Philip K. Dick's vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.
Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.
In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.
No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.
I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.
I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Words with dundant or fluous fixes

Words that aren’t opposites

  • real — unreal
  • canny — uncanny
  • valuable — invaluable
  • credulous — incredulous
  • fact — fiction (this is actually a deep one. Roots of both are in proto-indo-european words for “to make”)
  • mure — demure
  • vert — invert
  • aging — imaging
  • pact — impact
  • mediate — immediate
  • predate — postdate
  • toward — untoward

Prefixed words that aren’t words and don’t have prefixes. Some of these are words that aren’t opposites because one of them isn’t a word.

  • ert — inert
  • molish — demolish
  • venient — convenient
  • dundant — redundant
  • fluous — superfluous
  • becile — imbecile
  • agining — imagining
  • plicate — replicate
  • gruntled — disgruntled
  • sidious — insidious
  • whelmed — overwhelmed
  • rageous — outrageous
  • cursion — recursion
  • imburse — reimburse
  • burse — reimburse
  • fluous — superfluous
  • cilious — supercilious
  • quited — requited
  • quited — unrequited
  • vagant — extravagant
  • bolé — hyperbole
  • bolic — hyperbolic
  • luctant — reluctant
  • hap — mishap
  • pugnant — repugnant
  • dolent — redolent

Also, words with redundant prefixes, and

  • reiterate — iterate
  • concatenate — catenate
  • intercatenate — catenate
  • encompass — compass
  • eminant — preeminant
  • perception — apperception

Other fixed words whose meanings don’t correspond to those of their bases

  • irrespective
  • consummate
  • insure
  • ensure
  • fulsome
  • remiss
  • relax
  • reply
  • reflux
  • reflex
  • convent
  • effable

This post was formerly “Words that aren’t opposites,” but it’s bigger now. Obviously, there’s room for more.
See also, islands that don’t exist, and list of fictional guidebooks.


This entry was posted on Monday, March 20th, 2017 and is filed under life and words, lists.

Bless me

So I was just walking down the street when some nice person I don’t know gave me a nice kind smile and said “God Bless You” kind of out of nowhere. At first I thought, “How nice and friendly, I love small towns” and I transitioned from there into “What a strange and archaic greeting.” Did he want my money? He had been crouched against the side of a building, but that was just because he had been stooping to help his dog. Had he been flyering for Jesus? (By this time I’ve continued well past him, and am just working back through the encounter in my head) Nope, no pamphlets. The closest I ever got to that key insight into the whole thing was that he must be a Shaker or Amish guy recently departed from his closed community of a dozen families and their quaint ways who has just gotten into his first big city of 5,000+ people and hasn’t yet learned that you’re not supposed to say Hi to everyone. But I didn’t actually finish that thought—it was around there that I realized from a still-damp hand that I must have sneezed.
Maybe this is what it means to live a life of the mind.


This entry was posted on Friday, July 8th, 2016 and is filed under life and words.

Generosity of spirit is the generosity of taking

I used to experiment with giving. In one instance I walked around my daily life with a bag of cherries, offering them to acquaintances and even random people on the street. It’s obnoxious, I know, but I would get all pushy and at other times try to guess who would take me up. It didn’t happen often with strangers, and not even much with people I knew, but it happened. I’ve thought about it a lot, and in some way “generous” is the best word for the ones that took the most.
[years pass]
So how gratifying to find the same case made much more clearly and strongly, by the literary wanderer John Steinbeck in a beautiful eulogistic memoir of marine biologist Ed Ricketts?

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it is well-done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.
It requires self-esteem to receive–not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Appendix, “About Ed Ricketts”, Penguin Books, 1951, pp. 272-3


This entry was posted on Thursday, November 26th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

Individually wrapped M&Ms

Visiting Japan, and with a little time in Taiwan and Korea, it’s been comical the amount of packaging around snacks in East Asia. But these individually wrapped M&Ms, from Indonesia, take the cake. They’re packaged with a foil backing, like pills.


This entry was posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

Some people know how to kill

Certain processes are vital to the computer’s operation and should not be killed. For example, after I took the screenshot of myself being attacked by csh, csh was shot by friendly fire from behind, possibly by tcsh or xv, and my session was abruptly terminated.

Context? This. Turns out I’m only 14 years behind the latest word on Doom as a system administration tool.

Some people know how to live

While following the Rolling Stones across the country during their 1972 tour, Jim Bell found a discarded cardboard sign on the side of the road that read: “ALASKA.” On a whim he picked it up and stuck his thumb out. He’s been here ever since.*


This entry was posted on Saturday, March 7th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

The scientist as dataset — specifically a high-rez, 4-D facial capture dataset

I am data for my colleagues at Disney Research. Note lawless dentition and sorry excuse for anger.

Sailing west down the Panama Canal will get you into which ocean?

The Atlantic.
And when you get to the Pacific, and sail up to L.A., you can drive west toward Reno. WHile we’re at it, there is also a sliver of the world where the timezones go backward. Thank you geopolitics.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Toothbrushes are up to 95% less effective after 3 months and hugging your children regularly can raise their risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%

It sounds impossible, but this statistic is true:

Hugging your child regularly can raise his or her risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%.

I don’t even need a citation. Does it mean parents should stop hugging their children? No. You’d think that it couldn’t possibly be right, but the truth is even better: it couldn’t possibly be wrong.
And there are other statistics just like it. I was at a Walmart and on the side of a giant bin of commodity toothbrushes I read that “a new toothbrush is up to 95% more effective than a 3 month old toothbrush in reducing plaque between teeth.”
If you’ve heard related things like “Your toothbrush stops working after three months,” from TV or word of mouth, I’ve found that they all come as butchered versions of this original statistic, which actually says something completely different.
I’d only heard the simplified versions of that stat myself, and it had always set off my bullshit detector, but what was I going to do, crusade passionately against toothbrushes? Seeing the claim written out in science speak changed things a little. The mention of an actual percentage must have struck me because I pushed my giant shopping cart in big mindless circles before the genius of the phrasing bubbled up. This is textbook truthiness: At a glance, it looks like science is saying you should buy more toothbrushes, but merely reading right showed that the sentence means nothing at all. The key is in the “up to.” All this stat says is that if you look at a thousand or a million toothbrushes you’ll find one that is completely destroyed (“95% less effective”) after three months. What does that say about your particular old toothbrush? Pretty much nothing.
And that’s how it could be true that hugging your child regularly can raise his or her risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%. Once again, the key is in the “up to.” To prove it, all I have to do is find someone who is a truly terrible hugger, parent, and person. If there exists anyone like that — and there does — then this seemingly crazy claim is actually true. If any person is capable of causing psychological distress through inappropriate physical contact, the phrase “up to” lets you generalize to everyone. Should you stop hugging your child because there exist horrible people somewhere in the world? Of course not. These statistics lead people to conclusions that are the opposite of the truth. Is that even legal?
If it’s in your mind that you should buy a new toothbrush every three months, that’s OK, it’s in mine too. And as everyone who comes within five feet of me will be happy to hear, me and dental hygiene have no conflict. But you have to know that this idea of a three month freshness isn’t based in facts. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a phrase that was purchased by the dental industrial complex to sell more toothbrushes, probably because they feel like they don’t sell enough toothbrushes. If it sounds tinfoil hat that an industry would invest in fake science just to back up its marketing, look at just one of the exploits pulled by Big Tobacco, very well documented in testimony and subpoenas from the 1990’s.

Press release by Colgate cites an article that never existed

Hunting to learn more about the statistic, I stumbled on some Colgate fan blogs (which I guess exist) pointing to a press release citing “Warren et al, J Dent Res 13: 119-124, 2002.”
Amazingly, it’s a fake paper! There is nothing by Warren in the Journal of Dental Research in 2002, or in any other year. But I kept looking and eventually found something that seems to fit the bill:
Conforti et al. (2003) An investigation into the effect of three months’ clinical wear on toothbrush efficacy: results from two independent studies. Journal of Clinical Dentristry 14(2):29-33. Available at
First author Warren in the fictional paper is the last author in this one. It’s got to be the right paper, because their results say exactly what I divined in Walmart, that a three month old toothbrush is fine and, separately, that if you look hard enough you’ll find really broken toothbrushes. Here it is in their own words, from the synopsis of the paper:

A comparison of the efficacies of the new and worn D4 toothbrushes revealed a non-significant tendency for the new brush head to remove more plaque than the worn brush head. However, when plaque removal was assessed for subjects using brush heads with the most extreme wear, i.e., scores of 3 or 4 (n = 15), a significant difference (p < 0.05) between new and worn brush heads was observed for the whole-mouth and approximal surfaces.

This study should never have been published. The phrase “revealed a non-significant tendency” is jargon for “revealed nothing.” To paraphrase the whole thing: “We found no effect between brand new and three month old toothbrushes, but we wanted to find one, and that’s almost good enough. Additionally, a few of the toothbrushes were destroyed during the study, and we found that those toothbrushes don’t work.” The only thing in the original stat that isn’t in the Conforti synopsis is the claim about effect size: “up to 95% less effective.” The synopsis mentions no effect size regarding the destroyed toothbrushes, so either it’s only mentioned in the full version of the paper (which I can’t get my hands on) or it’s based on a really incredibly flawed interpretation of the significance claim, “(p < 0.05)." The distinguished Paul J Warren works or worked for Braun (but not Colgate), and has apparently loved it. Braun is owned by Gillette which is owned by Proctor & Gamble. The paper’s first author, Conforti, works, with others of the paper’s authors, for Hill Top Research, Inc., a clinical research contractor based in West Palm Beach, Florida. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with working for a corporate research lab — I do — but it looks like they produce crap for money, and the reviewers who let Braun’s empty promotional material get published in a scientific journal should be embarrassed with themselves.

The original flawed statistic snowballs, accumulating followers, rolling further and further from reality

I did a lot of digging for the quote, and found lots of versions of it, each further from reality than the one before it. Here is the first and best attempt at summarizing the original meaningless study:

A new toothbrush is up to 95% more effective than a three month old toothbrush in reducing plaque between teeth.*

A later mention by Colgate gets simpler (and adds “normal wear and tear,” even though the study only found an effect for extreme wear and tear.)

Studies show that after three months of normal wear and tear, toothbrushes are much less effective at removing plaque from teeth and gums compared to new ones.*

… and simpler ….

Most dental professionals agree you should change your toothbrush every three months.*.

That last one might come from a different source, and it might reflect the statistic’s transition from a single vacuous truthy boner to vacuous widespread conventional wisdom. The American Dental Association now endorses a similar message: “Replace toothbrushes at least every 3–4 months. The bristles become frayed and worn with use and cleaning effectiveness will decrease.” To their credit, their citations don’t include anything by Warren or Conforti, but the paper they do cite isn’t much better: Their evidence for the 3–4 month time span comes from a study that only ran for 2.5 months (Glaze & Wade, 1986). Furthermore, the study only tested 40 people, and it wasn’t blind, and it’s stood unelaborated and unreplicated for almost 30 years. It’s an early, preliminary result that deserves followup. But if that’s enough for the ADA to base statements on then they are a marketing association, not the medical or scientific one they claim to be.
They also cite evidence that toothbrushes you’ve used are more likely to contain bacteria, but they’re quick to point out that those bacteria are benign and that exposure to them is not linked to anything, good or bad. Of course, those bacteria on your toothbrush probably came from your body. Really, you infect your toothbrush, not the other way around, so why not do it a favor and get a new mouth every three months?

So what now?

Buy a new toothbrush if you want, but scientifically, the 3–4 months claim is on the same level with not hugging your kids. Don’t stop hugging your kids. Brush your teeth with something that can get between them, like a cheap toothbrush, an old rag dipped in charcoal, or a stick. You can use toothpaste if you want, it seems to have an additional positive effect, probably a small one. Your toothbrush is probably working fine. After hundreds of thousands of dollars of effort, the only thing researchers seem to have really discovered is that busted toothbrushes are busted, so if your toothbrush shows extreme wear, maybe buy a new one. For less than hundreds of thousands of dollars I can add a little extra wisdom: if it smells bad, you probably have bad breath.
Disclaimer is that I’m sure I could have read more, and I might be working too fast, loose, and snarky. I haven’t even read the full Conforti paper (If you have good institutional access, see if you can get it for me). I’ll dig deeper if it turns out that anyone cares; leave a comment.


Conforti N.J., Cordero R.E., Liebman J., Bowman J.P., Putt M.S., Kuebler D.S., Davidson K.R., Cugini M. & Warren P.R. (2003). An investigation into the effect of three months’ clinical wear on toothbrush efficacy: results from two independent studies., The Journal of clinical dentistry, 14 (2) 29-33. PMID:
Glaze P.M. & Wade A.B. (1986). Toothbrush age and wear as it relates to plaque control*, Journal of Clinical Periodontology, 13 (1) 52-56. DOI: