About traffic signals

There is one intersection through which I drive two mornings every week. There is advanced green north and southbound, and special left turn lanes with separate lights, east and westbound. I’m going west turning south, and I am wondering what is up with those going south and turning east.

Drivers enter the intersection (illegally) from a standing start on the orange. Some enter on the red. You can flash headlights, honk, give the finger, but they do this. Day after day, week after week.

The city of Mississauga’s response to this is to make the all-ways-red last longer. So even more drivers find they can enter the light on the red, and they do so.

So here is dumb question number one: Why does Mississauga not put a red light camera, plus prominent signs, on this intersection? The fines would pay for the equipment in a month. If the light isn’t long enough, change it, but don’t keep extending the delayed red.

Dumb question number two is about pedestrian walk signs. We are all aware of the countdown timer on many of them now; I use this to foretell whether I can make the light or not; it’s very convenient.

However some of these signals some of the time go down to zero and back to a white walk sign. Sometimes this seems to happen when there is oncoming traffic, but I don’t see “sensor cuts” in the roadway that far back. Sometimes this happens when there is traffic waiting to turn, needing the light to change. They watch the countdown go to zero and then reset.

Why is this done?

Dumb question number three is also about pedestrian walk signs. If no person presses the button, no walk signal is ever generated. Thus there is no countdown either, and a pedestrian determined to use the light has no idea how long it has to run (unless of course you saw the previous change and are counting down in your head).

Why do we need a button press to get a walk sign, followed by a countdown to don’t walk?

It seems that, in the last two cases, the traffic signals have been made more complex than they need to be.  Why? Who benefits?

Brochure: the language

My brother once asked me about something in an advertisement, and I translated it for him into plain English. I told him I’d been reading travel company catalogues and had thus had much experience with brochure, a closely related language. So here, for fun, are some brochure or other advertising phrases, and their actual meaning.

Some Conditions Apply = not precisely true.

asterisk, dagger, plus sign, any odd character = Some Conditions Apply.

as much as = definitely not more than

up to = as much as

more or less – when measuring real estate – = definitely less

about – when dating real estate – = definitely older

about – when estimating taxes – = definitely more than

all inclusive = exactly what’s listed in fine print is included, no more

plus taxes = you’d better look out, it costs more than this

best, most recommended, in fact most superlatives = it’s probably OK

recommended by doctors = they will prescribe it, but probably don’t use it themselves

combining the best of = we were not sure which to tout in our ad

all natural ingredients = our competitors make theirs in a cyclotron

no added preservatives = it could be in the packaging, read label

butylated hydroxytoxinlist = added preservatives

added preservatives = keeps longer; you may not need embalming

best before = not our fault if it rots immediately after

may contain = don’t sue us if you’re allergic to

best quality = same as all our products


Whatever happened to common sense?

Long ago, walking in Iraklion, Greece, I realized that something was bothering me. Something different. The traffic would swerve away from me if I was looking down at my feet, but if I was alert, it would come quite close to me and pass without slowing down.

I realized this: there was an implicit assumption of competence. If I knew how I was crossing a traffic circle, they would assume I would not leap in front of their vehicles.

I had a similar experience when we camped on the edge of a farm. We were told to open a distant gate if we needed to do so; instructions were not provided. The gate was fastened by a level-2 bent-iron puzzle, which we of course were able to open.

Today one may sue because one did not know that hot coffee can spill onto one’s lap. There are warning signs everywhere: danger, wet floor; danger, uneven pavement; danger, steep slope. I expect to see at any moment the sign, Danger, Gravity in Operation on This Site.

One sign I would love to see, on the front page of all agreement documents, and all terms of service: Danger, polysyllabic obfuscation present. May cause intense misunderstanding and overly generous provider obligation assumptions.

Meanwhile, I marvel at our assumed lack of competence. Whatever happened to common sense?

Strange forms of selfishness

Fair warning: this post is political.

There is an experiment sociologists have done to test how the sharing of a windfall alters one’s choices.

The participant is assumed to be in a small, identified, close group. All the young men in a small town, for example.

One of them is told, credibly, that he has a decision to make.

Choice A: every young man in the village gets $100,000 except him. He gets $50,000.

Choice B: every young man in the village gets $20,000 except him. He gets $30,000.

In no case will anyone in the village ever find out that he made the choice, or where the money came from. Everything will be kept secret.

In pretty much every case, the chooser picks B.

It is instructive to look at the reasoning behind this. In choice B everyone gets less than they did in choice A. However, in choice B our chooser gets more than all the others.

Suppose these young men are competing for a shortage of young women. Suppose there is no outside supply. Then it is clear that choice B is the way for our young man to increase his chances of leaving his genes in next generation.

I submit that centuries of selection in village-equivalent circumstances have already biased our judgments for choice B.

I suggest that a politician is well advised to select an outcome in the same manner as our hypothetical young man. Better to be the greatest beneficiary of a smaller benefit, than to be the lesser beneficiary of a much greater benefit.

Police public appearance

This bothers me. The right way to criticize something is to make a positive suggestion for improvement. I’ll try to do this when I recap the post at the end.

Toronto has a murder solution rate of under fifty percent.

Police visibility in my, ordinary, neighbourhood is less than ideal.

I pretend I’m doing a sort of verbal Rorschach inkblot test and ask my victim to say the first thing that comes to mind immediately after they understand what I said. Then I say, visible police presence. I used to get these answers:

  • Speed trap
  • Duty cop at construction, wearing an orange vest
  • two cruisers at the back of a plaza after hours, driver’s door-to-door

Jokers would add donut shop (and other silly suggestions) but would admit under the slightest questioning that they didn’t really see local police there much.

Speed traps are run (for the most part) by a Toronto-wide team. That’s all they ever do. They are usually not your local police from your local division. They are not bad people; I’ve spoken with many of them and mostly the speed traps are set up in areas where speeding is a hazard, generally to pedestrians, or in blind situations. Generally the motorists are doing well over the local speed limit. It seems that the motorist is kept there for awhile; I think this is deliberate, to impress locals that the speed limit is in fact being enforced.

If you see a speed trap in an unusual location, that is probably a local police officer responding to a specific speeding complaint.

It’s hard to complain about this particular police activity when you see it as a big picture.

Police at construction sites is now a public relations issue. The amount paid per hour was revealed in newspapers and is resented by those who earn less. While sometimes the officer’s presence does not appear to be that necessary, at other times it is crucial that traffic be temporarily stopped or rerouted due to equipment being moved or holes being opened or covered. It is a judgement call that varies by site, and sometimes by day or hour.

Cruisers at the back of mall parking lots confuse me. I am not sure that we would be better off with these vehicles moving about in the neighbourhood. Still, it is difficult to claim the location is strategic when the mall in question is closed and has no (public) record of after-hours break-ins.

It is fairly easy for you to guess what my recommendations would be for the items covered so far.

Today, when I pretend I’m doing a sort of verbal Rorschach inkblot test and ask my victim to say the first thing that comes to mind immediately after they understand what I said, and then say, visible police presence, I get these answers:

  • G20
  • Speed trap
  • Duty cop at construction

Nobody wants to mention the parked cruisers they pass coming home by the plaza.

I promised a positive suggestion for improvement at the beginning, and I will try to produce it here.

Speed Traps.

  • Educate the public a little more about safety
  • Avoid traps that are not in speed-risk areas.

I mention the latter because I live across from a busy school, and around the corner from another one. If you are going to put out speed traps here, do it while students are coming and going. Putting a speed trap on Bloor Street at 6:00 p.m. where the road is wide, visibility excellent, pedestrians limited to the bus stop, and the road slopes downhill – seems a little bit unfair. At a minimum, raise the threshold for tickets in areas where risk at moderate speed is pretty much non-existent.

Paid duty at construction

  • Do this where the officer contributes to public safety
  • Don’t do this if a pylon could do the job.

Parking lot cruisers in conversation

  • Recognize that it looks odd
  • Do this if it really is active police business
  • Don’t do this if there is a better way to serve and protect


  • Full-press public relations campaign is required.

The public is not going to forget. Images of skull stitches and broken arms are not going to go away. Statements of gang rape threats are not going to be silenced. Removed name tags are not seen as accidents. Failure to recognize inappropriate use of force is the worst possible publicity for a public service, particularly one which we all depend on to enforce public order.

That said, I am aware of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo wrote a book on it entitled, The Lucifer Effect. He was also asked to comment on the Abu Grhaib atrocities. His regret for his experiment is palpable, and his conclusions on these and other experiments are clear:

It is not a few bad apples. It is a bad barrel.

This leads to my next recommendations re the G20.

  • Full public apology is required
  • Some publicly visible accountability at leadership level is required.

The alternative is to leave this festering sore on our public view of a most key, perhaps the most key, public service we have: our police force.

We could also use more detective work. In solving GTA murders. In identifying perpetrators at the G20. On all sides.

About Credit Mills

In today’s newspaper there is some discussion of credit mills, which are schools that seem to give high marks for low quality academic work. The Star has been following this news for awhile, and even had a reporter go undercover to demonstrate her ability to get a good mark for poor academic achievement.

Now the universities and colleges are asking that the name of the school be added to the transcript when the school is marked “P” for private.

This fascinates me. Many years ago the universities in Ontario had a crib sheet of school names and grade adjustment amounts. This was to allow schools with easy marks to have their students discounted against schools with hard marks.

The colleges and universities are interested in real academic ability. Apparently high school transcripts are less than ideally indicative.

So now for the dumb questions:

  • Why is the name of the school not on all transcripts?
  • Is the name of the school on non-private transcripts now?
  • If it is not, when was the practice changed, and why?

and finally

  • Why are the final exams not common to all, province-wide (even better, country-wide), and done under controlled conditions with non-school employees as observers?
  • Who benefits from the current conditions of unique exams, potentially uncontrolled test-writing conditions, and school anonymity?

Time of your Life

For many people, the best time of their lives was late teens or early twenties. This period is looked back on with nostalgia and fondness. Even those who went through harsh conditions at this time feel this way.

I have a theory as to why this is so.

Think of the first time you were totally aware of your own powers. On your own. In charge of your own life. This coming into one’s powers is a life-changing experience, and the time at which it occurs is looked back on as a glowing event. It was one.

Some of us never revisit whatever that circumstance was. Some of us try to, perhaps by behaving like college students at sporting events, for example. Some few of us never grew out of that time.

Most of us got trapped in our adult game as responsibilities loaded down those new-found powers, and even if we continued to grow in strength and ability throughout life, we never recaptured that feeling of free power, the ability to decide and act for oneself alone. There was also, for at least some of us, an element of surprise in our new-found powers: we weren’t quite sure how far they would stretch, as we hadn’t fully probed their range yet. It was intoxicating.

Later in life one can be all too sure of one’s limitations. While this is good if it prevents foolish risks, it can also curtail personal growth. How often have we heard someone (perhaps ourselves) say, I could never learn to do that.

I say challenge this perception, this life-position, this self-constrained self-image. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Things happen. People respond to you. Everyone can make a difference.

Today is the time of your life.    Use it.