Mon pays

Ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver

Gambling with OSAP


I’m not usually a betting man, but in the last week I reached a critical point in terms of funding my grad school habit and I had to reconsider some options I had previously ruled out.

On the 7th of September, I received a nasty surprise by email: tuition for nursing school is literally on an order of magnitude higher than I was originally billed. At first, I thought that they were charging me tuition twice—once for my bioethics MA and once for my nursing MSc(A). I went in to the Service Point office to double-check, and it turns out that the tuition fee was accurate. It’s going to cost me about $11,000 for nursing school for this year, when you put together all the tuition, fees, books, uniforms and equipment.

So I went in to McGill student services to see what my options were and if there was anything that they could do to help me. The woman at the desk told me to make an appointment by email. I emailed and McGill student aid actually declined to meet with me to discuss my situation. They no longer respond to my emails.

So at first I panicked, and considered dropping out of the programme just because I couldn’t afford it: I didn’t have the money, I had no prospects of getting a TA-ship or an RA-ship, and I had no collateral for a bank loan. You might be asking yourself, what about the student loans you got in previous years? Why not get another one of those?

It’s true. In years past, in order to make ends meet, I did successfully apply to OSAP for a student loan. I did not apply this year because in October of last year, OSAP sent me a letter indicating that they would not send me any more loans until I sent them a payment of $2222. They did this because I was offered my RA-ship after I had already received my student loan for last year. (For the record, last year they sent me about $5000 to live on for the whole year.) So when I told them that I had an RA-ship after all, they decided that they overpaid me by $2222.

Up until September 7th, it appeared that my tuition would be roughly the same as last year, so I didn’t think it was rational to apply for OSAP: if it would take a $2222 payment just to apply, and they only sent me $5000 last time, it’s entirely possible that I would receive a loan for no more money (or possibly less) than I spent to apply.

Then September 7th rolled around and I found out how much tuition actually costs, which changed a few variables. Since tuition is so much higher this year than last year, I decided to make the repayment and gamble that OSAP will send me more in loans than I’m expending for the ability to apply.

As it stands now, I have sent in the $2222 and I’m waiting to hear back from them about how much (if any) money they plan on loaning me for this year. The size of the loan will dictate whether or not I stay in school.

What’s really annoying about this whole thing is that OSAP has given me a strong disincentive to accept any upcoming offers of legitimate work for this year. For example, if I am offered an RA-ship, OSAP will hear about it and probably do the same thing as last year—demand that I repay a large sum of money. The harder I work, the less help I get. Frustratingly, if I had just sat on my rear end all summer and burned through my savings rather than working and setting aside money for school, I would actually be much less stressed about whether or not I have enough money to make it through the school year.

Anyone need a kidney? Lightly used—like new! Still in original packaging.

Buying my textbooks


I haven't even bought all my textbooks yet

I haven't even bought all my textbooks yet

I’ve made a number of trips to the McGill Bookstore to get the various texts that I require. While standing in line, I came to a realisation:

I would seriously be willing to pay full hardcover price for the ability to download my textbooks as a PDF file with no digital rights management. If I could get my hands on a PDF for all the textbooks I need to buy, I would then buy a Kindle or a Kobo or an iPad and carry that around, rather than the gigantic stack of books.

There is no reason for me to be hurting my back by carrying around huge stacks of papers. We have the technology to make that a thing of the past.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen, and mainly for economic reasons.

While I do recognise that authors and publishers need to be paid for their work, and I don’t pretend to live in some make-believe world where everyone is so morally upright that pirated textbooks wouldn’t happen, there are massive inefficiencies all around in the way that textbook publishing currently works.

For example, Fundamentals of Canadian Nursing actually comes with an online e-book version included. This is great! What’s not great about it is the fact that I can’t download the e-book. It’s an online one. So that means I can’t load it into a tablet or an e-reader or something like that and take it with me. I’d have to bring a computer, and that computer would have to have electricity and internet access.

More importantly, the access code for the e-book version expires in four years. Assuming I don’t die and I’m still working in the same field, it’s likely that I’ll still want access to my textbook after four years. This means that if I take notes on the text, those will be all gone by 2015. That’s a huge disincentive for me to use their e-book. It’s not mine. It’s just a rental.

There are also inefficiencies for the publishing industry here. They put a lot of work into making sure that I could see the textbook, but not keep it. And they’ll have to keep investing money to stay ahead of the efforts of hackers and computer-savvy students who are okay with breaking the rules.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, to be honest, although maybe the case of Fundamentals will be instructive: Fundamentals is a text that I would have much preferred to buy used, due to its price. I had to buy it new, though, because of the online access code. The text comes with online videos, the aforementioned e-book and tests that will be used as (mandatory) evaluations for the course. The access code can be purchased separately, but it costs $48. So in order to not take a loss on buying a used copy, I’d need to find a used copy that’s at least $48 cheaper, which seemed unlikely to me.

This is where I think the solution to the problem is: The secondary product (online testing) in this case provided an incentive for me to get the primary product. Even better than this would be something like giving away the primary goods/service and subsidise that cost with a purchase of a secondary good or a subscription to a secondary service.

There are plenty of businesses that work on this model. Cell phones, printers, web comics, Apple. See Table 1 for a few examples. Maybe it’s time for the textbook industry to move in this direction.

Now I’m no print media industry expert, but it seems like it’s a whole lot easier now for people to pirate media than it has ever been, and industries like music recording or computer software have had a hard time preventing pirating of their content from happening. The publisher of Fundamentals for example, spent a lot of money working on a system for displaying a textbook that would not allow the user to save the textbook and send it to others. That’s really inefficient for the publisher. Because the user can’t save her work, it’s also really inefficient for the user. That’s a lose-lose situation.

However, if they gave their textbooks away for free or for very cheap, they could spend the money they save on some secondary product or service that would provide value to students, like tests for example, and if the tests were structured in units that followed the text that was given away for free, the textbook would work for the publisher like an advertisement. This is a win-win situation.

The risk of this alternate strategy is that the publisher has to come up with some secondary service that would be so good that students would find it indispensable, or that professors would make it mandatory. That said, there is risk in continuing to work under the old model—there is a chance that someone may find a way, despite a publisher’s best efforts, to make and distribute a pirated copy. Further, there’s a risk that another publisher might be the first to switch business models.

Table 1. Primary goods or services subsidised by secondary ones

Industry Primary goods or services Price of 1º goods/services Secondary goods or services Price of 2º goods/services
Mobile phones My iPhone Free Telephone service $50 every month
Computer printers The actual printer $100 Toner cartridges $200 per cartridge
Webcomics The comic Free T-shirts $30 each
Apple/Music Music $0.99 each on iTunes iPods $50–$200 each

Registering with the OIIQ


On Friday, in the post, I got my application for registration from the OIIQ. That’s great! I’ve been wondering when that would come for a while. :)

The problem is that in order to fill it out and return it, I need to get a passport photo, and have it signed by a person authorised to act as a respondent. So that person must have known me for at least 2 years, and must be a doctor/lawyer/nurse/engineer-type. There is no one in Québec who has known me for 2 years yet. I moved here 2 years ago.

Further, I also need a “certified true copy” of my birth certificate. So that means I need to copy it and have it notarised. This is also something of a hassle. Last time I had something notarised, it cost me $50. Maybe it’s cheaper in Québec?

I’m not sure how I’m going to figure out the passport photo thing, since going to Ontario isn’t really an option with so little time left. I don’t even know how to find a notary here either. Oh well. I’ll figure it out.

Completion inefficiencies—going for the last one percent


Humans are very good at making most processes 99% efficient. It’s the last 1% that’s hard to figure out. The last 1% of the job takes the most effort, causes the most stress, costs the most money and produces the most waste.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Internet inefficiency

For example, humans invented the internet. Cities, countries, even different continents can connect and share incredible amounts of information constantly. This is an example of what I mean by a process that is 99% efficient. Maybe even more than 99% efficient.

And yet, connecting that vast network to the computer in my apartment can be painfully difficult. That is an example of what I mean by “the last 1%.” The telephone pole just outside my building has wires that, if properly connected, will get me on the internet. It’s only metres away from me. And yet, it took months for Bell to finally figure out how to connect my internet properly because the wires in my apartment building are messed up. (It’s still somewhat messed up, although not as messed up as before.)

Social media and the Vancouver riot

Another interesting example is the case of the Vancouver riot: Police are pretty efficient at catching and taking people away to be processed by the justice system. When the police are looking for you, generally speaking, they catch you. (Bounty hunters in the States are even better.) The inefficient part of this process is finding and identifying people who break the law. When my van was broken into, two summers ago, the police took my information, but really, there was nothing they could do. They just don’t have eyes and ears everywhere. They can’t always be watching, and so some criminals get away with breaking into my van and stealing the GPS.

The recent Vancouver riot is a clear example of what happens when this inefficiency is taken away. More than 100 people were arrested by Vancouver police as a result of the use of mobile phones during the riot. Some have even suggested that the increase in use of mobile phones with cameras have caused a decrease in the rate of crime generally.

It turns out that in some cases it might not be such a bad thing that Big Brother is watching.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”

Consider the case of food distribution. Farms are very good at efficiently producing food. We’re pretty good at putting that food on trucks and getting them to grocery stores without losing very much in the process. It’s the last step, at the grocery stores themselves, where the efficiency drops dramatically. If you go behind any supermarket, there are always dumpsters full of expired produce, eggs that break, meat that goes bad.

Imagine if your house had a Star-Trek style replicator, where you pushed a button and whoosh, a machine produced the food you like best, one “food pixel” at a time, heated by a laser beam and drawn from a food printer cartridge. These could be frozen and kept indefinitely. No more spilling—no more waste. No more trying to choose the best tomato or the ripest avocado. Just buy a cartridge of the right stuff, and away you go.

This isn’t even sci-fi anymore. 3D food printers exist, although they’re really expensive. We could have incredible control over the efficiency of food production and the consistency in quality in food with such a system. We could give consumers exacting control over portion size and nutritional completeness. In situations where food aid is required, such a system would have great benefits as well.

I imagine logging on to the iTunes Food Store, syncing my recipes with my replicator and then receiving a notification on my iPhone when dinner is done printing.

Trying to park my car

Having moved to the island of Montréal two years ago, one of the most frustrating things for me was trying to park my vehicle. Here in Montréal, people will just bring their car to a stop on a major thoroughfare and turn their reverse lights on. If they do this in front of you, it’s because they want to park on the side of the road and need to back into their spot. They expect you to just go around them.

Parking is not just a problem in Montréal. Cars are wonderfully efficient at getting you from point A to somewhere within about 500 metres of point B. To actually get to point B, you usually have to backtrack a bit, circle the area for 15 minutes, find a spot, then discover that the spot is only available for 20 minutes at a time anyway, and even when you do find a spot to park (usually for a price) you have to walk a good while to get where you’re actually going. Then you have to remember where you parked, and hope that no one breaks into your vehicle to steal your stuff while you’re gone.

Airports are a prime example of this. They have officers at the entrances to airports whose only job is to make sure that people don’t just park their car in front of the door leading to “domestic departures.” You’re allowed to stop your car, pull your stuff out, kiss your loved one and then drive off. That’s all. If you’re going to park the car, there’s a huge inefficiency of the other person having to wait for you while you park it, and if you don’t want to have to bother with that, you have to either get a friend to go out of her way to help you, or you have to hire a taxi at great cost to yourself.

In response to this problem, I’m somewhat intrigued by Google’s driverless car project. I don’t think that this will solve the problem I have outlined in its entirety (even if this project succeeds), but I would be very happy to see the day where I can get in my car, tell it my destination, jump out when I’m in front of the building I’m going to and watch it drive off to find a parking spot on its own.

Process Efficient part Inefficient part Solution
Internet connexion Communication between large centres The last few metres from the telephone pole to the back of your computer Wireless internet
Crime investigation Arrest and processing of already-identified suspects Identification of criminals Camera phones + Facebook
Food distribution Mass production, distribution to retail venues Sales and consumption 3D food printers
Automotive transport Travelling, especially long distances Parking Driverless parking
Table 1. Examples of completion inefficiencies

I submitted my thesis today


ACCO-Press bound thesis

ACCO-Press bound thesis

When I woke up this morning, I was three steps away from submitting my thesis:

  1. Get French translation of my abstract
  2. Print thesis
  3. Get my supervisor’s signature

Well, it turns out my translator’s computer crashed, and so I didn’t get the French version of my abstract until exactly 12h today.

I printed my thesis—all 87 pages—bound it in ACCO-press binders, applied the necessary stickers, packed everything up and then wondered why I hadn’t heard back from my supervisor. He’s generally very fast at responding to emails, and last night he offered by email to sign my thesis submission form this afternoon, so it was surprising that he hadn’t got back to me.

I called his office. I called his home. I sent another email. I decided to do a stakeout at the Biomedical Ethics Unit and see if I run into him. When I was putting on my shoes, I considered for a moment whether I should put on my running shoes or my regular shoes. I had this nagging feeling like somehow I would end up sprinting to the James Administration Building at the last second, and that I would be happy to be wearing running shoes. Then I dismissed that thought. All I had to do, after all, is get my supervisor’s signature and then walk across the street and submit it. Putting running shoes on would be silly.

I put my regular shoes on and went to the Bioethics Unit to look for my supervisor. I ran into the administrative assistant who informed me that he was having a terrible day. A few seconds later I got a phone call from him.

Apparently my supervisor had a minor car accident and spent the morning in the emergency room. He invited me to his house to have the forms signed. This would not normally have been a problem, but Villa-Maria station (where he lives) is closed until September 6, and so I went to Vendôme station and hired a cab to get me to his place.

I saw the back of his car when I arrived. There were indentations that I’m sure were never intended by the manufacturer to be there. My supervisor and his family are all right, I think, but understandably this has been a bad day for them.

The forms all signed, I sprinted to the nearest Bixi station and decided that it would be fastest to just ride the Bixi all the way to campus. This may or may not have been the case, but I made it back to campus in 25 minutes, which is probably better than what it would have taken to get to a métro, wait, transfer at Lionel-Groulx and then walk from station McGill to the James Administration Building.

On arrival, I was hot, sweaty and breathing heavily, but I still had the presence of mind to turn on the Voice Memo app on my phone, so that I could secretly record it when the person in the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies office said, “Yes, everything appears to be in order.” (Thank goodness for iPhone headphones that have a built-in mic for clandestine voice recording.)

I guess I’m paranoid because I’ve recently had two separate experiences where I handed in everything on a document checklist only to receive a mystifying message later on, indicating that I failed to submit all the required documents. I don’t plan to use this recording for anything but soothing my own nerves, for the record. It just feels good to hear someone say that I submitted everything.

So after all that, I have now made initial submission of my thesis. Hooray!

Liveblogging my RAMQ experience


8h30—RAMQ says: “Yes of course, we’ll fax your temporary card to your pharmacy. Ask your pharmacy to call you when they receive it. It might take up to an hour.”

[I gave RAMQ the fax number twice during this call.]

9h00—pharmacy says: “We’ll call you as soon as it arrives.”

12h00—pharmacy says: “No, we haven’t received anything.”

14h15—RAMQ says: “The lady said she was waiting for the fax number. We’ll fax it for real this time. ;) It will probably take 15 minutes to a half hour.”

15h15—pharmacy says: “No, we haven’t received anything.”

15h20—RAMQ says: “No, there’s no note on your file that mentions anything about faxing a temporary card. What’s the number you want it sent to?”

15h40—pharmacy says: “Ah yes, it just came in two minutes ago.”

I don’t have health insurance right now


March 28: I receive letter from OHIP saying, “Remember! You won’t have health insurance after April 30th because your card has expired. Come to a Service Ontario place with proof that you’re an Ontario resident and renew it.”

March 29: I call OHIP and explain that I have no such proof, since I work/study/pay taxes/live in Québec now. I’m actually not allowed to go on RAMQ, since I’m still a full-time student from Ontario. They tell me that in that case, I should just get proof from my school, and OHIP will extend my health insurance again. I say I can’t do that, because I haven’t actually been formally registered for next year.

OHIP’s recommendation: let my OHIP lapse and apply for RAMQ anyway. Just don’t mention that I’m a student. I call RAMQ. They say I can apply for RAMQ once my OHIP coverage ends.

May 2: Finally get instructions on how to apply from RAMQ. Assemble all the documents they tell me to.

May 7: Go to the CLSC; submit documents.

May 20: I receive an envelope from RAMQ that does not contain a health card. Rather, it is a letter indicating that RAMQ wasn’t satisfied with the documents that I provided, even though I went to the CLSC in person and specifically asked whether I had submitted everything necessary to make sure that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.

May 30: Go back to CLSC, hand in more documentation.

June 5: Finally shine a flashlight into the back of my mouth to investigate the sore throat that I’ve had for a while that hasn’t gotten better. Tonsils swollen; little white spots on tonsils; headache; high temperature; difficulty swallowing; no health insurance.

I call Info-Santé so I can talk to a nurse. She says I might have strep throat, but there’s no way that I can get any treatment for it until I see a doctor who has to do a culture of a swab of my throat. I call the Montréal General emergency room. They tell me it would cost $750 just to visit the emergency room. I am currently investigating alternate means of obtaining penicillin. Buying traveller’s health insurance and then taking a quick trip to the States has not been ruled out yet.

June 6: As soon as the RAMQ office opens at 8h30, I’m gonna call them and see if I can get a temporary number or something so that I can see a doctor.

Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree


In order to graduate, I must submit my thesis.

To submit my thesis, I have to hand in my Nomination of Examiners Form, available from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a fillable PDF. In the top-left corner, it reads, “this form must be typed.”

If you look at the fillable PDF, you’ll notice that I can’t fill in the form completely until I know who my internal reader is.

I spoke to the Philosophy Department, and they told me that they would inquire as to which professors would be able to serve as my internal reader after I hand in the Thesis Submission form and the Nomination of Examiners Form. I’m not allowed to contact professors myself to ask them to be my internal readers.

This is my final test.

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal


Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

This Wednesday night, I went to the Quirks and Quarks roadshow at Concordia University here in Montréal. It was their question-and-answer programme, so they had scientists answer listeners’ questions. Questions prepared in advance, that is. One wasn’t allowed to stand up an ask a random question. It was a very pleasant evening. I actually got to see what Bob McDonald looks like (that was weird—he’s supposed to be a bodiless radio personality), the questions were interesting and the scientists were entertaining.

I brought my towel, because it was May 25. You would have thought that an event like that (a radio recording of something aimed at über-geeks) would have brought out more people with towels, but nope. You’d be wrong.

I left to get some food because I was hungry after the recording, but I was strongly tempted to stay and heckle Bob McDonald for one of the questions.

One of the listeners asked how it is that we know that what he sees as red is the same thing as what anyone else sees as red. This is a classic problem in philosophy. It is a problem of philosophy of mind, and one that touches on issues of qualia, naturalism, the hard problem of experience, and our phenomenal experience of the world as distinct from our brains’ and our eyes’ mechanism for discerning colour.

I was excited when I heard the question.

Then they had an ophthalmologist answer the question. She totally missed the point! She did not answer the question. She talked about rods and cones. She talked about optic nerves. Those things are interesting in their own right, but you can’t use them to prove anything about whether my phenomenal experience of the colour red is the same as yours.

Bob McDonald: Don’t bring in a scientist to do a philosopher’s job! I think I’ll email Paul Kennedy (host of CBC’s Ideas) and tell him that you’re encroaching on his territory!

I’m glad I went though. They also had free cookies. Well, they were unguarded cookies. I assumed they were free.

If you want to hear this broadcast, it will be on CBC Radio 1 at 12h on Saturday afternoon.

Philosophy of science—falsification


Imagine you have some hypothesis. We’ll call it H.

Now imagine you have come up with some experiment to prove that H is false. So if you get a positive result for the experiment, (P) then we know that H is false. In logical notation, we would write this as the following:


It may help to have an example. Imagine that your hypothesis is that air has a refractive index of 1. So what you do is you build a machine that shoots a laser through a sample of air and then measures the laser beam as it comes out the other side to see if it was refracted at all. If there is refraction, we would say that you got a positive result, P, and so your hypothesis H is false.

Now imagine you do the experiment. You gather air samples from all over the world, and for all but one of them, you get a negative result. In one case, you get a major and significant departure from an index of refraction of 1.

Here’s the problem: Can you actually conclude that your hypothesis is incorrect?

It might be the case that by the time you got to the last measurement, the equipment was having problems, or maybe the sample case wasn’t clean, or you gathered a sample that had a lot of pollution.

There are a whole bunch of secondary assumptions that you make when you do an experiment. You assume that the equipment is clean and functioning properly; you assume that the sample is pure; etc. If any of these is not true, it might still be the case that the hypothesis is true, even though you got a result of P.

So if {T1, T2, T3, …} are the set of all the background assumptions that go into the experiment described above, the logical notation for the refutation of H would be something more like the following:


It becomes really hard to devise a way to logically separate the H from all the T’s when you think about it.

This is a problem not only for philosophers of science, but also for other sorts of intellectual pursuits. Consider doomsday prophets like Harold Camping.

Imagine that the hypothesis you’re trying to test is that numerology is a good way to discover knowledge about the future. An experiment to test this would be to find a prediction made through numerology, and if the prediction isn’t accurate, then you can be satisfied that numerology is false. Easy right?

The problem here is the same as in philosophy of science. You’d think that Camping himself would have learned by now that numerology isn’t going to produce any true knowledge of the future. When there was not a literal physical earthquake, Camping changed his story, but only very slightly. He claimed that the hypothesis was true (beginning of the end of the world on May 21) but that one of the supporting secondary assumptions was false (it was a spiritual judgement, not a physical one).

Camping has been interviewed, and he almost apologises on television. Now he says that the apocalypse is happening for sure on October 21.

There should be a fine for doing things like this, and I don’t think such a measure would do violence to a person’s right to free speech, or to the liberty of people to spend their finances in the way they want: In the same way that there are legal repercussions for yelling “fire” in a crowded building if there is no fire, maybe there should be legal repercussions for yelling “apocalypse” on a crowded planet if there is no rapture.

You can yell “fire” if you want and even pull the alarm, but if there is no fire, you should be ready to pay a hefty fine, and you should be ashamed of yourself. The firefighters could have been saving other people while they came to save you. People have been crushed in the panic caused by false fire alarms. Similarly, the money spent by this doomsday cult could have been used to actually save people’s lives, if given to charity or science, and many people’s lives were destroyed by Camping’s false prediction.

On the upside, no one euthanised their children or killed themselves in this doomsday craze (that I know of), but I bet that a bunch of dogs and cats were put down. (I realise this will hold little moral weight among Christians, who do not see animals as moral patients.) Further, millions of dollars were wasted, and perhaps most sadly, there were millions of people who honestly thought they were going to heaven, who even made plans for it, and who were disappointed. Harold Camping’s actions were, and continue to be irresponsible to the point of cruelty.

Edit (11.05.27):

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