Paging Dr. Google

People like to say that Google has replaced knowledge. OK. Let’s see how Google does when you give it a chief complaint!

“I have a headache”:

“My head hurts”:

“My back hurts”:

“My chest hurts”:

“I can’t breathe”:

“I’m constipated” (world’s worst presenting complaint, by the way; don’t ever do this):

“I can’t pee”:

Do you still trust Google with medical problems? Maybe you should trust Yahoo Answers…

Size matters

Am I the only person who still cares about size?

I got an e-mail today that contained a bunch of Word documents as attachments. OK, fine, I can deal with this — but one of the documents was simply a note that said the relevant details were in the other document, and could I please call the originator if I couldn’t open it? (Ironically, it was this first document I had problems opening.) It would have been marginally acceptable, but this note was a whopping 88KB — all that, for what was essentially 4KB worth of information, including the formatting. Even if you accepted the idea you might want 8-bit encoding, you still wouldn’t even approach a tenth of the size of the original file. And for what?

You get the sense that, since disk space became practically infinite and the links that carry our packets became infinitely fast (at least from a user perspective), people and developers stopped caring about the size of a particular data set. I know that’s always been more or less true — I’d like you to meet emacs, circa 1990 — but at least developers used to make some kind of sop towards the idea of stripping out the extraneous junk from anything they created. If you could get away with plain text, or, better yet, make someone else apply the hard work to fancy up the text (hello, PostScript and TeX), that was a big win for everyone. Now we just e-mail multi-megabyte files back and forth, and think nothing of it — as though it has always been this way, and anyone who objects is a curmudgeon.

Separately, can I just say that the person who built my fence will stay alive only as long as I do not find out who they are? Seriously — the panels are about 8′ long: some are 96″, some are 94.5″, some are 90″… it’s like the fence replacement project is trying to drive me to drink.

Garlic Gum Is Not Funny

“We have transcended incorrigible. I don’t think suspension or expulsion will do the trick. I think it behooves us all to consider… deportation.”
“The Crepes of Wrath” (7G13)

First off, I’ve skipped over “Homer’s Night Out.” After two weeks I still couldn’t think of anything worth saying about it — the episode bugged me on a couple of different levels, but I couldn’t summon the energy I needed to be really vitriolic about it — so I’m moving on.

Once again we’re confronted with Homer’s total idiocy when it comes to his family, and his desire for a perfect family dynamic. Adil offers him something to latch on to; we’ll see this again when Homer takes on the role of being a Bigger Brother in a couple of years — this idea that his relationship with Bart is so fundamentally flawed, or damaged, that it cannot be saved or repaired. Lisa’s frostiness when she realizes he’s willing to trade her out to get a better daughter is absolutely priceless, and worth the price of admission to this episode alone (though I don’t really buy her impassioned defense on the part of capitalism — freedom, sure, but capitalism? nah).

“The Crepes of Wrath” made me miss the Cold War. Not the whole threat-of-nuclear-annihilation bit, but the background of paranoia and espionage that made the Cold War so damned intriguing. I know the two often went together, but there was something fun about cleaving the world into two camps and glaring pointedly across a no-man’s land. (There was also the joy of rooting against the Soviets at the Olympics, something that other people miss too.) It was a simpler time, at least from a fictional perspective. Now you gotta write about nefarious government agencies, not just individual governments, and the bad guys are more apt to speak your own language than another.

Put another way, could you make this episode today? Who would you pick as the villains in this story, considering you have to find a backwards country that’s vaguely sinister? Most of the former eastern bloc countries are well on their way to being capitalists, if not already there, and there’s a never-ending quest to find the new Prague, the new hip place to get bombed for a weekend away from the United Kingdom. The best you could hope for is to return to the former Soviet bloc states, and hope you can pull off a Borat-style Kazakhstan-ish parody — I think Tajikistan might be my current choice, but the problem now is that every place that’s likely to be sufficiently screwed up to be funny also comes with a big serving of sadness: there are plenty of personality cults in the world, and lots of kleptocracies, and a large number of deeply screwed up countries, but none of them are really funny anymore, because life in those countries is so abysmal. We could at least buy into the propaganda of places like, say, Albania or Bulgaria back in the day, but we know better now. And the only people who might conceivably want to spy on a US nuclear power plant are in the Middle East, and those guys aren’t funny at all. Albania was perfect, back in 1990, by being faintly ridiculous while at the same time being exceptionally paranoid and somewhat spooky to the outside world. You can thank Enver Hoxha for all that — and for Adil’s last name, too, for that matter.

Cesar and Ugolin have real-ish world equivalents, too; they’re basically lifted straight out of Claude Berri’s “Jean de Florette” and its sequel “Manon des Sources.” As an officially certified Francophile, I loved the French parts of this episode — the godawful accents most of all (save for the cop, who speaks a completely perfect French, which is even funnier). Linguistically, the writers and actors got the English parts of the French characters mostly right; you really will hear people speaking like that in France. It’s hard to find fault with the portrayal of France here; for a show like “The Simpsons,” you need to traffic in the gross stereotypes, and that’s OK, because they’re essentially gentle and done with love.

A solid show all around, and maybe one of the only episodes from the first season that has a special place in my heart (“The Tell-Tale Head” is the other one).

A thought about privilege

“Privilege” is one of those concepts that’s hard for people to understand the first time they run into it. Though it really means something along the lines of “advantages you have that you think are normal,” it’s often interpreted as “things that you have that make you a bad person.” And that’s rough, because privilege affects an awful lot of stuff in our lives, and our interactions as humans are improved when we acknowledge and try to cope with our own levels of privilege. Part of the problem, I think, is that most writing on the subject of privilege has to do with things like ethnicity, race, gender/gender identification, and class — not things that most folks are necessarily willing or even able to examine in depth.

There’s another kind of privilege, too, that may make the whole thing easier to grasp: professional, occupational, or skill-based privilege. If you’ve ever wondered why some people struggle with tasks or concepts that come naturally to you, and wondered why it seems so hard for them, you’re bumping up against privilege. This happens a lot in my line of work; a lot of it revolves around dying and end-of-life care. I have colleagues who abruptly demand to know why Mrs. R. doesn’t have an advance directive, or why Mr. F. is still a full code despite being 97 and having full-blown dementia, or why Ms. J. doesn’t quite grasp that her cancer isn’t going to get better. Depending on how energetic I’m feeling on any given day, I like to use these moments as teaching opportunities to introduce the broader concept of privilege.

Conversations about death, dying, end-of-life care, or catastrophic health care decision-making are easy for us. We have a language to talk about this stuff, we understand what happens, we’ve seen it enough times to know what we want (or don’t want, as the case may be); we are comfortable with this material and these topics because we are familiar with them, and that makes the conversation easier. We watch people die — despite (and — very occasionally, I should stress — as a result of) the things we do — and it doesn’t really faze us much. We’re well acquainted with the subject matter, and that makes it a simple thing to discuss. But most people don’t have that familiarity; truth be told, most people don’t want that level of familiarity, although fluency with a particular topic is generally a requirement to be able to discuss a subject intelligently.

It evidently falls to us to facilitate those conversations, with care and empathy and compassion and great patience. Some people will get it right away; others need more help. Some won’t get it at all, and will end up standing in a resus room at three in the morning wondering why it had to end like this. The new-ish focus on this kind of planning, death-panel demagoguery aside, is really all about dealing with an underprivileged population faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges they cannot even begin to grasp without assistance. This is hard work, and yet amazingly most of us do it instinctively, without a lot of effort, and it often goes well despite the sadness of the overall subject.

This is what privilege looks like on an operational basis. This is what it means to own your privilege, understand how it affects other people, and work towards helping the less-privilege cope with that disadvantage. No one would ever suggest that having this level of comfort with such a horrific body of knowledge is bad, or wrong, or somehow inappropriate — because it clearly isn’t. And it’s much the same thing with the other kinds of privilege, too: none of it, whether gendered or ethnic or moneyed or what have you, is inherently bad, but behaving as though other people don’t matter because they don’t have those advantages is.

Viewed through this lens, privilege becomes a lot easier to understand. Are your parents struggling with their new computer, even though it’s really simple to you? Privilege. Are you a pilot and unfazed by turbulence while your passenger screams and holds on for dear life? Privilege. As the privileged person, you don’t get to set the terms of the discussion, and you don’t get to be the one who defines what the issues are for the unprivileged. Your passenger tells you when the turbulence is too much. Your mom tells you when you’ve helped enough with her new PC. The family will tell you when they’re ready and able to make end-of-life decisions for their loved ones.

I offer this out to the community at large when confronted with the challenge of explaining privilege to people who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot understand what it really means. Find something you have in common that makes you different from most other people, that gives you an advantage over others, and use that as the lever to bring the conversation around to other, more entrenched notions of privilege. It works.

(Inspired by this, which also does a good job, and helped me get my head around some of my own privilege issues.)