The acamedic and the hand-washing problem

27 Aug 2009

Liz was happy it wasn't a physicist this time.

Physicists were usually bad cases. Not the way you'd expect --- no weird glowing gadgets and radiation burns. Not even hazardous lasers. No; instead they were hollow-eyed quantum folks, human husks that lay curled on the floor muttering things a mind without a Ph.D. couldn't understand. Basically the "Walls wouldn't stand --- planes wouldn't fly" stuff with gradients and contour integrals thrown in, or the glassy-eyed drooling "I'm n-furcating into ten to the sixth plus minus ten to the fourth worlds every second!" stuff, which was frankly creepy. Happened all the time once they really got into the quantum mindset; her guess was that it was three weeks of heavy speculative work and then, bing! a psychosis.

Or many years of calm, productive work, and then all of a sudden, bing! bing! bing! and a person flinging around shaven hamsters with little papier-mache wings, saying it would be a groundbreaking result if he could get macroscopic objects to quantum tunnel through the walls.

Biologists were almost as bad; not because of any animals (not since the incident of the chancellor and the hidden incontinent rabbit), but because things tended to escalate with them. She had contemplated putting up a sign in their lounge, saying "YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO POP YOUR OR THE PERSON NEXT DOOR'S SHOULDER BACK INTO PLACE SO PLEASE DO NOT TRY"; but that might be seen as disrespectful.

It was a mathematician this time; by Liz's experience this could be a very bad thing, or then not. Could be someone who had gotten trapped under a falling bookshelf, and not called for help until all working pens were out of reach (one with a laptop had lain in place for two days before someone happened in); could as well be someone whose complaint was "my hand doesn't open the door anymore", and whose reason was (largely) unmedical, being a mix-up with the keys.

She knocked, entered, and took in the room. Shelves full of papers and some books; a plastic skull atop one; a few faded conference announcement posters decorating the walls; a battered wooden desk, an office chair so beat-up it looked like a gas-driven projectile enema just waiting to happen, and sitting on it, a shriveled man.

It was difficult to see his age behind the thick glasses and the chalk dust-covered skin; late thirties was her guess by the yellowing of the papers all around them.

"Academic medic Liz Riddell, hi. You called?"

The man frowned, blinked, then opened his mouth with almost childish glee. "Oh yes! That bothersome practical thing."

She sucked in a breath --- oh, no. Let it be just a coincidence that those were the very words that had began her introduction into the bothersome case of "I think I saw someone sitting in a room quite dead this morning; blood running out of nose and all. Is that, er, the sort of a thing I should tell someone like you? If this doesn't concern you I'm sorry to have wasted your --- er, are you all right?" Then, a case of spatial dementia and ninety-six offices later, the passed-out professor of statistics with hemophilia.

"Practical thing?"

"Ah yes. It is this, this swine flu thing. Matter. Event cluster."

She took an involuntary step back.

"Or rather this" --- the mathematician waved a sheet of paper --- "this instruction about it. To quote verbatim, 'Everyone is expected to wash their hands for at least 15 seconds for each toilet visit.'"

"Er, what of it?"

"By a conservative estimate of mine, during my childhood I visited the toilet roughly 6570 times, plus-minus 50 as I did not keep exact count; on roughly 10% of those visits, plus-minus 2%, I was in too much of a hurry to wash my hands. In addition to these, an estimated 1210 plus-minus 120 times I visited to pick up ---"

"Wh-what does this have to do with..."

"By largely similar estimates I have calculated that to retroactively achieve the desired result of 15 seconds per each toilet visit I should have to wash my hands for at least eight hours, nine minutes and thirty seconds, plus-minus fifteen minutes and fifteen."


"Given, of course, certain trivial assumptions on the definition of a toilet and a toilet visit, and the exclusion from consideration of diapers, since I could not find a published, peer-reviewed paper laying out the necessary terminology; but I have a graduate student working on that. I am honestly surprised there hasn't been a wider outcry about this frankly nonsensical and easily misinterpreted policy. I am a busy man, and I do not have the time to spare."

last updated: (Mar 15 2011)