Monday, November 15, 2021

About Us: A Book Review

 About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of The New York Times Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds. 2021. [ISBN 978-1- 63149-858-9. 286 pages. US$18.95 (softcover).] 

    It is obvious that usability and accessibility drive technological innovation and advancement. Not so conspicuous is the source of this usability. For example, many are surprised to hear that the original touchscreen technology of the iPhone was purchased by Apple’s Steve Jobs in 2005 from an electrical engineering student sustaining injuries that interfered with his ability to study and work. Many do not know that the updated kitchen products engineered by the Oxo were the original design of a woman unable to work in the kitchen due to her arthritis. A Nuremberg-based watchmaker, also a paraplegic, created the first self-directed wheelchair which was the precursor to the modern bicycle. Or that curb cuts originated with disgruntled wheelchair users in Berkeley, CA. Later curb cuts became universal because they helped strollers, bicycles, baggage handlers, and anybody else navigating wheels. 

It is these inspirational stories with which we can relate and that make About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of The New York Times so relevant to the technical world. And yet beneath the inspirational stories of lifechanging technology, there is humanity—heartache, struggle, alienation, and loneliness. The challenges with daily problems and the striving to maintain an outlook of positivity are also relevant to the technical world. 

In this collection, editors Peter Catapano, Opinion Editor for the New York Times, and Rosemarie GarlandThomson, disabled English professor at Emory University, compiled about 60 essays from the New York Times’ groundbreaking series on disability. Their intent was to include a wide variety of people—different ages, disabilities, outlooks, and experiences. Their goal of inclusion is explained, “By ensuring that people with disabilities tell their own stories, we intend to avoid and counter the sort of biased, simplified, often demeaning portrayals of them that are produced by an American popular culture designed by and for the nondisabled” (p. xx). 

These essays, first published starting in August 2016, are organized in seven sections: justice, belonging, working, navigating, coping, love, family, and joy. By sorting experiences according to these topics, three overall disability challenges are conveyed: inherent challenges, access challenges, and social challenges. Underlying all this is the idea that the American Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, while progressive in many ways, was just a small step forward in necessary changes required for people of all disabilities to be integrated into our society. Mentioned at least twice throughout the text is the offensive 1927 Supreme Court decision in which Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (p. ix). That such a statement was ever made in such a context demonstrates misguided public opinion both past and present. 

These first-hand accounts of experiences and obstacles in the lives of disabled people open a glimpse into their worlds. It is through these rare glimpses that we can hope to bridge more of the gap between what the American Disabilities Act aimed to achieve and the realities of change and progress in our increasingly technological world. 

Julie Kinyoun Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works


An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works

Daniel Graham. 2021. Columbia University Press. [ISBN 978-0-231-19604-8. 344 pages, including index. US$30.00 (hardcover).]

“But metaphors—and especially technological metaphors—have been critical in the history of science, and they will continue to be so as we get closer to understanding the brain” (p. 27). Even before modern technology allowed us to use tracers and imaging techniques on the brain, philosophers and scientists used metaphors to encompass the intricacy and complexity of this critical organ. Seventeenth century philosopher RenĂ© Descartes likened the brain to the plumbing behind the grand waterworks of the Palace of Versailles—water was pumped uphill from a nearby river—and artfully expelled several meters high on display—delivering more water than was supplied to all of Paris. Building upon this premise, Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington likened neurons to “valve-like” structures. Charles Darwin, famous for his work on evolutionary theory, was unable to conceptualize the brain, partly because he had no metaphor for it. He believed thoughts were secreted by the brain, like digestive chemicals. Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus, suggested the brain was a type of mill—this suggests different processes operating at different levels. This morphed into the modern-accepted metaphor of the brain as a computer.

In An Internet in Your Head: A New Paradigm for How the Brain Works computational neuroscientist Daniel Graham argues that although the computer metaphor for the brain is helpful and somewhat accurate, it is ultimately obsolete. Many current research observations and discoveries suggest an organ more akin to a network communicator, or an Internet. “There is no doubt that the computer metaphor has been helpful and that the brain does perform computations. But neuroscience based on the computer metaphor is incomplete because it does not consider the principles of network communication. Neuroscientists are starting to realize that, in addition to performing computations, the brain also must communicate within itself” (p. viii).

Graham cites experimental evidence for the flaws in the computer model: In a controlled study of monkey brains compared with a deep net artificial intelligence system, the deep net system predicts less than half of the neuron activity over time. Besides showing the inadequacy of a deep net, this experimental evidence suggests the system is missing the most important signals occurring in the monkey brains.

For the rest of An Internet in Your Head,  Graham provides a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which the Internet does and does not correlate to what scientists currently understand about the functionality of the brain. Flexible routing, asynchronous communication, management of errors, background noise, overall growth of the network (and other phenomena) can all be explained in more depth by an Internet-like structure rather than by a computer. Graham argues that a structure of multiple hubs connected in multiple ways creates a net of communication on many different levels. A problem with his analysis is that some of the vocabulary and experimentation is very specific to the field and an understanding of both electronics and neuroscience seems required to follow all the arguments.

And ultimately, scientists don’t have the ability to experiment with the brain’s innerworkings. “Many of the limitations are procedural: it boils down to the fact that living brains, particularly human brains, are difficult to study, whereas single neurons are tractable” (p. 67).

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Goldiblox- STEM for girls.

 My girl engineers were busy this weekend- they made THIS!

These projects from Goldiblox are the ultimate in engineering for girls. Each comes with a story- it is thought that making science about a story will engage more girls in the subject. This particular project is a drum set for Valentina (one of the Goldiblox characters).

Here is a copy of the instructions for one of the projects- a car. The entire kit is the largest one I have seen- you can make more than four different projects from it- including the drum set and this car and the ice cream truck pictured below. We made the ice cream truck and witnessed the ice cream sign above the vehicle rotate around in a circle when the wheels rotate. Most projects feature something like this.

It’s really too bad these are discontinued because my girls have spent hours studying the directions and putting these kits together. The skill development in these exercises is irreplaceable. They love them. And they are PINK! 
Go girl engineers!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The organization of organisms….

Here is chemistry in action. This article describes and summarizes the functions of organs- many are driven by underlying chemical gradients. The picture shows a plant and its functions (driven by a membrane chemical process shown) and a neuron- a basic component of an animal brain. Chemicals are not shown for delivery of messages on an axon, however, they are implied by the word “action potential” which implies an electrical process of some kind.

Chemistry is critical for the functioning of all living creatures.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Book Review: Understanding Clinical Papers

Understanding Clinical Papers

David Bowers, Allan House, David Owens, and Bridgette Bewick. 2021. 4th ed. Wiley Blackwell. [ISBN 978-1-119-57316-6. 290 pages, including index. US$50.00 (softcover).]

As we navigate the post pandemic world of vaccines and global health awareness, an understanding of clinical studies becomes relevant to all people, whether formally educated in research studies or not. The study of an idea/product/process on human subjects in a clinical trial is the final step before something is introduced into human society. This complex process is outlined in Understanding Clinical Papers written by both quantitative and qualitative experts in their respective clinical fields: David Bowers, Allan House, David Owens, and Bridgette Bewick.

This book now in its fourth edition is a comprehensive, detailed account of how to read and understand both qualitative and quantitative clinical research. For anyone who wrote labs in school many of the headings and chapters will be familiar. The book’s unique characteristics arise from a collaboration between four researchers with different areas of clinical specialization. Since the first edition was published more than twenty years ago, the authors have added entire chapters in new statistical analyses for study results and qualitative research. Much of the initial setup and results analysis differs between qualitative and quantitative research, and it is noticeable to have both analyzed and even synthesized together in current clinical research projects.

The first half of Understanding Clinical Papers explains the study design, research subjects, results identification, and methods of measurement. Initially, a reader will check superficial outcomes of the study: Are the results significant, is it worth reading, is it relevant and is it ethical? How do the researchers layout their initial hypothesis—or if not investigating a hypothesis—is it clear what new ideas or questions they are trying to generate for the future? Throughout the text, the authors use an effective technique of illustrating a particular concept—a segment of a clinical paper is featured as a numbered table/figure with text bubbles and arrows. The text bubbles are connected with arrows to specific sections of the table/figure where the topic of interest is used in the clinical research. In this way, a relevant example of the featured topic is shown from current clinical literature.

The second half of the book covers results analysis and the complexities of statistical significance. In this section, some advanced knowledge of mathematics and statistics is helpful as the clinical data have often been subjected to a computerized statistical analysis. The authors sum up the confusion of interpreting statistical analysis in the statement, “If you have trouble figuring out what it tells you, do not worry: no-one else can do any better than you” (p. 162). This refers to the use of odds ratios to explain results used primarily for the mathematical properties that are beyond the book’s scope. Knowing this, the explanation of the p-value, a critical component of making results “significant” helps us understand just how complex statistical analysis really is, “How then do we decide what constitutes strong enough evidence against the hypothesis to enable us to reject it? The evidence we use is a probability, known as a p-value. The p-value is the probability of getting any particular outcome ...when the hypothesis is true” (p. 182). Overall, the second half of the book outlines different clinical scenarios, their results analysis, and the interpretation of their p-values and derivatives.

Impressive that Bowers, et al, was able to incorporate such an all-encompassing topic in 273 pages plus an eight-page reference section and a nine- page index. It is detailed enough for an experienced researcher yet realistic for an ambitious, educated layperson wanting to better understand clinical research. A must-have for the shelves of health-care professionals and health-care enthusiasts of all levels.

Julie Kinyoun

Julie Kinyoun is an on-call chemistry instructor at various community colleges in Southern California. An avid reader, she enjoys reviewing books that help her become a better educator.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Familiarity breeds interest- accessibility and modern culture

My current project is to review a collection of essays about people with disability. I selected it off of a list of available books thinking, “disability is now part of my experience.” During my time of “disability” I would not have wished the experience on anybody- the unmet needs, isolation, frustration with the system….it was all just hard. Not hard but excruciating. But now that it is over and I am back to my old athletic self, I think everybody should spend some time simulating the experience. It changed my opinions on “accommodations” and how I view people with disabilities. Disability can happen to anybody at any time- it might be temporary (like mine) or it might be permanent. Whichever it is, it is debilitating, humiliating and beyond humbling.

I broke my foot. Not just at any time in life. I broke my foot during a time in life with two small babies (a baby and a 2.5 year old to be exact). Trying to load and unload my car, enter buildings with (or even without) my stroller, and just trying to do everyday things like get dressed, use the restroom and care for my children became unmanageable tasks. My husband was downtown working during the day most of the time and although he was wonderful when he was home, he was not able to help when we were doing our daily routine. The other thing about my broken foot was that it was a minuscule bone on the top of my right foot-not important enough to warrant crutches or an official “disability” parking placard. (But without a proper healing the injury would turn into something much, much worse.) It was just a nuisance of putting a boot on to walk and then changing back into my shoe to drive my car. But- this didn’t mean I could load and unload a 25-pound stroller from my trunk or get my baby/toddler out of the car seat.

So I was excluded- from play dates, from other social opportunities, and almost from the daily preschool routine. With my boot on/off routine, a baby in a car seat (who was not walking) and a 3-year-old with no sense of self, it took me an hour to load and unload my car. And for what? To drop my 3-year-old off at preschool. Only to return three hours later and do it again. All while breastfeeding a young baby and trying to care for her. 

Here is what saved me being institutionalized as “crazy.” Disability parking without a disability placard.

Our preschool installed a parking lot near the only entrance for women in exactly my condition. There were about twenty available spaces where you could park up against a perfect paved curb and enter the building about ten feet away. The other lot required me to walk two long hallways and navigate an elevator. I chose the twenty spots near the door. It also helped that the director noticed my condition and sent a designated parking attendant out to my car every day to do a special drop off/pickup service. I wasn’t even getting out of my car for drop off and pickup. Did I have to ask for this? No, they volunteered. That preschool has a reputation for accommodating situations like this- I was only vaguely familiar with this when we registered. Little did I know that it would save my sanity.

So back to the wheelchair/disability symbol. While my parking lot did not have these placards, the spots were understood to be for people with impediments- many small children, being pregnant and not wanting to walk far, or people in my condition with an injury. The lot’s purpose was obvious in an environment with young families.  But -most of the time such a lot needs to be marked- with a recognizable sign.

Which brings me to the accessibility symbol- Brian Glenney and his team updated this back in 2011 to depict the wheelchair occupant as active, not passively sitting in a chair. This is so much more representative of what it means- and so much more respectful of the people using it. Young families with children are very active, young and formerly active people who are injured…. even people permanently disabled are active in ways we can’t imagine because we haven’t experienced what they do. All of these scenarios fit within the purpose of this placard.

Let’s use the updated placard with pride- legalize it and formalize its use. Disability/accessibility accommodations are not for passive participants - we are active and involved citizens. I can say “we” because I was one of them.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Sometimes it just takes a small group to start.....

 Sometimes, all it takes is ONE. There is a children’s book with this theme. One color is being bullied by another color and all the other colors get smaller and smaller as the bullying gets worse and larger. Then, ONE comes along and forms a support network for 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Finally, as the bully realizes the group is stronger together, he/s pops and becomes number 8- part of the support network. 

This came to mind today as I arrived to help out with food distribution at a local affordable housing complex. A small group of woman banded together and formed a support network designed to provide for the growing needs of the lower income population- those living in affordable housing complexes. These are probably the most likely people to become homeless. These organizers are thorough. When I arrive for food distribution I just stand around and watch and take directions- they have left no stone unturned. Many who show up for the fresh food- donated before expiration from local grocers- are elderly and many do not speak English. Helping these people carry food to their apartments is often my job.  But today- I found another one. Last Thanksgiving I sponsored a family for Thanksgiving. Many grocery stores offer premade holiday meals for people unable to cook. The commitment was just for a meal. However, today someone told me they were planning to drop off an item for a family they met through the program. I asked how they knew the person and they told me through the Thanksgiving sponsorship. Bingo! I found a job- I filled a bag full of the produce from overflowing boxes of fruit and vegetables- so abundant the leftovers will rot before it reaches a hungry person- and dropped it on her porch. She texted me back with praise and thanks- very helpful for her right now in her strapped financial situation. It would never have occurred to me to do this simple, inexpensive gesture of kindness without the idea from my friend. A single bag full of fresh fruit/vegetables is not what most of us consider “a treat” (from her text message).

I find many times it just takes one or two people to start a waterfall. In this case, alleviating hunger. And it is getting worse- the Union Tribune reported that homelessness has doubled in 2020. And now we are in 2021- that statistic was not quoted.

Maybe others will show up, fill a bag and drop it at the home of someone strapped for cash. Seriously, before it ends up rotten in a landfill. Sometimes even the smallest act of kindness can save someone. All it takes is ONE.