Matters,” and 11th in “It’s All About Money.” Perhaps spurred on by a home court advantage, they clearly did something right.

Congratulations, United Kingdom. I’m sure the IOC will be in touch with you directly to arrange the awarding of your commemorative plaque.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

The difference between "mediocre" and "terrible"


I’ve been watching the Olympics more this year than I usually do. I’ve been struck by the radical differences in the physical appearance of the athletes. The long-distance runners look like they’re in the final stages of starvation while the shotputters look like the guys walking out of Montana’s on All-You-Can-Eat-Ribs night. The heptathletes have abs you can shred cheese on. The swimmers have arms that dangle nearly to their ankles. Gymnasts look like they can travel twenty to a car. These are specialists, virtually the only people I know of that exercise for 100% utilitarian reasons. They aren’t in the gym saying “I want cannonball shoulders” or “I should sculpt my guns a little” or “How do I get rid of these love handles?” As a result, while they are all crazy in-shape, very few of them look like what we, as North American consumers, have been conditioned to think athletes should look like. This isn’t a bad thing, just an observation.


As a citizen of a nation that waited a week to see one of our people get a gold on the podium, medal standings are of only casual interest. Canada isn’t going to be in the Top Ten. We’ll be lucky to be in the Top Twenty. This isn’t meant to take anything away from our athletes. Seven billion people in the world, I think you’re doing pretty damn well to be counted among the hundred or so best in your sport. But the medal standings aren’t always the same, depending on where you look.


Traditionally, Olympic standing is determined by gold medals. Silver and bronze only count in the event of a tie. So you can have a hundred silver and be ranked below a country with a single gold medal. In fact, they didn’t even bother with 2nd and 3rd place for the first few Olympics in the modern era. You came in first, or you were just one of the losers. Then came 2008, the year China hosted and subsequently won more gold medals than the USA (51 t0 36). American newspapers, up until this point happy to use the gold medal standard, suddenly changed their tune, proclaiming “American Victory!” The US had won 110 medals, you see, compared to China’s 100. More is better, therefore they win. Who cares if we had to change the way we perceive “best?”
It’s this attitude that makes me wonder if the US hasn’t invested more heavily in its swimming athletes than in other sports. It’s well-known that swimming lavishes medals on its athletes in a way no other event does. The Phelps phenomenon (again, not saying he’s not awesome; he swims better than Aquaman) is evidence of this. A swimmer can more easily come home with multiple bling than a gymnast or a decathlete. Play tennis, for goodness sake, and you have to win a dozen game at two hours a pop to get your medal. Compare that to a minute in the water. I know which one I’d rather do. (Yes, I’d get blasted at both, but the duration of my shame would be truncated by opting for the pool.)


Granted, the American-inspired proliferation of this “all medals are equal” idea comes with big benefits for us Canucks. We seem to be inordinately skilled at placing 3rd, after all. With the American system, we rank 11th. Not so bad, really. With the “gold medal standard” we place way down at 25.


Go America! Spread your new way and we’ll forgive you for our failure to embrace the metric system!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Need for order


I have two children. Through no deliberate design on my part, the first one’s name starts with an A. The second one’s name begins with a B. As I said, this was not consciously done, but now I have to live with it. My children are alphabetized according to age. Should a third child appear, I will somehow have to convince the mother of said child that his/her name must begin with a C. Part of this process will probably include some sneaky deception, because my guess is there are very few mothers out there who are keen to name their child based on alphabetical requirements. I’ll have to be casual with the names I support, picking awesome C-names while deliberately selecting crap names from elsewhere in the alphabet. It’ll be tough. There are plenty of good C-names out there at least (if I should somehow breed like a crazy person and hit 24 kids, I’ve got very few options).


Of course, it isn’t so much that the kids must be named alphabetically. That’s only one possible pattern out of a myriad of possibilities. Kid 3’s name could start with a D, for instance. Then Kid 4 could have a D-name. See, you jump one step in the alphabet to go from A to B, so you’d get D if you double that number. Thinking outside the box, I could pick a G-name by slipping over to the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc). The point is to find a pattern. That’s what’s important.


Then there’s the names of the mothers. Two kids, two moms, so that means if there are THREE kids, there has to be a third mom. (Unless, of course, I can start at the top of the batting order again, but that seems unlikely.) The first one is an A-name. Then we’ve got an E-name. Again, coincidence (I hope), but it does lock me into a pretty rigid pattern. Vowels. That’s tricky, as there aren’t many I-names. I guess Mom 3 has to be an Idra or an Illya.


None of this would be necessary, of course, if I didn’t have a mild case of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, not be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder). It’s very mild. I don’t have to order the breakfast cereals on my shelves by size, alphabet, or fibre content. Towels don’t have to have their edges lined up when hanging. My bed doesn’t have hospital corners and my books aren’t lined up by publication date. It doesn’t rule my daily life or anything.


Then again, I did just spend half a day plotting how to slip a C-name for an imaginary child I’m not planning to have past a fictional I-name woman I’m not planning to woo.


Maybe “moderate” is a more apt word than “mild.”