Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Privilege and redress, explained with D&D


For the last couple years, my entertainment obsession has been skewing toward watching people play D&D on the interwebs.  I’ve never played D&D, or any table-top role-playing games, really, because I’m basically a hermit and have no friends that I really want to spend hours with every week. Or the desire to commit to such a schedule, actually (where I have no problem arranging my life around watching other people do it, apparently).

I was also thinking about a smallish meltdown I saw recently, of a smallish kid playing a game, something not going quite her way and her crying ‘no fair’. I’ve actually seen this kind of thing with kids.  I’m fine with being upset when things don’t go your way. I have a little trouble with ‘no fair’. Which I realize to kid’s doesn’t mean ‘the game is stacked against me’ so much as ‘this didn’t go the way I wanted’.  Which got me started thinking about how you talk to kids about fairness, and empathy, and luck, and so on, and it came into the back of my head that I know there are people using D&D to teach and practice this kind of thing, especially with socially vulnerable kids, with ASD and so on.

But that got me thinking about other exchanges I’ve seen recently, about race and racism, wealth inequality, and all kinds of social ills, and that got me thinking about privilege.  And D&D provides a nice little analogy that I’m working out and am going to try to share here.

In D&D, your player-character has some base statistics: Strength, Constitution, Charisma, Intelligence, and so on.  At the start of the game you ‘roll’ you character, using dice to set up your base statistics.  So you roll a bunch of numbers and can distribute them among your statistics.  My character is a fighter so needs a ton of strength and constitution, so I’ll use my top two rolls for those stats, she needs less wisdom or charisma, so I’ll use the bottom stats for those. And so on.  A stat of 10 or 11 is ‘average for a human character’.  The stats govern a bunch of skills, like ‘athletics’ and ‘persuasion’.  If you have high strength, you get a bonus to ‘athletics checks’—in the game, you have to lift a boulder, or hold back a horde, or whatever, and you have to roll a die to see if you succeed or not, against some attribute or roll of your ‘opponent’. So let’s say you’re arm wrestling in a bar against another character.  You roll a 9 but your high Strength stat gives you a +3 bonus to that for a ‘check’ of 12.  Your opponent rolls an 12, but their low Strength gives them a -2 penalty to their check, so they have 10. You win.  But they might have rolled a 16, so even with their penalty and your superior Strength, they’d have won.

Certain ‘races’ (aha!), which in the D&D context and ‘human’ and ‘dwarf’ and ‘elf’ and so on,  and ‘classes’, which are ‘fighter’ and ‘thief’ and ‘wizard’ and so forth, have additional bonuses or penalties to certain kinds of checks, and certain items, spells and so on impose bonuses and penalties as well.  So, making stuff up because I don’t know D&D that well really, a dwarf might have a bonus to Strength-based checks, where an elf might have a penalty.  A warrior might have a bonus to Strength-based attacks, but a goblin might have a penalty. Plus or minus whatever their base rolled statistics provide them.

In D&D it is totally clear that some races, classes, or holding certain items or positions in society, come with certain advantages or disadvantages.  There’s also a game mechanic called ‘advantage’ (or ‘disadvantage’) that requires you to sometimes roll twice, and take the higher (or lower) roll for your check.  This is imposed by conditions (“you’ve been hit with a blindness spell, roll for attack with disadvantage”, “you are on your favored terrain, roll an acrobatics check with advantage” etc.
And no one is particularly disturbed when someone with an intrinsic disadvantage (e.g. a low charisma score) nonetheless gets ‘advantage’ on a charisma check because their opponent is drunk or something. And certainly no one is miffed if they roll high enough to just pass the check, with or without their individual bonuses or disadvantages.  Because that’s The Game. 

So here’s where the privilege thing comes in.  Sometimes in Real Life™, people for whatever reason have bonuses or penalties. Not a lot they can do about it.  Tall people have an advantage (for a lot of things) over short people. Strong people over weak people.  Healthy people over sick people.  Rich people over poor people.  And yes, that’s just The Game.  But think about this. Sometimes people have advantage or disadvantage, not because of their own stats or skills, or others, but just because of who they are.

So imagine you’re a sick person trying to get health insurance.  You can’t help being sick, but it’s going to cost you more than a healthy person.  That’s The Game.  (We can argue about The Game and its rules, but this is what we have.)  But in the interest of Fairness™, maybe we want everyone to have better health care, which means getting more people insurance.  So maybe in game, to keep everyone alive, we create a system where anyone who rolls below 6 on a health check gets another roll. They get advantage.

Is that giving them an unfair advantage over healthy people?  Is this taking anything away from healthy people?  Is this making it harder for healthy people? Or is it just addressing an intrinsic imbalance in the system for the benefit of everyone (since presumably not having to lug around a dead body in your party, or having to stop in the middle of every fight to waste healing spells and potions on them is in everybody’s interest)?

Female Humans® may be at a disadvantage for, for instance, salary rolls. They may have to do more (roll higher) to compensate, relative to Male Humans®.  Is this The Way Things Are™? Maybe.  Is this fair? Probably not.

Humans of Color™ may be at an intrinsic disadvantage, having to roll higher to avoid Suspicion™, Confrontation™, and Brutality™. Is it fair? Is it right? No.  So if we address it, are we penalizing anyone? Are we providing an unfair advantage, or are we attempting to address an intrinsic imbalance?

Humans of Ambiguous Gender and Color® may be particularly vulnerable to all sorts of things for all sorts of stupid reasons.  

This is not to say that individually, one may not have an astronomically high Charisma or Strength stat, or happen to roll high a bunch of times in a row.  But that doesn’t mean that they (and anyone else in their Class) didn’t start out with, or continue to experience, a disadvantage or an intrinsic penalty.  

So don’t point at the disadvantaged person who happened to roll two 20s on a check and say ‘well, obviously this Class of people don’t need and don’t deserve a small bonus ‘because’ it means it puts you at a disadvantage.  It doesn’t.  It just means your advantage isn’t as meaningful as it might be.
And people Don’t Like It™ when privileges they are used to having Just Because®, or maybe have never even thought about, are called into question.  But they may get up in arms if a disadvantage someone else experiences all the time gets redressed.  

Which is just silly.  

Monday, 28 May 2018

I am a patient person. It takes a lot to get me really angry


I am angry.

I am actually shaking with rage. I don’t know what I or anyone else is going to be able to do about it, but somebody better come up with something.  I have already escalated this up to the relevant manager.  I really should get my head, my Dean, and the relevant VP involved, but we’ll see.
I chose to go with optical scoring (mark-sense, or bubble sheets, depending on your background) for my ‘spring’ course, which consists of 17 sessions of 2 hours each. For the entire course.  Since that isn’t time to develop any useful skills, I decided to go with multiple choice, and as long as I was going multiple choice, I went optical scoring. 

In the past (with about 60 students) I have handed it my stack of things and gotten the phone call (or email) that things were ready by the time I got back to my office.  Not so this term.  Which I get is compressed. And it’s summer. And it’s no one’s job to sit around just waiting to put stacks of paper through a machine on the off chance someone will need it.  But at the worst of times, it shouldn’t take 48 hours to turn around a stack of papers.  Certainly not in the middle of a term.
But apparently that’s not how things are working now.  Twice now (of the 3 exams in my 17-session course with a measley 19 students in it), I have handed in my stack, and waited. And waited.  The first time I handed the things in on Tuesday morning and had to go down Thursday afternoon to check on things, since there was no notification that anything had been done.  I’m guessing that things actually did get done in 10 minutes, but for whatever reason nobody bothered to tell me about it.

Batch number two went in Wednesday morning. I didn’t have time on Friday to check up on them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt I waited to hear from them.  Until this afternoon, a full weekend after my students probably needed to see their grades if they were going to drop the course. Which I think they had to do by Friday.

I took a number, sat down, and waited for 20 minutes.  No one seemed to notice I was sitting there, let alone that I had a number.  I am a patient person, but this is ridiculous.  Fuming, I came back upstairs and wrote a very angry email detailing the situation. But then I couldn’t figure out who to send it to. I'm guessing these people know better than to put their org charts up so people can yell at them easily.

So I put in a service ticket.  Which laid out the sitatuation, and told them (at 4:10pm) that I didn’t think I needed to go down again, and someone can d*mn well bring my stack of papers up to my office before close of business.  No one did.

After which I initiated a chat, and got my old friend Josh, who is now my go-to guy down there, who went to look and sure enough, there was my stack of papers, sitting there, all ready to be picked up.  He checked the log and apparently someone emailed me something Wednesday morning (I’m guessing 10 minutes into the process) but it, like any earlier communications, did not go through.  He’s put in a ticket to see what the f*ck is going on. He has also escalated my original ticket to his manager.  

SOMEBODY better come up with an explanation as to what the F*CK is going on down there. FAST.  My last exam is on Wednesday, and if this doesn’t get cleared up, I’m going to have to stand in front of osmeone’s desk and do some actual yelling.  Maybe standing over them while they personally put my papers through the machine and hand the things back to me right then and there. 

And if some kind of vaguely satisfactory message is not waiting for me in the morning, believe me, people are going to be hearing about this.  My head and my dean, certainly.  If I can figure out which VP, them too.  I have so many better things that needed to be done this afternoon, including prepping for tomorrow’s class, than dealing with this CR*P.

So now, having gotten scores, figured out adjusted percentages, and put the whole thing into the LMS, now, almost two and a half hours later, I can maybe start getting to all the stuff I needed to do this afternoon.

I am still shaking.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Own Homership

12:30am, 2 May 2018
I own a home. Well, a condo, so a space in a cooperatively owned building. I moved in in July of 2015, so we’re going on three years now.

When I moved in, I took certain steps—fast, cheap, easy steps—to do something about light control and privacy, on the assumption that sometime when I wasn’t trying to move, or when I wasn’t broke, and had a little time to think about it, I would do something more permanent. So off Rob goes to Canadian Tire (Canada’s all purpose hardware/garden/kitchen/sports/automotive store) to buy tension rods and vaguely translucent shower curtains This solution served, mostly, until quite recently, when it turned out that vinyl shower curtains don’t like hanging in west-facing windows for three years. The one in my bedroom developed a crack, then a small hole. Well, someone is trying to tell me something.

Except I’m still basically broke, and trying hard to actually work productively prepping for a ‘summer term’ course that start on Monday among other things, so I don’t have a lot of spare time for mundane activities like laundry or cooking, let alone actually putting up curtains. I also am not sure, despite years of watching home improvement and design shows, that I know how to put up curtains. Slightly complicating the procedure, I do not at present own a working drill, or a sewing machine, or for that matter a working iron. I own several measuring tapes because a few weeks ago I got tired of never being able to find one and bought three fabric-style ones. Somewhere in this house there is a proper 15-meter jobber, and somewhere at work I think I 6-meter one, but I have no idea where exactly either is at the moment.

The good news is that at least psychologically I’ve been preparing for the day I get curtains. I’m pretty sure what color I want. I know I want blackout. So these in the second bedroom.
But hardware? Do I want to hang these loft style (with the rod going through tabs at the top, or from hooks, or clips? The IKEA ones have a fourth option, which is to run the rod through what amounts to hoops built into the top of the panel. The IKEA curtain rods are kind of limited, but silver, gray, or black finish? Do I need sheers, and therefore a double-curtain rod? Where does one place a curtain rod relative to a) the ceiling (or in my case the bulkhead, and b) the window frame?

Okay, I’ve worked out that last bit. The rod itself is supposed to be something on the order of 6-8 inches wider (that is 3-4 inches on either side) of the window frame. IKEA rods are pretty forgiving, in that the brackets go wherever they go, I presume into some kind of wall stud, and the rod just sits on them. Now, those years of home improvement and design shows tell me that there has to be a stud just on either side of the actual window. My problem is that I have 4-inch wide trim around my windows that I’m pretty sure are where the studs are, and so there’d be nothing immediately outside of them. So that means I need to be prepared with some kind of wall anchor. Which I am not confident about.

Now where the curtain rod goes depends partially on how the curtains are hung. So if I go with running the rod through the loopy things, I guess the very tippy top of the curtains can just brush the bulkhead. So I guess I should buy them, put the curtain rod through them, and just measure where their best placement is.

Nor am I entirely confident that I know how long they should be. I figure anywhere from ‘just covering the top of the baseboard’ to ‘almost touching the carpet’ will do, but I can’t tell how long that really is until I know how the curtains are hanging. Which means I probably have to figure out where to hang the rod, then hang the curtains, and measure, take the curtains down, and hem them.

This is problematic, not just because I’m freaking lazy, don’t currently own a drill, or anything I could hem curtains with, but because of one of my several ongoing ailments. Readers of this blog will recall that I had frozen shoulder in my right shoulder, which I’m happy to report has resolved and I have close to 100% of my movement back. The unfortunate thing is that my other shoulder has now gone, and which means raising my left arm too much higher than horizontal is pretty much impossible unless it’s Unless it’s straight forward, in which case I can get a little higher, depending on what I’m trying to do with my hand. But it ain’t fun.

So back to the bedroom curtain. As I was making my bed with freshly laundered sheets, I brushed up agains the brittle and falling apart shower curtain in my bedroom window and it disintegrated. Seriously, just fell apart. So there I am, 11pm or so, just wanting to make my bed and go to sleep, and I have to do something about my bedroom window dressing.

The only other curtain-like things in the house are a) the one in the second bedroom, which because I don’t often make contact with it is still intact but probably not in much better shape in any real sense;  b) the one in the second bathroom, which I suppose I could have pulled, but it’s beige and brown and anyway I’d just have to put it back when I was done, and c) a cheap vinyl shower curtain liner I bought as a backup to the one in the second bathroom. I opened up that once and realized it was seriously clear, which defeats the purpose of putting it in my bedroom window.

Ever the innovator, I decided to grab one of my old, rarely-if-ever-used-anymore, sheets. I tried a fitted sheet that for some reason didn’t fit on my bed anymore, but, well, it didn’t hang properly. So knowing that a flat sheet would be hard to get to stay up, I went with an old duvet cover. I could put the tension rod inside the duvet cover and get full coverage.

This tension rod isn’t spring loaded. It basically just unscrews to let you shorten or extend it, and screws to lock it at the length you choose. So you kind of have to be cagey putting it in because you have to get it tight enough to stay up because you can’t do much adjusting once you get it in place. So naturally at this point—apparently having not seen this far ahead—I discover I can’t grab hold of the curtain rod the the duvet cover to screw or unscrew it. I get the bright idea of climbing into the duvet cover with my curtain, but then I manage to jam the curtain rod so it won’t unscrew. (Just putting my hands around the curtrain rod and holding it and the duvet cover while the rest of me is outside the duvet cover is a non-starter, because I can’t hold the rod and the duvet cover over my head with my bad shoulder.)

Much comical hijinks ensue, what with climbing out of the duvet cover, getting the rod stuck in the duvet cover, stepping on the edge of the duvet cover, and so on. After about 15 minutes finally I get it to unscrew, get back into the duvet cover with it. It takes several tries to get it up because I’m in the duvet cover and can’t see what’s happening in the window frame. This isn’t comfortable at the best of times. Wrestling the whole thing cause serious pain, such that I had to stop and sit down a couple of times. Which means, of course, the curtain rod/duvet cover set up would move around weird so I’d have to wrestle it back into alignment so I could try again.

So an hour or so later, I have a workable temporary window cover. I hope it doesn’t have to last another three years, but I have a workshop on Thursday, a conference eon Friday and Saturday, and I start teaching my ‘Summer term’ course on Monday and I haven’t really made much headway into prepping that yet. So it won’t be until at least June probably, although some evening I may just bite the bullet and buy curtain panels and proper curtain rods and hardware. And a drill. And maybe some steam-a-seam and an iron.

In the time it took me to write this, it’s still up, so I’m hopeful it will at least last until morning. In part because I went in for my tire swap this morning and one of my summer tires was shot, so I needed to replace the two older ones, and they didn’t have any in. Which means I’m driving a loaner, which is kind of fun. Push button start (weird), rear-view camera (love), heated seats (shouldn’t have been necessary but actually today was nice). Only two doors, which means the door is heavy and long, so not great for my shoulder, or getting into the back seat, but whatevs. I don’t have to get back there. Which makes me want to update my car, but busy, sort of broke, and there’s more pressing matters, like bedroom curtains. (also the whole second bedroom, that that’s also another story.

Morning update: It’s still up, so it’s going to stay there until I get around to doing something about it, or it falls down again. Now, if anyone has any suggestions for the 8-foot sliding glass door assembly in the living room, let me know.
















Sunday, 22 April 2018

Journey to Canadianness (postlogue)


Been craving macaroni and cheese the way my mother made it, which requires American cheese.  American cheese, for those not in the know, is a kind of processed cheese made (at least partially) with a blend of ‘natural’ (unprocessed) cheeses.  The processing gives it a smooth texture and a low melting point. American cheese is not, as is widely believed, the same thing as Velveeta, although both are processed “cheese food”.  Velveeta and its ilk are designed to be soft and spreadable.  American cheese is meant to be solid, but to melt easily. (Don’t get me started on why ‘Swiss cheese’ and “Gruyère cheese’ are not the same thing.*)

I have tried to make macaroni and cheese (and more generally sauces Mornay) with regular cheese and have never been able to get it to come out right. It splits, or it’s grainy, or it turns into a huge gloppy  mess.  No no no no no.  I’ve also tried it with other kinds of processed cheese (or cheese food), and it’s Not The Same.  So there is a need for actual American cheese, which (surprise!) isn’t available in Canada.

So every once in a while, I go down across the border into the Old Country and bring back a few bricks of American cheese, so I always have some to indulge my macaroni and cheese fix. Something that I don’t do as often as I used to, because diabetes and carbs.  But I have a brand of lower carb penne that I like, so the cravings have come back.  But I don’t have any American cheese in the freezer.  Horrors!

It’s actually been almost two years, I think, since I’ve driven over the border.  My last few trips have been by plane, for conferences, consultations, my mother’s memorial, and things like that.  I still needed my US passport (to get into the USA with my Canadian car)  and my permanent resident card (to get back into Canada with my US passport) for those, but that’s what happens when you’re an ex-pat.

Which brings me to my next and perhaps last** part of Journey to Canadianness, the application for a Canadian passport.  At my swearing in ceremony, as readers of this blog will recall, they took away my permanent resident card, which presumably I wouldn’t need anymore.

Getting back into the country (Canada) with just my US passport is probably not a huge deal, but it will definitely involve a trip into the customs/immigration place so they can run my paperwork.  Which as I say is probably not a huge deal (I’ve done it once before, crossing into Vancouver of all places with an expired PR card), but it’s not something I want to deal with if I can avoid it.  So I’m applying for a Canadian passport. Which I could have done as early as February 1st, but whatever.
So, forms, a couple pieces of  ID, proof of citizenship, photos, and two references and a guarantor.  The references have to have known you for two years and might actually get called.  The guarantor signs the form and one of the photos and must have a valid Canadian passport.  This last part is new.

Apparnetly, I have been in Canada long enough for there to be an Olden Days, so here we go.  In the olden days, your guarantor had to be a lawyer, a clergyperson, a uniformed officer, or a member of a short list of other presumably respectable professions, which again in the olden days included university professor. Which I was, and am,  one of. I have been a guarantor on a couple of passport applications.  The new form requires the guarantor to provide a valid Canadian passport number, which makes sense over any random lawyer, uniformed officer, clergyperson, and certainly university professor, you could drag in off the street.

I got pictures taken a couple weeks ago in a fit of organizational industry, started filling in forms, and getting random friends at work to fill in their info as references.  But Canadians don’t habitually carry around their passports, so I have to actually arrange for someone to have their passport so they could fill in the guarantor part of the form.

I was going to ask my friend Sky, but when I was getting photos and information I learned that he was defending his dissertation (the last big hurdle before getting your PhD) on the 20th, so I decided not to bother him with my trivia.  Readers of this blog will remember my friend Wendy, who actually asked to come to my swearing in and started that whole mishigas. I figured that she’s a big booster of becoming Canadian, so she ought to be wiling to be a guarantor.  Which she was.  But we had trouble getting together before she skipped town for something (ironically to the USA) where she almost got snowed in.  So we finally got together  this past Friday, literally a couple hours after Sky got done***, for her to sign her life away on my behalf. 

So I’ve got a plastic envelope with my completed form, photos, and supporting document (my proof of citizenship) and my current US passport (one of my pieces of ID--the other one will be my drivers license which I presume I will have on me anyway).  There’s this thing about a valid Canadian travel document, which I don’t think I have one of (they list three kinds) and the only other kind of document they might conceivably want to see is my immigration form (‘landing document’), but no one has asked for that since the swearing in.  So there we go.  If I ever get done marking papers****, I’ll toddle off to a nearby Canada Services (or Service Canada, I forget) office, where you can turn in this kind of thing and they can check your documents, pay a fee, and in 4-6 weeks, according to the paperwork, I will receive my Canadian passport.

*Swiss cheese is a variety of cheese (or probably a class of related cheeses) produced primarily in North America.  It’s nearest cousin from Switzerland is probably Emmental.  Swiss cheese is kind of required for a proper patty melt (Ground beef, seeded rye bread, grilled onions and Swiss cheese), which does not work for Emmental or Gruyère.  While you can make fondue with Swiss cheese it works better if there is at least some Gruyère in the mix.  Trust me.

**The last-last step might be renouncing my USA citizenship, which technically isn’t so much a step on a journey to Canadianness and a step on a journey towards not being anything else.  I haven’t decided to do it, and the benefit (not having to file US taxes every year) doesn’t really outweigh the con (not voting in US federal elections).  Unless the US continues on its road ot Hades, in which case not being an American might actually be a general advantage.  Certainly being able to say I’m Canadian is an advantage up here, that I don’t think gets any more advantageous by not being an American anymore.  Duality is common enough up here that I don’t think people care. We’ll see.

***Congratulations, Dr Onosson! (Which technically isn't true until he turns in his revisions, they're accepted, and usually there has to be some kind of Act of Regents or something to make things official-official, but for all practical purposes, passing the defense is the last hurdle.) 

****So close, but then there's the assignment of numbers and the calculation of grades.  But I might be able to get done with this tonight, and grades will magically be done before tomorrow.  Maybe.