Religious Orders

The Alternative Medicine Game!

Posted: Thursday August 29 2013 @ 6:52am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

A while back, we went to the Women in Secularism 2 conference and had a great time. The first session was about the vast wasteland of alternative medicine. Surly Amy talked about why alternative medicine can often appear to work at an anecdotal level. The thing is, if you're feeling like crap, random chance says you'll likely feel better the next day. People try cures when they're at extreme lows and then think the cure worked if they feel better the next day. But that can just be random chance. The technical jargon is Regression to the Mean.

I wanted to get a feel for how much of an effect there really is, so I made up a quick dice game. Don't worry, you don't need one of those 20-sided D&D jobs. A normal 6-sided die is fine.

The numbers 1-6 on the die represent how good you feel, with 1 being really good and 6 being really awful. Here's how the game is played:

  1. Roll the die.
  2. If you roll a 5 or a 6, you feel crappy enough to resort to alternative medicine.
  3. Roll the die again and see how you feel the next day, after the alternative medicine. If the number is higher than the previous roll, you feel worse. If the number is the same, you feel the same. If the number is lower, you feel better.
  4. Repeat until you have some good statistics or just get bored.

It should be immediately obvious that, if you rolled a 6 the first time, you won't be rolling an even bigger number the second time. Also plain to see is that there's only one roll to equal a 6, while there are five ways to roll a lower number.

The situation is similar when rolling a 5. There is a way to get worse on the second roll, namely by rolling a 6. There's one way to stay the same and four ways to get a lower number.

When you add up all the percentages, the probabilities about how you'll feel after resorting to alternative medicine look like this:

How You'll FeelIn FractionsAs Decimals
You'll feel worse1/128.3%
You'll feel the same2/1216.7%
You'll feel better9/1275%

As you can see, the odds drastically favor feeling better, despite the alternative medicine in this game not having any role in the outcome of the roll. Also keep in mind that feeling the same isn't any big prize. You started out feeling shitty and still feel shitty.

(As a check, I also wrote a short chunk of Perl to simulate the rolls. It confirmed the percentages.)

But wait, it gets worse!

What if we assume that the alternative medicine actually hurts you a little? To model that, we'll add 1 to the second roll. So, if you roll, say, a 3, we'll treat it as a 4. What to do when you roll a 6? Treat it as a 7, I guess? For this game, we'll just round anything bigger than a 6 to a 6. In the real world, a 7 would mean you die and your story is left untold. We could also just leave the 7 as a 7. The only effect would be to make the numbers even worse, shifting much of the feel the same outcome to feel worse. In general, I mentally group the feel-worse and feel-the-same together anyway.

Obviously, this twist is going to change the outcome and make it less likely to see fake improvement, right? Well, yeah, but just barely.

There's still no way to get worse after an initial 6, but now there are two ways to stay the same, rolling either a 5 or a 6. (Because the 5 will get 1 added to it.) Now there are only four ways to roll a lower number and feel better, namely rolling anything from 1 to 4.

The change is similar when rolling an initial 5. There are now two ways to get worse (5 & 6), one way to stay the same (4), and three ways to get better (1-3). Here are the resulting percentages:

How You'll FeelIn FractionsAs Decimals
You'll feel worse2/1216.7%
You'll feel the same3/1225%
You'll feel better7/1258.3%

Wait, what? Your chances of feeling better are still more than half, even if the so-called medicine actually makes you sicker? That's right!

Okay, so let's make the medicine even worse for you, by adding 2 to the second roll. I'll spare you the details and just show the resulting percentages:

How You'll FeelIn FractionsAs Decimals
You'll feel worse3/1225%
You'll feel the same4/1233.3%
You'll feel better5/1241.7%

Well, at least the chances you'll feel better are below 50% now. Yet feeling better is still the most likely outcome and feeling worse is the least likely. Although, again, feeling the same is no great prize when you already feel shitty. So, at this point, folks might start to doubt the validity of this harmful treatment.

Fine, fuck it, crank up the harm of the medicine to 3. We'll add 3 to the second roll. Given that it's half the range, that's really quite a lot. Here's what you get:

How You'll FeelIn FractionsAs Decimals
You'll feel worse4/1233.3%
You'll feel the same5/1241.7%
You'll feel better3/1225%

Finally, we're getting to where feeling better is the least likely outcome. Note that you're still most likely to feel the same, but that feeling the same level is basically feeling shitty.

If we make the medicine flat out poison and add 4 to the second roll:

How You'll FeelIn FractionsAs Decimals
You'll feel worse5/1241.7%
You'll feel the same6/1250%
You'll feel better1/128.3%

Adding 5 gives you a 50/50 chance of feeling the same or worse, based on whether the first roll was a 6 or 5.

So, that's why folks can be easily fooled into thinking that alternative medicine works. Now, real science has controls and procedures to take regression to the mean into account, as well as placebo effects, which we didn't talk about at all in this post. For more on this sort of stuff, give Trick or Treatment a read, even though it's not that great a read.

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In Love

Posted: Friday July 10 2009 @ 8:00pm

Religious Order: Science and Technology

I'm in love! With my wife, sure. But I'm talking about a piece of software.

A year ago, I was pondering a note-taking application I wanted to write. You can go read the whole post, but the gist was:

  1. Hyperlinked, wiki-ish note taking application.
  2. Keyboard navigation with overloading of the link creation and link following key bindings.
  3. Multi-word links. (No WikiWord requirements.)
  4. Loads of export options.
  5. Page stack display.
  6. Glossaries, where you could easily group things like people, organizations, projects, and the like.
  7. Aliases, so a page can have more than one phrase that creates a link. (Needed so that you could type either Tom Carlson or Carlson, Tom and still have either lead to the same page.)

I hadn't actually written a lick of code for it yet. But I was starting to consider Adobe AIR as a platform.

And then I saw VoodooPad! I had actually tried the program out a while ago, but hadn't really understood its power. (Or maybe that version didn't have as much power?) But, in any case, it covers pretty much everything above. By the numbers:

  1. That's exactly what it is.
  2. CMD-L creates or follows links. I added bindings so that Option-CMD-L selects a word at a time, making it really easy to highlight multiple words at a time and then quickly make a page for them. Has dedicated keys for transversing the stack, which works fine. Never have to touch the mouse!
  3. It does these. And smoothly now, too, due to the new key bindings.
  4. Exports as XML, HTML, RTF, Word, and plain text. It also can copy the files to your iPhone and display them there with a dedicated app. And the Pro version, which I bought, has an embedded web server. So you can share documents directly with others during a meeting as a web site, complete with searching. Super sweet!
  5. No stack display. I can live without that.
  6. It let's you assign keywords to pages. You can then create scripts that dynamically generate pages listing pages with certain keywords. And, in the Pro version, you can tie that generation to events. So, when I close out a document, the pages are generated and are ready for me the next time I load it up. I can kick off the generation manually as well. Making the keywords requires some pointing and clicking, though.
  7. It handles aliases exactly as I wanted, except that you do have to engage in pointing and clicking.

In addition to meeting nearly all of my requirements, it also provides functionality about which I didn't really think.

It has extensive scripting ability. I do wish there was more in the way of scripting documentation. There are plenty of sample scripts, but I've not found a real reference yet. It would be possible to create additional export options this way, as well as dynamically generate stuff. Loads of potential here.

While I really wanted just a textual note taker, VoodooPad provides plenty of formatting options. But, if you don't need 'em, ya don't gotta use 'em. It also let's you toss graphics in there. You can even quickly sketch a diagram.

It provides lists of recently viewed pages and of backlinks to the current page. And you can apply metadata to pages as name/value pairs. So you could assign priorities to different pages and then organize them via the scripting.

All in all, I'm really impressed.

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Fuck You, Apple!

Posted: Monday June 22 2009 @ 7:57am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

So, the iPhone OS version 3.0 is out. And it costs $9.95? Fuck you Apple!

Here's what you get:

  1. Buy movies, TV shows, and audiobooks via WiFi
  2. Stereo Bluetooth headphones
  3. Peer-to-peer gaming via Bluetooth
  4. Cut, Copy, and Paste
  5. Landscape keyboard in more built-in apps
  6. Spotlight search

Okay, let's look at this, bullet-by-bullet:

  1. Who cares? How often am I going to need to do this? Like, never? I don't download movies, I rip them from DVD. I don't watch much TV and what I do watch tends to be old TV shows, like the Mary Tyler Moore show, which I buy on DVD and then rip. And I don't listen to books. I read them.
  2. Can't use. First gens don't have Bluetooth.
  3. Ditto.
  4. Should have been in the OS from the start.
  5. Ditto.
  6. Who cares? How much actual data do you think is in one of these? On my desktop, cross-application searching is very useful. But on an 8 gig device? Not so much.

So, toting it up, we have 2 don't cares, 2 can't uses, and 2 features that should have been in the goddamn OS from the start. Again, fuck you Apple!

And the worst thing? I'm gonna have to buy it to get the 2 things that should have been there at the start.

I've realized that there are 2 Apple companies. One makes great computers with a great OS built on open standards. The other makes consumer devices and services that'll ram you up the ass at every opportunity!

(So, why do I have an iPod touch? Got it free with an iMac. I would not pay money for an iPod of any sort. And I don't buy a damn thing through iTunes. Damn kids! Git offa my lawn!)

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What the Hell is the Globe Thing?

Posted: Friday June 12 2009 @ 6:33pm

Religious Order: Science and Technology

Just what is that little globe on the left that replaced the out-of-date Wordle? It's a little flash thingie that tracks from where visitors come. Each time someone comes to this page and stays for more than 15 minutes, their IP address is converted to a geological location and marked on the globe with a red dot. If you click on the globe, you're taken to a different site that provides a bigger globe. Hovering over the red dots there will tell you more about the location.

It's a freebie service. I think they use it as a way to bring you to their site and then sell you related services. Or maybe they collect your locations for some nefarious purpose.

Here's a quick list of the countries, other than the US, from which visitors have arrived over the past 24 hours:

The How To Make Tea page has its own little globe. It doesn't get as many visitors and many never look at the blog itself. Here's a few countries more concerned with tea than sexy red-headed nuns:

Obviously, this blog doesn't get a ton of visitors. But I am genuinely amazed that people visit it from all these far-flung places.

I feel a bit silly about that. I set up my first web site in 1993. The global nature of the net shouldn't surprise me at all. Yet it still does.

But, what I really want to know is: Where's the Norwegian love? I hope this isn't because I declared War on Norway, twice.

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Just in case you needed another reason...

Posted: Thursday April 23 2009 @ 7:13am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

There are good reasons to not do business with Amazon. But just in case you needed it, here's another one.

Basically, if you buy something from a third party via Amazon, and their product sucks, and that third party vendor offers to bribe you with free stuff in order to get a better Amazon review from you, and you try and post that information in your review, Amazon will delete your review. Twice.

Amazon sucks. I know it's convenient. So is Walmart. But you must resist!

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What to Think About Amazon

Posted: Tuesday April 14 2009 @ 6:53am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

In case you haven't been reading the tech blogs, there's been an uproar over Amazon.

The problem is that gay-themed books started disappearing from search results and the Best Sellers list. (Well, gay-positive ones disappeared. Anti-gay hate mongering remained.) When one of the affected authors queried Amazon as to why, the response was that those books had been marked as 'adult' to avoid offending their overall customer base.

Well, that pissed me and a whole bunch of other people off. I had placed an order the night before, which I quickly cancelled.

Then, out came the explanations and excuses. The first explanation was by a hacker who claimed that he had hacked Amazon's customer-driven 'inappropriate' flagging mechanism to delist the books. In order to believe this explanation, one has to accept that Amazon, perhaps the world's biggest online retailer, doesn't have any monitoring in place to watch for abuses of customer-driven site aspects.

Amazon itself blamed it on a 'glitch.' Eventually, they expanded on the glitch, claiming that one of their employees had miscategorized a load of stuff on the French version of the Amazon site, which quickly propagated to all the other Amazon sites.

What? You mean to tell me that single Amazon employees can make wide-scale changes to the public Amazon site with no review or oversight. And, furthermore, that those changes will propagate across the entire Amazon universe, again without review or oversight? If that's true, I don't want these computer-illiterate morons touching my credit card number ever again.

I mean, holy crap, my half-assed blog posts don't go directly out on the net. Who the hell designs their web presence like this?

Basically, we're stuck with a choice between a company willing to hide some of its books in order to appease the intolerant portions of its customer base or a company that is utterly incompetent regarding web technologies.

In either case, it's not a company with which I'd like to continue doing business.

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Iz in your Internets, Stealin' yur Privacy!

Posted: Tuesday March 17 2009 @ 7:37am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

Just so you know, Google is tracking you. When you come to this site, there are goofy ads listed in the sidebars. Google once provided those ads based on the content of the site. Now, they're going to start tracking you by saving a cookie to your computer when you hit this site.

By doing this on every site using Google ads, they'll build up an idea of your interests and start modifying the ads to fit your interests.

I don't really know how I feel about this. I do make a couple hundred dollars a year on Google ads. But the main reason for the ads is to see what weird-ass ones pop up based on my asinine posts. If the ads start reflecting readers' interests rather than the content of the blog, then what's the point?

So, I'll ask my faithful readers, both of you, what should I do? Should I just kill the ads?

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Is Facebook Killing Personal Blogs?

Posted: Sunday March 08 2009 @ 5:39pm

Religious Order: Science and Technology

This has been bothering me. Once you start using Facebook, does that then cause you to pay less attention to your own personal blog? I'd hate for that to happen. Facebook is nice and all, but still gives you a fairly shallow view of a person. Certainly, it doesn't give you the sort of view that a personal blog can.

And I seem to be posting less once I started actually using Facebook. Anne, too.

But Facebook does have those neat social connection features. Certainly, none of the people from my High School class are going to happen across my blog.

Luckily, it turns out that Facebook claims you can have it import an external blog. You give it an RSS feed URL and it loads up the posts as separate notes in Facebook. It will also periodically check the feed for new posts, adding them as new Notes.

I imported this blog, for shits and giggles, and it seemed to work. We'll see if this new post eventually shows up as a Facebook Note. (It could take a few hours. They don't constantly ping blogs.)

The question left unanswered? How offended will old High School classmates be by my blog posts?

(Of course, I was a loud, opinionated, atheist asshole in High School, too.)

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I Hate U3

Posted: Sunday March 01 2009 @ 7:50pm

Religious Order: Science and Technology

What is U3, you ask? It's a code thingie that sits on a USB thumb drive and lets you run several different programs directly from the thumb drive. I hates it! I hates it!

Here's what's wrong:

1) There are plenty of better ways to run apps off of a thumb drive. Just Google portable apps to find a whole slew of them.

2) It runs whenever you plug the drive into a Windows-based computer. And that's just rude. It's also dangerous. Things should never auto-run when you plug something in, be it a thumb drive, a disc, or anything else. I know it's common on Windows, but it's one of the reasons that Windows is so damn insecure. (No, a Mac will not automatically run a program off of a disc or thumb drive. Neither will Linux. That's how you know you're using a real operating system.

3) It takes up room on the thumb drive. So, you may think, you can just delete the files. Nope! They're protected. So, maybe you can format the drive. Y'know, I tried that, on my Mac. It did get rid of the files, but there's a hidden partition. When I plugged my virgin thumb drive into a friend's PC, the damn thumb drive reloaded the files from the Internet. So, how do you get rid of the damn stuff? You have to get a program from the vendor that deletes the U3 crap. Of course, it's Windows only. So, you're kinda fucked if you're a pure Mac or Linux guy. Luckily, I'm not quite that pure. So I fired up VMWare and then fired up Windows 2000. And then I ran the program and cleaned the crap off my thumb drive.

So, why did I buy a thumb drive with U3 on it? Because it was 16 gigs for $25, which is a decent deal. That's why!

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Podcasts!

Posted: Monday February 16 2009 @ 8:30am

Religious Order: Science and Technology

I've been religiously walking 3 miles every day in an attempt to get my weight back down. (It had finally crept up enough to affect my blood sugar.) That leaves a nice 50 minute block of time open for listening to something. So I've been scouring iTunes for good podcasts. Here are some I've found:

MSNBC Countdown: Countdown is available in both audio and video forms. Keith Olbermann is obviously a bit of a dick. But his show is segmented into easily identifiable chunks which make it easy to scroll to what you like best. (In the video version, at least. I can't figure out how to move forward through an audio podcast.)

MSNBC Rachel Maddow: I like Rachel a butt-load more than I like Olbermann. But her show isn't as organized. It's really a case of either watch the whole show or just skip it. Often, I just skip it, particularly with the audio version. Which is too bad, because she's smart and funny.

Old Jews Telling Jokes: This one is a video-only podcast. And the video is high quality. That means that each minute of video takes up a decent chunk of disk space. Luckily, each episode is short. Each consists of an old jewish person telling a single joke. That's it. It's both incredibly funny and incredibly charming. I cherish each new episode.

The Onion Radio News: The Onion releases a daily short news item. Each one is less than two minutes. And each one is inevitably funny.

Pat Condell's Godless Comedy: If you're feeling like an angry atheist, then you'll love Pat Condell. He has a wonderful way with words. It's a combination of eloquence and bluntness. The man is extraordinarily quotable. If you're a person of faith, this probably isn't the podcast for you. Condell does occasionally qualify his remarkable rants as being directed towards those that push their religion on others, but his invective is painted with a large brush. Perhaps rightly so.

Point of Inquiry: This podcast is a series of interviews by skeptic magazine Free Inquiry. I've been an on and off subscriber to the magazine over the years.

The podcast is one of the better interview-oriented ones to which I've listened. The audio quality is always great. And they talk with a broad array of people. Sometimes that results in wonderful interviews. The ones with PZ Myers and with Neil deGrasse Tyson come to mind. Great talkers, both.

Sometimes, the interviews revolve around books. The interview with Guy Harrison was good enough to make me go out and buy his book. Similarly, the SciFi interview with Tom Flynn prompted me to buy some books. (Even if the guy's approach to Xmas is misguided.)

The host of the podcast is a guy named D.J. Grothe and he's quite good. He's really good at summarizing what his guests say. He's also good at playing devil's advocate. And he has a good knowledge of many areas, both in science and in atheism, so he can ask intelligent questions. (Unlike the science guy at NPR.)

One weakness I see is a hesitation to really point out when his guests are full of crap. Which is understandable, but still. In some cases, his guests have been so damaged by religion that they're unable to talk about it in an objective way. Two guests, Tawfik Hamid and Tory Christman, come to mind. Damaged by Islam and Scientology, respectively, they really can't step outside and talk objectively about either. Of course, part of their value as guests is their inside view of these religions. So that may be a necessary trade-off.

The only really bad interview I've heard so far was the one with a guy named Chris Hedges. He had written a book about how current atheists were just as bad as fundamentalists. Sure, that's a valid topic to pursue. But as the interview wore on, it was clear that this guy had based an entire book on the fact that Hitchens and Harris are hawks about the Middle East. He had absolutely no clue about the views of other atheists. He had absolutely no clue about other atheist issues. Nope. It was all about how Hitchens and Harris are hawks and how stupid that was and how they were fundamentalists about it and thus so were all atheists. Host Grothe mentioned how he himself was of an opposing viewpoint regarding the Middle East. But he wasn't able to get Hedges to see that the range of responses to the situations in the atheist community points to anything but fundamentalism. Then Grothe tried to bring in the views of atheists actually from the Middle East. But Hedges had worked as a war correspondent in those areas and actually said that his experience means that he doesn't have to listen to the views of anyone else. Honestly, that's what he said. Talk about fundamentalism!

Anyway, it's a good podcast. Except for the Hedges interview. That one blew goats.

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