Dear God: This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee

Dear God,

This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee because I couldn’t find any clean water.

Dear God,

This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee because I couldn’t find any clean water.  It got me thinking how nice it would be if You would help everybody have clean water.  Don’t get me wrong–I do love coffee, and brushing your teeth with it actually works pretty well!  But, there are a lot of kids around here, and I’ll bet that it would be really nice for them to have clean water every day.

To give You some context: Guatemala does not have national-level regulation of anything related to water–availability, safety, or anything else that I’ve been able to find.  Having a water connection into your home is nowhere near universal in cities, and in rural areas, it’s less common than using a well or other naturally-occurring water source: 52% of the rural population lives in residences that are not connected to a water supply, as does 13% of the urban population (see this paper).  The groundwater here can be contaminated with arsenic, as can clay water filters.  Bacterial and viral contaminants abound–coliform bacteria, norovirus, cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid–You name it, we’ve got it.  Your children here do try to take care of themselves in this respect, but it’s technically difficult–one study here of homes that boil their drinking water found that 29% of boiled water still has unsafe levels of fecal bacteria.  (If You really wanna get freaked out, note that the clay filters that some households (and the vast majority of visitors such as myself) rely on here lose their “disinfection efficacy” over time, and there is exactly no way whatsoever to evaluate this by looking at them.)  The number of ways that Your children’s water supply can get contaminated is far larger than I would have guessed, including–ironically, I think–heavy rainfall, which can wash nasty stuff into wells.

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Original photo caption: “Wells without headwalls such as this one can easily fill with foul water. They also present a fall risk for young children, as has been reported by residents.” Source: Eisenhauer et al. 2016, https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/45/3/677/2572651

I know that You are busy, but if You have a bit of free time on your hands, this would be a cool thing to pay attention to.  As I mentioned, brushing your teeth with coffee actually works pretty well.  But, Your children here are really trying–if You could help a bit with this and the many other medical problems that plague this country, it would be super-cool.

Yours,

Beauregard Zipf


English notes

you name it: an expression means something like anything whatsoever, anything that you can think of.  Some examples:

How I used it in the post: Bacterial and viral contaminants abound–coliform bacteria, norovirus, cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid–You name it, we’ve got it.  


Once a year I spend a week as an English/Spanish interpreter in Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group that providers free surgical services to people for whom even the almost-free national health care system is still too expensive.  If you enjoy my posts from “Guate,” please consider supporting our work here.  Our volunteers pay all of the costs of their own involvement–we buy our own plane tickets, pay for our food and lodging, etc., and donate all of our services.  Your donation goes straight to supporting surgeries, pre- and post-op care for our patients, and lodging for the family members that accompany them here.  You don’t have to give much to help a lot–$250 US pays all of the costs of surgery for one patient, and $10 US pays for all of the pain medications that we will send patients home with the entire week.  Follow this link to donate–a small donation is a great way to make your day better!

The motor homunculus goes to Guatemala

Whether you’re a linguist like me and you focus on the organs of speech, or you’re a physician who focuses on the hand, the amount of brain “real estate” that is devoted to each of them reflects the fact that both of them are central to being a human being.

The odd guy in this picture?  He’s “the motor homunculus.”  The picture represents the proportions of the motor cortex that are dedicated to controlling the movements of the parts of our body whose movements we can control.  The motor cortex is a part of the outer layer of the brain that is used for controlling movement.  Note that not all parts of the body get equal amounts of brain dedicated to them.  Some get more than others, and the relative sizes of the body parts in the picture reflect those unequal amounts.  Which parts get the most?

  1. The organs of speech
  2. The hand

For decades, people like me have been showing this figure to our Linguistics 101 students and saying: you can tell how important the organs of speech are because as much of the motor cortex is devoted to them as to the control of our hands.  Neurologist Frank Wilson sees it the other way around, though.  His take on it: you can tell how important the hands are because as much of the motor cortex is devoted to them as to the control of our organs of speech.  I like that–it’s always interesting when people see things the opposite of the way that do.

How do we know how much of the brain is devoted to any organ?  It all goes back to a Canadian-American neurosurgeon by the name of Wilder Penfield.  Penfield was a pioneer of modern brain surgery.  He developed a procedure for treating epilepsy by finding the region of the patient’s brain from which the unfortunate electrical storms originate, and destroying it.  When you’re doing this, you don’t want to destroy a part of the brain that carries out some irreplaceable function, so Penfield developed a procedure for stimulating parts of a patient’s brain and watching what happened.

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The oropharynx–just the beginning of the sophisticated and complicated process of swallowing. Spelling error: that should be PHARYNGEAL wall. Source: https://goo.gl/eBxzQJ

Now, I know what you’re thinking: but, you can’t see everything that might happen–it’s not like you can watch someone’s pharynx and see what part of the brain we use to control the incredibly complicated process of swallowing a bite of pizza.  That’s a good point.  As Dr. Peter Pressman, a neurologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told me:

You’re right, Zipf–he didn’t exactly pull up each individual muscle.  More like “hand, arm, throat, etc.”  His was a rough map, though revolutionary at the time.  It turns out that more recent work using functional magnetic resonance imaging has led to essentially the same findings–Penfield’s work was amazing.

The take-home point: whether you’re a linguist like me and want to focus on the organs of speech, or a physician who wants to focus on the hand, the amount of brain “real estate” that is devoted to each of them reflects the fact that both of them are central to being a human being.


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Dr. Courtney Retzer-Vargo making a splint.

Once a year I travel to Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group of surgeons, therapists, nurses, and anesthesiologists who spend a week donating free surgical services for people for whom the almost-free national health care system is too expensive.  We bring with us specialists who can perform techniques that are beyond the skills of the local surgeons.  The team includes Dr. David Kim, who specializes in hand surgery, and Dr. Courtney Retzer-Vargo, an occupational therapist who specializes in rehabilitation of the hand.  These are both exceptionally rare skill sets–Dr. Kim did two separate four-year fellowships (in plastic surgery and in orthopedics) to learn his trade, and Dr. Retzer-Vargo is one of a very small number of people in the world with her specialized skills.  Their work is an important part of what we do because giving someone back the ability to use their hands can mean keeping them alive in this country where most work is manual labor, and if you don’t work, you starve–as do your children.

Surgicorps members pay for their own travel, lodging, and food on these missions–and donate a week of vacation time (that’s a lot in the United States), as well as their professional services.  Donations from generous people like you go entirely to covering the costs of the surgeries and pre- and post-operative care.  This includes supplies, oxygen and anesthetic gases, medications, lab work, and lodging for the family members who accompany them on the long trip to the facility out of which we work.  To give you some perspective: the cost of surgery for one patient works out to $250.  $100 pays for four surgical packs.  $10 pays for all of the pain medications that we will send our patients home with this week.  Want to help?  Follow this link to make a donation–you’ll be surprised at how good it will make you feel.


English notes

homunculusa small man.  The concept of tiny little people was an important but wrong idea about how exactly our physical bodies get made: before we actually knew anything about embryology, the idea that we start out as so-tiny-that-we’re-invisible fully formed humans whose development consists simply of getting bigger seemed to make about as much sense as anything else.  (This idea is known as preformation–see the Wikipedia article about it for its history.)

Later conceptions of the homunculus have focussed on the extent to which we can think of it as a “representation” of the human–something that lets us think logically about people by simplifying them down to the elements that are essential to whatever it is that we’re trying to figure out about them.  For example, the motor homunculus simplifies the human to a set of purposeful movements.  Every representation has its benefits–in this case, the ability to have a 1200-word discussion about what the brain can tell us about the parts of humans that are most important to making them…human.  Representations also have their costs.  For example, representing an entire human being as a motor homunculus doesn’t let us say anything about why a human might want to move something.  Life always has its trade-offs–how about trading a few of your spare dollars/euros/quetzales for the warm feeling of contributing to Surgicorps making it possible for a woman to cook her child’s tortillas in the morning, or for a man to earn the money to send that child to school?  Click here to donate.

 

 

Rocks and Ravel: On the ranges of functions of the human hand

Think about how differently the hand has to function for a rock climber, versus a classical pianist.

You’ll often read dilettantes in the field of evolution talk about “the” function of this or that organ, structure, or whatever.  I say “dilettantes” because it’s simplistic to think in terms of one function for any part of an organism.

Consider the human hand.  Think about how differently it has to function for these two kinds of people:

  1. A rock climber
  2. A classical pianist

These two folks have to develop their hands to do two things that are essentially polar opposites.  To wit:

  1. rock climber: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) support a lot of weight, for (b) prolonged periods of time, in (c) the same position.
  2. classical pianist: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) move rapidly, (b) across a wide range of forces, (c) with great precision.
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Source: By zaui/Scott Catron – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17114225

Being able to keep his fingers in the same spot with a lot of weight on them for a long time is what lets a rock climber figure out his next move without plunging into the abyss–presumably to his depth.  Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds (see the English notes below for what the verb to execute means in this context) is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music.  “The” function of the hand?  It’s an incredibly complex organ capable of many different functions, you dilettante.  (I’m speaking to some hypothetical wanker who thinks they know something about evolution here, not to you, dear reader.)


I always think about Frank Wilson’s observations on the rock climber versus the pianist in his book The Hand  when I head to Guatemala the first week in August.  I spend one week a year in Antigua, Guatemala, where I serve as an interpreter for a group of surgeons, technicians, nurses, therapists, and anesthesiologists who provide free specialized surgeries for people for whom the almost-free Guatemalan health care system is still too expensive.  A lot of that time I spend with a hand surgeon and with a therapist who specializes in rehabilitation after hand surgery.  Wilson’s observations about the very different kinds of demands that we can place on our hands come to mind in this context because, as Dr. David Kim, our hand surgeon, puts it,

The number one goal in hand surgery is restoration of function.  People can differ quite a bit in terms of the kinds of functions that they carry out with their hands, so I don’t necessarily address the same problems with the same surgical technique.  A tailor and a farm worker need to be able to do very different things in order to return to the normal functions of their lives, and I keep that in mind when I am determining the best surgical approach to addressing their problems.

The majority of people in Guatemala have two options in life:

  1. Do manual labor
  2. Starve to death

So, when the Surgicorps team gives someone back the lost function of their hand, it is not just a surgical procedure–it is allowing that person to not starve to death, and perhaps to make it possible for their children to go to school–and thus have a few more options in life than the two that I listed above.  Would you like to help support what we do here?  Our volunteers pay all of the costs of their own involvement–we buy our own plane tickets, pay for our food and lodging, etc., and donate all of our services.  Your donation goes straight to supporting surgeries, pre- and post-op care for our patients, and lodging for the family members that accompany them here.  You don’t have to give much to help a lot–$250 US pays all costs of surgery for one patient, and $10 US pays for all of the pain medications that we will send patients home with the entire week.  Follow this link to donate–a small donation is a great way to make your day better!


English notes

to executeone of the meanings of this word is to perform or carry out some action.  How I used it in the post: Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music. 

to death: this prepositional phrase is a structurally unusual way of expressing the idea of dying due to a specific cause or being killed by a specific method.  Here are some examples from Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them.

  • 400 people then broke through the barrier and stamped the soldiers to death“Stamped…to death” means that they killed the soldiers by stomping on them.  (Yes: “to stomp.”  From Merriam-Webster: “to strike or beat forcibly with the bottom of the foot.”)
  • Anything approved today will not be implemented until next August at the earliest, but people cannot be left without aid for such a long period unless they are supposed to starve to death. “To starve to death” means to die by starvation.
  • On July 10th , 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, at least 340 Jewish citizens were murdered – burned to death in a locked barn after having been publicly beaten and humiliated in the town square – not, as one might have expected, by the country’s Nazi occupiers but by a group of twenty-three Polish men, acting, more or less enthusiastically (“more” seems likely), at the instigation of the German gendarmerie, who were on hand to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from the barn. “Burned to death” means that they were killed by burning.