Monday, January 25, 2016

"Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh

Over last few years I read a dozen books about doctors and hospitals; mostly neurology and psychiatry, with some other specialties thrown in. And for some time these books fit rather neatly into two distinct categories: "inspirational" books (like "Hot Lights Cold Steel" by M. Collins), or challenging books full of woes of disillusionment (like "The House of God" by S. Shem). Books that paint medicine in light colors and make you want to become a doctor immediately, and those that describe its underside, and encourage you to run.

I would tell putative premed students that they need to read "The House of God" before they start studying for MCAT, before they commit to the track, as if they still want to be a doctor after reading this book, they can probably be a doctor (a phrase stolen from some review on Goodreads; I obviously have no idea whether it is true, but it sounds good). And then, while studying, they can read "Hot Lights Cold Steel" every time they feel low and need some encouragement, because reading this book makes you want to take MCAT.

For many medical semi-non-fiction books these two large categories work surprisingly well. All Oliver Sacks for example counts as inspirational. Books by Atul Gawande (especially his "Better") mostly feel like "deterring books" that could warn a naive student about some issues ahead. And so on.

But anyways, all this long preamble is only to state that the relatively recent book "Do no Harm" by Henry Marsh really does not fit these two categories. It starts totally like an inspirational book would, with wonderful matter-of-fact descriptions of neurosurgery, where an experienced doctor invites you to the operating theater and makes you an awed spectator of their craft. But then it quickly plummets in a quagmire of dark meditations on two topics that clearly cause the author lots of pain: bureaucracy and paperwork that steal his vocation from him, and imperfection of his skill and knowledge as he faces inoperable tumors, untreatable conditions and medical mistakes. As he faces pain, death, and human suffering.

As I read the book, I kept mentally reassigning it from the "inspirational" shelf onto the "deterring" one, and then back to "inspirational". Moving it back and forth. Now as I finished it, it seems that overall the book has more questions than answers, and unanswerable questions at that, so I guess it belongs to the "read it before taking MCAT" shelf after all. But at the same time it is not dark, it is not disillusioned. The inspirational thread is also strong in this one. It really should be on the "must-read" list of any neuro-inspired premed student.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Internet disappointments

Every time I post an anti-Soviet comment on Reddit (like in "Soviet Union was a rather bad thing overall") I get downvoted to negative numbers in the morning, and then into positives again in the evening. Get it? When Russian users are active (around US late morning, early afternoon), any critical statement about, say, Stalin, or geopolitical role of the USSR is downvoted, but then it is upvoted again twofold once US users come back from work (or maybe rather get tired at work).

Which is kind of sad, as every time it reminds me that modern Russian users, even those who read and write in English, and routinely browse English-language forums (a tiny subset of the population), are on average to some degree mildly Stalinist. Not too strongly, but a tiny little bit, you know. Which is quite understandable psychologically, but still kind of sad.

But Internet is generally full of disappointments. Here's another one: many people got really riled up about Ted Cruz saying that he's a Christian first, and American second. There were statements about how he should now be disqualified as a candidate, and so on. Mind it, I don't sympathize to the dude at all, but, the interesting fact is that it's a normal statement for a Christian. Moreover, it is a required normative statement for a Christian (backed by several rather imperative passages from both the Gospels and the Epistles). So saying that it disqualifies somebody from the office is like claiming that all Christians should be disqualified, which would be somewhat weird. It's like saying that humanists should be disqualified because they could claim to be "humanists first and american second". There's an inevitable hypocrisy in Cruz's claim of course, but it's a more subtle, and because of that much more important hypocrisy, stemming from a de-facto special status of a majority religion. The context, in which this statement was made, ironically defies its literal meaning; but it is a nuanced contradiction, and it was lost on most sources.

Notably, Vladimir Putin is known for repeatedly saying that he is Russian first and Christian second (or something to this effect). For example, he is famous for claiming that St. Boris and Gleb (two spiritually respectable historical dudes from the 11th century who refused to preemptively kill their evil brother, thus letting him kill them) are not good Russian saints. Because, you see, in his opinion good Russian saints should be enemy-slayers (like St. Dimitry Donskoy, St. Alexander Nevsky and alike). They are patriotic, and are never into all this pacifist non-violence nonsense. In a way, proper saints (according to Putin) are Russian first, and Christian second. In this context I find it somewhat funny that /r/atheism is essentially advocating for Putinesque solutions on the issue of morality. But, oh well, that's really none of my business.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks

As I was sitting through job talks for several job searches in a row, and as I was writing my responses to these job talks, I realized that I was gradually converging on a rubric.

You know, in the very beginning, during the first talk, you just notice something that you like here and there, or something that you don't like. But at some point you start comparing candidates to each other, even if you don't really want to. Alice did something cool, and Bob did as well, but Caitlin did not. A point off from Caitlin! She was good in this other thing however, which Bob totally skipped. Extra point to Caitlin for that. After about 10 candidates I ended up looking for some specific clues: first question to the crowd, first use of humor, and so on. I developed a grading rubric.

Of course it is very much my personal opinion on what is good and what is bad, and what counts, and what does not. Also I guess in real life there would be weights attached to each of these points, and these weights would be very different for different people. Yet let me share my version with you. Maybe you'll find it interesting.

A grading rubric for SLAC-oriented job talks:

Each statement is either true (one point), or not true (no points). In some cases it is possible to get half a point (if there was an attempt, but it was not quite successful).

  • The talk is not pitched too high (ideally it should speak to 2-3 year undergrads)
  • The talk is not pitched too low (contains actual details, data, conclusions)
  • Starts from the beginning (good introduction, all special terms are introduced before they are used in the talk, and introduced well)
  • The motivation for the research is clear
  • Demonstrates the breadth of research interests (models, approaches, questions) - important for a small college
  • Advertises past work with undergraduates
  • Hints at future projects with undergraduates and makes them sound fun, meaningful, and possible
  • Good visuals
  • Makes the talk uniquely specific for our institution (alludes to some of our realities, be it campus location, some of the faculty, our history, or anything else)
  • Uses humor successfully
  • Asks questions to the students (full point if they are meaningful and if they are answered)
  • Invites questions from the students (full point if students ask questions)
  • Connects to other areas of science
  • Connects to topics outside of science (society, arts, philosophy etc.)
  • Helps listeners to summarize one message before transitioning to the next one
  • Uses emotion to communicate science; marks statements as emotionally charged (explains what is good and what is bad, what data we are happy to see, what data is sad or confusing, etc.)
  • Good language
  • Shares a bit of their personal story (shows the human side)
  • Feels more excited towards the end than in the beginning (it is my personal theory that good teachers accelerate through the talk as they are carried away by love to their subject)
  • Answers after-talk questions nicely
You sum all points up, and thus identify the best candidate =)