Showing posts from November, 2015
Ahoy hoy, loyal readers! Also disloyal ones. I'm not all that fussy.

Starting in... about half an hour, I'll be running an Advent Calendar through Christmas. No particular reason, just Christmas seems to be the last of the major winter holidays to finish up at the end of the Gregorian calendar, which I am forced to use by the same fiendish social pressures that also require me to put pants on whenever I leave the house. I more or less take December off every year, although if you are just dyyyyyinnnnnnng to say something to me, you can still send me email at

I am going to try something new in 2016. In a burst of hope I'm calling it "not constantly worrying about starving". I have a Patreon page. If you pledge me a dollar a month, you will get an extra article per week. Sometime in the week. Art cannot be rushed, and neither can the drivel I write. The topic of the post will be the same as the posts on the public blog here, i.e., non…

Monday Mystery: Ricky McCormick's Strange Notes

On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was found in a cornfield near West Alton, MO.  He had been dead for quite some time, but that part didn't surprise anyone -- McCormick was known to have cardiopulmonary problems. The last confirmed sighting of him alive was five days before that, in fact, when he came into a local hospital for a checkup. The FBI page characterizes it as a homicide, but the local coroner ruled the cause of death undetermined; that usually means that there was something about the circumstances that made them think foul play was involved, but the fibbies don't say specifically what it was. Possibly just that he had no car, and yet he was found fifteen miles from home, in an area with no public transit.

No, the real reason this case is interesting is what they found in McCormick's pockets.

McCormick was reportedly a high school dropout, barely literate, and yet in his pockets were two notes that are either total gibberish, or cleverly e…

Saturday Serial: Sherlock Holmes "The Case of the Shy Ballerina"

Here's something cute, following along the language talk the other day. See if you can read this:

Hint: The plaintext is in English. You don't need to know Chinese to read it, but knowing something about how Chinese works might help. Priming not required, although depending on how flexible your recognition vocabulary is, it might be faster to guess some chunks from context rather than reading them explicitly.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is a food-based holiday for USians, so naturally I am celebrating it with RAT. This year, Yuki is thankful she's still around for Giant Meal For No Reason Day -- three rounds of any given holiday is a pretty good run for a tiny furry ball of genetic defects. She's lost both sisters, but seems to be doing fine as an only rat. As usually happens with only-rats, she's gotten a lot more pushy about climbing the cage door to let me know it is Time For Rat-Tending NOW, but mainly, Yuki seems to be enjoying being able to nom all of the new holes in her nest box herself.

In addition to her customary new box to shred and new bedding to roll around in, Yuki is also getting her own tiny Ratsgiving dinner. Observe:

Salad with dressing and buttered crust of bread, rosemary chicken stew with mashed potatoes and peas, and for dessert, egg nog porridge with a dab of jam. No, I never have much to do over the holiday weekend, why do you ask?

She is actually getting this over a couple …
I have realized in the past few years that I am not really kidding when I talk about having a 'magic language sense'. There is something about the time-worn repetition about true language that catches my attention when I see it, even if it's not a language I speak, or it's disguised as something else. There is a limit; blocks of Enigma text don't trip it, for instance, although intellectually I've inhaled enough about cryptography to recognize that's what it (probably) is. The format typically used by numbers stations says to me that there is a message there, although since it's probably an arbitrary correspondence code I have no idea what it says, or that it's not all padding and gibberish.

A big tip off that I'm actually noticing something, even if I don't precisely know what it is, is that the language sense works better when I have context, and generally best when I have large amounts of text to look at. Perhaps an equally big clue is th…
Here is everyone's regularly scheduled reminder that Stressed Writer writes better when not Stressed over money matters. I have a Patreon, a GoFundMe, and a PayPal donation link.

Just to prove you get something out of this, today I'm going to tackle a reader question from the last round, a request to write more about gifted kids and What They Go On To Do With Their Lives. What do gifted kids do with their giftedness?

The short answer is: I don't know. The slightly less short answer is: It depends on a lot of stuff.

Despite what the adults told you from birth through high school, there are an awful lot of gifted kids who never go on to change the world. There's a distinct over-representation of high IQs in the fields where you'd expect it, like college faculty, but that doesn't mean that most gifted kids grow up to work in research or higher education -- the field isn't big enough, and it self-selects for other qualities in addition to intelligence. "Ge…

Monday Mystery: The Dominici Affair

Today's mystery is still mysterious mainly because the investigation and inquest were what can only be described as a shitshow of epic proportions. The English Wikipedia article on Jack Drummond, a wartime chemist specializing in nutrition, gives the bare bones; there is only a stub about the murder itself.

The real details of the operation are over on, where a lengthy write-up details a police operation that would have embarrassed the Keystone Kops.

Sometime during the night of August 4, 1952, the Drummond family (Jack Drummond, his second wife Ann, and their 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth) were brutally murdered along the side of Route nationale 96 near Lurs, in what is now Alpes-des-Haute-Provence. They had been driving through southeastern France in a green Hillman station wagon when they evidently stopped near a farm rather hyperbolically known as Le Grand'Terre ("the Mainland"), where a person or persons unknown bashed their heads in with the butt …

Saturday Serial: Sherlock Holmes "The Man Who Disappeared"

And now, for something much nicer and less frustrating than my actual life:

Sacks was one of those rare people who managed to make his life mean exactly what he wanted it to. Good for him.
Apparently, none of my other writing is going to cooperate until I write out the rant I desperately wish to deliver to Jazmin's sister. I won't (probably), because it wouldn't fix her behavior (probably). People like this tend to be immune to social correction. On the other hand, the therapist lady advises me not to be too hard on myself if I do snap and start shouting at her in the hallway, because goddamn sometimes people are in urgent medical need of a good hard pimp slap, and shouting is the closest thing to it that's still legal.

[Jazmin, I know you read this turkey sometimes, so if you want to stop now, I've put the rant under a cut. It's nothing I haven't told you already, but it's cool if you don't want to go through it again. Or if you do and want to pretend you didn't, that's fine, too.]

Halfway through On Megrim. Liveing has gotten no less astonishing.

I am finding it difficult to plow through the book at my normal speed. He keeps sort of casually making connections that make me stop and stare into space for a while as I think through the implications -- which, since I'm reading this in 2015, probably involve a lot more math than he had in mind when he originally wrote this.

About half of his observations are connections I had not made myself yet, mainly because I am not technically a neurologist and do not have access to the same materials Liveing did, never mind a modern neurology student. The other half are things I have been saying for years, including to actual doctors, which have mostly been ignored because, again, not technically a neurologist. Most of the relevant ones have been comparisons of the course of migranous misery to things like epileptiform seizures. The boundaries between various disorders were drawn differently in the 19th century -- which I …
Well, hell. I finally managed to sit down and get past the Preface in Liveing's On Megrim, and ho-lee mackerel, I think I know exactly why this got Sacks' attention.

The very first chapter is "Illustrative Cases" -- a few case studies, both Liveing's own patients and those of a few other neurological writers of his time. He covers, in brief, Du Bois Reymond's case of a man with classic hemicranial cephalgia accompanied by nausea, erythema of the face, and blood pressure changes; his own patient, a young woman with severe headache and general 'sea sickness', whose attacks are terminated by sleep; another of his patients, a man who suffered pure ocular migraine with various fun scintillating scotomata in his central vision; a man whose migraine attacks could be brought on by either a violent emotional or physical effort or gastric upset, and comes on with a burst of flickering scotomatous lights; and mentions of patients belonging to Parry and Wollaston…

Saturday Serial: Sherlock Holmes "The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun"

I've just finished a book, Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. I recommend it highly, especially if you like pop-sci rambles through history and mathematics, salted with useful knowledge about how statistics intersect with reality, and sprinkled with wiseass parentheticals. I was actually asked for an evaluation by a friend who was unfamiliar with Mlodinow, outside of his work as a script editor for ST:TNG, and I thought I might as well try pretending to be a serious media person for a little bit and type up a review for all of you.

It's a bit different writing for a blog audience than for a single person you know; you need to take into account the sorts of things people who read you would have in common, and how those things would affect their reaction to the whatzit you're trying to describe for them. I mulled it over for a while and decided it would probably suffice to say that if you enjoy the tone of my snark, you'll als…
I get the whirlies whenever I stand up too fast, and every so often it comes with a wallop of cracking head pain right at the base of my skull. I got fed up with it today and did the thing doctors always tell you not to do, which was Google my symptoms to see what came up.

The verdict, after skimming several web sites and discarding the one that appears to be run by the same grade of loony who believes that not only does Morgellons exist, but that it is a secret government plot, is thus:

It's probably nothing.Although there is a near-infinitesimal chance it might kill me. This is a pretty fair assessment of any non-emergency medical annoyance, so I'm not worried.
'Not dangerous' is not the same thing as 'not objectionable', so I picked a couple of the more reputable-looking sites and poked around to see if there was any consensus on how to cope with the symptoms. 
Most of the advice on treating postural orthostatic hypotensive headaches centered on how to deal w…

State of the Blogger Address

Jazmin's sister has declared that she is moving out. Since moving in, Sis has become increasingly angry over the fact that Jazmin and I do not handle money exactly like she wants us to, do not clean exactly like she wants us to, and do not agree that she should be in charge of everything ever. On top of that, she has picked up the idea somewhere that handling conflicts with "I" statements and continually polling everyone for their opinions is some sort of magic formula, and if she does it absolutely right every time she will be rewarded by getting her way. She is absolutely incensed that, despite all her efforts, we persistently demonstrate free will.

I've been pretty sure it would end this way since the time Sis went out and bought a load of expensive cleaning supplies, unrequested. She more or less bought them at us, and began mentioning them as if she expected to be paid back for them, or at least that she expected us to respond by going out and buying things of e…

Saturday Serial: Sherlock Holmes "The Case of the Texas Cowgirl"

Minor life mysteries: Solved!

I've never been especially fond of grapes. I'll eat them, but I'll pick just about any other fruit (or artificial froot-flavor) first.

It turns out that this is because I've been eating supermarket seedless grapes all my life. Those are flavored mostly fructose, with a touch of tannin. Someone brought several pounds of Concord grapes to the PMRP green room during the show run this time, and now a lot of things make a lot more sense.

Firstly, I am still flummoxed by the idea that food plants grow randomly in suburban yards here. I grew up in Arizona, a place where nature tries so hard to kill you the Australians would feel right at home. Food comes from stores, and yards are covered in Bermuda grass, which looks kind of lawn-y from a distance, but is in reality made up of tiny unripe punji stakes, and not to be walked on barefoot. All the plants look like they come from Mars and eating them is a bad idea 99% of the time. Prickly pear fruit …
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.-- Isaac Newton
(and anyone who has ever been assigned a term paper on a weird topic)
The library has finally coughed up my 19th c. loan book about migraines. On Megrim, Sick-Headache, & some allied disorders, by Edward Liveing. It is a rather more substantial book than I expected, especially in library-style case binding, and I did not have much fun hauling it all over town for the afternoon. I have learnt that I have to make my library run on the way into work at 1pm rather than on the way out of it at 6, if I want to have any chance at all of getting back on the Green when I come out.

I've only flipped through it, but I'm pretty sure I know where Sacks got his chronic case of hyperannotatia. Liveing doesn't get quite as ambitious with the length of his footnotes, but to make up for it, a good proportion of them are in untranslated French.

The fact that this book exists at all is rather interesting. …
I bought a book today.

I don't usually buy books. There's not much point. I finish them too fast. I read most things out of an idle curiosity; I seldom re-read things, and especially with dead-tree format, there's no point in purchasing and storing and moving an object I'm not likely to use for its intended purpose ever again. I have cheaper, lighter junk I can use to prop up wobbly tables.

One roommate has developed some highly unrealistic expectations, and the other one says she agrees with me that they're unrealistic but so far as I know has not done anything about it. I assume there are reasons for this that I'm not privy to, and I like to have some faith in humanity, so I further assume they're good ones. It doesn't stop me from feeling like a polite robo-voice has broken through the shitty phone Musak to tell me that my call is very important to them before demonstrating how much they mean that by putting me back on hold for another 45 minutes.

I've had a lot of sewing to do lately. Sewing requires my hands and my eyeballs, preventing me from reading actual books. BPL cards come with a complimentary Overdrive account, so I raided their mp3 audiobook catalog. Their recommendations algorithm is either a bit squiffy or has an interesting sense of humor, I thought, as it showed me Lena Dunham's autobio (cannot stand her), a load of inspirational "spiritual" titles, and a bunch of stuff by Bill O'Reilly.

I'm still not touching his political stuff, because I don't want to remember half a second after I throw the book at the wall that I was actually reading that on my Kindle, but he's also written a bunch of historical things that didn't look terrifyingly Republican.

And you know what? They're really fun.

Well, if you think reading about assassinations is fun. He does talk a lot about murder. I'm undecided on whether I should be worried about that.

The point is, O'Reilly's Killi…
When Oliver Sacks first published Awakenings in 1973, he was largely ignored by his fellow neurologists. The reason often given to him was prosaic: Neurological case studies were not in the first person, did not involve the clinician's feelings, and were full of numbers and graphs. What he wrote wasn't clinical research, so it was beneath their notice.

The reason slightly less often given to him was that nobody believed him. Most of the patients first given L-DOPA had a conventional form of Parkinson's disease. PD is caused by a decline in dopaminergic neurons in a small region of the brain called the substantia nigra, and the body is so good at compensating for this that you don't even see symptoms until the substantia nigra is about 80% gone. It is progressive, and the course varies; it takes a good goddamn long time for most Parkinson's patients to degenerate to the state in which Sacks' encephalitis lethargica victims were when he first tried L-DOPA, and ma…