Thank you for caring for our country

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan cannot fail to impact us if we have any humanity.

We’ve seen a plethora of images of the devastation in Japan. Some of them are heart-rending and some of them are incomprehensible in their awesomeness and leave no emotional impact because we just overload.

We watch people shiver as they queue for food and we feel cold and hungry. We watch dramatic frantic rooftop rescues (as we did with our own floods) and feel elated. We see the ecstatic faces of drenched and filthy rescuers as they find another survivor and laugh with them. We see an abandoned pet dog place his paw on another prone dog and weep because it’s a small caring gesture in a sea of devastation and we wish we could be there to do the same. Sixteen thousand lost and missing is too enormous, too weighty and it short-circuits our hearts.

Most of us are feeling a bit stretched now on the donating front, after the last three months of disasters in our region alone. But we can still send RUOK messages to all those who may be in any way affected. An extra email costs us nothing but a little time, does not  move us physically out of our comfort zone and may give us an emotional release for some of the burden of caring.

I emailed an abstract to an organizer of a scientific meeting in Japan, whom I have never personally met, with a short note saying I was still planning on attending the meeting in October and asking if he and his family were okay. He replied, in part, “Thank you for sending your abstract and caring for our country. As you know, we had a terrible disaster that we’ve never experienced. However, I believe our country will be able to recover from the tragedy.

Stoic, indeed.

I shall now email every other Japanese researcher I have met whose address I have and ask RUOK. It’s the very least we can do.

Update 1 (19 May): Two more replies from Japan have arrived, both from areas in the south unaffected directly by recent events. So far, everyone is fine.

Update 2 (20 May): Yet another two replies arrived yesterday, one form the very north and one from the very south; everyone is healthy, not in danger and not personally impacted (except by some power shortages).

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EXTRA! EXTRA! How do you read all about it?

No judgement calls here, just presenting the facts. And a pie chart.

Let’s imagine two fairly intelligent people who share a house. Let’s call them R1 and R2 ( to be totally non-ageist and non-sexist). Both these people like to keep up with world news, domestic affairs and politics, R1 leans towards science, literature and technology, R2 towards sport, gardening  and …well, more sport. Neither  is much interested in celebrities or gossip.

Here is the breakfast table this morning.

Immediately some other differences become apparent. R1 drinks coffee from a freebie mug; R2 drinks tea from a very nice cup and saucer. More obviously, perhaps, R1 reads news from electronic devices (which may or may not be fruit-branded) and R2 reads ALL the Sunday newspapers in their print form. Another obvious difference is that R1 seems to be multitasking and doing something other than ingesting news, maybe writing a manuscript, a grant or some other work-related task. R1 may or may not also be checking email, playing Words with Friends, tweeting and writing a blog post. On the fruit-branded phone (not in shot because it is being used to take the photo), R1 may also be messaging and sharing photos with immediate relatives. R2 is reading.

Here are some other differences.

Table space usage

Space required: R2 > R1.

Electricity required: R1 > R2 (But only just: R2 requires the light on; R1 doesn’t).

Recycling required at the end of the day: R2 > R1.

Distraction potential from information at hand: R1 > R2.

Need to wear a cardigan because it’s getting a bit chilly R2 > R1 (larger electronic device is generating quite a bit of warmth).

Amount of information available R2 = finite; R1 = virtually infinite

Time required to read said information R2 = 3 hours; R1 = whatever allocated, often too much.

Noise levels generated R1 > R2 (Stupid cooling fan).

Ability to read information outside areas of interest: R2 = R1 (proportionally speaking)

Ability to wrap vegetable peelings: R2 >>> R1

Weight of stuff to move to clear table R1 > R2 (but only just).

Ability to keep being informed in a blackout: R1 > R2. (R1 total of 3 + 10 + 11 = 24 hours worth of battery life; R2 until dark so 12 hours)

Potential for black print grubbiness on drawer handles, light switches and banister rails R2 >>> R1

Have I covered everything?

PS: R1 just read this blog to R2. R2 added…

Amount of information on participants: R1 >> R2

Amount of time wasting going on: R1 >> R2

Posted in Family, Science, Statistics | 2 Comments

Micro Art #2 Little artery

This is a very unusual image of a piece of synovium (the lining of the knee joint) cut through a blood vessel crossing the width of the section. It is stained with haematoxlin and eosin (the nuclei of the cells are purple) and was taken at x100 magnification.

We know that it is an arteriole (little artery) because it has a thickened wall. There are two arterioles in cross section in the top righthand corner of the image. For comparison, the double row of purple cells below the vessel is the cross section of a little vein. It has no thickened wall to maintain its shape so it has flattened so you can barely see the space within it. The little pink red blood cells (they have no nucleus) within the vessel allow us to gain some perspective – they are 8 micrometers across, so the blood vessel has a diameter of about 30 micrometers or 0.03 millimetres.

We have cut thousands of sections of this type of tissue and this was the only time we ever managed to cut a blood vessel like this.

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You need an operation? We need an NBN.

People, please get a grip.

If you have no idea what the NBN is, please don’t comment on it, you just look really ignorant and/or stupid.

If you think the only use for a high speed high throughput internet connection is to be able to play faster games or download movies or porn more rapidly, go back into your darkened room and..err….actually, I don’t want to know.

In our bone and joint laboratories we try and work out how to both prevent and better treat injuries and other joint problems.  Some of us are orthopaedic surgeons (and some are not). Some of us work with test tubes and pipettes, others work with scalpels and drills.

Innovations in surgery these days include optic fibre cameras or scopes (called arthroscopes when they use them in your joints) inserted into little cuts rather than big incisions. These arthroscopes give high resolution real time video feed of what’s happening inside your body during the operation, showing the injured or diseased tissue and the instruments being used to fix the damage. Examples of the sort of images you can see are here and here.

Also available within some operating theatres now are computer simulators, where surgeons can use special software to model the exact shape of each patient’s joint, enabling them to work out the best possible solution for your particular problem. The software makes fully rotational model of your knee/hip/ankle that can be twisted and turned and viewed from all angles. The surgeons can then proceed with the best operation for YOU.

Now imagine the surgeon views your joint and has a number of possible ways to treat you, or perhaps, no way is obvious. One solution he has is to his dilemma is to consult with other experienced surgeons. At present, he can speak to them and maybe, if the theatre computer has the capacity, show slow static pictures of your joint. If we had a faster, higher throughput network, he could show the real time movie of your operation and the computer simulation of your joint to any other orthopaedic surgeon available in the city, state or country, or even show a number of specialist surgeons at the same time. After such a remote consultation, the best possible procedure would give you the best possible chance for a full recovery.

This is one of literally dozens of ways that a high speed internet national broadband network could help us here in the medical world. Please, for the sake of all our joints, help us get an NBN. You may be the next patient who benefits.

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Lost diggers, lost souls

On Sunday Night this week, the main story was about finding thousands of glass plates, negatives of soldiers, including diggers in the attic of a derelict farmhouse in Vignacourt in France. They were allegedly taken around 1916. I could not find an image of my grandfather among those posted but he may have been there.

My mother’s father, Bill,  enlisted into the Australian Defence Forces in 1914 and became a private in the 13th Light Horse. I have included his picture below, as it shows the slouch hat, worn at the correct angle (three fingers over left ear, two fingers over left eyebrow, one finger over right eyebrow). This picture may help identify others in the new images as being in the Light Horse.

We know from military records that my grandfather was injured twice and returned to active duty after the first, but not the second (gun shot wound). He eventually made his way home, took up boot making again and married my grandmother. We know very little else because he died in 1932  from complications of said injuries (we know not what) when Mum was only three years old. Granny was not one to dwell on the past and did not speak of him.


He was not the only one of my relatives over there. He had an older brother Charlie and five younger brothers. I don’t know exactly how many of the brothers went to war but  Charlie definitely did and Dave and Fred would have been old enough in 1914. They could have been in a movie, four brothers with very ordinary Aussie names, Charlie, Bill, Dave and Fred. Oh wait….

None of them were killed during the war but they were not the same afterward. They returned back to the family home and tried to get jobs. Mostly they ate their meals and went for walks. I often wonder how their mother was able to bear watching their disengagement and, probably, pain. Or maybe she was too busy with the other three boys (Herb, Art and Tom) and the 2 of 3 sisters still alive (Vera and Esther). One day Charlie told his mother he was going to buy a pound of sausages. He grabbed his hat, waved and stepped out the door.

He was never seen again. No one ever found out what happened to him but I suspect the huge black cloud of post-traumatic stress disorder over most of Australia had something to do with it. In those postwar depression years, many broken young men walked out of their own lives and were lost. These lost souls are also lost diggers.

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Little elephant ballet

I watched a ballet class yesterday. There were twelve novice students all aged 3 or 4 years old  at  their second ever class. The teacher was more than twice as tall as her tallest pupil. Each student wore a pretty leotard with a mauve, black or pink tutu or fairy skirt. Each little pair of feet had a pair of ballet slippers. Each shining head of hair was plaited or bunned.

Two of the students had trouble leaving their mothers and would flit back to their sides at opportune times throughout the lesson, for comfort and reassurance. Many of the others turned and waved at parents as they ran past, just checking they were being watched.

Laughing and giggling, their faces lighting up when given a sparkling wand to wave. They skipped, twirled and galloped their way around the sunlit hall, squealing with joy as they thundered past. Being light on your feet must be a skill taught later in the term.

If only every class for the rest of their lives could be taken with such enthusiasm and joy.

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I write with my right hand

Let’s get this out in the open right from the start. 10-25% of people (depending on where you source the stats) cannot immediately tell their left from their right. I am one of them. There is no correlation of lack of side awareness with side dominance, intelligence, gender, age,  race, environment or womb exposure. A search of the medical literature is unfruitful and depressing, containing reports of communities (eg Uganda) where teachers are still trying to get lefthanders to write with their right.

I do have familial  sinistrality, a fancy and rather frightening term for the presence of left-handedness in one’s close relatives. Not in my ancestry though (all righthanders); my daughter and my sister’s daughter are lefties (fathers are righthanders). Weird, isn’t it?

There is no branding of lefthanded people as sinister or cacky-handed in our house, however. I don’t even notice lefthanders, I can’t tell sides at all. Just be glad I only drive here in Australia; I couldn’t bring myself to get behind a wheel in Canada or the US – I’d probably have to drive in reverse to feel comfortable on the roads over there. (There’s an idea….)

I navigate by landmarks. “Turn just past the BP servo” “Drive towards the ocean” “Go up that hill and turn two streets after that shop over there” Nary a sided directive anywhere. Saying “shall I turn right here?” just confuses me.

You would think that on the road (or in the air if you’re a pilot) would be the most dangerous place to be directionally challenged. No. The most dangerous place is in surgery. The people who prepare you for an operation, especially on a limb, need to be able to get the side correct. When someone points and says ” Is this the right side?” what do they mean? Is it on the right side? or is it the right side for the operation? When told the operation is on the left side, is that the patients left or the doctor’s left as he faces the patient? The operation becomes positively fraught with danger. The consequences of getting it wrong are dire, especially if it’s an amputation. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t use the Aussie colloquialism “She’ll be ‘right.”

A orthopaedic surgeon friend had to undergo a hip arthroscopy himself and he wrote all over his own torso  in indelible marking pen. “This side.” “Not this side.” If he doesn’t trust his own colleagues, why should we?

Disclaimer: I am not a surgeon, I just hang out with them at work.

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