Lego's Decline

This is a story I hear over and over:

When I was a kid Lego was great. It was all basic bricks. Nowadays it has too many specialized parts and doesn't require any imagination whatsoever. Why don't they just sell basic bricks anymore?
There are variations on it. People's criticism is sometimes limited to so-called single-purpose pieces, such as a one-piece truck cab/windshield, but often extends to other pieces, such as hinges or slopes or even the minifig accessories.

There are so many problems with what these people are saying.

First of all, most of the people saying this grew up in the 70s or 80s and those years were full of Lego kits that used almost no basic bricks. For example, a kit I received when I was 5 was the Mobile Rocket Launcher which featured two spacemen on a spacey all-terrain vehicle which carried a rocket that had a satellite on its nose.
Most of that kit was not bricks. It was still awesome. There have always been "specialized" non-brick Lego pieces, from steering wheels and seats and minifigures and their accessories and tires and fences and doors and windows, to brick-like elements that are different from standard bricks: slopes, corners, tall bricks, thin plates, tiles (plates with no studs), hinges, bricks with claws or other attachments, and bricks with studs on the sides. Lego makes new elements all the time, but it's simply false to claim that when you were a kid these things didn't exist.

For example, in 1961 this car was new. In 1962 the plates, or 1/3rd bricks, were introduced. In 1964 the 1x4 brick was introduced. 1970 saw a number of new parts useful for trains. The list goes on, but I think this is enough to demonstrate that Lego has always tried to make more than just basic bricks. Anyone who remembers that there were only basic bricks is misremembering.

The second big problem I have with what people are saying is regarding the supposed harm these specialized pieces do to creativity. Generally, people claim that because you have a piece that's purpose-made to be a door, this means you no longer have to use any imagination whatsoever. What a load of nonsense. All you need to do is look at the incredible array of things people have made and posted on the internet. There are countless amazing creations, from tiny to huge ones, that display a wonderful amount of talent and inspiration and creativity. All of these creations are made from the vast palette of standard Lego pieces that have been released over the years. Nobody asks an artist to paint with just one colour, why would you ask your kid to build with only one kind of brick?

Ultimately, the lack of creativity isn't in the toy, it's in the person who says this toy lacks creativity. Just look at this one example:

(from Kosmas Santosa
This picture, of a chocolate cake, shows just how much you can do with the right creativity. The decorative edge of the cake is made out of spaceman airtanks (1978); the chocolate chips on the top are 1x1x2/3 slopes (2004); the mousse is a turban (2001); the side icing is made of curved slopes (2008); the drizzled icing on the plate is a minifig's whip (2010); the chocolate cake is made out of 2x8 plates (1958), but attached studs-in. It is, in my opinion, a perfect example of a well-executed creation, with excellent parts use. When you were a kid, and you held a tiny Lego spaceman in your hands, did you ever think that the airtanks could also be icing? If you didn't, is that because Lego stifled your imagination?

These days, Lego sells a huge assortment of products. From castles to trains to super-heroes to Star Wars or other movie licenses to Technic and Mindstorms, not to mention the basic City line. It also has fan-submitted kits such as the Ghostbusters Ecto-1, advanced kits such as the Mini Cooper, and the wonderful Modular Buildings. There are tiny kits and huge kits. Every one of these kits is a chance to get new parts, or old parts in new colours. Every one of these kits is a chance to build what's on the box, and see how Lego is making kits these days (building techniques have changed drastically in the last 20 years). Every single kit is a chance to build something entirely different than what's on the box. Find the kit that's right for you, and build something.

Parti Québécois: serious about its racism

It looks like the Parti Québécois is serious about trying to ban all religious symbols from publicly funded workplaces.

What a dumb idea.

I'm all for secular workplaces. I fully support the notion that government should have nothing at all to do with religion. But trying to ban all religious symbols is just plain stupid. It reeks of racism and xenophobia. Those most affected by this law are those whose cultures, which are commonly intertwined with non-Christian religions, require the most "drastic" deviations from "traditional" Québécois attire. For Christians who will have to put their crucifix necklaces inside their shirts instead of outside, it's hardly an onerous law. But for Sikhs and Muslims, who feel they are required by religion to wear certain clothes, they will be forced to choose between employment and their beliefs.  What possible public good results from Sikh doctors not wearing a turban? Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, that the turban is clean enough to be hospital wear. If that is the case, then why should anyone care if they wear a turban?

It's asinine.

What happens if a major religion now adopts a new symbol? Jews, no longer able to wear kippas, are told by their rabbis to wear a plain gold ring on their left hand. Would the Québec courts find that now nobody can wear a wedding ring? How far does this madness go?

Well, let's be honest. We know how far the madness goes. It extends to scary turbans and hijabs and naqibs and skullcaps. Because this law isn't really about promoting secular values. It's about racism. Make it uncomfortable for foreigners to work in the public sector, thus preserving jobs for pure Québécois people.

One of the things Canada has that makes me most proud to be Canadian is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This amazing, visionary law is what ensures that all Canadians are treated equally and respectfully. I don't believe in the religious beliefs that lead people to insist on wearing funny hats all the time. I can imagine a situation where such hats might be completely inappropriate: if a person's religion calls for them to wear loose, baggy clothing, and this is a danger for work in a factory, or a safety law requires a person to wear a helmet. In situations with clear problems related to certain kinds of clothes, it would make sense to restrict what kinds of clothes are allowable. Otherwise, if there is no clear problem being solved by restricting what people can wear, people should be free to express their beliefs. Even if those beliefs are silly, or scary.

The PQ is creating a law that is solely about crushing cultural traditions that are centuries old for no good reason. Its stated purpose is to create unity, but the only unity I can see is the unity of racists against the Others.

Why I cannot support the Conservative Party

I don't like keeping one political party in power for too long. The incumbents can become lazy or corrupt and it's good to replace them every so often. Keeps them honest. But the problem is when there are not many choices, and one of those choices is the Conservative Party of Canada. A party who has so many wrong ideas.In 2005 virtually all sitting Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage. Now, they are at it again. A recent private-member's bill was drafted which sought to explicitly protect transgender rights. Arguably these rights should already exist under the Human Rights Acts protecting discrimination against sexuality or disability. However, new legislation was deemed necessary to clear up confusion on this issue because, let's face it, it can be a confusing issue.

The bill passed, which is surprising because it was an NDP bill in a Conservative parliament. But look at that vote breakdown:

I think that graphic speaks for itself. 

(Image source: CBC)

Traditional Chinese "Medicine"

So it seems that Ontario is going to start regulating practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Starting April 1st it will be illegal to practice TCM without being a member of the College.
The college will establish the scope of practice and professional registration, and handle complaints brought by the public. The profession is currently unregulated, but the province in 2006 passed legislation to create a regulatory body to ensure public safety.
Naturally, practitioners of this trade are up in arms:
Peter Lam, a spokesperson for the ad hoc Committee to Support Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, said “We have consulted with two lawyers. This is against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is illegal.” In addition to a lack of English proficiency, many current practitioners inherited the knowledge from their ancestors and do not have the formal academic credentials to qualify for the registration requirements, Lam said.
I'm not particularly upset that the province is ruling out "my dad taught me" as a proper method of teaching medicine. We don't allow that for many professions, so why would this one be special? Anyway the legislation was passed in 2006. Seems like plenty of time to get your paperwork in order, no?

On one hand, regulating this field is better than the status quo, where anyone with a box of needles can call themselves an acupuncturist, and anyone with a box of powder can practice TCM. Now, you'll at least have to demonstrate that you understand certain basic safety instructions. Like sterilizing the needles first:
3/15/2004: The Quebec government is asking 1,200 people to undergo a blood test for HIV and hepatitis after needles were used more than once at a Montreal acupuncture clinic
Or making sure that peddlers of powders and herbs actually know what they are selling you, and what they're made of, so that they don't accidentally give you cancer:
Ying "Susan" Wu, 48, of Holland-on-Sea in Essex, has been on trial at the Old Bailey for selling pills containing aristolochic acid to a civil servant. Patricia Booth, 58, took the pills, bought at Chelmsford's Chinese Herbal Medical Centre, for over five years. She was in her mid-40s when she first sought help from the centre in 1997 for stubborn patches of spots on her face. The products had been advertised as "safe and natural".
But they contained a substance - aristolochic acid - which when she was first sold them, should only have been given under prescription, and which was later banned.
So hopefully the college can impart a basic degree of safety which is apparently currently lacking in this industry.

On the other hand, we won't see any degree of accountability for improving patient outcomes. The thing is that acupuncture and  TCM do not work effectively to treat illnesses.  Acupuncture is a waste of time with the potential for physical harm, and TCM is taking random, untested ingredients and hoping for some kind of drug effect. Both are based on a mystical notion of Qi, a life energy which flows through your body. Simply put: this notion is nonsense. Any non-placebo effect that TCM has is due to actual chemicals doing things in your body. And as Ms Wu found out in the UK, some of those chemicals are pretty dangerous. Some of them do nothing at all. Who can tell what effect a particular medicine will have? Not even its practitioners.

Elevating acupuncture and TCM from unregulated nonsense to a regulated profession will add credibility to this quackery. Instead of simply regulating them for safety, they should also be forced to prove their claims using the scientific method. Heck, even explaining their supposed method of action using real concepts instead of magic would be a start.

But at least fewer people should be poisoned, or exposed to pathogens now that it's being regulated, right?

First day

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: A microfiction (no more than 600 words) story with a first-line prompt of "She did her best, but she was young."
She did her best, but she was young. She sat in her chair, her legs wrapped around its, hunched over the paper. Her fingers gripped the pencil tightly as she concentrated on her work. Meticulous stroke after meticulous stroke.

At one point someone with a ball crashed into her, prompting her to put down her pencil and exclaim “Be careful! I’m writing here!” before turning back to her work. She gave an exasperated sigh as she erased the errant stroke caused by the juxtaposition of her elbow and a kindergartener.

Unmindful of the clock on the wall, she toiled away until her paper was filled to her satisfaction. Smiling, she put it aside, only to see that it was time to leave. She jumped up to go change her shoes and grab her coat, snagging her paper almost as an afterthought as she ran towards the door.

“Daddy, Daddy, look what I wrote!” she beamed as only a four-year-old can.

“Let’s see, honey!” he said, as he picked up the paper and examined the huge letters scrawled across the page


“Did I write it good?” she asked, hopping from one foot to another.

“You did, honey,” he said, a tear forming in his eye.

“Did I make any mistakes?” she asked excitedly.

“You spelled every word right, but some of your letters need practice,” he said gently. “Mommy would have been proud of you,” he added.

She took his hand, and they left the classroom to go home.

Jannik and the statue

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: A 10-300 word story involving walking to, and perhaps riding, a subway train.
The crew cursed and yelled as they lowered the statue off the ship. It was surprisingly heavy despite being only life-sized. Jannik gasped as a rope snapped and it tumbled out of its rigging and onto the dock. The statue was only wrapped in thin cloth, yet Jannik was shocked to find that it was unharmed. They quickly loaded it onto a cart and left for the Academy.

“It’s clearly Infused,” said the Senior Initiate of Artifact Research.

“Yes, definitely solar powered,” said the Senior Initiate of Energy. “Good thing you kept it covered,” he said to Jannik.

“It may be an explosive,” said the Senior Initiate of Offensive Weaponry. “It needs further study, by a Senior Initiate,” he added. The implication was clear. Jannik was a mere Initiate. The fact that he had brought the statue all the way from the forbidden continent of Northam meant nothing.

Jannik fastened his cloak went down to wait for the subterranean train. His  anger was overcoming him so he forced himself to do a Computation Mantra, using the echos he heard to Compute a model of the train tunnels. When the train came through the echoes expanded his visualization and he realized how close he sat to the Vault itself.

It was an act of vandalism that could get him imprisoned, or worse, expelled, but he was too angry to care. He picked some items out of his pack and put them into his mouth, Infusing them with stored Essences. His teeth and tongue assembled it, and when it was ready he gently spat it into his hands. “Go on, little mole,” he said, as he set it on its way.

The Vault keepers were surprised to hear a voice from inside the Vault. When they entered they saw a thin shaft of sunlight streaming from a silvery hole, shining on an empty pedestal. Lying on the floor was a man. “Help me...” he said, then collapsed.

Mexican Food Stand-off

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week's exercise: to write a dialog (only dialog!) between two people that includes within it pants and tacos.

"Damn it, why isn't this thing working?"

"Did you try speaking more slowly?"

"Yes, and I even tried retraining it. It just doesn't understand me."

"Here, let me try. 'I WOULD LIKE A TACO.'"

"See? Nothing. The damn thing is busted."

"Je veux un taco. Wo yao yige taco."

"I'm telling you, it's broken."

"Just give it a good whack."

"How many times do I have to remind you that a replicator is not something you whack? Forget it. I'm going to go out to eat."

"Wait! You're not wearing any pants."

"Damn it! I de-materialized them because they were dirty and I wanted to make a clean pair... only now the replicator is busted ... crap, what will I wear?"

"I have a spare pair on, you can have them."

"You're wearing two pairs of pants?"

"Yeah. For emergencies."

"You wouldn't happen to have a spare taco, would you?"

"Sorry, no."