Archive for September, 2012

TT: Doctor! Doctor!

September 27, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one to hear why I think titles give shape to works of art and put in your suggestion as to the title for a specific painting.  Then join me and Alan on our continued journey through the convolutions of the medical system.

JANE: One of the horror stories we often hear here is that because doctors in a socialized medical system can’t get rich, they do a poor or indifferent job.  Have you found that’s the case?

Doctor Makes Horse Calls

ALAN: No, not at all.  Standards of care in both the public and private health sector, are very high. And the specialist you see in the public service will probably be exactly the same person you would have seen had you gone privately.  (All doctors in private practice also work in the public sector.)

JANE: Are they required to work in the public sector or is this just the way things work out?

ALAN: I don’t think there’s any legal requirement, it’s just the way things work. And of course, by continuing to work in the public sector they are giving something back to the community. Many doctors feel that’s an important moral duty.

So you can see, Doctors who did a “poor or indifferent job” in the public sector would quickly find themselves losing their private patients as their reputation suffered. In the final instance, they might even be struck off the medical register and not be allowed to practice as a doctor again.

JANE: But nobody’s perfect. Surely things sometimes go wrong?

ALAN: Indeed they do. When I was a teenager I broke my left arm playing rugby. I was rushed straight off to hospital and they gave me a general anaesthetic and set my arm. Unfortunately, they set my right arm instead…

When I came round from the anaesthetic, I pointed out that the plaster was on the wrong arm. They were mortified, and rushed me off to X-ray in case they’d accidentally broken my arm when they heaved on it to reset the bones. Fortunately, they hadn’t and they put me under again and set the proper arm this time.

My father was furious. “What if it had been an amputation?” he yelled to all and sundry.

JANE: I know that in the U.S. many people would consider that grounds for a lawsuit.  Did your family consider that option?

ALAN: No, not really. We’re not a very litigious society.  Since there was no harm done, I doubt if we’d even have been allowed to sue.

How does the standard of care work in your system? Could this kind of thing happen with you?

JANE: Of course it does.  As you said, doctors are only human.  I also think they are incredibly overworked.  When Jim had his sinus surgery, he was the last scheduled procedure for the day.  A variety of delays and complications (not all medical; a computer crashed) meant Jim’s surgery was delayed for something like four hours.  When the doctor came by to apologize, I asked him if he was up to doing the procedure.  He assured me that he was going to sit down, drink some tea, and rest while Jim was given his final prep.  Still…

On the subject of errors, I can’t provide a lot of personal stories because Jim and I have been fairly healthy thus far.  I do feel that doctors vary widely in quality.  I honestly am not certain if the grueling training (including abusively long hours for residents – the final stage of training) makes for the best doctors.

One thing that troubles me is that the doctor that a patient sees  – especially for a non-emergency procedure – is often dictated by who is available within a given “system.”  Someone in a different system, or who can pay for care without need for insurance, might get different, better care.  And people without insurance must make do with what they can get – or do without.

That troubles me.

ALAN: There’s an old Tom Lehrer joke about a doctor who specialises in “diseases of the rich.” I’m not sure I’d feel very comfortable about seeing a doctor who was motivated mainly by money. Most health professionals of my acquaintance seem to have entered the profession as altruists. Though having said that, if you ascend high enough up the ladder of specialisation, rich pickings definitely await in private practice.

JANE: But if it isn’t a desire to get rich, then why do your doctors have private practices as well as public?

ALAN: Oh gosh – who can really judge another person’s motives? I don’t think anyone ever actively decides that they don’t want to make money. So when and if the opportunity presents itself  (because you’ve risen high and are well-respected in your field), I suspect that most people would go for it, that’s only human nature. But I don’t believe that it’s ever a primary consideration for the choice of medicine as a career.

JANE: I’d certainly like to hope not.  I’ve only known well a few people who went into medicine. Certainly, none of those seemed motivated by a desire for wealth.  Sadly, however, the huge tuition bills they run up in the process often create a need for wealth if they are not to be eternally in debt.

And that brings up another question, but I’m going to save it for next time.


Words That Give Shape

September 26, 2012

This past weekend, Jim and I headed off to the State Fair with our friends Michael Wester and Chip Wideman.  As I’ve mentioned before, the New Mexico State Fair is an event that reflects the wide range of cultures and interests that make this state the strange and interesting place it is.

My Title Is?

(See WW 9-15-10, 9-14-11, 9-21-11 if you’d like some views from other years.)

One of the things we like best are the many and varied art shows.  There’s one for Indian Art, one for Hispanic Art, one for Fine Art, and one for African American Art.  Then, for all the arts and crafts that don’t fit in anywhere else, there’s what we fondly call the “Hobby Building.”  This is where you’ll find photography, quilting, various needlecrafts, woodworking, and leather working as well as more paintings, handmade jewelry, sculpture, and pottery.

We were touring the photography exhibit when Michael commented how he felt the titles contributed to his reaction – often adding to his appreciation by giving him an insight as to why the artist had chosen to create a specific piece.  I agreed wholeheartedly.  Oddly enough, the question of titles had been something I’d been thinking about earlier that week for a completely different reason.

I always feel a vague disappointment when some piece of visual art catches my eye and the title is something dull and uninformative like “Japanese Beauty #3″ or “Girl and Book.”  Worse are titles like “Opus 1″ or “Watercolor 2.”  These frustrate me.  They make me feel as if the artist is playing hide and seek or, worse, acting like a pompous professor forcing an interpretation exercise on the viewer.  I mean, would the artist have put all that work into the  piece if the subject had not held some meaning for him or her?

My reaction to purely written work is shaped by the title as well.  This is particularly true of poetry, but certainly applies to longer texts.  Sometimes, especially with a poem, the title seems to be the first line of the poem, without which the poem would be impossible to understand in the manner the poet intended.

(By this I mean titles in the most literal sense, not poems that were never titled and are now titled by using the first line as the title.)

I’d been thinking about poetry titles earlier that week.  I’d been reading a book about the craft of poetry.  Overall, as long as the text stayed with the technical aspects, I liked it quite a lot.  However, when the author ventured into interpretation, I usually felt that the interpretation was forced, meant to illustrate a particular point, rather than actually being rooted in the text.

As an experiment, I read Jim a short poem that the author of the book on poetry had used to illustrate his claim that a short image can potently carry a complex story.  Certainly this can be the case.  However, I thought that this particular poem was a poor example.  In fact,  I felt that without the title this poem could be interpreted in any of a dozen ways – and that none of them would be what the title told us the poem was about.

Jim offered several thoughts as to what this poem could mean.  None of them were what the title of the poem indicated the subject was.  In other words, without the title, the poem had no set meaning at all.  Moreover, when I read Jim the title, his response was an eloquent “huh?”

So titles – especially for visual art and poetry – are, to me, key to connecting with the author’s intent.  I think the same can be true for novels as well, which is one reason why, when I re-released my novel Legends Walking earlier this year, I gave it back its original title of Changer’s Daughter.

The subject of titles came to an interesting conclusion for us this weekend at the Fair.   Jim was drawn to a particular piece by New Mexico artist Marjie Bassler.  What clinched his decision to purchase it was when he walked over and realized that the author’s title for her work and the title he’d mentally given it were the same.

The photo shows our new picture.  (It’s a mixed media piece.)  What would you call it?  I’m curious if the title you give it matches that given to it both by the artist and by Jim.

TT: Deadly Delays

September 20, 2012

Welcome to the Thursday Tangent.  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and learn where you can hear me giving my first ever podcast.  Then come and join me and Alan as we continue to puzzle through our varied medical systems.

Shining Hope

JANE: Well, Alan, last time we were comparing and contrasting our different medical systems.  We’d just touched on delays for treatment.  You’d made clear that an emergency would be taken at once.  How are things like tests for bumps and lumps dealt with?

ALAN: About ten years ago Robin had a lump. She went to her GP who agreed that yes, it looked like a lump and he arranged an appointment for the first of what proved to be a long series of diagnostic tests.

JANE: Was there much delay in waiting for these tests?

ALAN: No, not really. Nothing happened instantaneously, of course, though perhaps we could have speeded up the process a bit if we’d gone privately.

JANE: Privately?  What do you mean by that?  I thought medicine in New Zealand was socialized.

ALAN: Yes it is, but consultants and specialists all take private patients as well and sometimes this can speed things up a little.

JANE: Okay.  I’m with you, now please, go on.

ALAN: As I said, we had no real incentive to take the private route. The administrative wheels ground along and every so often, over the next two or three months, we found ourselves in a room waiting for an X-ray or a CAT scan or a session with a machine that went ping!

JANE: If you don’t mind, what were the results?

ALAN: Various specialists examined the figures and wrote their reports. The general feeling was that the lump was probably benign. An appointment was made for an operation. Robin was in the theatre for several hours (it was quite an extensive lump) and it did indeed prove to be benign, much to our relief.

And because we went publically, it didn’t cost us a single cent. Everything was paid for by the system.

JANE: I’m so very glad it all came out okay!

Let me give you an example how a similar thing would work here.  First, treatment varies according to your insurance company.  I had one friend who had a lump.  She was repeatedly asked if it caused her pain.  She’s a tough lady and kept saying “no.”  So the lump got bigger and bigger.  Finally, it began inhibiting her ability to use one arm.  Then, at least, various tests were set up.  Fortunately, the lump was benign and so the delays did not put her life at risk.

ALAN: There was nothing like that for us. A lump is a lump and we began the testing regime straight away. There are no special criteria imposed by outside organisations like insurance companies. The only considerations are medical ones.

JANE: That sounds nice.

I will say, our system can react quickly if need arises.  A few years back, Jim had a PSA result that shot up from his test of the year before.  Not only did the doctors contact us promptly, they raced to get him an appointment with a urologist.  The urologist was very responsive.  Everything was explained clearly.  Apparently, an infection can also send the PSA results up.  Since there was no other indication of a tumor, first step was treating as if there was an infection.

We spent a very nervous time, but the PSA results went down (and have stayed down).  And we now know that Jim has a tendency toward “cryptic” infections – that is, infections that do not cause the usual fevers and pain.  This means I now tend to fuss if he gets tired or grumpy without any other apparent cause.  (If you knew Jim personally – as I dearly hope you will someday – you would understand that he is not grumpy by inclination.)

ALAN: I’m glad the system can respond like that. It must have been a huge relief to you both. One question that occurs to me though is whether or not the expenses involved could cause people to postpone treatment?

JANE: Sadly, you’re right.  Sometimes fear of expense does stop people here from either carrying insurance or getting treatment, even if they do have insurance.  We lost a co-worker of Jim’s that way…  Even though she was eligible for insurance, she chose not to carry it.  Then when symptoms came up…  Well, it was a great loss of a talented and warmhearted person.

ALAN: That must be very hard to cope with for everyone involved.

JANE: It really is…  How do you make people take care of themselves?  A recent trend here is various insurance companies (or employers, who often pay part of the cost of insurance as a benefit for employees) providing incentives for healthy living.   Not smoking and losing weight are two of the most common incentive areas, but providing proof of getting regular exercise also may be rewarded.

I recently heard – and this was second hand – that in Scotland it will soon be required for people to use sunscreen because the view is that since medicine is socialized everyone pays the cost of hopefully preventable ailments like skin cancer.

Are there similar programs in place in New Zealand?

ALAN: Not directly – but there are a lot of indirect campaigns with similar aims which seem to work very well. For example, we have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world (because we are closer than anyone else to the hole in the ozone layer) and every summer sees the television full of exhortations to cover yourself with sunscreen. “Slip, slop, slap” is the slogan – “Slip on a shirt, Slop on the sunscreen, Slap on a hat.”

And, after lots of negative publicity, smokers are now complete social pariahs; smoking is forbidden in all public areas including pubs and restaurants. It’s even forbidden in prisons!

JANE: Oh, yes…  Smoking is banned in most public areas here, too.  That’s a great relief to me.  When I was a kid, it seemed everyone smoked.  I have come to wonder if my aversion to large gatherings doesn’t date back to conditioning that those gatherings would be full of nasty smoke.

I have two more – or maybe it’s one big interconnected – question to ask, but I’ll save it for next time.

Chatting with Emily at the Black Gate

September 19, 2012

Back in late July, I did an interview for Black Gate magazine.  The interviewer was Emily Mah, a former local NM writer, currently living in England.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Emily is a very efficient person, so I was not at all surprised when she asked if she could record the interview.  Although I always feel a bit shy talking in front of a recording device, I agreed.  It only takes being the subject of one or two interview to realize that very few people are good at taking accurate notes.  In fact, the times I’ve been the interviewer, I’ve asked to record the exhange for this very reason.

What did surprise me was when Emily asked if I’d be willing to have parts of the interview produced as a podcast.   I decided “Why not?”  I didn’t figure a snippet or so of my voice could do any harm

So we settled down at my kitchen table and chatted for a bit, catching up on things that had nothing to do with the interview.  Then Emily set up her equipment and launched into her first question.  She’s a good interviewer.  I tried to give her complete answers to her questions.

We talked for a bit over forty minutes before calling it quits.  Emily packed up her gear, then called the friend who had kindly minded her two toddlers while we chatted.  Since we had a few minutes, we went outside so Emily could see the garden and visit with the guinea pigs.  (The cats had been amazingly well-behaved while we talked, lurking around the edges but pretty much leaving us be.)

Now, as I said, I’d figured the podcast would only feature fragments of the interview.  Imagine my astonishment when Emily e-mailed to tell me that Black Gate wanted to use all of it.

My first reaction was a hot flush of shyness…  Had I talked too much?  Did I sound really dumb?  As someone for whom the editing stage of any writing project is as or more important than the actual drafting, the idea of my unedited words going out there made me shudder.

Then I shrugged.  To borrow from Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds), there is a time and a place for every purpose under heaven.  A time to control, a time to let go.  A time to script and to not.  A time for gathering up thoughts.  A time for rambling all over the place…

So want to hear me ramble?   Want to hear what my voice sounds like?  I shall supply a rare link:

You might want to start with Emily’s introduction to the occasion.  Here’s another link:

Have fun!  I hope you’ll enjoy.  If you come up with any questions, let me know!

TT: When You’re Sneezy

September 13, 2012

JANE: A couple of weeks ago, it sure seemed like Jim and I, and you and Robin managed to catch a variation of the same “bug.”    As I recall, you even got hit while you were away from your home base.

Things from the Shop

ALAN: Curse these internet viruses!

JANE: And bad jokes…

Now that we’re all better, I’d like to ask a few questions about how you get medical treatment there.

ALAN: Ask away.

JANE: Now, this time I wasn’t ill enough to need to go to the doctor.  However, I did get some “over the counter” remedies for the aches, pains, and coughing.  I was wondering, in a country with socialized medicine, do you get those for free?

ALAN: No, not at all. Most prescription medications are subsidised to some extent, but over the counter remedies simply come under the heading of “things that you buy in a shop” and they aren’t subsidised in any way.

JANE:   Now,  if I had been sick enough to need a doctor, I first would have needed to call and make an appointment – or hope that one of the clinics that takes my particular insurance could take me as a “walk-in.”  Does it work the same there?

ALAN: Pretty much, yes. I am registered with a local GP (general practitioner) and my primary health care records live with him. He’d be the person I’d arrange an appointment with in the first instance. In an emergency, I’d go straight to hospital, of course.

There’s also a twenty-four hour phone service called “Healthline” where you can ring and talk to a registered nurse. You usually go into a telephone queue of course, but eventually you get a human being. We rang it a few months ago when Robin mis-read the instructions on some anti-inflammatory pills and took a few too many. The nurse couldn’t help directly, but she transferred our call to the Poisons Centre (whatever that is) and they were very helpful. It turned out that she hadn’t taken enough to be in any danger, but they told us what symptoms to watch out for, just in case.

There are also privately run clinics which work on a first come, first served walk-in basis. But they tend to be measures of last resort because they can be quite costly.

JANE: I like the idea of a “Healthline.”  I wonder if we have anything like that?  I should check.  We do have a Poisons Hotline where you can call if you think you might have poisoned yourself.

I just tried a test – my allergies have been bothering me something awful.  When I called, I found I could get an appointment with my specific “health provider” as early as tomorrow.  I admit, that was better luck than I anticipated.  I’d thought I might need to take first come, first serve, rather than seeing someone who knows me.

How long is the usual wait there?

ALAN: I can almost always get an appointment to see my GP within a day or two. If  I’m really lucky (and call early enough to miss the rush), I might even get an appointment the same day.

JANE: Now, in my example above, I wasn’t looking to see a specialist of any sort.  Sometimes the wait for those can be a lot longer – and I expect the wait varies according to how severe the problem and how “in-demand” the specialist.

Earlier this year, Jim decided to see an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist about some sinus problems he had.  He had to wait three weeks for an appointment.  However, when he decided to have corrective surgery, that was scheduled with surprising promptness.  He did need to wait for the actual surgery, but that was because he had to stop taking certain blood-thinning medications and vitamins in advance.

Here in the U.S. we hear horror stories about people in countries with socialized medicine being kept waiting for months, even years for treatment.  Does that match your experience?

ALAN: Actually, I’d expect pretty much the same sort of waiting time that Jim experienced. There are long waiting lists in the public health system for some popular non-urgent elective surgeries (hernia repairs and the like), but you seldom have to wait very long for anything important.

Most specialists also accept private patients, and if you (or your medical insurance) can afford it, you can bypass the queues that way. I had my vasectomy done privately and Robin had an operation to tighten her droopy eyelids done privately as well.

Emergencies are trump cards, though. Robin’s burst appendix in 2008 put her right at the top of the list and she had immediate surgery through the public health system. We kept her appendix – we have it in a box on the bookcase in the lounge. Very few visitors ever want to look inside the box though. I can’t think why…

JANE: Eeww…

Leaving aside your decorating tastes, I think something like a burst appendix or accident moves you up the list, here, too.  But there are some in-between areas…

Your answers have, as usual, raised some more questions for me.  Let’s continue this next time!

Wild Dogs in Conflict

September 12, 2012

We were at the zoo shortly after opening.  Many of the animals hadn’t even come outside.  Those who had were very lively, as if treasuring the time before the heat rose or perhaps these last few lingering moments of privacy.

When we arrived at the African wild dog enclosure, the dogs were wide awake and very active.  Each one had a fresh bone on which meat clung, vividly red in the soft, dappled light of their tree-shaded space.

One dog – I called him Oscar for no reason at all – decided that a single bone wasn’t enough for him.  Although his bone still had meat on it, he left it and trotted over to where another wild dog – call him Joe – was working over his bone.  There was ample yipping and snapping, as well as quite a lot of whining and squealing.  Their open mouths were oddly triangular, the insides as dark as their coats.

Joe kept glancing up at the closed door behind him, obviously hoping someone would open it and give him an easy escape.  No one did, though.  Indeed, despite all the fury,  the conclusion seemed foreordained.  Joe was clearly not much of a fighter.  In a short time, Oscar had stolen Joe’s bone.

Head high, Oscar carried his prize over to his chosen post (which happened to be right under the windows through which Jim and I were watching).  He then proceeded to go back and forth between his two bones, worrying off the meat and, in general, seeming very satisfied with himself.

Joe was not happy about his loss, but it became rapidly apparent that he was a timid soul.  He made a few feints as if he was going to come over and try to reclaim his bone.  However, the merest glance from Oscar would send him scampering to his barren corner.  Oscar was very pleased by his dominance, so much so that when Joe went to the small pond and settled for a drink as a poor substitute for his lost bone, Oscar decided this was the purest impudence.  Leaving both bones behind, he charged into the water and drove Joe away.

Now, Oscar and Joe weren’t the only wild dogs in the enclosure.  There were two others who, to this point, had ignored all the fuss in favor of concentrating on enjoying their own bones.  However, Oscar’s claiming the pond was apparently too much for them.  When Oscar drove Joe out of the pond, then settled himself in for a leisurely drink that proclaimed him King of the Pond, this pair – let’s call them Butch and Sundance – charged over.

Working as a team, Butch and Sundance charged Oscar, making it very clear that they did not agree to his claim that he was King of the Pond.  For a few breathless moments, the pond was transformed from a quiet water-feature into a swirling mass of three wild dogs and splashing water.  Before long, the battle surged out of the pond and into the enclosure at large.  Oscar was big and tough, but Butch and Sundance proved the old adage about there being strength in numbers.

Although we saw the white flash of teeth, we saw no blood.  Nonetheless, the three dogs’ yelps and cries made it very clear that they were all quite serious about their contest.  In the end, Oscar surrendered the pond.  Something like tranquility returned to the sun-dappled space.

And Joe…  Did he go retrieve his stolen bone?  Did he seek out any of the four bones that had been abandoned?  He considered both options.  We watched him edge near to where the bones had been left by Butch and Sundance, only to shrink away as if they were still standing there.  We watched him circle to where his stolen bone rested.  In the end, all the bones remained untouched, as staunchly guarded by Joe’s fears as they would have been by their actual owners.

The moral of this story?  There isn’t one unless you choose to give it.  This is just what we saw when we went to the zoo early, soon after opening, when most of the animals had not yet come out into their enclosures.

TT: Alternate Universes of Higher Education

September 6, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and at your two bits to our  discussion on the awkward topic of how to tell an author “You’re Wrong.”  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture into some of the newer developments in higher education.

JANE: Since we last talked, I’ve been thinking about how our own education system has changed.  One of the biggest changes is the increased role that community colleges have in providing post-high school education.

Education of a Different Stripe

ALAN: What are community colleges?

JANE: I’m sure they differ some from state to state –  here in the U.S., colleges and universities are often funded by state governments – however, I believe the basics are the same.

First, there are no elaborate entrance requirements.  I’m not even sure if one needs to have completed high school, since I’ve heard of talented high school students getting a jump on college by taking courses at a community college.

Second, community colleges do not offer a full four-year degree (also called a bachelor’s degree).  Instead, they offer a two year-degree, usually called an “associates” degree.

Third, although many are, not all the courses are “high brow” academic.  One can learn some pretty practical things, too.  I have a friend who needed to upgrade his computer drafting skills and went to the local community college for that.

With me so far?

ALAN: Absolutely! That sounds just like the sort of thing the polytechnics do. And the “associates” degree sounds as if it is exactly the same as the post A-level certificates issued by polytechnics. Isn’t it amazing how ideas converge?

JANE: It is indeed.

The most interesting element of all, to me, is that since community colleges are far less expensive than most traditional colleges, many students are opting to take their first two years of college courses (many of which are basics) at a community college and then transfer to a four year college for only the last two years.

I suspect this is going to undermine a lot of the “rah-rah” school identification we discussed when talking earlier about yearbooks, class rings, and homecoming.

ALAN: That has to be a good thing. “Rah, rah” stuff always makes me squirm with embarrassment.

JANE: Going back, you said something about getting a higher education being easier now than it was had been in your day.  What are some of the new options?

ALAN: In the 1970’s the British government funded something called the Open University. There are no real entry requirements for the Open University – anybody can apply to study. That’s because the university has no permanent academic staff and no campus. It employs only a small number of administrators. Initially, the lectures were broadcast on the television, but these days they make full use of the internet, of course. And the lectures are simply recordings made by “bricks and mortar” university staff employed briefly as consultants. The recordings are used again and again and again…

So there is really no limit on the number of students the Open University can accommodate because it has no physical existence…

JANE: That sounds interesting, although I admit I have my doubts about the use of broadcasts for education.  It’s becoming more common, even here, but I have no personal experience.  Did anyone you know go to the Open University?

ALAN: Robin took an Open University degree in the late 1980s and she said it was hilarious seeing the recorded lecturers with their 1970s haircuts and their wide lapels and bell-bottomed trousers!

JANE: I agree, it would be, but how did she feel about the educational experience?

ALAN:  She found it invaluable. She was in a quite unique position in that she already had a degree from a more formal course of study at a traditional university so she was ideally suited to compare the way the two systems worked. And she was very pleased to find the same rigorous academic standards in place.

JANE: With the rise of the internet, the idea of teaching via recording or on-line is becoming more and more common – even here.  I find it interesting that the whole notion has been successfully established to the point that an entire university has no “live” staff.

ALAN: Yes – it’s been hugely successful, but no other country seems to have stolen the idea, which is a pity. Open University degrees really are just as prestigious as traditional degrees and the academic standard is just as high. One of my friends from school left early without any GCE qualifications because he made the mistake of getting his girlfriend pregnant. Later in life he took an Open University degree.  These days he is very much a mover and a shaker; he’s done really well for himself.

JANE: It must be hard for the students if they study by themselves all the time without other students, tutors, or instructors to work with.

ALAN: Robin tells me that the Open University holds “Summer Schools” in addition to the broadcast lectures. These generally take place on the campuses of brick-and-mortar universities during the summer when they are largely deserted. The idea is to bring the students together so that they feel less isolated in their studies, and also to hold seminars and tutorials. Robin used to love the summer schools. They were really just an excuse to hold parties. She refers to them as “shagfests.”

JANE:  This seems to undermine the idea of any value to the Open University.  The Summer School seems a joke.  If I went through the hassles of a traditional education and found that this “shagfest” was considered “as prestigious” as a traditional degree I’d be highly offended.  Obviously, I’m missing something.

ALAN: Indeed you are, and that takes us right back to a profound cultural difference between us that we’ve remarked on before in these tangents. Just because something is serious is absolutely no reason at all for taking it seriously.  All work and no play makes Jack and Jill very dull people.

Of course a Summer School is a shagfest and a joke when the study day is over. How else would you spend your evenings after a day full of very hard work? I promise you, during the day, a Summer School is anything but a joke, it’s very much nose to grindstone. But sometimes you have to let your hair down. And, trust me, you are missing so much in life if you’ve never attended a morning of intense intellectual activity when you are so hung over that your eyebrows bleed…

JANE: I think I can continue on in life without that last experience. Even so, I wasn’t at all a dull girl.

I spent my evenings “at university” reading SF/F and playing roleplaying games.   No hangover with those particular entertainments.  I did have a boyfriend…

Go on…

ALAN: The Open University is no different from a real university in that respect. I managed to debauch myself very successfully indeed when I was a student – far more successfully that I ever managed before or since, to my deep regret. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard – I worked and studied very hard indeed. I earned my degree and I’m proud of it. And I’d be equally proud of an Open University degree, if I had one.

JANE: Heck…  I think that if the Open University students need to make the grade without tutors or faculty to whom they can bring questions, maybe they should be prouder.

ALAN: So they should. And Robin is extremely proud of her OU degree – she values it as much as she values her more traditional degree. Actually, from what she tells me, I suspect that she values it more.

JANE: I guess you’re now filled in enough on the American educational system that you can watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Animal House, and other school dramas in a well-informed manner.  I’m also glad I finally understand about “level exams” and why failing the eleven-plus exams gave us so many fine rock stars.

What do you want to talk about next?



Saying “I Think You’re Wrong.”

September 5, 2012

Last week, “CBI” asked, “What are the ethics and protocol when an author is reading a draft and one notices a prickling inconsistency or physics problem?”

Politely and Off-stage

As I said in the Comments, the short answer is “Off-stage and politely.”  After all, authors are human and I’ve never met anyone who really likes being embarrassed in front of an audience.

However, this question actually opens up a rather complicated bottle of worms.  Let’s break CBI’s question down into parts.  The first I’d like to touch on is his careful statement: “reading a draft.”

The word “draft” implies that the author has stated this is an incomplete work.  In such a case, a reader offering a correction can be very useful.  As every writer knows, the writer is the worst proofreader, because it is entirely possible to read not what is actually on the page but what one intended to put on the page!

One of the rare times I read from a draft was when Thirteen Orphans was coming out.  After the reading, an audience member mentioned to me that the name I’d given one character was the same as a rising performer.  Even though it was a complete coincidence (and I’ve never heard of that person since) I decided to change the character’s name.  Why create accidental confusion?

What do you do if you catch a problem in an already published work?

Well, the first question I’d ask myself is “How major is the problem?”  If it’s very major – something that makes the book simply not work, then I think you need to tell the author.  I know I’d want to be told – but politely and off-stage.  This  isn’t hard to do in these days when e-mail makes it possible to contact an author even if you can’t manage to do so in person.

The second question I’d ask myself is “At what part in the publication process is the book?”  If the book is a hard cover release, then there is likely to be a paperback publication.  The writer might be able to make the fix for that edition.

When one of the Firekeeper novels was published, my friend Kennard Wilson gently told me that there were all sorts of problems in the list of characters at the end.  I couldn’t fix these in the hard cover, but I made sure I did for the paperback – and I was grateful that Ken took the effort to write these out for me.  You see, the list of characters had been done at the last minute.  Moreover, I’d been struggling to find a way to write the list that would not provide “spoilers” as to the plot of the novel (something that has happened to me as a reader more than once).  Inevitably, errors crept in.  So Ken was really very helpful.

In these days when so many books are published as e-books, the author might choose to make fixes in the e-book.  The same can be said for books published as print-on-demand.  Correcting these entails more, but the author may think it worth doing.  However, if the book is already out in its final form, then I’d consider how serious the problem is before commenting.  How productive would the “correction” be?

This brings me to the second part of CBI’s question: “a prickling inconsistency or physics problem.”

Certainly, “prickling inconsistency” should be drawn to the writer’s attention, especially if the work is in draft.  Often writers change things when writing and may think they have caught all the places they needed to make the change.  However, they may miss one or two.  I certainly caught a few such when I was doing my reading from Huntress  at Bubonicon!

The latter part of the question –  “physics problem” – sounds as if it was a reaction to a particular piece.  Well, writers do their research as best as they can, but it’s axiomatic that there is always one reader who knows more…

Or do they?  Let’s take physics.  One of the writers at Bubonicon, Ian Tregillis, is a Los Alamos physicist.   I’m not saying this is who CBI meant but, in Ian’s case,  I’d be really careful correcting his physics.  In fact, I might ask him, “I thought x, y, z was the case, but you said p, d, q.  I’m interested in physics.  Is there something I should catch up on?”

On the other hand, Ian writes alternate history.  Maybe he made the change to underline a specific point.  The risk that a deliberate change will be taken for error is always a risk when writing alternate history.  Steve (S.M.) Stirling was very proud of a subtle reference he made in his novel Conquistador to a descendant of Pocahontas with the surname “Rolfe.”  However, Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe had no male children.  The name died out with them  Did Stirling’s readers realize he was being clever or did they think he didn’t know his history?

Max Mallowan, husband to Agatha Christie, emphasized in his autobiography that, although Agatha wrote copiously, she researched carefully.  He related how a lawyer started to lecture Agatha on how she’d gotten a key element of inheritance law wrong in one book.  Turns out the lawyer was wrong.  The law had changed.  Agatha had been aware of it and built her book around that change.

Agatha Christie had also worked as a dispenser (basically a pharmacist) during the First World War.  Therefore, she knew the properties of drugs very well.  I’ve heard many people dismiss her use of drugs and drug interaction as facile or incorrect because they assume that she couldn’t have known about a topic when, in fact, she was an expert.

So, if you find a point of error, do consider that the writer might have done it deliberately or actually know the subject very well…  On the other hand, writers do make mistakes and, if they can profit from comments, they’re usually grateful to get them.  In fact, the desire for comments is why many writers belong to writer’s groups or attend workshops.

I hope that helps address what is actually a complex issue.  I’d be interested in what the rest of you think – not just the writers who have been put on the spot, but the readers who have found themselves frustrated by a perceived error.