Unnecessary X-ray Vision: the Doctor as Superman

The art and science of unnecessary radiation has come a long way since I was a boy. The recent New York Times article and the comments thereto don’t quite convey the flavor of where we used to be.

At the end of WWII I was a small boy living in middle class comfort in a not-yet fashionable side street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My educated parents, an assistant district attorney and a high school Spanish teacher, cared about my health and promoted it about as well as anyone in their position at the time.

My mother made sure I had orange juice for breakfast, and I had to finish my glass of whole milk before before she administered my vitamins and tonics. Vegetables bought fresh from Mr. Mazella’s shop four blocks away graced our table. My father smoked a pipe, my mother cigarettes. They took me to a pediatrician for checkups.

At every checkup good old Doctor Anderson poked, prodded and listened, but he got the real inside story by performing a fluoroscopy. In a dim room filled with banks of science-fictiony equipment they sandwiched me stripped to my skivvies between a huge machine behind me and a cold flat plate in front of me. Dr. Anderson, who had covered his white coat with what I remember as a thick red rubber apron with a high bib and a hem that touched his shoes, stood across the room. The way it used to beMy mother, wearing her fashionable suit, sat erect on a steel stool beside him. I watched them over the top of the plate as he donned red ski goggles and commanded the machine with a device connected to a cable wrapped in shiny metal. The room darkened. The machine buzzed and hummed as a Halloween image of my bones and organs danced on a screen on their side of the plate. I enjoyed it in a mirror on the wall behind them, reversed left for right.

Doctor Anderson narrated a leisurely tour of my organs, pointing out items of special interest with the same six-foot wooden pointer a later ancient history teacher would use to locate Athens and Sparta on a pull-down map in the front of the classroom. My mother’s cigarette glowed brighter than the image in the mirror as I learned to control the show by holding my breath, swallowing, coughing.

The fluoroscopy was the last diagnostic procedure of the checkup. Inoculations came next, and afterward I dressed so my mother and I could receive pronouncements and prescriptions in twin leather chairs across the huge desk from the doctor.
Shoe-fitting fluoroscope

I liked seeing my innards on the screen so much that in later years I went half a mile out of my way home from school to wiggle my toes in the shoe-fitting fluoroscope at a Thom McAn store. Now, of course, I find the idea that Dr. Anderson’s fluoroscopic examination led to any therapeutic decision preposterous, and dismiss the shoe machine as a sad manifestation of a dark age.

No harm has come to me from all that radiation, so far. As an orthopaedic surgeon I wore a radiation badge to track what was going on in the hours I spent around x-ray machines. Now my dentist shields my thyroid and gonads with lead when she makes images of my teeth. As low as the radiation dose from airport backscatter machines may be, the harm is stochastic; that is, every little bit adds its little bit to the risk of harm. I haven’t been offered such a screening yet, but since the complications of a patdown (delay, embarrassment) are easier to get past than the complications of radiation (cancer), I might decline the machine.

It’s good we are more aware of the issues. Everyone should pay attention, and bring to the question of which x-ray to have, if any, the same horse-sense she would employ in buying, say, a new refrigerator.

Images courtesy of New Haven Health and National Museum of Health and Medicine

Rest for the Tired Mind

What tires the mind is apt to be a computer task: finishing an article by a deadline; sorting a year’s paperwork for taxes; doing something about enough email so that what remains in the inbox will fit on one screen. Tired mindI work at it until I can do no more, and then what? I could walk outside or work out at the gym, or see if someone wants to meet for a cup of coffee. But in the moment I consider what might be possible, I am sitting before this lovely, powerful device that connects me to worlds beyond my reach, facts I don’t know, and a universe of possibility through its colorful screen.

Computer games lurk a few keystrokes away. Think of it: I don’t have to move, and in less than a minute I shall be delighting in the easy elegance of this device. But I haven’t done well at the games I’ve tried, or cared much for them. I’ll admit my incoordination and inexperience, but stand up for my gloomy sense that such play wastes time and attention, and therefore life. (Before you dismiss my attitude as a loser’s whine, remember that I had sufficient sitzfleisch for medical school and dexterity for orthopaedic surgery.)

I did get caught up in computer mahjong solitaire, where I found something soothing in applying my full attention to a puzzle that was simple but not easy, and surprisingly satisfying when won.Mahjong solitaire The swoosh sound the virtual pieces make when they disappear from the board has a certain appeal. But I tired of it, even though it reminded me of my brief flurry with real mahjong, when the physical tiles in their leather box possessed some of the shiny appeal of my computer.

People I love and respect play solitaire games a lot, computer and otherwise. My better half recovers from writing lectures by playing Sudoku, or solo computer Scrabble; as I write she is sharing a new enthusiasm for KenKen with one of the twin house guests whose presence has kept me from blogging for a week. They are amused and absorbed, but I have found something I like better.

A search for a passage I wanted to quote from a book I read when I was ten led me to Project Gutenberg, from where I discovered Distributed Proofreaders. As they scan old books which have passed out of copyright, they need the texts to be proofread to correct errors in the OCR output. You can volunteer to do some on line, at your convenience. (It’s the same kind of sharing as the SETI@home screensaver, which you can think of as the same kind of relief for your computer’s mind.) Distributed Proofreaders shows you how to do it. A page or two takes about as long as a game of mahjongg, and demands the same kind of attention. For me, it provides a similar satisfaction when I win (i.e. finish a page). You can do as little as a single page or as many pages as you want. And participation offers two additional rewards.Books Beyond Copyright

First, you get to read about something you might never have dipped into otherwise. In the few weeks I have been doing this I have read from Experiments on Animals, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, Principles and Practice of Fur Dressing and Fur Dyeing, Metapsychical Phenomena and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent—among others. And second, what you accomplish when you finish a page helps the world in a way that playing with images that disappear when you are done does not. Try a page; you might like it.

Images courtesy of Mia Bruksman, Shurikane and Liz West.

That Syncing Feeling

When you’re in love, you’re overwhelmed, which is the best part of it—until the moment you see that your new lover or new electronic device isn’t perfect. Features are missing or don’t work. Newer models promise more. Has the object of your passion changed, or did you perceive her wrong in the first place? No matter, you’ve made a decision, a commitment, so you play it out.

Let me tell you about my relationship. I ran out the two-year clock on my Palm Treo 755p last spring, as brother-in-law counseled iPhone (and waiting for Verizon like Madame Butterfly), but Android had my attention. I could handle a little chaos: I had dual-booted my PCs with Ubuntu before I moved much of my work to a Mac. People liked their Droids. I leaped in April, and I was in love. My new Droid X made and received telephone calls. I had mail, messaging, a camera, all those apps, and once I got my stuff into Google Contacts and Calendar, it synced both ways without my lifting a finger. Or I thought it did. I got Tasker and tried a bunch of launchers and stretched my wings and reached for the stars, lost in a forest of unused widgets and crapware possibilities. I staggered from widget to shortcut to Tasker project to app to wallpaper, everything. You know. I was addicted and out of my depth.

Simplify, has been my maxim. I made a *blush* pencil and paper list of what I actually used, uncapped the Trash, and home screen by home screen, deleted everything else. All seemed well. I used my Droid because it was useful. But one day I missed a meeting because the time I changed on my Mac hadn’t synced to my Droid. Had the object of my passion changed, or had I perceived her wrong in the first place?

RTFM! cries Tech Support with some asperity. Most of my problems come from human error (mine); one works it out and life goes on. Assuming that I had changed some setting by mistake, I explored every menu on my phone. I found the place in Accounts where you could tell the phone to sync everything with one click, but it wasn’t automatic. Over dozens of web hours at Google, Motorola sites, and techie forums I found answers: copy all your data to your SD card and back; purge the data in the applications that aren’t syncing and let the phone start from scratch; restart the phone; restore the phone to factory settings. But no answer worked for everyone, and even restoring factory settings didn’t always stick. Grumbling was widespread. Was it a bug in Froyo?

I fretted: had I been snookered? Time for real help. I stood in Verizon store queues in two major cities to speak with resident wizards, each of whom fussed over my phone for more than twenty minutes, and each of whom pronounced the problem solved. It wasn’t. I phoned Verizon tech support, who eventually acknowledged their incapacity and connected me with Google tech support, which (Verizon should have known) doesn’t talk to consumers. All seemed lost…

…until I got this message from a Google Mobile Help Forum page, which I quote here in its entirety because I am so appreciative.

“OMG I found the problem.  Sync was apparently turned off via the Power Control widget!  This is a really obtuse and unacceptable situation.  The only way to turn this back on is to add the widget back to a screen and click on the round double arrow button so that its enabled.  This is not at all obvious and I accidentally turned sync off and then removed the widget because I didn’t know what the different buttons did (they aren’t labeled).  That is a bad widget design (obscure) and the fact that sync can not be re-enabled (or even detected that its been disabled) from the system configuration menus is not reasonable.  If sync can be turned on & off it should show up under say the Data Manager as a check mark option, it should most definately not only show up as an unlabeled button on an optional widget.

This problem has frustrated the hell out of me for at least two weeks and I’m sure there are plenty of other people who have had this same problem.  Please make changes to this is more obvious to detect and fix via the system configuration menus.”

If you go to your home screen, hold down, and select “add android widget”, and select “Power Control”, then hit the icon second from the right with the arrows in a circle, sync will turn back on.”

Pretty toggles and the Power Widget
The Sync button is second to the right on the Power Widget.

I had deleted my Power Widget because I had nicer widgets to toggle Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS and Airplane Mode. And because I had no idea what that yin-yang item did, I assumed (silly me!) that I didn’t need it. Sync must have been off when I deleted the Power Widget, whose name I didn’t know when I deleted it, but even now, knowing, I can’t find documentation about how that sync setting works.

Trust and love restored, my Droid X and I are happy again. Yes, the failure was human, but for once the moral is not RTFM, but WTFM.

Writing is important.

Image courtesy of Gabby Canales via Flickr.