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November 20th, 2014
09:12 am


Buttons at Philcon.
I'll be at Philcon, but just for the fun of it-- if you'd like to order buttons by Thursday night, I can deliver them.

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November 18th, 2014
12:13 am


A college course in alternate history

The class is exploring six scenarios.

1. The Internet does not come into existence between 1970-1990.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft does not die after the birth of her daughter but in fact lives into old age.
3. There is no “new imperialism” in the second half of the 19th Century, no rivalrous claims of colonial dominion by European nation-states over Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.
4. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton never duel.
5. Native American societies have robust resistance to Old World diseases at the time of contact with Europeans in the 15th Century.
6. There is no Balfour Declaration nor a Sykes-Picot Agreement and shared Arab-Jewish councils are successfully formed under the Mandate government in the 1920s.

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November 14th, 2014
12:17 am


Fiction about suddenly finding out one's past life was controlled
I recently read a couple of novels where the protagonist suddenly finds out that one of their parents controlled a tremendous amount of their past life. A great deal of what they thought was their own choice or happenstance was actually a fairly successful effort to manipulate them.

Since this is going to involve major plot points, I'm putting mention of specific stories under a cut. I'll just say that, of the two recent novels and two older short stories I can think of, the modern ones involve evil parents. One parent per character-- we don't get two parents conspiring to control a child.

The older ones are efforts to re-create a dead husband, and as I recall, one is presented as just plain creepy and the other is possibly benevolent.

What stories can you think of about that sort of control?

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November 11th, 2014
12:41 pm


How to stop Tolkien

This is a remarkable lecture from a Python conference-- it goes into some detail about the writing of The Hobbit and LOTR to talk about the importance of having a audience and the art of criticism, both of which apply to all sorts of writing, including computer programming.

I think the lecturer overestimates how well liberal arts classes teach criticism.

A little discussion of the lecture.

Link thanks to siderea.

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November 7th, 2014
10:07 pm


Funnier than the average politician
Obama has excellent comic timing (I wonder whether people who are strongly opposed to him notice this), but this guy (Vermin Supreme, running in New Hampshire) is better. He seems to be a Discordian.

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October 4th, 2014
11:40 am


What do people do when they do energy work?
In a recent conversation with a friend, it turned out that we do different things when we do grounding, and I suspect there's a lot of individual variation hidden under grounding, shielding, and the elements.

I'm not just talking about which element you ground to, though there's variation there, too.

I'm curious about the details. Let's take a look at grounding, just for an example. I ground by using the feeling of energy going into the ground beneath me. If I'm not on a ground floor, I may try imagining the that there's earth beneath the building, but I don't give the idea the amount of detail it deserves (what about basements? soil? bedrock?), and I can't say that it seems to help very much.

The kind of detail I'm interested in (which doesn't mean I expect anyone to address all these angles, and I expect that I haven't covered all the sorts of variation) is what senses do you use/imagine when you do energy work? If you're using methods which aren't based in your senses and can find any way to write about it, I'm definitely interested.

Back to grounding to earth.... Suppose you imagine a tree. Is it a sort of vague tree in general? That's pretty much what I do if someone is leading a tree visualization.? A particular type of tree? A specific tree that you've experienced? Or constructed?

Do you use ideas from science, or do you only build on your direct experience?

Do you have a conscious goal when you ground? Whether you do or not, how do you decide you're done enough?

The same sort of questions apply to shielding, with the addition of when and how you decide to shield.

Elements get a smidge more theoretical-- which elements do you use? Why? (I use the four Greek elements because they seem to be good enough. I'm certainly not demanding that everyone go on a quest to find the best elemental system, though I would definitely read a fantasy novel based on the premise.) Do you imagine one default for each, or include different modes like water, steam, vapor, and ice?

Does anyone use the chemical elements at all?

Possibly of interest: What Universal Experiences Have You Been Missing without Realizing It? A huge discussion of how different people are from each other-- it includes sensory, emotional, and sexual variation, and I recommend it highly. I believe giving attention to the fact that other people really are different from you and not just doing it to be annoying counts as a spiritual practice. And, of course, you're different from them, and not just doing it because you're fucking up.

Celestial Matters, a fantasy novel by Richard Garfinkel. The four Greek elements and Ptolomaic astronomy is true. So is feng shui. Greece (some centuries after the classical period and China are the superpowers. Unfortunately, while the Greek side is well worked out, the Chinese side is relatively sketchy. Still, quite a good novel. It has the minor virtue of being an alternate history novel which (so far as I know) doesn't have cute references to people from our time line who were born long after the divergence.

The wikipedia link pointed me at Inne pieśni, a novel on similar themes in Polish. It sounds very interesting, and I hope someone translates it.

The has been doing a series of programs about the chemical elements.

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September 19th, 2014
10:47 am


Suppose you wanted to find out what needs to be improved in a computer program.....
Perhaps I'm especially thinking about computer programs with user interfaces.

There's always introspection by the programmer. What's been annoying you? What do you think might please users? This has limits, partly because the programmer is just one person, and not necessarily much like anyone else, and in particular, may have differences from non-programmers in general. Also, sometimes people get used to annoyances.

I can think of two more approaches. One would be semantic-- looking for complaints (online, in company records, maybe in additional places) and having a program which looks for common themes. Or human beings could do this with their naked minds. I hope at least that much is being done.

Another would be to go over the records from the programs themselves, and see whether there are repetitious patterns (especially if there are errors) from the users. Something like this might already exist. Let me know.

Here's something that I haven't gotten used to. I enter my email address. I can't remember my password. I click on the can't remember your password link. I'm asked to enter my email address again. Why?

Any other approaches to finding out what could use improvement?

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September 17th, 2014
02:44 am


Difficulties with medical research
It Ain't Necessarily So: Why Much of the Medical Literature Is Wrong

Some of the material will be familiar, but there are examples I hadn't seen before of how really hard it is to be sure you've asked the right question and squeezed out the sources of error in the answer.

What follows is what I consider to be a good parts summary-- if you want more theory, you should read the article.
Consider a study published in the NEJM that showed an association between diabetes and pancreatic cancer.[3] The casual reader might conclude that diabetes causes pancreatic cancer. However, further analysis showed that much of the diabetes was of recent onset. The pancreatic cancer preceded the diabetes, and the cancer subsequently destroyed the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas. Therefore, this was not a case of diabetes causing pancreatic cancer but of pancreatic cancer causing the diabetes.
To illustrate the point, consider the ISIS-2 trial,[8] which showed reduced mortality in patients given aspirin after myocardial infarction. However, subgroup analyses identified some patients who did not benefit: those born under the astrological signs of Gemini and Libra; patients born under other zodiac signs derived a clear benefit with a P value < .00001.

I guessed at a seasonal effect, but Gemini and Libra aren't adjacent signs.
The frequency of these false-positive studies in the published literature can be estimated to some degree.[2] Consider a situation in which 10% of all hypotheses are actually true. Now consider that most studies have a type 1 error rate (the probability of claiming an association when none exists [ie, a false positive]) of 5% and a type 2 error rate (the probability of claiming there is no association when one actually exists [ie, a false negative)] of 20%, which are the standard error rates presumed by most clinical trials. This allows us to create the following 2x2 table.
I didn't realize that the false negative effect (not seeing a relationship when there actually is one) is higher than the false positive rate. This might mean that a lot of useful medical tools get eliminated before they'can be explored.

Also (credit given to Seth Roberts), if a minority of people respond very well to a treatment being tested, this is very unlikely to be explored because the experiment is structured to see whether the treatment is good for people in general (actually, people in general in the group being tested). This wasn't in the NEJM piece.
One classic example of selection bias occurred in 1981 with a NEJM study showing an association between coffee consumption and pancreatic cancer.[15] The selection bias occurred when the controls were recruited for the study. The control group had a high incidence of peptic ulcer disease, and so as not to worsen their symptoms, they drank little coffee. Thus, the association between coffee and cancer was artificially created because the control group was fundamentally different from the general population in terms of their coffee consumption. When the study was repeated with proper controls, no effect was seen.[16]
Information bias, as opposed to selection bias, occurs when there is a systematic error in how the data are collected or measured. Misclassification bias occurs when the measurement of an exposure or outcome is imperfect; for example, smokers who identify themselves as nonsmokers to investigators or individuals who systematically underreport their weight or overreport their height.[17] A special situation, known as recall bias, occurs when subjects with a disease are more likely to remember the exposure under investigation than controls. In the INTERPHONE study, which was designed to investigate the association between cell phones and brain tumors, a spot-check of mobile phone records for cases and controls showed that random recall errors were large for both groups with an overestimation among cases for more distant time periods.[18] Such differential recall could induce an association between cell phones and brain tumors even if none actually exists.
An interesting type of information bias is the ecological fallacy. The ecological fallacy is the mistaken belief that population-level exposures can be used to draw conclusions about individual patient risks.[4] A recent example of the ecological fallacy, was a tongue-in-cheek NEJM study by Messerli[19} showing that countries with high chocolate consumption won more Nobel prizes. The problem with country-level data is that countries don't eat chocolate, and countries don't win Nobel prizes. People eat chocolate, and people win Nobel prizes. This study, while amusing to read, did not establish the fundamental point that the individuals who won the Nobel prizes were the ones actually eating the chocolate.[20]

On the other hand, if you want to improve the odds of your children winning a Nobel, maybe you should move to a chocolate-eating country.
A 1996 study sought to compare laparoscopic vs open appendectomy for appendicitis.[29] The study worked well during the day, but at night the presence of the attending surgeon was required for the laparoscopic cases but not the open cases. Consequently, the on-call residents, who didn't like calling in their attendings, adopted a practice of holding the translucent study envelopes up to the light to see if the person was randomly assigned to open or laparoscopic surgery. When they found an envelope that allocated a patient to the open procedure (which would not require calling in the attending and would therefore save time), they opened that envelope and left the remaining laparoscopic envelopes for the following morning. Because cases operated on at night were presumably sicker than those that could wait until morning, the actions of the on-call team biased the results. Sicker cases preferentially got open surgery, making the outcomes of the open procedure look worse than they actually were.[30] So, though randomized trials are often thought of as the solution to confounding, if randomization is not handled properly, confounding can still occur. In this case, an opaque envelope would have solved the problem.

Remembering that humans aren't especially compliant is hard.

From reading Guinea Pig Zero: The Journal for Human Research Subjects-- human beings are not necessarily going to comply with onerous food regimes. I expect that most who don't simply don't want to, but the magazine had the argument of not wanting to comply because the someone who's a human research subject is never going to be able to afford treatment based on the results of the research.

Initial link thanks to Geek Press.

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02:18 am


I don't have much of an opinion about Scottish independence. I'm pulled between a feeling that it's good for people to get out from under authority and a suspicion that it's not that simple.

However, there's a relatively objective question available. David Cameron said " But if you leave the UK, – that will be forever.”

Suppose that Scotland leaves, and suppose that either an independent Scotland isn't so great or (less likely imho) the remaining UK becomes so wonderful that people are begging to join it.

How hard would it be for Scotland to come back?

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September 11th, 2014
02:14 pm


Quilt show vaguely near Philly next weekend
Quilt Show in Oaks, PA, Septenmber 19-22.

Would anyone like to get together there? Oaks is about an hour from Philly by mass transit.

I haven't been to one of their shows for years, but the structure back then was a huge display of varied and inventive quilts, generally practical quilts rather than art quilts, a big dealers area-- mostly quilting supplies, but also a few oddities like miniature sewing machines, and a context where a cloth manufacturer would supply a somewhat difficult cloth (I remember turquoise with orange accents) and challenge people to make something excellent with it.

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