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Facebook dump

I learned that one can do a download of all Facebook activity into html files. “Great!” I thought, “I’ve been wanting to find some way to extract all that history and move it to my own space!” There’s a dozen years of personal history there. Some of it is trivial ephemera, but in some cases I put substantial time and effort into creating content for the entertainment of my friends and family. I’d like to have that content someplace that I have more control over.

So, I followed the instructions and downloaded my entire Facebook history. Only to discover that the result is a single html document for every post I ever made. Within that document are reference statements pointing to photos.

It’s not in any sort of format that I can easily upload here, unfortunately, so it’ll be a post-by-post sort of process which could take quite some time. I guess my (very few) readers will just get these little flashes from the past from time to time as I go.

And, well, the enormous single html document isn’t entirely helpful. If I open the document in a browser, the photos don’t show up. If I try to open the document in something on my own machine (like Word), the software asks for separate permission for each. and. every. photo. referenced in the file. Which quickly became unwieldy for my entire history. Or even for a year.

So I experimented and found that it’s not too impossible to deal with a month’s worth of content at a time. I guess I’ll have to make a checklist so I can keep up with what’s been done and what hasn’t, download a month at a time, and then go through and manually transform content into posts here. It’s do-able, if slow.

Anyway, that’s why there will be old posts about Scrappy, travel, and more appearing here in the not-to-distant future… Just so you know.


Braindump: Preparing for a hurricane

We live in hurricane country, and OF COURSE there’s a storm headed in our direction because 2020.

I can’t really even get that excited about it. It’s not sure to hit us, and besides, it’s not currently expected to be a BIG hurricane – category 3 is possible but 1 or 2 is more likely.

That said, I looked at the news this morning and thought “I suppose I OUGHT to do something to prepare for this”. With a heavy sigh. So, I decided to make a checklist of things to be done in case it starts looking like a real hit. This is a “keep it simple stupid” list. The rule of thumb in general is – only deal with that which is irreplaceable or would be impossible to replace when needed in a post-storm city.

  1. Prepare for the storm itself: During a storm, the risks are high winds (including local tornadoes) and possible flooding.
    • High winds (including tornado)
      • Bring in all plants, furniture, plant supplies from front porch and both balconies.
      • Close and tape down plantation shutters where possible.
      • (next level of competence) look over house, think about any items which would be exposed if a window broke and would be very sad to lose, such as hand-made quilts or paintings. Remove those to safer location if possible.
      • (very ambitious) Look at whether it’s worth screwing in any larger pieces of wood over unprotected windows on balconies, first floor.
    • High water – protect things on ground floor including garage
      • Have a plan for retreating upstairs (to 3rd floor bath?) if flooding occurs.
      • (somewhat ambitious) Lift things off of floor-level storage
      • (more ambitious) solo cups under feet of 1st floor furniture?
    • Cozy riding out the storm – space away from windows and ideally on lower floor – so 1st floor bedroom, retreat to bathroom and closet if things get tense (eg tornado warning). So, everything should be stored in the bathroom or bathroom closet, in case we end up there. But could be in main bedroom most of the time, and should have a plan to retreat again upstairs if high waters.
      • Close and tape down plantation shutters (better than nothing)
      • Close and lock gate
      • Prepare for cats (beds, boxes, food, water)
      • Put some chairs, a small table, and some cat amenities in the bathroom and closet for tornado retreat.
      • snacks
      • flashlights and spare batteries; battery-powered radio
      • items for entertainment if power goes out – puzzle books, deck of cards, paper/pencil, books.
    • Possible evacuation – during storm, evacuation would mean scurrying to the closest safe space. Would need go-bag(s) with minimum supplies in the ride-out room:
      • cat bags x 3, each packed with a day’s supply of cat food.
      • backpack apiece containing wallets, phones, laptops, ipads, backup drive for big mac, paper and pen,
  2. Prepare for the aftermath
    • Power outages
      • Make sure car gas tank is full.
      • Charge up backup batteries for iphones
      • Grab supply of flashlights and batteries
      • Lay in supply of non-perishable food
    • Water outages
      • Fill all available containers with clean water – store on/in fridge, freezer, countertops
      • Make sure travel water pumps are accessible

Recycled scratching post

Once upon a time I had a house with lots of scratching surfaces that the cats liked, and furniture upholstered in things they don’t find so appealing. Then we had a flood which managed to destroy all the scratching posts and upholstered furniture. And the cats were unsettled by the abrupt uprooting to a new home. All of which meant that the replacement furniture got shredded pretty quickly.

So, our future includes a project to replace or recover some upholstered furniture. But before doing that, I want to provide some good scratching surfaces that the cats will prefer, to shift their habits away from the furniture before there is nice new furniture to destroy.

Since we are doing lots of shopping online, there is a steady supply of cardboard in the house. So I sat down with a straight edge, x-acto knife, and cutting mat and turned a box into two-inch strips. Rolled them, securing the roll with glue (basic white glue, with dots of hot glue to hold things in place while the white glue dried). And tucked the final thing inside a round cat toy.

I think it looks pretty nice; we will see whether it attracts anyone’s claws!

Musing on deferred pleasure

Thoughts today about self-indulgence, risk, and personality:

When I was a kid, we generally only ate out on special occasions. As an adult, I have patronized restaurants far more frequently, but there remains an air of self-indulgence about it; I’m aware that I’m doing something that I like to do, not something I need to do.

Which might be why I’m perfectly comfortable with shifting to a lifestyle where restaurants are a source of take-out and delivery, not a place to actually sit and eat the food. And why I watch, a little baffled, as so many people appear eager to risk eating at restaurants. Sure, it’s important to support those businesses, but one can do that with takeout and delivery.

There are public encounters that I’m willing to risk, because they’re things I feel I can’t live without. Like going to the doctor or dentist. Finding some way to acquire groceries and household supplies (though we’re doing mostly curbside pickup these days, since the ICUs went to phase 2). If something breaks, I recognize I’ll need to either deal with repair folks or risk shopping for tools and materials to fix things.

I’m not sure how long my capacity for “right now, it’s a better idea to defer doing things that are fun but not necessary” is; I’m confident it’s longer than six months. I survived seven years of med school and residency, so I guess my record for self-control extends at least that long.

I recognize that everyone has to make their own analyses and choices, so I’m not posting this as a way of telling other people what to do, or even suggesting that my choices are the right ones for everyone else. I’m just documenting the way my mind works, and noting how it’s evidently different than other people in some ways.

Religion and education

A friend who teaches at a small, private, Christian school made the comment that he felt that Christian schools are considered to be academically inferior to nonreligious private schools. The thought was interesting so I replied at some length; my reply is below.

I haven’t made any sort of study of it, but my impression is that he is right about the relative reputation of Christian versus private schools (as a general rule – there are a few exceptions). Which me wonder – if there’s any truth to it, why is that?

It could be budget, or ways that the budget is allocated. I’d assume most schools focus their budgets and efforts on the things that their paying customers (the parents, really) most want. Parents paying for private school might be perceived as more focused on top quality education, while parents paying for religious school might prioritize religious environment more highly than academics.

It could be something about admission criteria. A school associated with a church might be inclined to take more or all students from that church, regardless of academic ability. A private school with a strong reputation has the ability to accept only the most academically fit candidates.

Or wealthy legacies… it could be that Private schools can tap into non-academic assets like successful, wealthy alumni more than Christian schools.

Or, perhaps it’s something about how the political and religious beliefs affect breadth of education. The same friend has made comments about having to consider his curriculum carefully so as to make sure it’s acceptable to the parents and administrators at your school. Which suggests that some level of restriction of content is clearly happening. As another example, Baylor College of Medicine (one of my alma maters) chose to break off its connection with the Baptist Church early on, because they found that the religious restrictions were making it impossible for them to provide a comprehensive medical education.

Or, philosophically, at a fundamental level, maybe a religious school communicates that the most important quality is faith – unquestioning belief in a higher authority. Meanwhile, the most rigorous academic settings I’ve experienced have emphasized “think for yourself and question everyone, even the authorities”. Perhaps that distinction is associated with a real difference in higher-level academic performance.

Or, y’know, maybe this country that has a large Christian majority and a very visible Christian grip on everything from electoral politics to corporate leadership… maybe it actually has a super sekrit pervasive conspiracy to systematically discriminate against active Christians. You can decide if that’s the most likely explanation…

Happy endings and adapting to change

At some point during my college years, I happened across some tickets to a performance of “Other People’s Money“. The story left me unsettled and frustrated, then and still. The play, which addresses the takeover of an obsolete business, including a speech about how the best buggy whip manufacturer had no reason to stay in business, once the world no longer needed buggy whips.

It’s a theme we hear a lot of in recent years. We should shift to all renewable energy… but the people who own and work in oil, gas, and coal don’t want to be out of a job. We should overhaul the medical industry and go to single-payor healthcare – but those who work in the insurance industry very much don’t want to see that happen.

Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic – one which has stretched nearly half a year and which shows no signs of slowing down. In the US, efforts to “re-open” were met with soaring case rates. Countries who have better control, maintain that state only through pervasive changes in their normal way of life.

So I find myself asking – are some of the changes that the pandemic has forced on us, changes we should’ve been working to make anyway? And, who loses if these changes become permanent?

Will it truly “destroy the economy” if we move to a world where white collar work happens largely via telecommuting? Where restaurant business is primarily takeout or delivery, and where most goods and services are purchased for delivery or pickup rather than from large brick-and-mortar stores? Or would this just change the economy, shifting resources from some businesses to others, creating some winners and some losers?

I really don’t know. I have tremendous sympathy for those whose livelihoods are being destroyed in the massive sudden changes. At the same time, it seems a whole lot smarter to be trying to invent ways to move forward productively under the current conditions, rather than desperately trying to return to a past which might never be achievable.

Executive dysfunction

I’ve been doing some refresher reading on dementia and in particular, on the particular symptom of executive dysfunction.

In recent days, the man who holds the highest office in the US, the commander-in-chief of a nuclear-equipped military, has been proudly announcing that he is not demented, because he passed a test called the MoCA. Possibly coincidentally, one of the medical sources I follow published an article discussing dementia cases in which memory loss was only a minor feature, with the primary problem being a loss of executive function. So, I decided to read up on the subject.

So what is this test that the President took? The MoCA is a dementia screening tool. It’s not the one I was taught in med school, so I thought I’d read up on it a bit. And, it does seem to test a wider set of cognitive skills than the one I learned, so that’s cool. In addition to simple memory, the MoCA also tries to screen for dysfunctions of attention and concentration, executive functions, language, visuoconstructional skills, conceptual thinking, calculations, and orientation. 

See, when someone says “dementia”, we think about the classic presentation of Alzheimer’s disease – a progressive loss of primarily short-term memory. Less obvious but extremely important are other lost functions as the brain degenerates. Neurological degeneration can cause problems with movement and coordination – such as you see in Parkinson’s disease. It can cause specific difficulty with use of language, as with frontotemporal dementia. People with neurological disease can lose their ability to manipulate numbers and perform mathematical calculations, or lose their ability to draw out common items with correct spacial orientation – for example, arranging the numbers on a clock face appropriately. Damage to any of these domains can significantly impair a person’s ability to live a functional and independent life.

But when it comes to a man in a powerful office, one subtle and really important aspect of dementia strikes me as especially important. This is the appropriately-named “executive function”, which assesses how well a person can integrate all the other information available to make a rational and effective decision. Executive function is what lets you pull it all together – to use your fund of knowledge, your working memory of recently-collected information, your physical and spacial and mathematical skills, and your understanding of priorities and goals to make a good plan. It’s what allows you to be flexible, to adjust to new input, and to control your impulses.

And because executive function is the brain functioning at its most complex, it’s very hard to test for. For one thing – if an individual fails at a task that requires pulling together several different brain functions, how do you tell whether the failure was at the “pulling together” or at the basic brain function to begin with? For another, it’s hard to come up with a task that stretches to brain to incorporate many complex inputs, while still being quick and simple to administer. And, it’s a challenge to design questions or tasks with a single clear, reproducible, quantifiable answer when the goal is to see how flexible and creative the brain is capable of being.

So, executive functioning assessment feels a bit like the classic definition of pornography – “You know it when you see it”. When executive functioning begins to fail, people begin to make bad decisions. They may appear to have forgotten or never understood likely consequences to action. They seem impulsive. Because their brains don’t switch easily between ideas, they cling to a single idea and repeat themselves a lot. If the situation demands that they integrate multiple ideas to form a clear picture, they tend to fail; their response simply doesn’t make sense. They don’t make very good plans, and even when they make a good plan, they’re not very good at following it.

So how does the MoCA try to measure executive function? Basically, it asks the testee to complete a task that requires switching back and forth between two ideas. In the visuo-spacial arena, it uses a connect-the-dots type puzzle where the goal is to alternate letters and numbers. So you’d be connecting 1 to a, then to 2 and then to b, and so on up through 5 and e. It requires that you hold your progress along the alphabet in mind while you look for the next number, and then remember you’re supposed to switch back to letters once that number is found. Then your performance is compared to how you do when you’re asked to connect just numbers or just letters – so if the problem is with just letters or numbers, that’ll show up.

Additionally, there’s a test where you’re asked to think of as many words as you can beginning with the letter f. This requires you to remember words and, as you do so, filter out the words that start with a “ph” instead. And there’s a test where you’re asked to figure out what a couple of words have in common – like “train” and “bicycle”, requiring you to define both words and think through how they relate to one another.

So how well does the MoCA test for executive dysfunction? I spent a fair bit of time googling that question and the answer is a firm “I’m not sure”. It appears that the MoCA is genuinely better at catching cognitive impairment with executive dysfunction than earlier tests – but that doesn’t make it perfect. When the test was introduced, it claimed 90% sensitivity for detecting cognitive impairment – that is, 9 out of 10 people with a real problem would fail this test. But some later evaluations found a higher rate of failure than that. So that tells me that overall, the test would miss some impaired subjects. Further, the test is geared for people with 12 years of education and average intelligence. People with higher levels of native ability and training could be fairly impaired and still perform just fine on it.

Meanwhile, the inventor of the MoCA has announced that the test, formerly available for free, will shortly be transitioning to only be available for physicians to use after they’ve completed a short training course in administering it. Apparently an analysis of real-world test results have shown that a patient may have wild variability in results within a short window of time, when the test is administered by different people. This suggests that the validity of the test is quite operator-dependent. A physician who was motivated to declare his patient competent might administer the test quite differently than one whose biases leaned in the other direction.

So, the President performed well on a test which is pretty good – but not perfect – at identifying patients with cognitive decline. The validity of that test will be decreased by the President’s educational background as well as the innate biases of the person administering the test.

But I do offer one last point as food for thought in this situation. The MoCA test is not a standard thing to include in any routine physical exam. For that particular test to be administered means that someone – the President himself, or his physician, or someone very close to the situation – felt that it was medically appropriate to administer a dementia test, and chose the particular dementia test designed to best catch executive dysfunction. And that suggests that whether or not there’s actually an organic dementia problem, the President does have a problem with observably irrational behavior.

Sadly, I can’t do much about that except to make certain my vote is counted this November. But at least I know a lot more about the current state of cognitive screening now.

Bored Kitten

Ever observe a young child ignore a room full of toys and tug at his Mum, whining about being bored?

Scrappy’s version is to sit on the floor near me, making plaintive chirps and trills. If I ignore this, he’ll reach up and pat my leg with his paw… usually without claws, but if he’s really impatient he might forget that little politeness. Or, he’ll find a position nearby and just stare expectantly at me like so:

The problem is, the smart little guy figures out new toys fairly quickly. And once he’s certain what they’ll do, he finds them less interesting. So the favorite toy of last week is BOOOOORRRRRING this week, and he wants something new. Plus, he’s an extroverted formal feral who has only figured out limited ways of interacting with the humans. When we play with him, he feels loved.

Right now the main thing that captures his interest is the laser pointer. He’ll chase The Dot until he’s panting with exhaustion; one time he actually ran until he threw up. My bad, for indulging him right after a meal, I guess. But he’s showing signs of losing his passion for The Dot; now he’ll chase it a bit and then stop, flop down on the floor, and just watch it. And, I’m just not gonna sit there deploying a laser pointer for a passively-watching cat.

Another thing that attracts him is watching wildlife through the window. I have considered putting out a bird feeder to increase the entertainment value there. The risk is, he’s started showing interest in going outside, and that’s associated with a whole host of problems I don’t want to deal with.

So I queried a cat-lover group on social media for favorite toys and activities and got a few suggestions.

One suggestion was to gather up all the toys and hide them away, only putting out a few at a time and rotating them out every week or so. That way perhaps he’ll forget the old ones.

Ping pong balls – are more exciting than many of the other balls because once tossed, they bounce around a lot and respond well to being batted. I ordered a few; they should be arriving today.

Someone recommended a “hide and seek” puzzle box toy. I’ve seen a couple such things online, and considered them… but I suspect such a thing would pall once he’d figured out the puzzle, so I’m loathe to spend too much cash on a few days of entertainment. Perhaps I should figure out how to DIY something similar?

Likewise, apparently there are a devices that automatically deploy a laser pointer. Which seems a bit risky to do in a room where others are sitting – wouldn’t it potentially flash in our eyes?

And someone suggested Cat TV on YouTube. So I tried that this morning. And now Scrappy is concerned there might be some sort of small burrowing creature living in the pillow under my laptop:

Halfway to house proud

Some days I just have to deal with the weight of the world by ignoring it for a while. So today, I turned off the computer and all sources of news and just… cleaned my house.

In non-COVID times, we have a lady who comes periodically and does the heavy cleaning. She gets it done way faster than I do. Some of that is because she always brings a friend, so they’re naturally going to get done twice as fast as me. But the other part is that cleaning the place always makes me aware of little things that could be fixed, arranged, organized, or improved in the place.

So today, in addition to putting away items, dusting, scrubbing, mopping, sweeping, and running the vacuum, I also scanned a few paper items that we really didn’t need to have in paper form – then hauled all the paper recycling down for next pickup day. We found a couple loose bolts on the floor awhile back, so I inspected the rowing machine, found where they’d fallen out, and replaced them. I hung one picture and one large ornamental fan – the latter of which required some repairs before it could be hung. I ironed and folded a pile of fabric scraps that were destined for the quilt stash. I took a moment to order some envelopes in which to store homemade patterns. I updated software and OS on the upstairs computer as well as my handheld devices. And so on.

Also, cleaning forces me to look more closely at the spaces I inhabit, which gives me new ideas about how to use them well. We have some large built-in shelves which are surprisingly un-useful because they are one long unsupported span – so if they hold much of anything, they will sag. I’ve been brainstorming how to revise them to look nice and also be super-useful, an had a couple of great inspirations on that front today.

So, all in all, cleaning the house is not only a way to clear my mind, but also a way to get around to doing a lot of little repairs and odd jobs and developing cool ideas for future projects. You’d think that this would make me rather fond of the chore.

But, I’m not. Sadly, I still would rather do just about anything but clean house.

On the bright side, the half of the house I finished is just lovely now.

What if I’m wrong?

I made the mistake of starting my morning by looking at social media. The depth of stupid surrounding the mask issue quickly drowned me.

Wearing masks doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. We’ve understood the germ theory of disease for quite a while now.

But I think there’s a sector of the population that doesn’t actually grok the theory behind transmissible disease. These are people who simply perceive recommendations like “wash your hands” and “cover your cough” as authoritarian directives, so it makes them feel cool and edgy to defy them.

But when deciding whether to follow a course of action, I find it useful to apply the simplest of metrics: What if I am wrong?

I think it’s useful to wear a mask, to prevent the spread of deadly disease. I believe that if everyone would avoid contact when possible, and wear a mask when contact cannot be avoided, we could get the pandemic under control and go on with at least a somewhat functional economy.

If I am wrong about that, the worst thing that happens is that… I had to wear a mask. Which is a little uncomfortable, sure, but otherwise harmless. No one ever actually died from looking silly.

If I apply the ‘what if I’m wrong’ criterion to the mask-free arguments… then the answer looks very different. If they’re wrong, then they are at risk for sickness and death, not to mention the potential of causing sickness and death in others.

I just have trouble understanding how someone could look at this trade-off and decide that the right thing to do is to avoid wearing a mask.

But then again, the whole situation gives me flashbacks to childhood, when Mean Girls would taunt people for washing their hands in the bathroom. “Why are you washing your hands? I guess you peed on your hands? HAHAHA!” The rational response – that someone else might’ve peed on her hands and then touched the stall door or flush handle that I just touched – is to long and too reasonable to counter such a taunt. So now those Mean Girls and their brethren are grown adults and ruining the world with their senseless rebellions, and I’m stuck at home waiting for some sort of end to all of this.