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The Elusive Butterfly

I am indebted to wood s lot for pointing me to this fascinating piece by Brown University anthropologist William Beeman about the significance of the curious fact that the word for “butterfly” is different in nearly every language, even closely related European ones. (The article has a broad lsting of how you say “butterfly” in numerous European and non-European tongues; see for yourself.)

“I later found that the “butterfly problem” is one of those linguistic curiosities that has lurked at the edges of scholarship for some time without much in the way of a full research effort–the linguistic equivalent of the study of yawning by biomedical researchers.”

Beeman finds that the terms for butterfly usually

“involve a degree of repetitious sound symbolism” and “use visual and auditory cultural metaphors to express the concept; …with the many cases of reiterated b’s, p’s, l’s and f’s (in widely separated language families) one can almost hear the gentle rustle of butterfly wings and see their repetitive motion.”

In the absence of a process of inheritance from a mother tongue or borrowing from a neighboring language, Beeman says that

“the linguistic realization for butterfly might be something welling up from the most basic cognitive creative processes.”

What is it about butterflies, however, that makes them worthy of such distinctive linguistic treatment? Beeman quotes sources which suggest that the butterfly is a uniquely powerful archetype of transformation, although he is not convinced, and concludes that the status of the butterfly in human linguistic cognition may well remain elusive and mysterious.

And here, also thanks to wood s lot, is a page with an extensive list of links to phonosemantics and linguistic iconism.

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Wow. In one of those synchronistic moments, soon after writing the above, someone (and I cannot for the moment reconstruct who it was) pointed me to these posters of letters and numbers found in the designs on the wings of butterflies, about which I have marvelled in the past (and occasionally given as presents). Even if it is a little forced — I would say something like, “Not only does the concept ‘butterfly’ enjoy distinctive human linguistic treatment but the butterfly apparently gives us a distinctive visual-linguistic treat” — such juxtapositions in FmH are so aesthetically pleasing to make…

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Search Inside the Book

“A significant extension of (Amazon’s)… Look Inside the Book feature, Search Inside the Book allows you to search millions of pages to find exactly the book you want to buy. Now instead of just displaying books whose title, author, or publisher-provided keywords match your search terms, your search results will surface titles based on every word inside the book. Using Search Inside the Book is as simple as running an Amazon.com search.” —amazon.com

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Worms hold ‘eternal life’ secret

//newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/39485000/jpg/_39485121_elegans.jpg' cannot be displayed]“A tiny round worm can live six times longer than normal if certain genes and hormones are tweaked, according to a report in the journal Science.

The worms – Caenorhabditis elegans – had a metabolic hormone inhibited and their reproductive systems removed.

They went on to stay healthy and active for a human equivalent of 500 years, which is the longest life-span extension ever achieved by scientists. ” —BBC Are you up for it?

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IQ Yo-Yo:

Test changes alter retardation diagnoses: “Since average scores on particular IQ tests rise a few points every 3 or 4 years, those tests become obsolete after a couple of decades. In order to reset the average score to 100, harder IQ tests are devised every 15 to 20 years.


Trickier tests have no practical impact on people who score within the normal IQ range of 90 to 110. But so-called renormed IQ tests create a yo-yo effect in the number of mental retardation placements in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


Rates of mental retardation among children appear to bottom out near the end of a particular test’s run, followed by a sharp rebound with the introduction of a tougher test, say Tomoe Kanaya, a graduate student at Cornell University, and her colleagues. Scores on the new test then increase over time, pulling many children from just below to just above the score of 70, which stands as the rough cutoff for mental retardation. That trend continues until the next test revision comes along.” —Science News

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Unsolved Mystery

What Controls Variation in Human Skin Color?: “Diversity of human appearance and form has intrigued biologists for centuries, but nearly 100 years after the term genetics was coined by William Bateson in 1906, the genes that underlie this diversity are an unsolved mystery. One of the most obvious phenotypes that distinguish members of our species, differences in skin pigmentation, is also one of the most enigmatic. There is a tremendous range of human skin color in which variation can be correlated with climates, continents, and/or cultures, yet we know very little about the underlying genetic architecture. Is the number of common skin color genes closer to five, 50, or 500? Do gain- and loss-of-function alleles for a small set of genes give rise to phenotypes at opposite ends of the pigmentary spectrum? Has the effect of natural selection on similar pigmentation phenotypes proceeded independently via similar pathways? And, finally, should we care about the genetics of human pigmentation if it is only skin-deep?” —Public Library of Science

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Astronomers plan giant telescope

“US scientists have drawn up plans to build the largest telescope ever seen.

Its 30-metre-diameter mirror would be almost 10 times as big as those in the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, currently the world’s largest observatories.” —BBC If funded and without engineering glitches, the telescope, to be sited at anas-yet-undetermined location in Hawaii, Chile or Mexico, could see first light by 2012. There is also a more fanciful European Large Telescope Project planning a 100-meter ‘scope for a South American site.

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Fishing captain kills shark with bare hands

“An Icelandic fishing captain, known as ‘the Iceman’ for his tough character, grabbed a 300 kg shark with his bare hands as it swam in shallow water towards his crew, a witness said today.


The skipper of the trawler ‘Erik the Red’ was on a beach in Kuummiit, east Greenland, watching his crew processing a catch when he saw the shark swimming towards the fish blood and guts – and his men.


Captain Sigurdur Petursson, known to locals as ‘the Iceman’, ran into the shallow water and grabbed the shark by its tail. He dragged it off to dry land and killed it with his knife.” —Sydney Morning Herald

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Tibetan boy able to recite world’s longest poem after dream

“A 13-year-old Tibetan schoolboy has miraculously memorized large parts of the world’s longest poem after having had a mysterious dream.

Sitar Doje, a fifth-grader from Qamdo prefecture, had his dream two years ago and can now recite ‘The Life of King Gesar’ for up to six hours on end, the Xinhua news agency reported Wednesday.

The agency says Tibet has a long tradition of people waking from sleep inexplicably able to recite the poem from memory.” —Yahoo! News

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The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

John McWhorter, the richly opinionated linguist and controversialist, sets his sights in Doing Our Own Thing on what he (correctly) perceives as the decline of formality in certain aspects of American prose and speech — music, too, though on that subject he has little of interest to say — and the concomitant rise of “casual speech,” a legacy like so much else in our culture of the ’60s and its “mainstreaming of the counterculture.” —Washington Post

Related: Was It as Bad for You as It Was for Me?:

For most scholars, bad academic writing, like bad academic sex, doesn’t call for explanation — or argument.


It’s poor chemistry between writer and reader (pontificator and pontificatee, in the academic version), like lack of sizzle between jaded full professor and enthusiastic asst. prof. It’s failure of Interrogator A to make the noises and gestures that work for Hegemonized Reader B. It may be Defamiliarizer A’s clumsy attempt to shake up the ideological/emotional/instrumental reflexes of Overly Essentialized Reader B. It may be sheer incompetence at nouns, verbs, and adjectives….


The publication of Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena, edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (Stanford University Press), lets us address the more pressing pedagogical issue, and leave bad academic sex for the Human Resources Department. An anthology of essays by opponents of the Bad Academic Writing epithet (including two honored as leading darknesses of the notorious practice), this volume poses the question that could stop all “Writing Across the Disciplines” and comp classes in their tracks: When is bad writing not so bad, even if it’s terrible? —The Chronicle of Higher Education

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After Theory…what?

“As an academic pursuit, cultural theory seems to be more popular today than ever. But according to After Theory, a new book by the prominent left-wing literary theorist Terry Eagleton, ‘the golden age of cultural theory is long past’. While cultural theory has run out of ideas, Eagleton argues that in the wake of 9/11 and the war on Iraq, ‘a new and ominous phase of global politics has now opened, which not even the most cloistered of academics will be able to ignore…

Eagleton is at his strongest when puncturing the pretensions of cultural theory, perhaps because he has spent so much of his career having to wade through this stuff. Complaining about the use of postmodern jargon, he argues that ‘to write in this way as a literary academic, someone who is actually paid for having among other things a certain flair and feel for language, is rather like being a myopic optician or a grossly obese ballet dancer’. Such quips also fill the pages of Eagleton’s Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, published earlier in 2003 – in which he observes dryly that ‘post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity’.


Eagleton is also capable of mounting more serious arguments for rational and comprehensible thought. Among the highlights of After Theory are his lively defences of the concepts of absolute truth – ‘no idea is more unpopular with cultural theory’; and objectivity – ‘objectivity does not mean judging from nowhere…you can only know how the situation is if you are in a position to know’.” —sp!ked

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Are Suicide Bombings Morally Defensible?

“At the center of the maelstrom in Germany is a slim volume by the philosopher Ted Honderich, who until his retirement taught at University College London. The book, After the Terror, is an attempt to reassess global politics in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Written in an offhand, chatty style, its main point — unarguable, as far as it goes — is that first-world nations bear responsibility for third-world nations’ impoverishment. Yet the lines of clarity — and reasonability — quickly blur when Honderich attempts to define the nature of that responsibility and its consequences. At issue, in his view, is not just political responsibility for the deleterious economic consequences of American-backed globalization policies on the part of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, but also a direct moral responsibility allegedly shared by all Westerners. What makes that argument problematic is its blanket refusal to acknowledge any indigenous causes of third-world poverty, be they geographic, climatological, regional, sociological, or political. Rather than promote intelligent reflection on the causes of global social injustice, Honderich is interested in playing a simple blame game. Because Westerners (or at least a good number of them) live affluently, while most third-world denizens languish in squalor, the former are by definition morally culpable exploiters.” —The Chronicle of Higher Education

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UK hospitals in battle to halt invasion of drug dealers

“Sniffer dogs are being used on psychiatric wards across England to root out drug-dealing, which is becoming rife among patients.” An estimated half of British psychiatric institutions have to contend with drug dealers operating in and around their facilities, according to a new study. It is difficult for staff to prevent visitors bringing drugs to patients as they cannot be searched, and staff are reluctant to call law enforcement authorities to deal with infractions for fear of violating patient confidentiality. For ‘cultural reasons’, the article says, staff may turn a blind eye to cannabis use, considering it a patient’s right to relax and enjoy themselves. —Guardian.UK Many schizophrenics, in particular, use cannabis, although it can exacerbate the paranoid feelings and hallucinations they suffer and it antagonizes the therapeutic effects of thier antipsychotic medications. But sniffer dogs??!!

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Preparing for SARS

“Health authorities are preparing for the possible return of the SARS virus this fall, but with any luck they should be able to prevent a global epidemic. The virus is a nasty germ that can inflict terrible harm on anyone who contracts SARS. But the virus is relatively hard to spread and the conditions that allowed the disease to race from nation to nation last season seem unlikely to repeat themselves.” —New York Times

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Annals of Vindictiveness and Contempt:

Naming of agent ‘was aimed at discrediting CIA’: “The Bush administration’s exposure of a clandestine Central Intelligence Agency operative was part of a campaign aimed at discrediting US intelligence agencies for not supporting White House claims that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme, former agency officials said yesterday.

In a rare hearing called by Senate Democratic leaders, the officials said the White House engaged in pressure and intimidation aimed at generating intelligence evidence to support the decision to make war on Iraq.” —Financial Times

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Record industry misses the point

The real reason they’re in trouble: CDs bloated with mediocre: “In Ian Werner’s English class, anger over record industry lawsuits against music downloaders is coalescing into talk of a CD boycott.


The idea, Werner says, is to send out mass e-mails encouraging people not to buy CDs in December, typically the industry’s busiest month. Although Werner stopped downloading songs, the 19-year-old Charlotte college student said he and many of his friends don’t want to pay $18 for a CD with two good songs. ” —Charlotte Observer

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Barbie: the opera

A new opera in Dresden features a doll’s house full of Barbies.

This Barbie spends a lot of her time without her clothes on and has a male alter ego (not the trustworthy Ken doll but a mutated Barbie with brutally cropped hair); together they indulge in wildly experimental sex play. In performance, the action is performed by real Barbies in a real Barbie house, with the musicians and singers behind. The dolls are manipulated by two puppeteers and the action is video-projected on to screens on either side of the house. It is a technical challenge.

Guardian.UK

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Baghdad hotel hit by rocket attack

“Visiting US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has escaped unhurt after a rocket attack on his hotel in Baghdad.


Up to eight rockets were fired at the Hotel al-Rashid, one of the most heavily guarded sites in the Iraqi capital.


A US colonel working for the Coalition Provisional Authority was killed and 15 other people, including 11 Americans and one Briton, were wounded.


But US officials say they believe that Mr Wolfowitz was not a target of the attack, which they suspect was in preparation for ‘a couple of months’.” —BBC

Billmon neatly juxtaposes the US response — abandoning its occupation headquarters and one of the architects for the invasion scurrying for safety with his tail between his legs — with recent dysadministration rhetoric about “taking the fight to the enemy”.

Related: Black Hawk Down: US helicopter brought down by ground fire near Tikrit; resistance grows more determined and sophisticated. —Washington Post

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"…the ironic combination of wakefulness without awareness…"

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In Feeding-Tube Case, Many Neurologists Back Courts: “At the center of the court battle over the immobile body of Terri Schiavo, the 39-year-old Florida woman kept alive by a feeding tube, is a videotape made by her parents. It lasts only minutes but has been played so many times on television and the Internet that it all but defines her.


On the tape, Mrs. Schiavo, propped up in bed, is greeted and kissed by her mother. She is not in the deep, unresponsive sleep of a coma. Her eyes are open, and she blinks rapidly but fairly normally. She seems to follow her mother’s movements, but her mother’s face is too close for that to be clear. Her jaw is slack and her mouth hangs open, but at moments its corners appear to turn up in a faint smile.


To many supporters of Mrs. Schiavo’s parents, who say she should be kept alive on a feeding tube, the tape demonstrates that she can still think and react. But many leading neurologists say that it means no such thing, that the appearances of brain-damaged patients can be very misleading.


Florida courts have ruled, after hearing from several experts who examined her, that Mrs. Schiavo has been in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ — an official diagnosis of the American Academy of Neurology — since her brain was deprived of oxygen when she suffered a heart attack 13 years ago. Her feeding tube was removed on Oct. 15, but it was reinserted six days later after the Florida Legislature gave Gov. Jeb Bush the authority to override the courts.


Patients in vegetative states may have open eyes, periods of waking and sleeping and some reflexes, like gagging, jerking a limb away from pain or reacting to light or noise. They may make noises or faces and even say words.


But they do not, according to academy criteria, show self-awareness, comprehend language or expressions, or interact with others.


A vegetative state “is the ironic combination of wakefulness without awareness,” said Dr. James L. Bernat, a Dartmouth Medical School neurologist and past chairman of the academy’s ethics committee. ” —New York Times

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The Neurobiology of Brand Loyalty

//graphics7.nytimes.com/images/2003/10/22/magazine/26brain.184.jpg' cannot be displayed]

There’s a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex: “When he isn’t pondering the inner workings of the mind, Read Montague, a 43-year-old neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, has been known to contemplate the other mysteries of life: for instance, the Pepsi Challenge. In the series of TV commercials from the 70’s and 80’s that pitted Coke against Pepsi in a blind taste test, Pepsi was usually the winner. So why, Montague asked himself not long ago, did Coke appeal so strongly to so many people if it didn’t taste any better?


Over several months this past summer, Montague set to work looking for a scientifically convincing answer. He assembled a group of test subjects and, while monitoring their brain activity with an M.R.I. machine, recreated the Pepsi Challenge. His results confirmed those of the TV campaign: Pepsi tended to produce a stronger response than Coke in the brain’s ventral putamen, a region thought to process feelings of reward. (Monkeys, for instance, exhibit activity in the ventral putamen when they receive food for completing a task.) Indeed, in people who preferred Pepsi, the ventral putamen was five times as active when drinking Pepsi than that of Coke fans when drinking Coke.


In the real world, of course, taste is not everything. So Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke’s image, its ”brand influence,” by repeating the experiment with a small variation: this time, he announced which of the sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What’s more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink — in a word, its brand — to shape their preference.” —New York Times Magazine

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Why Are We Back in Vietnam?

“However spurious any analogy between the two wars themselves may be, you can tell that the administration itself now fears that Iraq is becoming a Vietnam by the way it has started to fear TV news. When an ABC News reporter, Jeffrey Kofman, did the most stinging major network report on unhappiness among American troops last summer, Matt Drudge announced on his Web site that Mr. Kofman was gay and, more scandalously, a Canadian ” — Frank Rich, New York Times

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Caveat emptor

I’m depressingly traditional as a physician, I realize as I see my distressed reaction to most ‘new trends’ in healthcare, like this one. A Virginia family practice MD scoffs at the idea of seeing the patients in his practice when he can deal with them by phone or email instead. He reportedly feels that ‘the need to physically examine each patient is quickly becoming an anomaly.’

The article focuses on the financial rather than the ethical implications of his practice, which is of course cash-only — he could not accept insurance reimbursement since, silly them, the insurance companies expect their patients to be seen for the provision of medical care. Prominent physician groups such as the AMA and the American College of Physicians have recently taken the position that physicians ought to be able to bill for patient communication connected to providing care, but not as an altenative to seeing them! I’m certain that this physician played hookey in medical school on the days they gave the classes on physician-patient interactions and the value of the therapeutic alliance in the healing process. Is he affording added respect to his patients by relying on their perceptions of what is going on with them —

“The notion that you have to see every cough that walks in the door because it may be pulmonary edema or tuberculosis — give me a break,” (he) said.

— or profoundly disrespectful and devaluing? I think the latter. If patients could diagnose themselves and assess all the factors and observations necessary for treatment, why would they hire doctors in the first place? Actually, it is clear from his fee structure that he does not value so much the patient’s perception as his own omniscience. He charges almost as much — $20 — for every five-minute block he spends on the phone with a patient as he does — $25 — if the time is spent face-to-face in the office. In fact, the reason everyone needs to be seen is precisely that sooner or later something of equivalent severity to a cough turning out to be pulmonary edema will, not may, will, happen. You can be sure that, when it does, this guy will not accept that his practice model was to blame. Some fatuous rationalization about the inevitability of adverse outcomes would follow — no cocksure omniscience at that point! The other classes this guy must have skipped out on in medical school were about game theory and risk-benefit analysis, because he fails to grasp a basic fact about how one weighs the importance of medical actions. The value of an intervention to prevent an adverse outcome is not simply a function of the estimated frequency of a disaster but the product of its frequency and its severity.

His other rationalization for this practice model is that it

is no different from what he did for years as part of a large group, when he would cover night and weekend calls for his partners and treat patients whom he had never met over the phone. Even his liability insurance premium is about what it was when he was with his former practice, he said.

To argue that, because medical care has already become impersonal and exploitative, one ought to accelerate the trend, adds insult to the potential injury he may do. The malpractice insurance provider that covers him ought to drastically increase his premiums — or refuse to cover him all together — for his cockiness and recklessness. And the patients who get snookered into believing that the quality of the medical care this guy could provide was comparable to that they would get from any other doctor who would interact with them face-to-face ought to have their heads examined — in person. —American Medical News

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Caveat emptor

I’m depressingly traditional as a physician, I realize as I see my distressed reaction to most ‘new trends’ in healthcare, like this one. A Virginia family practice MD scoffs at the idea of seeing the patients in his practice when he can deal with them by phone or email instead. He reportedly feels that ‘the need to physically examine each patient is quickly becoming an anomaly.’

The article focuses on the financial rather than the ethical implications of his practice, which is of course cash-only — he could not accept insurance reimbursement since, silly them, the insurance companies expect their patients to be seen for the provision of medical care. Prominent physician groups such as the AMA and the American College of Physicians have recently taken the position that physicians ought to be able to bill for patient communication connected to providing care, but not as an altenative to seeing them! I’m certain that this physician played hookey in medical school on the days they gave the classes on physician-patient interactions and the value of the therapeutic alliance in the healing process. Is he affording added respect to his patients by relying on their perceptions of what is going on with them —

“The notion that you have to see every cough that walks in the door because it may be pulmonary edema or tuberculosis — give me a break,” (he) said.

— or profoundly disrespectful and devaluing? I think the latter. If patients could diagnose themselves and assess all the factors and observations necessary for treatment, why would they hire doctors in the first place? Actually, it is clear from his fee structure that he does not value so much the patient’s perception as his own omniscience. He charges almost as much — $20 — for every five-minute block he spends on the phone with a patient as he does — $25 — if the time is spent face-to-face in the office. In fact, the reason everyone needs to be seen is precisely that sooner or later something of equivalent severity to a cough turning out to be pulmonary edema will, not may, will, happen. You can be sure that, when it does, this guy will not accept that his practice model was to blame. Some fatuous rationalization about the inevitability of adverse outcomes would follow — no cocksure omniscience at that point! The other classes this guy must have skipped out on in medical school were about game theory and risk-benefit analysis, because he fails to grasp a basic fact about how one weighs the importance of medical actions. The value of an intervention to prevent an adverse outcome is not simply a function of the estimated frequency of a disaster but the product of its frequency and its severity.

His other rationalization for this practice model is that it

is no different from what he did for years as part of a large group, when he would cover night and weekend calls for his partners and treat patients whom he had never met over the phone. Even his liability insurance premium is about what it was when he was with his former practice, he said.

To argue that, because medical care has already become impersonal and exploitative, one ought to accelerate the trend, adds insult to the potential injury he may do. The malpractice insurance provider that covers him ought to drastically increase his premiums — or refuse to cover him all together — for his cockiness and recklessness. And the patients who get snookered into believing that the quality of the medical care this guy could provide was comparable to that they would get from any other doctor who would interact with them face-to-face ought to have their heads examined — in person. —American Medical News