Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Death Peanuts on the March

Being at least as interested in peanut butter and hysteria as I am in legal matters, I naturally perked right up from an afternoon headache to pay attention to this BMJ column by Nicholas A. Christakis (via Well).

It suggests that the current social concern with peanut allergies may be an example of mass psychogenic illness (called "epidemic hysteria" in the olden days), which is "a social network phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people in a cascade of anxiety."

So should we all get off Facebook? Now now now?!

Ha, not really. I do know the difference between one use of the term 'social network' and another.

But it is interesting to think of ourselves as being in the midst of an epidemic hysteria, isn't it?

The idea is based on the author's interpretation of measures taken to protect allergic children as being wildly excessive given the risk (which is real for some, but small population-wide in comparison to the danger posed by things like swimming pools, automobiles, and sports, which kill way more children than food allergies do).

It increases my determination to continue eating peanut butter at every opportunity. Fight hysteria! With excited exclamation points!

Ahhhhhhh! Peanuts!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sorry, CSI-Watchers

I just got called for jury duty (although due to a reschedule, not until April, which is far enough away to not actually exist), so I'm intrigued by court-related things at the moment.

I found this interesting article in Annual Reviews (subscription required) on Failed Forensics: How Forensic Science Lost Its Way and How It Might Yet Find It.

It talks about the "nonscience forensic sciences" that underlie a lot of the evidence presented in court cases, explaining that techniques of 'individualization' (or precisely determining that a single finger, bullet, shoe, set of teeth, etc. and no other in the world was responsible for a mark) are not actually very closely related to the testable, falsifiable theories that we think of as science.

The article more than once links forensic techniques with religious ritual, as well as with discredited sciences like phrenology. It seems that handwriting identification and other forensic techniques are based on subjective judgments and personal interpretations more than on any testable theories, and are admitted in court more because they have been admitted in the past than because they are objectively good sources of information.

It says that forensic fields often claim the possibility of providing an error rate of zero; that there is no chance that the results could be mistaken. Obviously we want to keep the chance of mistaken identification as low as possible, but I don't know, claiming infallibility seems a little bold.

The article talks about how the science of forensic identification has been shaped by the needs of the courts, as well as by the objective attempt to narrow down a pool of potential suspects. Plaintiffs need doubt, and prosecutors need certainty, and everyone is interested in convicting criminals, so there's a lot of interesting potential for pressure.

Another concern is that lawyers and judges, like many of us, are not particularly well versed in the scientific method, and lack the understanding of statistics, error rates, and other things that would allow them to distinguish science from impressive nonscience. It's therefore easy to see how things might be allowed as evidence despite not actually being well grounded in the scientific method.

I don't have any say over what's admitted as evidence, but I'll try to remember that things like fingerprint analysis, which we tend to assume are pretty soundly scientific, may not be as ironclad as we think.

Failed Forensics: How Forensic Science Lost Its Way and How It Might Yet Find It
Annual Review of Law and Social Science
Vol. 4: 149-171 (Volume publication date December 2008)
First published online as a Review in Advance on July 8, 2008

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Play it Cool--But Not Too Cool

Inspired by this Dangerous Intersection post about cost-saving measures in Japan, I would like to take the opportunity to whine about a long-standing peeve of mine: icy-cold interiors in summer.

I am willing to accept that I may need to wear sweaters indoors in the winter. When it's 95 degrees outside, however, I do not really wish to wear a sweater indoors.

I am often faintly annoyed by the fact that I have to remember to carry a sweater or other form of warm outer garment with me when I go out, because you never know when you'll find yourself in a place where the air conditioning is turned down to 65. Sometimes I forget, and then I wind up chilled and shivering. Indoors. In the summer.

I tell you, it's unnatural! Also, it makes me cranky.

In addition, as the (briefly, before I began to whine) referenced post above mentions, it's expensive to chill interior environments to Arctic temperatures. And who can afford to fling money around like confetti in these trying times?

It's in everyone's best interests to let things warm up a bit: this is totally not just something I'm obsessed about because I can't remember to carry a jacket.

Now I'm not arguing for everyone just hanging out and sweating stoically because by gum that's what our hardy ancestors did. They would have leapt on AC if they'd had the chance. In fact they did, as soon as they did have the chance, and here we are. (I like to remind myself that our long-suffering forebears couldn't have been all that wise and noble and virtuous--they produced us, after all.)

But it doesn't have to be actually cold inside, does it? Certainly it doesn't have to be colder inside in the summer than in the winter, which I swear sometimes it is here. It's as if the thermostat is set not so much for a comfortable temperature, as for a certain minimum numbers of degrees' difference from the outside.

I just wish for a little moderation. Surely it can be cool enough inside to keep from crushing the will to live, without being cold enough to immobilize reptiles.

Although that may prove a useful side effect should lizardfolk ever try to invade my place of work on one of its more enthusiastic AC days. And since I am ever wary of the threatening advances of the lizardfolk, I shouldn't overlook this complicating factor in my general temperature-related complaining.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Knitting Saga Complete

OK, now that I've got my pictures onto my computer, here's a little shot of the completed afghan, draped in artistic disarray over a couch.

We worked hard and we were triumphant! It was a magnificent sight.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Here's an Idea

Pay me to pay attention to my health!

Health Populi has news on research at Wharton suggesting that giving people money makes them more inclined to do things. Who knew?

Wait, was that sarcastic? Sorry--this is interesting, even if it does seem really obvious when you put it like that.

The interesting part from a health standpoint is that people are more likely to successfully do things that they probably sort of already wanted to do, like quit smoking or lose weight or take their medications on schedule, if they get money for it.

It's like paying students for good grades, I guess. I've heard it argued that this is poor motivation for kids (they should be studying for the pure rewards of knowledge, not for the money!), and you could definitely say the same thing here.

I really should be taking care of my health for the sake of the rewards of being healthy, not for the money. Right? I mean, it's just common sense.

And saying that always works really, really well as a behavior motivator.

But if, when you get right down to it, you see better results by giving people money than by telling them about how pleased they'll be years from now to be healthier than they would be if they don't adopt some good habit, maybe it's just practical and economical to give 'em a few bucks.

Whatever works, right? Would we rather have a few dollars, some healthy habits, and tainted motivation, or rest secure in the fact that our bad habits are free from the soiling touch of filthy lucre?

I may still be smoking, but by gum, every time I try to quit it's because I want to, not because I'm getting paid to!

I dunno. I'm all for practical, and if it actually worked (and it must be noted that this research is still ongoing), I'd be pretty fine with the filthy lucre approach.

Especially if I get some of it.

Mmm, lucre.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Librarian's Vacation

Am teaching my mother to use PubMed.

I spread the good word wherever I go.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Knitting Update

Brought my camera, but not the cord that connects it to the computer, so I cannot upload a new picture of the assembled afghan in all its glory.

It's pretty darn glorious, though.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ahhhhh! Kelpies!

By which I mean, I hate packing, and have put it off until now, and I have to catch a plane in the morning, and am scurrying around all frazzled trying to figure out what I'm going to want to wear and whether I should bring my laptop and how to fit all these knitted squares into my bag.

There will be a grand late-night sewing party once we get all the squares in one place and start putting them together.

Well, I should go finish packing. Depending on whether or not I decide to take my laptop with me, I may be away from the old internets for a while, so miss me terribly while I'm gone, OK?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ahhhhh! Zombies!

I have not said much recently about my wary eye for zombies, but could hardly resist this entertainingly thoughtful article on The Left and the Living Dead.

It asks the important question: what does our fondness for zombie tales say about our psychology and politics?

It also has a nice little graph showing the rise in the numbers of zombie movies over the past decades.

Considering this evidence that plenty of people are alert to the zombie menace, I now feel that perhaps I should become concerned about some other, less popular monster, just to make sure that a variety of threats are being evaluated for their potential to bring about the downfall of civilization.

Maybe kelpies.

Not the dogs, the water horses. Those things are creepy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Makeshift Phone Post

Curses--why is internet so SLOW tonight? In other news, interestingly, blueberry juice is sort of clear. It's the skins that are blue! Like grapes.


Updated to add a title and to note that kiwifruit juice, on the other hand, is quite green.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Old Library

Naturally I needed to get a picture of myself in the stacks at the library while I was back on campus this weekend.

I found that I remembered the place pretty well and it was all basically as I recalled, except that I had to ask where the restrooms were.

I spent a lot of time in the library while in college, but apparently (and to the benefit of all, no doubt) was not in the bathroom for very much of it.

Not shown in this photo: the awesomely dim and spooky periodicals section in the basement, or the little nook under the back stairs where I would occasionally go for a quick nap when the studying went to my head but I still had more reserve reading to do and couldn't go back to my room quite yet.

I have a black bag in my hand, which is why I appear to have a bulge on one leg. The bag was full of important items, like my other T-shirt from the weekend, and a purple feather boa. (Don't leave home without it!)

In the Mists of the 20th Century

I was thinking that technology has come a long way in the 10+ years since I was in college.

For instance, I didn't know anyone with a cell phone in college. No mp3 players. I had a computer, but it certainly wasn't the sleek and adorable laptop I have today.

It was a blocky little box with a tiny screen and a keyboard that was attached with a curly cord, like a phone cord. Aw, who am I kidding, I thought it was adorable too. I loved that thing. But it sure wasn't something you could bring to class and use to take notes.

I had one course with an online discussion forum (participation optional), but otherwise nothing to do with schoolwork was on the web. The college had a website, of course, but it was strictly for informational purposes, like a brochure.

There was no online course registration, grades, syllabi, student account information, nothin'. We got our schedules on paper, and liked it!

Or not, depending on what classes we got into and how early in the morning they were. (9:00 am?! Horrors!)

It's a whole new world, all right, full of new and exciting things.

I do kind of miss thinking 8:30 am was a hideously early time to wake up. I had no idea how dreadful it would get later on in life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I write this post from onsite at my 10th college reunion in Lewiston, Maine, where it is a lovely sunny day (which is a nice change from the weather in Boston lately).

I have spent the requisite time wandering around oohing and ahing about how things have changed and not changed.

What is that enormous thing behind Rand? What are they going to do to the Bill? What's in the old Commons now?

I remember waiting in line here so many times! My mailbox! Oh yeah, they've always had this piano in the lobby!

And so on.

I have seen a few people I know, and have snagged some free food. I have experienced life in a dorm that I didn't live in while I was here.

Can't ask for much more, right?

But more is to come, because later there's a parade. And some more food. I'm always afraid I'll be hungry at events, and then there's always more food than I can shake an engorged stomach at.

Also, I have two T-shirts already, and I don't rule out the possibility of more to come. This is important, because my current collection of T-shirts includes only about 200, of which I regularly wear the five that are on top of the pile, so I obviously need some more.

To push some of those five further down in the pile. Don't look at me, that's just how the system works.

It's interesting to be back, and to be remembering a phase of my life which now seems really long ago (but is not really, compared to the 65th and 70th reunion classes, who are also represented here). Am I going to be back here again 55 or 60 years from now?

Will they still have that piano in the lobby?

Only time will tell.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bloody Holiday

June 14th is World Blood Donor Day.

I cannot personally donate on this day, on account of I already donated in the too-recent past (missing an opportunity to get a coupon for chocolate-covered strawberries this month, too), but I will certainly celebrate with a nice blood pudding and some blood sausage.

No, I won't.

But go give blood if you can. Contribute to the health of others; it's good stuff.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pandemic Alert

So the WHO has declared the start of an influenza pandemic.

H1N1 is not quitting.

Genetics and Health passed along the news, along with some graphics and tips about how to avoid getting (or how to recover from) the flu.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Big Fat Books and Tiny Thin Wallets

Some tips on avoiding the hefty fees of college textbooks, from Erika Price at Dangerous Intersection.

I am gratified to see that Your Library (and interlibrary loan) plays a prominent role.

Yes! Love your library! We're trying hard to make sure the books you have to read are here!

I checked out, rather than purchased, a few books when I was in college, although if enough other people have the same idea, copies can run low. I can heartily sympathize with the financial pain caused by having to buy expensive textbooks as a necessarily frugal undergrad, though.

Even though shiny new books were cool and exciting, and I hated reading through other peoples' notes and highlighting, saving a few bucks was key, and finding a used version, or borrowing one from someone who'd already taken the class, was the way to go.

Alas, I did not have blog posts to advise me back then, since I don't think the internet had been invented yet. Even our computers were just abacuses to which typewriter keyboards had been attached for some reason.

It hardly mattered, since if there had been an internet, I was too busy walking 10 miles to class uphill both ways through 12 feet of snow in my bare feet because I didn't have a nickel for the streetcar to know about it.

Did I mention my 90-year* college reunion is this weekend? Time flies when you're gettin' with the 21st century.

*OK, it's actually 10. I stand by my remark about the flightiness of time.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Extra! Extra!

I...actually don't have anything extra to say, I just like to demand attention.

Also, in health and nutrition news I would like to report that I have eaten the following fruit/vegetable servings today:
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 pear
  • 1 peach
  • 3 tbsp raisins
  • 1 kiwi fruit
That's almost five servings, right? I meant to eat an apple, possibly some celery and/or blueberries, maybe even a mango, but I got distracted by cookies at a movie screening.

My refrigerator is full of fruit right now.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Phone Calls and Kisses

Been gettin' an awful lot of sales-related phone calls the past couple of weeks.

Not sure if my number expired from the National Do Not Call Registry (it says numbers don't expire, "due to the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007, which became law in February 2008," but I can't remember when I registered, so maybe it grandfathered into expiration?), or if times are so tough that organizations that are exempt from the list have taken to desperately phoning everyone they can think of.

Anyway, it makes me understand why people like Caller ID. Seriously, I don't even want to pick up the phone anymore.

My current strategy, rather than pay for Caller ID, is to quickly say "hello? Hello?" and then promptly hang up if I don't get an answer. Those auto-dialers usually don't put someone through right away, so a quick disconnect can save an annoying conversation about my long distance service.

I think the odds of my missing out on hearing that I've won the lottery or been blessed with the birth of my first grandchild are pretty low.

Also, I re-registered on the Do Not Call list, just in case.

If you need something to distract you from worrying about my crushing phone problems, and you're also looking to advance the frontiers of science, please enjoy the Kissing Experiment on the Intersection.

The author is taking "an interdisciplinary look at why and how we kiss, drawing on neuroscience, classical history, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and popular culture."

You can further the research by taking a look at 15 photos of kissing couples and deciding whether the kisses strike you as erotic, friendly, or suggestive of a relationship between the two people. I'm already interested in the eventual book.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Blogging into the Abyss

A story in the New York Times causes a splinter of doubt to enter my mind regarding the future of blogging.

Essentially, it says that a lot of people start blogs and then don't keep up with them. Also, that most blogs do not have enormous, devoted legions of followers.

I have to say this shocks and saddens me. Fortunately, I have full confidence in my own devoted legions.

As to whether I will continue to update this site until I perish from an overdose of coffee ice cream (sorry, momentary craving), only time will tell.

I got this from 4&20 blackbirds.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Good News for Beer-Drinkers

At least, not bad news. When you break it down, it's actually pretty much the same thing that research usually gives us: moderately interesting news that is not a license for extremes of behavior.

But that's not the stuff of headlines! No one wants to hear that something moderately interesting has been learned.

You can blame a sensationalist media with a fondness for grand sweeping statements if you like, but my new theory as of two minutes ago is that we all (sweepingly! and without exception!) want a license for extremes of behavior, and unless you promise that, you got nothin' in terms of public interest.

Anyway, the story is that researchers in Spain got some volunteers to exercise until they were about to fall over (as so many of us do so often), tested "their hydration levels, motor skills, and concentration ability," and then gave them either water or beer.

Upon further testing, they found that beer was slightly better at rehydrating the volunteers. Yeah, it even says "slightly" right in the news item, which means that in practical terms the results may not even have been statistically significant, but whatever. That's boring talk that does not lead in the direction of license for extremes of behavior.

Beer drinkers are celebrating, but obvious questions arise. For example, the study involved "two pints of Spanish lager." How can we be sure that, say, Belgian lager would have a similar effect? Or Spanish ale? I imagine that future studies to compare the rehydration effects of different beers are forthcoming.

Inquiring minds might also want to know how beer compares to those specially formulated neon-hued sports drinks one sees, and further, how it compares to chocolate milk, which another study suggested is superior to the aforementioned sports drinks in this department.

Inquiring minds, when you come down to it, desire to know what is the King of the Rehydration Mountain, the better to make sweeping statements about how we should all go forth and drink whatever it is until we're about to fall over.

License! I'm telling you, it's about the License!

Honestly, I'm rooting for chocolate milk.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What Fresh Horror--No, Classic Horror--Is This?

I've enjoyed a little series of entertaining posts at Dangerous Intersection, listed here blog-style from most recent to earliest:
Each presents a sad, sometimes horrific tale of abuse, arrogance, misguided determination, and other human failings. Go read before I continue if you don't want to be spoiled.

[Pause in case anyone wishes to do so.]

All right, the not-so-shocking twist here is that each of these posts presents, as if it were a news item from contemporary sources, and with modern names and places, a biblical story.

It's very interesting to see these familiar (to many people who grew up more or less in the common popular culture in the United States, I should say) stories presented as if they referred to human beings.

Now the whole point of a god is that it is not a human being, and thus may easily be conceived to do things that seem hideously wrong from our point of view, but that nevertheless serve a higher purpose that still equals 'good,' so I can understand that one could argue this means nothing.

Nevertheless, an interesting mental exercise.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

MLA Blog Updates

Introductions from new president-elect and board members at the MLA Connections blog.

I should also note the very thorough report on the meeting of the ethics task force.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Now for Some Educational Material

ScienceRoll posted this entertaining and educational piece: the ABCs of Multimedia!

You can put the sound on, but it just says the letters as each one appears, so it's not necessary if you just want to see what they come up with for each. (This may not be a concern for most people, but I tend to have my speakers on mute by default so as not to disturb my office mate, and am always interested in whether I need to get out the earbuds for a video or can appreciate it in silence.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Name? Uh...Timmy.

Dangerous Intersection has an interesting post about the slow disintegration of anonymity in our busy high-tech culture.

Specifically, it's about the irritation of having to give your name to accomplish all kinds of not-really-name-needing business. The incident in the story here is that the author asked for a price on something in a store (I'm assuming maybe an art gallery or jewelry store or something where prices are too uncouth to be listed, and high enough to make it worth keeping track of who wants them), and the salesperson stated that she needed a name in order to reveal it.

I've never had this happen to me, but I have been faintly annoyed to be asked for my ZIP* code when making purchases in stores.

"What's it to you?" I think.

I usually give a false one, like from the town where I was born (that'll throw 'em off).

If I'm paying by credit card, which I almost always am, they can look it up for themselves if they have to have it.

And, in fact, at the self-check-out in the grocery store near me, you have to enter your ZIP code on the keypad when paying by credit card, and it knows if you lie (yeah, I tried it) and won't let you complete the purchase. They say it's an anti-theft measure--so be on notice that if you steal someone's credit card, you should also figure out where they live before you go grocery shopping at Shaw's with it.

Anyway, I guess I'm not really in a position to complain about loss of anonymity when I practically refuse to buy except with credit, meaning that a long, clear and personalized trail of everything I buy everywhere is available for review.

Nevertheless, I understand the annoyance. It feels sometimes that everyone wants your information so they can try to sell things to you. I've become suspicious of requests for this information if they don't have a purpose that makes sense to me. Sometimes I'll give a fake name!

Not usually Timmy, though, unless I'm online.

Is this misrepresentation wrong of me? I'm going with "not really." Dishonest, yes, but in way that doesn't mean enough to matter much.

*I may be the only person in the world who doesn't work for the post office who capitalizes this, because I have a recollection of it originally being an acronym for Zoning Improvement Plan, and I have respect for the acronyms.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ewwww of the Day

I hate my allergies. My inner ears itch! It's driving me crazy.

To be honest I can't really be sure if that's due to the allergies, but I blame them for everything wrong with my health right now.

Croaking and snuffly? Allergies.

That stiff ankle? Allergies.

Arm still a little sore from a tetanus shot? Allergies. Made it worse, I mean.

Anyway, that aside, in more "News of How Awesomely Gross Life Is" I like this post on Genetics and Health about a study looking at how many different species of bacteria live on human skin, and how some areas of the body are more hospitible to colonization than others.

Think of your body as a whole, rich continent, teeming with life and divided into multiple climatic zones where different forms may flourish!

Think of it, and cringe. And then feel bountiful and rich with life, a magnificent, nurturing land--a positive spin will make you feel better.

Note, of course, that bacteria are not necessarily bad. We live in harmony with all sorts of beneficial gut organisms. Other types may simply be neutral.

Then there are the actual nasty ones (like MRSA, which apparently prefers "the moist, soft tissues of the inner nostrils." I'm off to take a hair dryer to my inner nostrils!)

So it's really like anything else, some things good, some bad, some indifferent, and the important thing is not to over-react and, say, start taking hair dryers to anything. (I don't really even own a hair dryer, so no fear there. I may start snorting alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but that's it.)