Category Archives: Day in the Life

My first time being censored

I’m not terribly active on the “public” Internet. I have my blog, which I suspect is mostly read by my friends and a few seekers of Python knowledge. I belong to a forum here or comment on a favorite blog there. I use Facebook quite a bit to keep up with friends and pass things I’ve found among my social circle. I just don’t bother much with public discussions since they seem to devolve into nonsense and I just don’t see the point in playing that game. I don’t even allow comments on this blog since I don’t see the need to host other people’s idiocy or vitriol. About the only place you’d find me with any sort of regularity is reddit, but even that is sporadic.

I’m even a fairly quiet skeptic, preferring to share what I’m learning with those around me rather than engaging in public text-based shouting matches. The events of this past weekend started out that way: an old friend of mine from massage school, Sam, posted a link to that erroniously claimed that home birth was proven as safe as hospital birth. Since many medical studies are badly reported, I checked the article.

I immediately recognized the study from the University of BC in Canada. I’d already read it, and it had been similarly misrepresented elsewhere. It’s not that the study’s conclusions are false, it’s that they are narrow. Home birth has similar infant mortality rates only in Canada where a single type of certification exists: the Nurse Midwife. This is a college-educated position with clinic hours, lots of training, and a great deal of time spent doing both hospital and home births. They’re full-on nurses. That’s not the case in the US where we have several different types of midwives, some with surprisingly little training (and potentially zero clinic hours). The Skeptical OB is where I’d seen the study before, and she covers it well. The bottom line is that these lesser trained midwives have an infant mortality rate triple that of the highly trained Canadian midwives.

So it’s fair to say that the result isn’t intended to be assumed in the general case, right? I recognized the over-zealous rhetoric of someone who really wants to believe that all things natural are automatically better. The author on was calling herself the “natural parenting examiner”, so that’s to be expected. But it doesn’t excuse misreporting a study, especially since the original authors specifically warn against over-generalizing the result beyond its intended scope.

So I commented. I asked her to cite her sources (she had not linked, a clue that she might be getting her information third-hand). I provided a link to the Skeptical OB coverage. I was polite and brief.

But then curiosity got the best of me. Having spent a considerable amount of time reading all sides of various health issues, I suspected I was reading the work of another enthusiastic but careless advocate. So I clicked on her bio and found this:

Katie Drinkard is a self-proclaimed natural parenting guru who has done extensive research on natural pregnancy and parenting. Katie presents vital information in a personal manner while providing the latest research on natural parenting topics – ranging from birth through the childhood years.

Right. Well, that’s not exactly a stellar CV. Lack of formal training certainly doesn’t make one wrong (remember, I’m a software engineer commenting on health issues), but dropping words like “guru” has always unnerved me. I already suspected what I was going to find when I clicked on her other articles, but I had to be sure.

Naturally, one title that jumped out at me was “Swine Flu vaccine contains diseased flesh of African Monkeys”. No, I’m not kidding, she actually wrote this. Surely she was just being hyperbolic! Nope. Another predictive sense was tingling in my brain as I read this gem of a final paragraph:

Scientists create the Swine Flu vaccine (and other vaccines) by injecting monkeys with the virus and allowing the disease to take over. Later, the monkey is then killed and its diseased organs are used to make the ingredients of vaccines given to the public.

Oh, the stupid, it burns! I just knew this sort of wrong-headed nonsense could only come from a single source: Mike Adams at Natural News. Sure enough, in seconds I’d found his article making the same bogus claim.

What makes it bogus? In the process of seeking the “truth” in the text of a vaccine patent, Mr. Adams (not a doctor in any sense) inferred from the line “producing said virus using a cell line isolated from the kidney of an African Green Monkey” that there must exist a warehouse of angry, sick monkeys being fed into a meat grinder. Well, that’s not the case. Anyone who has spent more than an hour actually trying to understand vaccines will key on the words “cell line” and know that they’re referring to some laboratory-grade line of perpetually grown cells that can be used as a growth medium. Sure enough, again within seconds, I’d found that there is a widely used line named “Vero” that was isolated from African Green Monkey kidney epithelial cells way back in 1962.

So I made my way back to the article and assured the author that there was no monkey holocaust. I quickly pointed out how she was in error, and provided an explanation of cell lines and how they’re used. Four or five sentences and I was done.

A day later, both of my comments were gone. They appear to have been deleted. Granted, there is no way I can prove this to anyone since I don’t have access to the site’s history or databases. I can, however, say that Ms. Drinkard did update her birthing post using the link I provided. I suppose that’s something, but she didn’t correct or clarify anything.

I’m disappointed.

Not a good start

This is going to be one of those days.  I decided to install a python package called Plex that we use in a few places.  It looked like a coworker was misusing it a little, so I wanted to understand more.  I took a quick look at the tarball contents and was instantly annoyed.

[[email protected] tmp]$ tar tzf Plex-1.1.5.tar.gz
[ Bunch of stuff scrolls off]

What jumps out at me is the damn ._ files everywhere. Crud, the author did this on a Mac, which in certain cases (and versions of tar) will include these annoying extra empty files. No big deal, it’s just annoying. Maybe I’ll talk to the maintainer later and have him fix it.

Let’s get on with it and get this baby installed:

[[email protected] tmp]$ tar xzf Plex-1.1.5.tar.gz
[[email protected] tmp]$ cd Plex-1.1.5.tar.gz

Wait, what the hell? Why did tab-completion give me the tarball again? Oh, damnit! While being distracted and annoyed with the OSX dot-underscore files, I failed to notice that this tarball doesn’t have a top level container directory! Argh, it has just spewed files all over instead of being neatly contained. No big deal, I’m in my ~/tmp directory so I probably didn’t over-write anything important. Time to clean things up:

[[email protected] tmp]$ tar tzf Plex-1.1.5.tar.gz | xargs rm
rm: cannot remove `./._Iconr': No such file or directory
rm: cannot remove `Iconr': No such file or directory
rm: cannot remove `Plex/': Is a directory
rm: cannot remove `doc/': Is a directory
rm: cannot remove `examples/': Is a directory
rm: cannot remove `tests/': Is a directory

Bah, I could have used rm -rf, but I didn’t want to trash the whole examples or doc directories in case I had one not created by this package. Let’s just clean up the last bits one by one.

[[email protected] tmp]$ rmdir ._Icon^M

What did tab-completion just do with… facepalm! The tarball contained a directory with a carriage-return in the name! Time to fire up emacs dired to finish cleaning up.

That was one troublesome tarball. It can only get better from here, right?

I am America

This is really starting to piss me off, and there’s nobody better to make a funny joke out of the frustration I feel than John Stewart:

I live in a big city, and I have American values, not these illusory and somehow superior small town values. Hell, I grew up in a small city, so I guess I’m some sort of mutt; do I still count? Who am I?

I am America. I pay my taxes. I believe in equality for all. I hope for peace. I work hard doing a white-collar job at a company that produces a product that the world buys. I have my hard earned money in the flailing stock market. I love my family with my whole heart. I voice both my agreement and my dissent. I would take up arms and fight to the death to defend our freedom. I lend a helping hand. I cram my brain with knowledge and then share it. I give blood. I install CFLs and recycle. I check on my friend’s cats when she’s away. I practice critical thinking. I vote.

I am America so please, please stop implying that the cleanliness of my fingernails, my geographic location, or how I conscientiously cast my vote makes me anything else.

Now, to wind down: I am drinking a beer!

Abusing Calvin

The false evolution debate is one thing I have a hard time ignoring. I call it “false” because there really is no debate: evolution happened. Yet there are people out there that continue to make a lot of noise and push a disturbing pseudo-scientific religious agenda in order to protect their theologically and intellectually bankrupt world views. The depth of their misunderstanding of both science and religion is often staggering to me. They truly don’t understand either and make some of the most stunning logical errors I’ve ever seen.

But now it’s gone too far. I was raised in a Christian Reformed Church by loving parents and a supportive community. I then attended Calvin College, named for one of the key figures in the denomination’s theological history, John Calvin. So old Johnny has some significance in my history. Earlier this week I noticed that the morons at Answers in Genesis have cited the book art in Calvin’s commentary on Genesis as proof that man walked the earth with dinosaurs (they didn’t). That’s right, they claim an ornate drawing as scientific proof to contradict the massive amounts of hard evidence in the fossil record. The author is clearly delusional.

I can’t understand how a person could write about dragons without understanding that they have been a part of mythic lore for centuries? How could he be so ignorant of the mundane explanation for their appearance (storytellers often create bigger scarier versions of real things we’re already scared of as villains)? And how could assert that a lovely drawing is anything more than it is? All this does is show ignorance.

Calvin was a smart guy trying to answer difficult theological questions. Leave him out of your shallow, ignorant, lazy ravings.

TAM6: Reflections

Alright, it’s been far too long since my last TAM6 post, and I never wrapped things up. I really enjoyed my time in Vegas, although I didn’t meet as many people as I had hoped. I chatted with quite a few, but never really connected with them. I also found that the “lunatic fringe” exists among skeptics just as with any other group. Every once in a while I’d run into people that were a little too certain that they had it all figured out and that skepticism and science were the only way to view the world, “damn the rest.” That’s just silly and condescending. The majority, however, were fun and smart people.

The speakers were pretty much what I expected: the famous people had their message together and presented well (although I got the feeling Shermer was presenting an early draft). The rest either did a decent job or failed catastrophically. Seriously, people: show up with the right version of your slides, and resist the urge to stand there and read them to the audience word-for-word.

At this point I’d call myself 50/50 for going next year. I really loved some of the content, and was left flat by other parts of it. Frankly, the core work of Mr. Randi himself has become a bit boring to me. I don’t care as much about debunking “woo-woo” nonsense like astrology, ghosts, or faith healing (though the Sylvia Browne write-up that came after TAM6 is fairly brilliant). I get much more jazzed and happy about actual progressive science and discovery than I do about using science to battle people who are fundamentally unscientific; it’s a nearly pointless and always frustrating argument. I may look for another conference to go to that is more “pure science”, but we’ll see.

TAM6: Starting the second day

I’m sitting at a table awaiting the beginning of the second full day of presentations. Yesterday was really neat and I’m still pondering the heavy-science presentation by PZ Meyers. He simply blew my mind with a brief introduction to molecular biology and the way a particular experiment mapped a genetic growth factor between bats and mice, creating mice with forelimbs that were 6% longer. The power and subtlety of such discoveries is staggering to me.

I think I’m going to start looking for pure science conferences and talks to go to. It’s the discovery that really excites me, and I want more! Hopefully I’ll get more of that today with the likes of Phil hitting the stage.

TAM6: P&T answer questions

Penn and Teller kinda took the easy route and just did a fairly short Q&A session. The most surprising part was, of course, Teller’s voice. For some reason I assumed he’d have a smaller more typical voice, but it is quite rich and radio-worthy. The typical questions were asked, with a few bits of “dance, monkey, dance” silly baiting. Those questions always remind me of “An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder” which is badly marred by people trying to get Mr. Smith to simply repeat the performances on the first DVD.

Someone did ask a good question about Penn’s own “gris gris” which I think he answered well. Even skeptics must admit that we see parts of our world through biased eyes and continue to hold on to ideals or priorities that may not be perfect. We must be skeptical of ourselves lest we become myopic.

They finished their session by screening a short film called “The Cold Reader”, which plays right into the central themes that Randi has pursued throughout his debunking career. It was a very enjoyable portrayal of a psychic scam artist working a couple of his clients. It was fun to see a dramatized first-person treatment of that world. I was also struck by the potential of such a medium, making the practice of psychic readings seem terribly absurd but doing so without resorting to any sort of plain, logical argument. Drama is, in some ways and to some people, a far more effective way of making a point.

Now the auction is over and I’ve been refueled with free coffee. Next up is the brilliant PZ Meyers. Hopefully his laptop is all set up and ready. Yes, even in a room full of this many geeks, there are still presentation problems (both with the projectors and the preparation of the speakers).

TAM6: After first presentations

I’m here in Vegas for TAM6, which is rolling along now. The first day was just a few cocktails and paid sessions (which I skipped), but now we’re into the swing of the normal sessions and presentation. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, billed as the keynote speaker, was fantastic. Speaking in a much more informal fashion than his usual presentations, he provided a lot of comedy and commentary on viewing the world as a scientist, especially in the presence of conspiratorial (UFOs and the like) and plain bad thought processes. He, being a publicly known scientist, gets to hear a lot of the same dumb questions over and over again. He punctuated his talk with a cosmologist’s view of our place in the universe.

It really is a stunning place that we take in this huge expanse, isn’t it?

Penn & Teller, now starting their presentation…

Update: I forgot to mention that I spent this session sitting next to a quiet young man that, after a little conversation, I discovered was none other than Captain Disillusion!

Dethklok concert canceled due to fire. Brutal.

Mitch and I headed over to the Fillmore tonight to catch Dethklok, the most brutal band in (animated) metal. When we got there, I saw people getting pushed out of the door instead of going in, and the line wasn’t moving. Only a few minutes later, about six fire trucks showed up, including two ladder trucks! Apparently there was a small fire in an upper room during the first few songs of the opening band.

Not long later Mitch noticed that an upstairs light previously visible through a window had gone out. I looked, and the outdoor signs were also off: they’d cut power to the building. The two ladder trucks raised their booms up to the roof and sent a few firemen up to check things about. It was about then that I figured the night was doomed. Once the power was killed, it seemed unlikely that we would be seeing a performance.

The crowd huddled on the sidewalks and passed information about who had seen what. We speculated regarding our chances. Overall, the crowd was in a decent mood and comedic relief came when someone started waving at us from the roof of an adjacent building. With characteristic brutality the chant arose, “Jump! Jump! Jump!”

After about forty minutes, as the cold wind whipped through largely t-shirt-clad mob, word started filtering back: the bouncers had announced that the concert was off. For the most part, the crowd reacted by being a little upset and bummed, but rolling with it as most people do when there’s nothing that can be done. There was a fire! The concert wasn’t going to happen unless the owners were sure it could be done safely. A couple metal-heads started getting pissed off and yelling at the staff, but were met with scores of rolling eyes that said en masse, “Dude, chill. You were here to see a cartoon band.”

The crowd got their parting comedic shot in by joining in a futile chorus of “Free shit! Free shit!”, hoping in vain for schwag.

Oh well, time to check TicketMaster and get my money back. I’m bummed I didn’t get to rock out tonight; it would’ve been fun.

Rhapsody Redux

Support is frustrating. On-line chat support goes beyond that into the realm of “infuriating” by using even less equipped employees who are given little or no training and a click driven interface for providing robotic responses that are at their best ingenuous or, at their worst, simply insulting. Rhapsody, which I love but am frequently frustrated with, uses this means of support for their web service (the only way I can use their service on my work Mac). I was feeling punchy after their player plugin, which seems to suffer frequent problems, was keeping me from repeatedly playing the songs I need to learn in order to further my Rock Band career.

After my first session was interrupted by the instructions of the support person (clearing cookies, of course, destroys the cookie the chat application depends on), I was in a poor mood. As is my tendency, I drifted toward sarcastic and cynical. So, I present to you the following complete chat log with only three minor modifications. First, I removed the email account information I use to log in. Second, I changed the named of the support engineer to “Eliza” to protect the innocent. And third, I reordered two lines so that it reads more easily (Eliza was very quick with the automated platitudes).

Eliza: Hello. Welcome to Real’s Live Chat. How can I help you?
Kyle: First: make a note to your colleagues that “Clear Private Data” isn’t a very good answer for troubleshooting browser problems, since it disconnects the chat
Kyle: Second, I still cannot log into Rhapsody online
Eliza: I’m listening. Please go ahead.
Eliza: Am I correct in understanding that you are having problem in sign in to the
Kyle: Correct
Kyle: email/password combo works fine to log into my account details via “My Account” on
Eliza: Sure I can help you in providing the information regarding this issue.
Eliza: Please give me a couple of minutes while I check your account.
Kyle: And thank you for the dehumanizing and demoralizing use of canned, pasted responses identical to the last support person. It makes me feel like a unique and beautiful flower.
Eliza: Thanks for your time and patience.
Eliza: I could see an active Rhapsody Unlimited subscription under this email address: REDACTED
Kyle: Correct
Kyle: … though “Unlimited” seems to be a misnomer given the frequency of authentication problems.
Eliza: Now can you please let me know what is the error message you get when you try to sign in
Kyle: “There was a problem logging you in. Please check your username and password and try again.”
Eliza: Now can you please let me know the what is the web browser you are using to sign to the Rhapsody com?
Kyle: Firefox 3 on a Mac, RhapsodyPlayerEngine 1.1.0
Eliza: May I know the version of Windows (98, ME, XP, 2000) that you are using?
Kyle: No. Because I don’t run Windows on my Mac.
Kyle: It runs Mac OSX 10.5.3
Eliza: Thanks for the information.
Eliza: Now in order to resolve this problem I suggest you to perform this below listed steps.
Eliza: Please follow the steps for uninstalling & installing Rhapsody online in Mac operating system:

  • Open up your Main HDD (Where OSX is Installed)
  • Find and open up the “Library” folder
  • Then open the folder “Internet Plug-Ins”
  • In this folder, locate the file “RhapsodyPlayerEngine.plugin” and drag this file to the trash
  • Once this file is deleted, please visit again and click on sign in to download the plug-in again.

Eliza: Are we in progress?
Kyle: Yes. And it’s working as well as my last experiences installing the plugin.
Eliza: Great! I’m glad it worked.
Kyle: Don’t get too excited there, Eliza.
Kyle: My last experience were not “good”.
Eliza: I see.
Kyle: I shall now restart Firefox, since your guys’ plugin seem to the the only .xpi packaged plugin that silently fails during install
Eliza: Yes.
Kyle: But restarting things several times will often do the trick. It’s a very sad user experience, and great motivation for me to cancel my account.
Kyle: I shall leave you now, to solve the problems of other people.
Eliza: Now can you please try to sign the account and check.
Kyle: And hope that someone in Rhapsody operations finally notices the giant blinking red light that says “authentication is hosed”.
Kyle: Thank you Eliza, it has been robotic and unfruitful. Have a great day!
Eliza: You are welcome.
Eliza: Is there anything else that I can help you with today?
Kyle: Certainly not.
You have disconnected.

Thanks, Eliza. I know you tried. It’s your boss’s fault for providing you with bad tools and no information. Having reinstalled, restarted, rebooted and sacrificed a chicken I am again listening to music. There’s no way for me to tell if I solved a problem or if the time I wasted allowed them to fix a problem on their side. But, if history teaches me anything, I’ll get more data in a few weeks when this happens again.