Tina K. Russell

November 29, 2009

Our presumed obsessions

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:49 pm

To the Editor:

The discovery of water on the Moon is indeed one of the greatest discoveries in human history. The possibilities for expansion of our heretofore single home base have just multiplied to a greater extent than when early hominids first jumped down from their tree perches and began a terrestrial expansion.

It is indeed shocking, but not at all surprising, that outside the scientific community this discovery has next to no interest to most people. The average American is apparently more interested in what foolish thing Sarah Palin will say or do next.

Americans no longer want to be informed; they just want to be entertained. The promise of the 1950s and early ’60s has now ended in the reality that most Americans are not “smarter than a fifth grader” and don’t really know, or care, about things of cosmic importance. I fear for our future.

Michael Davis

Madison, Wis., Nov. 20, 2009

via Letters – Water on the Moon, Reality on Earth – NYTimes.com.

While I have a lot of sympathy for this person’s argument, I think there’s a bit of a straw man—or a straw population—in it. It’s annoying that TV shows focused more on Sarah Palin than on a discovery that changes our perception of the universe forever, but I also know that TV shows often rush to judgment on what Americans care about and then attempt to dictate their assumptions to us. So, I wouldn’t assume right away that TV shows focusing on Palin means we “don’t care” about spaceflight; maybe we’d watch more science news if networks were willing to take the risk of treating their audiences like adults.

I spent eight months wondering who the hell Jon and Kate were and why I should give a damn. I suspect I’m not alone.

See also: Majority Of Americans Out Of Touch With Mainstream

November 12, 2008

FUD kills

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 10:50 pm

Global Update – Measles Outbreak Affects 1 Percent of Gibraltar Population – NYTimes.com
A measles outbreak in Gibraltar has infected almost 1 percent of the territory’s 28,000 people in just three months, according to a report by its public health director.

The outbreak, mostly in schoolchildren, made it clear that the authorities had been wrong in assuming that more than 90 percent of children had had measles shots, the report said. Gibraltar is a British territory, and resistance to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine has been high in Britain since a 1998 report in The Lancet speculated that it could cause autism.

That report has been widely discredited, and numerous later studies showed no link between vaccines and autism. Nonetheless, as a consequence of dropping vaccination rates, Britain has had several local measles outbreaks.

Please get your children vaccinated! We have the luxury of not knowing how bad measles, mumps, and rubella are because we’ve been vaccinated for so long. We should pass that legacy to our children, not put them at risk because of our ignorance.

About the title: FUD is “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” It refers to campaigns that instill a vague, unspoken fear in you about someone or something. Basically, all these stories saying that vaccines “could” cause autism (they don’t), or that there is “debate” among scientists (there isn’t), or that the idea is pushed by anyone with a modicum of scientific credibility (it’s not) are the kinds of things that make you think twice, or put off getting your children vaccinated, when they actually really need it. I’m glad that no one has died so far in this outbreak, it sounds like; I just hope we learn that our children shouldn’t have to suffer because of FUD.

October 13, 2008

Tina dreams with pride

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:46 pm

Reality Sandwich | Meditations in an Emergency
Over the last few days, I have received several warnings from people that I consider more knowledgeable than most about the potential for a severe socio-economic disruption within the next week. The Arlington Institute, a future trends think tank, has been doing a study of precognitive dreams. Of course, dreams are imprecise yardsticks, but based on past patterns, they do seem to reveal aspects of what may take place. John Peterson, the director of TAI, believes that this data, along with other indicators he tracks, reveals the potential for a severe crisis that could unfold this weekend or early next week. Possibilities include a “terrorist” event such as an electro-magnetic pulse weapon, detonated on the East Coast of the US. Such an explosion could lead to a temporary wipeout of electronic equipment and hard drives, forcing the financial system itself to “reset.” Another option may be some development connected with Iran or Russia.

Friends from within the financial world have contacted me to note that the panicked sell-off of stocks may indicate foreknowledge, on the part of some insiders, of an imminent announcement of even worse news than we have heard so far. This could be related to the banking system, or a military maneuver. One option that has been raised is that the banking system will be shut down next week. The officials may be waiting until after banks close on Friday to release this information, in order to limit panic, giving time for the information to be absorbed (Monday is a bank holiday).

I am suggesting to friends that it may be prudent to have some cash and basic provisions on hand, as the next few weeks may see some disruptions in basic services. Of course, this is still highly speculative and unlikely. However, it seems prudent to make some preparations, however modest.

This was linked to by Bodil, whom I love dearly. Anyway, Ms. Bodil, and the rest of you: please, please do not take this seriously! We are pack animals. When we see other people panic, we panic. There’s no precognition at work here, any more than someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is “predicting” a stampede for the exit.

And, I should say this: I love dreams. I love dreams very, very much. I am a dream enthusiast, and I consider dreams to be valuable windows into our souls. That said: do not attempt to use them to predict the future! Certainly, dreams can be looks into subconscious processes that we are far to distracted when awake to recognize. Dreams can hone your intuition to see something right in front of you that you’ve been missing all along. Dreams can probably predict the future more accurately than some TV finance pundit pulling stocks from his nether regions, but in general, dreams cannot predict the future (unless you mean by the fact that they are so damned cryptic they can be interpreted, after the fact, to have meant just about anything).

For instance, I once had a dream that I was aboard the Battlestar Galactica, and Cmdr. Adama saw fit to have us land on a planet with hot springs for some relaxation (before, presumably, resuming our regular duties of running from Cylons). I dearly wanted to take a rest in the springs myself, but some bureaucratic screw-up resulted in my colonial ID card being withheld, without which I could not gain access to the springs. I had to speak with the Commander personally, which made me shiver as he was far above me in the chain of command. None of this has since occured.

I remember a dream where I was battling zombies in a large house. I fought zombies for so long, as part of a team, that I became thoroughly exhausted. I fought zombies until we were finally able to procure a cause and a cure for the zombification, a cure I was so confident in that I kissed one of the zombies, a zombie I had fallen in love with. None of this has since occured.

I remember other dreams. I dreamt that I became part of a secret paranormal society upon arriving at my brother’s alma mater (which I recently transferred to), hoping it was all meant to be an amusing joke and a fun hobby (like a “vampire hunting” club or somesuch), but beginning to worry it was more. I remember a dream where I fought in an insurgency to save “George Lucas’s” people, an ethnicity whose name as such was never defined, who lived in a large jungle gym beseiged by colonists. I remember eating Sonic canned pasta (with meatballs!) while sitting in a bathtub, until I realized that the bathtub had filth in it. I’ve been stalked by Number Six, witnessed the resurrection of Martin Luther King, Jr., been irritated at length by an automated, talking advertisement at a fare box, flown over a Barack Obama street march (one that included the man himself) by holding tightly onto my flying pillow, and been ordered, in no uncertain terms, to fill a bucket with jelly while at Trader Joe’s. (I mean, I had to use a knife to scoop jelly from the jars that were on the shelf. I did not purchase these jars. It was an order!) I’ve even been sent to Hell, noting that it was more boring than agonizing, and realizing that my great regrets in life were more simple sloth (why didn’t I do more things? Why didn’t I call more people back? Why didn’t I stick up for myself?) than outright immorality. In fact, I guessed that’s why I had gone to Hell; I’d let myself become my own worst enemy. (I did get to bring along a few possessions, including a Sonic action figure.) I did have one chance to redeem myself: a trial of my peers, or rather, a trial whose judging panel consisted of household appliances, such as a broom, a vacuum cleaner, and an Atari 2600. (I may have made this up later, but I think the 2600 was struck by lightning and became a beautiful, naked woman.)

None of these have since occured.

I’ve had a thousand variations on the “naked dream.” I’ve lived in a thousand permutations of every home I’ve ever lived in, and visited a thousand permutations of every school I’ve ever been to, including ones I barely remember. (Last night, I returned to my middle school to find that I was so popular, people deferred to my judgment when I changed clothes in the middle of the classroom.) I’ve met famous people, I’ve met dead people, I’ve seen loved ones go insane, I’ve seen people I thought were awful turn out to be all right. Once, in elementary school, I dreamt that my school could secretly turn into a giant robot, though the long hallway to the art room made for a single, awkward arm.

None of these have since occured!

I know that divining the future from dreams is meant to be something allegorical and imprecise, but that’s exactly the problem: they are so allegorical and imprecise, you can divine absolutely anything, especially when fitting them after the fact as allegories to what actually happened. Rather, I think dreams are wonderful and valuable because you get a look at how you think of the world, what goes on in your mind when your brain is so bored, it makes up a fully interactive world around you. (I once had a dream that ended when I exited my bedroom into a vast, white abyss; the dream didn’t go that far!) I’ve learned a technique—one that I haven’t been able to use very often, sadly, since I seem to be the only person for kilometers around who doesn’t think the recitation of dreams is boring—of analyzing dreams that goes to their heart by asking the dreamer himself or herself to define the dream’s various elements, because dreams are about the meanings you attach to things, not what some buck-fifty “dream dictionary” from the impulse aisle says they mean.

But also… I have such trouble tapping my creativity when sitting at a desk or at my computer (partly due to my over-analytical and overly critical mind, the enemy of any writer on a first draft, and the writer’s best friend on a second), that the fact that my mind turns off for eight hours a night and passes off things that are completely absurd as fact is downright beautiful. In fact, that’s what really gives me a problem with ascribing the paranormal to our everyday night stories… you don’t need to “make” dreams beautiful. They are beautiful. They are wondrous and sensuous, they come from the innermost recesses of our creativity and how you see the world. Social rules, laws of physics, laws of sheer causality are suspended for an obnoxious, nightly romp through the ephemeral. That’s lovable. That’s glorious. That’s spectacular on its own. I don’t need to dilute its beauty through supernatural explanations; its beautiful because it comes from us, and we, ourselves, are beautiful.

(And God made us in God’s own image, endowing us with awesomeness, etc.)

In fact, I’d really extend this to why I dislike “the paranormal” in general (besides the fact that, were “the paranormal” proven true, and thus scientifically relevant, it would be, well, normal and thus defeating its own definition). You don’t need to make the world beautiful. It is beautiful, and looking for supernatural explanations distracts you from the real explanations that are themselves beautiful. The paranormal is junk food for the brain; the paranormal is a trick that makes you see the world in simple terms rather than one given glorious complexity (I would say, by the Creator). The paranormal is a distraction from what’s really fun and exciting, but requires commitment and skepticism: cold, hard science.

That’s what I don’t like about peddlers of the paranormal who say they are somehow bestowing some essential mystery upon the world: the world is essentially mysterious, and if you want to be on the forefront of that mystery, join the ranks of scientists (and the armchair enthusiasts like me) who are constantly speculating, hypothesizing, forming great theories and knocking them down, all in pursuit of knowledge at the very edge of human comprehension. Don’t boil it down to “negative energy” and psychic predictions and enneagrams and all-seeing gurus. Go for the good stuff, the hard stuff, the rewarding stuff. Go for science.

(I will also say that this is why I don’t like pop psychology dividing us into the “left-” and “right-brained”; the good Lord gave you two lobes, dammit! Science is a wonderful art, and art, an exacting science. Do both with a spirit of purpose, and a childlike enchantment with the unknown!)

September 9, 2008

Proprietary science is patently absurd

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 10:18 pm

(I also wanted to call this post, “Putting drug companies on the Dole? I don’t Bayh it!”)

Unboxed – When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder – NYTimes.com
In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 is one of my least-favorite pieces of legislation ever for this reason. Once upon a time, the results of federally financed research were public domain, since after all, we paid for them! Of course, two Senators got it into their heads that this was a problem, that America can succeed as a country only if we devolve into everyone-for-themselves, Lord of the Flies melee combat. Now universities are in a rush to patent their findings (as though basic knowledge of the universe could be patented) and license them exclusively to drug companies that can take advantage of a sick and desperate audience and bilk us for all we’re worth. (The “cost of innovation” excuse is nonsense, as anyone who knows about price elasticity of demand is aware.)

Please read the article! It tackles the research rather than the public health side, but it’s a blow-by-blow account of the mess we’re in. Over in the software world, we’ve slowly learned that sharing information and then competing on merit—that is to say, standing on the shoulders of giants, who are themselves standing on the shoulders of other giants—produces better software than locking up our code and having to reinvent the wheel each and every time we make a new application (and even then not being able to release it without a maelstrom of C&Ds from opportunistic patent trolls). In science, sadly, we run a risk of slipping steadily back from this realization, from Jonas Salk’s bemused reaction of “there’s no patent… could you patent the sun?”, and into a world in which we compete not for titles or reputations but for cold, hard cash, and are willing to let the scientific world splinter into a thousand pieces and let innovation grind to a halt for that worship of money.

I like intellectual property, I like copyright, I like the idea that you have control over the things you create. I want people who write books and make movies and report the news and create astonishing inventions and build the latest videogame to be able to make lots of money from what they do. However, when a university is receiving public money, they ought to be willing to give back to the people that gave them the opportunity, and we ought to attach those strings to the money we give.

More important than any of that though is the simple fact that—as we’ve learned in software—a mad rush to patent everything “under the sun, made by man” does not promote innovation but rather grinds it to a halt. Innovation, by and large, is not a college student with a billion-dollar idea; it’s many, many bright people slowly building on an idea until it becomes robust and unstoppable. An angel coming down from the heavens with the concept for your next patent application is rare, and those “aha!” moments can only come from the long hours of drudgery, the thankless work of intellectual labor, the ninety-nine percent perspiration whose inspirational component makes it all worth it. When you cannot build on others’ ideas, when the giants are wearing massive, spiked shoulder-pads of IP to prevent you from standing on their shoulders, you must repeat every act of this intellectual drudgery that anyone before you has ever completed before. Oh, and if you work for an institution with such a strong-IP bent, and you leave or are fired or laid off, guess what? Work-for-hire just means you lost your life’s work. Sucks to be you.

What’s more, the article goes on to discuss how these patents, for the massive intellectual gold rush going into them, for the university legal departments sprouting up like mini-malls and the armies of men in lab coats hiring brokers, are mostly not even profitable! The money that goes into the sheer legal paperwork and hoop-jumping of the patent mess—not to mention enforcing your patent in costly lawsuits—is more money than you can ever hope to get from Fig. B. This doesn’t even begin to describe the massive deadweight loss to society when universities quit cooperating and attempt to establish their own scientific fiefdoms, their own legal terrariums, sheltering their research from the outside world, forcing institutions of science to go it alone and duplicate every lab-room slough that anyone has ever endured if they ever want to make any kind of discovery.

This is something that’s crushing to me not only because I have ADD and the patent on my medication does not run out until 2018 because somebody decided that you could patent the very concept of a generic medicine with an immediate- and extended-release mechanism (not such a mechanism, but the basic idea of one!), and the courts and the patent office have rolled over like doting puppies. It’s not crushing to me just because of the rising costs of healthcare across America are explained not only by very real and impressive technological and medical advances but also because of an elaborate scheme of publicly-funded extortion of sick people unknowingly set up by our government and paid for by taxpayers (twice!). It’s crushing to me because I love science, and science can’t happen if no one is able to stand on the shoulders of giants because the giants have taken out patents on their shoulders and they won’t be public domain for twenty years, at which point they’ll be changed slightly solely for the sake of a new shoulder-patent.

Today’s science patent scheme was supposed to create innovation by allowing scientific institutions to have twenty-year monopolies on their discoveries. It works great for books or movies (unless Disney can buy enough Congressmen to keep America’s cultural heritage under copyright forever), and it’s great for specific inventions that are reasonably clever and nonobvious. For science, however, excessive patenting means that innovation happens in a glacial, twenty-year cycle. I can’t think of a good way to get the public riled up about this, but we must. Don’t pay for your medicine at both ends. Lets restore trust in our doctors and scientists and kick out the plague of greed from our institution of science.

America’s economy of innovation depends on it. Public funding should mean public domain.

September 4, 2008

The “typical” videogame

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 12:56 pm

New Computer Game, Spore, Takes Cues From Evolutionary Biology – NYTimes.com
Unlike the typical shoot-them-till-they’re-all-dead video game, Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology.

The best-selling games of 2007 in America, according to VGChartz.com:

Pos Console Name Publisher Yearly Total
1 Wii
Wii Sports
Nintendo 7,390,511 8,619,419
2 Xbox 360
Halo 3
Microsoft 4,989,167 4,989,167
3 DS
Pokemon Diamond / Pearl
Nintendo 4,401,363 4,401,363
4 Wii
Wii Play
Nintendo 4,308,837 4,308,837
5 Xbox 360
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Activision 2,769,552 2,769,552
6 PS2
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
Activision 2,502,223 2,502,223
7 Wii
Super Mario Galaxy
Nintendo 2,501,203 2,501,203
8 Xbox 360
Forza Motorsport 2
Microsoft 2,358,809 2,358,809
9 DS
Nintendo 2,175,399 6,401,266
10 Wii
Mario Party 8
Nintendo 1,923,939 1,923,939
11 PS2
Guitar Hero II
Activision 1,912,866 3,450,238
12 Xbox 360
Madden NFL 08
Electronic Arts 1,874,517 1,874,517
13 Xbox 360
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
Activision 1,856,994 2,216,076
14 Xbox 360
Assassins Creed
Ubisoft 1,840,887 1,840,887
15 PS2
Madden NFL 08
Electronic Arts 1,741,384 1,741,384
16 Xbox 360
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
Activision 1,596,704 1,596,704
17 DS
New Super Mario Bros
Nintendo 1,534,097 3,817,822
18 Xbox 360
Guitar Hero II
Activision 1,500,002 1,500,002
19 DS
More Brain Training
Nintendo 1,411,784 1,411,784
20 PS3
Sony Computer Entertainment 1,313,201 1,313,201

Got that? Only two of those (Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4) even involve shooting. There’s also Assassin’s Creed, a violent mission-based game. Those three are rated “M” for “Mature 17+.” Then there are the “T” for “Teen” games: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (rated for its cooperative, superhero-themed fantasy violence) and the Guitar Hero games (rated for lyrics that were controversial in your parents’ day). The rest of the list—Wii Sports, Pokémon, Madden, Mario, etc.—are unimpeachably innocuous.

I’m a little sick of hearing about how games are “finally reaching out” from sophomoric gore-fests. Carmageddon was a dud, Duke Nukem came and went, nobody liked Postal, ever, and I suspect Black stayed firmly in the red. Nobody these days will accept a game predicated on satisfying an itchy trigger finger, and the most gory popular games I can think of today exemplify that. The violence of the Halo games is set apart by a somber, almost mournful tone throughout; violence is portrayed as necessary, but also senseless. (The violins and Gregorian chants of the game’s main theme capture this atmosphere well.) The Grand Theft Auto games are known for their massive interactive worlds and deep, engaging storylines, so as long as you’re willing to step into the shoes of a completely amoral main character (as many have when watching The Sopranos, The Godfather, or The Wire). (The violence is also mission-based; you can kill everyone in sight, but it is not the goal, and it will raise the ire of the fuzz in a hurry.) BioShock is renowned for its deep story, rife with literary influences and socio-political commentary, and for the moral choices it presents the gamer with. (Would you take a hostage’s soul if it meant a fighting chance to escape and rescue more hostages?)

Moreover, I am bothered how the non-violent games that break the mold are too often ignored, and I’m sick of reading articles in the mainstream press discussing how such-and-such a new game is completely unprecedented in being inventive. EarthBound (known in its native Japan as Mother 2, sequel to Mother) was a story-based game created by a renowned Japanese writer, Shigesato Itoi, who wanted to make a videogame with values less like that of a commanding father (“find the magical amulet!” “rescue the captured scientist!” etc.) and more like a gentle, reinforcing mother (hence the name). According to him, the theme of the most recent installment—the (sadly) Japan-only Mother 3—is “love for one’s family.”

Spore is a good example, but don’t forget that its creator made SimCity, a game with no defined ending and that simply encouraged the player to make a town he or she could be proud of, and The Sims, a game centered around the life of a virtual family. Katsuya Eguchi created Animal Crossing when he was lonely following a move from his native Chiba to Nintendo’s home of Kyoto; the game has you making friends and adjusting to life in a new community. Jet Grind Radio featured punks on rollerblades tearing up a Day-Glo-colored Tokyo, outsmarting the law and spraying graffiti in a landscape beautifully stylized to look like an animated graffiti itself. Crazy Taxi is an arcade game in which you must use any means necessary… to reach your fare’s destination. (It’s also an absolute blast, as it is full of crazy cabbie attitude and endearingly absurd game physics.) And while The Legend of Zelda games have elements of fantasy violence, they consistently place you in Tolkien-grade epics with a mix of action, adventure, and challenging, multi-layer puzzles.

And on the subject of science, I don’t think there’s a single game not inspired by science. What all videogames have in common is that the player must feel around and figure out how the game world works, what interactions are beneficial, and what skills are most important in order to achieve the desired goal (be that the game’s or the player’s). A good game is a gradual process of discovery.

So, I don’t want to hear any more about the “typical” videogame. There isn’t one, just as there is no “typical” book or movie. Back in the nineties, hearing this kind of talk from unenlightened observers was cute. Now, it’s just annoying.

August 7, 2008

Overuse of antibiotics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 2:19 pm

Cases – Isolation Fights Drug-Resistant Organisms, but at a Price – NYTimes.com
Like the better-known MRSA, VRE is a so-called multidrug-resistant organism, able to survive an assault from powerful antibiotics. Half a century ago these bugs did not exist; a decade ago they were rare; today, nearly 30 percent of the Enterococcus bacteria collected from cultures in hospitals are VRE, and 60 percent of the Staphylococcus aureus are MRSA.

Their emergence is an unintended consequence of our use (and overuse) of antibiotics. Hardy organisms like MRSA evolve to withstand the drugs; then, through vectors like the unwashed hands of health care workers, they hitch a ride from patient to patient, hiding like terrorists among the natural bacteria that all humans harbor.

And when a severely ill patient is further compromised by tubes in a vein, the bladder or the lung, the bacteria flourish in defiance of the usual treatments, leading to infections of the urinary tract, bloodstream and lungs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 1.7 million hospital infections a year, resulting in nearly 90,000 deaths, costing the health system more than $11 billion.

Our overuse of antibiotics really bugs me. We should not use antibacterial soap for this reason, and yet soap companies loudly proclaim their antibacterial soaps to be so, because we reasonably take that to mean they are safer, when they are vastly more dangerous. (The same goes for “hand sanitizer” stuff. Please, find a sink.) Antibiotics are valuable, life-saving weapons against infectious disease, but the more you use them, the less effective they are. This is why you should not use them unless you really need to, so, not when washing your hands, washing your table, or fighting a cold.

Of course, one problem is that we get antibiotics in us anyway through our meat, because factory farms pack their animals in so tightly that the only way to keep them from keeling over from disease is to pump them full of antibiotics. This is basically a breeding ground for deadly new diseases and a public health disaster waiting to happen. That’s why the stuff about “free range” and humane care of farm animals is actually really relevant: if the impulse to be kind to animals doesn’t motivate you enough, remember that how kind you are to animals is reflected in how kind they are to you when you eat them. (It’s also why I don’t like self-righteous condemnation of meat-eaters. They’re the ones with the power to make the industry more humane, and so they must be included in any movement to do so.)

I’m rather more concerned about antibiotics than rBST, but it seems to be easier for farms to stop using that one hormone and loudly advertise that than change the entire way they do business for the safety of the public. Sigh…

July 24, 2008

Natural remedies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Tina Russell @ 7:58 am

From a list of common medical myths:

Personal Health – The Truth Behind Some Medical Myths – Jane Brody – NYTimes.com
NATURAL IS SAFER THAN MAN-MADE A woman recently asked me if it was safe to take “bioidentical hormone replacements.” These, I’m afraid, are estrogens, and there is no reliable evidence to support claims that they are safer than the ones made by chemists that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease.

Remember, nature has produced some of the most dangerous substances known, including arsenic and botulinum toxin. And chemists have produced medications that can control or cure many life-threatening ills. Many important medications are derived from natural substances that not only have druglike actions but also druglike side effects.

Only carefully controlled clinical trials can assure the safety of a natural or man-made drug, and few natural substances have been tested in this way.

Thank you!

Yes, it’s a very good list. I highly recommend reading it, though you may need to brace yourself for a breaking of long-held childhood beliefs.

July 23, 2008

On the overuse of monkeys

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:58 am

Op-Ed Contributor – Silly Chimps on TV Make People Think the Apes Aren’t Endangered – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
A survey that I and several colleagues conducted in 2005 found that one in three visitors to the Lincoln Park Zoo assumed that chimpanzees are not endangered. Yet more than 90 percent of these same visitors understood that gorillas and orangutans face serious threats to their survival. And many of those who imagined chimpanzees to be safe reported that they based their thinking on the prevalence of chimps in advertisements, on television and in the movies.

I’ve long been troubled by the overuse of monkeys in design, especially in Web, fashion, and “counterculture” circles. It’s not clever or funny; it’s just cliché. But this op-ed brings to light one more problem: we are 98% chimpanzee, and these creatures are as respectable, and scientifically useful to learn from, as they are endangered. The more we present the use of a monkey as hip or hilarious in itself, we perpetuate the idea that they’re harmless and plentiful, when neither is true.

I’m not saying you should never use a monkey to represent your brand or product (though the author of this op-ed rightly encourages you not to use a live-action monkey). Perhaps, though, your monkey-themed project could do a charity drive to help real monkeys facing real threats. That could help people understand that monkeys deserve respect and face real danger.

May 13, 2008

Western medicine

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:38 pm

Bad Science » Pools of blood

The earliest example of a cumulative meta-analysis is from 1981, in a paper which looked at the routine use of antibiotics during surgery to prevent infection. They showed, by doing a cumulative meta-analysis, that research had continued to be done for years after antibiotics had been shown to be effective, not only at preventing infections during operations, but also in reducing the death rate afterwards. Because this was missed, thousands of patients were randomly allocated to receive placebo control pills in studies, denied acccess to a treatment which was known to be effective, and many of them will have died unnecessarily, simply for the lack of a bit of clever number crunching.

Ideas like cumulative meta-analysis from the world of evidence have saved countless lives, and they could save many more. They are clever and they are fascinating. They are the same tools you hear rubbished by big pharma, by homeopaths, and by lobbyists from the $56bn food supplement industry. But you will never find them celebrated, anywhere, in popular culture.

I have to breathe deeply and count to ten when one of my liberal friends disparages “Western medicine” for its monolithic, overriding focus on getting better. I have to remember that, in all too many people’s minds, the corrupt American healthcare industry (which is bad) is tied in their minds with the basic concept of science (which is very, very good). Science saves lives, science teaches us about the world, science helps you live longer, science helps you live your life better and helps you connect with people you love.

A recent New York Times article, on how undocumented immigrants often have to turn to “traditional healers” for help, bugged me. I felt it underplayed the dangers of not having access to modern healthcare. Its more critical mistake, though, is that it romanticized the role of a sham doctor, one who may genuinely believe in what he or she does but nonetheless is an archaism that no resident of a developed country should be subjected to.

We may turn up our noses at what Stephen Colbert calls “Lab-Coat Larrys” and assume scientists are elitists out of touch with what ails us. But when we dismiss statistics as being incongruous with our personal experience, often we are sacrificing people’s lives at the altar of a romantic whim. That’s why I get angry when I hear about homeopaths or “energy healing” or see yet another acupuncture clinic spring up from the ether; they may be good placebos, certainly, but they’re still placebos, and placebos rely on deception, intentional or not. Their effectiveness as such does not absolve the practitioners of their crime: sowing mistrust, doubt, and misinformation about science, which inevitably leads to deaths down the line. They are “complementary” only in the sense that a lie “complements” the truth.

April 26, 2008

The Word Problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:30 pm

Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices – New York Times

Entranced, perhaps, by those infamous hypothetical trains, many educators in recent years have incorporated more and more examples from the real world to teach abstract concepts. The idea is that making math more relevant makes it easier to learn.

That idea may be wrong, if researchers at Ohio State University are correct. An experiment by the researchers suggests that it might be better to let the apples, oranges and locomotives stay in the real world and, in the classroom, to focus on abstract equations, in this case 40 (t 1) = 400 – 50t, where t is the travel time in hours of the second train. (The answer is below.)


Perhaps I hate word problems because, well, I’ve got ADD, and the time it takes to figure out what the problem is actually asking is plenty of time to be distracted by something shiny. But also, I’ve had math teachers–who are, incidentally, going to Hell–insist that “word problems need word answers,” and though I’m always willing to oblige a similar reciprocation in the case of the silly question, I think operating in the perfect, Platonic world of ideas is damn fine for all my math problems. I like keeping my math and my cutting prose separate, thank you.

Seriously, math class is time you need to practice, crunch numbers, get the concepts down, not time to indulge the teacher in romantic educational fantasies. If Mei Lin needs to plant a flower garden and wants to find its perimeter, I’ll assume that, as a corporeal being, she can figure it out her own damn self. Time I spend unwinding word problems is time wasted! And if teachers can’t read my scribbles–a mere half-fulfillment of the hallowed principle of “show your work”–they can screw themselves. I’m here to do math, not write feature articles on the process.

I once had a math teacher who had us keep a “math journal” outlining what we’re learning! We got points for laying it out nicely and…. GAAAH! I can’t take it any more!

Math teachers need to love math! If you don’t love math, don’t teach it! End of story! Goodbye!

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