Thursday, January 28, 2016

How to Make Online Spending More (In)Accessible

Extra Credits recently released this video:

In it, they discuss how the EU has recently passed some laws trying to protect children from predatory free-to-play games, and how children really aren't the big target of these games. For those of you not well versed in the game industry, free-to-play games are games which cost absolutely nothing to acquire - but you can spend money to unlock various upgrades, such as cosmetic changes, increases in power or greater options.

While responsible free-to-play games expect most of their players to spend a small amount of money on those items of most interest to them, predatory free-to-play games attempt to get players to spend thousands of dollars on their game. As you might expect, most children aren't able to spend thousands on one game. Most parents don't allow kids free access to their credit cards. Children playing free-to-play games - or doing any other activity involving online purchases - usually have to clear their purchases with a parent, who is usually not invested in the game and therefore not likely to spend more than they can afford on it. Sure, there are exceptions, but this is not the real danger from free-to-play games.

The real danger is what free-to-play does to adults with weak executive functions. Maybe people using a game to cope with a mental health issue, and therefore not putting the game in its' proper perspective, or people who have trouble understanding the value of money, or maybe just people who are impulsive and/or compulsive with most things they do. In other words, people like me - or like I would be, if I didn't know myself so well.

And it's not just free-to-play. All electronic purchases carry this risk. Electronic money isn't tangible. It's hard to get a visceral sense of how much - or how little - you have. If it's getting harder and harder to find the bills in my pocket, I know I'm running out of cash. But how can I get the same feedback from a card? With my bank card, I only know I'm out when I try to buy something and fail, which is why I prefer to pay cash instead.

With a credit card, you don't even get that much feedback - instead of declining a purchase when you run out, it'll just send you into debt. And by the time a credit card refuses to buy what you're trying to buy, you'll be hundreds of dollars in debt.

So, how can we protect people who have trouble monitoring how much they spend? By making it more tangible and inconvenient to spend money. On my iPhone, I don't have a payment method programmed in for the app store. I do this deliberately, so that if I accidentally or mistakenly choose an option that costs money, it'll throw up an error. The one time I decided to spend money on the app store, I got a pre-paid card - it can be used in place of a credit card, but has only a very limited amount of money and can't have money added to it.

I programmed it in, and bought the apps I wanted, running myself broke. Then, I decided to surf the app store for some more free apps, and was horrified. The app store had stopped telling me the prices of the apps, or even whether they cost money or not. I'd try to download an app and the first sign I got that it cost money was when it popped up an error because it had tried to buy itself and my card was out. It was also unexpectedly difficult to make my iPhone forget about the card and revert to thinking I had no payment method.

To make online spending more accessible for people with poor executive functions, we need to (ironically) make it less accessible. Every purchase should be a deliberate decision, and one requiring several steps. It should require you to transition from your current activity to do something else in order to purchase. It should be an annoying process. Not difficult, but annoying. And most of all, you should always, always, know exactly what purchases you're making and how much they cost.

Most companies are never going to do this of their own free will, of course. They want us to lose control of our spending. They want us to spend more than we can afford, to spend money on their product that we'd have otherwise spent on necessities or on building a brighter future. The fundamental truth about capitalism is that they don't really care about us. All that matters to them is lining their own pockets.

And so the only way that companies will do what I propose is if they're forced to.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Race Problem In Canada

I have heard horrifying stories from Americans about how badly black Americans are treated. I have heard of blacks being killed by police and vigilantes, and parents having to teach their black sons to be wary of the police. These stories have horrified me, and I've told myself 'at least Canada isn't like that'.

I have since realized how silly it was for me to say that.

Oh, sure, we don't treat blacks like that. We have very few blacks, and those few get met with very little prejudice overall. The most I've encountered myself is a bit of complaining about hard-to-write/pronounce African names (most Canadian blacks I know were born in Africa or have parents born in Africa, though we do have a few American blacks and Caribbean blacks as well). Plus, a Zambian friend of mine once worked with a senile woman who said she didn't want 'that nigger looking after her', apparently oblivious both to my friend's very dark skin and her obviously African accent. My friend seems to have found that more amusing than hurtful. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some racism against blacks here, but most Canadians probably don't have very strong feelings about black people.

Similarly, we don't have much discrimination against Hispanic people here. The only person I've met who is openly anti-Hispanic is an American with dual citizenship. I've met very few Hispanic people, and haven't heard any complaints about Canadian racism from them. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, of course, but I haven't heard of it. Some with strong accents might get annoyance from people who dislike or have trouble figuring out what they're saying, but even the anti-immigrant racism is mostly not directed at Hispanic immigrants (or African immigrants, or white immigrants). Our biggest immigrant population is Asian immigrants, and they're the ones I tend to heard anti-immigration complaints about. (You know, 'they're taking our jobs, they don't want to fit in, etc, etc').

Although they're rarer, Muslim and/or Arabic immigrants get treated even worse, because many people stereotype them as terrorists. Probably we do so less than in the US, because we didn't get any direct terrorist attacks, but there's been so much news coverage of 9/11 here that many people are pretty freaked out about it even now. Recently, we had our previous prime minister (Canadian version of president) try to win the election by pushing for banning hijabs in the civil service - despite no one actually working in the civil service who wore a hijab! Anti-hijab comments are pretty common, so my guess is women wearing hijabs get the worst of anti-Muslim attitudes, but I've also seen people treat people who look Arabic, have Arabic names or are speaking Arabic in a public place with fear. And, as an innocent kid curious about languages, I also saw a couple of Arabic speakers act apprehensive about telling me what language they'd just been speaking.

But the worst racism in Canada is directed at Aboriginal people. And here, we really see that Canada can be just as bad as the US.

In Saskatoon, we had what we called 'starlight tours'. Despite the innocent-sounding name, what this consisted of was police picking up Aboriginal people out late at night in the middle of winter and leaving them a few miles out of town, knowing that they had little chance of making it back before they froze to death. In some cases, they also stole clothing from the victims, such as shoes, greatly increasing the risk of freezing. When the bodies were found, of course, their deaths would be blamed on alcohol, but a few survivors and many people who'd last seen their loved ones being taken by police raised awareness. I don't know if these tours are still happening - the police insists they've stopped - but the fear is very much still alive.

There's also the 'stolen sisters', missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women whose deaths or disappearances have not gotten enough attention by investigators. Aboriginal women make up 10% of female homicide victims, but only 3% of Canadian women. One notorious case was the case of Robert Pickton in Vancouver, who murdered almost 50 women, mostly Aboriginal, while the police refused to investigate his farm. One of his victims even escaped and pressed charges, but the charges were dropped. There is probably another serial killer targeting Aboriginal women hitchhiking on what's been dubbed the 'highway of tears', a 720 kilometer stretch of Highway 16 in British Colombia. In addition, media coverage of missing Aboriginal women is generally much less than with missing White women.

I knew all of that. So why did I feel proud of Canada for 'not having the same issues' with racism as the US? It seems to be a form of Canadian denial. Rather than face what's wrong with our country, we just point to the US and say 'they're worse than us'. Granted, US is worse than Canada on many measures, such as education rates, infant mortality rates, and per capita violence, but that's not because Canada's a great country. It's because US does worse than pretty much every other 'developed' country on those measures, and even worse than some 'developing' countries on some measures.

Both Canada and US have higher infant mortality rates than Cuba, most of Europe, and large chunks of Asia. Between Canada and US on the rankings lie Greece (which has terrible debt), several Eastern European countries, and Guam. So both of us are rich countries whose standard of living is deplorable compared to similarly-prosperous countries. Just because we do better than the US doesn't mean we're doing well.

And in both countries, standard of living is strongly linked to ethnic background. My Zambian friend, who I mentioned earlier, once visited a reservation (reservations are all-Aboriginal community created by the government and given a special legal status) and said it reminded her of a Zambian village. Zambia is not a prosperous country - it's one of the many desperately poor African countries. This is not a flattering comparison. I have also visited a reservation once (I think my Dad was buying car parts from someone there), and the comparison was apt. It's like Port-au-Prince without the earthquake damage.

I also saw the link between race and poverty firsthand, in Saskatoon, Regina and Vancouver. In Saskatoon and Regina, the beggars in the street are almost all Aboriginal, and are clustered in neighborhoods where many Aboriginal people live. In Vancouver, walking along a single street, you can go through the poorest neighborhood in Vancouver (which appeared to be over 90% Aboriginal), through a Chinatown, and then into one of the richest neighborhoods in Vancouver (where I did not see a single non-white person). These are just the towns where I've personally seen race-poverty linkage - to my knowledge, it's a cross-Canada phenomenon.

And in both Canada and US, the statistics match these observations. Looking at infant mortality again, in the US, around 5 out of every 1,000 white, Hispanic and Asian infants die before their first birthdays, while 11 out of ever 1,000 black infants die, and 8 out of every 1,000 Aboriginal infants die. A black baby is therefore over twice as likely to die as a white baby. Even the white/Hispanic/Asian rates are higher than most developed countries (in Finland, for example, only 3 out of every 1,000 babies die).

In Canada, meanwhile, 6.4 out of every 1,000 Aboriginal babies die before their first year, compared to a national average of 5 out of 1,000 Canadian infants dying. While this is not nearly as dramatic as in the US, on average, 22% of Aboriginal babies who die would have survived if they were white. That study also confirms the comparison between reserves and 3rd world villages - 98% of houses in reserves lack adequate running water.

So let's not be too smug. We may be doing better than the US, but we're certainly not doing well.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Just Want to be a Mother, So Why Is That Breaking So Many 'Rules'?

I really don't think my desire to be a mother is so unusual. I kind of feel that what I'm feeling is basically what many women feel when they decide to stop taking birth control pills and start looking to have sex at that special time between two periods. I just want to have a little kid of my own, someone I can raise and be responsible for and feel that deep love and bond with. Someone who will carry something of who I am in their heart after I'm gone.

But somehow, to fulfil this simple desire, I keep finding myself breaking all the rules.

I'm a disabled woman. For some people, that in itself means I shouldn't be a parent. Worse yet, I'm autistic - a disability supposedly inherently linked to bad parenting. Even worse, I currently can't live independently or hold down a job, which means others (my parents) will have to pay the costs for me having a kid. For many people, the nature of my disability suggests I shouldn't be a parent.

To add to that, my disability is genetic. My biological child could very well inherit my autism, and some people feel that this should prevent me from having a biological child at all. Worse yet, the prospect of having an autistic child doesn't bother me in the slightest - in fact, I'd prefer that outcome, and would like to increase my chances of an autistic child. The idea of some parents preferring and seeking to produce disabled children is another thing many people condemn. And that's with deafness, a condition that, under the best circumstances, has much less impact on your abilities than autism does.

I'm also planning on being a single parent. Single motherhood is still seen as a suboptimal parenting arrangement, and to decide to do it willingly? Well, that's labelled 'irresponsible'. What's even more shocking, though I have no idea why, is the fact that I will be a virgin when I have my child. And the reason why? Not only am I asexual, but I'm also afraid of sex, which some people think means I can't form a proper bond with my child.

Furthermore, since I'm planning on artificial means to have a child, many people probably think that if I have a child it should be through adoption. The idea that, while I'd love to adopt, I also want a child with my genes, and that the desire to produce a biological child doesn't mean I think adopted children are any less valuable, doesn't make sense to many people. And unlike many infertile couples, unless they lift the ban on human cloning, my child will have a genetic connection to an absent parent, which some people thinks will doom them to identity problems. I am planning on finding a donor myself rather than going through a clinic (because sperm banks don't let openly autistic guys donate sperm), which some people think is a terrible idea. And if they did allow human cloning, then going that route would be considered highly narcissistic by certain people. So my only option for having a kid who won't grow up with genes from an absent parent is also 'breaking the rules'.

I fall into a dizzying variety of categories of 'people who shouldn't be having kids'. But despite all this, I know I can be a good mother, as long as I get the right kind of help. And yes, my desire to have a child is selfish, but really, has anyone ever conceived a child for non-selfish reasons?

I'll just ignore the nay-sayers and do what's right for me and the family I dream of having. And who knows? Maybe all of this will be good preparation for when I am a parent, and someone inevitably decides that my parenting isn't good enough. I'm sure my transgressions won't end once I get that positive pregnancy test - in fact, they'll only be beginning.