Dec 31, 2010

New Year's Eve!

Spock, Captain Kirk, and Ke$ha team up to give you an awesome track for the party.

Dec 28, 2010

Medical horror stories, part III

A reader writes:

In the short amount of time since I arrived in South Africa, the Peace Corps Medical Officers have changed my medicine about 5 or 6 different times. Last week I was told to come to Pretoria for a day to chat with some psychologist. I thought that they might actually be trying to do something to fix all their mistakes. Well, that didn’t end up being the case. I met with a random Afrikaner (who knows nothing about me, my situation, my history, or my countries of origin) psychologist a single time for a grand total of about 30 minutes and he thought they maybe they should change a diagnosis. The protocol that the Peace Corps has in place is to medically separate me and send me back to DC for a while; and then I can apply for reinstatement. Well, a “change of diagnosis” is theoretically the reason they are trying this, but a diagnosis can obviously not be reached with one 30 minute meeting with someone I have never met... I am normally a pretty relaxed and laid back person, but the Peace Corps has screwed with me way too much this time...

They have unwillingly changed the medicine and dosage of what I take around 5 or so times, with no consultation or follow-up. I had to put up a hell of a fight to get them to finally give me the Lexapro again (they gave me Celexa instead; it’s not the same chemical, it’s half as effective with twice the side effects)... Well, now they bring me into Pretoria, change stuff again, and then want me to go to the US to “become stable”... The mismanagement and carelessness of the Peace Corps medical staff is the only reason I ever had to come to see somebody, as well as the reason I wasn’t as productive at my site as I could have been (and likely why I did more sleeping and worrying during PST than actual training)... So, after I see this random Afrikaner dude, [Nurse B] sends some e-mail to DC and they decide that I should be medically separated. It would be one thing if they received input from the volunteer and possibly others, but they made this decision without being told anything about how the medical personnel should also be given some, if not most, of the blame...

I went into the office and spoke with the acting Country Director as well as the head of the medical staff (no, not [B], but someone who actually seemed like he was trying to be helpful) and informed them that I refuse to go anywhere else or put any ink to paper until the office in DC has been informed of all of the mismanagement that led to this being an issue in the first place and the case is thoroughly reviewed (with all of the information being taken into consideration)... They contacted DC (well, theoretically at least) and inform them that I refuse to be medically separated until my case is properly reviewed and dealt with. In all the years those two have worked with the Peace Corps they said they’ve never seen somebody refuse to be medically separated... (And I’ve heard numerous stories of other recent volunteers straight up quitting the Peace Corps because of somewhat similar issues.) It really disappoints me to hear that not a single other volunteer has ever stood up for their rights and demanded that the serious organizational problems are fully known to the office in DC and are fixed and taken care of immediately... But, of course, they won’t even let me even try to appeal or speak to someone that’s higher up the ladder. I was trying to schedule a meeting with the US Ambassador today to let him know what’s going on and see if he could be of any aid, but its Thanksgiving and so it’s closed. Fine, I’ll try to meet with him tomorrow, right? Oh, of course not... Peace Corps says that if I don’t get on the plane to DC tomorrow that I will be immediately administratively separated here in South Africa and I will be responsible for my own transportation, lodging, food, and visa... Does this sound like a fair and just thing to do? If I had come to South Africa on my own volition, then it would be one thing, but I never signed anything that said that by joining the Peace Corps you officially give up any rights you have as an American citizen.

Dec 26, 2010


Here you can see my host mom brewing the local hooch, which will soon be making its way through the digestive tracts of a dozen stumbling drunks.  Ah, life in the village.
She calls it kaffir bier. Her words, not mine.

Dec 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from the States Side

So this Christmas we decided to get a tree anyway,the first in years. Recently, within an interminable month, Grandpa's passed on, Grandma's gone off a cliff with clinical debilitating anxiety and I'm suddenly chronically, critically ill. Every day is a new day - though I might probably have opted for the previous one. So we unload the boxes out of the attic, all the lights and ornaments, all the dust and memories, and pick through the lot. It's not a big tree, on purpose, and there's a lot more ornaments than can be hung on it, so we can be selective, and only hang the best; the tiny saxophone, the exquisite blown glass bells, an exact replica of the Wright brothers first plane.  When the kids had two sets of Grandparents, both sets got them each a commorarative ornament every year and the collection is out of hand.  We barely make a dent in it.

One year we had great big tree and we got every darn orament on there and in the middle of the night the thing fell over with a thunderous tinkling crash and a bunch of the best ones bit the dust.  We had lost a grandmother that year and the favorite ornament she had given us, a blown glass Santa's head of infinate frailty, was one of them. We cryed.What on earth could have caused the gravity of the tree to shift in such a way that it would suddenly topple?  Unseen forces effecting unseen changes until there is the rockslide or tsunami, pile of shattered tree bling or diabetes.   You wonder what the universe might be cooking up for you next.

The invaluable Stephen Gould identified the process of evolution as a "punctuated equilibrium;"  long periods of relative stablilty interrupted by short intervals of rapid change.  It's the same way the river does nearly all of its heavy lifting during flood stage. It's the way you can be lulled into a torpor by eight miles of flat water and roundly thumped in the drops.  "Sometimes the shit-storm," said Kurt Vonnegut,  "exceeds the powers of human comprehension."

Merry Christmas


Dec 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is happy, safe, and warm (or cool, as the occasion merits). My gift to you, loyal reader, is some knots I've been working on in the recent past. Here we have a Celtic heart knot, a sailor's cross, and a somewhat-bungled ocean plait.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!
They even come in festive colors!

Dec 22, 2010

The whirled map

Here's a picture of the map I recently helped my neighbor paint on the side of her school.  I think it looks pretty good, especially considering the surface is about as flat as the Hindu Kush.
California's behind is a little pooched out though.

Dec 20, 2010

Random tree picture

At GTOT we witnessed some improvements being done at the Peace Corps office.  Here you can see a gigantic tree that they cut down—it gave some nice shade, but the parking is cramped already and it just took up too much room.  For reasons I couldn't understand, they cut down the tree fairly far from ground level and then spent the better part of three days chopping out the stump with a single axe.

Dec 19, 2010

Medical horror stories, part II

A reader writes:

During PST I came down with a UTI. I knew it was a UTI because I have had them before. I told [Nurse A] about the UTI. [A] said [they] would talk to me more about it the next day. The next day [they] did not come to PST. When I called, [A] said [they] would bring me medication the next day. So by the next day I was four days into the UTI. I was peeing blood. Again, [A] did not bring me medication and said [they] would bring it to me the next day. I was urinating blood: urinating blood usually means kidney infection. So, in the end, I had a major kidney infection with blood, fever, chills, and horrific pain. [A] didn't seem to think it was urgent. Eventually I put up a big enough fuss that [A] sent someone to Bela Bela and I got the medication that night. Had I got the medication the day after I discussed it with him initially, life would have been much better along with my kidneys, bladder, and mindset. From then on, I had little trust in the quality of PC health care.

Story two:
My APCD came for site visit and was horrified at the site of our bed. It was in bad condition and we had only been sleeping on it for five months. She called [A] and told him he needed to look into getting us a new bed. About a week later [A] called me and told me that PC did not have enough money to buy us a bed. I told him I was worried it would lead to other issues if it was not taken care of. [A]'s suggestions were 1: Flip the mattress (any idiot would have already figured this one out, including me) 2: Put blankets on top o the bed for extra cushion (again already tried this one) 3:Buy a new bed with our American money and gt it shipped home at the close of our service. 4: Buy a bed with our monthly stipend by putting it on lay-by. To this suggestion I said that we barely had enough money to buy our basic necessities as it was. He had nothing else to say to this.

Time went on. I contacted [them] two more times about the issue and [A] had nothing to say about it. [A] even came to do a site visit and while I was pointing out the issue with the bed, [they] refused to pay it any attention. So, by April I was having some pretty significant back pain and sciatica.

At MST I reminded [A] about my back issues and he sent me for an x-ray. The x-ray showed two conditions, spondylolythesis, and spondylosis. These conditions are new conditions for me. I never had any back pain of any sorts in the states. After seeing the radiologist diagnosis, [A] sent me to an orthopedic doctor. The orthopedist recommended physical therapy to take care of the issue. He said I will have it for the rest of my life, but since it was a low grade at the present time, it should be easy to manage, unless I let it get worse by not fixing the root of the problem (the bed).

I went to four sessions of physical therapy. The therapist eventually said that it is my bed causing 80% of my pain. She documented it and recommended that I have a new bed. I faxed it away to Peace Corps. When I checked with [A] on this, [they] said [they] had not yet seen the document, and would have to look in my file. (To this day, [A] has still not responded to the letter.)

So, here I am 10 months later, still having pretty bad back pain. In counting up the amount of money PC has spent on the care of my condition, it has far exceeded the amount it would have taken to purchase a quality mattress (not even box spring). A bit of preventative care would have taken my pain and made it a non-issue. Instead I will likely have this issue for the rest of my life.

I am working up the nerve to start dealing with the issue again. After December holidays, I will be following up with the director and [A]'s direct bosses. Time will only tell if this saga is to continue.

Dec 16, 2010

Collected links

1. Do cell phones cause cancer?  Michael Shermer takes a hard look.

2. Beijing Egg House.

3. A look at the Wikileaks hacker battles.

4. Can Mormons be recognized just from appearance?

5. A skeptical look at the GM bailout, at least in terms of the miraculous Wall Street magic.  Seems like they were on pretty solid footing anyway, but the money was probably well-spent.

6. Afrikaans swearing dictionary.  My favorite: Jou fokken kakhuiskriek!

Quote for the day

"But ultimately, what one thinks of Manning's alleged acts is irrelevant to the issue here.  The U.S. ought at least to abide by minimal standards of humane treatment in how it detains him.  That's true for every prisoner, at all times.  But departures from such standards are particularly egregious where, as here, the detainee has merely been accused, but never convicted, of wrongdoing.  These inhumane conditions make a mockery of Barack Obama's repeated pledge to end detainee abuse and torture, as prolonged isolation -- exacerbated by these other deprivations -- is at least as damaging, as violative of international legal standards, and almost as reviled around the world, as the waterboard, hypothermia and other Bush-era tactics that caused so much controversy."  --Glenn Greenwald.  Bradley Manning is the person who allegedly leaked diplomatic cables to Julian Assange.

Dec 15, 2010

Holiday time

Today I'm making my way to Pretoria again, this time for a holiday up to the Botswana/Zambia/Zimbabwe region.  I've queued up a decent number of posts for the next few weeks, but they won't be more than every couple days or so.  I've invited my dad and sister to guest blog; hopefully they can keep the flame alive while I'm away.  I hope everyone has a great holiday season!  I'll see you soon.

New albums

Trying to use up my over-large data bundle for the month I've acquired a few albums that looked promising off Metacritic's best of 2010 list.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Swim, by Caribou.  Decent blend of indie electronic with some club flavor.  Recommended.

2) Tron Legacy Soundtrack, by Daft Punk.  If you liked the Inception soundtrack, you'll like this one.  Recommended.

3) Cosmogramma, by Flying Lotus.  Meh.

4) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, by Kanye West.  Sort of a weird one, almost avant-garde.  Recommended.

5) Spiral Shadow, by Kylesa.  The best of the bunch for my money.  Highly recommended if you like hard rock or metal.

6) High Violet, by The National.  Good for indie rock.  Mostly avoids the dullness and dragging that turns me off the genre.  Recommended.

Dec 14, 2010


They just keep getting better and better.

The Geminids!

Apparently there's a good meteor shower going about now.  I went looking last night, but the dadgum clouds were in the way.  If you don't know how to find Gemini, it's above Orion's right (from his perspective) shoulder, the red giant Betelgeuse.  Both Castor and Pollux (the twin stars of Gemini) are part of the Winter Hexagon.  The moon should set about midnight or so.

Dec 13, 2010

Republicans and scientists

A Pew poll recently found that only 6% of scientists identify as Republicans, while 55% identify as Democrats and 32% as independents.  I find that totally unsurprising, but it has sparked some discussion.  Daniel Sarewitz, in a boneheaded article for Slate, argues it's the Democrats' fault, and we should produce more Republican scientists (how? are they going to pass through a membrane from an alternate reality?).  Chris Mooney provides the requisite takedown.  Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey pines for the good old days:
No, seriously. Remember Republicans? Sober men in suits, pipes, who'd nod thoughtfully over their latest tract on market-driven fiscal conservatism while grinding out the numbers on rocket science. Remember those serious-looking 1950's-1960's science guys in the movies -- Republican to a one.

They were the grown-ups. They were the realists. Sure they were a bummer, maaaaan, but on the way to La Revolution you need somebody to remember where you parked the car. I was never one (nor a Democrat, really, more an agnostic libertarian big on the social contract, but we don't have a party ...), but I genuinely liked them.
Doctor Science at ObWi gives some history:
I think the first shift of scientists to the political left happened around April 22, 1970 -- the first Earth Day. After that, as I finished high school and went on to college, when I said I was studying "ecology" people made immediate, forceful assumptions (one way or the other) about my political views. I remember going to a panel discussion in the mid 70s about science and politics, science and religion, where the speakers agreed that "science is not politically on the right or left" -- and I know they were wrong, because I was an ecologist and that was a political label more than a scientific one, at that time.

My memory of the 70s and 80s is that Republican Party was *not* particularly anti-evolution at the time. There were discussions and debates about "Evolution and the Bible" and such, but they didn't have a particularly partisan character yet.

What I recall being much more significant were environmental issues. Although the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act were passed under Nixon, by the time the Reagan administration rolled into town the Republicans were pretty strongly on the side of pollution and extinction. Many of you are probably too young to remember Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, but that Wikipedia article covers the high points. Basically, he was completely on the side of extractive industries (including forestry and mega-agriculture). He justified it with Christianism: God wants man to have "dominion" over the earth, and besides, Jesus was coming back any day now.

...Basically -- because even the short version is getting to be too long -- I think that in the 80s the Republican powers saw even the hardest of hard scientists, the physicists and geologists and NASA, take positions that impeded the core Republican value of Making Money. Then, once they stopped worrying about what a bunch of eggheads thought, they could turn up the music playing to a Christianist audience and be against evolution and the wrong sort of medical research. But the underlying drive, IMHO, was Republican resistance to the kind of planetary systems concerns that we currently lump under "climate change".
As a hard science major, I witnessed a bit of the inside of practicing science. Though Reed College is famously liberal, the science professors are quite a bit more conservative than, say, the sociology department. As far as their actual policy views, there was fairly wide divergence, on issues from drug policy reform to universal health care. Yet they universally loathed the Republican party. I remember my intro physics professor, the legendary David Griffiths, during his lecture on gravity, stopped in the middle to give a brief aside. "Now, George Bush thinks that we should give time to alternative theories of things," he said. "Instead of Newton's Law, you could have a theory of intelligent falling, where God is pushing down on things. Sometimes he pushes up on things, like hot-air balloons. Of course, this has the disadvantage of making no testable predictions."

It's a similar phenomenon to what has happened to Latinos, I suspect. Both they and scientists may not be hardcore Democrats, but they can recognize when the other party is out for their blood.  It does create an atmosphere where Republicans and their ideas are deeply uncool in the scientific community, but for my money the actual actions of Republican leaders has far more effect.  Not a single GOP Senate candidate supported action on climate change in 2010.  I think Kevin Drum has it right:
Roughly speaking, though, this doesn't seem like such a hard question to me. The more time you spend practicing science, the more time you're going to spend discovering that conservatives hold scientific views that you find preposterous. Sure, liberals have PETA and the odd vaccination fetishist, but really, it's no contest. In the Democratic Party those are just fringe views. Even the anti-GM food folks don't amount to much. The modern Republican Party, by contrast, panders endlessly to the scientific yahooism of its base. What would be amazing is if much more than 6% of the scientific community identified with the Republican Party.

A bizarre storm

Last night we had one of the classic summer thunderstorms.  Lightning flashing more than once per second, a cannonade of thunder, rain coming down so hard it sounded like a battalion of carpenters armed with ball-peen hammers were assaulting my roof.  The strange part was that during these several hours of storming, the power didn't go out once.  Crazy, huh?

This was taken from a frame of video.

Dec 12, 2010

Some positive environmental news

After years of wrangling, the gigantic wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod has been finally approved:
After more than eight years of federal review by the U.S. Department of the Interior through two administrations, Cape Wind was finally approved last spring by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. More lawsuits were filed, but on Aug. 31 a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against community opposition and granted the Cape Wind energy project the permits to begin construction. Many community members have pledged to keep fighting, suggesting that the wind farm sets a dangerous precedent for private developers who want to open the area to drilling rigs or nuclear power plants. The wind farm is anticipated to be fully operational by late 2012 and is estimated to cost at least $2 billion. It will have the capacity to power about three-quarters of Cape Cod’s residents — many of whom continue to fight Cape Wind Associates.
In a surprising twist, though, Texas has been quietly building massive wind capacity:
The story of wind off Texas’ coast will be written very differently from that of Massachusetts. The Lone Star State already has the capacity to produce 10,000 megawatts of wind power on land, making it by far the nation’s leading producer of wind energy. With dramatic irony, many tapped-out oilfields have been resurrected as wind farms. Today, if Texas were a nation, it would be the sixth-largest wind producer in the world.
Don't mess with Texas. Further south, the climate negotiations in Cancun have actually shown some real results:
Broadly, the agreement accomplishes most of what observers hoped it would heading in two weeks ago: It records the commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions that developed and developing countries made in Copenhagen, establishes a framework for transparency, sets up a global climate fund with the goal of providing $100 billion in financing to developing countries by 2020, and establishes an initiative aimed at curbing deforestation.

Observers and many parties acknowledged that the progress was modest, and that the emission pledges still fall short of the stated goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Those pledges are not legally binding—nor do they answer the outstanding questions about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, which binds most industrialized nations to emmissions targets, and which is set to expire in 2012.
It's not nearly enough to solve the problem, but it's quite a lot more than I would have expected.  Here's hoping my pessimism will turn out to be completely wrong.

Collected links

1. A profile of Eric Holder.

2. Assembling the global baby.

3. When Larison mentions "liberalism's characteristic indifference to institutions," this is what he's talking about.

4. Carina, Puppis, Vela, and Pyxis used to part of one massive constellation called Argo Navis. I like the original better.

5. Shakespeare's sonnets! So far I like 18 the best.

6. An interview with a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Dec 11, 2010

Online advertising

Online advertising is famously ineffective.  Studies show that the "click through" rates, or how many people actually click on an advertisement out of those that see it, are minuscule.  On the other hand, this is a kind of study that was simply impossible before the advent of the internet.  Yglesias
To those of us on the editorial side of online media this is a very frustrating dynamic. It’s hard to make money writing online because the advertising rates are pathetic compared to what was historically available in print. And the rates are pathetic because the utilization rates are pathetic. But what kind of click-throughs did those glossy magazine ads get? Something here doesn’t add up.
Ezra Klein chimes in:
At the beginning of Ken Auletta's "Googled," Auletta talks with Mel Karmazin, then the CEO of Viacom. Karmazin is aghast at Google's campaign to measure the effectiveness of advertising by tallying clicks. "I want a sales person in the process, taking that buyer out for drinks, getting an order they shouldn't have gotten," he frets. And if that's too subtle, Karmazin continued: "You don't want to have people know what works. When you know what works or not, you tend to charge less money than when you have this aura and you're selling mystique."

It's more evidence that the greatest advertising campaign of all time was for...advertising. Another way to phrase Karmazin's comment is, "the thing you need to know about the advertising business is that the people we're selling advertisements to are basically idiots and we routinely fleece them." And he said it to a reporter, knowing it would go into a book. It's straight gangster. The brand is so strong that the people behind it can freely admit the con at its heart.
He goes on to defend advertising, but to my mind this understates its power, which is more subtle than can be revealed by click-through studies. The amount of people who would see and advertisement and immediately drop what they're doing to go and buy what they saw has to be vanishingly small. But when people are considering to buy something, perhaps something (like a pair of shoes) that they would have needed anyway, the choice of which product to buy can be profoundly influenced by advertising one has seen in the past, and that's setting aside other social effects.  The success of Coke throughout the world should give pause to this kind of glib dismissal of advertising's effectiveness.  Here in South Africa, Coke has so thoroughly permeated the collective psyche that it serves as a kind of general indicator of business operation.  Small village shop owners will often hand-paint a Coca-Cola logo on their sign.

I'm no fan of the advertising industry, but I must say I agree with Ezra's later comments:
The advertising industry was benevolently inefficient. It enabled pretty much every mass information medium we've ever had. Newspapers and radio and television and the Internet (Google, Facebook, etc.) are all brought to you by the advertising industry. There's perhaps no single sector that has done as much to advance human knowledge as the people who sell you soap and cars and soda. They overcharged businesses for ads in order to subsidize producers and distributors of information (and, of course, make themselves rich). The problem with Google, Karmazin once told the company's founders, is that they're messing with "the magic." And they are.
Madison Avenue has done unknowable damage to world culture, but at its very most basic (i.e., Craigslist), advertising is fundamentally legitimate—bringing together buyers and sellers.

For more, see here, here, and here.


This from a week or so back.
Who's been combing the sky?

Quick capsule reviews

I've been plowing through books on my kindle and on paper, so the backlog of ones I wanted to mention is getting insurmountable.  Here's some short takes on them anyway.

1) Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson.  An amusing and surprising pop history of the world's most important language.  Highly recommended.

2) Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley.  Poignant and surprisingly hilarious.  I miss WFB, the old scoundrel.  Highly recommended.

3) Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill.  The subject is important and the research exhaustive, but the preening moralizing is irritating.  Mildly recommended.

4) The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson.  Insanely ambitious yet rather whimsical, for Robinson anyway.  Fun for nerds.  Recommended.

5) Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut.  One of the last Vonneguts I hadn't read, and among his best.  Highly recommended.

6) Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig.  If you think copyright law is boring, think again.  Chapters 13-14 are about the most disturbing thing I've read all year.  Highly recommended.

7) The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell.  By far the best philosophical overview I've read, mainly because Russell doesn't pull his punches.  If he thinks someone is full of crap, then by God he'll say so.  Probably egregiously unfair in parts, but that's part of the charm.  Recommended.

8) Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, by John Wesley Powell.  Still probably the best book about running the Grand Canyon.  Highly recommended.

9) The Silmarillion, by Tolkien.  Finished it for the second time awhile back.  I loved it, but non LOTR geeks probably wouldn't.  Recommended anyway.

10) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey.  Definitely a product of its time, but beautiful and moving nonetheless.  Very highly recommended.

Dec 10, 2010


Rise Up Coffee is a company founded by a returned Peace Corps volunteer, and they have decided that they will send a free sample to any currently serving volunteer who asks.
Delicious.  Morning coffee is usually my favorite part of the day.
I asked for mine a few weeks back, and here it is! I'm excited to try it out in my French press. For other volunteers, to get some for yourself, just go to their Facebook page, like them, and put your address on their wall.  Lovely.  For those of you back home, I encourage you to patronize this remarkable company. Apparently they're on the cutting edge of organic, free-trade business. (Send me free stuff and I'll stump for your company too.)

Dec 8, 2010

Swearing in Afrikaans

Trolling the nets I found some choice phrases in Afrikaans.  Be warned, this gets vulgar fast.

1. Jou ma is so besig om te naai, jy's uit haar gat gebore. Your mother engages in such copious amounts of intercourse that it necessitated your being born out of her anus, as her vagina was otherwise occupied.

2. Afrikaners call English-descent South Africans soutpiel, which translates to saltcock, implying they have one leg in South Africa, one leg in England, and their dicks are dangling in the ocean.

3. Piele vleg = braiding penises, meaning to engage in male bonding.

4. Jou mammie naai vir bakstene om jou sissie se hoerhuis te bou. Your mother shags for bricks to build your sister's whorehouse.

5. Hy sal die kak uit jou maag gesteel. He'd steal the shit from your stomach, meaning he's untrustworthy.

Via reddit.  Probably my favorite out of them all is referring to Afrikaans as Loldutch.

Dec 7, 2010

Medical horror stories, part I

I've edited out names of specific staff, replacing them with Nurse A and Nurse B, and at the expense of some grammatical awkwardness, removed all references to gender.  (Why doesn't English have a neuter pronoun?)  A reader writes:
This winter I came down with the flu, although at the time I didn't realize it was the flu because it came on so suddenly. I left school early with a stomach ache, took a warm bath because I was getting chills, and when I got out of the bath was super dizzy and had the feeling I was going to pass out and puke, although I had never passed out in my life.  I remember trying to puke with no luck and the next thing I knew I was waking up on the bathroom floor in a puddle of my own vomit. So I was quite shaken because I didn't know what was wrong with me so logically, I called the duty phone. [Nurse A] answered, asked me a few questions, and said [they]'d call me back in a few minutes once [A] was back at the office. [A] called me back 2 days later. Luckily, my mom was available for some good old motherly comfort over the phone. But seriously, is a phone call back from my primary health care provider too much to ask?

Over the last few months I've spoken to both [A] and [B] several times about an injury in both feet. The first time I tried to speak to [B] in [their] office [they] said [they] were too busy to talk to me. After a request for 5 minutes of [B]'s time [they] conceded. I told [B] I had plantar fasciitis and [they] interrupted me to ask me what that is. After I explained it, [B] googled it and confirmed that I was correct, highlighting everything I had just told [B] on the printout from [B] said the best thing would be to send me to a podiatrist but Peace Corps wouldn't pay for a podiatrist so [they] sent me to physical therapy instead. After two weeks of physical therapy that wasn't helping I spoke to [A] about the problem. [A] scheduled me an appointment with the podiatrist, and said that yes, Peace Corps will pay for it.
The lack of a simple call-back is something you'll be seeing time and time again. A professional failure at the most basic level.

Dec 6, 2010

My china!

Here in South Africa "china" is a common slang term for "friend." I hadn't the slightest idea where that came from, but today I learned that it comes from Cockney rhyming slang! For the unaware, CRS works by taking a word, choosing a rhyming phrase, then (in most cases) discarding the actual rhyme. Example: tiddly = tiddlywinks = drinks. Barney = Barney Rubble = trouble. For china, we have china = china plate = mate.

Anyway, that's your etymology for the day.

Dec 5, 2010


I've been at another site helping another volunteer paint his roof. I should be back home tomorrow when regularly scheduled programming can resume. Stay tuned.

Dec 2, 2010

Department of WTF, alien life bureau

NASA has uncovered something truly amazing:
NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living on planet Earth. This changes everything.

At its conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon will announce that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, shares the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While Wolfe-Simon and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.

A preliminary word on medical stories

The response to my previous post has been large even so far.  Before I actually share anything, I want to make clear that I am not doing this out of a desire for publicity or to poke Peace Corps in the eye.  It would be great if I never had this opportunity—if medical care here were efficient and effective, or even just okay.  From firsthand stories I have heard about a great deal of incompetence on the part of PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officers), the worst of which led to a medical survey on from VSN, the Volunteer Support Network, some months ago.  But recent events have made it crystal clear that whatever the PC administration is doing to address the issue, it is not working.  Already three volunteers that I know of have left or been sent home based on such foolishness, things that very often do not even rise to the level of medical mistakes.  Rather they are secretarial mistakes like failing to make appointments, know policies, or call sick volunteers back.  I feel it is my duty to try and fix this problem, and I am doing so in the only way I know how—by writing about it, by sharing stories.

I have to admit that this project is a little frightening.  Bureaucracies the world over do not like their problems being revealed, and by far the most common reaction is to shoot the messenger.  Peace Corps policy makes it clear that we serve at the pleasure of the Country Director, and their regulations concerning blogs are written loosely enough that most any blogger could probably be sent home on some trumped-up violation.  Mostly they say that bloggers should avoid host country political controversies or making statements that could be interpreted as being culturally insensitive, in that they might damage the Peace Corps' reputation in the host country.  While this series might be construed as embarrassing, particularly in the USA, in my opinion the existence of such glaring incompetence is the far more serious problem.  Volunteers who have been subjected to bad care are not silent about it back home, and their stories to their friends and relatives back home befoul Peace Corps' reputation far worse than some unknown blogger ever could.

In any case, I will not be publishing anyone's name, either volunteer or staff.  My goal is to give readers a flavor of what the scene has been like here, in the hopes of sparking a discussion about how to fix it.

A request for medical horror stories

The past few months have seen some truly epic failures on the part of the Peace Corps medical staff here in South Africa, ranging from unprofessional to petty to sheer bloody-minded stupidity. The kind of failures that—and this is no exaggeration—could be easily avoided by an intelligent twelve-year-old.  I have been thankfully free of such experiences, mainly because I haven't gotten seriously ill since arriving here.  But I think the scale of the problem is such that the normal avenues for correction are not working.

Thus I've come up with the idea of doing a series on medical horror stories.  So long as you are comfortable with sharing, anything you regard as a failure of the Peace Corps South Africa medical staff, no matter how short, long, or silly, send them to me!  (My email is on the right sidebar.)  I'll collate them into reasonable chunks to be published here anonymously.

Note: basically all the problems I'm aware of have to do with the medical staff (comprising two nurses) tasked with managing volunteers' heath here in South Africa.  Since this is the medical hub for most of Africa, there is a real doctor who deals with serious medical problems for medical evacuees, who is by all accounts a competent professional.  This series should not be read as casting aspersions on that doctor.

Dec 1, 2010

Watch me flailing madly down a gigantic sand dune

Noah has the goods.  It's a bit hard to tell from the video, but the dune was actually really steep, at the angle of repose for sand, which seemed about 45 degrees or so.  At a dead run it was all I could do to keep my feet under me.  Pure unadulterated joy.