Friday, September 28, 2012

Crowdsourcing Parkinson's Disease Research

My father had Parkinson's Disease. He suffered from the disease, from the drugs he was given to treat the disease, and from the fear that his symptoms would increase.

Researchers are working on a way to diagnose Parkinson's Disease by analyzing people's voice patterns. They claim that in clinical settings they can record a person's voice, and a computer can analyze the recording and correctly diagnose the disease in 99% of cases. They are able to do this because Parkinson's Disease affects a person's ability to breath and to control movement of the vocal cords. Now, the researchers are testing whether the test can be performed over a telephone, so that a person would not even have to visit a clinic in order to be tested. The patient could simply say “ah” and recite a few phrases into the phone to receive a diagnosis. Hopefully, patients would then be able to receive whatever medical treatment is available or becomes available in the future.

I recently phoned the researchers at 857-284-8035, said “ah” and recited a few phrases so that they could record my voice to help them develop their phone-in diagnostic technique. It took less than two minutes of my time. I wasn't asked anything other than my age, gender, and whether I have been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. The researchers need thousands of people, with and without Parkinson's, to run their computer diagnosis on. Maybe you'd like to help by making the call.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Poopy New Year

The house was clean. We were going to my cousins' for dinner, so I didn't need to shop or cook. I felt like doing something to prepare for Yom Kippur, so I washed and waxed the car. As I was buffing, a bird pooped onto the windshield just a few inches from my elbow.

My first thought was, “You couldn't wait till I was finished?” We all know that the natural order of things dictates that if you want it to rain, either wash your car, water your lawn, or leave your umbrella at home. Then I thought, “Maybe this is a sign of what to expect in the coming year.” Ominous. But then again, maybe it was just the final poop of the outgoing year. Or maybe it wasn't a sign at all. It's hard to tell when god is sending me messages.

Should I be thankful that the poop didn't land on my head? That I wasn't looking up? But then again, couldn't the bird have targeted my annoying neighbor? On the other hand, I am fortunate to have a car at all, so I shouldn't complain about such a minor mishap. On the other other hand, maybe I shouldn't be so attached to material things.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are supposed to reflect. What could we have done differently, or better? What should we do in the coming year?

Maybe the bird was a reminder not to take myself too seriously. Maybe the universe is saying, “You polish, I'll poop.” Maybe I am supposed to think about whether during the past year I treated someone the way the bird just treated me. Maybe this and maybe that. We never know for sure, do we? So we look for signs and omens. We talk to a god who may not be listening and may not even exist.

So many times during the past year I imagined there was a message for me in events that took place around me. Maybe I should slow down and enjoy life. Or maybe I should step up the pace, because time is running out. Is there a bird out there for each of us, waiting for the right moment?

Things could always be worse. Planes fall on people's houses. Trees fall on cars. People die. What's a little poop?

Have a year full of wonder and love.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Habeas Kirk

It used to be that when Mark Kirk didn't want to meet with his constituents he would have his aides make up stories about why he wasn't available. They would say he was in Washington, serving as a military reservist, or otherwise engaged. Some of the excuses might have been valid. Some of them turned out later to be misleading or totally false.

Kirk once spent an entire summer avoiding constituents who wanted to explain their views on a timely issue. They called his office repeatedly asking for an appointment and they visited his office five times. His aides kept refusing to let them meet with their representative. Another group ended up camping out in his office until they were arrested in the wee hours of the morning after the press had gone home. Kirk never met with them, either. He did, though, install a buzzer-activated lock on his office so that no constituent could ever again get into the waiting room of the office they were paying for with their tax dollars unless his staff buzzed them in.

It was infuriating to have an elected government official show such disdain for democracy. But at least everyone knew that it was Kirk himself who was responsible for the way his staff was treating the voters. Now, sadly, we don't know if Kirk is in charge or if his staff has simply usurped his office.

Since Kirk suffered a massive stroke which initially left him unable to walk, use his left arm, or speak, the people he was elected to represent have patiently waited to see if he would recover enough mental function to be able to return to his duties as a senator. He released a couple of highly-edited videos that showed him apparently making progress learning to talk again, but it has been impossible to tell from the videos whether Kirk understands the words he is saying or is simply parroting a phrase here and a sentence there as the camera is turned on and off.

Kirk's office refuses to let the press or his constituents meet with Kirk so that they could form an opinion on his mental abilities. They are making a great effort, however, to convince everyone that not only is Kirk still breathing, he is actually thinking. Maybe so. Maybe not.

Kirk's staff wants everyone to imagine that, although in the videos Kirk's expression never changes, he still exhibits a full range of human emotion, and that his emotions are appropriate to the situation he is dealing with. Maybe so. Maybe not. Strokes leave people with a wide range of permanent disabilities.

Today, Kirk's staff released another video of the Senator. For a full minute, Kirk doesn't appear on camera and is not heard from. All we get is a campaign-commercial style montage of newspaper headlines, pans across a flag, and out-of-context video clips of TV reporters, all sewn together with special effects and music. Finally, Kirk appears and speaks for less than thirty seconds, in three separate clips.

In the video, Kirk appears to refer to Illinois' debt being downgraded three weeks ago. It is not possible to know when the video was made. Before his stroke, Kirk was quick to talk with reporters in person or on the phone whenever something newsworthy happened. If Kirk was ready to go back to work, we would have seen this video weeks ago. The fact that it took this long to edit together something that makes him look competent doesn't tell us anything at all about what his real-time abilities are. It usually only takes a day or two for videos of talking oranges or babies to appear on You-Tube.

Most of the people who elected Kirk and those who voted against him probably hope that Kirk has as complete a recovery as possible. But we deserve better than to have his staff manipulate his image to make it appear that he is mentally capable. The fact that Kirk's staff receives their paychecks and exercise the powers of Kirk's office while Kirk remains away from his office gives everyone reason to be uneasy. The same people who used to hide Kirk from his constituents at his bidding are the same ones who are now hiding him, but we don't know if they are acting on his orders or on their own.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Time To End Charter Schools

From the outset, the union that represents Chicago Public School teachers has said that they are not striking for more pay. They are striking for something bigger. They are striking to insure the very existence of public schools.

Plenty of people have given up on public schools and are ready to switch to a system of private schools funded with public money, either in the form of charter schools or vouchered schools. Plenty of corporations are eager to get hold of all the money which is presently spent on public schools. In a lot of places, it is the biggest expenditure that local government makes.

Chicago has been closing public schools and has plans to close more. That isn't what the strike negotiators tell us they are talking about, but it is what is on everyone's minds. The so-called reforms that the mayor and school board are proposing are designed to transform public education into the charter school model. The school board is proposing that principals be allowed to hire and fire teachers, eliminating protections that teachers now have under their union contract. This is the way things are done in charter schools, because there are no unions in charter schools. It's one of the reasons there is more teacher turnover and teachers have less experience in charter schools than in public schools.

The theory behind giving principals discretion in hiring and firing is that principals in charter schools are acting as corporate executives who should be able to have the employees they want. What that theory misunderstands is that public schools are not run for the benefit of shareholders as charter schools are; they are run for the benefit of students and the public. Principals in public schools don't work for bonuses. If they are good, they get a paycheck and the satisfaction of knowing that they have played a role in educating children.

The corporate model assumes that principals are the most important people in schools. Most people who have sent kids to public schools in America recognize that classroom teachers have the most important and direct influence on children and how well they learn and develop, and that principals are merely part of the administrative overhead that is needed to keep things running. In all schools, principals have little to no meaningful interaction with students on a daily basis, other than perhaps greeting them at the door with a smile.

The investors who want to persuade the public to privatize public schools have been blaming teachers for the shortcomings in education, instead of looking at overcrowded classrooms, scarcity of books, materials, and supplies, the effect of poverty and family difficulties on students, and lots of other things that are the real reasons so many students in Chicago don't do better in school. These problems are the reason that charter schools don't do any better than public schools when they run schools in Chicago and other cities. Studies show that often, charter school students perform worse than public school students.

The people who invest in charter schools aren't really concerned about student performance. They are just there to make a buck. So when charter schools fail to live up to the promises they make, the investors close them down, leaving neighborhoods holding the bag and tossing teachers out of jobs. That is what the Chicago teachers' union is worried about. They don't want to end up on the street because some principal, eager to get a bonus, decides to distract the investors by scapegoating teachers. That is why the public should be supporting the teachers. Not just for the sake of the teachers, but for the sake of their students, and all the rest of us who want those students to get an education.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Obama Dumps Dems

Obama's speech did not contain a single reference to the Democratic Party or Democrats. His website doesn't mention that he is running on the Democratic ticket. His bio says he was elected to the Illinois Senate, then the U.S. Senate, and then the Presidency, but it never mentions which party he has been affiliated with. The convention that just concluded is not referred to by his campaign as the Democratic National Convention, but instead as just the 2012 Convention. None of the t-shirts, coffee cups, bumper stickers, or other trinkets that his campaign is selling indicate which party Obama is with. From his website, you can buy merchandise proclaiming Nurses for Obama, Environmentalists for Obama, Hispanics for Obama, Latinos for Obama, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama, African Americans for Obama, and Babies for Obama, but there isn't a single Democrats for Obama item for sale.

It's pretty clear that Obama does not want to be identified as a Democrat. Presidential campaigns don't just accidentally forget to mention their party affiliation. The decision would have been made at the very highest level, by Obama himself.

People who have watched Obama over the years will not be surprised that he is running alone. When he ran for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, Obama positioned himself as a candidate who was beyond partisan politics. He paid very little attention to most of the other candidates who were running in the same election, putting all his effort into getting himself elected. He didn't want to be encumbered by the positions his party had taken in the past or by politicians whom he might not agree with on all issues. He didn't share the rock-star attention he was drawing to himself, and he didn't share the enormous amounts of money or volunteers he amassed.

Obama followed the same plan when he first ran for President. He was elected with the help of Democratic voters and the Democratic Party, even though he did almost nothing to help the party succeed. As a result, he had no coattails, and his election left him with a Congress that did not have the strong Democratic majority he needed. Once he was president, he turned his back on one Democratic constituency after another, angering his base.

Now, Obama is once again running on the Democratic ticket, but without any indication that he feels any obligation to his own party or even sees a value in having a Democratic Party. It would have been easy for Obama to urge at the convention that everyone work hard for the entire Democratic ticket. Presidents usually do that. But he didn't. He drew all the attention to himself. He told us what he had done during his first term, and what he was going to do during his second, as if he was the entire government and not just the head of one branch. Although he told us that the Republican message that “you are on your own” is an un-American message, that is precisely the message he was sending to nearly every Democrat who is running for Congress, Senate, governor, mayor, or sheriff, and to every Democratic party volunteer and voter. He is running for President, and the rest of us are on our own.

Obama does not seem to realize that without more Democrats in Congress, his agenda is doomed. The Republicans who opposed his policies will be no more interested in them after the election than they were before, and if there aren't more Democrats to support his policies, they will go nowhere.

Obama is a smart man, but in his zeal to promote himself he seems not to have understood what he told the nation in his big speech Thursday night, that we are all in this together. Unless he figures that out very soon and helps other Democrats get elected, he will have no more success in governing the nation during his second term than he did in his first.