Saturday, 26 May 2007

Friday, 25 May 2007

By the magical power of woo, I diagnose thee!

This is a craic. If you need a good laugh in your day, go and visit the Woo World Self Treater.
Apparently, my "persistent vague cognitive fatigue" is the result of "Cerebellar Developmental Delay" and should be treated by cupping with the spirit of a burnt skull. And here I thought it was lack of sleep and a slight case of dehydration and should be treated by drinking a litre of water and getting an early night.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

One seriously broken software function

Formatting in Microsoft Word. I mean it. It's fucked. I am currently trying to fix (read: Make consistent) the formatting in a multi-page document with multiple footnotes. And until ten minutes ago there was a formatting style available to me called "Footnote Reference". And then it disappeared. From the sidebar, from the drop-down, from the "All available styles" option, from the "All available formatting" option. And I can't get it back. And when I select an existing footnote it tells me lies, I tell you, lies about it. Like, it's 12 point. Instead of the 6 point it is in real life. Or 8. I'm not sure. I can't tell because it won't tell me.

How to ruin your personal productivity

Find a website that contains all Dilbert strips for the past year.

A scarily worthless warning

Stumbled upon the recipe for OpenCola, courtesy of reddit. And noticed something that first made me laugh, then made me laugh even harder.

In the ingredients:
0.50 tsp caffeine (optional. use caution)"

In the instructions:
"Caffeine can be toxic in high doses. Be careful not to add too much to your mixture, and do not ingest large quantities."

I'm sorry, caffeine is optional? And you want to warn me about putting in too much? And not to ingest it in large doses?

I ask you: Who is going to care about something like OpenCola? Geeks. Mums and creative people and the like may make cola from a recipe book but something called OpenCola? Geeks.

What is a defining point of geek culture? Caffeine. Coffee, Jolt, Joules, Penguin mints, even tea, you name it, there is a geek who depends upon it with the fanatical devotion and need of a heroine junky. And here they are posting a recipe for cola which says "Be careful not to add too much."

Good luck, is all I can say. Good luck.

Cool toys: The evidence mounts

I have said that PDA-phones are the way to go, and more people are agreeing with me. I love it. I can't fault anything. Being able to write on a tablet PC is all very well, but if I want to write or draw on a computer, I'll get a Wacom tablet.

Now all I have to do is wait for it to be built, introduced to Australia, and superseded by something both better and cheaper.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Risk homeostasis: How simple! How obvious! How... worrying

"Risk Homeostasis". I encountered the concept today when glancing at a helmet usage thread on a motorbike website. The thread itself was, to put it mildly, worrying. Without trying very hard I spotted people using personal anecdotes as proofs, gut feelings as proofs, cherry picking, ignoring alternative explanations which didn't fit their conclusions... You name it. And that was without looking at the articles they referenced.

You and I both know, dear reader, that statistics can be made to prove anything, and so can research papers. The trick, in the absence of personal in-depth knowledge of the issues involved or an expert you are prepared to trust, is to read between the lines, spot weasel words, evaluate what you have got the time and access and care factor to read, and make your decisions based upon informed understanding of the scientific/mathematical/psychological/(insert your specialisation here) principles at work.

For a start, and just as an aside, the phrase "intelligent people can surely see..." should make you run screaming. It usually means "people who agree with me." It's like praising a woman's intelligence as a pick-up line, in the hopes they won't try and prove you wrong by walking away. It's cheap, inherently nasty and says really bad things about your personality, not to mention your skills at debating.

Risk Homeostasis was referenced in this thread as, well, a godlike theory. So I had to look it up on the wiki. And I can see why it's popular: It's controversial enough to appeal to people who distrust the establishment or indications of nanny-statery, it's simple enough to understand and it seems clear, and clean, and passes the sniff test for "sounds okay". And that's deeply, deeply worrying because it's incomplete and horribly misleading and probably, in fact definitely, dangerous when put into the hands of those with a barrow to push. It's not so much wrong as... well, it's not even wrong, to quote a greater thinker than myself.

Risk homeostasis, for those of you who haven't encountered this before, is the psychological theory that people adjust their behaviour to suit a perceived level of risk at which that individual is comfortable, and that increased safety measures reduce the perceived level of risk, so risk-taking behaviour is increased until the same, acceptable level of risk is achieved again. Think about your own behaviour, about what you would do if your car had the seat belts removed, or if people around you are driving riskily, or if the floor is slippery, and you can see that it more or less works. Funnily enough, your brain takes in danger cues from the environment and enacts self-protective measures accordingly. But I get ahead of myself.

It argues that seat belts and crumple zones, airbags and ABS brakes don't change road trauma statistics because people rely on them and drive more dangerously. It argues that accident statistics in skydiving are remarkably stable because improved safety gear leads to increased risk-taking because it's now feasible. It's a cost-benefit economic type of theory. It's also, incidentally, a theory of unconscious behavioural change, so don't complain that you don't make that decision: That's not the point. Most of human behaviour is unconscious, at least on some level.

And Wilde, the ex-pat Dutch psychologist who created this theory, is extensively published and does a lot of research. Which brings to mind the faint echo of "methinks he doth protest too much".

Critiques of the theory have been published for a long time, and even a simple Google search will lead you to some very nice ones, so I won't bother to discuss them. Instead, I'll look at what holes I can poke without doing research (dangerous, I know).

Where it raises my hackles is threefold:

Firstly, my study in psychology brought me to the conclusion, based upon continual presentation of evidence, that neat, simple theories that attempt to explain broad swathes of anything psychology are invariably incomplete. True in some instances, possibly. Part of the solution, possibly. But everything? Anybody who is prepared to accept a simple explanation for anything as complex as "risk-taking behaviour" in humans in general probably hasn't understood the whole picture. This theory is like attempting to reduce evolution to the statement "that which survives to breed, survives to breed." Yes, but... Look at the issue of safety devices in cars leading to increased risk-taking behaviour. If we consider seat belts and airbags, stating that people are more likely to take greater risks assumes that people are willing to accept crashing because they're more likely to survive it. Really? Crash my nice brand new BMW with Automatic Stability Control and 7 air-bags? No way! What, I ask, about the increased capabilities (engine, suspension, tyres, brakes) of newer cars with increased safety features without an additional increase in driver ability?

Secondly, behavioural: Wilde argues that penalties don't change behaviour because they don't necessarily change perceptions of risk. This is not so much wrong as useless. There are less controversial, more constructive, better supported and ultimately more useful theories of human behaviour which explain why punishment does not enact lasting behavioural change, why spoon-feeding people information does not enact lasting behavioural change and why the only thing which does enact lasting behavioural change is motivation. If a person can't see a reason why they, personally, should change their behaviour there is habit, there is defiance of external authority, there are various self-talk cognitive explanations for why nothing will change unless (by defiance or contrariness) the change is opposite to the desired direction. Give them a motivation, and change will be pursued. External rewards (money, goods, privileges, expressions of love) can be a motivation, if the reward outweighs the inconvenience. Internal rewards (satisfaction, relief, happiness) can work as well, for the same reasons. Not wanting to go to gaol after the next arrest is a motivation. More money is a motivation. Wanting to keep your licence is a motivation. Not losing your current relationship is a motivation. The key theories of Applied Behavioural Analysis and Positive Behavioural Support (which really are god-like theories for management of challenging behaviours in those with behavioural issues and/or cognitive deficits) work on exactly that principle, and work with phenomenal success. Risk homeostasis adds almost nothing to this debate. It's a bit like string-theory in that respect.

The third reason is: It muddies the waters. Lets look at motorbike helmets: Opponents say that if you don't wear a helmet, you're a safer rider. Fair enough. Safer enough? Doubtful. And unfortunately, the evidence is against you. But is this really relevant? Waving aside for a moment the apparent willingness to crash (see above), no amount of safe riding can avoid crashes absolutely. I shan't name names, but one particular anti-helmet proponent who is also, even more worryingly, of the belief that a full-face can break your neck (short rebuttal: If an impact to your helmet will break your neck, the same impact to your chin will break your neck and your chin), has written in national magazines of instances where caravans or truck batteries have become detached from vehicles in front of him. This is outside your control, only your reaction to it is in your control. Therefore, you may crash. And when you crash, you are probably going to hit your head. And when you hit your unprotected head, you are going to at the very least get minor concussion, but you stand a much greater risk of a serious, innately incurable brain-injury. From a public health, disability services, national economy perspective the effect of helmets upon the accident rate pales into insignificance when compared to the effect of helmets upon the serious injury and long-term disability rates. And if you crash without wearing a helmet that's your choice, mate, but if you expect my tax dollars to pay for your $150,000/year (AUD) care costs you bring me into the equation, and I won't be happy at all.

I challenge you to look for more examples of risk homeostasis being raised in debate, and see why. I suspect it'll be in defence of a position which the facts make shaky or, alternatively, won't be of much benefit to the debate.

I welcome critiques, criticisms, advice and evidence. Swear at me and I'll probably discount everything else you say. Raise a point I've already dealt with without rebutting my rebuttal, and I probably won't even bother answering.

America is allegedly becoming more like NAZI Germany. Or...

I am, for reasons of an idle grab at my bookshelf, re-reading Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe (if you haven't read any of Tom Sharpe, you're missing one of the funniest English satirists of the past century if not longer: Visit the Tom Sharpe Bookshelf for downloadable versions). His first novel, written in 1971, it was set in South Africa where had moved from his native England to do social work in 1951 until he was deported in 1961 (according to Wikipedia, anyway. Frustratingly, the wiki doesn't say why he was deported, which may help explain the book).

I am assuming that his depiction of the legal landscape is fairly accurate.

A chapter in, I started to see some resemblances to the political landscape of a certain large north-American country with an active Internet population:

There is a Terrorism Act. Under its powers, the police have the right to arrest someone and detain them indefinitely, without access to legal representation or any Habeas Corpus provision to challenge the detention before a magistrate. Sound familiar? Plus, under the Terrorism Act, it is "guilty until proven innocent" and the responsibility of the detainee to prove their innocence. Without access to legal representation.

The government had the power to prevent contact between individuals. Control orders?

They also had racial segregation which extended to different ambulance services, which I don't think has been re-introduced in America yet.

Frightened, paranoid, suspicious, hate-filled regimes really are the same the world over.

Games people play in hospital

Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. The Wii has now moved from a cool idea with implementation issues (for fucks sake Nintendo, you build a device designed to be waved around energetically and you attach cables to it?) to a cool idea that gets my whole-hearted, enthusiastic endorsement. Plus, I want to find out what happens when the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit here in Brisbane puts in an order for a gross of game consoles :)

Games people play: If I squash the bin, I can fit more in

Pretty much everyone's been guilty of this, but there are degrees and degrees and almost brobdingnagian lengths to which people will go to prevent emptying a bin, particularly if it's messy and involves a bag. As the person at work who empties the shredder bin probably more often than most, this is often a cause of wry amusement as well as annoyance. When the bin in the kitchen won't accept coffee grounds and prevents me from refilling the percolator for a fresh batch, it moves into the realm of outright rage-inducing hysteria.

Where it gets really entertaining, however, is the sensor in the shredder that stops it working if the bin gets too full. The quick solution is to squash the bin enough to finish your document. Why it gets entertaining is the number of times I've walked into the room and found something sticking out of the shredder because it was inserted and then left. I swear, if this was a malicious workplace I could have ammunition on half my colleagues by now.

What to teach in schools redux

This is fantastic.I wonder what Edward de Bono is doing these days?

Monday, 21 May 2007

If you're strong on facts, pound the facts. If you don't have any, pound the lectern...

I have just written a post in which I discussed the call-a-spade-a-spade trend of modern medical practice (replacing "oncology" with "cancer care") and finished this this paraphrasing of a Larry Niven piece of advice for writers:

"If you have nothing to say, use whatever language you want to. If you have something to say, let nothing, nothing, stand in the way of saying it."

And then I stumbled upon this from the always entertaining and informative Denialism Blog. It's fantastic. With a word of caution for those who would forget that language can be beautiful as well as informative, it's a list that should be engraved upon the frontal cortices of writers everywhere.


I have noticed a very interesting trend lately. In the world of medicine, where words like "proven" and "certainty" tend to be of particular importance, there is a trend to call a spade a spade. "Oncology" is now "cancer care". Paediatric wards are now children's wards. And psychiatry is mental health care, which is ironic considering that what we are caring for is mental ill-health.

In the community services, where "Social Role Valorisation" is considered to be not only a worthwhile theory but the preferred theory and is an integral part of the training packages, there is a move towards brain-rotting verbiage. A key, very public example of this is the patronising spelling "disAbility". There is a publication called "InAbility PosAbility" which only makes matters worse.

At my work we recently received a manifesto from an organisation which, with a stated aim of "improving communication" within the sector, decided to set out what communication was, and was not, allowed.

I give you fair warning that if I am ever injured badly enough to result in a disability, and retain the cognitive faculties to have a relatively unchanged personality, memory and intellect, I will punch you in the face if you use any of those "acceptable" terms within earshot of me. Or bite your kneecaps off, or something. Whatever will be necessary to prevent your mealy-mouthed platitudinous mumblings.

And, in a great, massive, ironic twist of fate, Disability Services Queensland, an organisation which can rightly be charged with not knowing what it's own right hand is doing while looking at it intently, put out a publication and poster called "A way with words: Guidelines for the portrayal of people with a disability." In it, there is a list of terms to avoid. Much of it is for clarity ("seizure" instead of "fit, attack, spell") or for a "love the sinner, hate the sin" type of separation of person from condition ("person with epilepsy" instead of "epileptic"), which I support by the way, but then there came this beautiful piece of clear-speak:

Avoid "physically challenged, intellectually challenged, vertically challenged, differently abled" because "These are ridiculous euphemisms for disability." Use, instead, "Person with a disability." When I read that I didn't know whether to laugh or cheer. (Incidentally, "differently abled" how? Having a third eye is differently abled. Having no eyes is disabled. You can't get around that.)

One of the very few things I like about science-fiction writer Larry Niven, a man of pedestrian lyrical talent and a disturbing anti-environmentalism, is that he once wrote a list of "rules for writers" in which he included the following (and I paraphrase, because I don't have it in front of me): "If you have nothing to say, use whatever language you want to. If you have something to say, let nothing, nothing, stand in the way of saying it." Amen.

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