Archive for: February, 2005

Skeptic's Circle Seeks Contributors

Feb 27 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

The upcoming issue of the Skeptic's Circle is seeking submissions of articles and essays for their upcoming edition. Even though they have thus far shown a bias for essays that discuss the natural world, appropriate topics for the Skeptic's Circle include any articles or essays that fight misinformation with facts. The new Skeptic's Circle will be published this Thursday, 3 March so to be included, all blogged article links must be submitted by 11pm PST on Wednesday, 2 March.

As a contributor to the Skeptic's Circle, I am doing my best to finish an essay for this issue. To read the first two issues of the Skeptic's Circle and to learn more about the writer's guidelines and where to submit your work, please check out Skeptics' Circle: A call for submissions.

No responses yet

Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly?

Feb 27 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Avian Influenza type A subtype H5N1 that is currently found in southeast Asia shows the potential to develop into another deadly influenza pandemic. Already, two of the three criteria that characterized the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 have been fulfilled by the current epidemic of avian influenza: (1) the ability of the virus to infect humans and cause high mortality and (2) the presence of an immunologically naive human population around the globe. The third criterion, efficient human-to-human transmission, has not yet been officially reported.

But the reported mortality rate for H5N1, which is estimated to be somewhere between 35-70%, raises important questions about how such things are calculated. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) Web site reports that the H5N1 mortality rate was greater than 70% among persons with recognized cases in 2004. WHO officials conservatively estimate that H5N1 could infect up to 30% of the world’s population and kill between 2 and 7 million people.

“The maximum range is more ... maybe 20 to 50 million people,” said Shigeru Omi, regional director of WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office, in a speech in Hong Kong in late 2004. Given these data, everyone agrees that if an H5N1 pandemic occurs, it will be an international disaster.

But an article published yesterday in the journal, Nature (Vol. 433, page 787, Thursday 24 Feb 2005), claims that human cases of Avian Influenza have been under-diagnosed and possibly misdiagnosed. This paper reports that re-testing by several independent labs of samples collected from Vietnamese patients showing flu-like symptoms reveal that more people test positive for infection with the “Bird Flu” than previously thought. This new data has several effects.

First, this reveals that Avian Influenza is probably more widespread in the human population than originally thought. This is a public health concern because every new human infection presents the virus with additional opportunities to mutate into a more infectious and deadly form. But the Nature paper also mentions that preliminary genetic analyses at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) in Tokyo show that Avian Influenza has not changed much in one year. This is fortunate, especially considering that the influenza virus is adept at both generating mutations and undergoing dramatic genomic rearrangements -- both serve to potentially increase its infectivity and virulence.

Re-testing of these samples has also directed health officials’ attention to the unusual symptoms of some Avian Influenza patients. Instead of showing the typical respiratory symptoms associated with influenza, one patient who was infected with H5N1, for example, developed encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Since encephalitis is common in Viet Nam, this development raises concerns that identification of influenza patients might become much more difficult and labor-intensive. But so far, it appears that this case is unique: 100 additional encephalitis patients tested negative for Avian Influenza.

The new data generated by re-testing of existing samples give us a better picture of the nature of H5N1 and also mean that at least some of the calculated mortality rates for this virus are probably excessively high. For example, the Nature paper states that 10 out of 11 identified cases of Avian Influenza in Viet Nam since December 2004 have died (now; 13 out of 18). This is a mortality rate of 91% (or 72% using the more recent data)! Given these statistics, it’s no wonder that public health officials around the world are in a panic.

But because doctors, labs and hospitals have focused their attention on the most severe cases, less severe H5N1 cases have been ignored, and this (obviously) skews mortality data as well as our understanding of the virus’s infectivity -- both are important for assessing Avian Influenza’s potential for damage. Currently, officials are trying to address this situation by conducting a one-year survey of 1600 children with mild flu-like symptoms in Viet Nam to identify H5N1. Additionally, NIID has already discovered 7 more “positives” for H5N1 among those samples that previously tested negative: These data resulted after retesting only one third of 90 suspected Vietnamese cases of Avian Influenza thus far. Not only does this difficulty of identifying H5N1 alter our calculated infectivity and mortality statistics but it also interferes with officials’ efforts to identify and monitor possible instances of human-to-human transmission -- the last criterion that must be met before an effective pandemic of H5N1 can occur.

These “false negatives” produced by Vietnamese labs also indicated problems with either the test used or the training that lab technicians received, or both. [Unfortunately, the article never reveals the nature of test is being used to identify people who had an infection with influenza, but this information is also critically important to making an accurate assessment of the transmissibility and infectivity of the virus (and therefore, its virulence), as well as making it easier to identify the virus by its symptoms.] Nevertheless, after further investigation, Vietnamese officials are switching to the more sensitive test used by the NIID labs in Tokyo and they are also providing more rigorous training to their lab workers.

As reported by the referenced article in Nature, the bad news is that H5N1 appears to be more widespread than realized, it can trigger unusual symptoms that make it difficult to identify, and it might already be exhibiting limited person-to-person transmission in crowded situations. Currently, health officials do not yet know the true infectivity or mortality of Avian Influenza in humans, but epidemiologists are working to answer those questions. Even though H5N1 is dangerous because of its potential to enter the human population and then become more deadly should not be underestimated, the good news is that the current form of H5N1 probably has a lower mortality rate than previously thought. Although the referenced article never actually highlights this, I think this is very good news in our fight to contain the spread of Avian Influenza.


Source material;

“Tests in Tokyo reveal flaws in Viet Nam’s bird flu surveillance” by David Cyranoski [Nature 433:787 (24 Feb 2005)].

Bird Flu far more deadly than SARS, WHO says (Reuters Health).

My brain, which collects all sorts of information from the many (many!) papers, books and magazines that I read, from the scientists who tell me cool things, and from the superb university classes I've taken.


More Essays about Avian Influenza;

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds', Part 2.

Avian Influenza and 'The War on Birds'.

Influenza: How Its Biology Affects Vaccine Production.

Public Confusion Surrounding Influenza.

Is Avian Influenza THAT deadly?


Included with the best of Critical Writing on a Blog, Iss
ue 3

This essay was recognized as among the "Best Medical Blog Writing" by
Medical Grand Rounds XXV

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue 24.

9 responses so far

Tangled Bank Request for Articles

Feb 24 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Do you like reading high quality science writing? Do you enjoy writing about medicine so the public actually understands what the heck you are talking about? Is there an environmental injustice occurring that makes you want to scream aloud in frustration? If so, then Tangled Bank is looking for you! Tangled Bank is a Blog Carnival that is seeking submissions of (recent) blogged articles that discuss topics affecting the natural world. As such, the guidelines as to what is appropriate subject material are very broad. As your next host of Tangled Bank, I have two goals for all of you, dear readers; I wish to provide you with access to the best and most provocative blog writing concerning science, medicine and the environment, and I wish to expose individual writers to a larger audience for their work than they have previously enjoyed.

In an effort to please regular readers of Tangled Bank as well as to satisfy my own readers, I am working on several articles of my own for this next issue that I hope you all will enjoy. But I cannot do this alone, I need your help. As you know, Tangled Bank is a collaborative blog writing effort. Each issue presents links to articles and essays written by individuals in the sciences, medicine and the environment, as well as articles and essays written by people in other fields who think and write about these topics. Every two weeks, an individual blogger volunteers to host the current issue of this blog carnival. This host presents and publishes links to blogged articles so the public can read and comment on them. My issue of Tangled Bank will be published on 9 March 2005.

Please read the current issue or past issues of Tangled Bank to appreciate the quality and the magnitude of topics presented. As you will see, essays range from personal to scholarly, but they all represent topics that each author finds interesting and thinks you might be interested to read and learn about them, too.

As an aside, I have noticed that there are more male bloggers than female, and this population bias is magnified among Tangled Bank authors. I have also noticed that there is a huge bias of American versus "non-American" authors in Tangled Bank. I wish to help change these statistics by strongly encouraging women and "non-Americans" to add their insights to "my" issue of Tangled Bank. (Of course, everyone's articles are most welcomed by me!)

Article Submissions: email links to your submission(s) to by 8 March 2005. Because I wish to encourage "new faces", please let me know if this is the first time you've submitted an article to Tangled Bank and maybe I'll place a little gold star next to your article. I am looking forward to reading your articles and to putting together this next issue. Help me make "my issue" of Tangled Bank a smashing success.

No responses yet

Seeking Vision

Feb 19 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

I finally finished rewriting my research paper late on Friday and resubmitted it to the journal editors so, to distract myself from obsessing about the possibility of enduring yet another rejection, I went to Central Park to see The Gates. As a regular birder in the Park, I couldn’t forget my bird companions so I replaced everything in my coat pockets, including my gloves, with a jar of shell-less sunflower seeds. Of course, this meant that I wandered the familiar pathways, each populated with its own little communities of birds, for several hours until my fingers were numb and aching from the cold.

What was my first reaction to The Gates? Well, um .. I thought it looked silly and unnatural and extremely .. orange .. and then I thought it looked a bit like a giant croquet set.

Based on my conversations with other attendees on Saturday, it seems that we were approximately equally divided as to whether we understood it, whether it had any meaning to us, and even, whether it was a work of art. However, almost as if they all had entered into a secret pact of silence, the other half was surprisingly unwilling to share what they thought the meaning was, even when directly asked. Their benign Mona Lisa-esque smiles were sometimes annoying. Even though the artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are chatty and flamboyant, they also have refused to speculate publically about this work.

“This project is not involved with talk,” Christo said in a recent newspaper interview. “It is real physical space. You need to spend time walking in the cold air - sunny day, rainy day, even snow. It is not necessary to talk.”

“It has no purpose,” Jeanne-Claude stated flatly in a radio interview on WNYC last week. “It is not a symbol. It is not a message. It is only a work of art.”

After spending nearly $21 million and investing 26 years in overcoming Park and City Officials’ resistance to defacing Central Park with a huge work of art, it seems that there should be some sort of purpose or reason for The Gates’ existence, some meaning, some message, some .. something!

Nevertheless, The Gates intrigues me. During my frequent birding forays to Central Park in the past few months, I followed the progress of this work as it came to life. Construction began in early January when forklifts plodded over thick sheets of ice, carefully stacking hundreds of dark gray, rectangular bases weighing between 615 and 837 pounds each (5,300 tons of steel for this project in total). These squat steel bases, resembling monstrous skateboards to my eye, were later placed lengthwise along the park pathways to anchor The Gates to the ground.

These bases represent one of several compromises agreed to during the past 26 years of negotiations. The artists’ original plans would have drilled 15,000 holes into park pathways to support the gates, which City and Park Officials adamantly refused to allow. The final design instead relies on these sturdy bases that rest on the ground, leaving the park unscathed. In fact, after The Gates are dismantled at the end of this month, there will be no sign that they were ever present; no holes in the pathways and no missing limbs from trees that were trimmed to make room for them because, if an individual gate might have touched a branch or a limb, the gate was moved to accommodate the tree.

Two steel bases support one bright saffron orange Gate that is 16 feet high. This was another compromise: Instead of using steel poles as first proposed, the gates are square vinyl poles. Additionally, the size of the entire project was sharply reduced: There are 7,532 Gates straddling only 23 miles of Central Park's pathways instead of 11,000 to 15,000, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude had first envisioned. These gates were decorated with pleated fabric -- 116,389 miles of brilliant orange rip-stop nylon imported from east Germany. This fabric was not attached like shower curtains as originally proposed, but is connected directly to the frames -- another compromise.

This project is the result of two and a half decades of persistence and negotiations between the artists and the City. Remarkably, in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg's administration finally approved the permits necessary to allow the project to proceed. All these compromises were collectively transformed into saffron-colored reality by Vince Davenport, the innovative engineer who worked closely with the artists.

“I’m not an artist, and I never envision what Christo and Jeanne-Claude see as far as the beauty of the thing goes,” states Davenport. “I'm too concerned with making it come to life. The challenge to me is, how do you build it so that they aesthetically like it? Where do I get the parts? How do I manufacture it?”

Despite the fact that Christo and Jeanne-Claude raised all the money required to purchase the necessary components for this work, ranging from dry goods such as 165,000 bolts and their self-locking nuts to the wages paid to their “volunteers”, to their nocturnal security force and to extra city police, it is the City that will profit handsomely from it. Even though the project will be present for only 16 days by the time it is dismantled at the end of the month, the city’s Economic Development Corporation predicts that 4 million people will visit the project and will spend approximately $80 million, $2.5 million of that will be city taxes. Everyone from hot dog venders and horse carriage operators to mobile bookstore carts selling books about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work will benefit. The Boathouse Restaurant, which is located in Central Park and usually closes for dinner during the winter, is filled every night. Hotels, particularly those near Central Park, report dramatic increases in visitors. All this, during a month when tourism is traditionally very low.

So what is the magic that I see in The Gates? As I have hinted throughout my entire essay, the sheer scale of the collaborative effort required to make this community project happen is truly monumental. I am amazed that the artists could raise the millions of dollars necessary to realize their dream. I am surprised that all the supplies necessary to build this project actually arrived in the right place and at the right time. I am impressed with all the compromises that were made with the City over the decades. Most of all, I am intrigued by the power of their vision to inspire and motivate a large group of strangers, many of them unpaid, to join together to construct a temporary, experiential work of art that has no purpose or message for other strangers to enjoy. Without all these people, the artists’ work would not exist. (This is alluded to by The Crackers, shown here. You can click on the image to see a larger version). Certainly, the vision necessary to a successful collaborative effort is difficult to communicate and the collective effort is difficult to manage, especially one that relies on the combined efforts of thousands of individuals, most of whom do not know each other and who will never meet.

So what is the meaning of it all? The artists state that The Gates is “a celebration of the processional, ceremonial walkways of the park.” They envisioned the saffron colored fabric as “a golden ceiling creating warm shadows” within the park, as “a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees.”

I think they forgot to mention that it is a celebration of people.


More information about The Gates;

Official website about The Gates by Christo and Jean-Claude.

NYC’s official w
ebsite for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project for Central Park.

The Gates @ Central Park, a free-for-all Critique of Christo's Central Park Art Exhibit.

The Somerville Gates.


Thanks to my friend, C, for sending The Crackers to me so I could share it with you. Also, thanks to K for sending the Somerville Gates link to me.

7 responses so far

Beauty is in the Details

Feb 16 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

During last evening’s mega-lecture to my Anatomy and Physiology night class, I presented my favorite topics; DNA, RNA and proteins. To be fair to my students, I did warn them in advance of my fondness for these topics by saying they are near and dear to my heart, that most of my life has been invested into molecular biology research. Nevertheless, after lecture was over, they gathered around me like wet sheep asking plaintively, “Do we have to know all these details for the exam, like, you know, what the signal peptide does?” and “Do we have to memorize the codons and their amino acids for the exam?” Indeed, last night’s lecture was, for most of them, a very small drink from a very large hose. I am certain this will not be the last time this occurs.

“No,” I responded, feeling annoyed with myself for wasting their precious and limited lecture time on details, annoyed to realize that I was not strictly ‘teaching to the test’ as the other Adjuncts always advise me to do. “No, you don’t have to remember all the details. I told you about some of the details because I think they’re beautiful.”

Realizing that my admission made me sound like an eccentric, I then followed up by describing how learning about the intricacies of molecular biology could help them in their future medical careers, that knowing about DNA could help them explain paternity tests and heritable diseases to their patients, that appreciating the subtleties of protein folding and modifications would give them an understanding for illnesses such as Mad Cow Disease.

This lecture and their reactions to it were a trip back through time for me: I clearly remember hearing my first lecture about DNA, RNA and proteins. In that lecture, I recall that the basement classroom was poorly lit. The teacher paced back and forth in front of us, hands open and moving, fingers grasping at .. what? I sat stiffly in an uncomfortable wood chair in the middle of the second row from the front as if attending the opening night for an epic play. As the mystery was carefully unveiled before me, I forgot to breathe. Every molecule in my being was transfixed: I was unable to move my body, not even to dutifully take notes, but my mind raced across these open vistas with the sudden joy of discovery combined with a peculiar sense of familiarity as my life changed forever.


I told you those details because I am a scientist who is deeply awed and in love with my subject and I wish you to be awed and to love it, too.

I wish my students to see that molecular biology is a bold masterpiece upon which rests the larger masterpiece of life. I wish my students to realize that every gene represents a brushstroke within this masterpiece, each one unique and special. I wish my students to understand that individual genes contain, within their sequences, the record of their passage through time and that deciphering the story contained within our DNA is to learn about our history. I wish my students to recognize that even as our genes disclose our distant past, they also reveal how our lives are intimately intertwined with all life on earth. I wish my students to learn that even though they are defined and described by their genes, their individual fates are not dictated by their genes any more than by the stars. And last but not least, I wish my students to understand that nature is the great scientist and we all are her pupils, that we are trying to decipher her grand and multi-faceted experiments as they unfold before our eyes, each one possessing an itinerant beauty and completeness that defy mere words.

Perhaps one of my students will be changed by the grandeur of all as I was.

technorati tags: , ,

Included with the Best of Me Symphony
Issue 105

18 responses so far

Skeptic's Circle Request for Articles

Feb 12 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Are you skeptical about something? Do certain people have beliefs or behaviors that leave you scratching your head in utter confusion? Whether you are baffled as to why people continue to believe that astrology can predict your future or your personality, or people's willingness to believe that they have scored free money (as I momentarily did yesterday, before I came to my senses), the Skeptic's Circle is looking for you!

The Skeptic's Circle is a new biweekly Blog Carnival and the people behind the scenes are looking for submissions of blogged articles for their upcoming second issue. The articles can discuss science, medicine, blogging, social interactions or whatever else has activated your skeptical mind and thus compelled you to write about it. These articles describe your critical (skeptical) thinking and discovery process regarding either a personal experience or report your investigations into a particular event or phenomenon that most people accept as truth but shouldn't. These articles should have been published on your blog within the past two months or so, although I don't think the editor is particularly strict about this.

Go here for more information and for the email address to submit your article URLs. So, fellow skeptics, don't wait too long, because the deadline for this next edition of the Skeptic's Circle rapidly approaches! We eagerly await your missives of wit and wisdom and most of all, we seek to celebrate critical thinking and enlightened investigation! (Remember, this recognition looks good on your CV or resume! Or .. does it?).

No responses yet


Feb 11 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

This morning at 915 am EST, I received a call on my office telephone from a man who claimed that he represented the Government Grant Information Center.

"Is this [my real life name]?" asked a lightly accented male voice on the other end of the line.

"Yes," I said, still exhausted from last night's never ending class and preoccupied with a paper that I was struggling to rewrite.

"Congratulations! I am mumble from the Government Grant Information Center. According to our records, you've always paid your taxes on time, so you have qualified to receive an $8,000 grant," his voice cut through my mental fog. Grant money? Taxes?

"Huh?" I said stupidly, wondering which grant I'd applied for that was actually being awarded to me and why they were calling me so early on a holiday morning when a snailmail award letter was standard protocol.

"Where are you from?" I asked. (Obviously, someone in this agency's granting office was on the verge of screwing up my perfect rejection record while simultaneously encouraging me to believe that I am not totally unemployable).

"The Government Grant Information Center," came the reply. I could hear the sound of many voices in the background as I tried to recall which grant I'd applied for from that agency, but I'd never even heard that name before. Even though I try to forget which universities I've applied to for tenure-track positions (and I often succeed until my rejection letters arrive), I make an effort to remember to whom I apply for grant money.

"Wha .. uh, I don't understand .. can you tell me again what this is about?" I was absolutely confused. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying and could hear the voices droning on in the background: This man works in a very busy office. Do grant agencies employ this many people? If so, then why didn't I also have a job there that pays a living wage?

The man, who had a mild Australian accent and was probably drop-dead gorgeous .. ooo, I'd bet he was a sailor with lovely (but not excessive) muscles .. repeated his generous offer. (I think he had an Australian accent, but I wasn't sure. I should have asked him to repeat the word "beer" several times so I could identify his accent with more certainty).

I could still hear many voices, including female voices, chattering in the background. Hrm, these voices sounded like .. a telemarketing office! My vision of the tall and lean Australian sailor lounging in his underwear while talking to me on the phone suddenly popped like a balloon and was replaced by a short, smelly man with a beefy hand wrapped around a filthy telephone receiver, fingers still greasy from eating a supersized order of McDonald's french fries and a belly that swelled over his belt buckle like a new and very hairy life form.

"Yeah, right! Is this for real? The government doesn't reward people for being good, the government locks people up for being bad," I informed my caller, feeling my alter-ego, Xena, Warrior Princess, begin to stir.

"That's not true. Which government are you talking about?" He asked politely, sounding genuinely interested for the first time since he'd called.

"MY government, the one with George Bush in the White House," I snapped at him. "Which government are YOU talking about?" This guy must be really stupid. Xena, Warrior Princess, was wide awake now, but I resisted the urge to launch my diatribe about short overpaid bullies with bombs, and about Abu Ghraib and the cute little American prison in Cuba used for storing accused Al Qaeda terrorists until their due date had passed.

I was suddenly amused that I was arguing politics on the phone with a total stranger. He wisely changed the subject after a brief, uncomfortable silence. "Can we send the information to you at [my mailing address]?"

I was once more confused. Where did he get my mailing address? For that matter, where the hell did he get my office phone number? Was it possible that he was legitimate? Was it possible that I might .. somehow .. magically .. have been awarded an $8,000 grant? Was it possible that George Bush and his punative cronies were going to have mercy on me and my plight and give me some money so I could finally stop stressing out about preserving my miserable existence while I continue searching for a real job? Eight thousand dollars would certainly solve a lot of problems, starting with my rent.

"You're only sending me paperwork, right?" I asked suspiciously.

"Yes," he said.

"What's your name?"

"John T. Rhodes," he replied, sounding bored now.

"Can you spell your last name for me?" (He did).

"Where do you work?" (He told me again).

"Okay, send me the paperwork," I sighed, wondering about that mysterious $8000 grant, wondering if this guy was instead going to cram my mail box full of junk mail and, if so, why did he call first to ask if he could do so when no one else does this, and then, eventually, wondering what I had really agreed to.


Obviously, this guy was trying to swindle me out of whatever trivial sums of money that I still might possess despite unemployment. A quick google search using "Government Grant Information Center" as my search phrase reveals that I had experienced a creative variation of the well-known prepayment scam, otherwise known as the "something for nothing" rip-off. The scam works like this; the swindler, posing as an agent for a reputable agency, convinces the potential sucker (me, in this case) that he or she qualifies to receive large sum of money (lottery winnings, a loan with very favorable rates or a grant) in return for a small initial monetary "investment" on their part. The most familiar variation on this scam is the numerous email spams from distressed Nigerians begging you to temporarily hide their bank funds from their government or other agencies. (Neglecting to mention that you must pay thousands of dollars in bribes and "fees" before the transaction is complete -- an event that never actually happens).

After reading other people's on-line reports of this government grant swindle, several interesting things emerged. First, I discovered that John T. Rhodes was a very bad boy because he deviated from his script. For example, he never asked for my bank routing number nor did he mention a $257 "processing fee" or "up-front fee", as described in other people's accounts. Why? Even though he seemed comfortable with his career choice, it is possible that John T. Rhodes was not a particularly experienced con artist or that my political comments had surprised him and caused him to momentarily forget his script. It is also (remotely) possible that Mr. Rhodes realized he would never get this information from me so he gave up rather than invest precious time into an already lost cause. But none of these scenarios seem very likely to me, so I am still mystified as to why he gave up without a fight.

[Permit me to make it absolutely clear, dear readers, that a request for my bank routing number or mention of an up-front processing fee would have erased all my confusion by immediately alerting me that I was talking with a con artist. Of course, this would have resulted in great peals of hysterical laughter loudly directed into John T. Rhodes' delicate eardrum.]

I learned a few other things about scam artists, too. For example, they often use a fake British (or other foreign) accent because Americans perceive foreigners as being more credible (more trustworthy?), as some market research suggests. Additionally, although I only have anecdotal evidence of this (my experience and several reports of this particular swindle), it seems scammer
s prefer to use opposite-sex telephone con artists .. maybe to appeal to their potential victims' er, imaginations?

But now that the dust has settled and I am finally fully awake, I realize how incredibly stupid I was. But my stupidity did not begin this morning when I answered my office phone, it actually started approximately one year earlier. How exactly did John T. Rhodes from the mythical Government Grant Information Center get my name, mailing address and office phone number? I never give out this combination of contact information .. except on my CV and resume!

Approximately one year ago, I realized that my employment prospects were dismal at best so to avoid the very real prospect of living on the streets, I expanded my job search to include "anything", and listed my resume with several on-line job agencies. Undoubtedly, this guy and his fellow swindlers discovered my contact information on one or more of these internet job sites, such as, where I and thousands of others have listed their CVs and resumes. After talking to some people who regularly use Craigslist, I found that on-line CVs and resumes are mined as fertile sources of personal information for identity theft because these job sites do not protect us! Additionally, at least some of these on-line job search services do not allow a person to delete his or her resume after it has been posted. In my opinion, the only purpose for this outrageous "no delete" policy is to sell jobseekers' valuable personal information to scammers and spammers, thereby encouraging and assisting fraud and theft.

As a result of my internet investigations, I also discovered another job seeking identity theft scam: "potential employers" who demand either a pre-interview or pre-hiring background check from "potential employees" as another sneaky and underhanded way to obtain personal information for identity theft. Desperate job seekers, dazzled by sudden hope for a good job, and thinking either that they have no real power to say no under these circumstances or that their risk is minimal when compared to the prospect of a job, typically comply. So depressed and desperate job seekers also pay another hidden cost for trying to responsibly deal with their misfortunes: They are preyed upon by swindlers and identity thieves! Even though I successfully avoided a scam, it appears that I can now add the very real possibility of identity theft to my worry list!

According to some reports describing this swindle, it is possible John T. Rhodes might call back. If so, I will be waiting for him. I probably should thank him for his clumsy (albeit unintended) warning that my identity may have been stolen as a direct result of my job search, but I'd much prefer to kick him in the gonads and then dissect his writhing body with a dull and rusty scalpel. But for now, I have to obtain copies of my credit reports from all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to make sure that I have not already been destroyed by identity theft. Further, I will have to routinely check updated versions of my credit reports (each quarter at least) for many years to come.


More scam source materials

Grant's Boon

Government Grant Scams

Police warn of telephone scam artists hitting area (6 February 2005).

Rip-off Report

Using job seekers' resumes for identity theft

Privacy rights Clearinghouse

Background check used to steal full slate of personal info

Identity theft and your on-line job search

Document and report fraud to

The Better Business Bureau

The National Fraud Information Center

The ID Theft Website to report ID theft and to find useful information


Included with the best of Critical Writing on a Blog, Issue 2.

9 responses so far

Shuffling (Papers)

Feb 08 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Does anyone else have problems filling out all the paperwork that you are confronted with after you are hired? I am not talking about the paperwork that describes where you last worked, I am talking about all that other paperwork that requires you to provide the contact information for your "nearest living relative" or for a "family member" or for an "emergency contact". Because I have no idea where my nearest living relative is located, and furthermore, because none of my family members have spoken to me since I was 15, I struggle with the paperwork that comes with a new job.

Having watched and sometimes participated with other families as they reacted to crises, I assume that one's relatives execute that person's will or, in the absence of a will, they make decisions about how that person's possessions and body are disposed of after death or permanent incapacitation. But .. what happens to people like me, without any relatives? Do we hire a lawyer to step in to handle these things for us? That seems really .. impersonal. Further, it's silly to spend money on a lawyer when I don't have health insurance and I am struggling to pay my basic living expenses. Besides, even if I had a last will and testament that states how I want things to be in the event of my death or permanent incapacitation, how would anyone know? Would anyone care anyway? If so, why would anyone care when I have neither the power nor the finances to enforce my wishes (a sky burial, for example) under such circumstances?

My other dilemma is emergency contacts: who exactly qualifies as an "emergency contact" and what do they do? Do they do "little things" such as feed your pets if you are hospitalized after, say, choking on a french fry? (Some of my clients list me as an "emergency pet care contact" for this reason, which I am happy to do for them). Or do they do big things like notifying your family (if you have one) and friends in the event that one of your students assaulted and murdered you because he didn't like his textbook? In either situation, it seems that one should at least ask a potential emergency contact if they wish to serve in this capacity before listing them as such, right? Further, it seems that an emergency contact should be a person who lives locally, right?

I always provide my dissertation advisor's contact information as my emergency contact (unknown to him) because he has been in my life longer than any other human. But realistically, what can he do for me in an emergency? He lives 3000 miles away, so it's impossible for him to feed my parrots for me. Additionally, we only speak in email about letters of recommendation for my latest series of impending job rejections, er, applications, that I am sending out, so he has no idea who my friends might be and he is only vaguely aware of my family situation because I have provided few details about this to anyone (well, in real life -- I have written more about the situation here than I've ever said in real life). Other than job applications, we have almost no contact at all.

I wish things could be different, but my advisor is a busy man with a family of his own, so really, I have no right to make such demands of him, even if he doesn't know about it and even if nothing ever comes of it. Unfortunately, I don't know anyone in NYC who has the time and energy to care for my birds properly in the case of an emergency, and there is not one soul in the entire universe who knows who my friends are (to be fair, I am often confused by this, too) and how to contact them if I experienced an emergency. And in view of the fact that people tend to suddenly pop into my life and then disappear inexplicably like tumbleweeds pushed by a wind, I don't think that anyone really can act as an emergency contact for me.

In addition to the practical aspects that I mentioned here, this paperwork stirs up a veritable bees' nest of emotional garbage that never truly goes away. Filling out this paperwork is like a quick trip down memory lane; it reminds me of how truly miserable and screwed up my life has always been, how I've fought and struggled and sacrificed my entire life because I thought (hoped) that things would get better in the future yet I still fail at everything I've ever done because nothing is better, and it reminds me of how I've only ever been truly happy and satisfied during that brief miraculous time when I was working with, researching and writing about birds. That wild, beautiful "career fling" was a love affair of the mind and heart, the great passion of my life, the reason I am on this earth, it was a bright glittering gem piercing the inky darkness with thousands of refracted photons of light, and now that brilliant light is gone forever.

Dealing with all this takes time.


Academic job interviews: 1 (telephone screening interview for a tenure-track position at a private liberal arts college with strong research support that I think I'd really enjoy)

Academic job rejections: 3 (including one that I telephone interviewed for three weeks ago)

Non-academic job rejections: 1 (science and medical writer -- after they asked me what I wanted to be paid .. apparently, saying that I will accept market rates and I am happy to negotiate rates for special pieces was not the correct answer)

8 responses so far

Owls and Other Fantasies

Feb 04 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

Last night's teaching experience was horrible. Just reliving it so I can write about it here is upsetting; I prefer to forget all about it by going out for a night of competitive drinking with friends, except I can't afford this! Instead, I had to opt for the cheap method of coping; writing and treating myself to something special. So I found myself in an organic food store this morning and in the span of five minutes, I spent almost half of this morning's cat sitting income (from one client) on two boxes of organic chai tea. Besides the fact that I had wanted to treat myself to chai tea for weeks, I was hoping that the gentle Yogi's pesticide-free leaves and poop-nurtured spices would restore some sense of calm to my unsettled life. If only problems could be solved so easily!

In my fantasies, I was the perfect professor, helping my students find their wings so they could soar upward to high-paying and satisfying careers. As their professor, I always knew when to step in to help and when to step back and cheer, I was both accessible and remote, humorous and serious, interesting and knowledgeable, and my students loved who they were when they were with me. In my little dream, my evening lectures with my students were punctuated with insightful and clever discussions that left them wanting more, the labs were fun and useful, and in fact, all of my students were brilliant because they couldn't help but be so. Then my students and I left for the evening after lingering over spectacular flaming sunsets curving over the twinkling city-constellations of NYC and New Jersey, all of us enriched and full of anticipation for our next meeting. Of course, my colleagues and supervisors were all impressed with my skills and jealous of my swarms of adoring students and I was not only asked to return to teach next semester, but I was also given a pay raise.

But reality rudely interrupted like the proverbial bull stampeding through a china shop. I walked in to the communal Adjuncts' office yesterday afternoon to find five or six of my colleagues engrossed in a hushed conversation about forming a union and possibly striking against "Sweatshop U" (yep, that's my new employer). OH GOD, NOT THIS! NOT NOW! I wanted to groan aloud. I JUST got a job that pays enough to cover my rent! If I strike, I'll end up on the streets!

Fortunately, my class was to begin in 30 minutes, so I left the Adjunct office and waited for the CLT to unlock my lab door so I could prepare. This is when I discovered that I did not have the necessary materials for class. There was no chalk to write on the chalkboard with (are we the only college in the world that still uses chalkboards?) so I stole a small niblet of chalk from the lab next door. The transparencies with the necessary diagrams for my planned lecture had been removed from the lab, probably by another Adjunct. Pre-prepared glass slides of human tissue were missing even though they were required by the lab we were supposed to be working on (fortunately, the Allium root tip slides and whitefish embryo slides were present and in sufficient quantities). The CLT said that the CC wants me to discourage my students from making the required wet mounts of epidermal cells collected from inside their cheeks due to "health issues". Then, five minutes before lab was supposed to begin, I was informed that I would be showing two videos during class. OH? I could feel the last remnants of my carefully planned lab schedule crumble into the swirling dust of chaos. I barely resisted the urge to scream.

Half of my students wandered into the lab between 10 and 45 minutes late, even though I am required to take attendance in the first ten minutes of class, and I had to repeat -- several times -- everything I had already said. This is when I began to suspect that my students suffer from serious hearing and reading comprehension problems. Despite the fact that I had written the "lab goals" and the lab manual page numbers on the chalkboard for them to follow and refer to, and in spite of the fact that I repeated several times everything I told them in my lab lecture, almost all of them, late arrivals or not, needed private lectures over the same material.

Then I discovered that my students suddenly were unable to focus their microscopes properly (they were capable of this only last week), were unable to find the pre-prepared slides that they needed (on a table at the front of the lab, as I told them), several of them broke the slides after they did manage to locate them, and then, many were unable to see anything at all using the microscopes. Then my students -- almost all of them paid professionals in their fields -- began wasting class time by whining about absolutely everything from the scheduled evening class times to the size, heft and detail (or lack thereof) of the textbook! Before the end of class, I tried to review the correct answers for the last week's lab reports but their collective hearing problems became especially acute at this point. Frustrated, I finally gave them an impromptu lecture about things that I, as their professor, can control versus those I cannot control. Unfortunately, this was a lecture I needed to hear, too.

After class was over for the evening, I forgot to take a moment to enjoy the square lights of the city glowing in the darkness outside the lab windows. Instead, I left, wishing to never return and wondering if the powers-that-be would do me a favor by firing me. As I walked to the subway, I wondered what the hell I was thinking by teaching this class with only 36 hours advance notice and I wished to run and hide forever in the quiet solitude of my lab, my office, the collections, my Secret World, my writings .. anywhere that I don't have to deal with this overwhelming crush of insatiably needy and desperate people.

I went home, hoping my birds would be sympathetic, but they tortured me by improvising new and increasingly annoying shrieks that echoed inside my skull. I hid in my bedroom, called a friend who is halfway across the country and poured out my frustrations to her, hoping my own venting and whining would not forever alienate her. I awoke this morning with a raging headache after trying to ignore The Dump Truck as he rumbled around on my ceiling most of the night. Because I have many things to do today, I was unable to spend the day hiding in my apartment with my nose in a book, as I wished.

So after taking care of all my cat sitting clients this morning, I finally made it to the post office by late morning and discovered a large squishy yellow envelope waiting for me. It was a birdthday gift from some of my west coast bird watching friends, a gift of a t-shirt covered with bird footprints, some money to buy a new pair of jeans, and the newest book by one of my most beloved living poets, Mary Oliver, entitled Owls and Other Fantasies. The dust jacket is decorated with the charming painting of two snowy owls by John James Audubon -- owls like my Craigslist namesake, Hedwig the owl. The accompanying card was covered with a lovely color drawing of peonies and written inside was, "We are so proud of you!" I watched my world grow fuzzy as tears of bitter disappointment filled my eyes.

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves --
then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness --
and that's when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree --
and I began to understand
what t
he bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing --
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky -- all, all of them

were singing.
And of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last

for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your soul need comforting?
Quick then -- open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

-- Mary Oliver [Such Singing in the Wild Branches in Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 2003]


Such Singing in the Wild Branches by Mary Oliver is republished here without permission with no intention to profit in any way whatsoever except to share a little beauty with my readers and to provide a little comfort to my own aching heart.


Included with the best of Education Blog Writing by the Carnival of Education, Issue 6.

3 responses so far

The Gift of Birds

Feb 01 2005 Published by under Uncategorized

A first-time blog reader emailed a birdthday ecard that he designed just for me! (As you can see from this ecard, which is a detail from a larger painting of his, he is a very talented artist!) I just had to share this with you all because the thought AND the card are beautiful! (If you click on the card, a larger version will show up in its own window).

The bird pictured here on this card is a male magnolia warbler, Dendroica magnolia (Wilson), a lovely little migratory songbird that breeds in the higher latitudes of North America, mainly in Canada (Fig. 1, below). This bird was named for the magnolia tree, where it was first collected. This sedate warbler can be seen in small trees and shrubs in moist mixed forests and in new-growth. Their favored forest habitats are dominated by aspen trees but also include a variety of conifers, particularly spruce, firs, hemlocks, or pines. These birds' preferred habitat is typically located near water. Magnolia warblers are "neotropical migrants"; wintering in southern Mexico through parts of Central America to Panama. They are seen in Central Park during spring and autumn migration.

FIGURE 1: Breeding range of magnolia warbler (1).

The magnolia warbler is 10.8-12.7 centimeters (approximately 5 inches) from beak to tail. The male (pictured on the card at the top) is intensely colored with contrasting splotches of yellow, black, bluish-grey, white and some olive-green while females and immature birds retain the basic color pattern, but their colors are muted somewhat. Although they do consume some fruits and berries, magnolia warblers are almost exclusively insectivorous; they hunt insects by meticulously collecting them from the undersides of tree leaves and crevices in tree bark. They are monogamous and build a lovely little nest from fine twigs and stems and line the cup with fine grasses or rootlets. This nest is usually built 1-2 meters (4-7 feet) from the ground, saddling the branch of a small conifer and concealed by a well-placed bough immediately above. The birds begin nesting activities in early June and each clutch consists of 4 (3-5) eggs. Their eggs are creamy white with artistically placed cinnamon-colored blotches of varying intensities. The chicks hatch after 11- 13 days of incubation by the female and both parents care for the young. The chicks are helpless when they hatch but grow quickly, leaving their nest 8-10 days after hatching. Both parents care for the young fledglings for as long as 25 days after they fledge.

Their song is often described as "wheeta wheeta" followed by a descending "wheetsee" (2) or "wisha-wisha-wisha" with the accent on the first syllable.


(1) Magnolia warbler breeding range map is linked from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center without permission and with no intention to profit in any way whatsoever, except to provide my readers with interesting information about this species. This map was compiled using Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data collected by thousands of volunteer birders throughout the years. [Gough, G. A., Sauer, J. R., Iliff, M. Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter. 1998. Version 97.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.]

(2) Magnolia warbler song is linked from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center without permission and with no intention to profit in any way whatsoever, except to share my joy of birds and their song with my readers. The song file is and remains the sole property of the recordist, John Sauer. [John R. Sauer, Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter. 1998. Version 97.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.]

4 responses so far