Sunday, August 31, 2008

Badder Science Through Media Frenzy

Ben Goldacre, who writes the entertaining and informative Bad Science, has a book coming out Monday and has posted an excerpt on his aforementioned blog. 

As an aside, here's little style question for you: since, in the US, it's customary to put punctuation inside quotation marks, should we consider as an extension of the same principle that punctuation also belongs inside web links? 

I'm torn. In the html it really looks like it should be that way, but I don't know how I feel about links that include commas, say. These are the things that keep me up at night.

As another aside, an earlier Bad Science post shows a picture of the author holding his book, and I found myself a little surprised that he looked the way he apparently does. I wondered why, since I wasn't aware of having any particular reason to expect Ben Goldacre to look any particular way, but eventually concluded that since he illustrates his blog with an image of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster, I must have sort of expected him to look like that. You know, grouchy and with knobs on his neck. It's funny how any image associated with a name will become a background idea of how that person actually looks.

I should note that Ben Goldacre does not, in fact, resemble Boris Karloff in any very striking way.

Anyway, I liked the excerpt, which talks about the way scientific information is played in the media and how that has a lot to do with what's seen as important. He uses the autism/vaccine scare as an example, and notes that vaccine scares tend to be localized.

If I may quote at length:

Before we begin, it’s worth taking a moment to look at vaccine scares around the world, because I’m always struck by how circumscribed these panics are. The MMR and autism scare, for example, is practically non-existent outside Britain. But throughout the 1990s France was in the grip of a scare that hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis.

In the US, the major vaccine fear has been around the use of a preservative called thiomersal, although somehow this hasn’t caught on here, even though that same preservative was used in Britain. In the 1970s there was a widespread concern in the UK, driven again by a single doctor, that whooping-cough vaccine was causing neurological damage.

What the diversity of these anti-vaccination panics helps to illustrate is the way in which they reflect local political and social concerns more than a genuine appraisal of the risk data, because if the vaccine for hepatitis B, or MMR, is dangerous in one country, it should be equally dangerous everywhere; and if those concerns were genuinely grounded in the evidence, especially in an age of the rapid propagation of information, you would expect the concerns to be expressed by journalists everywhere. They’re not.

I think this is really interesting, since I'm of course familiar with the vaccine/autism questions here in the United States, but wasn't aware that in France there was a concern that a vaccine caused MS. Also, from the sounds of it, in the US the concern is with all vaccines, whereas in the UK, the fear is that the MMR vaccine specifically is the focus of alarm. 

Just another reminder of the importance of evaluating information carefully and not assuming that whatever's on the front page is the full story or even a very important story.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Non-Problem I Didn't Have

I was not familiar with diverticulosis, nor with the fact that long-standing treatment advice discouraged the eating of nuts by those who had it, but as one who is very fond of nutty goodness, the idea of such a thing sent a chill through my blood as soon as I heard of its existence.

However, it turns out that this forbidden-nut problem I don't have is not a problem even for people who do have the condition, since the NutritionData blog reports that a recent other report (not linked, but I suspect its abstract is here in JAMA) suggests that nuts are in no way to blame for "diverticular bleeding or uncomplicated diverticulosis."

Whew. How are those long sentences working out for you? 

Apparently diverticulosis is quite common, involving small pouches that form in the lining of the intestine, and the traditional thinking has been that nuts and seeds might get stuck in the pouches and aggravate the condition.

To which I say, "ew." But since that worry appears to be unfounded, I will feel free to eat nuts and seeds with my usual abandon. Especially those chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. 

[Formerly semi-articulate post deteriorates into drooling.]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Other Peoples' Vacations

Despite supposedly being on vacation, Maggie Maher at Health Beat has a fabulous monster of a post about a Census Bureau report on "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2007."

She discusses details of the report's findings, historical context, implications for health policy, etc. I can't begin to do it justice. You must check it out!

In other news, so far I feel about being a librarian a lot like I felt when I'd just started library school. I'm tired, but it's great!

There's a lot to learn, lots of things to piece together. Some stupidly basic things I already learned way back when, like (hypothetically) that monographs typically have call numbers but serials do not. (Ahem.)

Some things specific to this library, like where, if people get paged, they can find a telephone (right over there!).

Some things specific to this library but certainly transferable, like what resources go well with which subject guides. Subject guides are way cool.

So yeah, I'm librarian-ing it up and life is good.

Now I suppose tomorrow will be the day everything starts to go downhill and I become filled with bitterness and unfocused rage. Watch this space for further updates!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I hear today is the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Nice! 

I've always liked that amendment. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Fun Stuff for Visual Learners

Slate has an interesting slide show up about 'infoviz' (information visualization) art, or "art that uses information patterns as paint."

While none of the pieces they depict is specifically about libraries (siiiiiiigh...why isn't it all about me yet?), there are pharmaceutical and research tie-ins we can work with from a health information standpoint. Other pieces address relationships, chess-playing computers and the popularity of names, which are also entertaining subjects. 

The article refers the reader to a couple of other sites for more of this, including Visual Complexity, which I've previously encountered and liked on another blog, back in the mists of time when I was at university. (Nostalgic sigh.) The site is neatly divided into categories, including one for biology that includes a project to map the human "diseasome." Now that's health-library-tech-related!

The other recommended site, called information aesthetics, also has some nice images. The presentation there is not quite as conducive to browsing, to my mind, but there's still some interesting stuff.

Displaying information is pretty much a Subject of Interest for me, so I think this is very cool. Check it out!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Taking Overdue Books Seriously

It apparently does not do to disregard your library fines in Grafton, WI

A woman was arrested after disregarding the library's communications. That sounds a little extreme, but on the other hand, she also ignored a notice to appear in court. 

At that point, I imagine you're being arrested not so much for the original offense, as for failing to obey the legal summons. 

And while I'm not necessarily all about arresting people for failing to pay their overdue fines (although I am all about returning your books on time, and if you don't, just suck it up and pay the fine already), but we can't really go around encouraging people to cavalierly dismiss the requests of the justice system, right? 

If people can just do that without repercussion, the whole thing falls apart! Anarchy and zombies are the only logical result!

So I guess the take-away lesson is, pay your library fines on time, but especially, don't mess with the courts.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Second Degree Auto-Vampirism

In case anyone ever wonders how responsible and upstanding and all-around ordinary and un-alarming a citizen I am, I would like to present this post as evidence to which generations yet to come may point in horror.

Tonight, I feasted hungrily on MY OWN BLOOD.

It had been transformed, through some strange alchemy, into chocolate-covered strawberries. So I'm also a sorcerer. Warn the children! By which I mean the medical students!

Actually I had chocolate-covered strawberries for supper. That's not horrifying (though nutritionists would perhaps advise against making a habit of it), but I got the coupon for the strawberries when I went to donate blood, so in a sense---not an accurate sense, but a sensationalistic sense, and sensationalism sells---I was consuming, as noted, MY OWN BLOOD.

Later I had some vegetables and chick peas, but it's all about having dessert first around here (another shameless affront to normal decent folk everywhere). And you know what makes the best dessert.

That's right: MY OWN BLOOD. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Visual Learners Rejoice

This is pretty cool: PubMed is now indexing JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments

JoVE, in the site's own words, "is a peer reviewed, open access, online journal devoted to the publication of biological research in a video format." It publishes videos demonstrating research and experimental techniques in categories from Basic Protocols to Immunology, and looks like a really useful educational resource. 

I'm totally going to try some of these techniques at home, too. Proper Care and Cleaning of the Microscope? I'm all over it. (OK, I'm lying. I do my part to practice proper lab safety, by not attempting to do anything near or related to labs.)

This announcement back in April notes that inclusion in PubMed "demonstrates the official acceptance of new approaches to science communication, such as video online, by the scientific community," and this really does seem noteworthy. There are a lot of valuable resources that it could be handy to have indexing access to, and not all may be in conventional journal form (to the extent that even a lot of journals are 'conventional' anymore, considering the amount of material on the web). 

A not-primarily-print format journal providing the kind of value that merits PubMed indexing suggests that newer media forms are maturing and getting some recognition. Interesting stuff!

David Rothman gets credit for alerting me to this. I mean, I was just about to notice it myself, on one of my regularly scheduled reviews of the entire list of indexed journals, but...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

But 'Innate' is so IN!

Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection had an interesting post recently on the use of the word 'innate' in biological, scientific-type contexts, where it seems there's not really a universally agreed upon meaning for it.

I've tended to use it more or less as a dictionary defines it, to mean some quality that just is in a thing. It doesn't have to be learned or installed, and by implication also can't really be removed or practiced away: it's just there.

But the post, arising from a talk the author heard given by a philosophy professor, discusses how this general understanding, while perhaps working fine for poet turns of phrase, is biologically vague and its use in research and scientific texts is somewhat problematic. 

The post talks about some of the things scientists seem to mean when they use the word, including approaches based on seeing traits as typical, as representing adaptiveness of traits, or as indicating fixity of traits.

The post covers this much better than that clumsy summary, and is an intriguing look at how language shapes what we talk about, and certain words may or may not accurately convey uniform impressions of the ideas we try to work with. 

Is what I mean to say the same as what you hear? And is either one of those things a useful summary of reality as best we understand it?

I'm interested in language, so this sort of thing is always good for some happy reflection for me. [Gazing into distance with goofy smile on face]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Exciting Personal Health Issue of the Day

Or yesterday, actually.

Yesterday was Friday, and I was hurrying from work to the train station feeling pretty good on account of it was the weekend and I just finished my first week as a real live librarian, and I think things are going well so far, and it wasn't quite pouring rain the way it has been every other time you look up lately.

Also, a friend we hadn't seen in a while was in town and we were going to meet him and catch up, and that was something fun to look forward to. 

So I was feeling fine, it's Super Happy Fun Friday, and I was very focused on getting to that train station as quickly as possible so I could get downtown and the festivities could commence, and I wanted to be on the other side of the street. 

Since there were a bunch of cars waiting at a red light, I just crossed in front of them even though there wasn't a WALK sign, 'cause hey, they're stopped, they're at a red light. Except I think there was also a green arrow for a turning lane, so I actually scurried right in front of an oncoming car.

I was more bumped than hit by the car, not to sound too dramatic. Also, in retrospect it was a pretty small car. Nevertheless, I don't recommend it.

My focus in an accident shrinks to pretty much just the immediate, so I only remember impressions of "on hood---OK---coming off hood---not good if car keeps going over me---car stopped---good---better pick up my stuff!"

Jumping up and picking up my stuff was for some reason the top priority, so I could get out of the street without leaving anything behind, you know. But considering that I was able to do so, this was a pretty good outcome.

It was totally my fault for dashing into the street without really looking, like an idiot. Ironically, I had recently read this article in the Boston Globe Magazine about how "Boston drivers are bad, but Boston pedestrians might be worse." The piece notes that twice as many pedestrians as drivers/passengers of cars were killed in Boston over the last five years; 14 just last year.

When I read the article (which is quite interesting, if anyone's in the mood for some information on traffic planning) I thought, well, I jaywalk and stuff, everyone does, but I'm not completely reckless about it like some people! 

I spoke too soon.

But I'm fine, other than being embarrassed by the fact that I'm a reckless idiot pedestrian. I got up and walked away, hung out with my friend last night and had a good time, and today have just a couple of scrapes and bruises. I didn't even lose or break any of my stuff.

I expect the car wasn't going very fast, and the impact was probably about what it would have been if, say, a large human had charged me and knocked me down. While wearing full plate mail. (Which happens more often than you'd think. I lead an eventful life.)

On the one hand, it kind of sucked---my Super Happy Fun Friday, and then I get hit by a car! That's terrible!

On the other hand, I got hit by a car and was fine---I'm the luckiest person around! That day was great!

In closing, I'm going to try to be less of a reckless idiot pedestrian in future (thinking back, I could probably have stood to arrive a few seconds later at the train station). I'm really lucky to have gotten out of a collision with a car without any real damage, and I know it could have been bad. 

I also apologize to the person who hit me: it was my fault, and I'm sorry to have messed up her evening by making her deal with the stress of hitting someone with her car, which pretty much no one wants to do. I bet that sucks too. 

For those following along at home: if you must dart into traffic, at least look around.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Keeping in Touch

I got a friendly note yesterday from the Alumni Association at my alma mater (hi, Alabama!), asking for information on what I'm doing, how the family is faring, what the harvest looks like (hair), whether my hereditary weeping boils have subsided, and so forth. 

I would return the lovely postage-paid card with spaces for filling in my name, address, home phone, place of employment and work phone, but...well, it's just a postcard. All that information is just there, totally exposed in the mail for anyone to see! 

Not that anyone cares, but with all the identity theft worries these days, is it really a good idea to send that kind of information through open mail?

I admit this may be an unreasonable apprehension. After all, my home phone is listed in the phone book (I think---I haven't looked at a phone book in years, so I'm just guessing), my work phone will be on the internet once that website is updated, and I put my home address on the outside of every piece of mail I send anyway, usually in the form of one of those little return address labels that various  organizations send out in the vain hope that people will give them money. (I suppose some kind people must actually give them money.)

Am I getting weirdly paranoid about harmless low-tech identity-distribution, while blithely strewing personal information to the trillion-plus corners of the internet, and, therefore, spending my worry-points in exactly the wrong place?

It is entirely possible.

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's Me---In Poster Form!

The ALA website has a fun program that lets you make your own miniature version of their classic celebrity READ postures

I can't find any pictures of myself holding up a book in a proper showcase-y manner, so in honor of the interest in Gaming in Libraries, here's me expressing enthusiasm for a rousing game of Arkham Horror.* 

I know, the composition sucks---the original picture shows more of the gorgeous board and cards for this game, but if I had the ALA site focus on those, my magnificent look of awe was lost. 

Also, the 'Or Play Games' kind of disappears. But this is what you get in three minutes. I could do it better, but it's about time for bed here. Maybe later.

I credit LibrarianInBlack with making me aware of this particular bit of awesome.

*This game rocks. Someone who lives near me and owns it needs to invite me over for game night.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Nagging Melon Question Answered at Last

In a moment of reckless optimism a couple of days before heading out on vacation, I decided that sure we could eat an entire cantaloupe before we left---no problem, let's buy one!

Then we didn't touch it for two days. 

It could not be left to sit on top of the refrigerator unsupervised until we returned, since it would undoubtedly seize the opportunity to spoil, so the night before we left, after a free preview screening of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (short review: no evident connection with health or libraries, depressing underuse of Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li), I sliced it into little pieces and put it in the freezer. 

I really didn't know if it would be any good that way. When I tried freezing whole bananas, the results were not pretty (peel and mash them first, then freeze them for later banana bread, but beware that a whole frozen banana, allowed to thaw, will melt into a soggy blob of mush that is somehow both sticky and slimy). 

Still, if the result was terrible, that was really no worse than leaving the melon to rot while we were gone.

This evening, feeling peckish, I got some out to try. It was frozen, all right, and was initially too hard to chip out of the container, but after a few minutes it thawed enough to work with and I am pleased to report that it was quite palatable. Like a melon-flavored ice cube, with a little texture. Very refreshing on a warm humid evening, too. 

I need hardly mention, but will do so in the interests of appearing to be writing about something relevant to health, that cantaloupe is one of those fruits and vegetables we're advised to eat in vast quantities. It is rich in melon-y goodness, as you can see from this exhaustive breakdown. Mmm, delicious vitamins A and C, potassium, some iron, calcium and fiber. Hail produce!

So I heartily recommend frozen melon as a tasty and cooling and incredibly easy summer dessert, and will not hesitate to freeze another one, one of these days. 

I bet watermelon would work too. I've made a watermelon sorbet before, and it was almost entirely melon after a lot of pureeing in a blender. Why not cut out the middlemachine and just freeze hunks of fruit? 

There may be a reason, but I won't let that stop me from trying it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Family Portraits

It was pouring cold rain earlier, so I rushed into the house and changed into a fuzzy sweatshirt. Now, after a few hours sitting under a warm laptop trying to catch up on blog feeds (only 727 unread posts left!), I'm starting to be hot and sweaty, but am too lazy to get up and change again.

In case you wonder why I mention this, I just feel it's important information for my legions of fans to know, serving as a valuable reminder that I cannot be counted on to take any action that requires moving away from the internet, even if it would increase my own comfort. Such is my dedication to keeping informed. 

In other news, Healthbolt writes about what sounds like an interesting website and personal health information resource:

It's designed to allow members to input health information about their family in order to track and have handy those details about relatives that you're asked by doctors. Did anyone in your family have heart disease? Diabetes? Put it in here!

The site's 'about' page says that you and other relatives can jointly work on the record, so if you could get buy-in from enough aunts and uncles and cousins, I could see this really being a rich and detailed resource. Even if you only keep track of the stuff you personally know about, or can fill in from asking, it could be useful, if only by giving you a way to keep this information in one internet-accessible place where you could look it up before meeting with a new doctor. 

I've filled out a few of those family history forms in doctor's offices, and honestly can't say with certainty that I've always listed the same information (or even the right information), because I may not have remembered it the same from one year to another. Also, sometimes I just make up stuff about hereditary weeping boils, so I'll sound more interesting. 

MyFamilyHealth, which lets patients share information with their doctors and presumably with any new doctors who may be consulted, could helpfully intervene to solve this pesky concern. 

The site also ties itself into the hot new topic of genetic screening, suggesting that you can "Discover if you or your family members could benefit form [sic] specific diagnostic, genetic or screening tests." Nifty.

I'm moderately intrigued, though too lazy and busy reading blogs to sign up for an account at the moment.

I should note, too, that it was 08-08-08, so I really should have baked 8-shaped cookies or something to celebrate, but I didn't. I hope you enjoyed that little anecdote.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


You know how you take a break in routine, say by going away to Montana for a week, and then when you come back it takes a while to get into the groove again? 

Yeah, so I have 1,000+ (it only counts up to a thousand, so that could be 1,001 or 40,000 for all I know) unread posts in my RSS reader. It's going to take me a while to get caught up here.

In the meantime, until I am reacquainted with my feeds and have health, technical or library-related things to muse about, I'll just note that I found this Boston Globe Magazine article interesting. It's about an increase in female bank robbers in the past several years:

In 2002, according to the FBI, women accounted for approximately 4.9 percent of all bank robbers; in 2003, for 5.4 percent; in 2004, for 5.7 percent; and in 2005, for 6 percent. In 2006, the last year for which the FBI has complete statistics, about 6.2 percent of bank robbers were women - a 25 percent increase since 2002.

The article suggests that as women have come to see themselves as participants in various spheres (law, business, politics) and to take more active roles in public life, they have also come to think of crime as an option as viable for them as for men. 

The piece notes that 80% of crime is still committed by men, and since only 16% of the 110th US congress is female, perhaps gender equality is proceeding a little more quickly in crime than in law. Which I guess could make sense: it's presumably easier to commit crimes than to get elected to public office. (I'm not going to get into the obvious politician jokes there, but feel free to snicker among yourselves.)

Naturally I'm not saying it's a great thing that anyone is robbing banks---that's my money in there too, you know---but I don't think it's any more dreadful that it's women than that it's men. People of both genders are people, and people often do stuff I personally dislike. For some reason, few of them consult me. 

And that, my friends, is just one of the things that is so terribly wrong with this world. Time to sigh dismally and go read other, better blog posts.