Thursday, June 29, 2006

Raoul’s helpful guide to common medical conditions

Have you ever noticed that the more information you have about an illness, the worse you feel?

Back in the ancient days before medical information was available on the internet, you’d go to the doctor and he would tell you to take a Tylenol and get some rest. Your doctor knows all about thousands of horrifying diseases, but he also knows they are rare. He doesn’t mention them. In a few days you’ll feel better.

For the do-it-yourselfer, it can take hours of patient googling to wade through the hundreds of painful, disabling, and fatal diseases that match your symptoms. Never fear. For your convenience, I have assembled several of the worst case scenarios for the common headache.

Symptom: Headache nausea, and fever.

Likely cause: Inter-cranial hemorrhage

Details: A serious, often fatal condition caused by bleeding within the skull. Intracranial bleeding occurs when a blood vessel in the head is ruptured or leaks. It can result from physical trauma (as occurs in head injury) or suddenly to perfectly healthy people like you.


Symptom: Headache, weakness, dizziness.

Likely cause: Stroke

Details: Stroke is the third leading cause of death and adult disability in the US and industrialized European nations. The likelihood of your suffering a stroke during your lifetime is very high, why not now?

Also known as cerebrovascular accident (CVA), is an acute neurologic injury whereby the blood supply to a part of the brain is interrupted, either by arterial blockage or rupture (hemorrhage). The part of the brain perfused by a blocked or burst artery can no longer receive oxygen carried by the blood; brain cells are therefore damaged or die (become necrotic), impairing function from that part of the brain. Stroke is a medical emergency and can Often leads to hemorrhagic stroke and sudden death.cause permanent neurologic damage or even death if not promptly diagnosed and treated.


Symptom: Headache, fever, stiff neck.

Likely cause: Meningitis

Details: A serious infectious disease that strikes young healthy people.

Inflammation of the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and the spinal cord, usually due to bacterial or viral infections elsewhere in body that has spread into the blood and into the CSF. Other causes of meningitis such as fungal, protozoal, or certain non-infectious etiologies are much rarer. Meningitis should be distinguished from the condition encephalitis, the latter of which is the inflammation of the brain itself.

The complications of meningitis can be severe and include neurological problems such as hearing loss, visual impairment, seizures, and learning disabilities. The heart, kidneys, and adrenal glands may also be affected.


Symptom: Headache, nausea, vomiting

Likely cause: Brain tumor.

Details: Some tumors are treatable but many tumors are malignant, leading to slow painful death. If you are experiencing these symptoms you probably have the malignant, untreatable kind.

A malignant brain tumor made up of cancerous cells may spread (metastasize) to other locations in the brain or spinal cord. It can invade and destroy healthy tissue so it cannot function properly. Malignant tumors grow the way a plant does, with "roots" inexorably invading various tissues. Or, they can shed cells that travel to distant parts of the brain. Some cancerous tumors remain localized, but you won’t be that lucky.


Hope you're feeling better soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not exactly funny

I was working on a fake news story about the US government outsourcing the military to foreign contractors. The idea seemed like a humorous and ironic twist on the private sector trend of "offshoring" white collar jobs to India, and almost all manufacturing to China. Once I wrote it, I was dismayed that it wasn't really funny. Why? Probably because it's so possible. Here's the article, see what you think.

* * *

US Outsources Combat Jobs

WASHINGTON, DC. Assistant Deputy Defense Secretary Byron Keane announced plans today to dramatically boost the use of foreign military contractors. The practice, known as offshoring, is increasingly common in the US private sector.

“This allows us to fight terrorism and reduce costs at the same time. We can afford more boots on the ground – it literally gives us more bang for the buck,” stated Assistant Deputy Secretary Keane.

Many of these foreign military contractors will be deployed in Iraq; positions that are increasingly difficult to fill with US soldiers. As recruitment numbers plummet, the pentagon has looked for creative ways to increase capabilities.

RedFlag Services, a Beijing based vendor, will initially fill 6200 positions. Staffed with experienced private sector troops, the RedFlag contractors will be fully equipped with state of the art combat gear, including the ZTZ-98 battle tank. Many of these contractors are former Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) veterans. Unlike the current practice of hiring civilian contractors for non-combat jobs, the new program will include frontline deployment, including limited combat operations.

The average US soldier requires about $75,000 per year in salary, training, and insurance costs. These costs are going up as the military is forced to offer incentives to boost recruitment. In contrast, a RedFlag contractor with comparable experience costs about $1500 to support. This includes an annual salary of $350. When long-term costs, such as healthcare and education are considered, the offshore program is expected to save the treasury over $3.2 billion.

“The RedFlag contractors have a winning attitude,” says Colonel Armstrong Forrest, commander of offshore forces in Baghdad. “They take on any task enthusiastically, and they never complain. The Iraqi forces could learn a lot from these guys. They [RedFlag contractors] really seem interested in learning from us.”

All contractors are required to speak good English. Because Chinese names are difficult for Americans, many of the men assume Western style names. A typical example is 25 year old artillery captain Wu Jing Hu, who goes by the name John Wayne.

Another advantage of the offshore contractors is their high level of training. Many of the men have experience interacting with civilian populations during recent unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. The RedFlag force includes nearly 100 veterans of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A discourse on magic and obsolete devices

As far as most of us are concerned, technology is magic.

Take for example the humble electronic calculator. You press buttons and out come flawlessly correct numbers – as if by magic. “Wait a minute,” you say! It’s all very simple. The keys input digits and operators, and there is a chip that does the floating point math and outputs it to an LCD. Very good! You know the names of some of those little parts, but how do they work? Face it, you have no clue.

If you have some engineering aptitude, and take some classes and study enough, you can figure out how the calculator works, in a basic way. You could never build one – not a reasonably good one. We take comfort in the fact that somewhere there are people like us that could build one. Even this is an illusion. Most technology is the product of thousands of skilled scientists, engineers, and designers, none of whom understands the entire product. Only in the collective consciousness of all these people lies the knowledge of how to actually make things.

This is no different than the magic spells in Harry Potter – Harry incants “wingardium leviosa”, and an object magically floats in the air. Press 2 and √ and the number 1.414213562 is displayed on an LCD device.

What’s the difference between magic spells and technology? Obviously, the calculator works almost every time, and the Harry Potter spell never does, no matter how many times you try it (we’re all muggles). Arthur C. Clark famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. For most people that applies to most technology.

The “user experience” of magic and technology is very similar.

The first calculator: Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" c 1822

This hasn’t always been true. Until the 1900’s almost all technology was comprehensible to an educated person. During the 20th century, this all changed. Until the 1940’s most machines were non-electronic. You could actually see the moving parts and comprehend their function. With the advent of electrical devices, and then electronics, this changed.

The radio was probably the first device that humans built that they couldn’t comprehend on a physical level. Despite being well understood mathematically, the workings of electrons are essentially unknowable to the human brain. They are invisible, impossibly small, and interact at speeds vastly greater than human senses can grasp. Even the specialized vocabulary of the physicist is essentially, a symbolic and metaphorical description of the sub-atomic world. A magnetic field cannot be felt. A volt cannot be seen. The speed of light, (simply denoted by the letter “c”,) is a concept that we will never experience.

As a professional computer programmer I am fascinated by both the simplicity, and the complexity of mechanical technologies of the previous century. I am amazed by the ingenuity and precision that went into building these mechanical devices. Many of them, like the typewriter, mechanical calculator, and spring wound watch were truly marvels. The fact that you could actually see and understand their workings makes them even more marvelous.

The fact that they are completely, hopelessly, and permanently obsolete should not detract from our sense of wonder at their ingenuity. Maybe there is still something to learn from these ancient wonders.

Precursor to the inkjet: A 6 color printing machine c 1890
© 2008 Raoul Rubin