Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Paper, Please

Given the big push towards e-books where I work, I was interested to read some stories linked in a post at Stephen's Lighthouse suggesting that students (at least undergraduates--the posts don't specifically address medical, dental or public health students) don't actually like them very much.

It seems that they're too hard to take notes in (I can see that--I never wrote in my textbooks, but I know a lot of people like to annotate and find it helpful for learning), bookmark, and just generally refer to as one likes to refer to textbooks in the course of a class.

But they're so very space-save-y! And time-save-y since you don't have to physically come in and find them or check them out! Come on, students, you know you love them.

Love them! Love them as much as we do!

Actually, we ourselves feel a range of complex emotions regarding e-books. But this isn't about us.

It's about you, students, and whether or not you're actually going to use these things, so that we'll know whether or not we should keep on buying them for you.

So, in fact, it is about us, and our ever-tightening budgets.

Speaking from my workplace, we're hoping to get some better usage statistics in future, as the collection skews more electronic, to help us decide whether or not it's really the way to go. From talking to students, I get the impression that they sort of like the idea of having lots of textbooks available online, but I'm not sure they actually use them all that often.

One major hold-up, obviously, is that we need to get the right books online. Our students seem to tend (as most students, I expect) to read what they need to read for class, or what they're looking at for a specific project, and if something's not assigned, odds are it's not going to get a whole lot of use.

And if the text that's assigned in a class isn't available online, or is available only for individual rather than institutional use, then that's one class whose members are not going to enjoy the convenience of e-books, however much we enthuse about them.

We're sort of assuming that eventually everything will be available as an e-book, but that's some years down the line. If it develops that students genuinely dislike e-books, it may be even more years down the line than anticipated. (Although at some point if schools start saying "look, this is the only format we have, so like it or lump it, you fresh-faced dinosaurs," what are students really going to do? Not that I'm advocating this, given the range of complex emotions I myself feel with regard to e-books.)


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gettin' Around

It has gotten quite warm here in Massachusetts in the past few weeks, and I've had enough.

Next week, I'm going to Texas.

I'm not going to the Gulf, so I won't see the oil washing up, but I'll be using lots of fossil fuel along the way, doing my part to demonstrate why we need that oil so desperately badly. Just another person on another day, guzzling down precious oil in the form of travel, power, clever plastic gadgets, tasty and entertaining things shipped from thousands of miles away.

We can't give that up! Seriously, there's no way.

We are so doomed.

But in the meantime, I'm going to Texas to see my sister and my nieces and get out of the humidity for a few days.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Events of the Day

Had to get up early to teach a class this morning. Evidence-Based Medicine resources for family medicine! It's awesome.

Then I came home a little early, and we went shopping and bought some cherries. They're expensive here, but I am fortunate to be able to afford to splurge on cherries, so I did.

It makes me remember roadside stands selling cherries for ridiculously low prices in the Flathead Valley in Montana. Fat yellow cherries, round red cherries, climbing up trees to collect handfuls of cherries.

Sitting in the grass under trees, eating cherries and throwing the pits into the grass.


Edited to add that we should not forget the small sour pie cherries that turned out to be full of tiny worms. This grossed us kids out, but the grown-ups blithely ate the resulting pie anyway, noting that grubs are full of protein.

I sometimes still think of this when I eat cherry pie, wondering if the cherries in the filling may have had tiny worms in them (the grubs were indistinguishable from the rest of the filling once the pie was baked, so one never knows).

I blithely eat the pie anyway.

What I don't know won't hurt me, and anyway, grubs are full of protein.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Keep it Un-Secret. Keep it Safe.

I was talking about the archives at work the other day, so history has been a bit on my mind, and I really like this post by s.e. smith at this ain't livin' called "I Believe in History."

Here's a lovely bit that speaks specifically to archives (as well as anyone who preserves records):

And it made me realise the value of keeping and preserving records. Things that might not seem so important or interesting now could be fascinating later, as I’ve realised looking through subsequent original source documents relating to other historical events. You really do never know when or what might be relevant, how material might be used. And people who preserved things ensured that even if stories weren’t told at the time or official publications were incomplete, that the information was out there. It was available. For people who were willing to look for it and sift through it, it might provide an entirely new perspective that had not been considered before.

I like the point about how things that aren't particularly interesting now may be fascinating later--we really have no way of knowing what someone will want to see someday. Which is of course part of the eternal pressure of archives and libraries. You never know what someone will want, but you can't keep everything, so you have to make your best guess.

And, often, what people will eventually find fascinating, and what people will know, will be determined by what's been preserved and what is available to be known.

Let's say we don't know much about Ancient People X, because all we have of their culture is some pottery shards. We're really interested in those pottery shards because that's all we've got, and we've learned a lot based on those shards, but there's so much that we can't get from pottery and therefore will never know.

The past, out of record and memory, is unknowable, so in a sense it doesn't exist. At the same time, the past lives with us. Traces are everywhere from millions of people before us going about their lives. It's almost eerie, being able to get closer to them by looking at the traces first hand.

Respect the archives!


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Meeting Up With Old Friends

I've decided to try to renew my old and longstanding, but lately lapsed, friendship with the public library.

One of the things about working in a medical library is that the collection contains very few items that I myself want to take home and read. And I miss reading.

A colleague pointed out that the Boston Public Library has a branch not far from work (duh--they have branches all over. Why did I never think of this? Laziness). So I'm going to try going there on lunch or on the way back to the train after work.

If I know in advance what I want to pick up, and go prepared with a call number (or have them hold it for me!), it shouldn't add more than, say 20 minutes.

I can surely devote 20 minutes once a week or so to nurture this important relationship. I would think.

We shall see.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Point Buy System: A Communist Plot?

One of the many things around which emotions tend to run high is character generation in role playing games. Say, Dungeons and Dragons.

One of the primary features here is that you have some stats, which are a series of attributes (for example, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma), each with a number attached, where a high number is better.

And one of the primary things you do to start building a character is assign the numbers to those attributes. The attributes themselves are generally fixed--it's getting the numbers that makes things interesting. If you have a high number in Intelligence, and a low number in Strength, then your character will be better at think-y challenges than at punch-y challenges, so obviously the stats have a lot to say about what your character is like.

There are various ways to get numbers. The most old-fashioned and stern that I know of is to roll dice a number of times equal to the number of attributes and put the first number you get into the first attribute, the second into the second, etc.

You take what you get, and like it! Or, if you don't like it, you deal with it. (Whining is allowed.) Because it was good enough for your grandpappy, by gum. If your grandpappy played role playing games, and liked gum.

In this case, you pretty much have to make a character based on how the numbers come up. If you wanted to be a dashing sword fighter but have low strength and dexterity, you're basically out of luck. You'd better be a wizard instead, if you have a high intelligence. (Or you could always be an ineffective sword fighter. No one's ordering you to play to your strengths.)

This is, as noted, the sternest method I've used, and is also very random. You could get a lot of high numbers, or a lot of low ones, so you could easily have some characters in a game who are gifted in every attribute, and some who really don't excel at anything.

Another common method is to roll dice a number of times equal to the number of attributes, but to choose where you want to place each score. So if you wanted to be a dashing sword fighter, you could put your highest numbers in strength and dexterity to make sure you had a good chance at it.

This lets you customize your character, but it's still quite random, since you are just rolling dice. Being able to put your high number where you want it doesn't help much if your high number isn't very high.

And again you have the possibility that some characters will, simply through the roll of the dice, have much better stats than others. But hey, you take what you get and you work to make it playable and you like it! Because it was good enough for your pappy. Probably. If your pappy played role playing games, which I'm pretty sure mine didn't. Also, he doesn't like gum.

The point is, it's all about working with your luck: taking what fortune gives you and making something of it. The character is born from the whim of the dice and your own creativity! It's like magic!

If magic was made of shiny plastic dice, pencils, rule books, and imagination. Which it totally is.

And then there's the third common method: the point buy system. This method gives every player a certain number of "points" to spend on "buying" attribute scores (see where the name comes from?). Since everyone has the same number of points to start with, everyone has equally good (or bad) stats at the end.

This means that, unlike with dice, you won't have one character who excels at everything, and one who's no good at anything. Everyone will be able to be good at something, and no one will be good at everything. It's very equitable.

Hence, it must be a Communist plot. This whole "level playing field," "we must ensure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed," "accidents of birth (or dice rolling) should not determine fate"...very suspicious, right?

I do see the advantages of point buy, but there's something about rolling dice and waiting to see how the numbers come up that's just more exciting to me.

And sure, sometimes they all come up lousy, but those characters die quickly. It's natural selection at work!


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bring on the Towers!

MedlinePlus, via Twitter, reports that "Experts say living near a cell phone tower while pregnant doesn’t appear to raise your child’s cancer risk."

This is reassuring news if we were worried about radio frequency fields.

Strictly speaking, it's reassuring if we were worried about our children's exposure to radio frequency fields. It doesn't say anything about adults, other than that "health effects can take time to appear, and studies of cancers in adults might be more revealing."

However, based on this information I am going to continue not devoting significant portions of my attention to concerns about cell phone towers, which leaves plenty of mental energy available for more important things like Medical Subject Headings and killer robots.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another Free Movie Review: Cyrus

It's been ages since we experienced the joy of an evening at the theater for nothing (other than waiting in line for 45 minutes), so we were pleased to witness the amusing trifle that is Cyrus.

We have a sort of awkward and lonely but apparently decent sort of man who meets this sweet and charming woman and they totally hit it off and things are going great but she has a 21-year-old son who she raised as a single parent and homeschooled and breastfed until he was five, and he still lives with her and they have a very close relationship and, well, he's pretty possessive.

So the movie is basically the interactions between these characters, as well as the man's ex-wife, who's getting remarried but is still a good friend.

It was pretty funny, and I enjoyed the acting. John C. Reilly always makes a good sort of average guy that you can feel sympathetic towards, and Marisa Tomei is fairly radiant and adorable, and Jonah Hill is faintly alarming.

It has a light feel to it, with a lot of amusing moments and reasonably likable, if dysfunctional, characters upon whom I did not wish ill fortune or despair. It was an hour and a half, which seemed about right.

Don't expect a strong forward drive to what might be considered the main plot--it takes a while to get underway, and meanders a bit, but in an entertaining way so I didn't find myself getting impatient with it. Basically, just have fun watching these characters interact with each other.

So I enjoyed it, but since you can never quite tell based on me, I will report that there was a scattering of applause in the theater at the end, and some college kids sitting next to me seemed quite pleased.

Also, there was a general exclamation of astonishment when Ridley Scott's name showed up in the credits, given that there had been no dramatic battles to the death. (Oops--spoiler!)


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Attic of History

I understand that archivists have a general reputation as an odd bunch. Almost as odd as catalogers.

In a potentially deadly combination, I am both the cataloger, and the--I can't say archivist, as I have no specialized knowledge whatsoever, but the archives-maintainy-person--at my library.

One of the things I've heard about archivists is that they can sometimes get kind of possessive about their collections, and vigorously defend against attempts to view them, even though in theory the collections exist for the benefit of researchers.

Well, I recently had to restrain myself from mounting a vigorous defense against the mere suggestion that someone would want to view 'my' collection, but it wasn't actually because I'm possessive. I'm all for people using that stuff. It's because I have no time to show anyone 'my' collection.

I really kind of love the archives, and I like going up there and rooting around in the musty records of the past to answer someone's question about when so-and-so was on the faculty at the School of Medicine, but every time I spend a couple of hours doing that, I'm not spending a couple of hours on the 1,800 e-books that need cataloging.

And if someone wants to see something, I have to make a time to meet with them, and show it to them (because policy forbids just turning them loose in the archives rooms), and answer their questions about it. It's the time! There's no time!

As a side note, I am regularly appreciative of the fact that people have saved so many records, letting us answer a lot of the types of questions we get, and of the fact that so much was recorded in print. We have continuous catalogs from the medical school back to the late 1800s, with lots and lots of names. Very useful for tracking people.

But as of a few years ago, they don't print them anymore. It's all online--for now. Is it still going to be online 80 years from now when someone wants to know about so-and-so's time as a member of the faculty?

I find myself mentally wagging my finger and intoning in a singsong voice "future generations of researchers are going to be sorry!"

Of course, by then the people who decided to stop printing the catalog (for very sound reasons, no doubt), will be dead, and so will I, so it's not like we have to care.

Still, I kind of do.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

Summer is here. (In the northern hemisphere.)

I can tell, because I'm hot and sticky. Also, that day we just had in the northern hemisphere sure was long, right?

See, I have this idea that for the winter solstice I should light a lot of torches and feast and set things on fire and stay up all night to cheer for the return of the sun after the long darkness. You know, good old fashioned fun.

But what should I do for the summer solstice? Fan myself and have a cool martini? Celebrate shade trees?

It always feels as if there's more need to celebrate in the winter. You need something to perk up your spirits.

In the summer, you're already warm and comfortable, it's light out late, there's not the same urgency to find something to be cheerful about. Plus, if you're me, you don't have the energy to jump up and party anyway. It's too hot to move around unnecessarily.

Can we celebrate languidly, while reclining? I say yes.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Just Guess. But You Better Guess Right!

Ben Goldacew at Bad Science has news of an alarming legal issue in Italy in the wake of the tragic earthquake in L'Aquila in April last year.

The L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office have now leapt into action. They have a Commissione Grandi Rischi, after all – a “Commission on Big Risks” – and it’s full of seismologists. If these people can’t predict an earthquake, then what’s the point of them? And so these seismologists are now being indicted and investigated for manslaughter, on account of their failure to warn the population that an earthquake was coming.

Yikes. Talk about a chilling effect. Thinking about going in seismology? Maybe don't work for the Commissione Grandi Rischi.

I mean, yes, if there's any way that they could reasonably have known there was an earthquake coming, and they just neglected to check, or to tell anyone--that would be bad.

But as the post also notes, "It would be great if we could have firm predictions about every risk whose rare but tragic outcome cannot be accurately predicted, whether it is a flu outbreak, a murder, an illness, or an earthquake. Most of us recognise that this is impossible."

There are things you just can't see coming. Blaming people for not seeing things coming that they couldn't have seen coming really seems like scapegoating.

Also, it encourages people to make things up "disaster, right here, on this day!" and then when they're wrong, as they usually will be, it makes everything they say (even the not made up stuff) seem worthless. So there's really a limited benefit, beyond making (some) people feel better, I suppose.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hot Days

Happy Juneteenth!

I'm fond of the name of this holiday (commemorating the arrival of news of the end of the Civil War and of slavery in Texas), as well as its celebration. Creative language is cool.

This site has history--and this one has recipes!


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Last Call for Notes on MLA'10!

I would be remiss in my duties as an Official Conference Blogger for MLA'10 if I did not strongly urge you to fill out the short survey on the Official Conference Blog, linked here.

It's designed to measure the success of said blog and help determine what could be improved for future meetings.

If you read the MLA'10 blog, go fill it out! Do it now!

Even if you didn't read the blog, you should probably fill out the survey just to make sure there are enough comments praising my awesomeness and explaining how I should be showered with jewel-encrusted wireless cards.

The word needs to get out.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Things I Rarely Worry About

Slate muses on a question that has, happily, not been much on my mind: if you're going to be executed, what's the best way to go?

It turns out that the firing squad, while it may seem a bit crude, isn't a bad choice. It's pretty quick and certain, which I guess is what you're going for in this situation.

Key lines: "A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be gunned to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the firing squad's shots. By contrast, a typical, complication-free lethal injection takes about nine minutes to kill an inmate."

So in terms of pure speed, take the bullets.

There's some interesting speculation on why U.S. society seems to prefer lethal injection, if it's true that the firing squad is quicker, with the conclusion that lethal injection just seems tidier and more clinical.

We want to kill people, but let's not get all messy or anything. This is clean, impartial justice.

The article doesn't talk about beheading, although I seem to recall that the guillotine was invented as a humane method of execution that would remove the head with one clean cut--and I'm not sure "complete heart death" is something you need to worry about if your head isn't attached to your body.

Beheading is definitely not going to fall into the "tidier and more clinical" category, but evidence-based execution would demand that we base our actions on the facts, without regard to personal distaste.

So if you're considering this question, I would recommend holding off on a decision until you get that information.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Another Whole Grain Triumph

It looks as if brown rice is the way to go--sorry, sticky-rice fans. (Although you can make some fairly gooey brown rice if you cook it that way.)

Don't look at me, it's in the New York Times. Based on research at Harvard, which concluded "Substitution of whole grains, including brown rice, for white rice may lower risk of type 2 diabetes." You gotta want to lower that risk, since type 2 diabetes is not, as far as I know, anyone's idea of a fun addition to life.

This is not alarming news for me, since I prefer brown rice anyway (I find white rice unsatisfying in texture and blandly lacking in flavor--although it is good soaked in curry), but for people who eat a lot of rice but find brown rice to be like chewing on wood shavings, I offer sympathy. And the encouragement that wood shavings really aren't so bad, especially soaked in curry.

Maybe you could mix it half and half? That sometimes works with white and whole wheat flour in recipes.

Mm...rice. I should cook some up and have me some rice and raisins* right now! Or possibly not right now since it's 10 p.m. Maybe right now as in "this week."

*This is one of those things we ate in my family when I was a kid that I'm not sure anyone else ever ate, but it's basically just a cheat-y instant rice pudding: mix rice, raisins, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and milk to taste and enjoy!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Time for Unification?

So the library where I work has close to 2,300 electronic textbooks (and another couple of thousand we just got in a couple of packages and are super excited about getting to process).

They're all highlighted on a special e-books page of our website, where they're searchable by title, author, year, or by which of our 120-ish subject pages we've stuck them on.

They're also accessible through the library catalog, of course. And we know that multiple points of access makes an item's existence extra awesome, so I want them in the catalog, but I've begun to think that at some point it no longer makes as much sense to separate out electronic books on their own page.

It makes sense if there aren't that many of them, and you want to say, "hey, look, this is a special thing we have: e-books! Check 'em out! Or rather, you don't have to check 'em out, because they don't circulate! Hahahahaha! Librarian jokes are the best!"

OK, maybe we really only wanted to say the first part, since everyone already thinks we're huge geeks. But anyway, if e-books (and e-journals) are sort of a special feature, then yes, you want to point to them specially.

And a few hundred electronic titles, categorized by subject, makes sense. You can even browse through a list like that to see if anything looks good--it's a way to differentiate a certain type of resource so someone could take a quick look and see if there was anything on their topic available online.

Lately, though, e-books are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the collection, and I'm not sure this model still works. We have around 25,000 titles on paper, so e-books are already more than 10% of the collection, once we finish adding the mountain of new titles. An even larger percentage of newer titles will be electronic, since some of our print volumes are very old (some kept intentionally for historical interest, and some just still on the shelves because we haven't had time to do a good weed in a while).

And 5,000 titles, even broken down by subject or alphabetically, are not really that easy to browse on a web screen, so it becomes less likely that someone will be immediately able to see what they're looking for by consulting the e-books page. Ease of access, as well as advertising, was presumably the initial purpose of the separate e-books page, and I'm not sure how well it fulfills the former purpose anymore.

I'm thinking that at some point we might want to simply eliminate the "e-books" page, which is already becoming unwieldy, and let e-books, like all our books, just be accessed through the catalog. (This is even more true of journals, where we have almost no current print subscriptions and an enormous, bloated list of titles on the e-journals page, but I'll think about journals another time.)

The problem, I guess, is that people might not find them there, but that's no more a problem for e-books than for any books, as far as I can tell.

Again, it comes down to a question of whether these are a special resource we offer, that needs special advertising, or just a resource we offer, that gets the same attention as any other. And the way things are going with our collection development, I don't really think e-books are a big special deal anymore. Everyone has them, people know about them, they're just one of the ways we try to make stuff people might want to use available for them.

I'm only partly having these thoughts because it would save Tech Services a lot of time if we didn't have to put all these titles on the web page as well as in the catalog.

I swear, it's also a sincere question about how we can best serve our core audience!


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Speaking of Second Life...

This post by Anna on FWD/Forward informs me that there's a Helen Keller Mythbusting Day coming up on June 19th.

It's going to be Helen Keller Day in Second Life, with events at four in-world locations including a keynote speech, a fashion show, Braille chat, exploring with a virtual guide dog, and lots more. This highlights some of the interesting ways that the internet generally, and virtual worlds specifically, can provide new ways to make things accessible to people with different needs.

I also note in Anna's post the phrase "If I played Second Life, I would be all over this." So it's definitely not just me--there's a general perception that SL is something you kind of need to be regularly engaged in in order to get anything out of it.

I'm not sure if my idle thought about whether it might be possible to use it more casually like web-conferencing software would really work. I was thinking more about it, and really, the sign-up process may be a bit too intensive for most people to feel that it's a worthwhile investment if they're only planning to, I don't know, attend a workshop on Resource Description and Access or something.

You have to download the software and set up an account, which is also true with, say, Wimba or other programs that allow for real-time webinars and the like, so that's not particularly onerous.

But then you also have to create your avatar, which can be a time-consuming process if you want to get your hair just the right shade of purple, and then you have to learn how to move around and travel from place to place and interact with other people, and it's not especially hard, but it's not necessarily a direct transfer of previously held skills. I know it took me some time to start figuring out how to get places and find things.

It's like navigating the internet, but not exactly.

So it's one thing to say "download this software and then log into this online conference room to get audio of a speech and some Powerpoint slides and you can also chat with other people there," and another to say "download this really huge program and create a virtual representation of yourself and then log into this online world and locate this in-world location to get audio of a speech and some Powerpoint slides with a much prettier background environment and you can also see representations of the other people there that you can chat with."

I think Second Life could add something to an online conference, but I don't know if it adds enough that it would be easy to convince people to sign up and learn to use it just for that, if they didn't have a need for any accessibility features it might offer.

But since I already have an account, I'm totally in favor of having an RDA workshop there. And of course Helen Keller Day, which sounds pretty cool.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hazards of the Job

I was thinking "why do I have this weird sore spot on my stomach? I haven't been doing any sit-ups or getting into any stomach-punching contests lately."

And then I realized that it was from hanging headfirst over the edge of a big recycling bin to grab a volume I had absent-mindedly discarded at the very bottom.

At least it was a clean, dry bin. The volume was recovered without incident.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Sometime Social Networking

We had a Medical Education Day at work, and I was perusing some posters and saw that someone has done a project on using Second Life as an educational tool.

We've heard a lot about the exciting potential here, but I was interested to see an attempt to evaluate the success. The poster presented a study in which an educational module was presented in Second Life and a survey assessed how well the material was learned and how well the participants liked the format.

They got positive results for both measures.

The way in which this study was presented made me realize that I may have been thinking about Second Life in a limiting way.

I've remained interested in it, but have kind of written it off as something I'm personally thinking about at the moment since I haven't signed in in a long time. I've been thinking of it something like a game or social network, where if you're not at least semi-regularly involved, you're not really taking full advantage of the medium.

But you could also think of it as a platform for education, like a course management program or a web conferencing site. You don't have to log into an online classroom or a web conference site on a regular basis--you only sign in when you've got a conference. And that's perfectly fine.

Maybe Second Life makes a good online environment for teaching and learning, without participants needing to be involved with it outside of that context.



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Equip Disease Shield!

Wait, there's a vaccine for shingles? Why wasn't I informed?

Probably because it's only recommended for people over 60. I want it right now!--but I guess I can wait. If I gotta.

A former colleague of mine got shingles, and it did not sound nice, and since I (like so many of us) had chicken pox as a child, I know that virus is just hanging out, waiting to make a comeback someday. If I can fend it off via wily application of a +5 Potion of Disease Resistance, I'm going to be all over that.

This reflection is prompted by a New York Times story reporting that a lot of eligible people are not getting the aforementioned shingles vaccine because it's expensive and not necessarily covered by insurance.

Also, doctors are tending not to stock it because it's expensive and therefore difficult to sell, so even if you do want it and are willing to pay for it, it's a hassle since you have to get a prescription from the doctor and then go somewhere else to get the shot.

The NYT story says that "up to a third of all adults who have had chicken pox" will get shingles and/or a complication called postherpetic neuralgia (which sounds like basically just nonstop pain for weeks or months at a time) at some point, while the vaccine can "reduce the risk of developing shingles by more than half and the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia by over two-thirds."

Ideally, of course, I like my vaccines even more awesome than that (maybe by the time I'm 60 they'll have the +10 version!), but it still seems as if a lot of people might benefit if not for the expense and inconvenience.

There are still a few years between me and 60, so I have time to save up and plan ahead, but that doesn't help anyone who's eligible right now.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Frozen Desserts for Charity

Let's talk about one of my favorite subjects: license for extremes of behavior.

As we know, one common form of license is wild misinterpretation of results from scientific studies (wine has antioxidants, which are healthy, so you should drink several bottles a day!).

Another form of license is "buffet," or "I paid for the all-you-can-eat, so I'd better eat more right now than I would normally consume over the course of a week."

This is especially potent when combined with "a good reason," as in Boston's storied Scooper Bowl, where, for the bargain price of $8, which benefits the Jimmy Fund (supporting cancer research and particularly associated with children's cancers) you can get all the ice cream in the world that you can eat.

It's a worthy cause! Won't someone please think of the children and go stuff themselves with more ice cream than a rational person would contemplate?

I mean, we could just donate $8 to the Jimmy Fund, if we were really dedicated to supporting cancer research, but that wouldn't involve a license to ingest extremes of ice cream. Smart fundraisers know that most people are secretly (in my case I guess not very secretly) selfish and horrible and are much more deeply moved by sweet treats than by sick children.

Dreadful, isn't it? I'm disgusted with myself and my entire species. Present company excepted, of course.

Now that I've totally depressed the mood here, I'm inclined to think that making use of the occasional bit of license for extremes of behavior is a delicious part of the complete life, so I'm pleased to report that I stuffed myself with considerably more ice cream (and gelato and sorbet) than a rational person would contemplate.

For the sake of the children.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

DNA-Colored Glasses

Here's an interesting health/technology/privacy issue for you: the ACLU's Blog of Rights talks about DNA testing for newborn infants (often useful since it can identify genetic disorders that might be treated), and what happens to the samples collected (often not specifically stated in any consent forms presented to parents).

The post notes

As you might imagine, DNA samples are valuable to different parties for different reasons. So it's now common for states to hold onto the blood samples for years, even permanently. Some states also use the samples for unrelated purposes, such as in scientific research, and give access to the samples — or even the samples themselves — to others.

I'm all about scientific research, but there are certain rules about informed consent and so forth that I think it's probably just as well we adhere to carefully, even if there might be some really really cool thing we could figure out by letting that adherence come a little unstuck.

Is it a big deal if the state hangs onto peoples' DNA samples from when they were born and makes use of them in various ways as the need arises?

I honestly don't really know. But as many ways as you can think that it would be extremely handy to have everyone's DNA on file, you can also think of ways that it's kind of disturbing.

For example, it will make it really easy for the killer robots to track you once they take over the government.


Monday, June 7, 2010

And Speaking of Sociological Images...

Because that site is addictive--this time my thoughts are provoked by a piece on boys and girls bikes.

As you may know, pretty much the only structural difference (setting aside the many possible varieties of gendered accessories, decorations and color schemes) is that boys bikes--or diamond frame bikes, or 'regular' bikes--have a top bar between the seat and the handlebars, like so:

Photo credit mars_discovery_district under Creative Commons license

--while girls bikes, or 'step-through' bikes, do not, like so:

Photo credit landotter under Creative Commons license

The added bar on the diamond frame seems to give the frame some extra stability (or so I would assume, not being a bicycle expert), while the lower bar on the step-through bike allows for, well, stepping through to get on, rather than having to swing your leg over the top.

It was designed for women, because women tended to wear heavy skirts in the early days of bicycling, which are more difficult (and shocking!) to swing over the higher bar of the other frame style.

And of course now you could not pay many boys to ride a girls bike, even through, objectively, there isn't that much difference between the two, and most girls probably don't bicycle in heavy skirts anymore anyway.

One interesting thing (and this is totally related to health!) is that, objectively speaking, the step-through frame, with its lack of a sturdy bar right there perilously close to groin level, would seem to make a lot more sense for boys.

I mean, even as a woman I can say from personal experience that if you happen to stop short or go over a bump or otherwise lose your equilibrium in some fashion and land hard on that bar, it's a whole big barrel of no fun.

Basically, smashing yourself in the crotch with a metal bar is no picnic for anybody. Heed these words of wisdom, good people!

Given the special male sensitivity to threats to that general area, you'd think they'd be cool with a bicycle structure that did not place a metal bar right in prime crotch-smashing range. But no, they'd rather risk the most horrific pain many men can imagine, than ride a girls bike.

Hey, at least risking horrific pain is manly.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Speaking of Lying Brains...

Slate has a whole series up about the work of Elizabeth Loftus, who has done a lot of research and experimentation into false memories and how to create them.

There's information on how people were convinced that they'd experienced things that couldn't have happened (like meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland), and speculation about the future of implanted memories and whether they might be used for good (if you remember that you always loved vegetables, will you be more likely to eat more of them now?).

It's interesting stuff. Basically, don't believe anything at any time.

But then, the justifiably suspicious among us never do, right? We know our brains better than that.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lying Brains Strike Again

Sociological Images has a post on the question of why outlet malls tend to be so inconveniently far from places where people live and work. Surely they'd get more business if they were easier to reach?

The post discusses a book called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (I haven't read it, but it sounds interesting), which suggests that actually, the fact that the stores are hard to get to makes it seem more likely that they offer excellent bargains.

It's our deceptive brains again. We figure "hey, it's in the middle of nowhere, there's no way they could be charging city prices!"

Which, when you think about it, doesn't necessarily make sense. I mean, they're in the middle of nowhere so there's no comparison shopping, so once they've got you there, why wouldn't they charge as much as they could get away with? It's like airports. Captive audience, baby.

And in fact outlet prices may not actually be significantly lower than those you can find elsewhere, but your brain, in blatant collusion with big business, may try to convince you that they are:

If you’ve driven an hour or more one-way to get great deals at the outlet mall, you are primed to believe you’re getting bargains because otherwise you just wasted a lot of time, effort, and gas for nothing. Once you get there, you’re psychologically motivated to believe your effort was worth it, and you do that by buying stuff and thinking the price is a steal.

Here we could argue that rather than trying to boost the economy, your brain is just trying to make you feel better, which I suppose would be a laudable impulse, if it weren't that I suspect that when my brain tries to make me feel better it's just trying to get me to stop bothering it.

"There there--now leave me alone won't you, I'm busy stirring up false memories and justifying illogical beliefs."


Friday, June 4, 2010

I'll Sleep When You're Dead

Maggie Maher on Health Beat is writing about the issue of medical residents working long shifts with little or no sleep.

There are some very sobering quotes from residents explaining how they basically just lose all interest in their work and their patients when they're running on 20+ hours of no sleep. One story in particular struck me, where the physician says that after being up all night and receiving a new patient:

I wished that my new patient would die. At that moment, I cared nothing for my patient, her family, her life. Her living got in the way of my sleep. She was one more name to go on my patient list, one more life to attend to, countless hours I wouldn’t spend in bed.

Yikes. You don't want to encounter this doctor, right? (As the quote continues, "That’s the side of a doctor no patient should have to face.")

But don't you totally understand that feeling, at the same time? Not literally, since I've never been in a position where saving a person's life kept me from sleep, but I know that when I've been up for way too many hours in a row (not often, happily), I start to operate in a complete haze. Emotions are off key, responses are slow.

Heck, I hate everyone and everything in the world if I wake up too early in the morning*. Sleep is important!

But of course someone needs to cover the shifts these residents work, and there's the question of whether hospitals can afford to pay enough people to do that if they only work for shorter periods of time. Also, there seems to be an attitude of "I survived it, so you can too--now suck it up and quit whining!" among doctors past their residency experiences.

Another post addressing these questions is promised. This one was mainly about why long shifts and sleep deprivation are an issue we should think about. And I have to say, I'm pretty convinced.

*'Too early in the morning' is here defined as 'at some point in the morning.'

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Brr, Cold...Ahg, Hot!

I want studies on whether or not it's unhealthy to spend all day shivering in an overly chilly air conditioned office and then walk out into what, by comparison, feels like a tropical steam bath.

I swear it can't be good for you, but I lack the research to back me up and give me the evidence I need to forcefully argue in favor of moderation in the climate control. Naturally I went to PubMed, but in my cold/heat-addled state I couldn't formulate an effective search strategy, so I was no good there.

In fairness, I'm sure it's very difficult to maintain any kind of constant temperature over 14 floors in a drafty 50-year-old building. They would probably do it if they could, just to stop people like me from whining. But fairness is no fun, is it?

Not nearly as much as whining, anyway.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Penguins Lost Shall be Regained

So remember my cherished penguin bag from the American Physiological Society, that I got at MLA 2008 and carried around until it was tragically destroyed in a car fire?

And how I hoped the APS would have more of them at MLA 2010 so I could get another one?

Well, they didn't (they had another bag, which is also quite nice--very roomy and sturdy), but I related my sad tale to the wonderful woman at the booth, and she said "I think I still have one in my office--give me your card and I'll send it to you."

And she did!

The cherished penguin bag will roam the streets of Boston once again! (As a side note, what the heck is wrong with my camera? That weird blurring of the text matter what I do with the settings, I can't get clear pictures these days. Do digital cameras just get old and blurry? Are my hands just constantly shaking without my realizing it?)

Thank you, Lucia at the American Physiological Society!

You totally made my afternoon. And the fabulous loot factor for MLA 2010 just went through the roof.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Breaking Ancient News!

Early humans may have interbred with Neanderthals after all, according to research discussed in Science (via Erich Vieth on Dangerous Intersection).

I'm always interested in ancient scandals about who was sleeping with whom, so this is big news, and I have previously been impressed to learn that Neanderthals possessed a gene for red hair, so they obviously had valuable DNA and their blood is welcome in the human family as far as I'm concerned.

They totally would ask my opinion, too, if I could grab a time machine and go back when and figure out how to communicate with them all over wherever it was they mingled for however many thousands of years.

Good story, right?

Anyway, although it makes no practical difference one way or the other since any distinct culture they possessed is long gone (along with every contemporary distinct human culture), I have to kind of like the idea that there may still be some traces of them around today.