Hypotheses are bad?

Posted in Hacking, programmer productivity at 11:55 am by ducky

As mentioned here and here, there is evidence that generating lots of hypotheses helps find the right answer faster.

Hypotheses are a Liability shows that having a hypothesis can make you less able to discover interesting facts about a data set. Very interesting!


COVID19 Animation

Posted in Health, Maps at 3:11 pm by ducky

I have just published a video to YouTube which builds off of the COVID19 maps I mentioned in my last blog post.

After a brief introduction to cartograms, it shows rolling seven-day average COVID-19 case counts by county, animated by day.

My husband commented that it was easy to see how the suffering moved around. Big dark areas show where there was a lot of suffering. Small dark areas show where there was intense, concentrated suffering.

As I mentioned in my last post, the suffering moved around quite a bit, and that is really easy to see in the video.

Check it out!


COVID19 in the US

Posted in Maps at 12:09 pm by ducky

I have been working pretty intimately with US COVID19 cases and deaths data for the past six weeks because of my COVID map application, and here are my big takeaways:

It sucks to go first.

New York and New Orleans got absolutely hammered by COVID early on, and they had a huge number of both cases and deaths. (Yellow is confirmed cases, red is confirmed deaths. Dots are individual days; lines are seven-day rolling averages. Cases are per ten thousand people while deaths are per one hundred thousand people. All of the graphs in this post are at the same scale.)

New York had a huge spike in confirmed cases, followed almost immediately by a huge spike in deaths, so immediately that it’s hard to tell the red line from the yellow line. (I believe that the odd spike in mid-May is due to a reporting issue; about 1500 deaths were reported on that day, but I bet they didn’t happen on that day.)

Note that you need to be a little careful with your interpretation here because there were almost no tests available outside of research labs until mid-March, and very limited tests for quite some time afterwards. The case count is almost certainly an undercount; there is almost no lag between the case peak and the death peak because people didn’t get diagnosed until they were close to death.

Similarly, New Orlean’s first spike was followed almost immediately by a huge spike in deaths. But look at the later two spikes: deaths did not jump significantly after the later two spikes.

I see this over and over. For example, Miami got hit very hard in July:

While Miami did see an increase in deaths, it was not nearly as bad as the deaths New York and Miami saw in April.

Why is this? Unclear. I was not the only person to notice it: here’s a Washington Post article about the phenomenon.

These are a bunch of possibilities:

  1. The virus has mutated and gotten less deadly. The article above says that genetic studies do not bear that out, but doesn’t give any more details.
  2. More testing. While it is true that more testing makes the case count higher, that isn’t a big enough effect to account for the numbers.
  3. The virus is hitting younger people. Another way to look at it might be “we have learned how to protect nursing homes”. I don’t have enough data to be able to tell how big a factor that is.
  4. More people have (at least limited) immunity due to prior non-COVID19 corona virus infections. (Many “common cold” viruses are coronaviruses.) I don’t think that would explain it, unless you think that people in New Orleans didn’t have colds before March but did later on.
  5. We are better at treating the disease. This is certainly true. Giving steroids at the right time appears to be significantly better than not.
  6. People are getting infected lower doses of virus and hence are not getting as sick. This also appears to be the case. The viral load of people showing up at hospitals has been dropping, according to the Washington Post article. This is almost certainly due to people wearing masks, standing six feet apart, avoiding restaurants, etc.

The virus moves.

COVID-19 hotspots move around. First, it was New York.

13 April 2020

(This is a cartogram, where counties’ areas are proportional to their population. Big regions mean cities; small regions are rural. Yellow is good, brown is bad.)

In the summer the Sunbelt got hit.

26 July 2020

Currently, the hotspots are in the northern central-west US — Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, etc., and scattered rural areas.

1 October 2020

There are very few places where the virus has not gotten to — yet. Places that have had outbreaks, particularly which have had nasty outbreaks (I’m looking at you, Northeast), are mostly doing a good job of managing now.

It almost seems like places aren’t able to learn from everyone else’s misery, they need to have a nasty outbreak themselves to truly believe that it can happen to them.

Reopening universities in person was a bad idea.

Cases spiked in early September in college towns:

Home of the University of Illinois
Home of the University of Iowa
Home of Indiana University
Home of the University of Missouri
Home of the University of Pennsylvania

Go VT, NH, ME, PA!

The far northeastern states have done an outstanding job, with almost no cases — yet.

Aside from some minor outbreaks early on and an outbreak right now in Centre County — which is almost certainly due to Penn State University reopening (see above) — Pennsylvania has done a really good job — so far.

Western Oregon and Western Washington have also done a good job — so far. Colorado has mostly done a good job — so far.


Italian wordplay

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:49 am by ducky

I’m studying Italian, and decided to have some fun with alliteration for a recent assignment:

  • If you don’t cheat, we will take care of you: Se si non bara, baderemo a voi.
  • They released the libertine books: Si sono liberati i libri libertini.
  • Everyone was fascinated by the fascist booklets: Tutti affascina dai fascicoli fascisti.
  • Wealthy Rocky was remembered: Si è ricordato ricco Rocco.
  • If you find yourself in a scuffle at a gambling den, don’t give an encore: Quando ci si trova in una rissa nella bisca, non si bissa.
  • You need to put the painting on the easel in order to paint the pony eating the cabbage: Si deve mettere il quadro sul cavalletto in modo di dipingere il cavallino mangiando il cavolo.
  • The high-level students were relieved by lifting the veil of work: Si alleviano gli allievi di un elevato livello levando il velo dal lavorare.
  • In prison, Charles blew up limestone and loaded the cart before going to bed: Nel carcere, Carlo fa scoppiare il calcare e carica il carrello prima di coricarsi.
  • Afterwards, the dust was raining a bit upon the poor octopus: Poi, la polvere pioveva un po’ sulla povera piovra.


Ducky’s Easy French Onion Soup

Posted in Recipes at 6:28 pm by ducky

This probably doesn’t compare to a master’s French Onion soup, with the onions lovingly caramelized in a wine sauce for 40 minutes over the perfect amount of heat. However, it is a lot easier and still really tasty.

Get a bunch of onions — as many as will fit in your oven-safe pot — and take the skins off and that nasty stringy thing at the bottom of the onion. No need to chop the onions up (yet), except to trim as needed to make them all fit into your pot.

Put the onions in the afore-mentioned oven-safe pot. I use a 5.3 litre dutch oven, which holds about nine big onions.

Toss the pot+onions in the oven for three hours at 375F. (I put a lid on my dutch oven; the guy who taught me the trick about caramelizing leaves the lid off and cooks at 300F.) When the three hours are up, just leave them in the oven to cool down. (The oven will have sterilized everything; if you don’t open the door, you ought to be able to leave them in there safely for quite a long time.) I tend to let them cool for two or three hours because I am lazy and also tend to forget about them.

After the onions have cooled, pull them out of the oven and chop them up into bite-sized pieces. (Note that because the onions are now cooked, you can chop them up without any concern about onion tears!)

Put the onions back into the dutch oven and put in enough bouillon/stock to cover them. (I use Better Than Bouillon brand goo. I love that stuff.)

Add thyme, black pepper, and white pepper.

With my 5.3L Dutch oven, I use these amounts:

  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 20-40 turns of my black pepper grinder, which I think is between .75 and 1.5 teaspoons.
  • 20-40 turns of my white pepper grinder, which I think is between .5 and 1 teaspoon

This recipe is very forgiving: a wide range of pepper amounts will be yummy.

Note that I do not add any salt. Most bouillons have enough salt in them already. If you are using home-made soup stock, you might want to add salt.

Heat the wet mixture up. You don’t need to cook it for a long time, you’re just getting the spices mixed in and getting the liquid warm.

Meanwhile, haul out something which is broiler-safe and single-serving sized. We have this soup often enough that we bought specialized French Onion Soup bowls, but ramekins work also.

For each of your bowls, cut a piece of bread to fit the bowl, and cut your favourite cheese to cover the bread. (The canonical French Onion Soup cheese is Gruyere, but me, I prefer cheddar.)

When the wet mixture is warm, put it in your oven safe bowl, float the bread on top of the liquid, and put the cheese on top of the bread.

Take your bowls and put them on a cookie sheet (to catch any spills). Set your oven to broil and put the bowls plus cookie sheet in the oven.

Leave the oven door open a crack. Two reasons: 1) the range manual says to and 2) then you can see when they are done.

Watch. The cheese will melt and bubble and eventually turn golden. When you see just a little bit of brown, you should pull the bowls out. A little bit of singeing is okay, but you don’t want it to burn. This takes about five minutes.

Serve right away. Be careful, the bowls will be HOT!

I’m low class, I like to use a knife to cut up the bread and cheese on the top. (My husband is classier and manages to use only a spoon.) Have a piece of bread handy to clean the bowl with at the end, as you’ll have little yummy bits left.

This recipe and a 5.3L Dutch oven yields a LOT of liquid — maybe enough for ten bowls of soup? The good news is that the wet mixture stores nicely in either the freezer or the fridge. Put it in the oven safe bowls, toss it in the microwave to heat it up a bit, add bread and cheese, then put it in the broiler. (If you put it in the broiler without heating the liquid first, the liquid will be unsatisfyingly tepid.)



The perfect task manager changed my life

Posted in Family, Hacking, Married life, programmer productivity, Technology trends at 11:07 am by ducky

After waiting literally decades for the right to-do list manager, I finally broke down and am writing one myself, provisionally called Finilo*.  I have no idea how to monetize it, but I don’t care.  I am semi-retired and I want it.

I now have a prototype which has the barest, barest feature set and already it has changed my life.  In particular, to my surprise, my house has never been cleaner!

Before, there were three options:

  1. Do a major clean every N days. This is boring, tedious, tiring, and doesn’t take into account that some things need to be cleaned often and some very infrequently. I don’t need to clean the windows very often, but I need to vacuum the kitchen every few days.
  2. Clean something when I notice that it is dirty. This means that stuff doesn’t get clean until it’s already on the edge of gross.
  3. Hire someone to clean every N days. This means that someone else gets the boring, tedious, tiring work, but it’s a chore to find and hire someone, you have to arrange for them to be in your space and be somewhat disruptive, and of course it costs money.

Now, with Finilo, it is easy to set up repeating tasks at different tempos. I have Finilo tell me every 12 days to clean the guest-bathroom toilet, every 6 days to vacuum the foyer, every 300 to clean the master bedroom windows, etc.

Because Finilo encourages me to make many small tasks, each of the tasks feels easy to do. I don’t avoid the tasks because they are gross or because the task is daunting. Not only that, but because I now do tasks regularly, I don’t need to do a hyper-meticulous job on any given task. I can do a relatively low-effort job and that’s good enough. If I missed a spot today, enh, I’ll get it next time.

This means that now, vacuuming the foyer or cleaning the toilet is a break — an opportunity to get up from my desk and move around a little — instead of something to avoid. This is much better for my productivity instead of checking Twitter and ratholing for hours. (I realize that if you are not working from home, you can’t go vacuum the foyer after finishing something, but right now, many people are working from home.)

It helps that I told Finilo how long it takes to do each chore. I can decide that I want to take a N minute break, and look at Finilo to see what I task I can do in under that time. It does mean that I ran around with a stopwatch for a few weeks as I did chores, but it was totally worth it. (Cleaning the toilet only takes six minutes. Who knew?)

And this, like I said, is with a really, really early version of Finilo. It’s got a crappy, ugly user interface, it breaks often, I can’t share tasks with my spouse, it’s not smart enough yet to tell me when I am taking on more than I can expect to do in a day, there’s not a mobile version, etc. etc. etc… and I still love it!

*Finilo is an Esperanto word meaning “tool for finishing”.


Tommaso, Riccardo, e Araldo

Posted in Random thoughts at 9:55 pm by ducky

I recently discovered that Italian has something similar to but not identical to the English “Tom, Dick, and Harry”: “Tizio, Caio and Sempronio”.

While in English, “Tom, Dick, and Harry” means “everyone” (and “Tom, Dick, or Harry” means anyone), “Tizio”, “Caio” and “Sempronio” are placeholders for actual humans whose identities are not important.  (In computer science terms, they are aliases.)

You might use them like this:

We had real trouble in our Zoom class last night.  First, Tizio couldn’t find the link for the video.  Then when we were all trying to watch the video, Caio’s dog started barking and Caio couldn’t figure out how to mute. Finally, once we got into a breakout room, Sempronio couldn’t figure out how to unmute herself!

In English, the first thing I could think of was “Alice” and “Bob” (which are canonical names in the computer security field for two people trying to pass a message securely), but those are people with specific roles, not aliases for some person who is very specific in the story you’re telling.  Similarly, “Karen” has the role of being an entitled jerk, while “Chad” has the role of getting all the chicks. 

While I am not familiar with the usage, apparently “Bubba” is used sort of like “John, Dick, or Harry” in some cases.

“John Doe” is used in a somewhat similar manner to Tizio, Caio and Sempronio, but that name is is used to deliberately obscure someone’s identity, or when the identity is unknown.  Tizio, Caio and Sempronio, on the other hand, are used when it doesn’t matter.  (I don’t remember which of my classmates had trouble with her mute button, but it doesn’t matter to the story.)

The Wikipedia page on Tizio, Caio, e Sempronio (in Italian) says that there are analogues in other languages, including “Pierre, Paul ou Jacques” in French, “Hinz und Kunz” in German, and “Andersson, Pettersson och Lundström” in Swedish.  (The page also mentions “Tom, Dick, and Harry”, so the exact details of how these names are used clearly varies by language.)

Tizio, Caio and Sempronio were real figures in Roman history, and the use of their names in this way is veerrrrry old, first showing up in legal writings in ~1000AD.

Language is so interesting!


Grief (non-fiction)

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:34 pm by ducky

“Uh, I’m not sure”, I told my husband. Everything had happened so fast — the scream, her still-breathing body, the sirens, the first responders — that I hadn’t actually stopped to ask myself how I felt. I took stock. “I… I’m okay — I’m actually surprised at how good I’m feeling.” Inside my brain, a facet of me was absolutely appalled that I could be so calm, so unfeeling, after witnessing a suicide attempt.

Husband and I talked for a few minutes, and I decided I was going to continue on to work as I had originally planned. Hubby had had something else he wanted to do that evening, so — given that I appeared to be surprisingly fine — I continued on to the startup where I worked.

Later, when collaborating with a colleague, I found it hard to focus with the jumper’s scream echoing through my head. I apologized for my lack of focus, telling him I’d just witnessed a suicide attempt. My colleague, a trauma survivor, insisted that I call a suicide hotline.

I resisted, since I had not committed suicide, but he was relentless (for which I am grateful).

I told the nice woman who called me back that I thought I was in good shape except I couldn’t forget the scream and I was shocked at how callous I was.

“In times of stress, it is absolutely normal for your emotions to shut down”, she told me. “It’s a survival mechanism so that you can deal with the threat.” I had not known that.


I had been watching the pandemic in China with a wary eye as we returned to British Columbia from London in mid-February 2020. I watched the United States fumble its preparation for the pandemic’s arrival, and worried about it, as if my worry could speed up the arrival of working test kits. I kept watching, and they kept fumbling. More watching, more utter lack of progress.

I remember March 11th, when Trump had a truly awful press conference. That same day, a famous actor and a professional basketball player announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Things happened very fast after that. For example, several professional sports leagues quickly cancelled their seasons, and California put some social distancing requirements in place. I had a real sense that a lot of people had been waiting for the federal government to take action, but after Trump’s awful press conference, realized that there would be no leadership from above. “I guess we are not going to get guidance from the government”, I imagined them saying. “I guess we need to act on our own.”

Me, I shut down. I had no more worry left, just an aching sadness. I knew then that a bunch of people who I cared about were going to die. Probably tens of people, maybe even hundreds.

And I knew there was nothing I could do about it.

Like when I watched the pain of the woman who destroyed her body by jumping off the bridge, I am watching the country of my birth go through an agony, at least part of which it brought upon itself.

What hotline number do I call when an entire country goes off the rails? How do I grieve for people who aren’t dead yet?


Watching the beginnings of COVID-19

Posted in Canadian life, Politics, Random thoughts at 6:50 pm by ducky

On 22 Oct 1987, when the stock market crashed hard, I happened to be on the UCSB campus. I was surprised that the sun was out and people were smiling and laughing. I immediately realized that it was stupid to expect the world to turn black&white and bread lines to form immediately.

Still, that’s the place my brain jumped to.

I am having a similar odd disconnect right now. COVID-19 has been going for several months now, and yesterday there was widespread and somewhat sudden action in both the US and Canada.

Everything is going to be vastly changed for weeks, or months, maybe even a few years, and yet I see people walking blithely down the street, cars driving across the bridges, and joggers running on the seawall. Acting normal.

Meanwhile, I think about the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu. When I was growing up (born in the 60s), I never heard about the Spanish Flu. It really wasn’t until the Web came along that I got the full story. Why didn’t anyone (like my grandparents, who were teenagers in 1918) talk about it before?

Maybe it was boring to them because everyone they knew had talked about it forever. I bet, however, it was because it was too traumatic. I know that I don’t like to discuss Trump’s election or the Iraq war because it is so painful for me.

And I wonder where that switch gets flipped. How does that transition happen? How will we go from today’s blitheness to it being too painful to talk about it?

I suspect the answer is “lots of trauma”. I’m not looking forward to that.


How do you share your bad news?

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:41 pm by ducky

My mother died. It wasn’t a big surprise — she had had cancer for three years, and was not having a good time.

I am discovering that I am human: I burst into tears somewhat unpredictably, I find myself regularly thinking, “Oh, I should tell Mom about… oh wait, no I can’t.” I had heard people talk about those effects, so I know those would happen.

But nobody told me how to break the news. If there is a convention in our culture for how to break the news, well, I must have been sick the day we covered that material.

It was straightforward to notify her friends. I phoned them and told them. It was right and appropriate and the mere fact that I phoned them was an indication that something was wrong. It was sometimes hard for me to get the words out, but her friends understood, in part because they also were grieving.

Telling strangers was slightly harder than telling her friends. Sometimes I had to tell a company, e.g. ones Mom was a customer of. If the company was big enough that they had a branch dedicated to closing accounts for deceased people, it wasn’t so bad, but for smaller companies, sometimes the person on the other end would not be emotionally prepared, and it would remind them of some loss of theirs and set them off, which would set me off.

(There was exactly one company, her newspaper, which was insensitive. The agent kept very aggressively trying to get me to take over her subscription even though I don’t live in Mom’s town.)

But nobody prepared me for the angst of how to tell my friends and acquaintances, especially those who lived in other cities. Send them an email with the subject line, “Mom died”? Send a chatty email about the weather and say, “oh, by the way, Mom died yesterday”? Or do I wait and say, “oh, by the way, Mom died last month”? Or should I wait until I see them in person, which might be a year or two from now? Or do I just not tell them — ever?

For people I run into who I know and like but am not super close to, a simple “How’s it going?” makes my brain freeze for a minute. Do I just give the pro forma “fine?”. Do I blurt out “my mom died”? Do I wait for an appropriate place in the conversation? Is there an appropriate place? Am I going to burst into tears or am I going to be able to maintain composure?

I thus have been completely bumbling along and inconsistent. Some people I have told unbidden. Some people I’ve told when asked how I was. Some people I just… haven’t told… yet. I tell myself I’m doing the best I can, but I know I am lying to myself. I don’t even have the foggiest idea what “best” looks like.

So I’m blogging this. Perhaps this will catch some of the people I haven’t told yet.

« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »