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Huge success

Callum spent a good chunk of Saturday searching for various tips, tricks, and exploits to do speed-runs of different Portal levels. Well, nobody ever accused him of not being my kid.

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27. Mar, 2016
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It is amazing all the simple beauty that surrounds us every day that we don’t notice when we aren’t paying attention.

A purple flower in the spring

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20. Mar, 2016
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This evening we visited Madame Tussauds on International Drive here in Orlando. We have one of those annual passes where you can visit a bunch of different attractions in the area, including Madame Tussaud’s and LEGOLAND, so why not? It was a pretty fun visit.

I’ve seen wax exhibits before, but I don’t believe I have been to a Madame Tussaud’s in particular before. There were several things that I found interesting about it:

  • The wax mannequins were not as realistic as I thought they would be. I mean, they were pretty darn realistic, but you could tell they weren’t real.
  • There were lots of interactive play areas inside the museum. You could throw basketballs, put on different costumes, do some boxing, answer interactive quizzes, and so on. You could also touch and otherwise interact with the wax figures. I hadn’t been expecting this; I had assumed it would be more museum-like, with the exhibits cordoned off. It was a nice surprise.
  • It was neat to see how tall, short, big, or small people were based on their wax replicas. When you see someone on TV you don’t always get an accurate representation of their size. Not that it’s important – ’cause it’s not – but I found it interesting anyway.
  • I kept thinking someone was going to jump out at me.

Uncle Sam at Madame Tussauds Orlando

Wax Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam sign at Madame Tussauds Orlando

We also visited the Orlando Eye (part of that same chain of attractions for which we have an annual pass). That was pretty fun as well. It was colored green for St. Patrick’s Day, which was a nice touch.

On the Orlando Eye

On the Orlando Eye.

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18. Mar, 2016
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Raccoon cubs

The other day I was on a morning walk with Lilou, our Shetland Sheepdog, when I came across a neighbor poking around in his front yard. Apparently he had found three raccoon cubs (or raccoon kits? Either way, they were baby raccoons). He hadn’t been able to find the mother raccoon. The baby raccoons were pretty nervous to have us watching them – I suppose I would be, too. For the most part they hid in the bushes beside house and attempted to remain inconspicuous.

Naturally I took Lilou home, got out my camera, and headed back to the neighbor’s house to take a few pictures. I managed to get a few good ones before my camera’s battery ran out – oops.

I went back again the next day to see if the raccoon cubs were still hanging around the neighbor’s yard, but they were nowhere to be found.

Raccoon cub in a tree

Raccoon cub on the ground

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06. Mar, 2016
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Stopping the madness

The steps of MontmartreInfluence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a fascinating book. In it, psychology professor Dr. Robert Cialdini explains the way people use various psychological tools to influence people to do things. For example, if someone does you a favor, you will instinctively want to do them a favor in return. In fact, after receiving a favor or a gift from someone, you will find it very difficult not to do them something in return, particularly if they ask for it. This is the tool of influence reciprocity in action. Marketers and salespeople are constantly – and mindfully – using these and other tools of influence to maneuver people into taking actions they wouldn’t normally take.

Social Proof

One of the most fascinating tools of influence Dr. Cialdini describes in his book is social proof. The theory of social proof indicates that you will take actions according to the social cues of the people around you. For example, if someone is having a heart attack, a lone passerby would be likely to come to that person’s aid. But if the person having a heart attack was surrounded by a group of people, before helping that person each individual would likely pause to take social cues from the other people in the group. Since the other people in the group are doing the exact same thing (and not acting), the individual might believe that there is no emergency, and not go to that person’s aid – and the rest of the group would do the exact same thing. The person having the heart attack would therefore be much less likely to receive aid than if a single individual were present.

Here’s an interesting fact also featured in the book. When someone commits suicide, and the suicide is publicized in the news, over the next few days the occurrence of car accidents and private and commercial plane crashes increases to a noticeable degree. If it’s a lone suicide, then more people will die by themselves in car crashes – by running into trees, for example. If it’s a murder-suicide, then there will be more multi-car wrecks and downed commercial jets resulting in multiple deaths. Note that this only happens when the suicide is publicized.

While it can’t be proven, the researchers Cialdini references in his book believe what is happening is social proof in action. When a person commits suicide, and other people hear about that suicide, some of those people will choose to follow his or her lead. With a murder-suicide, someone might choose to follow that lead by going out in a way that takes out other people, either in a huge collision on the highway or, yes, even taking down a commercial airliner. Scary, no?

America’s problem with mass shootings

While Dr. Cialdini doesn’t mention America’s mass shootings in his book (it was written a few decades ago, before the problem started getting out of hand), I believe that the theory of social proof can go a long way to describing what is going on in America today. Starting with Columbine, the American media voraciously reports on mass shootings… and, more importantly, on the characters of the shooters themselves. I believe that the in-depth reporting on the people committing these shootings is going a long way to causing other people to do the same thing. Troubled teens in high school who feel outcast and alone (and by the way, I’m pretty sure all teens feel outcast and alone at some point) see someone with whom they can associate – an outcast and a loner, nothing special about him – who is suddenly the focus of the entire nation. His manifesto is read on TV and dissected for information. His schoolmates are interviewed. His bedroom is photographed. He becomes an instant celebrity. Note that he is probably dead at this point… but he died in a way that has made him somebody worth noticing.

You’ll notice I used the pronoun ‘he’. The trend of mass shootings in America, with some exceptions, seems to be “young white males”. It has been demonstrated that people are more apt to want to imitate those people who are most like themselves. So for example, if you want to show a child proper behavior, it is more effective to have that child learn those behaviors from another child instead of, for example, a 30-year-old man. I do not think that the frequency of young white males committing mass shootings is somehow because young white males have some sort of predisposition to make them more inclined to commit mass murder. I think it’s because they’re taking social cues from the other young white males in the past who have committed similar atrocities.

After the shootings in Paris in November of 2015, police started hunting for a man named Abdelhamid Abaaoud (not a young white male, I know – though the theory of social proof can also help to explain why some people choose to become terrorists). Officials suspected it was Abaaoud who orchestrated the Paris attacks. During news reports, reporters referred to Abaaoud as “the mastermind behind the attacks”. It was a word they used often – mastermind. It made me cringe every time they said it. This was not a “mastermind”, this was a killer who gathered a few people with automatic weapons and sent them into a concert hall to shoot up the place. We should not be glorifying killers by giving them titles like “mastermind”. And yet we (and by we, I mean the media) do this sort of thing all the time. People who commit mass shootings are depicted as dark and mysterious loner-types. They’re not crazy, evil, or losers, they’re “troubled souls”. Just the sort of archetype that troubled young men like to emulate.

Mass shootings in Canada

I still remember when, while I was growing up in Toronto, a man walked into the École Polytechnique de Montréal and shot 14 women. The whole concept was frightening and difficult to believe possible. The 14 women are officially remembered in Canada every December 6th, the “National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women”.

There have been other mass shootings in Canada since then, but on the whole, Canada doesn’t seem to have nearly the problem with mass shootings that America does. Why is that?

I think that the answer here is also social proof.

People, and the media, frequently compare Canada with the United States when it comes to mass shootings. “Why doesn’t Canada have a problem with mass shootings like America does?” is the question. “Canadians aren’t as violent as Americans.” “Canada doesn’t have a problem with mass shootings like the United States.” “Canadians would never do that.”

You will see here what is happening. The messages being sent to young Canadians are the opposite of the ones being sent to Americans. While Americans hear “We have a huge problem with mass shootings”, accompanied by an overload of information about who committed the atrocities and how they committed them, young Canadians are given the message “We don’t do that here.” The fact that Canadians don’t have a gun problem is so engrained in the social weave of the populace that it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not saying that social proof is the only reason Canada doesn’t have a gun problem. But I would wager it has a significant effect. Social proof is very powerful.

So what should we do?

In the book Influence, Dr. Cialdini makes it clear that the copycat effect of suicides (and murder-suicides) only takes place when the suicide is widely publicized. If a celebrity commits suicide, and that suicide hits the news (which of course it is going to do), a significant number of people will choose to follow that social cue. If someone commits suicide and nobody hears about it, there will be no significant change in the suicide rate.

If we want to slow down mass shootings in America, we should stop publicizing them as much as we do. We should put a halt to the fear-mongering and instead offer newer, better social cue – ways in which people are improving our way of life here in the United States, how they’re doing it, and how awesome they are because of it. And we should certainly not glorify people who commit mass murders. These people should be swept under the rug with the rest of the dirt.

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14. Jan, 2016
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I’m not at the Disney World marathon

But Yvonne is. She’s been sending me pictures of herself at the race since five o’clock this morning. It has been fun for me and the kids to see her posing with her friends and with the various Disney characters found along the route. Wish I could have been there running with her this year. Maybe next year?

Here’s one of her with some of the cast of Festival of the Lion King:


And one with Chip and Dale:


Haven’t seen Boo as a character in the parks before…


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Christmas lights in Celebration

It’s Christmas Eve! I have to admit, I love the holiday season. People are generally filled with excitement and anticipation, the weather gets a bit cooler here in the south, and of course there are lots of great holiday decorations and Christmas lights to see.

The town of Celebration tends to take holidays pretty seriously. Halloween is always packed with trick-or-treaters, Independence Day features an incredible fireworks display that people come from miles around to see, and at Christmastime the town center is full of people who come to see the “snow” – which is made out of soap suds, but it’s probably the best we can do in central Florida.

Maybe because of all the tourists, plenty of people in town tend to go all out with their Christmas light displays. One street in Celebration, Jeater Bend, has been coordinating their Christmas light displays on their houses to great effect. The street featured on the TV show The Great Christmas Light Fight this year, competing with neighborhoods in Hawaii and Arizona.

Sadly, there are only a few more days left of Christmas light displays – after the New Year they will start to disappear. I’m looking forward to taking a few more walks around the neighborhood during the next few evenings while they’re still up and blinking away.

Water Street

This house reminds me of a house from a fairy tale. I really like the decorations even in the daytime.

Spring Park Loop

Garlands and bows – always classy.

Oak Shadows Road

I really like the toy soldiers at this place. And I like what they did to the trees on the right.

Jeater Bend

This is one of the houses on Jeater Bend (the main house, actually), with a hand-made Mickey Mouse display, waterspouts, jets of fire, and a big circular video display.

Golfpark Drie

These people go all out every Christmas. Apparently they have even more decorations to choose from, and switch out the ones they display every year!

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24. Dec, 2015
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LED lightbulbs

An LED lightbulbI don’t often talk about lightbulbs. But when I do, I do it on this blog.

Nearly eight years ago I posted about Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs). At the time, CFLs were relatively new, or at least had only recently become available and were beginning to grow in popularity. When I wrote the post, I was in the process of replacing the majority of my incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs to save money and energy.

Well, since then, I’ve had a change of heart, and I’m no longer a fan of CFLs. Why? Well, the main reason is the trace amounts of mercury. The other day, the light above our shower went out, and so I went to replace it. I found that the CFL in the fixture had cracked and broken, through no fault of my own. So even though I am a careful person, I still had to deal with cleaning up a broken CFL with its trace amounts of mercury. I wasn’t so pleased.

Another reason I’m not a fan of CFLs is that I’m not fond of the fluorescent light they put out. I also don’t like the spiral look; unless you get CFLs with casing, CFLs don’t look great in decorative light fixtures. So there’s that as well.

So what am I on to now? Now I’m going around the house replacing all of the CFLs with LEDs!

LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lightbulbs are even more energy efficient than CFLs. They put out even less heat. And they last a lot longer to boot. And I like the brand of light they produce… some of the lightbulbs I’ve purchased put out a warm, soft light; not the harsh sort of light put out by fluorescent bulbs.

LED lightbulbs cost significantly more than the other lightbulbs on the market, but they seem to be gradually coming down in price, and you can often get them on sale. If you haven’t tried them out yet, I recommend doing so.

Maybe in another eight years I’ll be on to yet another type of lightbulb? Who knows…

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18. Dec, 2015
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The American Civil Rights Movement

A few months ago I read through several books for kids about the Space Race. Now I’m reading about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, preparing for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day next January.

American Civil Rights Movement books

It is fascinating to me that all of this happened but fifty to sixty years ago. Only sixty years ago, African Americans like Rosa Parks would get on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, pay at the front, and then have to leave the bus to enter at the back – they weren’t even allowed down the aisle. Then they’d have to sit in their own rows… unless the bus started to fill up with white people, in which case they were not requested, but required to give up their seats to those people.

I know that there is still a lot of racial unrest today, and in fact, it’s been steadily making the news. But I am still amazed at how far human rights have come in the past several decades, and just how quick it has been. Especially today, changes happen lightning-fast. When you think of how old civilization is, and how little things changed from year to year and decade to decade in centuries previous, it is truly something to marvel at.

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A world in turmoil

The Battle of Hoth, LEGOLAND, FloridaThere’s a lot going on in the world today. Syrian refugees, ISIS, illegal immigrants, Donald Trump, Paris shootings, gay and transgender rights, red Starbucks coffee cups… everybody has his or her own opinion about what’s right, what’s wrong, and what should be done about it. My Facebook feed lights up every day with friends and acquaintances sharing strong opinions about their personal beliefs.

With so much at stake, it is no surprise that a lot of what I see in social media and on the news is polarized and aggressive. Opinions are stated as facts. Holds are seldom barred. Opposing views are demonized and ridiculed.

It’s demoralizing to watch.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. I’m not the worldliest of people, but I have traveled a good chunk of the world for work and for pleasure, and I have lived in North America, Europe, and Saudi Arabia. I’ve met plenty of people from all walks of life, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and personal beliefs. And I’ve never met a person or group of people who comes at their beliefs from an evil place. Each person truly believes he or she is, at heart, good, and that his or her beliefs are both correct and relevant to today.

Morality and religion

A statue in Cypress Gardens, LEGOLAND, FloridaHow do we come to our beliefs?

From an irreligious viewpoint, morality is more of a construct of time and culture than something that can be solidified. If you think about it from a truly irreligious viewpoint, there is no good or evil, nor any real purpose for life, the universe, or anything. The concept that we should not kill other human beings, for example, would not be a matter of good or evil, it would be a matter of natural selection putting little voices inside our heads saying “killing other people is bad” because it helped us to survive and reproduce. Meanwhile, from a religious point of view, morality may be codified (through the Bible or the Quran, for example), but even religious morality is hotly debated by different religions and the competing denominations within them.

I’ve noticed that most people come at religion – or anti-religion – from a position of absolute authority. Most of my atheist friends are positive that religion is total bunk and a waste of time, and want to help Christians “see the light”. Christian friends believe that eternal salvation is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and want to help atheist friends “see the light”. You’ll notice that neither of these groups comes at this from an evil space. They’re trying to do the right thing for their fellow human being.

It’s important to remember that we don’t know whether or not God exists. We all have our beliefs and theories, but neither side can prove anything. There is no proof that miracles exist, nor that the events of the Bible are truth rather than the fables they seem. But there is also no proof that an omniscient, sentient being did not create this universe and the science within it (and in fact, for a few interesting arguments that one might have, see Timothy Keller’s Reason for God), nor that the events of the Bible didn’t happen the way they were written.

Morality as a moving target

We all have beliefs. Even the most secular person has beliefs about what is right or wrong, even if that belief is that there is no right or wrong – and most secular people I know have much stronger stances about morality and human rights than that. So how can we tell if our moral stances are the right ones? They certainly feel right to the person fighting for them. This is a difficult question to answer because beliefs are truly a moving target. The rampant racism from several centuries ago seems inhumane and exceedingly wrong to us today, but those people living in that time period did not believe they were coming at racism from a place of evil, they truly believed that certain races were inferior to others, and acted accordingly. In that same way, I believe that one day in the future, human beings will look back at our culture and think we were inhumane and barbaric for killing and eating animals, especially using the methods currently used. I’m not judging anybody for eating animals – it’s today’s cultural norm. But I don’t think it will be the cultural norm of enlightened future generations. Same thing goes for male infant circumcision. In the future, people may look back at such mutilation as a practice performed by primitives. Sorry, guys.

Bringing us to understanding

A palm tree in Cypress Gardens, LEGOLAND, FloridaThe point I’d like to conclude with is this. Through all that’s going on, people should try to understand where people with opposing viewpoints are coming from. I’ve illustrated that I believe that most people’s beliefs come from a place of good, even if only according to their own belief systems. And I’ve demonstrated that belief systems are fluid, changing over time, and that there is no way to determine which beliefs are right and which beliefs are wrong. As such, the only way to make decisions in a world full of people with different religions, cultures, and beliefs is to talk about them, to try to find the reasons behind them, and to do our best to appreciate and understand the goodness in the people who have them.

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