Is there Good News in the Swine Flu?

Swine Flue Cartoon
Swine Flu: Some bad news, some profiteers, and perhaps some good new habits!


As the world awaits for the onslaught of the swine flu [porcine flu, aka A(H1N1)], there are going to be evident winners and losers. The losers? Basically all of us: consumers, society at large and business (especially with poor cash flow), if the epidemic does come home to roost. There will also be profiteers. While hospitals and pharmacies risk a deluge, the pharmaceutical companies with anti-flu medicine are bound to benefit enormously and, some say, they are behind the summer media frenzy. In the likely panic and fear-mongering that will lead up to the ‘Flu Fall, consumers will surge to buy extra tissues, hygienic towelettes (wet wipes), alcohol-based gels or sanitizers and face masks. BTW I note that Fushi-Protective has bought premium space on Google and advertises in broken English (Chinese company): “specializing in face mask prevent from swine flu.” Frankly, improving people’s personal hygiene — even making acceptable in the Western world the wearing of a face mask as we see in Asia — will be a win for society. Cleaning our hands more regularly would be a good habit to inculcate. Buying internal filtering systems that “clean” up the air inside is another interesting avenue, albeit one that provides also provides a long-term benefit (a player in this area I have come across is called AirSur, which can provide allergy-free air at home).

Distance Learning eLearning

But, beyond the health-related plays, the one area for which the swine flu could be a super boon is distance learning. Imagine the situation: schools being closed down for long stretches, for example 12 weeks, as France’s Education Minister, Luc Chatel, has just announced as a possible measure for the upcoming bout with the potential epidemic. Schools should be getting themselves prepared to turn their courses into proper distance learning or eLearning — not just a rebroadcast of filmed lectures, but up-to-date e-pedagogy based on the exceptional possibilities that internet provides. This is a great opportunity to modernize, if not revolutionize, the education institutions — especially those that have been reluctant to move forward with technologies. The students we know will be willing. The question is whether the schools — and their teachers — will be nimble enough to react.
Distance Learning Mouse & Academic Cap
In the same vein, but only because I happened to be based in Paris this year, I think of distance learning as a great way to get around strikes and scam manifestations such as we experienced in several higher institutions in France (e.g. Sorbonne Paris IV, Toulouse-II Le Mirail, Aix-Marseille-I, Amiens,  Caen, Nancy-II and Reims…). For the teachers and students who were forced to stay at home by a small contingent of indignant ‘revolting’ students, courses should have been available over the ‘net.

Lastly, the trend of reducing business travel (budget cuts under the guise of green fingers) and “congregation” meetings may also continue, since such meetings will only promote further contagion. Another area that is bound to benefit is thus video-conferencing and distance meetings and webinars.

So, the swine flu may be a nightmare about to happen, but I see that there may yet be positive results in the long-term, including improving our hygiene habits, reducing carbon footprints and, possibly, generalising the practice of eLearning.

Your reactions are welcome!

Tetris helps in trauma therapy — But what about kids’ memories?

Tetris Video Game

Via Sciences Humaines, a very insightful and thorough French magazine, I read [this article in the aug-sept 2009 issue] about how the video game, Tetris, has been identified as helping trauma victims recover. A study* by scientists at the University of Oxford discovered that Tetris might have a preventive action in helping to efface a [bad] recent memory. The study, published in January 2009, evaluated the memory of people who had just watched a scary [i.e. traumatic] movie and then played at least 10 minutes of Tetris. The theory more or less goes that, in the process of playing tetris, the memory bank is forced to do some gymnastics that effectively wipe out the ability to retain the traumatic events in the scary film. So, is the moral of the story, if you have just watched a scary movie with the kids, to allow them to play 10 minutes of a docile video game, such as Tetris, before going to bed? I imagine not. Whatever the therapeutic nature for medical purposes — and I surely hope that Tetris may be a useful solution — I think that a further study would also be worthwhile if directed at the impact on children’s memory banks.

My feeling is that, if you evaluate the effects of video games played right after doing homework, you will likely have the same type of phenomenon going on! I believe that the visual stimulation, however docile or violent, will likely have a similar “anaesthetising” effect on the child’s capacity to retain information learned in homework. There has been ample work on the impact of playing one game over and over again, as well as the obvious influence of violent games. But, what of docile games?

Anyone have empirical evidence on the impact of even docile video games on children’s memories right after doing homework?


*The study is entitled: “Can Playing the Computer Game “Tetris” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science.” by Emily A. Holmes*, Ella L. James, Thomas Coode-Bate, Catherine Deeprose, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

Available for reading here via Plos One.

Google Health – Innovation or Invasion?

Google launched a year ago (March 2008) a new service, Google Health. According to its corporate mission, Google seeks ways to consolidate information and make that information available anytime, anywhere. This time, Google is innovating in an area as sensitive as it gets, your health data. Will Google Health be considered an innovation or an invasion?

Google Health Screen Capture

Google states upfront that the data will remain entirely confidential unless and as you see fit to share it (with specified family, friends and medical support staff…).
Google writes, “[w]e believe that your health information belongs to you, and you should decide how much you share and whom you share it with. We will never sell your data. We store your information securely and privately. Check out our privacy policy <> to learn more.”

Essentially, the idea is to track all your medical information and history in one single spot. Digitizing your medical records would seem to be a necessary prerequisite to making this service useful. That means scanning in all the handwritten notes and immunization cards, etc. that you have been carefully filing away and moving with you from home to home over the years. Google Health does enable you to import your medical records, but that supposes that all your medical service providers have your records on digital file. For now, Google has evidently done some of the legwork by partnering with a host of hospitals, doctors and pharmacies, etc. But, I sincerely doubt that they have us all covered under that partnership, especially when the majority of my files are ex-United States. Presumably at one point, you can imagine that there will be a technology that allows us to upload all our xrays too?

As a source of information, using the intelligence of microprocessors, random access memory and contextual search engines, I can definitely imagine the benefits of Google Health down the road. Google writes, “Every time you add new health data to your profile, Google Health will check for potential interactions between your drugs, allergies, and conditions.” And, for those of you who travel a lot, the ability to have all your health data at your fingertips can be a true boon. For now, I am signing up just to see what it all means even if it will be difficult to assemble all my data spread out in multiple countries. There certainly is the potential for this type of service to radically change the way we manage our own health. For that, trusting in Google’s privacy record, I am deeply in favour. I will be interested to find out what the medical members of the blog community say about this? Please give me your thoughts.

— UPDATED April 28th, 2009

“Technology is making health care more portable, precise and personal”

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to pick up the April 18, 2009 Economist, in which there was a timely special, Medicine Goes Digital,” on the topic of digitising health records. As the article (16 pages) states, “the health-sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology…” as doctors still tend to work with pen and paper in most of the world. “The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (the Economist’s health care correspondent interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.” The article strongly points to the gains that can be made from a patient’s standpoint by being the master of his or her own medical information. A study by the RAND think tank forecasts that, if over a 15 year period, 90% of US hospitals adopted Health Information Technologies, there would be potential annual savings of $77B from efficiencies; and the savings could double if health and safety benefits were also factored in. That would equate to a 6% reduction in the 2.6 trillion dollar health care bill for the US this year. So, we need to encourage the doctors to go digital (which will help clear up mistakes from the forever illegible hieroglyphics that doctors learn in medical school) as well as acclimate patients to storing the information on secure sites on the ‘net. Let’s get the ball rolling!

Review of The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

Thanks to my literary counselor, Kathy, I latched onto the novel “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers. The book has been amply reviewed (NY Times, EW, Margaret Atwood at NYRB) and rewarded (Pulitzer Prize finalist). And if you want a quick insight into the book, try Wikipedia’s entry.

The story has three great points to it:
* a very vivid description of the frailty of life in today’s society
* a very appropriate rendering of life after September 11th — unheroic, unglorified.
* and, finally, a whole new unexplored territory for me to learn about in the form of rare neurological disorders (beyond Capgras Syndrome which was a discovery unto itself).

Aside from the gory details of middle America as portrayed through the lives of Mark and [fake-] sister Karin Schluter, the more salient character is a cognitive neurologist-cum-author, Dr. Gerald Weber who slides down and takes a wrong turn himself. His life and career epitomize the challenges of commerce … in medical field. And, throughout the book, in a parallel universe, you find out about the world of the migratory Sandhill Cranes where again commercial ends intervene in our interaction with nature. My one regret with the book is that the final reveal was too shallow and quick. Made me want to read on!

The book is novel, gripping and poignant. A very good read. And as if you needed any more encouragement, go buy at Amazon.

Sicko – SOS Message on target

If you haven’t seen Sicko, by Michael Moore, then you must. It opened in the US on June 29 and now is also out in Paris (see here for listings). Surely, this is a message that will resound for all Americans living abroad, experiencing some form or other of universal aka socialized healthcare. And, I had the feeling that Moore is keen to have the “Tommy Douglas” tag for the US (as the one responsible for bringing in universal healthcare) with this film.

As Moore says, “This film is a call to action,” Moore said at a press conference on Saturday. “It’s also not a partisan film.” Certainly, the action points in the letter Michael Moore on his site are precise and, presumably, may help initiate a wave of support.

The press reviews of Sicko were, somewhat predictably, all across the board. The Fox News critique is surprisingly ebullient. But clearly, there is also a lot of criticism in the blogosphere for this film. At the bottom is a cross section of recent blogs on the topic.

That said, if his tone is considered to be less inflammatory, the style of interviewing ‘random’ people is anything but quantitative. The film cites the national health policies of Canada, France and England, the three countries, in addition to the US, in which we have lived as a family over the last ten years. [It also takes a group of suffering 9/11 rescuers to Cuba in the most controversial portion of the film; but I have never been to Cuba]. Had Moore interviewed us and asked for a fair and comparative appraisal of these three countries, we surely would not have given as rosy a picture. Considering the cogency of the message, I would argue that he didn’t need to discredit his story by adding non-representative cases.

For example, on the Canadian story, he was vastly overdoing the strength of their program. He visited the London Ontario hospital and determined that there was no waiting time–he should have come visit the 3+ hour waits at some of the hospitals in Montreal. The Canadian media has been all over Moore for his overly optimistic portrayal of the Canadian system. This Toronto Star article sums up the point.

Regarding France, Moore’s describes a French couple with 7000E/month in revenues as a “middle class”; that is a substantial increase above the average in France and that couple did not appear to be representative of the typical French taxpayer. Plus, as anyone living in France knows, it’s the connections that one entertains that help “optimize” your revenues (manner of speaking). In both Canada and France, we have experienced personally waiting times as long as one year for certain services. While in Canada, I was given a 6 month wait for surgery on my painful right shoulder (I ultimately avoided surgery through the master hands of a Active Release Therapy practitioner in Hamilton Ontario: Anthony Lombardi. Even if someone is prepared to pay for the treatment, sometimes there is a long wait, and many people go overseas for more rapid treatment (as long as they can truly afford it).

In England, the critics of the NHS are vocal. I remember hearing about how some older people were not given treatment because “they were just too old.” And, in the reverse, in France, our 82 year old aunt receives the visit of a nurse every day for an injection to “revive her bones.” BTW She also gets the visit of a cleaning lady for 1 euro per visit (that’s thanks to the Mairie).

On balance, I have to say that I approve of the film’s message. I was rather stunned that he chose not to lay into the lawsuit issues that have surely contributed to the escalating doctor’s fees (higher insurance coverage, etc.). The existence of medical malpractice and class action suits is important for protecting the individual. However, the excesses in payouts are, in my mind, intolerable. The minimalistic legal protection of an individual in France is, on the other hand, not very modern or acceptable.

So, what are the chances that Sicko brings national healthcare to the US? The timing of the release ahead of the elections is very appropriate. It will be interesting to track the debate on line as well as to see who/how the candidates take up the issue.

Sonic Cinema review – “maybe Moore’s best film since ‘Roger & Me'”
Francois Tremblay – Check your facts
Fabrice Grinda – discusses Steve Case’s RevolutionHealth
Free market cure – What should be done
Idaho Fallz – This is a thread on the film with well over 200 comments already
‘No interference’ proposal for health care in an article entitled “No Right to Free Healthcare” from Dr Ghate, PhD Philosophy from Ayn Rand Institute.

Psychiatry is politics… and dollars and cents

I had never been fully exposed to the downside of psychiatry until I visited this week the exposition “Pyschiatrie: la vérité sur ses abus” in Paris at the Hotel Castiglione, 40 rue deFaubourg St Honoré. Sponsored by Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights CCHR* (French or English, this exposition is based on the exhibit at the Los Angeles “Psychiatry, An Industry of Death” Museum (6616 Sunset Blvd).

Featuring a series of 14 films, with alarming statistics about the US and the world, this exposition definitely makes you think twice. (A psych mind game if you want). The presentation style of the films is too Hollywoodian for my taste, drawing on the excesses of Nazi psychiatry and tracing a morbid history of psychiatry as a medical field; but the underlying message is compelling. Whether or not you subscribe to psychiatry as a well founded practice, the exposition deserves a viewing.

Some facts that the films point out:

  • 20 million children worldwide — of which more than 6 million (out of 52 million in school) children in the US, up from 4 million in 1997 — are taking psychiatric drugs

  • More than 100,000 patients die each year in psychiatric institutions.

  • Annually, up to 10,000 people die from the use of electroshock treatment —460 volts of electricity through the brain. Three-quarters of all electroshock victims are women.

  • Psychiatrists and psychologists have raped 250,000 women. Studies show that 10 to 25 percent of psychiatrists sexually assault their patients; of every 20 of these victims one is likely to be a minor.

Between bio-chemical imbalances, bi-polar, ADD, ADHD or depression, psychiatrists have a flotilla of “diseases” which they can attribute to children and adults, and for which they can prescribe medication. I was struck by this modern day statistic: between 1950-1990, there have been more deaths of “patients” in US Federal psychiatric hospitals than of US soldiers in all the wars since the War of Independence (including the Wars of Secession, WWI, WWII, Vietnam and Korea). Needless to say, such a statistic seems completely inflammatory. At the very least, there should be a little more precision on the nature of the deaths (end of life Alzheimer, for example?). I note also that it has been 17 years since that statistic has been updated. Have the rate of deaths declined so much since? Are the statistics no longer available?

Many of statistics are about modern day USA. Of course, the cases of Soviet ‘psychiatric’ treatment are also quite contemporary, as exposed by various dissidents, including Boris Kovhar, Sergei Potylitsyn and Mikhail Kukobaka. Given the recent internment of the journalist Larissa Arap, there is still plenty to be worried about in Russia regarding their psychiatric practices.

Behind the exposition, there are a lot of dollars and cents… including the proposed sale of their own related books and DVDs, etc. But, there is also clearly an industry of psychiatry. Numbers put forward in the films at various stages:

  • $19B of US tax dollars since 1948 have been invested in psychiatric research.
  • US consumption of anti-depression, anti-psychotic drugs have sky rocketed from $9.7B in ’94 to $35B in ’04, with a corresponding hike in insurance payouts and, therefore, premiums. For comparison, in France, 543 million euros were spent in 2001 on psychiatric medication.

With the economics of psychiatry thrown into the equation, the field of psychiatry is more than ever political. US [not just Nazi German, or modern day Russia, China] politics have had ties with psychiatry, including involvement with the creation of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Troubles (DSM) which was first published in 1952 (see wiki listing). And with a quick trawling of the net, you will find that there are a number of activists out there against psychiatric abuse, (for example).

My overall opinion is that psychiatry continues to have its place as a field of practice. Grave psychiatric disorders exist and obviously need research and treatment. Perhaps, for everyday accompaniment in life, the role of the psychologist is more appropriate than psychiatrist. And, with my interest in literature, psychology is always near at heart. I have long admired the thought experiments that authors such as Turgenev initiated in the 19th century. Literature and psychology are a happier marriage than politics and psychiatry.

The exhibit in Paris closes August 12th.


* The CCHR is an international psychiatric watchdog group co-founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and Dr. Thomas Szasz, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights.

Mahjong can cause epilepsy

Whatever next? The BBC report states that a study in Hong Kong reveals that Mahjong can cause epilepsy. Are they for real? A “unique” Mahjong strain of epilepsy? The BBC report writes “Mahjong is cognitively demanding, drawing on memory, fast calculations, concentration, reasoning and sequencing.” At that rate, might as well as stop thinking and living normally too.

I have just visited the (anti-)Psychiatry exposition, “Psychiatry: the truth & its abuses” at the Hotel Castiglione, 40 rue Faubourg St Honore, in Paris. This report out of Hong Kong is a good “amuse bouche” for an upcoming post I will make on the exposition. If in Paris, go visit the exposition. It runs through August 12th.

My (truly) favorite books

Have you ever been recommended a book where the person starts with, “Boy do I have a book for you, you’ll love it…”? Without even buying or reading the book, I often stop to think what impression the person has of me that would make them recommend it. After reading the recommended book, the statement [about yourself] becomes obviously clearer, if not always accurate. In an effort for better accuracy in your recommendations, I thought it would be appropriate to start with books I have devoured and loved.

And, on this note, I have long maintained my TOP TEN favorite book list. The usual suspects litter the list and, I now confide, my original list was far too “classic” (Anna Karenina, Tale of Two Cities, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe…). I am now feeling some kind of literary maturity and have been garnering a new definition of what are my favorite books–and why. Moreover, any such list should be organic and dynamic, allowing for introspection, if not extrospection.

For a start, there doesn’t have to be ten. There are as many as I can justify. So here goes:

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell 2004. A thriller, if largely through a mountain of syntax, Cloud Atlas is innovative writing combined with a gripping storyline and a vital social message.
Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis 1991. An exercise in patience well rewarded for this uncanny short novel on a very sensitive subject; with clever underlying messages devolved via the reversal of time, discourse and plot.
First Love, by Ivan Turgenev 1860. Maybe I like this novella more because of a nostalgia (of the time I read the book) than excellence of the book itself, but First Love is captivating prose, even in translation, and has a twist at the end that challenges our initial perceptions.
Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak 1958. A better book than film, even if I love the film, too. This book is one reason why I like to write myself, and certainly contributed to the reason why I wanted to learn Russian.
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand 1943. Aged poorly in terms of writing, but seminal in terms of my own life philosophy. Howard Roark is a model.

The World According to Garp, by John Irving 1978. Best of Irving. Sense of humor, sense of humanity, sense of hope.
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce 1916. Magical lyrical prose. His best work.
Damage, by Josephine Hart 1991. Not well known, but wicked and painfully insightful, written in 1st person for greater guilt. One quote to stir your interest from the protagonist (if not pure agonist):

“Former GP now MP, I thought I was enjoying middle age. But nothing in a life anaesthetized by success, wealth and contentment has prepared me for my encounter with Ann Barton. Femme fatale, innocent catalyst for disaster or instrument of pure evil, she wrenches me into hyper-consciousness with a lethal dose of my own, hitherto hidden, frenziedly addictive medicine.”

What books would you recommend now?

Taxi! What’s up, Doc?

The other day, on Long Island, I was driven to the airport by the chauffeur of a rather nice sedan. With his latino accent, rapper hat (despite the warm weather) and small stature, I must admit I didn’t pay much attention at first. After a few miles, the conversation went beyond the stilted to the interesting and finished in the highly titillating. It turned out that my chauffeur was a prior Olympic competitor (gymnast) for his country (Ecuador) and is currently finalizing his studies to become a neuro-surgeon. Just goes to show you that you must remain open minded at all times… especially in a country where the dream for “a better future” is still a dream in some people’s minds. Anyone else meet anyone else with such a surprising background?