‘Boring and normal’: the new frontier of polyamorous parenting

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by Zosia Bielski

Sometimes Stephanie Weisner doesn’t know how two-parent families do it all, without a Mike in tow.

Weisner, 38, has been in a polyamorous relationship with her husband, Ian Hubbard, and her work colleague, Mike Wissink, for eight years. The three adults all live together in one home in Moncton, alongside Weisner and Hubbard’s two children, who are seven and nine years old.

The family keeps a joint e-mail account to sort out their household logistics. While Weisner and Wissink, 49, work shifts at their airline industry jobs, Hubbard, 47, home-schools the children. Wissink often cooks and cleans while Weisner does the groceries. All three pitch in with bedtimes and shuttling the kids to their various activities. This winter, the whole family’s going to Disney World.

“We’re very boring and normal,” said Weisner. “We’re not swinging from chandeliers.”

Sometimes somebody will ask me about my polyamorous relationships and they often have a preconception that Ruth, JTA and I’s lives are incredibly interesting and exciting (usually with the assumption on the side that we’re particularly sexually-adventurous). But like virtually any other decade-plus long relationship and especially with children in tow, we’re really quite ordinary and domestic. That there’s an additional adult around is basically the only thing that stands out, and we’re each individually far more-interesting and diverse than we are by the product of our romantic lifestyle.

This article pleased me somewhat because of the symmetries between us and the family depicted by it, but especially because they too seem to have to spend time reassuring other that they’re just regular folks, beneath it all. There’s a tendency to assume that if somebody’s a little different from you then everything else must be different too, and articles like this help to remind us that we’re all a lot more-alike than we are different. Even we weird polyamorous people.

Stranger Danger: Still the right message for children?

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by an author

Stranger Danger ad

Many parents remember the “Stranger Danger” message given to children during the 1970s and 80s. Government videos warned children not to talk to people they didn’t know. But a new message is being trialled in the UK, which its creators think is better at keeping children safe.

“I tried to get the [old] Stranger Danger message across to my son a few years ago and it backfired badly,” says Suzie Morgan, a primary school teacher who lives in Fareham, Hampshire.

He got frightened and confused, couldn’t sleep at night and was worried somebody was breaking into the house.

Like any parent she wanted to keep her child safe.

But she felt the Stranger Danger message she was teaching – which she herself had grown up with – was unhealthy for her six-year-old son, making him too afraid of the world.

“I didn’t know where else to go,” she says.

So she was hopeful when her son’s school piloted a new safety message. It’s called Clever Never Goes and was devised by the charity Action Against Abduction.

It aims to make children less afraid of the world, by giving them the confidence to make decisions about their own personal safety.

Morgan says it has given her son more freedom and independence.

Intermediary Protocols and Google Duplex

There’s a story that young network engineers are sometimes told to help them understand network stacks and/or the OSI model, and it goes something like this:

You overhear a conversation between two scientists on the subject of some topic relevant to thier field of interest. But as you listen more-closely, you realise that the scientists aren’t in the same place at all but are talking to one another over the telephone (presumably on speakerphone, given that you can hear them both, I guess). As you pay more attention still, you realise that it isn’t the scientists on the phone call at all but their translators: each scientist speaks to their translator in the scientist’s own language, and the translators are translating what they say into a neutral language shared with the other translator who translate it into the language spoken by the other scientist. Ultimately, the two scientists are communicating with one another, but they’re doing so via a “stack” at their end which only needs to be conceptually the same as the “stack” at the other end as far up as the step-below-them (the “first link” in their communication, with the translator). Below this point, they’re entrusting the lower protocols (the languages, the telephone system, etc.), in which they have no interest, to handle the nitty-gritty on their behalf.

The OSI model reflected using the "scientists conversation" metaphor. Based upon original art by Yuki Fujimura, used under a Creative Commons License.
The two scientists are able to communicate with one another, but that communication is not direct.

This kind of delegation to shared intermediary protocols is common in networking and telecommunications. The reason relates to opportunity cost, or – for those of you who are Discworld fans – the Sam Vimes’ “Boots” Theory. Obviously an efficiency could be gained here if all scientists learned a lingua franca, a universal shared second language for their purposes… but most-often, we’re looking for a short-term solution to solve a problem today, and the short-term solution is to find a work-around that fits with what we’ve already got: in the case above, that’s translators who share a common language. For any given pair of people communicating, it’s more-efficient to use a translator, even though solving the global problem might be better accomplished by a universal second language (perhaps Esperanto, for valid if Eurocentric reasons!).

1950s illustration of "driverless cars of the future". The car follows a series of electronic markers down the middle of the highway.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of a self-driving car was already well-established… but the proposed mechanism for action was quite different to that which we see today.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to communications, though. Consider self-driving cars. If you look back to autonomous vehicle designs of the 1950s (because yes, we’ve been talking about how cool self-driving cars would be for a long, long time), they’re distinctly different from the ideas we see today. Futurism of the 1950s focussed on adapting the roads themselves to make them more-suitable for self-driving vehicles, typically by implanting magnets or electronics into the road surface itself or by installing radio beacons alongside highways to allow the car to understand its position and surroundings. The modern approach, on the other hand, sees self-driving cars use LiDAR and/or digital cameras to survey their surroundings and complex computer hardware to interpret the data.

This difference isn’t just a matter of the available technology (although technological developments cetainly inspired the new approach): it’s a fundamentally-different outlook! Early proposals for self-driving cars aimed to overhaul the infrastructure of the road network: a “big solution” on the scale of teaching everybody a shared second language. But nowadays we instead say “let’s leave the roads as they are and teach cars to understand them in the same way that people do.” The “big solution” is too big, too hard, and asking everybody to chip in a little towards outfitting every road with a standardised machine-readable marking is a harder idea to swallow than just asking each person who wants to become an early adopter of self-driving technology to pay a lot to implement a more-complex solution that works on the roads we already have.

LiDAR unit on a Google Self-Driving Car
In real life, these things spin much faster.

This week, Google showed off Duplex, a technology that they claim can perform the same kind of delegated-integration for our existing telephone lives. Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that this is clearly going to be overhyped and focus on the theoretical potential of this technology, which (even if it’s not truly possible today) is probably inevitable as chatbot technology improves: what does this mean for us? Instead of calling up the hairdresser to make an appointment, Google claim, you’ll be able to ask Google Assistant to do it for you. The robot will call the hairdresser and make an appointment on your behalf, presumably being mindful of your availability (which it knows, thanks to your calendar) and travel distance. Effectively, Google Assistant becomes your personal concierge, making all of those boring phone calls so that you don’t have to. Personally, I’d be more than happy to outsource to a computer every time I’ve had to sit in a telephone queue, giving the machine a summary of my query and asking it to start going through a summary of it to the human agent at the other end while I make my way back to the phone. There are obviously ethical considerations here too: I don’t like being hounded by robot callers and so I wouldn’t want to inflict that upon service providers… and I genuinely don’t know if it’s better or worse if they can’t tell whether they’re talking to a machine or not.

Process of having Google Assistant order a pizza, by phone, on your behalf.
I, for one, welcome our pizza-ordering overlords.

But ignoring the technology and the hype and the ethics, there’s still another question that this kind of technology raises for me: what will our society look like when this kind of technology is widely-available? As chatbots become increasingly human-like, smarter, and cheaper, what kinds of ways can we expect to interact with them and with one another? By the time I’m able to ask my digital concierge to order me a pizza (safe in the knowledge that it knows what I like and will ask me if it’s unsure, has my credit card details, and is happy to make decisions about special offers on my behalf where it has a high degree of confidence), we’ll probably already be at a point at which my local takeaway also has a chatbot on-staff, answering queries by Internet and telephone. So in the end, my chatbot will talk to their chatbot… in English… and work it out between the two of them.

Let that sink in for a moment: because we’ve a tendency to solve small problems often rather than big problems rarely and we’ve an affinity for backwards-compatibility, we will probably reach the point within the lifetimes of people alive today that a human might ask a chatbot to call another chatbot: a colossally-inefficient way to exchange information built by installments on that which came before. If you’re still skeptical that the technology could evolve this way, I’d urge you to take a look at how the technologies underpinning the Internet work and you’ll see that this is exactly the kind of evolution we already see in our communications technology: everything gets stacked on top of a popular existing protocol, even if it’s not-quite the right tool for the job, because it makes one fewer problem to solve today.

Hacky solutions on top of hacky solutions work: the most believable thing about Max Headroom’s appearance in Ready Player One (the book, not the film: the latter presumably couldn’t get the rights to the character) as a digital assistant was the versatility of his conversational interface.

A man and a woman look at a laptop screen in a cafe/bar.
“See? My laptop says we should hook up.”

By the time we’re talking about a “digital concierge” that knows you better than anyone, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be acting on your behalf in other matters. Perhaps in the future your assistant, imbued with intimate knowledge about your needs and interests and empowered to negotiate on your behalf, will be sent out on virtual “dates” with other people’s assistants! Only if it and the other assistant agree that their owners would probably get along, it’ll suggest that you and the other human meet in the real world. Or you could have your virtual assistant go job-hunting for you, keeping an eye out for positions you might be interested in and applying on your behalf… after contacting the employer to ask the kinds of questions that it anticipates that you’d like to know: about compensation, work/life balance, training and advancement opportunities, or whatever it thinks matter to you.

We quickly find ourselves colliding with ethical questions again, of course: is it okay that those who have access to more-sophisticated digital assistants will have an advantage? Should a robot be required to identify itself as a robot when acting on behalf of a human? I don’t have the answers.

But one thing I think we can say, based on our history of putting hacky solutions atop our existing ways of working and the direction in which digital assistants are headed, is that voice interfaces are going to dominate chatbot development a while… even where the machines end up talking to one another!

Tory Momentum clone Activate at war as ‘hackers’ back Jacob Rees-Mogg for PM | Politics | The Guardian

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It’s the grassroots political movement whose launch nobody could envy. Now, social media channels for Activate, the centre-right attempt to emulate Momentum’s youth appeal, appear to be at war with each other over backing for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be Britain’s next prime minister.

On Twitter, the @ActivateBritain account has tweeted a string of anti-Theresa May images and issued an “official statement” endorsing the MP for North East Somerset as the next Conservative leader…

A hacker stole $31M of Ether – how it happened and what it means for Ethereum

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Yesterday, a hacker pulled off the second biggest heist in the history of digital currencies.

Around 12:00 PST, an unknown attacker exploited a critical flaw in the Parity multi-signature wallet on the Ethereum network, draining three massive wallets of over $31,000,000 worth of Ether in a matter of minutes. Given a couple more hours, the hacker could’ve made off with over $180,000,000 from vulnerable wallets.

But someone stopped them…

Hacker figure among code

Tory MP ‘told schoolgirl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence’ | The Independent

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James Heappey MP

A Tory MP told a girl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence if a second referendum was triggered.

James Heappey’s outburst came as he addressed sixth-formers at the £12,000-a-year Millfield School in Somerset…

Oxford University fundraising reaches £2bn [x-post /r/unitedkingdom]

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A University of Oxford campaign to raise funds for teaching and research has raised £2bn, it has been announced.

The institution began raising money towards new scholarships, academic posts, programmes, buildings and facilities in August 2004.

The sum stands at £2,012,571,521 but the university has now set itself a new target of £3bn.

Vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton called the milestone “an outstanding achievement”.

The campaign has been touted as the biggest money-raising project in European university history.

Quakers: The Faith Forgotten In Its Hometown [BBC News]

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It was the faith of two US presidents and several prominent UK industrialists, yet the origins of the Quaker religion are little known today by people living in the English town where it began. However, a new heritage trail targeting the American tourist market is aiming to change that.

In 1647, George Fox, a cobbler, was walking past a church in the East Midlands when he received what he described as a message from God.

The son of a Leicestershire church warden, he had spent years wandering around an England torn apart by civil war and increasingly disaffected with the establishment church.

The vision of Christianity he received outside the church in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was deeply radical – God was within everyone and there was no need for priests.

Within a few years, he was preaching to large crowds – and provoking the persecution of the authorities who felt threatened by his anti-priesthood agenda.

“He was fed up with preachers and professionals setting standards, leaving out the poorest people,” said Ralph Holt, a historian.

“He couldn’t see how someone could go to college and get a certificate and come back somewhere between this land and God.”

TIL that “Lawnchair” Larry Walters, who flew to 16,000 feet using weather balloons tied to a lawn chair in 1982, shot himself eleven years later.

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by an author

LARRY WALTERS FOUND FAME AT 16.000 feet. On July 2,1982, the 33-year-old truck driver rigged 42 helium-filled weather balloons to a Sears lawn chair in San Pedro, Calif., and, as friends looked on in wondrous support, lifted off. The sight of Walters floating in the sky shocked pilots, who radioed perplexed local air-traffic controllers. Walters returned to Earth by using a pellet gun to shoot out some of the balloons and landed safely about 10 miles away in Long Beach. The 45-minute stunt earned him an appearance on The Tonight Show as well as a spot in a Timex watch ad, after which he quit his job to deliver motivational speeches. “People ask me if I had a death wish,” he said. “I tell them no, it was something I had to do.”

But the attention didn’t bring enduring happiness. Walters and his girlfriend of 15 years, who had helped him pay for his adventure, ended their relationship. His speaking career fizzled, and he worked only sporadically as a security guard. He sought solace by reading the Bible and walking in the San Gabriel Mountains, where he worked as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service. “It seemed like Larry came to the mountains because he was disappointed with the way his life was going,” says his friend Joyce Rios, a fellow volunteer ranger.

On Oct. 6, unable to deal with the world he had briefly delighted, Walters, 44, hiked to a favorite spot in the Angeles National Forest and ended his life with a single bullet through the heart. His mother, Hazel Dunham, did not disclose his death until Nov. 22. Although Walters did not write a suicide note, he had left a Bible with several passages marked at Dunham’s house in Mission Viejo, just before his death. Among them was John 16:32: “Indeed the hour is coming…each to his own, and will leave me alone. And yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.”

People

Just One Q

When Claire and I changed our surnames to the letter Q, six and a quarter years ago, I was pretty sure that we were the only “Q”s in the world. Ah Q‘s name is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet; Stacey Q is a stage name that she doesn’t use outside of her work (she uses Swain in general); Suzi Q‘s “Q” is short for Quatro (perhaps popularised because of the similarly-named song, which came out when she was aged 7; Maggie Q‘s “Q” is short for Quigley (she finds that her full name is almost impossible for her fans in East Asia to pronounce); and both Q and Q are fictional. We were reasonably sure that we were the only two people in the world with our surname, and that was fine by us.

Q from James Bond.
Fictional, as much as we love them.

After Claire and I split up, in 2009, we both kept our new names. In my case, the name felt like it was “mine”, and represented me better than my birth name anyway. Plus, I’d really gotten to enjoy having a full name that’s only four letters long: when my poly-tribe-mates Ruth and JTA (each of whom have almost 30 letters in their full names!) were filling out mortgage application forms recently, I was able to get through the pages I had to fill significantly faster than either of them. There are perks to a short name.

Q from Star Trek.
Also fictional. But we’re less-upset about that.

I can’t say why Claire kept her new name, but I’m guessing that some of our reasons overlap. I’m also guessing that laziness played a part in her decision: it took her many months to finally get around to telling everybody she’d changed her name the first time around! And while I’ve tried to make it possible to change your name easily when I launched freedeedpoll.org.uk, there’s still at least a little letter-writing involved.

Now, though, it looks like I may soon become the only Q in the world:

@Poobar: She said yes! We are going to be the Drs Carter :-) @Eskoala: @poobar proposed (and I said yes!) so we are engaged! :D

Personally, I thought that after she passed her PhD she’d have even more reason to be called “Q”. I mean: “Dr. Q”: how cool is that? It sounds like a Bond villain or something. But on the other hand: if she wants to downgrade to an everyday name like “Carter” then, well, I guess that’s up to her. I shan’t blame them for not opting to hyphenate, though: “Carter-Q” sounds like a brand of ear bud.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter
It’s not like there was ever anybody famous called “Carter”. Except for this guy, I suppose. But he was more of a “brave politician in the face of international crises” character than a “Bond villain” character. Not fictional.

Seriously, though: good for them. If those crazy kids feel that marriage is for them, then I wish them the best of luck. And let’s face it, we’re approaching a bit of a lull in this run of all-of-our-friends-getting-married, so it’ll be nice to have an excuse for yet another wedding and a fabulous party (I’m jumping to conclusions and assuming that they’re going to invite me, especially after this blog post!).

Jimmy and Claire.
Aww. It’s a sweet photo, but somebody should probably buy them a tripod as a wedding present: it’s hard to keep the horizon level in an arms-length selfie.

In other name-related news, look out for me in the Money section of tomorrow’s Guardian, where I’ll be talking about deeds poll, as part of their series of articles on scammy websites. I always knew that it was only a matter of time before my photo appeared in a national newspaper: I guess I should just be thankful that it’s for something I’ve done right, rather than for something I’ve done wrong!

Update: Here’s the online version of the Guardian Money article.

TIL that more than 1 in every 365 people die on their birthday, and nobody’s sure why

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by an author

A study by Swiss researchers has generated a startling statistic – you are 14% more likely to die on your birthday than on any other day of the year. But why should that be?

As the researchers put it, “birthdays… appear to end up in a lethal way more frequently than expected .”

This is not a joke. The study was carried out by legitimate scientists who analysed data from 2.5 million deaths in Switzerland between 1969 and 2008.

There are a number of hypotheses which may explain the finding.

Perhaps some people close to death “hang on” until their birthday, to reach another milestone? Or perhaps a significant number of people take greater risks on their birthdays, like driving home from their own parties drunk?

But Professor David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from Cambridge University, says the Swiss data does not support the “hanging on” theory.

“They don’t find any dip before so there’s no holding on,” he says, “and they don’t find any blip after, so there’s no jumping the gun. It’s purely a birthday effect.”

The Swiss data, he says, suggests “something on your birthday kills you”.

BBC News