Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Man, Woman, Life, Death, Infinity

October 9th, 2013

caseyA real plus for watching House was the deadly disorder or disease of the week. In a simpler time, half a century ago, medical TV shows were far less sophisticated and demanding.zorba

Specifically for one example, Ben Casey seemed to have a single diagnosis — subdural hematoma. We’d just get to identify or sympathize with the suffering patient, when the internal head blood clot diagnosis accounted for all the dreadful symptoms. After all, the doc was a surgeon and like a cabinet maker or auto mechanic, he had a shot at seeing and fixing the problem that way.

Viewers had to be pretty dull not to notice that week after week, for 153 shows, the somatic villain was almost inevitably the same.

I had a flashback reading yesterday’s paper about Argentina President Cristina Fernandez’ Ben Casey moment. She has, ta da, a subdural hematoma. Unlike the best case in which the body resorbs (dissolves and eats up) the clot, her clot has come with pressure, headaches and lately upper-arm numbness. Those did not improve and her docs decided it was time to go in.

The US is still way down the list in longevity and medicine has not in the main made us that much healthier with drugs. Yet fortunately, in a few areas, like surgery, advances have been solid. In Ben Casey, popping the lid to remove a subdural hematoma was a big deal and might well have meant death on the table.

Here’s for President Fernandez’  unremarkable operation and cure…and thanks for the memories.


Thumb-thing Silly

October 7th, 2013

What this neat pop-science Boston Globe article does not address is why so many of us believe, no, know, that we are splendid multitaskers. If we were anywhere as bright and observant as we pretend, we’d see frightening reflections galore that suggest otherwise.walking thumb

Adults, teens, even wee ones stumble and career into shelves, each other, closed doors and worse while punching into a (insert irony symbol, traditionally ironymark) smartphone. More poignantly than the clown bumps and pratfalls, one aspect of device-distracted humans is texting while driving, too often, killing while doing so.

The article does deal extensively with another key aspect, how iPhones and their like are great programming tools. That is, they program their ostensible owners. In fact, they are the owner in the relationship.

I’ve dealt with and even obsessed on the whole mess here numerous times. Samples are in links to posts using multitask.

A current cliché is how smart the millennials and young folk are. Aren’t they masters of technology?

That would be a resounding, “No!” for them as a group. In fact knowing how to use the icons, menus and keys on a cellphone, being comfortable with numerous social-media and their keywords, do not translate into broader intelligence or even technology skills. Instead, as many of us note, we as a populace are being dumbed down, just as we are increasingly under the control of our devices.

By cracky, Mable, it isn’t just the kids either. In a supermarket, on the street and well, everywhere, the seemingly ubiquitous Androids, iPhones and such make humans hop. 60-year-olds as well as middle-schoolers largely cannot control themselves when their device tones or jiggles. They, the nominal owners, are dancing to the notes.

A few years ago, Boomer and older folk lamented the rudeness of folk putting their phones on the restaurant table, constantly scanning them, and unhesitatingly answering them should they command so. Of course that’s ill mannered and speaks poorly of whoever raised them. And, an alter kaker like I am tells people not to bring their phone out. I, perhaps self-righteously, tell them that in my house, if we’re having a family dinner when a cell or other phone rings, that call just goes to voice. We’re busy and in the moment.

Still, for all those people who believe they are smart enough to multitask, I wish awareness. When they respond like birds or other lower animals conditioned to push a button for food or perform some other stupid pet trick, will they please see that? Will they get a grip and realize they are in thrall to their $500 gadget?

My hope would be if a 17-year-old gains that level of awareness, it would be a teachable moment. Each enlightened lad or lass would show peers how to be in charge of the device, instead of the other way around.

That smarter lifestyle might even spread to their parents and grandparents. Honestly, humans can decide what’s really urgent.


Sweeping Options for Boston Schools

October 15th, 2012

It could be huge, could be quashed, could be diluted, but right now, those in charge of the Boston public schools have a seminal plan to consider. We’ll be talking about it was the driving force behind it.

Spend a half hour with City Councilor John Connolly tomorrow, Tuesday, October 16th, from 2 PM Eastern here. If you can’t catch it live, go to that URL, to Left Ahead or our iTunes page any time afterward to listen or download his show.

As a parent who had nudged three sons through BPS start to finish, I believe in public education and have gotten the worst and the best of bureaucracy in evaluating schools, assignment games, dealing with teachers, and doing whatever was necessary to see my guys got the good end of the stick. I’m invested.

In the literal world of school boards and superintendents and teachers’ unions, the focus is almost always on discreet chunks, such as student assignment plans. Instead, what Connolly, along with another Councillor and four state Reps, have thrown into the process is a serious effort to drop the lines on the maps. Instead, they propose schools in every district with the features parents crave and a whole new set of 16 citywide schools.

This is big stuff, which you can see in detail here.

In our half hour, we can’t go through every detail, but as head of the Council’s education committee (and a parent of two young children), Connolly has put a lot of mind and heart into this plan.

Medical Sigh Science

July 16th, 2012

My comminuted (multiple breaks and pieces) collarbone got the latest treatment or non-treatment. As an example of how medicine changes and maybe or maybe not advances, conventional orthopedic wisdom has again shifted.

Pic note: Click for a somewhat larger view.

Where a badly broken clavicle used to require holding the big pieces together with a plate and screws (pins, in surgeon lingo), recent trends favor non-surgical benign neglect. This surgical info page describes the options.

Previously, the idea and ideal were to stabilize the whole bone and keep the pieces together to promote faster, stronger bonding healing. Now, according to both my ortho surgeon and physical therapist, the new wisdom is that outcomes are no better with plates/screws than letting the components find each other and form enough bone to made a renewed clavicle.

I’ve only had surgery once in my life, three-plus years ago for a badly broken leg. I shall permanently wear a titanium rod inside my left tibia from my knee to ankle. I’m not eager for more cutting, drilling, pounding, and other internal carpentry.  Yet, I already have a tangerine-sized lump above my left pec. Chums who had broken their collarbones as teens or 20-somethings have insisted I feel their residual bumps, which are much smaller. They said they had simple, single breaks, which may account for the difference.

Several other folk with related knowledge, including Uncle whose daughter is in the PT/rehab biz, concur on the shift from plates/screws. While plain old logic suggests that bones that fuse into their original alignment will be much stronger than those that lump up more randomly, the surgeons say their studies don’t support that. Hard to believe, but in my case it’s a bit late to speculate.

What’s amusing to me, even being an non-controlling participant in this current treatment scheme, is knowing that the science in medical science is mostly not linear. Unlike the concept we grew up hearing, treatments don’t inch or leap ahead to better and better outcomes. Instead, they mostly seem to move in and out like the tides.

I recall my first awareness of that when I was in elementary to middle schools. My mother ran Red Cross chapters, which included planning for and overseeing such courses as first aid and home nursing. She was really annoyed to have to replace those texts and see her instructors were tweaked as the AMA and similar bodies changed their minds with new research truths. I think of covering wounds, particularly burns. Yes bandage; no, open air; no, salve; and on and on, somethings changing with each new major study more than once a year.

Truth be told, docs and medial societies can be incredible faddists. Studies can contradict each other, despite following precise and detailed methods and even being replicated by others. The science can be approximate or fungible, which leads to funky doc punditry. It’s the now-we-know syndrome that comes with the fad of the latest findings. Generally no one dies from the sudden shifts, but I long ago lost faith in the concept of inexorable medical advances.

Certainly even worse than shifts in perceived surgical best practices is drug pushing. So many adults end up with one to a dozen or even more prescriptions. I think of my late in-laws who’d each fill a window sill with their daily meds when they visited. My wife remarked to her mother that those were a lot of different drugs. Her mother agreed and said she asked her doctor if they were all necessary. She reported that he asked her which she’d like to stop, and when she picked one said if she stopped taking it, she’d die.

More commonly, docs find it far easier to treat symptoms with drugs than actually to diagnose the cause of the symptom and, to think back to the ideal of the profession, cure the patient with the like of nutrition, behavior modification and such. So, the docs are more likely to say that taking this or that drug will add two or five or more years to the patients’ lives.

These pharmaceutical company promises may or may not have validity per patient, but we can be sure the benefits don’t compound. That is if you have six prescriptions for drugs your doc says will add those years to your life, you can’t expect the benefits to add up. If it did, we might all expect to live to 150 or longer.

I hark back to childhood when I was never seriously sick, but a pediatrician seemed magic. Swollen tonsils got a single penicillin shot in the butt and cleared up quickly. Nowadays, I”m aware people past their 20s or 30s tend to end up with chronic conditions or ambiguous symptoms. Very much unlike the mystery disease article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine or an episode of House,  we don’t get a team of dedicated, resource (including time) rich doctors who do what is necessary to diagnose and cure us. In fact, we can be pretty sure, our nurses and doctors won’t have the time and inclination to listen to our symptoms and consider our self-diagnosis.

Back to my increasingly lumpy formerly unified collarbone, I didn’t have a lot of options. In the ER and next week followup, the orthopedic surgeons said the muscles would likely keep the bones close enough. I could have insisted on a plate at the time or when I saw the big gap at five weeks, could have pushed to the then big deal of opening me up, re-breaking the bones as needed and then using the plate. So, really, no choice by that time.

Now if I don’t have another trauma to that collarbone and if normal activity including free weights doesn’t snap the new version, the outcome will be acceptable. I won’t project or anticipate. I’ll just go with the idea that the current treatment trend is OK.

Phat and Fat: Call It Lifestyle

May 4th, 2012

I’m steeling for the next doctor visit. He’s sure to ask how I have been losing weight, without adding that following his and the nutritionist’s advice did not work. I’m sure he can’t begin to accept that the super-simpleminded just-eat-fewer-calories-than-you-burn-up cliché might be flawed. He’s like most medical professionals, totally invested in that conceit.

It’s likely that when he hears low-carb, he’ll react with the litany of provably false slams. It’s water weight that will come right back on, it’ll clog your vessels with fat and plaque, and you can’t sustain that loss, no one does. My case has been continual week-to-week loss of fat and pounds; if there were water loss/regain, it disappeared into the non-stop and net.

I did my research and continue to tweak and added knowledge that he doesn’t have though. The trick of course is no trick at all. It requires that overworked phrase lifestyle change.

I snort severally. That term lifestyle does terrific work. The anti-LGBT folk love to call homosexuality a lifestyle, so they can pretend that disdain and discrimination are not those at all. However, food choices certainly can be.

Fortunately, as the main cook and shopper around here, I have more than a one-man vote. I stock the pantry, fridge and food bowls.

My research has resulted in a new mini-library in that process. My low-carb books, printouts and PDF files almost all come with recipes as well.

Unfortunately for us low-carb converts, many of those dish and meal maps don’t excite us. Many of the docs and nutritionists who developed them tried sincerely, but seem to have been more concerned with paralleling their guidelines rather than pleasing the mouths, eyes and noses of the new lifestyle followers. I can project what these recipes’ output will be like from reading their ingredients and preparation steps. Many lack sensuality and attention to savor (a.k.a. sapidity).

I’m  confident that I can augment those to please me and my family and guests. I cook to please.

Meanwhile, I’m fine-tuning my planned food lifestyle as I add more carbs from the base level. I’ll report on both what I try in carb/fat/protein percentages/grams, and how I tweak those from the scale and body-fat analysis as I get into it. There are bound to be changes.

This series includes:

Call it Lifestyle on the intellectual and emotional commitment to low-carb
Watching the Struggle on my grandmothers diet woes
Wrestling with Fat on overcoming fear of dietary fats
Hunger? do you starve on a low-carb diet?
Low-Carb Eats on what’s on the menu in the regimen
How Much of What Food on calories-in/calories-out cliché
Dr. Cadaver on mindless trust in group averages
Who’s Counting on body fast v. weight
Part 1 on pants don’t lie


Big Old Ears

March 29th, 2012

When I saw the images of Pope Benedict and Fidel Castro glad-handing, I noticed the ears. The 84 and 85-year-old guys exhibit big, old ears, a.k.a. hypertrophy. The image here is cropped and pushed together so you can see what I did.

So, I clicked around that net place to get some figures on how our head projections grow, how quickly, how big on average and such. In high school, private reading and in college, I had heard from various biology and medicine folk that cartilage continues to grow slowly, even as we get shorter with age.

I was surprised to read that folk wisdom at least questions that. Numerous pages claim with no evidence that just isn’t so.

There are few scientific studies that do the real thing. They compare by age and gender, left and right, and so forth. Actual numbers from experiments, like here and here, confirm that I’d long heard. Old folks’ ears and noses look bigger, because they are.

I don’t find this unpleasant. In fact, there’s an elegance and almost sculptural glory in a large ear — so long as it does not spew hair out of the canal. I think immediately of a dear family friend we called Justice, which was has last name as well as an apt epithet, had fine ears and a nobly wrinkled face. Likewise in my childhoo, the old guys sitting on the nail kegs near the pot-bellied stove in the Farm Bureau in Romney, West Virginia, tended both to sun-and-wind weathered skin and impressive noses and ears.

I read also today that some rich oldsters have plastic surgery to lift sagging nose, shorten elongating earlobes, and remove cartilage from their ears. That’s vanity that affronts natural beauty from normal development.

32 Volume Collector’s Item

March 14th, 2012

“Look it up,” may have been the most common reply to me growing up. When I was very young, my knowledgeable mother would provide answers to my ceaseless questions. In early elementary school though, she used that phrase…and that’s what I did.

She was not being selfish with her smarts nor unreasonable in that demand. She had multiple reference books, which she used often. Those included atlases half my height, a massive, 2-volume unabridged dictionary, three full sets of encyclopedia (American, Compton’s and Britannica, with update volumes), the annual almanac/book of facts (in hardcover because she and I really worked that one), and on and on.

Today I saw that Britannica is going the expedient way and announcing its final print edition. It sells through DVDs and online access in several versions. The library format is passé.

For many years, I have been amused by and come to expect incredulous queries from cosseted Ivy Leaguers who remark on my general and specific knowledge. I worked with one at Inc. Magazine a long time ago who showed that at its worst. Several times, he’d come out with the likes of, “Ball, you went to a shitty school. How come you know so much?”

The answer in many ways goes back to my mother’s look-it-up chant. The other parts include that I did look it up, that I had a better brain than my coworker, that I enjoyed school and thus paid attention in class, that I took good courses, and that I read for pleasure. Neither his Harvard nor Columbia degree made up for his insufficiencies in those many areas.

Now though there’s a different chant — “Google it.”

Sure enough, there is much more information, both fact and opinion available on the net. Is that the same? Likewise, willstudents go to the school or public library for detailed information?

Speaking to teens, 20-somethings and many older folk, I doubt it. Finding something to cut and paste, something that provides the sketch is better than being totally ignorant. Yet, so many people seem stunted by this kind of learning.

When I had either of two adult encyclopedia (having outgrown Compton’s) open, I read far beyond the catalytic topic. I’d find more just begging me to learn about it. Then, again, I’d browse the unabridged dictionary recreationally….

I’m a huge internet-for-reference user. We also have the types of tools I grew up with, including both Britannica hard cover and DVD versions and the OED.

My sons were not as eager to look it up as I was or am. I do admit that I’m a bit odd that way. They still have benefited mightily from the references we have. They’re even wont to get out our field guides to fungi or birds for identification issue. I’m pretty sure most non-paper researchers don’t bother.

That, after all was the point in my upbringing. If you are curious and you know the answer is in one of the numerous family bookcases, you may very well look it up.

Unwelcome Hitchhiker

January 14th, 2012

Monday afternoon, I was tromping around Hemenway Pond in Milton. Thursday, my wife was tweezing out a tick — rather most of one — from pectoral skin and muscle.

As boomer kids, we grew up cowering under school desks, which was supposed to somehow protect us from a nuclear explosion’s effects. We still get palpitations when we hear a test of a civil alert siren, which we knew as a possible warning of Russian missiles or bombers. We took our polio shots or sugar cubes, lest we spend our shortened and painful lives in iron lungs or leg braces. Our parents vacillated from telling us how good we had it and trying to terrify us into orthodox, prophylactic behaviors.

Yet, we didn’t have AIDS. We didn’t have daily fears of strangers and child molesters OUT THERE. We also knew nothing of Lyme disease.

Now an embedded tick immediately brings to mind that horrible, chronic, debilitating and likely incurable set of nasty conditions and symptoms. And sure enough, when I found an inflamed sore on my left pec near my armpit, my wife was both quick and unhappy to point out that it had a big red circle around it, it was a tick, and it looked like a bull’s eye to her. The bull’s eye, of course, is the classic indicator of a deer tick carrying Lyme.

Now, there’s an alert-making way to start the day!

My wife has many virtues, not the least of which is considerable musical ability of which I have none. However, she is squeamish about blood, wounds and such. In contrast, I grew up with a mother, aunt and other family members who were nurses, first aid instructors, home nursing teachers and the like. Anything short of compound-complex fractures and massive bleeding were usually handled on the spot with gauze, scalpels, tweezers, slings, disinfectants, adhesive compresses (BAND-AID® bandages to you), ice or heat packs and such. As an active, outdoors type, I don’t know how many injuries were patched before I headed out for more.

My wife could sort of look at the tick and kind of get most of it with the tweezers. However, she convinced me it looked bad and that there were visible parts left in the skin. It was an awkward spot or I would have hacked at it myself. I could only see it in a mirror and could not get both hands to the area because of its location next to my armpit.

So, I made an appointment with our doctor-like folk. In this case, it would be a nurse practitioner, Patricia, in the urgent care part of internal medicine. From my own background of being the instruction dummy and then first-aid instructor, I link urgent care to stopped hearts, shock, and uncontrolled bleeding. Instead, there I arrived with a purplish/reddish mound with tick parts in the center. Meh.

Patricia gave it her shot. She rooted around in the muscle and skin for around 20 minutes with various stainless steel gear. She retrieved parts, but admitted defeat and the immutable tenacity of a tick leg or two in the wound. It was painful and mostly tiresome, for both of us, but geewillikers, for all the flaying elbow action, I wanted her to say smugly, “Got it!” She didn’t.

She said that so far, the wound did not fall into the bull’s eye category. It didn’t have a pale ring separating the main mound…at least not yet. I’m supposed to watch for that.

She didn’t want to have the tick pieces I brought in on a cotton pad tested. She did give me doxycycline, a single dose of two tablets, as a precaution. I see that it may or may not be effective in preventing Lyme post-exposure.

Of course, the big joke is that ticks carry many diseases other than that one. The incubation period for Lyme and a few of those can be months or years. I think I’ll pass on the worry.

Oddly enough, a few months ago, we went hiking in the Blue Hills as a family, and two of our sons ended up with ticks. They each got a medical pro to pull out the parasite and then got doxycycline as a precaution. It seems to be a family shtick.

I can’t see this inconvenient experience changing my behavior (sorry Scientologists, no engramming here). I’ve been an outdoorsy active guy since I was a wee bairn.

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Good? Habits

October 1st, 2011

Sometimes one of our two sons still at home locks the back door when one of us is on the deck, working in the yard or unloading a vehicle. We can’t get angry. We’ve taught them to close and lock the doors.

Recently on the trip to Block Island, I found another illogical habit grounded in good reasoning. That is, as my wife and I biked around the wee, hilly resort, I constantly checked my side mirror.


That’s a good safety move, except the mirrors are on my bikes in Boston and not on the rental provided by the inn. Next time I go where I’ll rent a bike, I’ll bring a spare mirror.

For most of the rides, I was in front. My wife got chuckles as she realized that a few times a minute, I’d turn to the non-mirror. If I wanted to see where she was or what vehicle was rumbling behind us, I’d have to do the owl neck-turning thing.

Whether it’s in a car or on a bike, I constantly locate myself with the mirrors. It’s habit of mind and muscles. By the time we were through two days of cycling on BI, I stopped reflexively looking at my left handle bar end, but only by fighting the urge when I felt it. I still wanted to look.

That’s not the only habituation I have with bikes. I recall over 20 years ago when we moved to the bottom of Jamaica Plain, I’d climb on my bike and instinctively expect to buckle a seat belt.

That goes way back. My first car, in 1965, was a 1955 Pontiac Chieftain. It was sturdy like Refrigerator Perry or a tug boat. It would have won in any collision.

Yet, I bought into the seat belt idea. As cars back then did not come with them, I went to Pep Boys, bought them, drilled holes and put them in. I insisted friends and GFs wear belts. No fool, I put three belts in the front too for proximity assurance.

I’m positively anal about seat belts. No one in a car I drive goes without or the car doesn’t go anywhere. So………..come a bike, I laughed at myself as I reached for a seat belt. Yet it took quite a few rides until I was comfortable heading off without one.

We habituated animals teach ourselves good, neutral and bad tricks.

Better Than Toilet Ice

September 21st, 2011

We can probably agree some deaths are ignominious, while funny to dispassionate observers. Think getting  run over by a garbage truck.

Likewise would be dying when a big chunk of blue ice from an aircraft toilet crashes through your roof. Far better, if you must meet a violent end, to succumb to a piece of a space rocket. Such death by space debris is unlikely, but increasingly possible.


How likely? Well for scare numbers, maybe millions of thingummies are orbiting the earth, in the down-and-dirty PPT from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program. That’s an extreme way to think of it — millions of bits of the 28,000-plus things humans have shot into orbit since Sputnik in 1957. Over 9,000 of those are up and around there, with under 550 of them functional.

Most of the others are in pieces from those  millions smaller than 1cm to over 100K from 1cm to 10cm to over 11K bigger than that. NASA tracks the largest category. Others do too, like the European Space Agency, whose Space Debris Program estimated that as of 2008, over 140K objects were in orbit above us.

So, Henny Penny, is the sky falling? Well, yes, but for any one of us, the odds are very good.

If the NASA satellite about to fall (drawing of it to right) wastes some earthlings, we can except lots of panicked calls for cleaning our celestial playroom. For its part, our space agency figures that even this six ton piece of junk will either disintegrate in the atmosphere or fall harmlessly. As NASA likes to put it, it would likely burn and crash on “uninhabited landmass.”

They don’t know when it will reenter or where it or parts of it will land. Their best guess is that it’s a 3,200-to-1 shot that it will smash into one of us. Fear not the heavenly garbage truck, they say.

It leads one to ask what’s up with what’s up?

If you want to roll your own, start with those NASA and ESA links above. You might also click:

Short takeaways include that governments don’t care a whole lot about the minuscule chance of humans being hit. They do fret that their populated or otherwise expensive satellites get destroyed or damaged by all the space junk. Another is that we are at critical mass, with all the rubble zooming around and around and around.

Supposedly, NASA and its counterparts are real sorry. They intend to do something yet undefined sometime yet undecided when they can afford it.

Don’t expect any gigantic space vacuum cleaners or rocket-part recyclers anytime soon. We supposedly have 10 to 20 years (a blink in big-project time) to do something. To get a flavor of how far along we are, go to page 150 of the big report (165 in PDF numbering) to find:

Emphasis is placed on research and development because the government does not yet know what technologies will ultimately be necessary or are feasible on the scale required for effective orbital debris retrieval and removal, as well as guaranteed prevention of collisions if such an event is predicted. Although the National Space Policy calls for research and development in this field, it does not specify a threshold or goal, but rather intends such research and development as a beginning to the entire process.

Be ready to duck, I suppose. It won’t work, but gives you something to do.