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It’s a tragedy

At 11:30 AM I got the call to head to Redgrave’s Children’s Home. Three children had been accidentally poisoned. The neighborhood was in shock. The saddest part was, two children had been poisoned there last October, and another one a few months before that. Chief Carson sent me over to the home to try to make some sense of what was going on.

When I arrived at the children’s home, Mrs. Redgrave met me on the front porch. I could tell she had been in tears most of the morning. I showed her my badge. Still shaking, she led me into the house.

Inside, the home was roomier than I thought it would be. A couple of kids, maybe five years old, were playing with toy dinosaurs on one of those big oval carpets you used to see a lot in the 70s. Piled high by the closet was a big pile of bags of pesticide. Walking further into the house, I noticed more bags of pesticide on the dining room table. There were more stacked by the TV. Some kids were playing video games in the family room, sitting on big bags of pesticide, some of them ripped open and leaking powder onto the floor. I took out my notepad and scribbled a few notes.

“It’s all so senseless,” said Mrs. Redgrave. “Such a tragedy. I just can’t understand how this happened.”

“Ma’am,” I said. “You do know you have big bags of pesticide all over the house?”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Redgrave. “You never know when you are going to have a pest problem.”

“Do you have a pest problem, Mrs. Redgrave?”

“No. Would you like some tea?”

I brushed pesticide off one of the couch cushions and sat down. Mrs. Redgrave fetched me a cup of tea and placed it on the table beside me. I didn’t drink any.

“Mrs. Redgrave,” I said. “Do you think maybe having all this pesticide sitting around constitutes a risk?”

“Of course not,” said Mrs. Redgrave. “We would only use it if we had a pest problem. And we would make sure that when we spread it around the house, we’d tell the kids to be very careful where they stepped.”

“But there’s so much of it,” I said. “Why do you need so much pesticide?”

She frowned at me. “What are you saying?”

I shrugged. “I’m just trying to make sense of what’s going on.”

“Owning pesticide is not a crime, Officer.”

“I realize that. But maybe if you just got rid of some of these bags…”

“We can’t do that,” said Mrs. Redgrave. “We’ve always had pesticide. Our neighbors have pesticide, too. If they used their pesticide and we didn’t have any, the bugs would move from their lawns over to ours. Can you imagine?”

“I suppose,” I said. I sighed. “So what are you going to do now?”

“Same thing as last time,” she said. “We’re going to post pictures of the victims, so everyone knows all about the promising young lives that were tragically cut short. We’ll hold a candlelight vigil for them. We’ll use social media to talk about how horrible we all feel. And then I guess we’ll do our best to get back to our daily lives, and pray that this never happens again.”

I closed my notepad. There wasn’t much more I could do here. “Thank you for your time.”

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MacBook Pro keyboardIt should come as no surprise to anyone that I spend a lot of time on the computer. And a lot of that time on the computer is spent writing. I do a lot of different sorts of writing: writing fiction, creating posts, leaving comments, composing emails, chatting with friends – the list goes on.

Since I started using word processors to write fiction a long time ago, things have changed in many ways. Word processors themselves don’t seem to have changed that much… there are new tools available, and I really like using Scrivener to write fiction due to the way you can manage different pieces of your writing, and customize the way you want to publish your finished drafts. But generally the writing itself, and the various writing tools you use to accomplish writing, haven’t changed a whole lot.

That said, one big change that I’ve noticed is the addition of the autocorrect feature. It kind of snuck up on me. At first, autocorrect corrected a bunch of various simple corrections, but over the years it has become much more robust, until now, when almost anything you type incorrectly can and will be autocorrected. Autocorrect will also frequently correct things that are correct, which can be a bit of a pain at times, but generally it’s quite reliable. I have noticed that autocorrect will now also correct series of words – if you type a string of words into your word processor, autocorrect will try to correct them based on context. I find this pretty amazing.

The reason I am posting about this today is because this afternoon I realized just how much I rely on autocorrect. The truth of the matter is, while I’m actually a pretty good typist, I tend to be lazy with my typing. I knowingly typing slews of errors knowing that I don’t have to worry about them because autocorrect will take care of them for me. I noticed this because while I usually do my work on a MacBook Pro with autocorrect turned on, today I spent quite a bit of time on a Windows machine without autocorrect (because Microsoft Publisher is unfortunately only available for Windows). After working with Publisher for a while, I switched to another window to leave a few comments on a web page and used my (now) normal method of devil-may-care typing. I kept having to back up to correct my lazy errors. A few years ago I would not have left those errors, because back then I was more careful to input things correctly the first time (knowing that if I didn’t, I’d have to go back and fix the errors myself).

I wonder if anyone else has adapted their typing style to take into account autocorrect’s usefulness? It’s an interesting paradigm, and one that I didn’t see coming. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to type some serious garbage into our word processors, and autocorrect will magically change it into the most colorful of poetry! I’m looking forward to it.

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26. May, 2016
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On the off chance

Me in the waiting roomOn the off chance I don’t make it through tomorrow (because hey – you never know), I wanted to mention that I’ve been pretty lucky, and for that, I am thankful. I’m thankful for the life I’ve lived so far. I was fortunate to have been born to fantastic parents living in a free and beautiful country who raised me with love and care, and who provided for me so that I could become healthy and educated. I have an amazing wife and kids whom I love very much, and who fill me with joy every single day. I have a diverse group of amazing friends who lift me up. And I’m happy to have been to the places I’ve been, to have seen the things I’ve seen, and to have met many people from all different races, cultures, traditions, and affinities. These things have made me the person I am today, and I am happy to be that person.

It is my hope that, after I am gone, people will continue to work to understand one another – to endeavor to place themselves in each other’s shoes or sandals. I believe that most people want to do what they feel is right, and do not naturally come from an evil space. Knowing this, people can choose to work in harmony and trust toward a better life for everyone. It might not be easy, but it is the right thing to do.

And if you and I both make it through tomorrow… onward we go!

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12. Apr, 2016
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Earth Day

It’s April, and Earth Day is coming up – not really a holiday – and certainly not a vacation day – but a day to take some time to think about our planet, how we as a species treat it, and what things we can do to make life better for all living creatures on Earth.

I am fan of Earth Day as I am a fan of all things natural. That said, I do realize that I tend to spend most of my time sitting indoors. I do try to get out, of course, as it seems do most people. But it would be great if being outdoors in nature was somehow integrated into the fabric of our daily lives as it was for our ancestors. I’m not saying I want to become a farmer, of course – just that the way many modern vocations are designed, people tend to spend a lot of their days out of touch with nature. In the future, as it becomes easier to work anywhere, I predict we’ll see more interesting ways that people will be able to work and play in harmony with our planet.

Ontario cottage at dawn

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04. Apr, 2016
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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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