Thursday, July 31, 2008

Emergency pricing

If a person calls a plumber on the weekend or the middle of the night, they are generally charged a higher rate than for daytime plumbing. This encourages people to do whatever they can to allow the plumber to work during normal business hours. It compensates plumbers for unexpected loss of their time with family. It's a hardship on people who have truly unforeseen emergencies, though.

If a tree company cancels all of their scheduled work for two weeks and has its crew work long hours and weekends removing trees from houses: is charging three times their normal rate reasonable compensation? My neighbor and coworkers were rather shocked at the quotes we got for tree removal; accusations of gouging were made. A lot of people removed trees themselves or found non-professionals to do the work; this took a lot of the burden off the tree companies and the storm damage through the city was cleaned up faster.

I can see where it is unseemly to make money off of the hardships of others. But when a person needs an emergency service, providers of that service are not obligated to donate their time and expertise charitably. It's a fine line between reasonable emergency rates and gouging.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sympathy quotient

Conversations during the first part of last week were an interesting experience. I wanted to talk about the damage on my property and our loss of trees, and about the downed trees in our neighborhood. This elicited a lot of sympathy from people in unaffected areas - both far away (like the national claims office for our insurance; our mortgage company) and nearby (my mother in law and rabbi).

If I brought up the subject to people who were affected, I was regaled with tales of going three days without running water (no electricity to run their well), trees on cars, people maybe without property damage but a half dozen mature trees downed in their yard and requiring removal. One member of our congregation had no damage with this storm: when I mentioned the tree on our house (it broke off the eaves), he related his experience with a tree taking out his porch and kitchen ten years ago.

Not knowing who was affected and who was not, it was kind of jolting to go into a conversation expecting to receive sympathy and ending up being on the giving end. My outlook changed based on how recent conversations went: having people feel sorry for me narrowed my focus to my own problems. Talking with people significantly worse off than myself really steered my thoughts towards others.

I hadn't realized how significantly my social interactions shaped my views.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Stress, physical health, mental health

I've long been interested in the relationship between emotional stress and physical illness. I was fascinated to read an article in this week's Science News about the relationship between stress, the immune system, inflammatory illnesses, and depression. Apparently, over the past five years, a new line of research has been opened up by research into a new drug: this immune-boosting chemical causes major depression in up to half the patients taking it.

For many years, the prevailing wisdom has held that when a person is sick or injured, their immune system uses energy to fight the infection or in healing processes. The body then has an energy deficit, and a person feels tired. Makes sense to me.

But it turns out it's the other way around: if the immune system feels it will be needed, it sends signals to the brain causing depression. The depressed person doesn't do anything energetic, thus freeing up energy for the immune system to use. This pre-injury immune rev-up gave an evolutionary advantage to animals that were likely to be injured shortly after experiencing a stressful situation: being chased by a tiger was the example given in the article.

However, in an environment where stress is unlikely to be related to physical injury (being yelled at by the boss was the example), this response is no longer advantageous. Not only that, but in the absence of physical injury the inflammatory immune response (which also helps with healing) causes physical illnesses such as psoriasis.

I think this is the first time a major mechanism for stress-related illnesses has been identified. This research is also pointing to identification of a distinct form of depression: Major Depression Disorder with Increased Inflammation may be added to the next edition of the DSM.

It's very nice to have a confirmed physical link between what goes on in one's head and what happens in one's body - nothing is really "all in the head". Hopefully understanding these conditions will lead not only to better treatment, but to a more serious societal attitude toward stress-related illnesses.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is it inappropriate to hug a utility worker?

After being without power for three and a half days, it was a magical experience to watch the electric line being reconnected to my house. I'm too shy to go through with it, but the urge to hug them was rather strong. I also thought about offering pie. But they were hard at work on the neighbor's house.

We didn't have 100 mph wind in our area. The local airport only recorded sustained straight-line (i.e. not a tornado) winds of 94 mph.

We've lost at least three large trees, none of which are on the ground where we could take care of them ourselves. Even after what I'm sure have been some very long days, everyone we've talked to at the tree services has been amazingly friendly (though unfortunately not available for at least two weeks). Ditto for the customer service agents and onsite workers for the utility company.

And my neighbors - we'd be in much more serious straights without their generous and skilled help over the past few days. We are so fortunate to live in a community with such wonderful people.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

If only spirits of the law could talk to us

Yesterday I spent a few minutes playing my electric keyboard. I took a break, and read the paragraphs on correct playing technique my organ teacher had assigned me. One of the instructions about hand position did not make any sense to me. I thought perhaps it would be useful to people at more advanced levels of skill, but was probably not important for me right now.

I played a little bit more, and noticed my pinky finger was hurting. I looked at how I was pressing the keys, and thought about exactly what was causing my finger to hurt. I changed my hand position to that described in the technique book, and the pain in my pinky stopped. I should have had more respect for the author of that book.

But I believe it is reasonable to be wary of following rules I don't understand. For one thing, such blind rule-following impacts me negatively at work. I've had college training as an engineer, and worked with engineers at our customers. If a part we process fails to meet its specifications, I have a general idea about whether it is still a functional part.

Not true for a few of our customers, who not only don't understand the reasons behind the specifications, but are not interested in learning them. They will insist we either rework the part to meet spec (not always possible, and a waste of time and money if the part is perfectly good as-is) or pay to replace it (again, what a waste if the only thing wrong with it is a technicality).

I have no desire to provide bad work to any of our customers. Unfortunately, having a customer that is a blind rule-follower makes it very tempting to rely solely on the judgment of my own company on whether an out-of-spec part is still fully functional. Not offering the customer the opportunity to make their own evaluation increases the risk of a part failure.

Ideally, everyone would understand the reasons behind every rule. Furthermore, they would be able to ignore the rules in situations where the "spirit of the law" does not apply, and never be skeptical of the rule in applicable situations.

This can't happen in the real world; we just don't have time to research the reasoning behind every rule we encounter in our lives. We often use the heuristic of evaluating our trust of the rule's source, following rules for sources we trust and ignoring rules from sources we lack faith in. Without such heuristics, humans couldn't function, especially in today's complex society.

But "appeal to authority" is a logical fallacy. That and our other heuristics inevitably have failures. Experiencing such failures can lead to a skepticism of all regulations: and then we fail to follow beneficial rules. I hurt my pinky yesterday. Sometimes the consequences are a lot more serious.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hot: A matter of perspective

Two years ago, in the fall, I was with a customer being shown around our plant. I pointed out the different equipment in our lab, and we moved over to the inspection area. Both of those areas are air conditioned. Next, we went out onto the floor to look at some parts.

The warmer, more humid air really hits you walking out of the conditioned space, and the customer commented on how hard it must be to work in the heat. I heartily agreed: just a couple of weeks before, our area had had temperatures over 100ºF. When it's a hundred degrees outside, it's about 130º by the furnaces, and the operators have to work in that all day long. They often find excuses to come into the lab area, and no one can blame them.

It wasn't until later that I realized the customer had meant he couldn't imagine working in the heat that day. It couldn't have been even ninety inside the shop.

I'm not familiar with all the mechanisms that acclimate us to heat; one I've come across is heat shock protein. The author of Better Off writes that he and his wife found medical texts stating that it takes two weeks for a human to completely adjust to functioning in extreme temperatures.

Regardless of mechanism, I find it amazing how much worse heat feels when you're not used to it. Last week, we had this summer's first day with an outside temperature over ninety. Even the veteran workers at my company were obviously struggling to keep going. This week, they're heartily complaining about the heat, but it's no longer slowing them down. Just a few days of being hot during business hours really changes one's perspective.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The point: God

Yesterday, I had my first organ lesson in almost ten years. (It only took three months between deciding to do this and actually getting around to it.)

One of the things we talked about was music appropriate for Christian churches vs. the Reform Jewish congregation I attend. And that some religions (Orthodox Judaism and Church of Christ, for example) forbid instrumental music in worship services. I shared with him the different religious traditions I was exposed to growing up: my mother has been the organist or choir director for Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches; my father goes to a Unitarian church; my grandmother was a member of the Church of Christ.

Thinking about this after the lesson, it really struck me that in none of those places was I going there with the intent of worshiping God. Over the past few years of attending services with my partner, somehow going to a religious service has actually started to feel religious. In a way that makes the rest of my memories of worship services seem like I was completely missing the point. I hadn't even realized there was a point to miss.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Garlic in the shade

The numerous trees are one of the major reasons we like our property. They're not all positive, though: I've had to move away from most attempts at food growing because our lot is so shady. When I attempted to grow potatoes, for example, I dug up less potatoes in the fall than I had planted in the spring. But garlic and multiplier onions seem to have promise: they do most of their growing in the spring, before the trees have completely leafed out.

I have no idea how the multiplier onions did: they have all died back, and I can't find where to dig for them (they'll just have to grow next year where they are now). But I dug up 3.2 oz of garlic today. To me, this is really exciting, because I planted 2.5 oz of garlic in the fall last year.

This is my fifth summer of attempted gardening. I had wondered if my food production would be limited to indoor pots of greens for my parrots. Now, I'm encouraged that perhaps I can grow a little something on a human scale, too.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Neck builder

I did an exercise video a few days ago, called "core builder". This resulted in my abdominal area being sore: front, left side, right side. Which I expected. What surprised me was that my neck was also sore.

Now, I'd like to have stronger muscles. It enables me to do a wider variety of yoga postures. It lets me safely lift heavier parts at work. I have a few aerobic workout tapes I can't do safely (i.e. they make my back hurt) if I don't have some strength trained before doing them.

However, I don't need a thick, sinewy neck for any of those activities. It makes me wonder if, when they put that workout together, the choreographers completely thought things through.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jumping on the modesty bandwagon

Back in January, Aunt B. posted on Tiny Cat Pants about women's negative experiences in math class (unrelated to the math). The comments went off topic into a discussion of how men react to women's clothing. In May, Jen from Et Tu? posted a survey that was intended to determine which women's fashions cause men to struggle with chastity. At the beginning of this month, Veronica at Toddled Dredge posted about her experience with prioritizing a modest appearance. And then yesterday, I got the July issue of the Couple to Couple League's newsletter. It has a four-page article on teaching girls to dress modestly.

Apparently, this is a hot topic. (Although one may view my taking four articles over a six month time frame as evidence of "hot topic" status as proof of my limited reading material.) But there appear to be a significant number of people who miss the culture-specific nature of this message. The CCL article interviewed a woman who said, "But in the end, it all comes down to... Cover it up." This ignores the issues of comfort and freedom of movement that are legitimate reasons for wearing lower cut necklines in hot weather or pants (that show the shape of the legs) over skirts (which, when tight, restrict movement, and when loose, get tangled in certain work and sporting environments). And the fact that "it" is going to be different in different cultures: in ours, "it" is buttocks and busts, while in other cultures "it" is hair, or arms, or toes and ankles.

There are also many who claim that women's dress is the primary factor driving certain men's struggles with chastity. Which I can dispute just by observing my parrots. The cockatiel (male) seems quite happy to lead a celibate life as my pet. However, it is a struggle for the budgerigar (parakeet). He sexually harasses the cockatiel (the target of his affections is the same sex and a species three times his size) to the point that we have to separate them for several hours every day. Denied intimacy with another bird, the budgie then finds a mirror and engages in self-stimulation. Lest we think this behavior is limited to non-human animals, consider this comment:

Recently, on the Alan Colmes Show on Fox Radio, the host asked radical antiabortionist Neal Horsley whether it was true he had sex with animals in the past. Horsley replied: "Absolutely. I was a fool. When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule." If that surprises some people, he added, "Welcome to domestic life on the farm. You experiment with anything that moves when you are growing up sexually."

So, my thoughts on women's clothing and men's struggles with chastity: they're only weakly related. However, that doesn't mean women should not dress "modestly". Clothing choices send a culture-specific message about how a woman views herself and how she wants others to view her. By choosing clothing her culture considers modest, a woman sends the message that she values herself apart from her sexuality, and that she does not want others to treat her as a sex object. Which I think is an important message, and the CCL article actually focuses mostly on that aspect (I intend to write them a letter thanking them for that approach). One can be modest without blaming women for the nature of men.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

God expresses awesome

In between the magazines that keep piling up, I've been reading a Haggadah (the story of the Moses and the other Hebrews leaving Egypt). This one is called A Night of Questions, and a comment in the introduction struck me:

When the Israelites reached the safety of the far side of the Sea of Reeds and paused to look back, they did not say, "lucky break, low tide." They said rather, "this is God."
The significance of their experience could not be captured by "cool, low tide," or "that was awesome." I can't think of any way our language captures the awesomeness of such events without referring to God: "Praise God!" "Thanks be to God!"

I've commented on the unique significance of God-phrases before. I'm not sure of the significance of this apparent language barrier for atheists. But the circumscribed expression of those who deny God's existence is certainly a factor pushing me toward the theist camp. Blessed be God.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Moist, cool berries

I harvested about a cup of raspberries today. I got about a cup on the first of July, also, with only a handful earlier than that. There is probably another pint or so still ripening. Which is odd: these are June-bearing raspberries. In 2006, I harvested two cups on the twentieth of June; in 2007 we had a late frost and our total crop for the year was about a cup - almost all harvested by the seventeenth of June.

I suppose that's what happens when it rains so much (my state broke a record for most precipitation in the first six months of a year). Lack of sunlight, perhaps? Lack of high temperatures, maybe, too: to date, we haven't had a single high above 89ºF.

There is a lot of new growth in the bramble patches, however. Our plants bear on two-year-old canes, so next year (if we don't have a last frost, or a drought) might be a repeat of the bumper crop in 2006: I think we harvested over a gallon of berries.

What a blessing the previous owner gave us when they planted the original raspberry plants here. I doubt they knew these plants would establish so well and produce so abundantly with so little care.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sleep randomness

To me, sleep in a fascinating topic. Over the past few years, I've collected some random factoids about it.

On his most recent appearance on the The Daily Show, Bill Clinton talked about sleep among federal legislators. He believes that legislators now get significantly less sleep than legislators did when Clinton first entered politics. He blames this on certain technological advances and cultural shifts. Clinton believes a significant part of the animosity on Capital Hill is (to paraphrase Stewart's paraphrase of Clinton) due to them being cranky because they missed their nap.

Marine mammals (whales, dolphins, etc.) are not born able to breathe in their sleep. (Breathing being more complicated when you are an air breather who lives underwater.) For the first few weeks after birth, neither mother nor baby sleeps a wink, then they gradually work their way up to normal amounts of sleep. The fascinating thing: the mothers do not show any signs of sleep deprivation during this time.

Over the past several years, the science magazine I read has published stronger and stronger evidence linking childhood obesity to lack of sleep.

Normally I would seek links to support these claims of mine. This would allow any interested readers to easily find more information on each topic. And I have more than once gone looking for a supportive link only to find my information was dead wrong. But this post will have to stay as bald assertions, because it's my bed time.