Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Things They DID Invent: Interview Your Bully

A while back, I came up with the idea of interviewing bullies and other mean people to get inside their head and find out what they're thinking.

Turns out Salon is doing it, having people interview their bullies! Half of me thinks this is brilliant, half of me thinks no good can possibly come of it, and half of me wishes I was brave enough to do it myself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Things They Should Invent: sleepable ER waiting rooms

This story of a blogger's experience in the ER got tweeted into my twitter feed, and what struck me reading it is that, because he arrived in the ER in the evening and had to wait several hours, he basically went a night without sleep.

This sounds like a solvable problem.

What if there were cots for ER patients waiting to be seen? What if there were recliner chairs? What if, instead of just calling patients' names, the admissions people would actually go out into the waiting room to find them?

If patients could sleep in the waiting room, that makes wait times less of a problem. Compare the prospect of sitting for hours in an uncomfortable chair in a room full of sick people vs. the prospect of taking a nap and they'll wake you up when they're able to treat you. It would turn some ER visits (for example, a small child with a fever) from a nightmare to a mere inconvenience. Sleeping certainly gets better health outcomes than sleep deprivation. And hospital staff will have to deal with fewer angry/agitated/distressed patients if a significant number of patients are asleep.

With a few changes in furnishings and interior decoration, they can make the whole ER experience far easier and less stressful for everyone.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Ontario voter list mystery

I'm not on the Ontario voter list this election. I'm never on the Ontario voter list. Every single Ontario election since I was 18, I didn't receive a voter card and had to register on election day.

I have voted in (and registered at) every Ontario election since I was 18. Last election, I lived at the same address as I do now, so my registration from last election should be valid.

I was registered federally for, and voted in, the election this past May, and I'm pretty sure both federal and provincial get their voter's lists from the tax rolls. I recently got a jury duty questionnaire, which means provincial does know about me. But I'm not on the voter's list. And the same thing happens every election. Weird.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Things They Should Invent: incentivize clinical testing of natural remedies

Whenever I'm looking into natural remedies for various things, I keep running up against the problem that clinical testing simply hasn't been done so answers don't exist to the questions I have. A lot of the time I'm willing to take the risk and try it out on myself, but for certain things (like if I think might weaken my birth control pills, for example) I want hard data. And I keep googling up against the fact that studies haven't been done, because studies aren't required for natural remedies.

I don't want to make clinical testing mandatory, because that would take a bunch of stuff off the shelves until it gets tested, even if many people have been using it harmlessly and effectively for years and years. I just want to create some kind of carrot to encourage testing of natural remedies, and to remove any barriers to testing them.

Unfortunately, I don't have any specific ideas that wouldn't have been thought of already. They'd be able to put "clinically tested" on the label. They know that already. They could do they research as pure science, through universities, rather than commercially like pharmaceutical companies do. They know that already. Someone could start a non-profit. They know that already.

But it would be extremely useful if this could somehow be made to happen, and it would increase the credibility of natural remedies in the eyes of those who are likely to be skeptical, including conventional medical professionals who are disinclined to recommend useful remedies solely on the basis that they haven't undergone formal testing.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Teach me how Catholic school funding works

People talk about Catholic school funding as though everyone is paying for it out of their own taxes. Most recent example I've seen is from this article, written by a Catholic school parent:

Now, you’ll hear defenders of the current discriminatory system say that the Catholic board is funded only by Catholic taxpayers who choose to direct their school taxes to the separate system. Not true: Catholic and public schools alike are funded by general provincial revenues, and the amount of funding each school gets is determined for both systems by a per-pupil formula set by the province. But even if it were true, it would be grossly unjust. Those who send their children to private schools aren’t exempt from paying taxes to fund the public system, just as those who drive are not exempted from paying taxes to support transit capital costs.

So here's where I'm confused: from time to time, I receive a form from the municipal property assessment people that contains a question about which school board I want to support. I don't remember the exact wording and I don't have a form with me so I'm probably missing some information, but I remember that anyone can support the English-language public board, people who meet certain Catholic requirements (which I meet by virtue of having been baptised) can support the Catholic boards, and people who meet certain Francophone requirements (which I do not meet) can support the French-language boards. You can vote for trustees only in the board you support.

So is everyone really paying for the Catholic boards, or are they only being paid for by people who direct their taxes that way on their assessment? If they're being paid for by everyone, why does the municipal property assessment ask us which board we want to support? If they're only being paid for by people who direct their taxes that way, why do so many people think they're being paid for by everyone?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ever wondered what Ontario would look like with a different electoral system?

Check out Three Ontario Votes. You go and cast an imaginary ballot under three different electoral systems, and after the election they'll release the results, so we can see what our province would look like with a different electoral system.

Previous results models for different electoral systems use real-life election data, which is problematic because some voters' strategies might be different under a different electoral system. But this model lets you cast a vote under each of the systems being tested, for the election that's actually happening right now in real time.

We'll get extremely useful information out of this study - more useful than any existing data to inform any future decisions about electoral reform. I strongly encourage everyone of all political stripes to go to Three Ontario Votes and vote with each of the ballots so this information will be as complete as possible.

Monday, September 19, 2011

How I want my doctor to approach alternative medicine.

I was pleased to see that CPSO is considering guidelines that are more open-minded about alternative medicine, but I'm concerned at the kinds of criticism this idea is receiving.

I would love to have my doctor give me alternative medicine advice because then I'd get one-stop shopping. My doctor would tell me if I would benefit from seeing a gastroenterologist or a gynecologist or a dermatologist. He would tell me if I would benefit from taking a certain vitamin or if I should avoid a certain over-the-counter drug. I'd also like him to tell me if I'd benefit from seeing a naturopath or taking a certain herb. I don't want to have to come up with the idea myself.

However, it concerns me that some organizations don't want CPSO even thinking about alternative medicine because it's "unscientific" or "unproven".

The reason why many alternative therapies are "unproven" is because they aren't required to undergo the same scientific testing as conventional medicine, so they often don't. The fact that they're unproven doesn't mean that they don't work, it doesn't mean that they're dangerous, it just means that the science hasn't been done yet.

Analogy: I have never in my life undergone any sort of formal English-language proficiency testing. That doesn't mean I can't speak English. Of course, you can't go around blindly assuming that I can speak English either, but you could conduct an informal, unscientific test by speaking to me in English, and the results of that would be a pretty good indicator.

I'm also worried that critics seem to be assuming that unproven = harmful. It's very possible for something to not have been tested scientifically but not be harmful. It's even possible for it be ineffective but not be harmful.

Analogy: When I was having difficulty swallowing, I googled up the reflexology points for the esophagus and massaged them. Is reflexology scientifically proven? A quick google is inconclusive. (To say nothing of the fact that my amateur attempt at reflexology was probably not properly done.) But it certainly wasn't harmful for me to sit there massaging my own feet on the off-chance that it might help.

One of the (many) things that frustrates me about GERD "treatment" is that conventional medicine and naturopathy recommend different (and often contradictory) diet changes. For example, conventional medicine says no to citrus and yes to low-fat milk products, and naturopathy is the other way around. So I find myself in the position of having two trained, credentialed, experienced professionals, both of whom have gotten results for me in the past, telling me opposite things. And, because I don't feel pain when I'm refluxing, I can't even do an experiment and see which works best for me.

I see conventional and alternative medicines as complementary tools in my toolkit, and I want my practitioners to work together as a team rather than competing with each other. When I see medical professionals getting alarmist, conflating "unproven" with "dangerous", it starts making me wonder if they have something to hide. And I don't want to be wondering if they have something to hide, because I need to be able to trust them - I'm not smart enough to figure stuff out myself.

If my doctor were to start warning me away from all alternative treatments just because they haven't gone through full clinical testing, I'll just end up feeling disinclined to tell him about any alternative treatments I might be experimenting with. I want him to warn me away from anything known to be dangerous, point me towards any treatments or alternative medicine professionals likely to be useful, and non-judgementally give me any information he might have about things that are harmless but likely ineffective. Anything less is useless to me and weakens the credibility of his profession in my eyes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why I've lost confidence in Dell

Every computer I've ever owned myself has been a Dell. Up until this past week, my experience with them has been consistent: I get 4ish good years of use, then have a hardware problem. The faulty hardware problem is promptly resolved via excellent warranty support, and I get another year or two out of the computer, after which I'm happy to replace it for something more up to date. Because of this longevity and excellent support, I've always blindly turned to Dell when buying my next computer, figuring it means I won't have to worry about my computer for five years.

Unfortunately, this confidence was shattered this past week.

The computer is a Dell XPS 15 bought brand new in December 2010. Last Saturday, I started having problems with Windows loading. Sometimes it would freeze on the Welcome screen, sometimes I'd get a black screen with a mouse cursor, sometimes the desktop would load but nothing I clicked on would do anything. After a System Restore failed without rebooting Windows, I called tech support.

I didn't have to wait on hold at all, just do the menu dance, and a very nice tech walked me through some troubleshooting. I appreciate his work because he started at a more advanced level than I'd been troubleshooting at rather than reiterating the basics, and was very patient through a troubleshooting process that took over an hour. We eventually determined there was a problem with my wifi adapter (I hadn't noticed because my primary internet connection uses an ethernet cable), so he uninstalled and reinstalled it, and my computer booted up beautifully. He then told me that I'd be receiving an automatic follow-up email, and if I had any further problems I should forward the email to the address indicated and they'd give me a priority call back. Brilliant idea! That would mean we don't have to troubleshoot from scratch if the problem reoccurs!

Unfortunately, the problem reoccured the next day (Sunday). And, on top of that, the computer couldn't find the wifi adapter that had just been reinstalled the day before. So I forwarded the email to the address indicated and got an automatic reply saying they aim to reply within six hours during their business hours (9-7 Central).

But they never called back.

I emailed again on Monday and Wednesday and tweeted @DellCares (who requested a DM with pertinent information and said they'd look into it), but I never got my callback.

Meanwhile, my computer was deteriorating. I was working in Safe Mode with networking, unable to access games or music or word processing. Boot-up was slower each time, the computer couldn't always detect its network card, bizarre things started happening (itunes opening when I plug in my ipod even though I specifically set it not to do that, then telling me it couldn't read the iphone even though it isn't an iphone; browsers giving me random encoding errors even on simple websites).

On Thursday, I gave up. I got an external hard drive, backed up all my stuff, and reinstalled everything from scratch using my recovery disk. It took three hours (back-up, reinstallation, and getting all my settings just so), but everything has been working properly since then (knock wood).

But this makes me lose confidence in Dell for two reasons:

1. Serious, mysterious problems that hinder useability even though my computer is only nine months old. I've never before in my lifelong relationship with Dell had to actually use the recovery disks. This makes me nervous. Whenever a boot-up takes a second or two longer than usual, I start worrying that it's a sign of a serious problem.

2. I didn't get a "priority" callback! I waited five days, requested it four times through two different mediums, and no one called me. I've always gone with Dell because I could trust their support, and now I can't? And this despite the fact that I invested in the biggest warranty possible? What will happen when I have a bigger hardware problem that can't be fixed with a full reinstall?

In the interest of fairness, I should say that I never called Dell back either. I had the option of calling them again and starting from scratch, and I opted not to, first because I still had internet access in safe mode and I decided I'd rather relax and go about my life than wait on hold/going through first-level support. I figured the phone would ring when there was someone ready and available to give me second-level support. I should also point out that, in response to my second complaint to them, @DellCares apologized and told me to contact them so they could escalate me if the problems reoccur after reinstallation.

But I've still lost confidence, mostly because they specifically told me that forwarding the email to the address specified would get me a priority callback, and it didn't. What other promised support might I not get in the future? What if it happens when I need to work? What it happens when I'm away from home and my full resources and dependent on wifi? (That is why I bought a laptop in the first place, even if I don't often end up taking it out of my apartment.) What if I were a less technically proficient customer and a full recovery wasn't easily feasible for me? And WTF even was the problem in the first place?

This loss of confidence spirals out and affects my interpretation of my whole relationship with the company. For example, during my tech support call, the technician told me about a product Dell solves that detects and repairs problems with your system. It was clearly part of his script to push this product, which I normally wouldn't have given any thought. But sitting there working in Safe Mode awaiting a callback that wasn't coming, I started wondering if they put something in the computers to deliberately make them malfunction so they can push this product.

Sometimes when people blog about problems with products or support, the company wants to make it right. The unfortunate thing in this case is that there's nothing Dell can do to make it right, apart from doing their jobs properly in the future. Getting my callback now would be useless since I got the computer working. Free stuff would be useless because there simply isn't anything I need from Dell. A store credit would be irrelevant because there wasn't money involved in this interaction, unless they wanted to give me a store credit that would last for five years and win back my trust in the meantime. (If I do have to buy a new computer in less than five years, it won't be from Dell).

All Dell can do to win back my confidence is have my computer work properly for the rest of its planned life, and give me support properly next time I need to call them, preferably without trying to sell me software at the same time. But, even so, I'll probably be doing at least some cursory comparison shopping next time.

Update: Dell initiated a follow-up call on Tuesday (9 days after I requested a call back) and we made contact on Wednesday after a round of telephone tag. They apologized for the delay, saying it was due to "technical reasons" (which doesn't instill confidence when I'm after a solution to a technical problem), listened to my whole story, and apologized for the mix-up, but there wasn't much else they could do for me because I'd already used the recovery disk.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Programming note

Currently experiencing technical difficulties. Blogging will resume once they've been resolved. Expect a review of the Dell XPS 15 and Dell warranty support once I'm back.

Friday, September 09, 2011

What to do when someone is standing in front of the seat you want on the subway

I always get really annoyed by people who stand in front of empty seats on the subway, blocking access to those seats for others who might want to sit down.

The other day, I was inadvertently that idiot standing in front of the seat. (The seat was vacated just before I was about to get off the train myself, and I was too oblivious to think to move.)

This lady moves in towards the seat, but I'm blocking the way. So she says to me "Oh, sorry, were you going to sit there?" Which led me to step back from the seat, give it to her, and apologize.

Some people argue that you should just ask standers who are blocking seats to move so you can sit down, but not everyone is comfortable with that approach and it is marginally confrontational, asking the stander to stop doing something (thus implying that they're being bad). This lady's approach allows both people to save face and look generous by offering the seat to each other, with the same end result.

Thanks, subway lady, and I apologize again for blocking your seat!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Things They Should Invent: install stomach lining in the esophagus

Stomach acid is one of the most acidic things there is, but it doesn't harm the stomach because the stomach lining is strong enough to withstand it. However, it causes damage when it refluxes up into the esophagus, because the esophagus isn't meant to withstand stomach acid and therefore isn't strong enough.

Solution: come up with a way to line acid reflux patients' esophaguses (maybe just the bottom, maybe the whole thing) with stomach lining, so the acid reflux can't do any more damage.

Ideas on where to get the stomach lining from: could they remove a thin layer (not the whole thing) from the patient's stomach? Could they transplant it from a dead person? Could they grow it in a test tube from stem cells? Could they grow it in the esophagus itself from stem cells?

I'm not exactly sure how this could be done, but they can do face transplants and sex changes! Surely they can install a few inches of new lining!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Things They Should Invent: free chalk in public spaces at all times

Inspired by the impromptu memorial to Jack Layton, I think chalk should be available in all concrete-intensive public spaces at all times, so people could write or draw whatever they want on the concrete. Write whatever's on your mind, comment on other people's graffiti like people do in the more interesting bathroom stalls of the world, draw hopscotch and other playground games on the ground and watch as besuited office workers use them on their lunch break.

The first thought that springs to the minds of people who are going to object is "But people might write bad things!" That's okay, the beauty of chalk is that it's easily erasable (and washes away with each rain anyway). And in between rainfalls, public space can become a constantly evolving dialogue and art installation. Isn't that the essence of what public space is for?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Cutest thing ever of the day

Warning: this will make you ovulate

On being hungry

The first symptom of what turned out to be GERD was a feeling of food being stuck on the back of my throat, which, over the next few days, quickly progressed to difficulty swallowing solid food. Food would simply take too long to pass through my esophagus, until I got to a point where I could only eat about a quarter cup of food and then had to wait a couple of hours for it to move down far enough to make room for more food. What with not being certain if it's a problem and then wanting to wait and see if it would go away by itself and then having a long weekend delay my initial doctor's appointment, I ended up spending over a week physically incapable of intaking anywhere near enough food.

And here's what I learned: being hungry makes me slow, stupid, and clumsy.

It took me about four or five days of not being able to get enough solid food down my throat to come up with the glaringly obvious idea of getting some liquid meal replacements. I read more slowly than usual, made more typos than usual, and often lost my place when proofreading. I spilled things on myself about three times as frequently, so that at any given time I'd have a wet spot or a stain on my shirt. I walked more slowly than usual. I got more easily distracted and frustrated by co-workers in other cubicles having ordinary conversations. I'd sometimes forget myself and scratch or pick my nose while in my cube or walking down the street where other people could see me.

Basically, I turned into one of the dumb kids in school. Not just the ones who got bad marks, but the ones who were slow and loud and messy and didn't follow instructions well and didn't listen to the teacher and did things like fall out of their chairs. The ones that my classmates, in the ignorance and cruelty of childhood and the language of the 80s, would have called "retards".

I've always been an A student, but if you took my hungry self and stuck her in school, she wouldn't have been able to achieve any better than a B if she's lucky. So what happens when you take an average student, someone less academically inclined, and send her to school hungry?

I've been doing my job with the benefit of sufficient caloric intake for 8 years, so I had a reputation for being competent at my job and not a total idiot in life in general, so a week of being slower than usual didn't do much harm. Plus I was having a clearly articulable, if then-undiagnosed, medical problem, so if anyone noticed I wasn't myself I could explain why. But what happens if people only ever see you when you're slower? What if this situation is baseline for you, so it never occurs to you that you could solve it with the input of more food?

Every once in a while, the idea is raised of schools providing breakfast so disadvantaged students don't have to go to class hungry. And one of the objections I always hear is parents talking about how their own kids sometimes just don't eat breakfast even though it's available at home, and complaining that all the food will end up going to non-disadvantaged kids who are just too lazy or spoiled to get up 15 minutes earlier and eat some oatmeal.

But based on this experience with undernourishment, and based on how it correlates with the traits of the kids who got labelled as stupid - and probably ended up thinking of themselves as stupid, because the whole time they were in school they were slower and clumsier and more easily distractable than everyone around them - I am absolutely certain that it's worth it to feed everyone who is interested so that those who are undernourised can be properly nourished. When I couldn't eat enough, my performance in all areas of life dropped a full letter grade. Imagine raising the most disadvantaged students' performance by a full letter grade with nothing more than a daily meal!

I don't have terribly high self-confidence, but I do have a certain sense of what I can do by virtue of the fact that I've always been an A student. Of course I can get into university! Of course I can do the next set of word problems in my math book! Of course I can read that great big long novel! But if this undernourishment had happened over a longer period of time when I was just starting school, my perception of my own capabilities would be a full letter grade lower as well. Instead of "Of course I can get into university!" it would be "Maybe I can get into university if I'm lucky." Which doesn't sound like a big deal, but imagine how it would play out at lower grade levels. "I'll never be able to read that book" could, with the simple application of food, turn into "I've never read a chapter book before, but it looks interesting so maybe I'll try." "I'll never get into university so there's no point in applying" could turn into "Maybe I'll apply and see if I get in anywhere." "I'll never be able to afford university" could turn into "Maybe I'll apply and see if I can get a scholarship."

I'd say those kinds of outcomes are certainly worth giving food to children even if they don't strictly need it.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Musical interlude

A couple of weeks ago, I ended up crying on the phone to my mother about all the things upsetting me about my GERD diagnosis. I don't often do this (I can't remember ever doing it in my adult life), but it made me feel a bit better. I was rather pleased to discover that crying to mommy still works and glad that that's an available option.

The next day, as I was getting ready for work, I heard that Jack Layton had just died. On top of everything else, he's exactly the same age as my mother, and his son is the same age as me.

This is the song that got me out the door that morning.

PS: Check out around 2:21 - let's just throw a guitar across the stage for no particular reason!