Monday, April 27, 2009

School Nurse Set Response in Motion - New York Times

Seeing Warning Signs of Outbreak, School Nurse Set Response in Motion - New York Times

It was a routine call last Thursday from a diligent high school nurse that put health detectives in New York City on the trail of a swine flu outbreak. Over the next few days, things unfolded much like a criminal investigation, with alert epidemiologists cast in the role of the police officer who remembers information on a wanted poster.

The newest thing on the things-to-be-scared-of list is swine flu, which has hit a number of countries around the world. In particular, Mexico, which led to cases in the U.S. So this because a Public Health emergency. And, since the coping through ignoring it and pretending it did not happen does not seem to be the U.S. policy, the first order of business is calming the public (because if you don't your doctors and emergency room will be flooded with the worried well/sympathetic illness types. The players here are the government and mass media. Because the function of mass media is to disseminate information to the population as a whole. (*really, this is what justifies their existance, otherwise news would only be subscription based to the few, a la Dow Jones corporation*)

So, how does this happen? The lazy way is news as copying press releases (e.g. Fox News and the Republican National Committee) But if you actually have a reporter who knows something about the subject and about her beat, you can do so much better. So the New York Times actually has a series of articles. One essentially communicating what the Federal Government (DHS, DHHS, CDC) are saying, articles about the city department of public health and the mayor. A couple articles of Q&A with expert doctors whose names are handy. Everything needed to let the public know that there is a plan and procedure, and noone is hiding, even with the unknowns. And throughout, the reporters know the questions to ask (not long ago, a very experienced New York Times reporter wrote an article looking back at how New York handled the 1918 Spanish Flu, no doubt giving all the young reporters there a master class on how these things are done.)

And this article is something even different. A close look at how the system works, by showing it in action. A school nurse spots the symptom (because school nurses, as well as other public health nurses, actually see entire populations first hand, not just reports that are sent in to them), the city department of public health recognizes a pattern that needs attention. Public health staff fan out and examine the affected. Centers for Disease Control are contacted and lab samples sent and tested. And a response is developed and enacted. All procedures that have been in place for years, tested on the ebbs and flows of daily life, and the occasional emergency. And refined by people who actually have to use them. Just the way you hope.

And it may be that swine flu is a little thing, a flash in the news cycle. But it is more. It is what scientists call a found experiment. Disaster response people have another name. A spontaneous exercise. Respond to something that uses all the command, control, and communications procedures that are in place for responding to something bigger. In this case, waiting for the day that a genetic drift mutates a strain of avian flu so that it is human-to-human transmittable. Just to make sure that everyone, President, cabinet secretaries, White House staff, agency leads, local officials, teachers, doctors, nurses, news media, and others, know what their role in a public health event will be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First thoughts on teaching

I submitted my first set of grades for a class I'm teaching at Pitt. Part of my foray into academics. Which means I write my standard Lessons Observed (titled following the British tradition). I'm sure that those who have much more experience then I in teaching can have much to say.

I am teaching Database Design within the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). It is a service class, not part of the core curriculum of IE. But it is something that is very useful for engineers to know because of the large amounts of interaction with data. I have some background, because I use databases regularly, including some rather advanced uses for one of my research projects. The class is split between upperclassmen and graduate students, with most of the graduate students being professionals going for a master's degree. For most of them, this will be their only database course. There are two other places in a university where such a course would be offered. An information science (or possibly computer science) department would likely have a concentration in this field that examines data storage and retrieval. Business schools would sometimes have information management as a field, but more likely will have a course that teaches use of MS Access.

The course objectives where to teach database design, with the understanding that the audience are engineers, i.e. people who would design applications that use a database, not database administrators or builders of database management systems. Similarly, I decided to make it a design class, not a course in driving a software package (MS Access), although using MS Access (or other database) would be assumed. I think that defining where the course fit in with other similar courses what the right idea, because it let me do the is-is not analysis when deciding what to include. I've done that with a course proposal I've submitted for fall, as well as the course I'm teaching in summer.

I did not specify software for the course. For the database, everyone ended up using one version of MS Access or another (three different versions were in use). While it probably would have been possible to do table design and queries in any database, teaching reports and user interfaces would have been too much of a stretch unless you use this. There were some problems because I don't use MS Access myself (I generally use PostGIS and BIRT for database and reporting) so I was probably light on the examples. For the next time, it would probably be safe to state use of MS Access. For diagramming, I gave them the choice of Visio or Dia. MS Visio was installed on the university computer labs (but not the department lab) and Dia could be freely downloaded. People ran into trouble navigating Visio (it was designed for programmers, not database designers) and most switched to Dia (databases is a base use case for Dia). While this is not software course, I probably should make a standard.

For the project, not enough people had access to a real world project, so I had them create projects, and I had teams assigned to review each other (to include adding goals to the project). This was a heavier administrative burden then I realized it would be, and I was not able to keep track of all the communications. I should have had fewer mandated interactions, and let them do informal interaction. I was not sure about the quality of the peer-review, but most of the project reports specifically mentioned that having peer-review of the project at various stages gave the projects more clarity then they would have had otherwise.

This was a somewhat different subject then most in an engineering curriculum, since it is very soft. And not a subject I know deeply. I was walking the line between too much information to absorb on a weekly basis, but there was not enough content on a class session basis. Probably what it meant was I should have been doing more examples, especially working the software. Another thing I should do is organizational prep work. In particular, for the next course I will be preparing a lesson plan in addition to a lecture, to give each lecture more context.

One thing that did work was spend some time on motivating the day's topic at the beginning of every class. I suspect some of them thought I was only rambling, but others were able to make it work for them in putting things together.

Value at Risk Case Study:
I have in the back of my mind a capstone lectures that declares that mathematical models are a form of communication, and I expect every class I teach will have a way to talk about this. In this case there is a module on reporting, meaning how you present summary information from the database. And I used the Value at Risk statistic that factored into some of the riskier instruments used by various financial institutions. There was a clear division in how well this was understood. By the final, all the grad students made the connection between that and the related question on the final. Only a few of the undergrads did. Probably because the grad students were intimately familiar with the problems that financial institutions were having and it held their attention better.

Research and teaching:
I am now a firm believer that research helps teaching. One of the things that made this course interesting was the fact that I had actual database projects I worked with. While the actual projects could not be done in the course, I could extract parts. And I could use actual datasets and data collection tools as examples in the course. A couple of the students complained about the vagueness of the data specifications, which would be echoed by the people who actually deal with the data in question, so that was actually good.

Use of examples:
I had three datasets that I used for examples throughout. The US Department of Agriculture Standard Nutrient dataset (used in the preparation of nutrient labels on food), Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency damage assessment collection forms, and the MS Northwind Traders example database. In particular, I used the USDA data from the very beginning of the course. It provided a rich set of understandable data so that it was clear what happened. I will probably do that again, using Pennsylvania as a dataset in my location class this summer.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rep. Altmire (PA-4) goes to the Northland Public Library

My congressman has been going around his district this weekend having town hall meetings. His district covers the North Hills of Pittsburgh and parts of Beaver and Butler counties. All three of the regions mentioned are very conservative. Rep. Altmire is a Democrat in his second term. What follows are a summary of the meeting, then comments.

So, issues covered:

  • Homeland security reports on extremists - The Department of Homeland Security has written (distributed? I think only in summary form) two reports detailing the dangers of left-wing and right-wing domestic extremism. While there does not seem to be any questions about the identification of eco-terrorists, al-Queda/Somali attempts to recruit Muslims, anarchist or progressive black bloc types (I'm paraphrasing) etc. in the report on left-wing extremists, there seems to be considerable reaction to the report on anti-abortion bombers, gun-rights activists reiterating a claim the feds are coming for their guns, and right-wing extremists recruiting among veterans. Rep. Altmire comments that as someone who is a veteran, owns guns, and is anti-abortion, he intends to find out just how this report is being used (since he is a member of the groups that are perceived to be most targeted by this report). This is of course met with loud and repeated cries of *yes or no* and repeated questions of what is he going to do. Of course, he is being asked for this even though noone has actually read the actual report (only a summary). He also noted that this is a regularly done report, which did not seem to get the same response during prior years (of course, it could be because only one of the two reports got routine attention).
  • Fiscal spending - The well loved stimulus package. This was a nonsensical with a very vocal bloc seeming to be driven by a desire to scream out B***s***. (there was a point where Altmire stopped talking and called out one of the louder ones and called on him to yell it out a few more times so Altmire could actually discuss this.) What Altmire ended up doing was teaching what used to be called civics. Or, the Schoolhouse Rock "I'm just a bill." One of the "answer yes or no" folks was yelling this out as part of a question "Did you vote for the President's budget?" This is a non-sensical question because President's budgets do not come up for votes. Altmire pointed out that the President could propose, but budgets are debated and negotiated in Congress. In this case, starting in September 2008. There was also a lot of commentary about "voting on a 1000 page budget that they did not read." Altmire pointed out that everything was discussed and debated in the open, and there was nothing in that 1000+ page budget that every congressman/Senator had multiple opportunities to look at over the past 6 months (especially since one of the more recent reforms was blocking the ability to add to a spending measure 24 hours before votes). And all comments to that effect were, well, misleading (to put it charitably).
  • Earmarks and PAC money. Many accusations of being pushed by corrupt money. Altmire pointed out that the current congress increased transparency by requiring congressmen to attach their name to any projects that were proposed, and that all of his campaign contributions were also public record. And the challenge was to find any major campaign contributors who were recipients of a funding request (earmark). The answer is none. The only gray example (which Altmire provided unprompted) was a major corporation who already had a contract with DoD who asked for assistance on that contract. (more rounds of B***S*** while he waited for people to amuse themselves before he could answer.)
  • Big thing about attempts to block people from listening to any of the various right-wing talk shows. The Fairness doctrine was mentioned. It turns out, Altmire has for the second time, submitted a bill that prevent the Fairness doctrine from even coming up again. (and gives a reasoned argument against all such restrictions) This lead to further questions about his position on other un-proposed restrictions against right-wing talk shows.
  • Accusations of not being interested in constituent views. Mind you, this question was being raised in the middle of a town hall meeting where the Rep. in question was fully aware that this was being loaded (he had a copy of the talking points that were being distributed to those in the town hall who were more vocally opposed to him). Altmire pointed out the irony of asking that question in a forum where he was physically present getting constituent views.
This was one of those meetings that is one of those "civics in action" moments. A representative in the legislative body of one of the most powerful nation on earth, exposing himself to open criticism, and openly addressing the comments and criticism. The value of transparancy, as various attacks tended to be responded with telling people the data that the question is about is openly available. And an elected representative fulfilling the role of civics educator, teaching constituents about what the American constitution and form of government. And defending the same.

Not one of those town halls that you would see on TV. It is characterized by the organized group that was their to listen to themselves yell out "B***S***" and "Yes or no" and that came with their sheets of talking points (Rep. Altmire's staff was able to get a copy of the talking points sheets being passed around so they gave him a copy) From the copy I got, it was majoring in minors. It asked about why he moved to Western PA after being on a congressman's staff (it was written to insinuate that he is an outsider that moved here soley to be a politician He was born in Western PA, then moved here in 1998 to work for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (recognized as a Pittsburgh 40 under 40 in 2003), then was elected to the House in 2006. And it also asked about his association with a lobbying firm under investigation (they had donated money to him. None of their clients were the focus of any funding requests/earmarks by him)

The other big question was on the concept of mandatory vs. discretionary spending. Most of the federal budget is due to social security, medicare and veterans (plus defense, which counts as discretionary), with 'mandatory' being a legal term. Many in the audience did not like that, claiming that this is not mandatory (presumably meaning they want to cut social security, medicare and veterans benefits).

And in the background of the whole thing is Article 1 of the United States Constitution, the one that states that all spending and taxes is under the perview of Congress, and that Congress deliberates and decides, with the President's proposal being no more then that. You don't think about it much, but Altmire speaks like he takes it seriously, and any congressman who does take his role seriously, especially with the transparancy rules that state that earmarks have to be accompanied by the member's name and that no changes are allowed to spending for 24 hours before approval, has no business complaining about a budget that he had 6 months to discuss and deliberate as being unknown to him.

The other undertone was about Obama's background. During the democratic primary, then Senator Clinton predicted that the Republican Party, should Obama be the Democratic nominee, would run a smear campaign. And this meeting showed this, with many of the attendees whispering about Obama being a Muslem, being really from Kenya, all things that are proved false multiple times (no muslem claims Obama is a muslem, the secretary of state for Hawaii has affirmed his native birth. Note that then Senators Obama and Clinton authorized the legal brief written during the presidental primaries that supported that McCain met the constitutional qualifications for president, dispite that he was not actually born in a state of the United States.)

Probably the most disturbing thing, the cries that the effects of Article 1 of the United States Constitution were "B***S***".

[Edit: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review account of the meeting and the Republican National Committee robocalls and talking point is here:
At town-hall meeting, Altmire insists he's a 'centrist']

Thursday, April 09, 2009

City gives final salute to slain officers

Joined by a dark blue sea of officers from around the region and around the country, Pittsburgh gave its final salute this afternoon to three policemen killed in the line of duty Saturday.

Today Pittsburgh said farewell to three of its own.  On Saturday morning, three police officers were killed in ambush when responding to a domestic disturbance call.  They lay in state from Thursday morning to Friday morning in the City-County building.  Friday, was the memorial service.  Some 30,000 police from around the country and Canada came to provide escort.  Because, as one of them said, 'that is what we do'

Pittsburgh is like many other big cities in the east.  Stable communities whose populations have made a stake in their city.  Including affirming those of their own who take on the badge and pledge to serve and protect.  

And so, along with many others, yesterday I was at the viewing along with other Red Crossers.  Like alot of other funerals, this is not about the dead, but about the living.  And their connections and relationships.  So, in addition to the viewing of the body, there was the meeting and greeting of those who have come.  And recognition of those joined by common bonds of relationships, of shared service, and a city we serve.  Along with the formalities, I was introduced to one of the police commissioners (?).  A former board member of the Red Cross.  Because we are two people sharing our duty to serve our city.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea: Kenya AA "Eagaads" Estate

Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Blog
3219 4th Ave
Beaver Falls, PA 15010

We got a bag of the BFC&T Kenya AA "Eagaads" Estate - medium-dark roast this time.  Actually, since the last time I wrote about this roaster we did get a couple bags of coffee from other sources (meaning other coffee shops).  And one thing we've decided, we apparently have the taste buds that can appreciate the difference between a a good roaster and your standard coffee-shop coffee. 

[Digression]:  I regards Starbucks like I do lots of other things I use, the bottom end of good quality.  This tends to be a sweet spot on the quality/price curve.  A very good place to be until I decide that is a part of my life I want real good quality, and then it is a starting point.  No, the beans we got were not from Starbucks, but they were in the general neighborhood as far as quality is concerned. [/Digression]

We've brewed this a few times.  Mostly drip (we've been busy).  This morning I used the French press at 6 min.  Very happy with it.  It was richer in flavor then the beans we have gotten from other sources (presumably dark roasted, although it was not specified), and we like the medium-dark roast better then the BFC&T medium-light roast (enough subtleties for us, and the press time we need to get the flavor we like for medium-light is at the point when more bitterness comes out of the bean.)

Next, we are waiting for BFC&T to get their Guatamalan again.