Technology

This category contains 3 posts

The Very Informed Patient

GPs have a label for people like you and me. People who Google things. People who come to the appointment, armed with the information already. They call us the Very Informed Patient or VIP. Personally, I quite like that. It could have been worse. We used to be known as the ‘PITAP’. But that was before GPs were under pressure to tick boxes for numbers of patients seen, weight checked, cholesterol checked, blood pressure controlled and stop smoking!

Now consultations are less about what is worrying you, the patient (because you already know what it is and how to treat it), and is more about the GP being able to score points (and points equals money) by asking a few simple questions.
Four months ago, I fell over/down a farm stile. It was neither elegant nor pretty and was extremely painful. But being a robust sort, I ignored it. Until I couldn’t walk, sit, stand, lie down, lift anything. Yes, it was that bad. I made an appointment with a super physiotherapist and started treatment. I didn’t even think about telling the GP. I had a prescription review due so mentioned it to him. He wasn’t too concerned, but instead remarked on my weight and blood pressure. Both affected by my lack of mobility and being in some pain. Thankfully, I didn’t take it to heart, carried on with the physio, who got me back to full fitness in 6 weeks. And the weight went back to normal, along with the blood pressure; no surprise really as I was back to my exercise routine too.
The point is this – my back was injured, I was taking painkillers and had limited mobility. Was this really the most appropriate time to lecture on weight?
Around the same time, cuts to NHS Direct were announced, and a new scheme introduced, the Isabel Symptom Checker. I entered the term back pain, and clicked on back pain lower. The first time I did this, I was told rather alarmingly, that the top cause of lower back pain was a malignant bone tumour! Well, I knew it wasn’t that, and anyway, they are very rare. Today, the symptom checker has improved, so while it still lists bone tumours in the top 10 causes of lower back pain, it does have slipped disc at number 1. Still a rather alarming list of symptoms, and hardly what the GPs will want to see waved under their noses.
Isn’t it time, then, that we went back to that old-fashioned examination and diagnosis, based on clinical skill, not just the internet and a barrage of blood tests and investigations.
Which brings me to my next point – VOMIT. More and more of us are becoming victims of modern imaging technologies. Often, when diagnosis is tricky, or treatment is taking a bit longer to work, we put our GPs under pressure to investigate further. In most cases, GPs have to refer to specialists to order CT scans or MRIs. These are actually quite invasive tests, not to be undertaken lightly. Still suffering from the back pain, and a rather stubborn sciatic nerve upset, the physio started to second guess her initial diagnosis. Perhaps the fall I had had, was masking something more sinister. Perhaps I had a slipped disc, or worse, after all. Perhaps I needed an orthopaedic consult. Dr B, being a cardiologist, has a healthy scepticism for specialists other than physicians, and suggested a further physio assessment. And would you know it, she discovered another area of injury. Within days of treating this injury, I started to heal. It didn’t take long after that to be back to full fitness. I shudder to think what might have been my journey if I had ended up in the orthopaedic department.
Sometimes, a little knowledge does help the process. Sometimes, taking a common sense approach, asking a few more questions, gets to the right answer a little quicker.
This post was previously published on my blog To science and beyond.
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Cereal Killers

Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.

Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.

We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.

So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.

“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.

It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.

When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.

In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience – be they the community, the government or the world.

You raise your voice, not your fist.

ZX Spectrum – Eighties icon

Keyboard30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.

JetPac game loading screen

The loading screen.....

And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.

When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.

spectrum 16k

A proper rubber fetish.....

And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.

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