The Gory Details of My Social Media Presence

Recently, I’ve picked up a lot of new readers/links/friends/stalkers/tails/parasites&symbionts/alien monitors.   I hope it is because people find some of what I am posting to be of interest, as well as the usual infestation of spambots and imaginary beings (about 80% of my followers, I reckon). It is probably time to once again lay out a little about my online presence to help make things clearer to all of you bots (and to help me keep it straight). As it is, you may see multiple versions of me online and question your sanity, instead of spending your time wisely questioning my sanity.  So think of this as a service, to you.

First, About Me

Yes, I am that Spaf, assuming you have heard something about me before.  By day, I am a fairly well-known scientist, professor, and commentator, with a focus on issues of cySpafford_Eugene1_colorber security, privacy, ethics, and national policy.  You can visit my about.me page for links, or see my (incomplete) Wikipedia page.

The rest of the time (well, all of the time) I alternate between philosophy and humor, with an emphasis on the humor.  Oh, and a certain amount of snark and political commentary.

And yes, I wear bow ties.  That has been one of my signature items for over 25 years.  And the beard has been there for 40.

About My Postings

First, I try to maintain three distinct, segregated streams of material in my social media. (Links are given at the end.)

One stream is more or less related to my “day job” as a professor at a major university.  There, I post in a blog on an irregular basis.   I also maintain a Tumblr blog where I repost links from various on-line media about security, privacy, espionage, cybercrime, and related topics.  That blog is gated into a Twitter feed to which I sometimes add related tweets.  Along with all of that, I also sometimes put things into a Facebook group page and a LinkedIn group, both of which are for people interested in CERIAS at Purdue University.  I have a LinkedIn account that I use to maintain contact with others. I have profiles at ResearchGate and Academia.edu that I don’t do a good job of maintaining, but may be of value. All of this tends to be serious and professional.

A second stream is more fun oriented, but sometimes serious.  In my WordPress blog I post items of a personal nature — sometimes intended to be funny (such as my New Year’s resolutions) or quirky (such as my history of my branch of the Spafford family).   I maintain an active Twitter account as myself, and a Facebook account.  In both there will be a range of the bizarre and the unusual that make me laugh or shake my head: basically, things that I think are worth seeing.  Readers will also pick out some of my thoughts on politics, posers, organized religion, equal rights, and annoying celebrities (among others); I’m not too reserved about some of my views. The Twitter and Facebook feeds have some cross-connect, but the feed-across is sporadic — if you are constructing a psych profile on me, you should probably follow both.  I also post answers to Quora from time to time, and images to Pinterest.  I maintain a legacy mailing list named web-heads that gates into a Tumblr blog, that then dumps into my Twitter feed with the tag #webheads; anything with that hashtag in my Twitter or Facebook feeds thus may have been posted by someone else on the list who is similarly demented.  NONE of my posts in these outlets should be construed as having any official endorsement or connection with official positions or activities of my employer or organizations I work with.  Stated differently, these are my own peculiar views only and I am the only person to blame (well, maybe my family and “The Voices” influenced me). Note that these posts may well include items of an adult nature, so beware if you are easily offended.

My third collection is not quite out in the open as an independent stream.  I am chair of the US Public Policy Council of ACM, and a member of the ACM Council. I am involved in activities related to ACM, IEEE, ISSA, AAAS and other professional organizations. You may see posts in some places from me related to those.  In particular, there is a shared USACM Twitter feed to which I sometimes contribute.  Those outlets shouldn’t be viewed as related to either of the first two streams.

I do not use Google+ regularly for any of these!  I don’t like their policies of tying everything to that account, and I don’t like the interface and lack of connection to other social media.  In particular, I use some scripts and services to post items across services and at metered “doses” and those don’t work well with Google+. (And yes, I am not overly fond of Facebook, either, but it is the only way of keeping my semi-sporadic contact with some of my friends.)

BTW, I have a bunch of other accounts that you aren’t likely to see active any time soon — Flickr, YouTube, BuzzFeed, and even MySpace, among others.  I set those up simply so there wouldn’t be anyone else sending stuff out as “spaf”. Unfortunately, I got to a few too late, plus a few require that usernames be more than 6 characters long.  Thus, Twitter and others have names such as “TheRealSpaf” as identities.

You may be wondering where I find the time to post all of this stuff.   The answer is in parts.  First, I actually am limited a lot of the time: I have some medical issues that sometimes affect my ability to type.  I thus have less productivity than many of my peers, especially because it becomes more difficult to hit deadlines. Short posts and mouse clicks are much easier for me, so I use Twitter as an outlet.  Second, I have chronic insomnia, so a lot gets shared with a few mouse clicks when I should be asleep (or sedated).  And third, I use several bots and scheduled jobs to meter out material over time rather than the bursty schedule at which I actually use the services.   This is basically a trick from Mother Nature — I use fluff and timing to make myself appear bigger to potential predators, er, the orderlies.  Note that there are likely to be quiet periods where you don’t see much from me: I’m either busy, I’m traveling, or I’ve been abducted by a UFO.  Again.

If you have questions or comments on anything I post, please let me know.   If you want to repost any of the items be sure to use the appropriate mechanism.  In particular, if you want to use material from my blogs then either quote excerpts with appropriate credit, or provide a link back to the original.  That is polite, professional, and legal.

Linking to Others

If I don’t know you and have not interacted with you in some significant way, don’t bother to ask that I “friend” you on Facebook.  As it is, I need to trim what I have.  However, you can “follow” my posts if you want to see them — almost all are public.

If you can prove who you are and that there is a reason I should connect with you on LinkedIn, I may.  The threshold is lower there than Facebook, but still non-trivial.  You can ask someone I have as a trusted contact to vouch for you, and that is usually enough if you have a good reason for connecting. Because of my professional work, I get trolled, so I am cautious.

If you try to send me spam, I will report it and block you.   Same general response with things that are intended to insult me, or are full of bigotry or vitriol towards any group not itself devoted to bigotry and/or vitriol.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with me on everything.   I have many friends and corresponding links where we cannot have a conversation about politics or religion without getting a little spirited.  I value reasoned differences, but don’t expect me to keep quiet with my opinions!

Professional Stuff

Personal Stuff

Miscellaneous

…and…

If you are interested in miscellany about me, you can check out:

Remembering Spaf

With a birthday coming up, and several friends having recently passed on (e.g., been dereferenced), I thought maybe I should write up my obituary for future use. After all, I know my story better than anyone else! So, feel free to use this when the need arises.

And if you have any missing bits to fill in, send them to me — I’ll update this in place.

This is not quite to this level of awesome or to this or to this but I may have a few weeks yet to get there.

Original post 3/14/12; Last update 2014-07-28.


Eugene H. Spafford, noted curmudgeon, died on <date>. It was a stupid accident that was then altered to look like an assassination by a secret government hit squad. But rest assured that he wasn’t important enough to warrant that kind of attention. The medical examiner will officially list the cause of death as “Jello, while interacting with Bambi and Trixie, two performers with Cirque de Soleil, and their pet llama, Julio” — not because it bears any resemblance to the truth, but because it will provide more lulz on Wikipedia.

Although many people believed he was an alien being (after all, the definition of “human” can only stretch so far), Spafford was born in western New York State to poor but proud parents. His birth changed their lives: they continued to be poor, but were never proud again. Two years later, his sister was born, thereafter affectionately referred to by their parents as “our only child.”

Spafford had a largely unremarkable childhood, frequently spending time as the neighbors’ imaginary friend. His parents took him and his sister to many notable and historic places around the country, but unwary strangers would invariably untie him and he would find his way home. In later years he was known to recount some of the happiest moments of his childhood such as having other children finally talk to him (5th grade), and first being allowed to play in the yard without his leash (7th grade),

By the time he had reached high school, he had shown unusual talent for math, science, and getting beaten up for having unusual talent for math and science. Nonetheless, he was named as “school mascot” by acclamation for several years running — until the other students found that despite this status, they could not get him thrown on the bonfire at other schools before football games. It was in high school that he got the nickname “Spaf,” in part because no one bothered to learn his first name.

It was in high school that Spaf discovered girls. Actually, he had known about them for some time, but it was at this time that he first discovered that the majority of them did not actually have cooties. His attempts to be noticed by the young women around him usually succeeded, but only accompanied by finger-pointing and derisive laughter…a pattern that continued through the rest of his life. He fell in love at least twice, but the objects of his affection generally did not return his affections because they had taste and standards…another long-standing pattern.

Upon graduation from high school, Spafford took a few years off school to work to support his family. At least, that is what he always claimed, and the court records are sealed.

Then, Spafford returned to school and completed his undergraduate degrees at SUNY Brockport in 3 years of classes, probably because the faculty voted to resign if he stayed for 4. He awoke in another state after his graduation party, with a note from his family pinned to his clothing, written in crayon, wishing him luck in Atlanta, where they had arranged for him to be admitted. Much to their dismay, “The Ramblin Wreck” was a university and not a psychiatric hospital (although, frankly, that wasn’t always obvious). Thus, he attended grad school at Georgia Tech, where he again showed an unusual talent for math and science, as well as amazingly poor luck with females of any species. After outlasting a department head, dean, two presidents of the university, and several roommates, a clerical error resulted in him getting a Ph.D. despite no faculty member actually serving as his advisor (really!).

As a condition of his immediate and permanent departure, local officials used a rumor of a large trust fund and vast quantities of tequila to introduce a young woman to Spaf, despite her reluctance to date outside her species. After a period of deception, and prolonged hypnotherapy, they were married.

After a short post doc while his thesis committee waited to ensure that the checks cleared, Spafford moved out of state and was hired by Purdue University in 1987 before the stories (and authorities) caught up with him. He spent the remainder of his career there, trying (in vain) to get people to behave nicely online, be kind to each other, and to adopt wearing of bow ties. When informed of his passing, his Purdue colleagues (those who didn’t respond “Who?”) began to chuckle — no doubt from fond and amusing memories, although the mutterings of “At last!” did seem a little too fervent.

Noted for his work in security (primarily as a risk), Spafford was frequently asked to travel long distances to speak — usually requested by whomever was in his near vicinity at the time. A talented programmer as well as researcher, he wrote many large software systems that, (perhaps) regrettably, are in languages for which no compiler or manual exists. This matched his propensity for giving presentations that were in languages unfamiliar to his audiences…and humans, in general. He helped scores of students get their Ph.Ds. — usually by serving as an example of what not to do. He received several “lifetime achievement” awards from professional societies in not so subtle attempts to get him to retire immediately and go away.

It was often observed that Spafford didn’t pay attention to boundaries and frequently crossed them…this was usually noted by others when talking about the fine line between genius and insanity.

In later years, he had medical issues that interfered with his work. Doctors, when not performing unsanctioned experiments on him, conjectured that it was all side-effects of the frequent alien abductions (performed on him, not by him). Consulting veterinarians were similarly puzzled, both by etiology and his species. The diagnoses were all different, but the recommended treatment was always the same: lobotomy. This was never done, because the insurance company refused to cover it, despite the generous and frequent offers of family and colleagues to take up a collection.

Spafford had a near encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivia, bad jokes, and stupid movie plot lines that he often shared spontaneously — this led to him spending a great deal of “alone time.” Besides his hobbies online, he enjoyed gardening, good whiskey, and target shooting — which might explain many missing neighborhood pets and the vigorous growth of the tulips in the back yard. As a lover, he was known to make women swoon…or would have been known, had any of them overcome the nausea at the thought so as to assent. And, he is memorialized in several dictionaries: the words “athlete” and “Spafford” are found together in a sentence under “cognitive dissonance.”

In his final years, Spafford spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood as an imaginary friend, and wondering what his life would have been like had be been born human.

In accordance with his wishes, his remains have been freeze-dried, adorned with a bow tie, and mailed to a random address as one last bad joke. He is survived by his wife (who will shortly be disabused of the rumor of the trust fund), a daughter (an only child, because his wife refused to repeat the trauma and horror … not of childbirth, but conception), sister, niece, nephews, the contents of several petri dishes with biohazard labels on board some UFOs, and basically everyone who is reading this. I mean, you can’t read this if you didn’t survive, right?

Donations can be made … oh, who are we fooling? Just go blow the money on chocolate and bourbon.

Wild life adventures

Some long-time friends of mine live in an old house in Pennsylvania. They have been doing renovations recently, and running into unexpected issues. Some issues are taken advantage of by their cats. Two recent such instances: finding a bird in the basement, and bats in the attic. I take it much hilarity and cat antics ensued with both.

We had bats in our attic this year, too. (And no, I am not using it as a euphemism, although I wish that is all it was.) We had field mice up there 3 years ago, after we had new shingles put on. Apparently, the roofers disturbed some of the soffit panels and didn’t reseat them properly. The mice climbed up (the gutter spouts? assistance of itty bitty spiders?) and nested in the attic over the winter. When that happened, we had the exterminator bait the attic and install some patches to the soffits. That took care of the mice — as far we we knew.

Then, in March of this year, we heard scratching and scurrying noises in the ceiling on the second floor. We thought the mice were back, so we called the exterminator again. He went up in the attic and looked around some; he said the mouse bait was still there, untouched. He thought we might have birds that had gotten in as he saw daylight through a couple of holes. He didn’t think our problem was mice.

(Aside: I don’t go up in the attic anymore. There is only one small hatch to get up there, in a bedroom closet, and there is no way to get an extension ladder in to climb all the way up. A stepladder will go part way, but it then requires a pull-up to get up into the space. Given the ravages of the years, plus the accumulation of…er, heavy thoughts… that is now beyond my capabilities. We should have gotten a hatch in the hallway, with pull-down steps, when we had the house built.)

So, we called in a wildlife relocation specialist because the exterminator only kills insects and small rodents — they don’t harm birds, if they can help it. Chad, the cheerful animal specialist, sealed up the biggest couple of holes he could find from the outside, put screening over others, then set up a trap for birds. In two weeks, only one bird was caught (a hapless, innocent bystander sparrow), which I then released. Chad opined that — given the lack of activity — birds couldn’t be our problem. So he went up in the attic, looked around, and found evidence that either chipmunks or squirrels had been up there. Oh, and bats —a medium-sized colony. The exterminator had missed that — either he didn’t know what to look for, or he didn’t do a complete survey.

Apparently, bats go dormant over the winter, and only really wake when the temps get above 50 for about a week. So, we had to wait to take care of the bat issue, because bats are a protected species, and we couldn’t depend on them leaving until the weather was warm enough. However, we could pursue a solution to the squirrels and/or chipmunks.

He sealed most of the holes, but left a one-way passage for the bats, and a trap for squirrels. He put out poison bait inside the attic for chipmunks. We caught one big gray squirrel in the trap, which was taken to a park far away and released. The chipmunks outside are too numerous to do much about, unless I want to sit in the garden every day with poisoned seed, and a .22 to pick off the ones who aren’t currently hungry. Even with that, we’d only see a slight respite — the neighborhood is full of them, and they are prolific.

(Another aside: bats are generally beneficial. They eat all sorts of flying insects, especially mosquitoes. Considering how wet it has been here this year, we can use the help. However, bat droppings can create problems with diseases and insects, so we definitely don’t want those in the attic. Bats also have a high incidence of rabies, so it is better to keep a distance from them. If the attic was totally sealed, any bats left inside would try to find some opening to get out; bats can squeeze through tiny openings, including tiny cracks between joists and chimneys that don’t necessarily lead outside. That would result in an exciting rendition of “Da Bats Are In Da House!” Thus, the humane, reasonable, and far less adrenaline-inducing approach is to seal up everything but an opening with a one-way contraption so that once the bats leave the attic, they don’t come back in.)

Within a few weeks, the bats awoke, stretched, had coffee or whatever, and presumably left. Chad came back and finished sealing things up. We now have a 3 year guarantee of bat exclusion, and a $1500 hole in our savings. However, the only bats now are in our belfries, and that makes for much quieter nights. As a side-effect, the sealing job means we are unlikely to get any other critters moving into our unfinished penthouse.

(Aside: Chad said the bats have their young in late spring — he can’t seal an attic from then until early autumn, because the young may be trapped inside. Baby and juvenile bats may die without their mothers, or surrogates. Thus, there are two “seasons” for bat exclusion — early spring, and fall. And no, I was not going to nurse baby bats all summer. so we had to move quickly to get the exclusion done. )

Now, the only critters around here are the chipmunks (digging holes in the garden, and under the sidewalks), one remaining small grey squirrel (at least one other was taken by one of the red tailed hawks that lives nearby — much cheaper than the wildlife relocator), lots of bunnies (minus whatever the hawk gets), way too many mourning doves (minus… you got the idea), and other wildlife. We live in a suburban area, but seem to have plenty of wildlife, including a family of shrews that lives in my compost heap, raccoons that keep knocking down our birdfeeders (I think they are in a gang), some ducks that tried to nest in our pool, toads and tree frogs, and sometimes flocks of starlings, which we try to dissuade. We also see many robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, hummingbirds, cowbirds, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, and the occasional grackle visit our feeders, as do the mourning doves. We hear bluejays in the distance, but we are too far from the woods to get them to visit up close. Last year we had an oriole visit, but we’ve seen none this year. In the general neighborhood, we also see Canadian geese, several varieties of ducks, and heron near the ponds, and swifts occasionally at dusk.

At our previous house, next to the woods, we had also wild turtles, garter snakes, a fox, a family of owls, several deer, moles in the lawn (grrr), and a few coyotes, all within a short distance of the house. I sort of applauded the coyotes because they helped keep the feral cats in check that were preying on the birds.

It is very depressing to realize that I have reached at least middle age: when someone asks me for a story about my wild life, instead of a tale of parties, drinking, and romance, I talk about birds, bunnies, and bats in the attic.

Father’s Day Memories

[This is mostly personal musings and a little history.  It is probably more for family and a few friends than general interest, but you are welcome to read it.]

Last year, I blogged here about Father’s Day, along with some other issues. I’m a little surprised, and sad, that a year has gone by so quickly. A lot happened, but it also seems that so little happened, too. Where does the time go?

I am on a business trip on Father’s Day. I’ve got the day free, and my thoughts turned to my father. I realize that the images that come first to my mind is when he was old and infirm, a month or two before he died. Yes, those are the most recent memories, so that is perhaps why they seem the freshest. Yet, for all the years he was alive, my father was generally a picture of health. He never seemed to get ill until he reached his 80s. I wish I could have those memories, of him hale and hearty, be my primary ones.

As a child, I spent more time with my mother and grandmother, because my father worked during the day, and when he came home he was tired and had things that needed doing around the house. Weekends meant cutting the lawn and running errands that my mother have saved up for him. I can’t recall many memories of him day-to-day — only on vacations and holidays. Then, as I grew older, time was taken up with school, clubs, and eventually, girlfriends.

My father lived a life I can’t imagine, and I feel guilty about not trying harder to understand it when he was around and I could ask him questions. He was born at the end of WWI and lived his teenage years during the Great Depression. As a child, he was truck by a truck and in a coma for some time, not expected to live, then very ill with scarlet fever (which contributed to his infirmity and eventual death 70 years later). Thereafter, he wasn’t quite as outgoing as he used to be…at least, that is what my uncle told me. With what we now know about the effects of head trauma, I am not surprised. I have often wondered what he would have been like had that not happened to him?

Dad volunteered to serve in WWII (he had a deferment because of work he was doing — he waived it), although my sister and I never heard him talk about it until we were adults and he was in his 60s. Little wonder — he was in one of the first units into one of the concentration camps. As a result of that experience, and others, I ma certain he suffered from what we would now call PTSD for quite some time, and there was no real care for his generation of veterans.

Dad’s twin brother died at 49 from cancer (I wrote a little about him and his wife, Elsa, when she died in 2013), and that affected him deeply. A few years later he unexpectedly became unemployed; age discrimination meant he was only employed sporadically thereafter, and that was a deep wound to his pride and sense of fairness. I know there were may other things that meant life was never quite what he had hoped it would be. In his later years he developed heart problems, cancer, and had several strokes. But he never gave up. He was stubborn!

Dad suffered many a setback in life, but kept on trying. I know I learned a certain amount of stoicism from him. He never got awards or public notice, but he was heroic in many ways. He believed in doing the right thing, no matter the consequences, and he didn’t shirk tough or difficult jobs.

I realize that I was a bratty kid, too. When my father decided in his mid 50s that he was going to focus on getting back into better physical condition, instead of cheering him on, I made jokes, maybe because I was so far from athletic I couldn’t understand. Dad went on to run in the senior class in marathons and did well (even winning once, as I recall), but rather than laud him for his success and his will, I think I ignored it; I was too wrapped up in my own pursuits. How dearly I wish now that I had attended at least one of those marathons and cheered as he crossed the line!

My father wasn’t really outgoing. He couldn’t tell jokes very well — he could only remember two or three, and kept telling them over and over. He was not mechanically inclined — if anything, he was 90% thumbs. He didn’t read a lot, but loved historical TV shows and movies. He was brilliant with numbers. He was a planner, who liked to follow a schedule, and the unexpected often threw him for a loss. Meanwhile, I was a jokester, into science fiction, and dead-set on taking everything apart and putting it back together again to see how it worked. I’ve always been a spur-of-the-moment person who can’t seem to notice the time. Dad and I didn’t seem to have a lot in common, so I don’t recall many things that only he and I would do together. We never had many heart-to-heart conversations, either. I regret all that now.

I never got to meet either of my grandfathers as they both died young. My mother’s father died from after-effects of being gassed in WWI, we believe. My father’s father died on the original day of Mom & Dad’s wedding. I am so happy that both my parents lived to see their grandchildren. It was clear that was a joy for them both. Their lives were hard, but towards the end they had a sense of accomplishment.

The years continue to pass for me. I no longer see an unbounded future. I don’t feel as old as I look, but I can no longer take the stairs two at a time. I find myself reflecting on the past almost as much as I do daydreaming about the future.

Although my daughter is named for my mother (who was named for her grandmother, who was named for her grandmother), I see echoes of my father in her. She is quiet, stoic, and loves history. She is fiercely stubborn, and smarter than she gives herself credit. She doesn’t have the affinity for math, but she dislikes my spur-of-the-moment approach to things. She’s not much into the engineering aspects of the world around her, so rather than leave all my tools to her I need to encourage her to keep a rolodex of good mechanics. She’s had her own health issues that have shaped her young life. She’s definitely not a fan of most of my humor.

I realize that Elizabeth’s memories of me will be like mine of my father: she spends lots more time with her mother than me. I am away for work a lot. Our interests don’t intersect much, so there aren’t many things we do, just the two of us. She doesn’t really get quite what I do in my career, or the scale at which I do it. I know she is focused on her own future, not my present. I don’t begrudge her that — it should be a bright future. 40 years from now she may think back to me on Father’s Day. Perhaps the memories she will have of me will be of me decrepit and forgetful (i.e., as I am right now!). If she has children of her own, that will give her an additional lens thru which she may see me a little better, as my being a parent has helped me understand my own parents. I simply wish I had reached some of these realizations when they were still alive.

I’ll close with some of the lyrics to the song “The Living Years” by Mike (Rutherford) and the Mechanics that always move me to tears if I really listen to them:

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense

So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different date
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be O.K.

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

I remember, Dad.Father's Day 1956 I never said it enough, but thank you. I wish I could have told you more often, in your living years.

And to all the other fathers out there — a Happy Father’s Day to you.

Two items of interest

Here are a couple of items of possible interest to some of you.

First, a group of companies, organizations, and notable individuals signed on to a letter to President Obama urging that the government not mandate “back doors” in computing products. I was one of the signatories. You can find a news account about the letter here and you can read the letter itself here. I suggest you read the letter to see the list of signers and the position we are taking.

Second, I’ve blogged before about the new book by Carey Nachenberg — a senior malware expert who is one of the co-authors of Norton Security: The Florentine Deception. This is an entertaining mystery with some interesting characters and an intricate plot that ultimately involves a very real cyber security threat. It isn’t quite in the realm of an Agatha Christie or Charles Stross, but everyone I know how has read it (and me as well!) have found it an engrossing read.

So, why am I mentioning Carey’s book again? Primarily because Carey is donating all proceeds from sale of the book to a set of worthy charities. Also, it presents a really interesting cyber security issue presented in an entertaining manner. Plus, I wrote the introduction to the book, explaining a curious “premonition” of the plot device in the book. What device? What premonition? You’ll need to buy the book (and thus help contribute to the charities), read the book (and be entertained), and then get the answer!

You can see more about the book and order a copy at the website for The Florentine Deception.

My Angry Posts

Yes, my tweets/posts recently have had less overall humor and a bit more anger. Sorry — that’s just me reacting to recent events.

I don’t suffer fools and the venal very easily — especially when they are fools who should know better.

Take vaccines. History shows that the single greatest killer of people is disease. Smallpox, TB, polio, diarrheal diseases of children, typhus, malaria, plague…. Measles also makes that list. We have some effective tools to limit…or even eradicate… some of those diseases, as we did with smallpox. Instead, as a species we have people who reject decades of experience and scientific study, who are letting some of these diseases persist. Polio is one horrific example, where semi-isolated groups are using religion and politics to prevent children from getting the vaccine. We are so close to eliminating that terrible scourge and there is evidence the disease is making a comeback.

Measles is still endemic in much of the world, killing many every year. It and smallpox were two highly contagious and deadly diseases that swept through new populations of indigenous peoples when introduced, often killing more than half of the population, and sickening the rest. (See this for some historical context.)  We were able to eliminate smallpox completely.  With will, we should be able to do the same with measles.

Why is it a concern?  Measles is not simply a rash. In a percentage of people it is crippling…or deadly.  I had a relative who went completely deaf before she was 10 because of measles; she was born before the vaccine was widely available. One of her friends died from the disease.  Those are terrible — and not rare —  outcomes. It’s worse when you consider that those who refuse to vaccinate also endanger the lives of children and adults in whom the vaccine did not gen up full immunity, or who cannot be vaccinated because of underlying medical conditions.  I had measles as a child and I still remember how terribly sick I was.  I would not wish that, nor the horrible potential side-effects, on anyone I cared about.

Someone sent me an article that had statistics showing that (effectively) early vaccinations were not understood as requiring a booster, and maybe not as effective for life-long immunity as having the disease.  He was implying that this was somehow “proof” of something…that the vaccine shouldn’t be used, perhaps?  That was the implication.  Instead, it is simple statistics and medicine that can be understood with minimal effort, and understanding that correlation does not prove causation.  However, to a paranoid, everything is proof of a conspiracy, and everyone who disagrees is part of the conspiracy.  Facts are simply attempts to fool the naive into believing there is no conspiracy.

Conspiracy?  To do what?  Protect people from a potentially crippling and deadly disease?  Yeah, right, that’s evil.  I can see hundreds of thousands of people signing on to actively promote that as a conspiracy.   Some no-nothings said the same kinds of things about the smallpox vaccine, and the polio vaccine.  It’s easy for them to switch to measles now because they haven’t seen the widespread devastation those diseases caused.  They never knew people — friends and family — who had to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung, or who died from measles-caused encephalitis, or died gasping for breath as a result of pertussis.

Think about it: someone refusing vaccination for their children is basically saying “I’m going to gamble with their health and physical safety, and that of everyone they encounter, because I believe that vaccination causes … well, something.”  The link with autism has been thoroughly debunked, as has every other myth I’ve heard about.  It’s a terribly selfish and anti-social attitude with no foundation.  Tens of millions of people have received the vaccine over the last 50 years, and there has been no correlation found with anything…other than being less likely to get measles.  And here’s what someone with autism has to say about all this.

One of my favorite high school teachers had a withered arm from polio.  I worked with someone who had a useless arm caused by polio because his parents didn’t get him vaccinated.  They both managed okay with only one good arm, and they were thankful that they hadn’t died, but it was a life-long loss.  My aunt became a recluse because of her loss of hearing.  And to think of all the heartbroken parents who lost children to a preventable disease….  The human loss (and potential for loss) is heartrending.

As a parent, I am deeply concerned about my child, even thought she is now an adult.  What angers me is that people are willing to endanger others — including her and the rest of my family — because of paranoia and willful stupidity.  If it was only them, natural selection would help take care of the problem, but they pose a danger to me and my family, too by rejecting standard vaccination: our immunity may not be sure, and will likely degrade with time; there are also succeeding generations who may be at risk.

Of course, most of them have been vaccinated against measles and they are only willing to make the choice to endanger the next generation…they are safe, and hypocritical. They should eschew all medicines for themselves, including antibiotics, flu shots, and tetanus inoculations, too.  Those things have “chemicals” in them and are advocated by the “medical conspiracy.” Expose them to rabies and TB and cholera and malaria while we’re at it. Let’s speed up that natural selection a little…it’s the closest we can (legally) come to getting a little chlorine in the gene pool.

It isn’t only the stance on vaccines that make me angry these days.  The sanctimonious pinheads who are elected to office (and the no-nothings, bigots, and lazy who vote for them, or who don’t vote at all) also add to my anger level.   These are the people who blame the sick, the elderly, and the poor for their bad luck and disadvantaged environments.  Despite too many of the rich having way more of everything (except compassion) than they will ever need (and those same people claiming to follow a religious figure who instructed his followers to give everything to the poor), the hypocrits continue to pursue policies that further disadvantage and hurt the most impoverished among us.   These same jerks seek to exclude and injure others because of their skin color or heritage, although they use indirect terms to pursue that goal.  They seek to deny happiness to people who are born with different sexual orientations, and they treat women as less than even second-class citizens through oppressive health and employment regulations.  So many of them claim to follow religions that command they love one another, yet they pay no attention to people dying in other countries …and often they are eager to send our military to kill even more.  These are the people who, in the interests of making yet more money for the uber-rich, refuse to take actions that will help address climate change and reduce the pollution in our world.  These are the people who seek to destroy knowledge and spread falsehoods because they know the facts do not support their world view (I’ve blogged about this here, before).

I have spent much of my life trying to provide education to those who want it, to help them succeed and make the world a better place.  I have family and friends, including many who will long outlive me.  I want them to have a world where human life and dignity are valued — for everyone.  Where they do not need to fear preventable disease.  Where they are allowed to worship — or not — as they see fit, and to not be subject to physical harm because they do not share someone else’s beliefs.  Where they can love who they want, without criticism because of skin color, or body shape, or background. A world where if they fall ill, or a natural disaster befalls them, they do not need to make a choice among food, shelter, or health care, because they cannot afford more than one and they have no other options.  I hope for a world where knowledge is valued above myth and superstition.  I want those who follow after to have heroes based on something they can aspire to other than fame for a big butt or speed on a sports field.  And I want them to live in a world where their leaders are actually concerned about their welfare, rather than the interests of the monied few.

Recent news has not done much to make me believe that world is within reach, and each day is one less I will have to see a change.  It brings despair that my efforts have been for naught, and concern for the future they will inherit.  So yes, I am angry.  You should be too.

A Medical Scare — Protect Your Vision

[Updated Feb 8]

This year has gotten off to a lousy start.  It began with a stomach bug that wouldn’t go away for several weeks.   Luckily, I have avoided the flu (so far), and managed to keep all my New Year’s resolutions (so far),  so I guess things could be worse.

Wednesday (Jan 14), however, brought something really new to me, and I’ll share it here because therein is a caution for all of you — especially those with a little bit of “advanced wisdom” that signifies a bit more age.

Over the last few weeks, I have been mildly annoyed by a new “floater” in my left (and dominant) eye.  This is something that many people experience, and is generally only an annoyance.  They are caused by a little collagen tissue that has worked loose inside the eye, or perhaps a few blood cells leaking into the vitreous humor.  They are inside the eye so you can’t focus on them to see them, but they block some of the incoming light so they make a shadow on what you do see.  If you have yet to experience one of these, it is (in my experience) as if you have a smudge on your glasses (if you wear them) or a slight shadow that obscures something in your field of vision in brighter light.

Some floaters are absorbed after months or years, but in almost all cases they cease to be an issue because the neural circuitry of the eye/brain “learns” they are there and edits them out.  You also learn to move your eye (unconsciously) to pull in a picture from “around” the floater — our visual systems really are quite adaptable and amazing.  Thus, the floaters “go away.”

Having a mostly working brain, by Wednesday I had basically adapted to this new addition to my vision.

Sometime that afternoon, I noticed little black specks moving rapidly across my visual field.  I don’t recall that I consciously was thinking about them — they matched the behavior of a small fly, so it wasn’t really foreign.  I remember idly thinking it was curious that there would be a fly in my office on a cold day in January, but I was inside where it was warm, so maybe?  I was busy with visitors, so I dismissed it from my thoughts and focused on what I was doing.

Later, I had to leave to go pick up my car being serviced, and as I left, I noticed some sparkling “things” out of the corner of my eye.  When I would turn, whatever it was that I thought was moving wasn’t there.  Odd.  And then the loaner car I was driving appeared to have some defective windshield glass, with a wavy texture when I was looking at it sort of from my left side.  Strange — a BMW shouldn’t have wavy glass, right?

At the dealership, as I waited for my car, I noticed more “bugs” and other strange things, including curved lines, especially as I turned my head.  It looked like rather strange artifacts I have seen in bad video.  It was now quite clear to me something was wrong.  If I covered my left eye, my vision was fine.  If I covered my right, I saw the effects.  It was definitely my left eye.

There is a range of things that can cause visual phenomena such as this.  I knew it wasn’t drugs, because I don’t take any that could cause that and it wasn’t both eyes.  It wasn’t a migraine, because it wasn’t the aura/tunnel effect that describes a classic ocular migraine, and I’ve never had one of those.  It probably wasn’t a classic stroke, both because it didn’t match what I know about strokes, and I had no other symptoms.  (NB: everyone should learn quick triage for if someone else might have a stroke, using FAST.)

However, I wasn’t sure what else it might be.  I also knew from my days as an EMT that such phenomena should not be ignored in hopes they disappear.  They usually mean something.  And it could perhaps be a precursor for something worse, perhaps be a tear in my retina, or bleed in the eye, or some kind of unusual stroke-like incident.  I am highly dependent on my vision, so needless to say, I was now deeply concerned.

Of course, my regular optometrist was gone for the day by the time I determined all this, so I cancelled out of a phone conference, called my wife to tell her to hold dinner, and drove to the urgent care clinic on the way home.  The place was full of flu patients, so I had to wait over an hour. (Oh, and I kept away from most of the people in the room.  I sure hope I kept far enough away!)

The good news from the doc (finally): not a stroke, and not an intraocular bleed.  There was something observable in my eye, but the doctor on call didn’t know what it was.  He didn’t think the retina was involved.  He urged me to see an ophthalmologist ASAP the next day.  I went home, and left a message for my optometrist; he called me a little later, and after hearing me describe the symptoms, he reassured me that it was probably not damage to my retina, but he would arrange for me to be seen by a specialist the next day.

Yesterday (Thursday), I spent 3 hours at the eye clinic, mostly waiting.  Pictures, dilation, exam, and testing.  Then more exam.

The diagnosis is something called posterior vitreous detachment, or PVD.  This is not uncommon in people after about age 50 (me), and more common in people with severe myopia (also me).  It is when the vitreous pulls away from the retina, and bits of connective tissue and other cells get into the gel.  The increase in material, and the physical changes, lead to an increase in floaters, visual distortion, and phantom flashes of light.  Apparently, I am now more likely to have it in my right eye, too — not as a result of it happening to the left, but simply because it shows I have a tendency for it.

The good news is that I have no damage to my retina, but I have to watch it (figuratively) carefully for the next few weeks for symptoms of a tear developing.  I also got a clean bill of health for several other issues, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma — also good.  My vision is going to be poor for a while, however, so reading and working at the computer may be a bit more of a chore.

Here, however, is where the warning for you comes in, dear reader:  In about 10% of these cases, the separation also results in a tear of the retina, with about 40% of those being a complete separation of the retina.  This is bad news, and can lead to permanent loss of sight.   The good news is that most of these tears and separations can be fixed with a laser or a cryoprobe — but the longer it goes unfixed, the less likely it can be fixed: diagnosis and treatment are optimal if in the first 24 hours!

So, I had an adventure (I seem to have many of those), but in the end I merely have an inconvenience.  I’m writing this up because many of my friends and relatives are adding to their accumulated wisdom and laugh lines, and that translates into older eyes.   I urge you — if you see a sudden increase in floaters, something that looks like a big curtain or cobweb suddenly over your vision in one eye, or flashing lights and wavy lines in what you look at — see an ophthalmologist ASAP!  The exam doesn’t hurt, and if there is underlying damage, a quick response may save your vision.  No matter what you see on TV, there are no artificial eyes or transplants: take care of the eyes you have, so if nothing else you can continue to read my occasional blog posts. :-)

Updated Feb 8

It appears that I had another detachment event yesterday, as I had a big increase in the number of floaters.  My vision in my left eye is now full of cloudy things moving around.

Over the last few weeks I have been challenged with this in a major way.  Most of what I do during my regular day is read — either papers, or online.  Even before yesterday, this was a huge challenge.  I read for 30-45 minutes and develop a headache from trying to focus my eye.   I also find my concentration affected, because I keep noticing movement that I don’t expect to be there.  I tried covering my left eye, but my right eye is my weakest eye, and that resulted in significant fatigue as well.

I’m going to put up an autoresponder on my email to let people know there may be a delay in getting back to them — I am operating at only a fraction of my usual capacity.  However, it is difficult to be too upset about this — I can still see (sort of), and I am thankful for that.

Oh, and this doesn’t unduly affect my driving, so you don’t need to avoid me on the roads…unless you did so before this happened. :-)  I can see well enough to drive.  It is only when I want to focus on type or small things that the effects are most noticeable.

Be It Now Resolved…

It is almost that time of year again, to reflect on goals and resolutions — resolutions past, and new resolutions.  It’s the start of a new year!

I have managed to keep all my 2014 resolutions (although I still have a few hours to break #4 — ladies, I’m keeping my phone at the ready; heck, I’ll keep it on all next year, too!).   I also seem to still be keeping my 2013 resolutions and 2012 resolutions, although not everyone will agree that I’ve kept #17 from 2012.

For 2014, I’ll probably keep all the resolutions from the last couple of years, but add some new ones simply to challenge myself.  I’d challenge someone else, but no one listens to me anymore, so this is the best I can do.

Without further ado, I hereby resolve in 2015 to:

  1. Not make any movies about assassinating crazed despots…unless I get the millions in advance.
  2. Cut back on 2nd breakfasts…when anyone is watching.
  3. Not to become a Belieber.
  4. To not get caught again performing unauthorized experiments on undergrads. (NB: I resolve to not get caught, not to stop the experiments.)
  5. Obtain no piercings or other body modifications, especially those that set off the TSA’s magnetometer at the airport. Again.
  6. Not to let slip the secret that Dick Cheney is secretly a Brony.  (oops!)
  7. Not to exact my revenge on that certain someone…especially when approximate revenge will do.
  8. Not to exceed the speed of light…when anyone is watching.
  9. Drink a little less coffee each day, at least to the point where I don’t constantly hear those damn bees.
  10. Under no circumstances contract Ebola, or anything else that would cause me to bleed out of every orifice, such as  watching anything with a Kardashian in it.
  11. Remember — Death before Dishonor…if we respect alphabetic order.
  12. Go to the gym at least 2 times a week.  Sometime before next December, go inside, too, just to check it out.
  13. Be understanding that Jennifer, Adriana, Alessandra, Kate, Candice and the rest are really, really busy and simply have not yet been able to whisk me away.   (That must be the reason, right?)
  14. At university events, pretend to be chalant and gruntled.
  15. Overcome my cravings for cat bacon.
  16. Groot.  Often.  Except when anyone is watching.

Best wishes to you all for 2015!

The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism

There is an undeniable, politically-supported growth of denial — and even hatred — of learning, facts, and the educated. Greed (and, most likely, fear of minorities) feeds demagoguery. Demagoguery can lead to harmful policies and thereafter to mob actions.

I’ve written on this topic here before. I also have cited an excellent essay from Scientific American about how the rising tide of anti-intellectualism threatens our democracy and future (you should read it).

What prompts this post is a recent article about a thinly-veiled political probe of the National Science Foundation, combined with the pending national election in the US. (Some of these issues apply elsewhere in the world, but this is a US-centric post.)

This view is also reinforced by my current experience — I am on a combined speaking tour and family vacation in Poland. I recently visited a memorial to the Katyn massacre, remembering when Soviet NKVD killed 22,000 captured Poles, many of whom were included because they were educated “intelligentsia.” Later today, I am visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, where intellectuals were taken as well as Jews, Romani, the handicapped, and other undesirables, over a million of whom were subsequently executed. The Cambodian killing fields were filled with the bodies of educators, scientists, and doctors — even simply people who wore glasses — and their families, because they were viewed as enemies of the ruling belief system who could point out inconvenient facts and fallacies in the pronouncements of the leaders. History is filled with examples of shuttering of universities, burning of books, banning of lectures, and mass executions of the educated. The death sentence on Socrates is a canonical example of the problem.

I will admit to my own partisan (in the US) leaning here — which is steadily increasing as I observe prior cutbacks to NASA, NSF and basic science (e.g., here), claiming made-up medical evidence to attack women’s health choice issues (e.g., this and this), denial of climate change (e.g., here), denial of evolution, attacks against the EPA in favor of big-money polluters, promoting incorrect history books in for secondary school education, rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education, perpetuating predatory student loan rates and other examples.

There is a clear and growing bias against education and even basic facts, primarily promoted by the GOP. Worse, they are finding widespread social support for these biases. Hiding behind claims of saving taxpayer money (so it can be spent on the military) and promoting religious freedoms (but in practice, only a select set of religions) has become their standard practice; those involved who don’t promote it either tolerate it or attempt to justify it. by picking a few counter-examples or cases of ignorance by other political entities.

For instance, if you read the above examples and were mentally making a list of “That citation is biased” or “All politicians are equally bad” or “But what about when that Democrat said….” then you are almost certainly part of the problem — denying the bigger picture by cherry-picking counterexamples. I won’t debate individual items, because that is to ignore the very clear overall pattern.

Socially, we are seeing the impact — for example, the popularity of Fox “News” stories that continue to present false information, candidates who are lying publicly despite being called out on it because the electorate doesn’t respond (Colbert’s “Truthiness” was a brilliant way of labeling this), the rise of one-issue deniers….

The recent scare-mongering and reactions to the spread of Ebola shows a combination ignorance of science, a political motivation (the GOP claims to want an “Ebola Czar” to make it look like they are doing something, but has been blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General and cutting funds to NIH for years), and even a racial component (1 death and 2 infections in the US is a crisis; thousands dying every week in West Africa merits not a mention).

Another case of malleable facts for political ends? Arguments for voter ID laws are specious and even evil (a veteran GOP US judge called it), but are being justified by made up facts so as to help keep voters disenfranchised who might threaten GOP candidates. (Look at the history of such laws — they are always proposed and passed in GOP-led state legislatures).

I don’t mean to condemn everyone who leans towards the Republicans, nor am I absolving any Democrats of their many peccadillos and faults. Politics tends to breed a certain level of corruption, and people with nuanced views are often unelectable.

However, I am deeply concerned with the direction in which we are headed, spearheaded by one political party, where dumb is considered “statesmanlike,” facts are inconvenient, religious mythology trumps science, and any observation of this is treated as if all views are equally valid. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson is alleged to have responded when creationists demanded equal time to present their view after the airing of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey on TV: “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers. Science is not there for you to cherry pick.”

Beliefs may be equal, but science and history are not “beliefs.” You can choose your beliefs, but you cannot choose facts.

If you have read this far, you are likely educated and capable of thought. You should be concerned about the trends, too. Don’t buy in to “All political parties are the same” because some research into this issue will reveal they are not, at least on this topic. Don’t excuse anti-intellectualism as simply “ conflict of competing belief systems.” Understand it for what is is. Speak out about it. If you are a fan of the GOP’s views on smaller government, immigration, or defense — fine, speak out in GOP forums on issues of science and truth, and make those a priority in your decision-making.

Perhaps more importantly, vote. Urge others to vote. Support candidates of any party who do not deny science, do not belittle education, do not make up their own version of the facts. Get others to vote, and educate them about the candidates. We want the smartest, best-educated people leading the world — not the dumbest, most biased, and most dishonest. Don’t vote solely by political party, although I encourage you to think about the above pattern if you don’t have any other information at hand.

Pastor Martin Niemoller is credited with the famous saying “First they came for the Sociaists, and I did not speak out….Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Let us not be the ones left, for whom there is no one left to speak. Let us seek to ensure that our descendants live in a world where knowledge is valued, truth — even difficult truth — is sought, and idiots are not given public acclaim.

And don’t forget to vote!

(Update: a few hours after I originally posted this, Borowitz came up with an appropriate news parody article in the New Yorker.)

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