Monthly Archives: September 2004

Treatment for nail-biting

Nail biting can damage the growing part of the nail bed. Photo: en.,

Nail biting can damage the growing part of the nail bed. Photo: en.,

One of the oldest treatments for nail-biting is to put a bitter tasting substance on one’s fingers. Aloe vera was the substance used when I first heard about the treatment, but other bitter ingredients are now commonly used. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the treament is appropriate or efficacious, one significant disadvantage of most of the bitter substances is that they are easily transferred from fingers to food. If you pick up a sandwich in fingers painted with bitter aloe, for example, your sandwich is likely to be less than appetizing.

One possible solution to the transfer problem might be admix the bittering agent with starch, or to find a way of binding it to starch. The intention would be to produce a substance which sticks tenaciously to one’s fingers but is degraded by the amylase that is present in human saliva. If one put one’s fingers in one’s mouth, the bittering agent would be released, but in the absence of amylase, the stuff would stick to one’s fingers and not to a sandwich.

The method would not be perfect because amylases are present in some foods as well as in saliva. There are some fruits, for instance, which produce amylase during their ripening; but it might even be possible to find a polysaccharide that is degraded by salivary amylase and not by other amylases.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Unblocking the flow — or overcoming writer’s block

What I mean to say &#8230 . A strategy for overcoming writer’s block. Photo: Mark Diamond

What I mean to say … . A strategy for overcoming writer’s block. Photo: Mark Diamond

The most important thing to know about writer’s block is that although it is extremely painful, it is rarely fatal, and there are a multitude of ways to overcome it. None, however, is guaranteed, and a solution which works for one person might not work for another. The trick, then, is to try anything at all that might help. Here is just one suggestion, based on the premise that writer’s block is often a consequence of being overly censorious of one’s own writing process.

Start by turning on your word-processor and opening a new file. Next, make your writing invisible. Yes! You read correctly. Invisible—or at least completely illegible. The purpose of rendering your typing illegible is to force you to dissociate the early process of writing from what should be a late-occurring process, namely editing. Preventing yourself from being able to read what you have written will effectively stifle any unwanted impulse you have to try and edit. There are several ways of scrambling your writing, but here are three (a) Turn off the screen so that you cannot see what you are typing, (b) make the font size so small (2pt, for example), so that it is impossible to read, or (c) select a font like Dingbats which will show you some pretty patterns without the pattern being meaningful or distracting.

Now, start striking the keys! If you think you don’t know what to say, type something anyway. Type meaningless words strung together, type “I don’t know what to say”, or better yet, type “What I mean to say is …What I mean to say is …What I mean to say is …”, until something else comes to mind. But no matter what, keep going. Type anything! Since you will be unable to read what you have written, your reward will come solely from the happy sound of bouncing fingers and the sight of the cursor moving inexorably across the screen. In the absence of fire or power-failure, do not stop tapping at the keys for at least 30 minutes. Finally, still without having looked at what you have produced, save your work. Even if only 10 per cent of what you have written is ultimately useful, you will have produced something. When you next go back to the computer, repeat the exercise as before. No editing. No rereading. No changing the font back to something you can read. Aside from tapping, striking, typing and saving, the only thing you’re allowed to do is check the word count. And since your computer does not need a sensible font to be able to count “words”, you will still have no excuse for peeking.

Once you have written for several sessions, you can aggregate the files you have produced, and change the font back to something you can read. At that point you can begin editing. As a person with a primary diagnosis of Writer’s Block, you are likely to find editing by far the easier task.

I would like to be able to claim that the suggestions here are entirely original, but they are not. I believe that the idea of rendering one’s writing illegible originates with Barbara Turner-Vesselago, the author of “Freefall: writing without a parachute” (ISBN 0-969-7810-3-2). It was Dr Cecily Scutt, currently of Murdoch University, who first suggested to me that one type “What I mean to say is …”

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Annual report time

Photograph of Helen Keller: Radcliffe College. Copyright expired.

Photograph of Helen Keller: Radcliffe College. Copyright expired.

Annual report time is perilously close for many Australian post-graduate students. If you are one of them, I hope that you are well-prepared and have not been delaying submitting your report. If you have been proceeding well, and are not behind schedule with your research and write-up, you have probably submitted your report well ahead of the deadline.

The reports are usually only daunting when you have not been forthright in discussing your progress with your supervisor(s), and procrastination is unlikely to provide much relief because (unlike the actual thesis submission date), progress reports tend to have a firm, fixed deadline. If you do not submit your progress report you will certainly not be allowed to re-enroll next year.

If you have been trying to put the report out of your mind, my advice is simple. Don’t. If you rarely discuss your progress with your supervisor, you might be apprehensive about broaching the topic of your annual report. However, it is worth remembering that your supervisor is almost certainly your best ally in the event that you have had problems and are behind schedule. Talking to your supervisor about things that might have slowed your progress might seem a little like being sent to see the principal at school, but there is little to be lost, and everything to gain by being open with them. The bottom line is, “Do you think your supervisor wants you to continue?” If the answer is “yes”, then even if you get chewed-out for being tardy and behind schedule, they are likely to help you draft your report so that it puts such progress as you have made in the best possible light. Furthermore, if you think your supervisor is of the belief that you should not continue your studies, then it is better that you know early than discover the unpleasant news on the deadline for submission of the report.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Can rhythm help people with Parkinson’s disease

This is a proposal for a series of research studies related to a device for assisting people with Parkinson’s disease. For some background, have a look at the description of the device.

An interesting and informative research project could be conceived on a fairly small scale, and enlarged as time went by and more data accrued. I can imagine that the first stage of the research would suit an honours project in human movement, occupational therapy, bioengineering or psychology.

First, discover whether auditory pulses can assist those people who have difficulty in initiating voluntary movement. I have mentioned people with Parkinson’s disease, but there are other groups of people with similar difficulties. The first experiment would probably need no more equipment than a sound generator for producing a pulsed tone, and perhaps a method of enhancing the rhythmic quality of the sound (either by changes in volume, pitch, or timbre). Even if the method does not help all patients, is it capable of helping some of them.

The second stage might be an exploration of different sorts of stimulus (auditory, visual, tactile) to determine whether some sensory modalities worked better than others, and to discover the kinds of changes in each (e.g., amount of pressure in the case of tactile stimuli, or colour changes in the case of visual stimuli) that worked best as an indicator of rhythm.

Later experiments might explore the extent to which stimuli could be optimized for individual patients, whether different stimuli were maximally effective for different movements (walking, washing, chewing, etc.), the production of a small programmable device, and the inclusion of voice activation of the different stimulus combinations.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Parkinson’s disease: initiating movement

Parkinson’s disease is a slow, debilitating, degenerative neurological disease which develops as a result of the death of cells in a part of the brain known as the substantia nigra. The disease is characterized by tremor, muscle rigidity, stiffness, difficulty in bending one’s arms or legs, a loss of balance, and changes in gait—including the development of a slow shuffling walk. People with Parkinson’s disease can experience extreme difficulty in initiating voluntary movements, sometimes to the extent that they might even appear “frozen” while they are struggling in the moments before they actually begin moving.

A great deal of research in recent years has focussed on ways in which the cells in the substantia nigra might be replaced, and many (if not most) of the patents relating to Parkinson’s disease focus on biological or pharmaceutical treatments. What is proposed here, however, is far simpler — an intervention that might possibly provide immediate help to those people who have difficulty with the initiation of movement. If the proposed device worked in the way intended, it would be unlikely to pose any manufacturing difficulties, and be of relatively low cost. But first a little background …

You might remember the film “Awakenings”, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. The film was based on the experiences of Dr Oliver Sacks who had written a book with the same title. In one scene in the film, patients (who did not have Parkinson’s disease but nonetheless had difficulty with initiating voluntary movement) are shown being able to walk across a patterned floor more easily than they would have been able to negotiate a homogeneously tiled floor. The patients used some of the coloured tiles as stepping stones on which to pace out their steps. It was as if the pattern provided the patient with a method of timing their steps once they had been initiated, as well as with the initiation of movement.

In the proposed device, the person with Parkinson’s disease would listen to a sound whose tonal characteristics (including amongst other things, volume, loudness variation, pitch, pitch variation, rhythm, and rhythmic variation) were set so as to maximize the person’s ability to initiate a desired movement. A triple-beat tone, for example, sounded loud-soft-soft, or high-low-low, might aid the initiation and maintenance of movement in the same way that a musician calling out “ONE-two-three ONE-two-three ONE” indicates to his or her fellow musicians when they should commence playing.

The development of the device would proceed hand-in-hand with a series of small experimental studies, and if the device were found to be of any benefit, it could be enhanced in several obvious ways including the following.

  • Many different pre-programmed tonal mixtures each suited to a different movement.
  • Analysis of an individual patient’s movement pattern could provide the appropriate parameters for walking, washing, washing up, polishing and indeed any kind of movement one wished.
  • The appropriate sound could be activated in several different ways including activation by artificial voice-recognition of a spoken command, such as “walk”, or activation by pressing a button on the device.
  • Existing music tracks could be analyzed for their rhythmic qualities to determine which tracks would provide the appropriate sound for a particular movement. That way, the person would be able to choose to listen to music rather than to a boring sound.

Obviously, sound is not the only method by which the appropriate movement-initiating stimulus could be delivered. Tactile and visual stimuli could both be used and programmed for the same kinds of variations as described above. A patient might, for example, wear a pair of spectacle frames containing coloured, light emitting diodes which pulsed in a way that was analogous to the tonal variations in an auditory stimulus.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond