Desert of My Real Life

{November 29, 2009}   H1N1

I had my annual physical last week and my nurse practioner mentioned that they had an abundance of the H1N1 flu vaccine.  Because I have asthma, I almost always get the regular, seasonal flu vaccine.  In addition, flu (probably both H1N1 and the seasonal flu) is running rampant on our campus right now.  So I decided that I would get the H1N1 vaccine.

There has been a lot of controversy about the H1N1 vaccine.  Most of the discussion of risks has been focused on Guillian-Barre Syndrme (GBS) which is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks itself, causing weakness and potential paralysis.  No one really knows what triggers GBS but occasionally someone will get it after having had a vaccination.  By “occasionally”, I mean one in one million.  So for every million vaccinations given, one person will develop GBS.  Two or three percent of people who develop GBS will die and about twenty percent never recover.   There is no known cure for GBS and so this potential risk is causing lots of people to refuse vaccination for themselves and their children. 

Meanwhile, the risk of death from H1N1 is one in one thousand.  Humans are particularly bad at measuring statistical risks, especially when faced with media hype concerning events that are out of the norm.  Although every person has to decide for herself whether to get vaccinated, it seems to me that the risk of contracting GBS is very very small and should not be the reason to avoid the vaccination.

Another reason that people are giving for not getting vaccinated is that somehow they believe that this vaccination has been “rushed through” the safety checking phase of its development.  The reasoning goes like this.  Drugs take years to develop and test for their safety.  The H1N1 vaccine didn’t take years to develop since we only learned about the appearance of H1N1 last year.  Therefore, the safety testing must have been skipped.  Therefore, the vaccine is likely to be unsafe.  The problem with this logic is that it ignores the fact that the H1N1 vaccine was developed and tested using the same procedures that are used for the seasonal flu each year.  Each year, scientists anticipate the mutation of the flu virus and manipulate the previous year’s vaccine to address this mutation.  This is exactly what was done to develop the H1N1 vaccine.  The risks of the seasonal flu vaccine are not zero but they are very very small.  I would take this to mean that the safety risks of the H1N1 vaccine are also very very small.  In fact, the chance of dying from the vaccine is much smaller than the chance of dying from the flu.

The final major reason people give for not getting the H1N1 vaccine is that it contains thimerosal, a form of mercury that is used to prevent bacterial infection of the vaccine.  Mercury is toxic to humans and so, the reasoning goes, this preservative is toxic to humans.  Thimerosal is less toxic than other forms of mercury.  Extensive studies have shown that there is no difference in the occurrence of problems when someone receives a vaccine with thimerosal than when they receive a version of the vaccine without thimerosal.  This may still not convince people that the vaccine is safe so you should know that there are three forms of the vaccine and only one contains thimerosal.  The nasal spray version of the vaccine does not contain thimerosal.  Neither does the version of the vaccine that comes in single dose vials.  Only the version of the vaccine that comes in multi-dose vials contains this protection against bacterial infection.  So if you’re worried about thimerosal, ask for a version of the vaccine that doesn’t contain it.

As I said, I got the H1N1 vaccine last week.  I have had absolutely no complications from the shot, not even a sore arm.  And I’m protected against H1N1.  In my mind, that’s not a bad deal.

{November 23, 2009}   Digital Rights Management Part 2

I’ve written about digital right management before.  My latest encounter with these technologies came this weekend and I’m reminded that the “rights” mentioned are not the rights of the consumer.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized my car is equipped with a jack that allows me to plug in an MP3 player to play music through my stereo.  Yes, my car is more than three years old but my excuse for only having just found this jack is that it is located in the center console, beneath the parking break.  Who would have looked in such an unlikely spot for an MP3 player jack?  In any case, once I found it, I thought that I should buy a cable that would allow my cheapo, no-name MP3 player to be connected.  Liz and I found those cables this weekend in Concord at Pitchfork Records for $5. 

I decided that I would augment my newly useful MP3 player with some new music.  Rather than purchase entire CDs which I would then rip and put on the player, I went in search of a legal, online source for music.  I checked out a few options and thought that I would include iTunes music store in my research.  So I downloaded the iTunes player and started to browse the music.  They have a great selection and you can listen to a sample of each song before you purchase it.  That’s a nice feature.  Finally, I made my selection, entered my credit card information and completed the purchase. 

Then I tried to download the song to my non-iPod MP3 player.  Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t want me to be able to play my newly, legally purchased song on a non-Apple device.  And so it is saved on my computer in a proprietary format that cannot be played on any device that is not some version of an iPod.  So I have now purchased a song that I can listen to on my computer but not on my MP3 player.  Unless, of course, I buy an iPod. 

This kind of digital rights management is all about the rights of the company that sold me this song.  I have no rights in this situation.  Through some research, I’ve learned that I can save the song to a CD in the proprietary format, change some settings in my iTunes player so that all ripped songs are ripped as MP3 files, and then rip the song from the CD.  If I do that, I will apparently have an MP3 version of this song that I have purchased legally.  I haven’t tried this method yet.  If I only have a couple of songs that I need to go through this process with, it is certainly manageable.  But it’s still a pain. 

I understand that companies want and need to protect their digital rights.  This particular practice, however, strikes me as monopolistic and against the underlying ideas of capitalism, that the market should prevail.  Why isn’t anyone suing Apple for these anti-capitalist practices?

{November 2, 2009}   Differences in Media

I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between media types.  This thinking was inspired by the new movie Disgrace based on J. M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name.  I will definitely see this movie (if it is ever released throughout the US) but I’m worried about the choices that the filmmakers have made.  I thought Coetzee’s novel was brilliant because it was told from the point of view of a character who is somewhat reprehensible.  But, of course, his reprehensibility must only be hinted at since he himself wouldn’t think he was reprehensible.  The subtlety of the novel is difficult to convey in a film.  And so the filmmakers have made choices that reduce the brilliant ambiguity of the novel.  And that makes me wonder whether I’m interested enough in the plot of the novel to enjoy the movie.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica on DVD.  The original series aired on television and so the commercial breaks are obvious on the DVD.  In the most recent episode that I watched, a character is in a room with a spiritual advisor, discussing a recurring dream.  At a dramatic moment in the telling of the dream, the screen goes black, clearly a commercial break.  When we return to the story (without having to watch a commercial, which is why we like NetFlix), we enter the story at exactly the same point that we left it.  We left the story at a tension point so that we would be sure to come back after the commercial.  This technique works well in television.

The same technique does not work well at all in novels.  I read and hated Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code.  I really wanted to like this novel.  Dan Brown, after all, is from New Hampshire, and the premise of the story is intriguing.  But I couldn’t get past the poor craftsmanship of the novel.  The characters were two-dimensional and indistinguishable from each other.  I figured out the “secret” of the novel (which I won’t spoil here) about half-way through.  But my biggest problem was the chapter breaks.  Dan Brown writes really short chapters, some of which are a page long.  And often it is completely unclear why these chapter breaks occur.  Why have a chapter that is one page long and then have the next chapter start right where the action of that really short chapter ended?  I felt as though Brown had thought about moving these two chapters around, away from each, in order to build tension, in much the same way that Battlestar Galactica’s breaks for commercials build tension.  A good editor could have made sure these two chapters did not appear one right after the other, unlike the two scenes with the commercial break between them.  These examples remind me that different media require different production techniques just as they require different analysis techniques.

On a side note, the use of the made-up word “fracking” on Battlestar Galactica is getting on my nerves.

et cetera