Opportunity

Rule 33: Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.

Jordan Peterson

One of the most common misconceptions that a lot of people have is that one person cannot change the world. While this idea hinges on what kind of change a person is thinking of, the pessimistic view is demonstrably false. Just glancing at a national newspaper will show a dozen examples of a single person changing the world in some way, often with a little help from people who have the same vision but not necessarily the same ability to organise. We all have within us the ability to improve our little corner of the world or make it much, much worse. While there are some who will seek to destroy out of malevolence, there are many who choose to do the opposite.

One of the many things that I try really hard to do is to solve complex problems in new ways, often dismissing existing solutions as being insufficient for the task at hand. A lot of times my efforts fail. Sometimes there is a limited amount of success. And ever so rarely there is some genuine good in what's being assembled out of the chaos of potential that is a code base. It is this tiny sliver of unrealised success that keeps me going when some projects seemed doomed to obscurity.

I was thinking about this today while working on converting some more textbooks from their original PDF format to something better suited for modern classrooms. There are a lot of different textbook delivery systems that have been created by well-funded organisations staffed with very smart people, but none of the options that I've seen over the last few years approach the core problems that exist for schools that focus on skills-based training.

Some of the issues that have bothered me include:

  • poor search capabilities
  • inconsistent presentation of lesson materials for both the student and the teacher
  • poorly formatted teacher's guides that appear to be little more than an afterthought rather than a companion material for the classroom book
  • an inability to customise the font style and size
  • every digital book series has its own unique "gotchas"
  • sluggish response times
  • textbooks come as 300-page PDFs
  • an inconsistent — or non-existent — use of additional resources, such as Wikipedia or a trusted online dictionary/thesaurus
  • and then some …

It would be easy to list another dozen issues that affected me when I was teaching, a dozen issues that have arisen in the time since, and another dozen issues that affect the students who attempt to use the digital formats rather than the printed book. However, listing things that could use some attention is not particularly fascinating. What is interesting is how a person responds to the issues. In my case, the problems surrounding skills-based digital textbooks appear to be an abdication of responsibility by publishers1. When responsibility has been ceded, opportunity rushes in to fill the void. Once this happens, someone — or a whole group of someones — can approach the problem from different angles.

This doesn't mean that every digital textbook system available today is awful, of course. There are some amazing tools available to students today on a number of subjects, any one of which would have likely helped me better understand a subject while in school. My concerns are with the less glamorous books used primarily by adults who are no longer full-time students.

The project is still in early days, and there is bound to be an unavoidable degree of friction with colleagues to have it objectively considered, but I believe that what the system can do today will go a long way to resolving issues faced by the target audiences of teachers and students. The more I dig into it, the more excited I become for the future.


  1. I say this knowing full well that my employer is also a publisher of 100+ textbooks.

Reformatting Textbooks

Over the last couple of months there has been a concerted effort to adapt a number of "textbooks" from big-name publishers to work with the digital materials demo software that was created a couple of months back. Books from Pearson and National Geographic are excellent resources for students and these can occasionally be obtained in PDF format with the accompanying materials being stored as mp3 for audio and mp4 for video. PDF as a textbook format is fine if someone wishes to print out pages as required, but is generally a poor substitute for a physical book. This is for a number of reasons1 but is easily overcome with a little imagination. Mimosa, my fourth attempt at a digital textbook system, is full of imaginative solutions to problems that essentially boil down to overcoming the design decisions made by publishers. It's been very well received by colleagues across the country and sees a pretty good performance:cost ratio2. However, it's become necessary to take the tool to the next level.

Thanks to 9 years of working inside a classroom, I have a pretty good understanding of what my colleagues need — software wise — to deliver quality lessons. Students, on the other hand, have been more difficult to research. At the day job, everyone has company-issued hardware, which makes writing software quite a bit easier. The constraints are known and taken into account right from the very start of a project, which then results in mostly-functional code. With students, people could be trying to use your software on a Symbian-powered Nokia N953 and complaining when things don't appear as they should. More than this, there is no institutional pattern that can be imposed on a student to say "This is how software at this company generally works. Learn the pattern, and you're golden." Tech-savvy individuals would spot this right away and adapt, but most people do not work this way. What this means is that when something is being built for students — or customers in general — it needs to be approached from a very different angle than one would use for internal tools; an angle that I've just about hammered out.

In an effort to see what is possible with the almost 100 digital textbooks that have been reformatted for use in Mimosa, some time will be invested to build something that might one day be used by students in a classroom setting. This is building on a lot of lessons learned since the first digital textbook system I designed in 20104. The hardest work is complete, which was working out a data format that made sense, was portable, and could be used by various roles in the learning cycle. Now it's just a matter of implementing a simpler presentation of the textbook material that works on screens as small as a 4" phone all the way up to a 4K display.

Some of the more complicated bits that I look forward to trying out include:

  • shared progression, where the teacher can have a student's textbook open to a specific resource
  • blackout mode, where the teacher can blank out portions of a student's page, such as an audio script during a listening exercise
  • smarter resource linking, so that people are not jumping around a textbook to find things as this is a glorious waste of time
  • shared notepads
  • better control of audio resources
  • and a couple other bits

None of this is unique and none of this is revolutionary. What I hope to do, however, is build a very lean solution that can be demoed to show the potential of such a system. So long as the proper features are polished enough to present, this could lead to a unified textbook system that can be effectively used for students learning inside a classroom or online.

The hard part will be making it intuitive enough for people to understand at a glance. Fortunately these sorts of challenges make projects worth doing.


  1. Bring a 300+ page PDF to class on a tablet, open it up, find page 155 in the textbook — which is not always the 155th page of the document — and get ready to take notes or listen to an audio file. Go ahead. We'll wait. Now scroll to the audio script at the back of the book to check understanding. Now go back to the page you were previously on. What was it again? 165? No … wait ….

    Yes, there are semi-decent applications out there that can work with PDFs for this very reason, but a lot of people are either unaware or simply incapable of using the software. Generally, any PDF that is longer than 5 pages is better off printed.

  2. Less than $8 USD per month to serve textbooks to 1,800 teachers across 50+ schools. The system was installed on a dusty old server that was heading to the recycler. Why toss perfectly functional equipment?

  3. This is a slight exaggeration, of course.

  4. Designed in 2010, released in 2012. It was … rough. That said, a number of very important UI interaction lessons were learned from that failed tool.

The Red Queen Effect and Blogging

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.
— The Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland

An idea idea so absurd it might just be worthwhile hit me the other day while in the shower. A lot of personalities in English speaking countries are expected to subjugate themselves to one or more ideologies that demand absolute subservience in exchange for membership within a group identity that others might support. People who do not assent or — at the very least — acquiesce to the doctrine run the risk of having everything they've ever said or written pored over in an effort to find something that might discredit the speaker in the eyes of the general public. We've seen this time and again with politicians and celebrities of all stripes who were unwilling to play ball with a certain group only to have something they said in an interview or did at a party decades ago come into general knowledge, absent of factual context, with a convenient narrative that ensures the public figure is embarrassed enough to resign from a job or otherwise lose their position as nervous corporations overcompensate for their own ignorance of social takedowns.

After the results of the most recent federal election in Canada, I started thinking about the feasibility of returning to the country just so that I could get into politics and hopefully start making a positive difference. A lot of what I've been reading in the papers has been bizarre beyond anything imaginable. Canadians are a very accepting group of people, but this doesn't mean that we should accept everything the current government has been ramming through the House of Commons. One of the very first problems that I would face if I were to run for office, though, would be this very blog and the words it contains. There are blog posts that express ideas I no longer hold. There are potentially offensive social posts that no longer have context as a result of Twitter accounts being deleted and App.net going offline. There are other posts that openly mock certain Canadian figures. Even if I were to put the site behind a password or completely take it offline, The Wayback Machine could easily show people what was on this site — or earlier incarnations — at a previous point in time.

It's this problem that got me thinking.

A person who wishes to run for office today, whether it's me or anyone else, will certainly need to have an Internet presence and communicate with the general public. However, any messages beyond a certain age can easily be misconstrued as offensive or "insensitive" to somebody a couple of years in the future as social norms and expectations continue to evolve. What a political hopeful — regardless their party or ideology — needs is a way to ensure that messages remain completely ephemeral and can be updated as time goes on. There are already a lot of tools that will allow a person to regularly delete old Tweets, Facebook posts, and more, but what about blog posts?

Then it hit me: why not make a theme that hides post URLs and always shows a maximum of 1 post on the front page of a site? Visitors who know the URL to past posts would be presented with a nice message saying that "the post has been revised" or similar to ensure that only the post on the landing page was the source of truth for a site.

It would be just like old times, when people would hand-craft their HTML files before uploading them to GeoCities. A single page with everything worth saying right there.

Mechanisms would need to be put in place to ensure that The Wayback Machine never took a snapshot, but this would get around some of the issues involving people looking for something that could be converted into a faux scandal.

This wouldn't solve every future dirt-digging problem, of course. Interviews would continue to be vexatious. This solution could potentially eliminate this simple problem, though.

Note: This whole post was written tongue in cheek. Don't take it too seriously. Even if I were to run for office, this blog and its 13+ years of content would probably bore even the most dedicated dirt-diggers.

Collections

There’s a certain art to collecting that a few people excel at. Anyone can accumulate stuff, but how many can collect relatively common stuff people will actually want later? This is often a problem for collectors who invest years or decades into amassing a veritable museum exhibition worth of material only to find that there either isn’t a buyer interested in paying the asking price or worse, there isn’t a market at all. This isn’t the case for a collector in Virginia who has put their entire 25,000-piece Hot Wheels collection up for sale for the seemingly low price of $5 per car, which works out to a respectable US$125,000. While reading about the sale, I thought back to the things I used to collect and thanked the stars I’m not still making space for the things I really enjoyed having in my home as a young adult; books, CDs, and anime.

CDs and anime were huge passions of mine up until the autumn of 2000 when the basement apartment I lived in was robbed. It was a fought loss, as there were clear signs that the perpetrator had been watching me for some time. In addition to working full time at an appliance repair store, I ran a computer assembly and repair shop out of my apartment. This meant that someone watching me would see boxes on an almost daily basis for things like cases, CPUs, monitors, and the like. The computer shop was completely self-financed and unregistered, meaning there was no insurance policy on any of the stock that would be on hand at any given time. Me being me, I made sure that my machine was top of the line as much as possible, and it was left running [email protected] for the entire day while I was at the day job.

You can probably see what happened next.

One fateful day I received a phone call from the landlord who suggested I come home right away because our places were ransacked. Between my basement apartment and the landlord’s house was a thin door made essentially of cardboard. It took nothing for the perpetrator to break through it and go through both homes while we were out at work. Someone watching the house would know that nobody would be present between 8:30am and 4:30pm. That’s a lot of time to peruse an undefended building. I was unable to leave work early but, come 7:00pm, I locked up the store and headed straight home to find a police cruiser parked outside and my landlord on the lawn talking to a pair of officers. After introducing myself, I was allowed downstairs to determine what had been taken or damaged.

It's probably easier to say what wasn't taken or damaged.

  1. the fridge
  2. the dirty dishes
  3. the TV
  4. the laundry
  5. the book collection1
  6. half of my workstation-grade computer

Everything else was gone. 150+ CDs. 60+ anime DVDs, many of which were imported from Japan at great expense. The good, professional-grade kitchen knife set2. The partially completed computers I was building for clients. The RAM, video card, new Pentium III CPU, and DVD burner from my workstation. And, if that wasn't bad enough, the rat bastard took my favourite coffee mug; a large, black X-Files mug.

The police asked me to compile a list of everything missing and fax it to them the following day. I asked if there was any chance of the things being returned but, of course, this almost never happens. Given the sheer amount of stuff that was taken and how much it would have weighed, the culprit was obviously a neighbour. My bet was that someone in the low-apartments next to the house was spying and hit at the right moment. All in all, I was out several thousand dollars. I didn't have insurance, because what sort of 19 year old buys insurance?

My girlfriend at the time3 didn't much care, as nothing she was interested in was taken. Her father, however, imparted some very wise words:

The more you have, the more you have to worry about.

He was hardly a minimalist, but he was incredibly pragmatic. He also had an affinity for hard alcohol and introduced me to a number of liqueurs that I would binge on half a year later4.

After the robbery, I was very careful about the things that I bought. What was the point of collecting things?, I wondered. Most of the time they just collect dust on a shelf5.

This was when I consciously decided that if I could get a digital version of a thing, that would be the way to go. When something is digital, it's much harder to eradicate every copy. The one exception to this, though, was the book collection. There is something alluring about a physical book. While I did occasionally buy digital books from PalmReader, Chapters was my go-to for a good read … until July 2007, when I had to make a number of tough decisions about what moves to Japan and what stays behind in Canada. Books are lovely tomes of knowledge and/or make-believe, but they're also incredibly heavy. So much so, that UPS quoted me just over $1000 to send the book collection by sea to the new home.

The decision was not an easy one, but the book collection had to stay behind. I sold some of the technical books to friends and friends of friends, then donated the rest to the library down the street. Almost a thousand books. Left behind.

Again, the question went through my head: What is the point of collecting things?

There is certainly an appeal to acquiring and maintaining items that bring a certain modicum of joy. My father has a collection of 1957 Chevrolet BelAir toys, and even managed to receive a real '57 Chevy for his 60th birthday6. For a time he and I also collected hockey and Star Trek cards. Watching the collections grow, sharing the joy with interested people, and doing the research on the nascent Internet to locate "rare" items was incredibly fun. Seeing the collections disappear, though ….

So now here I am, a dozen years after moving to Japan, having zero physical collections to my name. The digital photos, music, movies, books, podcasts, documents, and other items that I consider irreplaceable are backed up to a NAS in my home as well as two cloud services. My home could burn to the ground and Japan could sink into the ocean like Atlantis, but my most important data will be recoverable.

The more stuff we have, the more stuff we have to worry about. Data is not classified the same way as "stuff" in my mind. While data is forever accumulating, the amount of physical space it requires is perpetually shrinking. So, for me, this is the way to go. It may never have the same resale value as a Hot Wheels collection or a Wayne Gretzky rookie card, and it never has to.


  1. 100+ Star Trek books, a ton of other science fiction, and technical books on subjects like C++ and Sybase. There was also a large number of religious studies books, as this was about 18 months after "the incident" that pushed me away from organised religion, but they were seldom looked at when I lived on my own.

  2. I had bought these from a friend who worked as a salesman for one of the door-to-door cutlery companies of the time. I can't remember the name … something like CutCo, I think.

  3. One day I should write about this odd relationship. Not today, though.

  4. Another story for another time, perhaps.

  5. The CDs were all ripped so that I didn't scratch the disc or break those flimsy cases. The anime was also ripped so that I wouldn't scratch the disc or get fingerprints all over the cases. As usual, I paid attention to all the wrong things.

  6. It's been slowly restored over the last three years and might be "complete" at some point this coming spring.

Back to the Grindstone

Last week the daily routine for the day job was disrupted by a five-day workshop held in Sydney, Australia. While I did not have the opportunity to travel to the land down under, it was possible to participate remotely and learn some interesting details about what sorts of objectives the company will shoot for in order to provide customers with effective learning tools. When it comes to student software, I'm completely in the dark about what works and what people need as I've yet to find any company do this well. A lot of companies have released digital versions of textbooks or online learning resources, but the friction that is associated with them rubs me the wrong way.

However, with the workshop over, it's time to get back to the regular day-to-day. This will involve a great deal of pressure to accomplish two months of work in the next four weeks plus anything urgent that pops up between now and the end of the working year. Believe it or not, I'm actually looking forward to getting back to the grindstone. There are a number of time consuming activities that need to be out the door by the end of the week, including a thorough examination of the new LMS and its disaster recovery plan.

Not a week goes by where I don't wish I were doing something different but, when push comes to shove, there are very few places in the world that can offer the challenges and opportunities that I contend with now.

Calculating Word Counts

A couple of days ago, Jason — a.k.a. — asked for a word-count feature in 10Cv5. This would be displayed on the Archives page and, potentially, on the dedicated page for a given post. This is a concept that I've played with a couple of times in the past and intentionally left out of v5 primarily because of the complexity involved in getting it right, which is rather important. The largest stumbling block that I've generally had when developing word-counting systems involves working with languages that do not use the alphabet. English and many other languages make counting systems easy by conveniently separating words with spaces. Common East Asian languages such as Japanese and Korean, however, do not do this. One word runs right into the next one and it's up to the reader to parse and make sense of the written text. So, if a person wanted to create a complete work-counting solution, what would it look like?

As it stands, 10Cv5 already has a unique word counting system in place that is used by the search mechanism. When a post of any type is published, the text is split apart by spaces and the distinct words are stored in a lookup table. This means that if someone were to type in "bright yellow" into the search field on this site, the API would know to split the words "bright" and "yellow", search the lookup table to get a list of posts, then pull back the first X results sorted based on their relevancy score, which is generally done by looking for an exact string match, then whether a post has all the search terms, then posts that contain some of the search terms. It's nowhere near Google-level efficiency, but it works rather well. And, because every post has its individual words stored in a table, it's a piece of cake to say how many distinct words a post has.

But this isn't a word count, nor does it work for East Asian languages.

One way to solve for the language problem would be to have dictionaries to compare words against. This would make it possible to more accurately determine how many words are in a post so long as the spelling is correct and there is a minimum of jargon or slang. This would be inefficient, but it would work.

Another option would be to just focus on the alphabet-based languages and split on the white space, counting words that contain at least one character. But this would raise some other questions, such as "what is a word?". Does […] count as a word? Is an emoji a word? Is a series of strung-together emoji a word? How about numbers? Punctuation? Would it make sense to limit the concept of a "word" to text entities consisting of the letters A to Z in both cases plus the digits 0 through 9? This would certainly simplify things, but it would also be an incomplete solution.

Rather than a word count, I wonder if it would make more sense to go with a Medium-style "This post will take X minutes to read" informational line, as this can generally be universal across languages. The average person reads an A4 page of text at roughly the same speed regardless the language, so counting the number of characters would make a time-to-read calculation relatively easy.

The idea of word counts, time-to-read informationals, and other metrics are certainly appealing. I wonder if these are things that readers generally look for, though.

Complexity Requires Inquiry

Dr. Michael Shermer recently shared an early preview of his "10 Commandments of Free Speech and Free Thought" on ThinkSpot1 and, while it does communicate a lot of the ideals that I share when it comes to the expression of ideas, I disagree with his use of the word "commandment" to describe what he's shared as well as the fact there is a list of 10 to contend with. The list strikes me more as a series of questions followed by reflections on what is required for a respectful discussion on any given topic than a series of rigid laws. Going through the items, there is a clear theme that boils down to just three suggestions on how to communicate an idea with people who may strongly disagree: listen, empathise, and learn from others.

A summarised form of the ten points are as follows:

  1. We must resist the urge to control what other people say.
  2. Censoring speech is a form of tyranny.
  3. It is not just the right of the speaker to speak but for listeners to listen2.
  4. We might be completely right but still learn something new in hearing what someone else has to say.
  5. We might be partially right and, by listening to other viewpoints, we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs.
  6. We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking. […] To overcome [confirmation bias] we must listen to our critics.
  7. Whether right or wrong, by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions.
  8. Arguments made in favour of censorship and against free speech are automatically gainsaid the moment the speaker speaks, otherwise we would be unaware of their arguments if they were censored.
  9. Freedom of inquiry — a form of free thought and speech — is the bases for all human progress because of human fallibility3.
  10. My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. If I censor you, why shouldn’t you censor me?

This is a good way to approach complex discussions on complex topics, of which there are a good many. What is missing from the list is a clear outline of responsibility. Rights must be tied to responsibilities, otherwise they simply cannot exist. So if every person has the right to say whatever they wish, the listeners must carry the responsibility of correcting imprecise or unsophisticated reasoning. This does not absolve the speaker from any consequences that come as a result of what they have to say, but it does make possible a dialog with people who feel the need to share things that may not be correct or popular.

The recent sacking of Don Cherry after almost 40 years on Coaches Corner, a popular segment on Hockey Night in Canada is just one example showing there are consequences for expressing — intentionally or otherwise — an unrefined and ignorant opinion4. Mr. Cherry had the legal right to speak. The general public had the responsibility to demand a correction. When one did not come, consequences were justly and swiftly meted out. The system works.

What I see in a lot in public forums is an attempt to obliterate ideas. If someone has an unpopular opinion and they're scheduled to speak somewhere, people will show up with megaphones, horns, pickets, and more, all in an attempt to intimidate the speaker into silence. A lot of times this works. Occasionally it does not. Regardless, by preventing someone their time on a soapbox we do a disservice to both the speaker and the people who made the conscious decision to listen. Just because a person has an audience does not mean that audience is in agreement with them. Again, it is the responsibility of the listener to identify, challenge, and — if required — correct ideas. By not allowing this exchange of ideas, beliefs, and ideologies, we're hindering ourselves and leaving our own ideas, beliefs, and ideologies weak and untested. It's lose-lose for everybody.

Just as Dr. Shermer stated in his 10th point: My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. A just society grants all people the same inextricable rights and freedoms, so long as the people bear the responsibility of ensuring that everybody can exercise those rights and freedoms. If we are all to be equal, then there cannot be some more equal than others. We must all speak.


  1. Unfortunately this site is very much a walled garden. Sign-ups are available for free so long as you don't mind the waiting list. If you'd like access a little sooner, I do have some invite codes. Just get in touch via the contact form (or email) if you're interested.

  2. Going further, Dr. Shermer writes: "When colleges deplatform speakers or students succeed in silencing a speaker through the heckler’s veto, the right of the audience to hear the speaker’s ideas are violated."

  3. He expands on this with: "We are all wrong some of the time (and many of us most of the time) so the only way to know if you’ve gone off the rails is to tell others about your beliefs so that they may be tested in the marketplace of ideas. In science this is called conjecture and refutation, or hypothesis testing."

  4. From Wikipedia: On November 9, 2019, Cherry made remarks during Coach's Corner suggesting that Canadian immigrants benefit from the sacrifices of veterans and do not wear remembrance poppies. He remarked, "You people that come here… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that… These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price." Sportsnet apologized for the remarks, stating that his comments were discriminatory and offensive, and that they "do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network." His co-host, Ron MacLean, also apologized via Twitter, expressing regret for his actions and for allowing Cherry make the comments. The NHL subsequently released a statement on Cherry's comments saying "the comments made last night were offensive and contrary to the values we believe in." Cherry later told the Toronto Sun that he would not apologize for his comments, stating, "I have had my say."

Mode of Transportation

Like many young children, the boy enjoys going outside as much as possible. He wants to play in the various parks around the neighbourhood, identify cars by colour and make, greet people who pass by, and generally explore the world that we inhabit. When we're out together he insists on riding on my shoulders, standing in front of my legs with his arms spread out as if he could stop me, saying "Up, please" in a tone that suggests he won't take no for an answer … and he never does.

Ribbed Tunnel

Over the last couple of weeks the boy and I have managed to make a habit of heading out for two walks every day. One long trek in the morning after breakfast, where we walk through as many as four parks in two hours, and another in the afternoon after his nap. As most people are either at work or school by the time we head out in the morning, the parks are mostly empty. He and I can go from the slide to the swings to the sandbox and back to the slide as many times as he'd like. The afternoon is when he gets to learn about patience as the three nearby elementary schools have let their students out. Anyone not staying behind for a club activity will be outside with friends, often on the playgrounds that the boy wants to use.

Watching how he interacts with older children reveals a world of difference between his personality and mine. Even at the age of three, I would keep mostly to myself when surrounded by people. The boy is almost the complete opposite, having no problem running right up to one of his favourite swings and telling whoever might be seated 降りる!, which is a very direct way of saying "Get off". These are teachable moments, of course, as he immediately receives instruction on how to wait in line, or ask for something nicely, or otherwise be more considerate. It makes me wonder how much my parents had to do to help me learn to interact with people, given that I tended to avoid groups.

There is one particular incident from my youth that I recall that involved me being rather upset at another boy my age. My mother would tell me the tale any time I'd comment on how difficult it was to play with one of my younger siblings.

Some time around 1983, when my parents were still married and we lived in a house in northern Hamilton, I was playing with my Tonka trucks in the back yard. Tonka made these rather large toys that looked like construction vehicles, painted bright yellow and made of steel. They were incredibly cool and very heavy for a three year old. A neighbour would often come over for coffee with my mother and her son, who was roughly the same age, would come play with me.

This one particular day the kid really wanted to play with the backhoe, as you could sit on it and use a lever to shovel sand. Being three, I didn't want to simply hand the toy over so I refused to share. He became upset and pushed me off. I, being an incredibly hot-tempered youth, picked up the nearby dump truck and hit him over the head.

Tonka trucks are not the size of Hot Wheels. They're big enough that kids sit on them when playing. And they were made of metal in the 80s. They were heavy, and the blow to the neighbour's skull was rather brutal. There was no blood nor any sign of a concussion according to my mother, but the violent outburst would have resulted in some pretty serious consequences for both the neighbour's son and I. This was around the time when my mother's preferred form of punishment was a spanking followed by standing facing the corner somewhere in the house for hours on end, so this is probably what I had to do. It wouldn't have been a good day for anyone involved.

My son hasn't yet become really angry at another child, but it's only a matter of time. He's incredibly open with his emotions and has a rapidly-developing moral code. He can quickly identify right from wrong and, when he sees something new, he can often infer whether it's correct or not based on the myriad of rules that Reiko and I have tried to teach him. However, anger can change how a person responds to a situation. He knows that he should never hit his mother, but he knows he can hit me when we are playing. Which internal rule will he follow when he's upset with a peer for not sharing a toy or taking something from him?

It will be interesting to watch him learn how to interact with people, handle conflict, show respect to elders, help others, and more. Hopefully he'll be a lot less violent than I was.

A Blue Envelope

For millions of people across the country, it's tax time. We get to collect all of our receipts, fill in some complicated forms in triplicate, use our personal seal to certify the documents, and — if we're lucky — mail them off to our employer so that the payroll department can handle the more complex process of filing the taxes on our behalf. While working out how much Reiko and I have earned this year, how much we've paid in taxes, and how much our home is worth after living in the house for 20 months, I was struck by how different the numbers were from last year, the year before, and the year before that. A lot of hard work and frayed nerves have resulted in a pretty comfortable income and the responsibilities that go along with it.

As one might expect, I couldn't be happier.

There was a time not very long ago when I was a broken person. Not only financially, but emotionally and spiritually. Thanks to the support and encouragement from a small community, a lot of good has come from the darkness that shrouded much of 2014 and 2015.

May those dark times never return.

People Don't Have Ideas

People don't have ideas. Ideas have people.
— Carl Jung

Some of the most memorable ideas are also the simplest. This is certainly true for the quote above which is attributed to Carl Jung1 as it has been ever present in my mind for at least the last year, and probably a little bit longer. This concept rings true in a number of ways and does answer to some degree the question of why well-crafted ideas are both viral and seemingly immortal. Religion is a perfect example of this, as are many causes that people can easily evangelise.

There is a question that stemmed from this Jungian idea I've been struggling to answer: If ideas have people, is free will an illusion perpetrated by ideas in an effort to protect themselves from extinction?

Two or three times a week I find myself sitting at the desk, focusing intently on a problem, when an incipient idea begins forming in the back of my head. It is often a tiny nudge. Something along the lines of the memory of a flavour that triggers the tongue to bristle in anticipation. After some time, the nudge becomes something more concrete, such as a more complete memory of the last time I enjoyed that flavour. Soon the memory expands to include additional details, such as a rumbling stomach, a certain degree of anxiety, and maybe even some muscular restlessness. What began as a faint echo a short time before has morphed into a full-blown desire and plan to leave the house, walk to the nearby convenience store, pick up a large chocolate chip cookie, and eat it in a nearby park while listening to a podcast and generally enjoying myself a little too much.

The idea is enticing, and I generally succumb to the desire for an unhealthy snack at least once a week. Regardless of how alluring a mental image might be, I'd be a fool to capitulate every time some concept leapt into my head. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to rob a bank, steal a car, grab the gun from a passing police officer, or any other idiotic activity that would result in serious jail time if I were lucky. Just because these ideas enter my head does not mean I must do them. Is this a sign of free will or just a rational fear of consequences?

Free will is meaningless without options. These options come in the form of ideas. Thanks to the power of written and oral language, ideas can spread from person to person in the blink of an eye. Some ideas are good and some are clearly not. So we judge the options ahead of us and the one that brings the greatest reward, be it in the immediate or distant future, wins.

This does not sound very much like "free will" to me, but instead an act of prioritisation. Which ideas are more appealing than the others? Choose the top-most option and carry on.

This quote has been bouncing around my skull for quite some time, so I wanted to better understand it. To better understand something I can write, talk, or continue to think. I chose to write, as it allows for more nuanced thought. While writing, the ideas were mulled and considered from several angles, particularly the remark about free will, which is why its included in the concept above. I generally write for the blog, for myself in Evernote, or for later consideration with pen and paper in a notebook. I chose the blog, as it would solve the question of "what to write about today?" as well as encourage a little discourse on the subject. Both of these benefit me greatly, so was the best option.

What was free about this aside from the freedom the idea has now that other people will read the quote and perhaps think about it? The concept is still in my head, and now it's in yours. Is the "freedom" I feel just a serotonin release provided by the idea as it ventured beyond the confines of my cranium to yours?

I don't know.


  1. One could argue that the origin for this quote is from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book Demons, which was first published in 1872.