Archive for the ‘Safety & Health’ Category

Mary Mallon: being evil vs. being an evil

August 21, 2007 26 comments

NOVA featured The most dangerous woman in America, this evening, about Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant otherwise known as “Typhoid Mary”. 

When she was finally quarantined in 1909, germ theory was not widely accepted by the public.  Certainly she never accepted, on the basis of scientific evidence about invisible germs, that she was a threat to anyone.  She fought a legal battle, and won public support for her plight as an innocent woman imprisoned against her will.  Finally, under court order, the New York Public Health department released her.  But they kept track of her to make sure she didn’t work again as a cook.

Until they lost track of her, that is.  When epidemiologist George Soper caught up with her again (alerted by a new outbreak), he found her working as a cook again, in a maternity hospital.  Public sympathy for her evaporated, and this time she was quarantined for good. 

The episode, strong on historical fact, left the viewer to weigh the merits of punitive measures against infectious people.  But the fact is, a balance does have to be struck. By draconian measures, we could confine one bad example, while ensuring that hundreds of people at risk fake their samples to avoid detection.  It’s a balancing act.

But there is another lesson, untouched by the NOVA episode, and it is that science and math education matter.  Students need to look through microscopes, through telescopes, use laboratory scales and measures.  They need to take measurements in the real world and do statistical analysis on the data they collect.  This need not be magnetic resonance chemistry; it can be counting birds in a field or recording how many people pull when the sign says “push”.  Because you never know when, or what, the student might need to understand someday. 

Today, school children calmly accept revolutionary ideas that once confounded experts and the public.  Science education begins this process; for the general public, science journalism picks it up and illuminates the cutting edge of the scientists’ tools.  Science is the reach that exceeds the grasp of our senses, past the intuitive limitations of our spectral sensitivity, our temporal, spatial, and quantitative frames.  Where religion once flailed at explanation, science digs patiently, methodically. 

Was Mary Mallon evil?  It isn’t that she wanted to hurt anyone; she really didn’t believe she was hurting anyone.  But moral judgments about her intentions aside, even if she wasn’t evil, she was an evil to the people she needlessly infected with a catastrophic disease. 

Is there any safety idea too stupid to get on TV?

August 19, 2007 6 comments

I saw that knothead Glenn Beck pushing bulletproof backpacks for kids.  Wonder if he owns stock in the company?  That would be pretty sweet – pump up fear and hate, then rake in the cash.

Now you can provide on the spot protection against guns and knife violence!

Independently tested to the standards set by the National Institute for Justice to provide Level II ballistic protection, as found in most police body armor, at almost 1/10 the weight.

Yeah, because it only covers a small area on your child’s back, not the torso and vital organs like a police vest.  But hey, it could help!  The company’s website paints a pretty grim picture of school safety:

Since 1999 over 328 incidents have occurred, leaving 229 dead and 422 injured in school violence alone. That is an average of about 1 per week since the Columbine Tragedy. In almost 97% of these documented incidents, MJ Safety Solutions backpack could have provided the ballistic protection that could have saved lives.

Wait a minute.  Even assuming these statistics weren’t from the general proving grounds of Charmin bathroom tissue, (and I strongly suspect that to be the case) there are something like 88,000 public schools in this country.  Columbine was around 3,000 days ago so that’s around 264 million school days.  Divided by 328 incidents, on any given school day your child would have roughly one in eight hundred thousand chance of an “incident” happening at his school…

This backpack can provide life saving defense for anyone: school children, educators, journalists and tourists to name a few. This is a full size, ultra leightweight backpack packed with features to make it practical for everyone.

…divided by the chance that the incident would even involve your child (schools are big places and most of the incidents are small-scale) and the vague subset of those cases where your child could turn around and present his or her backpack to the line of fire or the path of a knife at just the right instant to stop a bullet. I think that works out to about a one in 792 skabillion chance this backpack would ever do anything except be damned uncomfortable on the school bus.

And incidentally, how many handgun rounds could pass through a fully loaded school backpack?  Have you looked at kids’ textbooks lately?  This very thought has come up before.  Just when you thought a safety idea couldn’t get ANY dumber, how about proposing keeping old textbooks under childrens’ desks as bulletproof shields?  Yes, someone actually proposed that.  :gulp:

I wonder what percentage of those “incidents” involved one kid clobbering another kid with his backpack?

Sarcasm: workout for for the brain

August 4, 2007 2 comments

In a study of how children develop the ability to detect and understand sarcasm, a researcher offers this explanation of what’s going on when we get the joke:

Although adults don’t think twice about why they are laughing at a sarcastic quip made by a character in a popular sitcom such as Friends, Glenwright says that the process by which we interpret and respond to sarcasm is actually quite complex.

It works something like this: when we encounter sarcasm we first process the literal meaning of the words being spoken, then we suppress an urge to respond to that literal meaning, then we look for the true intent of the words based on facial expressions, intonation and familiarity with the person speaking the words. At that point, we’ve recognized sarcasm and can respond accordingly, often with laughter or an icy stare.

That’s doing some pretty heavy lifting and is several more steps than literalism requires.  It could explain why one of my children attributes a great part of his intelligence to having grown up watching The Simpsons.

There wasn’t anything like that on TV when I was a kid but it was the heyday of MAD magazine and I always used my allowance to buy the latest copy.

The iHand

July 25, 2007 Comments off

I have to confess that iPods, iPhones, iThis, iThat… really don’t excite me that much.  Yeah, they’re sorta cool, but, “meh.”

Then there’s the iLimb, a bionic hand under development that will use a traditional muscle signal interface to produce dexterous action.  It’s intended to be a production, off-the-shelf technology in a price range that people will actually be able to afford it.  video clip and more details.

Ok, now that’s really cool.  Aside from the egregious use of the initial lower-case “i” for their product name, but I think we can forgive them that.

And here’s another project to develop a brain interface to ratchet up the dexterity to an even more natural level, like playing a piano.  (“Doc, will I be able to play the piano after this operation?…”)

One thought that comes to mind; they should use a wireless interface so they don’t need anything protruding through the skin.  Besides, it would allow the user to control the hand even when it was detached from their arm, which would give nieces and nephews nightmares…

Think snakes on a plane would be scary?

May 30, 2007 3 comments

The movie Snakes On A Plane was campy and fun, and not at all scary.  But this IS scary: Microbes on a plane.  Epidemiologist Tara Smith (who would fit right in on CSI or Numb3rs)  describes the situation as a passenger was found to be infected with a highly resistant strain of tuberculosis.

)Deep Breath( … OK, calming down, the passengers were notified, and they’re getting tested.  It appears their risk of infection is “low”.  It’s still going to be a while before I get on a plane without thinking about this one. 

  • There is some reassurance as Effect Measure gets technical on airplane epidemiology.

  • Mike Dunford at Questionable Authority takes apart the passenger’s “side of the story” in Thou shalt not be bloody stupid
  • Oh, NOW he says he’s “sorry”.  “At every turn it was conveyed to me that my family, my wife, my daughter, that no-one was at risk”  Well sure, but the doctors and authorities told you not to travel, idiot.
  • And if you really want to research this case from every angle, The Pump Handle has a large section on it in their Friday roundup.
  • Seen on TV news: the guy shows up at the US border.  The border guard scans his passport and the screen pops up: “Don’t let this person in, and only deal with him while wearing hazard gear”.  Border guard looks him over; “He appeared to be perfectly healthy to me”, and lets him enter the country unchallenged.  Reminds me of a scene from The Simpsons:
    Bob: [running a credit check] [presses `Enter’] [sirens wail and lights flash]
    Homer: Is that a good siren? Am I approved?
    Bob: You ever known a siren to be good? That was the computer telling me, sell the vehicle to this fellow and you’re out of business.’’

It says something about our priorities

May 7, 2007 3 comments

You may know British Petroleum as that oil company with the attractive green signs and the carefully-polished (but somewhat fake) environmental image.  Or, you may remember that they’re the company with such lax safety standards that a blast in their Texas City refinery killed 15 people.  Or the company whose pipeline in Alaska, due to poor maintenance, corroded and broke. Despite investigative findings that in both cases,  BP courted disaster by scrimping on safety and maintenance, their Chief Executive Officer John Browne received bonuses and a raise.  Heckuva job, Brownie.

But recently it was learned that Browne has a rather kinky sex life!  Well, that’s different!  Out you go, man.  Can’t have any of that in corporate life.

(From The Pump Handle, which I am hereby adding to my science links, not only for the great investigation and writing of their stellar contributors, but also because of the extremely cool name.)

Sleep on it

April 22, 2007 5 comments

Researchers found that sleep is a lot more than rest:

Science Daily — Memorizing a series of facts is one thing, understanding the big picture is quite another. Now a new study demonstrates that relational memory—the ability to make logical “big picture” inferences from disparate pieces of information—is dependent on taking a break from studies and learning, and even more important, getting a good night’s sleep…
Science Daily: To understand the big picture, give it time, and sleep.

There’s more, of course; the article touches upon research into learning intervals and what the brain is doing while you snooze.  Shadow a high school student these days and you’ll realize there’s no time in the school day for stuff to sort itself out.  And I wonder; do naps count?  American culture has siezed upon the 16-hour marathon as the only way to get through a day.  Are we making ourselves dumber?

Be very, very, VERY careful with that stuff, fellas…

January 17, 2007 15 comments

Canadian scientists have recreated the 1918 flu virus from genetic material recovered from exhumed victims’ lungs.  Working in a maximum isolation lab, they’re trying to unravel why it was so deadly.

The 1918 flu killed something like fifty million people last time it was running around loose.  This was in the days before subway trains, elevators, and jet aircraft.

they reported that the results were startling. Symptoms appeared within 24 hours of exposure to the virus, and the subsequent destruction of lung tissue was so widespread that, had the monkeys not been put to sleep a few days later, they would literally have drowned in their own blood.

When scientists built the first atomic bomb, they seriously considered if it might ignite the atmosphere, and decided there was a “low risk” before proceeding.  High-energy physicists are trying to make tiny black holes in the laboratory to study ultra-gravitational physics.  They say there’s a “low risk” of any problems. 

All we can really do is trust them, I guess.  Though it did occur to me that we should loan Canada a small nuke; put it in the lab…

By the way most people don’t seem to know anything about the 1918 epidemic, including many “journalists”.  I remember one excited reporter saying that the 2005 Tsunami was “the worst natural disaster in history” having killed 115,000 people.  Was it even in the top five?

Think you have a tough job?

December 29, 2006 2 comments

What have I done lately that made a difference to anybody?  Compared to these guys, not a damn thing:

It is near midnight when we arrive on the scene, circling while the pilots inspect what’s below. Humvee headlights carve out a landing zone on an empty road. Soldiers aim their weapons into the blackness beyond, watching for an ambush. We bump down in a cloud of hot dust. The injured man has been laid on a litter and stripped to the waist. Four or five of his comrades run the litter to the helicopter and clumsily, frantically, shove him inside. He has no pulse. Mitchell begins CPR. The helo lifts off for Baghdad.

The soldier is perhaps 20. He is lanky, with knobby shoulders—a boy’s shoulders. Green cabin lights wash across his chest, his right arm flops off the litter. Mitchell moves like a piston above him. “Come on, buddy,” he says. “COME ON, BUDDY.” Sweat pours off him in long beads. Even with the windows open, the helo racing 200 feet (60 meters) above the ground, it is well over a hundred degrees (38°C). The heat, the weight of his body armor, and the frantic pace drain him. He’s exhausted, losing effectiveness. After ten minutes, crew chief Erik Burns makes Mitchell get out of the way. Then Burns waves me in, a fresh set of arms…
- National Geographic: The Heroes, The Healing; military medicine from the front lines to the home front

In the print edition are some illustrations that are difficult to look at.  Go read the whole incredible story.  Next time someone refers to an athlete or movie star as a “hero”…

Seconds away

December 18, 2006 4 comments

Imagine you’re driving along, it’s dark, the area makes you nervous.  You see a stopped pickup and something sets off your internal alarm.  A woman is struggling to get out of the truck.  She is caught in the seat belt and trying to get away from the other person in the truck…

In a second, or two seconds, your own safety and that of a stranger hang in the balance.  Which way does it tip?

Categories: Geeky, Safety & Health