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Musings from the Frigid Tundra (Thanks to the ones who left open the freezer door this week)

January 21, 2009
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Posted By: Warren Kraft, Assistant City Attorney/HR Director, West Bend (Wisconsin)

Winter’s grip always tightens in mid-January.  The gloom-and-doom weather forecasters predict dangerous wind chills additional to bouts of two-to-five inch snowfalls this week, sometimes strong enough winds to create blizzard-like conditions where metropolitan communities still struggle to remove the after effects of record-setting December snowfalls.  And, still to come: the annual news items concerning Seasonal Affective Disorder.

So, the other day, trying to reach my daughter on her cellphone, I could only leave messages.  Text messages 🙂 (yes, I learned how to do that recently) also went unanswered.  When she finally connected on her boyfriend’s phone, I heard the ever-frequent reason that her cellphone died.  Haven’t you heard of a charger, honey, I asked as sweet as I could to mask my frustration.  But, Dad, she replied in her customary you-are-sometimes-so-dumb response, don’t you know that you’re suppose to run out the charge on your battery before recharging it, so it doesn’t keep failing.

Oh, for the days of rotary dial phones, with one party-line coming into the house, so we kids could eavesdrop on our Dutch speaking neighbors’ conversation.  Not that we could understand a word of it, but the language sounded so “cool” compared to what we spoke.

And, so it is that the David Brown story in Monday’s WASHINGTON POST caught my eye: Cellphones’ Growth Does a Number on Health Research.  His lead sentence reads, “In our information-crazy, never-out-of-touch world, it’s becoming harder and harder to find out who we are and what we do.”

In a column reminiscent of last fall’s presidential election polling, it appears that the health researchers also face difficulty tracking down and contacting eligible survey participants. “Cellular telephones are perhaps the biggest threat to survey data that epidemiologists have confronted in years,” Mr. Brown wrote. “Young people, men and Hispanics are all more likely than the “average” American to have cellphones only. But those demographic factors don’t explain everything. Even after they are taken into account by statistical means, cellphone-only users are different.”

He must have met my daughter.

My Water Cooler colleagues helped me navigate to FACEBOOK because the scouts with whom I work advised me last summer that e-mail was SO 20th century, and that if I wanted to contact them quickly for future scout functions and arrangements, I need a FACEBOOK presence. [Most of our adult troop leaders have now joined. And we thought our Yahoo! Group mailing list was chique!]  While I tracked down one of my long-lost high school classmates this way, I now have a pending “friend” request from a colleague of the law firm.  Something does not seem “right” about that request.

Then, there is texting; my son’s favorite pastime.  As others will attest, the most unusual moments occur when he and his friend are texting each other as I am driving them both somewhere, like a restaurant for “free” food (well free to them) and as they sit across the table from each other in between refills from the buffet.  Remember how we feel when we get to leave a voice message on the phone of an individual when we really did not want to yet talk to that person?  Nowadays, just ignore the text message.  “My phone died, Dad, and it doesn’t save the unopened messages.”  Or, one of our scouts who texts when he really doesn’t want to talk to us leaders but knows he has to convey some type of message.

Back to Mr. Brown’s article, he continues, “But the problem goes beyond changing technology and responsiveness. It turns out that people answer the same question differently depending on how you reach them — a ‘mode effect’.” Respondents on cellphones answer differently than land-line respondents.  “For example, when a group of people with the same age, race and education are called on a conventional phone, 25 percent say they smoke, but on a cellphone 31 percent say they do. On a land line, 38 percent say they have been tested for HIV, while on a cellphone 54 percent say they have.”  One researcher, Ali H. Mokdad, an epidemiologist, speculated that people on land lines are usually at home and believe they have a role and image to maintain even though they answer in private. “’They are less likely to say something bad about their own behavior. It’s like ‘This is my house…’, ” Mr. Brown writes.

As I log in to FACEBOOK and see the updates from my “friends,” some have little shame about sharing their own behavior with the Internet community.  On the one hand, it is fun to see the New Year ’s Eve pictures of my son celebrating with his girlfriend’s family in the Dominican Republic.  And, now, some cellphone users can update their profiles without being at their computers.

Mr. Brown concludes that today’s health survey, something that probably was fairly simple and straightforward in the days of exclusively land-lined homes, is no longer.  “It’s a bit like making sausage,” said Christopher J.L. Murray, a University of Washington physician and epidemiologist. “As soon as you start to explore how surveys are made,” he said, “you begin to see how difficult it is to get consistent information at the population level over time.”

Dr. Murray must have heard about my daughter.  Do you wonder if they might be FACEBOOK friends?

Or, is it just time to curl up in front of the warming fireplace and wait out the latest gifts of winter from north of “the border?”

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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.