Boston Chapter 5: Little Hospital of Horrors

I’m a little surprised, whenever I think about it, that human beings were able to successfully treat, much less cure, any disease whatsoever prior to…oh, I don’t know, about 1977 or so.

Seriously, whenever one picks up a history book or (God forbid) a book on medical technology, it seems that before the advent of Star Wars all we had were superstition, stone knives, and dried tiger penises. In fact, even to this day, many people’s sum total understanding of basic biology scarcely extends beyond stone knives and dried tiger penises–but I didn’t come here to talk about the alt-medicine crowd.

Instead, I came here to talk about Boston. Err, not Boston itself, you understand, but our journey toward that fabled (and by now near-mythical) Xanadu, where my friend Claire had been accepted to a university or a Thunderdome or something. By this point, it was all getting a bit blurry, what with the heat and the prairie dogs and the Jesus of Wheat and all.

When we next set out, with Erica driving and me trying with only modest success to deal with a client’s crisis of some sort about something or other, the temperature was already nudging toward the triple digits. Frankly, I’m sometimes a bit surprised that any human being successfully survived summer in the Midwest prior to the invention of air conditioning. We had determined days before to make a stop at the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. We had a book which called it one of the 50 “most unusual museums in the United States.” I’m not quite sure who made that list or on what criteria it was based, but the Museum of Spam (the quasi-meat product, not the email full of Nigerian princes and penis pills) is on the list, and that’s good enough for me.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum is housed in what’s left of Missouri State Lunatic Asylum No. 2–yep, that was its official name. Now, I’ve seen a number of Hollywood films involving a small number of friends who happen to be traveling alone across the country. All of them recommend stopping for a time in the ruins of an old lunatic asylum, so stop we did.

The first thing one sees upon entering the museum is this old newspaper illustration, apparently dating back to the time of the asylum’s founding, which depicts life in an insane asylum as a rather proper Victorian affair replete with formal tea and, I don’t know, Badminton games or something. “I say, old chap, after our noonday repast, would you fancy a stroll through the park, followed by a rousing cricket match?” “That sounds delightful, dear fellow, but I rather think we should postpone the afternoon meal until after our sport.” “After our sport? I say, are you mad?” “Quite so, old sport!”

We ventured farther in, where we were met by a cheerful gentleman who assured us that no psychotic, supernatural offspring of crazed serial killers bent on bloody vengeance had been seen ’round the grounds in almost a fortnight, so we were confident that our stay would be pleasant and free of the bother one normally can expect from such things.

It doesn’t take very long to realize that anyone unwise enough to be crazy prior to the age of Pac-Man was in for rather sorry treatment at the hands of his fellow man. The museum has a floor full of devices which had previously been used to “treat” mental illness, and to my (admittedly untrained) eye, rather a lot of them looked indistinguishable from the sorts of devices the Inquisitors might use. Take these gadgets, for example:

The chair on the left was used to calm patients by restricting their mobility. Sometimes, apparently, for weeks. The gizmo on the left was designed to confine a person in a very small box which would then be spun ’round at high speed until the unfortunate occupant passed out or threw up, or both–presumably on the premise that a vomiting mental patient is better than a mental patient who…um, isn’t vomiting, or, err, something. The precise details of the therapeutic modality are beyond my grasp of the art.

And the definitions of “mentally ill” were as all over the map as the treatments. In ages past, an unmarried woman who wanted children might be confined to an asylum, as might a married woman who didn’t. (True fact: the dude who invented the diagnoses of “nymphomania” included diagnostic criteria such as a fondness for chocolate and a penchant for reading works of fiction, I swear I am not making this up.)

It rather seems, all in all, that the considered opinion of the entire medical establishment over a very long span of time was that the mentally ill were just being stubborn, and merely needed a few nasty knocks about the head to get them to cut it out. This seems to your humble scribe rather like saying a legless man is simply being lazy, and all he needs is a good swift kick in the pants to get him on his feet again…though I didn’t come here to talk about the Republican party, either.

The general theme of “knock them about a bit ’til they learn to cut it out” as a treatment modality for cognitive and emotional impairment continues through quite a lot of the medical equipment on display:

Some of the items in their collection would look, I have to say, right at home here in my dungeon, and I wouldn’t mind building something like that long cage on the left…but only for people who are of sound and willing mind. I may be a mad scientist, but I’m not, well, crazy, you know? At least not like the folks who actually thought these things would do some good.

A number of other displays commemorated the sometimes colorful and occasionally fatal eccentricities of a few of the hospital’s more outstanding patients. Take this one, for example, which is just kind of weird until you know what it is, at which point it becomes weird and gross.

This bizarre work of art was made by hospital staff, not by a patient, out of the materials found in a patient’s…err, stomach. The patient in question, you see, had what would today be called obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the particular manifestation of her obsession lay in eating any little bits of sharp pointy metal things that she could get her hands on. Which, as you might expect, eventually killed her.

See? Weird and gross. I did try to warn you.

This guy, on the other hand, was straight out of the X-Files:

The story, as near as I can remember it, is that there was this dude who was completely convinced he was sane, while all the people around him thought that he was stark raving mad. He was utterly convinced that there were railroad box cars containing evidence of his sanity being kept at an undisclosed location, and he wrote about them obsessively. Somewhere along the way, he also became convinced that the television set in his room contained a secret mechanism by which he could send messages to the vague and sinister forces hiding the box cars from him, or perhaps to agents opposing those sinister forces (it’s not entirely clear to your humble scribe) so he wrote long, rambling, incoherent letters about box car numbers and train routes and railway schedules and stuff, or something, and tucked them inside the television set, until it eventually quit working.

Which, I reckon, wasn’t actually the outcome he had hoped for. It’s bad enough when a secret conspiracy has plotted to conceal evidence vital to your sanity in railway cars; it’s even worse when you can’t watch next week’s Gunsmoke on television.

This next bit is a tiny section of a huuuuuge piece of embroidery, created by hand by a patient on what I believe to be a hospital bedsheet.

We puzzled over it for quite a while. Reading it is rather like trying to track a coherent thought through a untrodden jungle the way a traditional Chinese doctor might track a tiger across the savannah, following its telltale traces in the slightest disturbance of underbrush, before shooting it in the head and drying out its penis to make phony aphrodisiacs that are sold in small glass vials from musty shops whose owners don’t really give a toss about the extinction of a noble species for the sake of superstition…but I digress.

This display one was one of my favorites.

One should not court another man’s wife if one wishes to avoid a sticky fate. You heard it here first.

The basement of the old hospital, where we ended up after we decided to separate and explore the ancient lunatic asylum separately just as Hollywood has taught us to do, bore a large steel door with these markings:

It is unclear to your humble scribe exactly what sort of disaster supplies one keeps in the morgue, or indeed what eventuality those supplies are intended to ward against. I can only imagine it’s not a zombie-related disaster, as keeping one’s zombie-related disaster supplies in the same location as the corpses of the newly dead is likely to result in a certain inconvenience.

We fled the museum through the gift shop, where many commemorative items were available for sale (“Relive the experience again and again!”), and then were once again on our way to Shangri-La. There were by now only a couple of adventures left before our encounter with the Guatemalans and our renewed appreciation to the full fury of Nature’s watery wrath, but those tales will need to wait for another telling.

Review: Kinklabs Neon Wand

Back when I was married and living in Tampa, one of my favorite sex toys in the sex toy drawer box closet was a violet wand. It’s a gadget that you plug glass electrodes into and then plug into the wall. When you turn it on, it makes a buzzing noise and the glass electrodes turn purple, and then when you touch someone with the electrodes you get a sensation that’s like…

Well, it’s kinda hard to describe what it’s like. A lot of folks (like me!) who don’t like electrical play still like violet wands, because they don’t really feel like electric shocks. It’s more like little teensy hot needles caressing your skin. There are lots of different shapes of electrodes, that all make different sensations, but that’s the basic theme.

They’re amazing toys. They’re also very spendy. The violet wand I used to have cost me about $700, so when I lost it, I couldn’t afford to replace it, and I’ve been missing it ever since.

Recently, JT’s Stockroom sent me a neon wand as part of a promotion. And, to be honest, I’ve been waiting for someone to realize the market for cheap, reliable violet wands for rather a long time.

This is the Kinklab Neon Wand. If you really want to get technical, it’s not a violet wand, though the reasons that’s true are largely academic.

But, since this journal has never been afraid to venture forth into the academic, I’ll explain why; click here if if you’re interested.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Tentacles!

For the past several years, zaiah has wanted to make a Christmas tree with a “tentacle rape demons and the schoolgirls they love” theme.

This year, we finally made it happen.

We managed to obtain (please don’t ask me how) quite a large pile of Barbie dolls. In November, we hosted an 11/11/11 party which featured, among other things1, a lot of folks eating Jell-O shots and putting the Barbies into shibari rope harnesses. The Barbies serve as the innocent victims, which as we all know every tentacle monster needs plenty of in order to grow up big and strong.

Click here for more pictures…

Microsoft’s Future: Just Like the Present, Only More

Recently, Microsoft’s PR department cobbled together a whizbang vision of our technological future, as seen through the lens of Microsoft’s ideas about technology and man/machine interface.

It’s a remarkable bit of work, though likely not quiiiiiite for the reasons Microsoft might think. If you haven’t seen it yet, here it is–it (kind of) requires sound and is safe for work, unless perhaps you work for Google or Apple.

Now, a few things struck me when I watched this video.

Not just the sterility of it, or the fact that in Microsoft’s future we’re all upper middle class, or the fact that nobody actually talks to anyone else. Those things are all true, I suppose, and reflect Microsoft’s corporate identity as a painfully introverted, socially awkward, borderline-autistic Lex Luthor, as befits its founder and cultural leader Bill Gates.

No what struck me as I watched this video was the fact that there are no disruptive technologies. Everything here is just an evolution of tech we already have.

Displays mounted on walls, instead of displays being walls. Handheld cell phones with 3D screens, instead of completely virtualized input and output (say, contact lenses with 3D displays). “Computing devices” being distinct entities from other devices. Cars that have displays embedded in their windows, rather than cars whose windows–or paint jobs!–are displays. And everywhere swipe, swipe, push, and swipe.

It reads to me as if Microsoft in 1982 had released a version of the future where keyboards are really thin and we all type commands into command prompts in glorious 24-bit color instead of using GUIs…you know, rather like Linux users do today.

When I look at this video, what I see is the Jetsons. Remember the Jetsons, the cartoon that told us that the future would have us living in glass-domed pods floating in the air, but that gender roles and social norms would still be just like they were in 1959? In the Jetsons future, instead of making robotic vacuum cleaners, you make robotic maids that push regular vacuum cleaners around.

Now, I get it. Disruptive technologies are, by their nature, hard to predict. Visions of the future always end up getting it wrong, sometimes in ways that look silly.

But man, Microsoft isn’t even trying. To them, the future is just like the present, only longer. What’s missing from their vision isn’t just imagination; it’s humanness. It’s a sense of how people use technology, and how the street finds its own uses for things.

To me, that, more than anything else, is Microsoft’s failure.

Science Literacy: Of Pickles and Probability


For immediate release: Scientists at the Min Planck Institute announced today that placing a pickle on your nose can improve telekinetic ability.

According to the researchers, they performed a study in which a volunteer was asked to place a pickle on her nose and then flip a coin to see whether or not the pickle would help her flip heads. The volunteer flipped the coin, which came up heads.

“This is a crowning achievement for our research,” the study’s authors said. “Our results show that having a pickle on your nose allows you to determine the outcome of a coin-toss.”

Let’s say you’re browsing the Internet one day, and you come across this report. Now, you’d probably think that there was something hinkey about this experiment, right? We know intuitively that the odds of a coin toss coming up heads are about 50/50, so if someone puts a pickle on her nose and flips a coin, that doesn’t actually prove a damn thing. But we might not know exactly how that applies to studies that don’t involve flipping coins.

So let’s talk about our friend p. This is p.

p represents the probability that a scientific study’s results are total bunk. Formally, it’s the probability that results like the ones observed could occur even if the null hypothesis is true. In English, that basically means that it represents how likely it is to get these results even if whatever the study is trying to show doesn’t actually exist at all, and so the study’s results don’t mean a damn thing.

Every experiment (or at least every experiment seeking to show a relationship between things) has a p value. In the nose-pickle experiment, the p value is 0.5, which means there is a 50% chance that the subject would flip heads even if there’s no connection between the pickle on her nose and the results of the experiment.

There’s a p value associated with any experiment. For example if someone wanted to show that watching Richard Simmons on television caused birth defects, he might take two groups of pregnant ring-tailed lemurs and put them in front of two different TV sets, one of them showing Richard Simmons reruns and one of them showing reruns of Law & Order, to see if any of the lemurs had pups that were missing legs or had eyes in unlikely places or something.

But here’s the thing. There’s always a chance that a lemur pup will be born with a birth defect. It happens randomly.

So if one of the lemurs watching Richard Simmons had a pup with two tails, and the other group of lemurs had normal pups, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that watching Mr. Simmons caused birth defects. The p value of this experiment is related to the probability that one out of however many lemurs you have will randomly have a pup with a birth defect. As the number of lemurs gets bigger, the probability of one of them having a weird pup gets bigger. The experiment needs to account for that, and the researchers who interpret the results need to factor that into the analysis.

If you want to be able to evaluate whether or not some study that supposedly shows something or other is rubbish, you need to think about p. Most of the time, p is expressed as a “less than or equal to” thing, as in “This study’s p value is <= 0.005″. That means “We don’t know exactly what the p value is, but we know it can’t be greater than one half of one percent.”

A p value of 0.005 is pretty good; it means there’s a 0.5% chance that the study is rubbish. Obviously, the larger the p value, the more skeptical you should be of a study. A p value of 0.5, like with our pickle experiment, shows that the experiment is pretty much worthless.

There are a lot of ways to make an experiment’s p value smaller. With the pickle experiment, we could simply do more than one trial. As the number of coin tosses goes up, the odds of a particular result go down. If our subject flips a coin twice, the odds of getting a heads twice in a row are 1 in 4, which gives us a p value of 0.25–still high enough that any reasonable person would call rubbish on a positive trial. More coin tosses still give successively smaller p values; the p value of our simple experiment is given (roughly) by 1/2n, where n is the number of times we flip the coin.

There’s more than just the p value to consider when evaluating a scientific study, of course. The study still needs to be properly constructed and controlled. Proper control groups are important for eliminating confirmation bias, which is a very powerful tendency for human beings to see what they expect to see and to remember evidence that supports their preconceptions while forgetting evidence which does not. And, naturally, the methodology has to be carefully implemented too. A lot goes into making a good experiment.

And even if the experiment is good, there’s more to deciding whether or not its conclusions are valid than looking at its p value. Most experiments are considered pretty good if they have a p value of .005, which means there’s a 1 in 200 chance that the results could be attributed to pure random chance.

That sounds like it’s a fairly good certainty, but consider this: That’s about the same as the odds of flipping heads on a coin 8 times in a row.

Now, if you were to flip a coin eight times, you’d probably be surprised if it landed on heads every single time.

But, if you were to flip a coin eight thousand times, it would be surprising if you didn’t get eight heads in a row somewhere in there.

One of the hallmarks of science is replicability. If something is true, it should be true no matter how many people run the experiment. Whenever an experiment is done, it’s never taken as gospel until other people also do it. (Well, to be fair, it’s never taken as gospel period; any scientific observation is only as good as the next data.)

So that means that experiments get repeated a lot. And when you do something a lot, sometimes, statistical anomalies come in. If you flip a coin enough times, you’re going to get eight heads in a row, sooner or later. If you do an experiment enough times, you’re going to get weird results, sooner or later.

So a low p value doesn’t necessarily mean that the results of an experiment are valid. In order to figure out if they’re valid or not, you need to replicate the experiment, and you need to look at ALL the results of ALL the trials. And if you see something weird, you need to be able to answer the question “Is this weird because something weird is actually going on, or is this weird because if you toss a coin enough times you’ll sometimes see weird runs?”

That’s where something called Bayesian analysis comes in handy.

I’m not going to get too much into it, because Bayesian analysis could easily make a post (or a book) of its own. In this context, the purpose of Bayesian analysis is to ask the question “Given the probability of something, and given how many times I’ve seen it, could what I’m seeing can be put down to random chance without actually meaning squat?”

For example, if you flip a coin 50 times and you get a mix of 30 heads and 20 tails, Bayesian analysis can answer the question “Is this just a random statistical fluke, or is this coin weighted?”

When you evaluate a scientific study or a clinical trial, you can’t just take a single experiment in isolation, look at its p value, and decide that the results must be true. You also have to look at other similar experiments, examine their results, and see whether or not what you’re looking at is just a random artifact.

I ran into a real-world example of how this can fuck you up a bit ago, where someone on a forum I belong to posted a link to an experiment that purports to show that feeding genetically modified corn to mice will cause health problems in their offspring. The results were (and still are) all over the Internet; fear of genetically modified food is quite rampant among some folks, especially on the political left.

The experiment had a p value of <= .005, meaning that if the null hypothesis is true (that is, there is no link between genetically modified corn and the health of mice), we could expect to see this result about one time in 200.

So it sounds like the result is pretty trustworthy…until you consider that literally thousands of similar experiments have been done, and they have shown no connection between genetically modified corn and ill health in test mice.

If an experiment’s p value is .005, and you do the experiment a thousand times, it’s not unexpected that you’d get 5 or 6 “positive” results even if the null hypothesis is true. This is part of the reason that replicability is important to science–no matter how low your p value may be, the results of a single experiment can never be conclusive.

Woohoo! A cease and desist email!

This is actually the second time I’ve received a cease and desist demand in regards to a Web site that I run. And boy, is it a strange one.

So some of the readers of this blog may be aware that I run a Web site called Fine Tuned Mac, which is a Macintosh technical troubleshooting forum. It was born when C-Net bought the largest Mac forum site, MacFixIt, so that they could shut it down and direct traffic to their own rival Mac site.

Anyway, this evening, the following gem of an email appeared in my inbox, which I reproduce in all its glory for your entertainment:

Subject: – Notice of Infringement of Intellectual Property Rights of Rosetta Stone Ltd. [Case #70995]
Date: December 1, 2011 9:37:35 AM PST
To: Franklin Veaux

To whom it may concern:

This is to inform you that a website you manage,, has come to the attention of Rosetta Stone Ltd. (“Rosetta Stone”).

Rosetta Stone’s automated monitoring software continually monitors, collects and stores instances of unauthorized use, sales or other violations of Rosetta Stone’s intellectual property rights on the Internet. Our records indicate that your site,, has employed an advertising or sales campaign that may have incorporated Rosetta Stone products and/or trademarks or terms confusingly similar thereto.

In order to ensure your compliance with our request, you should (i) delete “Rosetta”, “Rosetta Stone” and any variations thereof, from your search engine keyword list, and (ii) add “-Rosetta” and “-Rosetta Stone” as negative keywords (negative matching) to your search engine keyword list. If you have questions, the search engine websites explain how this is done.

We believe that there is no legitimate reason or basis for you to rely on any Rosetta Stone trademark, image or product in your marketing or sales campaigns, and encourage you to review all of your advertising campaigns and sites to avoid such practices in the future.

Rosetta Stone Ltd.

Now, there are a number of things about this email that jump out at me, the first and perhaps most relevant being that Fine Tuned Mac doesn’t have a marketing or advertising budget, and the second being that if we did have a marketing or advertising budget, advertising the site using Rosetta Stone’s logo or trademarks wouldn’t do fuckall for us, since our target demographic is Mac geeks rather than hipsters who think they can get laid if they learn Italian.

So I wrote them this reply. What do you think, too formal?

To whom it may concern:

Your IP department appears to have gone mad.

I can’t tell if it’s too much time spent listening to crappy language tutorials on CD or too much time spent shooting moodily lit photographs of said CDs to appear in Skymall magazine, but Fine Tuned Mac does not, and never has, used any Rosetta Stone image, product, brand name, trademark, or any other intellectual property for any reason.

In fact, I am quite baffled (German: verdutzt; French: déconcerté; Italian: sconcertato; Finnish: hämmentynyt) by your email. Try as I might, I can not make head nor tail of what you’re talking about. Fine Tuned Mac is a free forum-based Macintosh technical troubleshooting site. We have no marketing campaigns, and the only Google ads we’ve ever run have focused solely on Macintosh troubleshooting terms.

Now, I can perhaps, if I squint REALLY hard, perhaps see where you might have run off the rails, insofar as there are troubleshooting threads on the Fine Tuned Mac Web site that talk about Rosetta. However, what you may not know is that Rosetta is Apple’s trade name for their proprietary real-time interpreter that permits machine code written for PowerPC processors to run on Intel-based computers. If you’re unfamiliar with any of those terms, you might find a Google search enlightening.

Should you have a problem with Apple’s use of the word “Rosetta,” I respectfully (well, as respectfully as I can manage, anyway) suggest you take this up with Apple’s intellectual property lawyers.

I trust this concludes your interest in Fine Tuned Mac.

Franklin Veaux