Archive for the 'Gossyp' Category

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure: HIV prevention efforts during the World Cup are being undermined

I’m very lucky. The only time I was ever up shit creek I just happened to have a paddle with me. ~
George Carlin

If you google “fifa world cup hiv” and click on the “I’m feeling lucky” button, you will find a good article from about how FIFA is hindering HIV prevention in South Africa during this year’s World Cup. But luck’s a chance, and you could just as well have run across predictable propaganda in a corporate-friendly Reuters article. Reading the latter, you would think FIFA is leading the campaign with banners flying and money sacks open. The truth is just the opposite. In a sport devoted to the glorification of hard young bodies, unheard-of personal wealth, and vaunted celebrity, HIV is an image-tarnisher, an unlucky coin toss in life’s game of chance. FIFA’s neglectful attitude to HIV prevention and its lack of engagement with and support for local AIDS organizations is making headlines. Sexually active football fans will be in need of much good luck in the coming month. Their health seems to be of little concern to football organizers, who have spared no effort to make sure that supplies of beer will not run out.

When you think of the extraordinary sums of money to be made in the coming weeks and the fabulous riches of the football clubs, it is an outrage that FIFA has not donated at least the modest half million dollars (4 million Rand) required by the South African National AIDS Council to fund an HIV prevention campaign during the tournament. It is equally appalling to learn that FIFA is actively banning the distribution of condoms at World Cup stadiums and other venues.

Although the lords of football made the right noises in a public announcement earlier this year, FIFA is now being criticized by AIDS organizations, both for its action and inaction in South Africa, and for its general insouciance and ignorance about HIV prevention. In the midst of contradictory statements and corporate spin, it emerges that about all FIFA has actually agreed to is the installation of condom dispensers in toilets at the stadiums. It also claims to have encouraged health authorities to set up “fan service areas” in South African cities during the tournament. These feeble gestures come as the planet’s wildest party is about to begin in a country with the largest number of HIV carriers, with an estimated 5.7 million people infected. There are 1,400 new HIV infections every day and nearly 1,000 AIDS deaths.

“To date Fifa has not permitted any civil society organisation to distribute HIV- or health-related information and Fifa has not provided any written confirmation that condoms may be distributed at stadia and within the fan-fests,” South African AIDS groups said in a statement. “This is despite the fact that commercial sponsors selling alcohol will have dedicated spaces available.”

For the sex trade a World Cup event is like having all the navies in the world dropping anchor in your home port. Vats of alcohol are sure to be consumed as foreign fans drink to lady luck and rub shoulders with locals. But in a country where one in five adults is living with HIV, the price of throwing caution to the wind and having unprotected sex with a local, let alone a sex worker, could be extremely high.

It is estimated that 100 million condoms will be needed to meet increased demand during the World Cup. Despite some generous donations from Britain and the UN, there probably won’t be enough condoms for football revellers. That’s bad enough, but as a South African expert has said, the problem is not just the quantity of condoms available – it’s also the lack of a high-profile safer sex campaign.

FIFA is not the only one at fault. South African laws that criminalize sex work compound sex workers’ individual risk for HIV and compromise broader public health goals. A massive international sporting event like the World Cup will undoubtedly increase demand for paid sex and, particularly in a country with hyper-endemic HIV, will guarantee a sharp rise in HIV-infection rates through unprotected sex.

In a paper published last December in Globalization and Health, a group of activists called on South Africa to respond to the challenges the sex industry poses in a strategic and rights-based manner, using the World Cup events as an opportunity to attribute more weight to public health goods than to an ideology based on sexual moralism – an ideology that time and again has been proven ineffective in preventing HIV in South Africa and beyond. The authors argue for a moratorium on the enforcement of laws that persecute and victimize sex workers during the World Cup period.

The prospects are not encouraging. While the world rightly celebrates South Africa’s pride in hosting the games, amidst all the hoopla the HIV epidemic is only going to grow worse. When the party is over and the teams and their fans have gone home, as FIFA calculates its profits epidemiological statistics will begin to tick ever upward. You’ll be able to google them in a year or so.

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure. It’s one thing to click the “I’m feeling lucky” button – but having sex without a condom during the World Cup is like being up the creek without a paddle.

flickr photo by dmountain

Web refuseniks as second-class citizens: librarians can only do so much for the offline classes

People who don’t want to – or simply can’t – be part of the digital world are being subjected to bullying tactics.The NHS is not alone in disenfranchising, tormenting or otherwise penalising citizens who, living offline, are already defined as excluded. Employers, too, demand that job applications be submitted online; banks and shops, travel, insurance and energy companies save competitive products for online customers; even councils demand applications for social housing be made, exclusively, online.

Britain’s millions of refuseniks seem to be surviving. In public spaces all round the country, librarians help the offline classes to fill long, complicated forms with pieces of sensitive personal information. How long have they been unemployed? Have they ever been in trouble? Any problems with neighbours? Need help? For that you will need an internet address, ask your librarian.

Want to complain to someone about your new, digital designation as a second-class citizen? Tough, losers: you can only do that online.

Catherine Bennett. If you’re not online these days you’re a second-class citizen. “Comment Is Free” The Guardian, Sunday 16 May 2010

cc licensed flickr photo by sp3ccylad

Endless blather about health care coverage. But why aren’t we talking about dental care reform?

The Obama administration’s agonizingly eked out health care reform will affect the dentistry industry in the United States in some minor ways, for example, requiring insurance plans to include pediatric oral health services for children up to 21 years of age, establishing public education campaigns, and ensuring that essential health benefits packages include oral care. But without insurance, Yankee teeth are in constant danger of eventually being, well, yanked.

We Canadians like to boast about our single-payer system and universal coverage for all. But when it comes to Canadian teeth, we play the same kind of insurance game with our health as our neighbours to the south. The Canada Health Act, as explained in a typically ponderous government document, provides for coverage of “medically required surgical dental procedures which can be properly carried out only in a hospital.” But if you need a filling or root canal work, you’ll need a cool thousand or a good insurance plan.

The dental profession means well. You frequently find token gestures such as one recently announced by the Manitoba Dental Association, which will re-introduce its “Free First Visit” oral health program, beginning in April 2010. This loss leader is designed to encourage dental visits for infants and toddlers by offering a free first check-up for all children age 3 years and younger. But what about the ongoing oral health care needs of children? Where is the much-needed integration of dental care into medicare? We pay taxes to educate our children and keep most of their bodies healthy, except, strangely, their teeth. What is so special about our oral cavities – as opposed to, say, our anal cavities – that leaves their care to the tender mercies of insurance companies. Why shouldn’t complete oral health coverage be extended to all Canadians? Let’s include eye care while we’re at it.

But enter our inner Calvinist. The Atlas-Shrugged types will argue vociferously that it is wrong to use taxpayers’ money to provide a safety net for the offspring of losers and gingivitic ne’er-do-wells who think floss is pink and consumed in great quantities at county fairs. Pundits from corporate-funded think tanks like the Fraser Institute and Manitoba’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy will gnash their bicuspids in horror at such a flagrant concession to human weakness. Obviously they’ve never had to endure a twanging molar or a suppurating abscess they couldn’t spend their way out of.

The arguments haven’t changed much since the overwhelming suffering of the poverty-stricken went unheeded by those opposed to the Health Care Act in the 1960s. And their arguments are still just as specious. Let’s keep moralizing out of health policy. We need only consider the annual expenditure by the public purse on spavined hearts and riddled livers to see that this kind of supercilious cost-accounting is all that’s left of decency after the nerve has been extracted.

CC licensed flickr photo by erix!

Library renovations: tool-carrying banshees get the hurly-burly done

The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it. So said Voltaire, and so I have liked to think for many a year. But to a desolate soul who has been subjected for hours to the continuous whining drills and the stupendous crashings that are the leitmotif of construction work, reason quickly gives way to a kind of death-drive retreat from cacophonous reality. We all become deranged, dispossessed, and a little desperate.

When you approach the foyer of my library (the Neil John Maclean Health Sciences Library) you immediately see the “walled garden” effect that the newly erected hoardings make. Thanks to the recent largesse of the federal government, we are one of many quickly-launched funded projects that are raising dust and breeding migraines all over Canada.  During Phase I of our renovation, which will last two months, the library’s main floor will be a frantic scenario that makes the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor look tame. Phase II and III will continue during the later spring and summer, leaving no corner of the library untouched and no mind unravelled.

“When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won”
Workers have spent most of the past week putting up hoardings to contain the dust and commotion of construction (but not the noise, unfortunately). The north, east and west areas of the main floor have disappeared. Gone are the former Circulation Desk, staff offices, our boardroom, and most regrettably, the lunch room and toilets. Both circulation staff and librarians compete for breathing space at the reorganized Information Desk.

The rest of the staff are a crowded, oxygen-starved Ellenbogengesellschaft in the adjoining computer labs, which have been repurposed for the duration of construction. Some liaison librarians like myself have been able to find temporary shelter with their respective faculties.

Having escaped the great flood of 1997, when my staff and I had to move an entire library in plastic tubs from the basement to the (thankfully) still empty fourth floor of the St. Boniface Research Centre in Winnipeg, I can be philosophical about the current disruptions. And as I work yet another dreary shift at an Information Desk surrounded by tool-carrying banshees, I will try to live up to Voltaire’s maxim, even as I shout out complex directions to the toilets over a tumultuous roar that would never respond to a shush or a shaken finger.

Academic librarians and the rhetoric of excellence

SOCRATES: What is the excellence of the art of music, as I told you truly that the excellence of wrestling was gymnastic — what is the excellence of music — to be what?
To be musical, I suppose.
Very good; and now please to tell me what is the excellence of war and peace; as the more musical was the more excellent, or the more gymnastical was the more excellent, tell me, what name do you give to the more excellent in war and peace?
But I really cannot tell you.

Plato, Alcibiades I

As academic librarians strive for ever greater levels of achievement in our professional lives, we frequently find ourselves caught up in the fashionable discourse of excellence. Awards for excellence, endowments for excellence, excellence in librarianship, excellence in research, excellence in excelling. Like Alcibiades stuttering his way through Socrates’ relentless questioning, we have to admit that we don’t really know its true meaning except that the concept is supremely valued and sublimely variable.

We read articles by other librarians extolling accomplishment, distinction, inimitability, and overall superbness [1-2]. We hear rousing accolades to the “mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship” between business and the library as a “centre of excellence” [3]. We are subjected to peculiar perorations such as the following:

The continuous repetition of the entire excellence processes at regular intervals, including a renewed assessment, ensures a development of the library that is close to the market and meets the needs of a knowledge-based society. This dynamic leads to a continual optimisation of the library whereas the scale of the excellence achieved often corresponds to the current situation. The improvement of a library therefore knows no upper limit and new optimisation potential can be revealed continually [4].

“Centre of excellence,” “close to the market,” “no upper limit,” “continual optimisation”:  there is certainly a message here, and the language it is written in is that of the corporate communiqué and the total quality management handbook. It seems that whenever one hears of excellence, along with it there is the sound of a cheque book being snapped open.

As Elizabeth Hodgson, President of the University of British Columbia Faculty Association, writes in her recently published rant on excellence, this all-too-familiar morpheme has become “a supersaturated term like ‘patriot’ or ‘family values’, a word that means both everything and nothing” [5]. Like the Lacanian Big Other or the Foucauldian instrument of social control, it hovers over and underlies our discourse. Everyone has an idea of what excellence means, but it remains just beyond the margins of the definable. Immeasurable and impossible to grasp, its attainment is all-important, yet ever-receding. Robert Merton, the well-known sociologist of science, described it this way: “Many of us are persuaded that we know what we mean by excellence and would prefer not to be asked to explain. We act as though we believe that close inspection of the idea of excellence will cause it to dissolve into nothing” [6, p. 422].

Despite this hermeneutic panic on the part of some thinkers, for our elite groups, including university administrators, the word has become a handy shibboleth. It conveniently stands in as a universal signifier that justifies almost anything — for who could possibly object to excellence? To question the pursuit of excellence could only arise out of the envious rancour of mediocrity, the resentment of the underachiever or the subversive. As with Protecting Our Children or Supporting Our Troops, excellence allows no nuance or debate. It is absolute, inviolate, and demands uncritical acceptance.

There is a large degree of expediency in our leaders’ relentless emphasis on excellence. It provides ideological cover for power wielders, impresses those with money, and nicely papers over inadequacies. For, as has been remarked of old, often the cockloft is empty in those whom nature hath built many stories high. The bullying use of the term in the academy must further the same ends. Why else bring coals to Newcastle by pushing excellence in a setting that is already marked by an abundance of ambitious over-achievers, self-motivated, creative, and zealous of their scholarly reputations? Academic librarians have jumped on the excellence bandwagon partly to prove that we are as good as our faculty colleagues and that we deserve the resources we require to do our jobs, and partly also out of our own conformism and conceit. We should look harder at this trend. We should ask why there are so many awards for excellence in librarianship.

Where none admire, ’tis useless to excel;
Where none are beaux, ’tis vain to be a belle.  (George, Lord Lyttelton – Soliloquy of a Beauty in the Country)

A fixation on excellence can quickly go to one’s head. The way some librarians carry on, a dull-as-ditchwater meeting is made to sound as exclusive as a reunion banquet for the Ptolemies. A commonplace journal article recounting the creation of a few web pages unexpectedly and embarrassingly bursts into praise for “librarians’ persistence, performances [sic] and achievements” [7]. Are we not too familiar with unseemly preening and puffery of this sort? We enter into heated arguments and contractual battles about the measurement of excellence in research and scholarship, teaching, or professional performance. Excellence-obsessed concepts and practices such as enterprise culture, managerialism, total quality assurance, and customer care have battered the coastline of academic librarianship in successive waves. Scarcely has one subsided than the next arrives. Yet in all this commotion around excellence we can’t suck clarity out of our thumb. Right, but we can always establish another award.

While we are all scrambling in pursuit of our ideas of excellence, the cheque book reveals its true utilitarian and economic hue. Our academic centres of excellence are prodigious factories. Research excellence and research commercialization are in a tight embrace. The three drivers of research excellence are the creation of new, high-quality scientific and technical knowledge, its accelerated transmission to user communities, and the commercial exploitation of that knowledge. Achieving and maintaining excellence is now all about competing at national or international scientific frontiers, and attracting sufficient resources to maintain a lead. Striving for excellence has become of paramount importance in science policy and informs the quality assurance practices of granting agencies [8].

Universities are taking this game seriously. They look for stars to ratchet up the excellence factor, perform as big money magnets, and compete with other institutions doing exactly the same thing. In this invidious process the message becomes clear: if you are not excellent — i.e., bringing in vast grants and accumulating ever more social and professional brownie points — you are essentially worthless. Yet it is patently absurd, as Elizabeth Hodgson reminds us, to refuse to recognize that any group of people will include a normal and healthy range of abilities, levels of commitment, and measurable success rates. A bemused colleague whispers in her ear: “Do you think they know that someone has to be in the bottom decile?” Are administrators not aware that there is a natural spectrum of achievement, that more nurturing and less needling might work wonders, that an orchestra composed only of star performers does not play well?

I recommend Hodgson’s essay to stressed librarians who feel caught up in the treadmill of competitiveness and the rhetoric of excellence. She concludes her self-acknowledged rant with a call for common sense:

As it is, we spend more and more of our work energies having to prove repeatedly that we deserve the resources we need to do our jobs. We spend more and more time attempting to demonstrate, in order to keep our jobs, that we are even more excellent than we were the year before, more excellent than our colleagues and more excellent than the university across town.
The net effect, ironically, is that we are far more likely to do less of what we were trained to do, what we are genuinely gifted at. You don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it; you feed it. “Excellence,” I assure you, despite its fine sound, has no nutritional value [5].

There’s food for thought. To switch metaphors, let’s avoid the fate of the fanatical climber in Longfellow’s poem, who reaches the mountain top only to end up lifeless but beautiful, and half-buried in snow, “still grasping in his hand of ice / That banner with the strange device, / Excelsior!”


1. Hardesty L. Excellence in academic libraries: recognizing it. Library issues. 2007;27(4):1-4

2. Hyams E. A new impetus to professional excellence. Library + information update. 2005;4(6):33-35.

3. Reid D. The National Library of New Zealand as a Sun™ Centre of Excellence. The electronic library. 2006;24(4):429-433.

4. Herget J. Excellence in libraries: a systematic and integrated approach. New library world. 2007;108(11/12):526-544.

5. Hodgson E. A rant on excellence. CAUT bulletin. 2010 Jan;57(1):2,12.

6. Merton R. The sociology of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1973.

7. Wu L. Montreal hospital librarians’ websites: striving for excellence. Journal of hospital librarianship. 2004;4(3):101-108.

8. Tijssen RJW. Scoreboards of research excellence. Research evaluation. 2003 Aug;12(2):91-103.

Photo credit: cc licensed flickr photo by Frankenstein

Will Smitherman clean up Toronto’s soggy bottom? The man with the incontinence product runs for mayor

The Globe and Mail reported today on the official entry of George Smitherman into the race for mayor of Toronto.

A former health minister and deputy premier, Smitherman is renowned for much more than merely having been Ontario’s first openly gay MPP. Over the years the aggressive politician dubbed “Furious George” left a trail of arched eyebrows and stares of incredulity as he blundered into modest notoriety.

Two years ago, in what will surely be remembered as the nadir of his public career, Smitherman demonstrated appalling, cringe-making insensitivity as he made a bad mess worse in responding to criticism of the treatment of the elderly in the province’s largely private nursing homes. He told the media that he was prepared to don an adult diaper — and use it — to justify his government’s policies. Not surprisingly, this deranged outburst did not sit well with an outraged public.

The criticisms Smitherman’s health ministry received were justified. The Ontario Association of Non-Profit Homes and Services for Seniors claimed that seniors in nursing homes should be getting at least three hours of personal care; it said the average in the province is about 2.5 hours a day. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents many nursing home workers, called for a standard of 3.5 hours. Many studies have shown that without proper staffing and adequate standards the quality of care plummets. Front-line nursing home staff in Ontario report that residents are sitting in deplorable conditions. Incontinence products are often kept under lock and key, and many homes are directing staff to change residents only when the product is 75% soiled.

On February 27, 2008, two long-term care workers used four bottles of water to fill an adult diaper at a CUPE press conference in Toronto. They wanted to show how much urine had to be in a diaper before care aides were allowed to change it under current legislation. With stunning insensitivity Smitherman said in response that he was ready to test out an adult diaper to show criticism was unfounded. “I’ve got one of these incontinence products — albeit a new one, not the ones that tend to appear at committee — on my desk and I’m really giving this matter very serious contemplation,” Smitherman said. It wasn’t only critics of the Liberal government who were angry. There were loud calls for the minister’s resignation, even within his own caucus.

Wags and cynics sharpened their quills. In March the National Post published an imaginary Smitherman diary entry, with entries like this:

Major confession, diary. I tried out an incontinence diaper today. It was so … freeing. I had three large coffees … and then I sat through a three-hour meeting with a bunch of bureaucrats. No pee breaks! It was so much more efficient. Made a bit of a stumble at lunch, though, by having the side dish of asparagus. Won’t make that mistake again! I think this will really help in my discussion with the nurses’ union. Five hours seems to be the limit before things get a little soggy. I think I’ll publicly float the idea tomorrow. Right after I shoot up an eight-ball of smack to get a better feel for drug addiction.

Of course, an apology followed immediately. “I wasn’t trivializing the matter,” Smitherman said. “I take it really, really seriously.” The minister could not be reached for comment for a long time after that; but his “diary” entry gives us some insight into why:

After I came in from my night on the streets yesterday morning, Dalton [Premier Dalton McGuinty] called and ordered me to apologize for the diaper “stunt.” I explained that I only thought it would gain a better understanding of the issue, but he wouldn’t listen. “Also, George,” he said, “please tell me you weren’t wearing one in my office the other day. Because I thought it smelled like asparagus, if you catch my drift.” I told him my cellphone was cutting out and I hung up.

Sam Solomon, writing in his blog Canadian Medicine, addsed that this wasn’t the first time that “Furious George” has run off at the mouth:

Speaking about new building plans suggested by some hospital boards in Ontario, Mr Smitherman dismissively referred to the expensive proposed upgraded facilities as “Taj Ma-hospitals.”Another classic outburst was featured on Stephen Colbert’s American parody politics talk show in 2005. Talking to none other than an assemblage of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, Mr Smitherman called optometrists “a bunch of terrorists, and I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” “Bravo, sir,” Mr Colbert said. “Optometrists are a menace. You have to be careful with a group that gets their kicks blowing air into our eyeballs.”

During the “incontinence product” controversy in 2008 Smitherman’s bizarre antics were dismissed by Sid Ryan, president of CUPE’s Ontario chapter, who said the minister completely missed the point. The problem wasn’t the products, but the cruel reality that residents in long-term care facilities were forced to wear soiled diapers through the night and sometimes up until noon the next day. “If the minister wants to play silly games, well then, let him put on a diaper and sleep in it all night long and come into the legislature and wear it up until 12 o’clock,” Ryan told the Canadian Press.

Could the problems so clumsily dealt with by Ontario’s health minister possibly be related to the fact that in Ontario 60% of all publicly funded long-term care beds are in for-profit institutions, as compared with 15% in Manitoba [1]? There is ample research to show that public investment in not-for-profit, rather than for-profit, delivery of long-term care results in more staffing and improved care outcomes for residents [1,2]. Instead of experimenting with adult diapers, perhaps Mr. Smitherman should have tried absorbing some of those important statistics and the advice of experts. There are a lot of excellent health libraries within throwing distance of the Ontario legislature.

From here is a a taste of what to expect when Smitherman hits the Toronto campaign trail – a few Diaper George gems:

On announcing his candidacy intent: “A native son is coming home to serve.”

On wearing adult diapers to ensure nursing home residents are getting adequate care: “I’ve got one of these incontinence products … on my desk and I’m really giving this matter very serious contemplation.”

On controversial energy audits for homebuyers: “They taught me in some Grade 10 course — which was almost at the end of my stream of education — the notion of caveat emptor, buyer beware.”

On music: “I’ve been working out to the new Whitney Houston. I’m a gay man, so I love Whitney.”

On working with others: “Nobody should associate me with the status quo.”


1. McGrail KM, McGregor MJ, Cohen M, Tate RB, Ronald LA. For-profit versus not-for-profit delivery of long-term care. CMAJ. 2007 Jan 2;176(1):57-8.

2. McGregor MJ, Cohen M, McGrail K, Broemeling AM, Adler RN, Schulzer M, Ronald L, Cvitkovich Y, Beck M. Staffing levels in not-for-profit and for-profit long-term care facilities: does type of ownership matter? CMAJ. 2005 Mar 1;172(5):645-9.

When H1N1 visits food banks and shelters, what then? We need a plan

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. Trap the germs in your handkerchief.  ~  World War 2 health slogan

Charities and non-profits provide critical services to communities across Canada. What if they are not adequately prepared for an H1N1 outbreak? asks Marcel Lauzière, head of Imagine Canada, a national program to promote public and corporate giving, volunteering and support to the community.

In an opinion piece that appeared in a number of Canadian newspapers this week, including the Winnipeg Free Press, Lauzière attempts to bring to public attention the potential impact of the H1N1 pandemic on Canada’s charitable and non-profit organizations. From the blank looks and long pauses over the phone he says he has been experiencing when he starts talking about it, it is apparent that this issue is still languishing at lower levels in the nation’s health bureaucracies.

The focus of most official attention is on hospitals, schools, businesses, First Nations reserves, and vulnerable individuals like pregnant women. There is a lively and useful public debate about how prepared we are, and how prepared we should be, for a major outbreak. But charities and non-profits are too often not part of the discussion. Left out of the picture is the fact that charities and non-profit organizations deliver critical services to Canadians. If the H1N1 epidemic is severe, what will happen if charitable organizations lose up to a third of their staff and volunteers to illness?

What if food banks start closing? How will desperate families feed their kids? What if meals are no longer prepared and delivered to elderly people who can’t get out and who have no friends or relatives nearby to help them? What about Canadians needing dialysis or chemotherapy but who can’t get to the hospital because there are no volunteers to drive them? What about the thousands of children and their families who rely on local sports and recreation and arts and cultural organizations for their weekly activities? What if the homeless shelters shut their doors in the middle of winter?

As a third pillar of Canadian society alongside governments and business, charities and non-profit organizations are part of an intricate system of societal supports that significantly improve the quality of life in Canada. They are also a significant part of our economy. “The sector generates more than $87 billion annually, a contribution of almost seven per cent to Canada’s GDP. It employs more than 1.5 million Canadians (full-time equivalents)and mobilizes 12.5 million volunteers in Canada.”

Lauzière refers to the importance of “business continuity” during an outbreak and the plans that government and major corporations are putting in place. Everyone agrees that the economy must keep on working. That is precisely why we cannot forget charities and non-profits.

[They] are part of our economy too, as well as being major contributors to our quality of life… The demand many of them face is already greater given the impact of the recession and now they must prepare for the possibility of an H1N1 outbreak. What if they are not adequately prepared?

We will need them more than ever at a time of crisis. This is no time for blank looks. As a country, we need to figure out how we can help them be prepared for whatever this influenza season brings.

Lauzière’s argument is lucid and important, but he has put the focus largely on continuity of vital services to the disadvantaged. Yes, if H1N1 cripples charities the results could be, according to the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s melodramatic headline, “catastrophic.” But where are the plans to prevent H1N1 transmission among people these charities serve? This, it seems to me, is an issue that should be higher up the priority list of public health authorities. Toronto has a working document, the Toronto pandemic influenza plan: a planning guide for homeless and housing service providers [PDF]. Other Canadian agencies seem to be a little slow on the uptake.

Rather than focusing almost entirely on business continuity, it makes sense to intensify efforts to slow the spread of the virus among disadvantaged and equity seeking groups who make use of charitable services such as food banks and shelters. These are environments in which disease can spread quickly. Sleeping and eating in close quarters, the homeless are even more vulnerable to infection by H1N1, many of them already being immune compromised, poorly nourished, and suffering addiction and chronic illness.

While Marcel Lauzière’s plea for a plan to maintain services should not go unheard, it is also important that our public health authorities act now to slow the spread of H1N1 among the many vulnerable users of charitable services until the vaccine is ready. Or we may find down the road that we have adequately prepared service organizations with no one left to serve.

For academic librarians what’s hard to reach is time for research

These be the stops that hinder study quite
And train our intellects to vain delight.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1.1

Who has the time for research? Very few of us, unless it is somehow part of our work day. Our teaching faculty colleagues do not teach from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, nor are they always required to be in their offices when not in front of a class, especially between June and August. But academic librarians, it seems, can never have their cake and eat it too. We are expected to be on the job, at the workplace, every day, summer included, unless we are on vacation or on ventilation. And, with some variations, from the midst of this perpetual motion machine we are also expected to produce viable, publishable, imperishable research.

At the University of Manitoba we librarians take our research obligations seriously. We enjoy academic status and are members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA). We have senior management who by and large recognize the value of research and support our pursuit of it. We now also have new language in our Collective Agreement that guarantees us academic freedom and twelve paid days a year to devote entirely to scholarly pursuits. During our last protracted contract negotiations, obtaining recognition from the University that, as part of our academic status, librarians needed time to do the research required of them was a hard-fought battle.

Articles 17 and 20 of the UMFA Collective Agreement, not to mention our own promotion guidelines, more than adequately define both research and the purpose of the working time entitlement for librarians (in particular 17.A.2.5; and see also the Research, Scholarly and Other Creative Works section, 20.B.1.2.2, of the Promotion article). But lately there has been talk amongst my colleagues of establishing “guidelines” to determine the suitability or otherwise of someone’s research and whether a request for time away from other duties to pursue research should be granted.

My generous nature interprets this development as arising from good intentions, but I have to ask: why establish a set of guidelines separate from what has already been well defined in the contract, as well as in a detailed document on guidelines and criteria for the promotion of librarians through the ranks? As I see it, the subject of a librarian’s research is a matter of professional judgement in an atmosphere of academic freedom and collegiality. Our Collective Agreement wisely includes its own warning that librarians’ academic work must be undertaken responsibly: “Academic freedom carries with it the responsibility to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research, teaching and the collection, dissemination and structure of knowledge in a search for truth.” (17.A.1) Must we form yet another committee to encode and encapsulate what “responsibly” means?

Here is the controversial addition to our contract that seems to stick in some people’s craw. As I mentioned, Article 17 (Academic Librarians) was revised in 2007 to include language on so-called “research days”:

Academic librarians holding probationary and continuing appointments are entitled to twelve (12) working days on full salary in each academic year for research and scholarly activities relating to library science or an academic subject within their expertise, subject to notifying the department head of their proposed work and arranging a mutually agreeable schedule.  (17.A.2.5)

Article 20 on Promotion defines the nature of librarians’ research, scholarly work and other creative activities:

Factors that may be considered include:  the publication of books, monographs, and contributions to edited books; papers in both refereed and nonrefereed journals; papers delivered at professional meetings; participation in panels; both supported and nonsupported unpublished research including current work in progress; editorial and refereeing duties; creative works and performances; and scholarship as evidenced by the candidate’s advanced study and research in library and information science and/or a subject specialization, his/her depth and breadth of knowledge and general contributions to the research of the University. (20.B.1.2.2)

Here, in clear and unequivocal language, the UMFA Collective Agreement spells out what is considered research by librarians and carves out a bit of unencumbered space in which such research can be performed. Some have complained that the twelve days are no more than “automatic days off.” To argue so, I would reply, is misguided in the same way that it would be foolish to maintain that sick days should not be provided because they might, heaven forfend, actually be taken. Should the remote possibility that one of us might abuse a provision of the Collective Agreement be used as a pretext to reshape or subvert what is already appropriately defined in that document? Life is too short for us to start composing intricate commentaries on reasonably comprehensible contractual language. I think what Calvin Trillin once said is appropriate: if law school is so hard to get through, how come there are so many lawyers?

It might be argued that establishing more rigorous guidelines for librarians’ research activities would provide clarity and  improve equity across the library system. My response is that the existing contractual provisions for librarians’ research are entirely sufficient for this purpose. If all librarians read, understand and abide by it, the Collective Agreement itself is the best assurance of equity and should be the primary authority on this issue. It is only when the Collective Agreement specifically calls for the creation of guidelines that we are obligated to go beyond its provisions, as is the case with hiring and promotion at this university.

It is the responsibility of an academic library to foster librarians’ research and to organize the work of the academic staff in such a manner as to accommodate time away from other duties for that purpose. This is in the spirit of the Collective Agreement. If a manager disagrees with a librarian about his or her request for time to pursue research, that is an academic matter which should be resolved between the two of them. If no resolution is possible at that level, there are agreed-upon steps that individual can take. Under the terms of the UMFA Collective Agreement, extended postponement or denial of research time could lead to a grievance. Moreover, any attempt further to enumerate and codify what should or should not be the nature of a librarian’s research – beyond the very detailed provisions already cited above – could be interpreted as an infringement upon his or her academic freedom.

It is unfortunate that we have become accustomed to use the term “research days” – which, by the way, is not to be found in the Collective Agreement – as a convenient but demeaning moniker for what that document calls “twelve working days on full salary in each academic year for research and scholarly activities relating to library science or an academic subject within [a librarian’s] expertise.” (17.A.2.5) The entry of this term into common usage has contributed to a general perception that Article 17’s provision for time given over to research is somehow an add-on, accessory or perquisite, when in fact research is an essential component of our work. This is precisely the attitude that our hard-won provision for research time was meant to dispel.

As I see it – and I speak solely from my Canadian experience – some academic libraries have not yet developed or have not fully developed a culture of research. That goal can only be achieved by creating work environments and job expectations that are not so demanding as to discourage librarians from considering research and creative scholarly contributions, or from thinking that such pursuits could be an integral part of their “regular” working day. A strong faculty association and a Collective Agreement with guts are two other important factors in furthering librarians’ participation in academic research.

I have often heard from librarians at this and other universities that they are too busy just coping with their job even to contemplate doing research. That is why I think it vital to focus on fostering research rather than devising methods to contain or curtail it. It is part of moving away from what I call the “No” school of librarianship, the kind of passive-aggressive impasse where – I speak figuratively – it is illegal to make liquor privately or water publicly. If any more guidelines are to be written for us librarians, let them elaborate on how we can open up the taps of creativity, improve our working conditions, provide better service, and be more rounded scholars and professionals.

Prostate free Fridays


The other day I dropped into a supermarket with my sig other to pick up some laundry detergent. I decided I wanted something less harmful to the environment. After browsing through the vast selection on hand, I discovered a brand whose pleasantly green label promised a combination of vigorous cleaning action and ecological rectitude. “Oh look,” I said. “This detergent is prostate free.”

Now I’m prone to the occasional solecism, malapropism or sheer, hand-flapping howler, and this one brought a blush to my face as two or three other nearby shoppers looked my way with arched eyebrows. Sig other was swift on the uptake: “Lovely. It should work quite well on my sweater. You know, the one with all the colours of the rectum.”

There is just no avoiding the fact that the insertion of a medical term into a conversation is inherently funny, either due to its peculiar-sounding Greek or Latin root or especially when it refers to a taboo body part. I know. Just try saying “prostate” loudly in public, even in a hospital corridor. The word has a straightforward etymology, entering our language from the identical word in French, which in turn evolved from the Latin prostata, which itself echoes the Greek word prostates, “one standing in front,” a reference to the prostate gland’s position at the base of the bladder.

Men’s complexes over the state of their prostate gland (which, like many things with men, may be traced back to generalized genitalia anxiety) have produced a rich mine of humour. Here is just one example grabbed off the web:

“What is the difference between a prostate and a garden hose? There’s a vas deference.”

Which doesn’t even make any sense anatomically. But it still gets a laugh.

“Rectum” is another squirmer, even in its Latin guise not quite suitable for civilized company. “Rectum” is derived from the Latin intestinum rectum, “straight intestine,” in contrast to the convolution of the rest of the bowels. The comic overtones of this word and its cognates have not escaped the attention of humorists of every variety. Consider this old Woody Allen joke:

“They tried to expel me for cheating on my Ethics exam, when all I did was look into the rectitude of the boy next to me.”

I am digressing, but that is the point here. Computers too have been known to produce some good howlers. If you’ve ever used Google Translate you’ll know what I mean. But automated translation has improved a great deal in the past twenty years. Way back in the 1980s I saved an article about a state-of-the-art package being used by a major German auto maker to translate one of their technical manuals into English. Things got a bit out of hand. The German word for “suction pipe” (Saugleitung) became “pig gliding” (through misreading this compound word as Sau + Gleitung instead of Saug + Leitung). The overactive dictionary also turned Kathoden (cathodes) into “cat testicles.” German veterinarians would wince.

Medical terms have shown up in some limericks. Here is a good one:

Whenever he got in a fury, a
Dyspeptic from Upper Manchuria
Had pseudocyesis,
And haemotoporphyrimuria.

Too much to tweet, but great fun to share with medical students. If you haven’t Googled the terminology yet: pseudocyesis is false pregnancy, disdiadochokinesis is the loss of the ability to perform rapid alternate movements, and haematoporphyrimuria is the presence of porphyrins in the urine. Our poor Manchurian would have presented a rather pitiful sight with an enlarged abdomen, morning sickness in addition to heartburn, the loss of the ability to wind up his watch, and discoloured urine.

And here is a limerick for the pharmacologically minded:

There was an old lady from Leicester,
Whose numerous ailments obsessed her.
She found no allure
In a medical cure,
And sedatives simply depressed her.

Not leaving our topic too far behind, I am reminded of an anecdote about the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson, which I had occasion to post about a couple of years ago. As a young man Tennyson was afflicted with a painful attack of piles. He visited a youthful but well-known proctologist and was so successfully treated that for many years he had no further trouble. However, after he had become a famous poet and had been raised to the peerage, he suffered a further attack. Revisiting the proctologist, he expected to be recognized as the former patient who had become Britain’s Poet Laureate. The proctologist, however, gave no sign of recognition. It was only when the baronial drawers had been dropped and the patient had bent over for examination that the proctologist exclaimed, “Ah, Tennyson.”

Dying is unequivocally the major cause of death

Milton Berle once said you know you’re old when you order a three-minute egg and they ask for the money up front. My baby boomer generation is deep in crow’s feet; and in keeping with the relentless demographics of aging in our society, interest in some, any, pharmacological fountain of youth is growing.

PharmaGossip, blogging with a sense of humour from the UK,  has posted a splendid send-up of Big Pharma propaganda to the anxiously aging. Basing itself on a report from an industry blog called BNET Pharma, it skewers the questionable drug marketing practices we have come to loathe and vituperate.

Here’s how it begins:

Phoni told the WSJ that it did not know about a study published last week in Nature that claims the life expectancy of mice was increased 9 – 14 percent if they took Heapamunee, a drug Phoni markets to suppress the immune system so that organ transplants won’t be rejected.

A Phoni spokesman called it an “interesting preclinical study” and said that the company had only just become aware of the findings.

“Phoni have only just acquired Heapamunee as a result of our hostile takeover of Whyus,” said Phoni’s President of Global Marketing, Rich Pillager, “and so we’re still working out just what assets we need to strip out of the company before we shut it down. However, following the Nature study, our marketing team is already up to speed on the case.”

Rich Pillager is a wonderful creation, worthy of Martin Amis in his eighties heyday. You can be sure that the Rich Pillagers of the world are working night and day concocting “anti-aging” drugs while convincing us that becoming superannuated is a disease that can best be treated with their magical elixir in a capsule.

PharmaGossip also makes fun of Aubrey de Grey (“Aubrey de Nutcase”), a death-defying British gerontologist and self-advertiser, only slightly altering a real quote of his: “Dying is unequivocally the major cause of death in the industrialized world and a perfectly legitimate target of medical intervention.”

De Grey strikes me as the kind of bloke who reads the obituaries every day and can’t understand why people die in alphabetical order. “It’s time to break out of our denial about aging,” he admonishes. I didn’t know I was in denial. Like Woody Allen, I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens. But I see how it’s pharmamarketing’s prime directive to feed my fears about that clean-sweeping scythe. Is it really true that when you get old your broad mind changes places with your narrow waist? Not at all. Stupidity, greed, deceit, and sheer, undiluted wankery know no age barriers.



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