Better living through websearch ads (and materials science)

So, there’s a story I want to tell, but it actually involves a somewhat embarassing minor medical malady, and so (for our web viewers if not our feed viewers) I’m going to bury it in the extended entry.It started with an ingrown toenail. (Now, already I am feeling like a parody of the really boring blogger who is determined to involve you in every tiny and disagreeable detail of his miserable little life. Cat blogging is one thing – {ingrown toenail, hemorrhoid, acne, constipation} blogging is clearly even worse. But bear with me, please, I’m going somewhere with this.)

I’d never had an ingrown toenail before, and it had always been in the back of my mind there along with hangnails as a silly and trivial ailment. But once it arrived, it actually wasn’t that trivial. This is one of those very non-life-threatening things that still has the potential to mess with your quality of life. What happens is that the toenail of your big toe curves more than it should, and an outer edge starts to … snag your toe as it grows. If you try to deal with this by trimming the corner of the toenail (as I did) it makes things worse. Soon it’s an all-out war between nail and flesh.

So this problem is not that huge or that painful most of the time, unless you go out of your way to aggravate it, say … by using your feet to walk on. Or by deciding to put on shoes. But for quite a while the only exercise I’d gotten was from hiking, and then for a six-month period I did not hike, because of this problem.

So I got sick of it, and was determined now to seek medical counsel, and did some web searches that kind of brought me down. (The first alternative is minor surgery; if that doesn’t go well, they remove the entire nail, etc.). But one of my searches was for the phrase: “ingrown toenail treatment”, and the top of the _ads_ for that phrase caught my eye. (See http://www.nailease.com — they had clearly bought that specific search phrase.)

Here’s what they were selling: the basic idea is that you want to persuade the toenail to be less curved, so the remedy is to attach a straight piece of material to the top of the toenail — essentially a spring that wants to be straight, even though the toenail it’s attached to is curving. Where materials science comes into it is that most springs eventually lose their springiness — they give up, and resign themselves to being bent. But a particular graphite composite that was developed for some purpose or other for NASA rockets is very determinedly springy — even when bent for a long time, it never forgets that it was straight once, and wants to be straight again. The pressure it exerts is very mild, but unrelenting.

The ad looked dodgy, but I said “what the hell!” and ordered one of these kits (only $15). When it arrived it had complex instructions and supporting tools, but the basic idea was: superglue this graphite strip to your toenail. The first one didn’t adhere well, mostly due to user error; I ordered another one, which took.

The upshot is that, after a couple of weeks, the whole thing is markedly better. And I have no doubt that it’s due to the brace: it started getting better within a day of application, I can feel its action a bit, and can actually see the decrease in curvature. I’m no longer planning to see a doctor about it, and I’ve already started to take long walks again.

Now, let’s forget about the details of this embarassing medical complaint, and just consider what matters: I was somewhat unhappy, and then was made less unhappy by this thing I ordered through the mail. I would have been somewhat crankier, in mild pain, fatter (no hiking), less healthy if I had not procured this remedy, or else I would have undergone a moderately expensive medical procedure to try to fix it. I would never have found out about this treatment if I hadn’t used a search engine (there are endorsing doctors and affiliated drugstores, but none of them are within 500 miles of me). The list of implicated technologies is long: computers, the cheap PC, TCP/IP, HTTP, … , materials science for rocketry, …, clinical medical studies, … , search engines, search engine ad placement … all of these brought to bear on the problem of my poor little (big) toe, and all of which were needed for the problem to go away.

(A blog topic for another day: what happens when you tell this story (including the list of technologies required) to someone, and then ask whether the story is a victory for the government or for business? This is a pretty reliable right/left litmus test. Pro-government people will focus on the funding of science; pro-business people on the deployment and realization via markets. And of course _both_ sides will take credit for the Internet and the Web (and of course, they’re both right).)

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