Friday, January 02, 2009

Culture Dish Move Complete - New Feed Now Live

Please update your RSS feeds ... as mentioned below, Culture Dish has moved. You can subscribe to the new Culture Dish RSS feed here. You can also subscribe to have Culture Dish delivered to you via email here.


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Assistance Monkeys, Ducks, Parrots, Pigs and Ducks ... Should the law protect them? My Latest New York Times Magazine Story

Update: The Culture Dish move is now complete, and the new Culture Dish feed is now live. Please update your subscription and we'll see you over on the new site!

I know, I told you Culture Dish was moving, and it did. But I've been having problems with the new site (hard-to-read font, plus its feed isn't activated yet, alas), so I wanted to post a quick note here to let folks know about my latest New York Times Magazine story, Creature Comforts, which just went online today. It's about the use of nontraditional service animals -- including monkeys, miniature horses, parrots, snakes, goats, even ducks -- and the legal battles surrounding them. The print version will hit the stands this Sunday. I've posted about the story in detail on my new blog, along with photos of the animals I wrote about, video footage of Panda the guide miniature horse, and much more. So come check it out.

Photo caption: Skloot interviewing Richard the agoraphobia service monkey ...

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Culture Dish Has Moved

That's right, today is moving day. Please update your links or RSS feeds or whatever it is that you use, and come check out Culture Dish at its new home on ScienceBlogs, complete with an inaugural post. I'll be keeping my archives here for a while until I figure out how to move them over to the new server, but eventually I'll transfer them and close down this site entirely.

See you at the new diggs ...


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Dusting Off The Cobwebs

Yes, it's true:  Culture Dish is still alive under all the dust and cobwebs that have accumulated since my last post.  The good news:  My book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is finished and headed toward publication (which is why Culture Dish went on hiatus), and I'll be back to blogging soon.  I'll also be launching a new website at as well as giving Culture Dish a serious makeover.  First step:  It's moving to ScienceBlogs.  Stay tuned for more information, including a link to the new blog location once it's up and running ...

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Blog Down Time

As anyone who's visited this blog in the last many months has noticed: Culture Dish has been sleeping. Teaching, freelancing, column writing, book work, travel and blogging over at Critical Mass have left little time for personal blogging lately. But I'll be starting up a pets blog for Prevention Magazine soon -- a companion blog for my monthly column there -- so stay tuned for more information about that. And once my book hits stores, I'll be back blogging on my own as well.

In the meantime, those interested in following my freelance work can find stories on my website. Those interested in reading my pets column can do so on this page, which I update monthly. And poke around here on Culture Dish -- there's lots to see.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Catalona Appeal Ruling: Patients Don't Control Their Tissues

Some time ago, I wrote this story for the New York Times Magazine titled, "Taking the Least of You: Those blood and tissue samples you routinely give - where are they? Who owns them? What are they being used for? And how come you don't know?" Since that story ran, I've been publishing updates here on the Washington University vs. William Catalona trial that I covered -- it was a potentially landmark court case that questioned whether patients can control the use of their tissues in research, and whether they retain any property rights in their excised body parts (in this case, Washington University claimed ownership of 6,000 tissue samples from patients who asked that their samples be removed from the university's prostate cancer bank, which is worth millions of dollars).

Well, here's another update: Initially, the court ruled in favor of Washington University, saying individuals don't own their tissues. Catalona and his patients appealed. This morning, the 8th District Court finally ruled on that appeal: Their decision states, "We affirm the well-reasoned opinion and judgment of the district court." In other words, they ruled against Catalona and his patients, saying that they don't own their prostate cancer tissues, Washington University does. You can read the full decision here.
This ruling is a serious blow to the patients' rights advocates who've spent decades fighting for people to have control how researchers use their their bodily tissues (and the DNA inside them). This ruling reaffirms the precadent set by the famous John Moore case. But the Catalona case isn't over yet, I'm sure. More on this decision, and the case, soon.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Having a Good Pet Death

My latest pets column, The Good Good-Bye, has just hit the stands in the July issue of Prevention Magazine. As you'll see, it's about something near and dear: Dealing with the loss of a pet both emotionally, and logistically.

In my 10 years as a veterinary technician, I helped euthanize many animals, including one of my own, so I understand that side of the death experience all too well. What I didn't know until I set out to write this column was what an enormous industry pet death has become: You can get an incredible variety of pet urns and coffins (including lifesized ones), you can have your pet's hair or ashes turned into a diamond, you can cryopreserve your pet in case science catches up with science fiction to make cloning possible (don't count on that one), you can even have your pet freeze dried in a variety of natural positions, so you can keep it with you at home looking frighteningly lifelike. Okay, yeah: Some of it is definitely bizarre. But hey, like I said in my column, if this stuff helps people recover from losing pets, who cares it seems weird to others.

On another note: I've finally arrived in Memphis, where I'm surrounded by boxes and lacking an Internet connection at home. So this blog will continue to be pretty quiet for a while. But more news from The South soon ...

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Monday, May 14, 2007

On The Road Again

For those wondering why my blog has been so quiet lately, here's why: I've accepted a faculty position at The University of Memphis, where I'm moving in exactly two weeks (which explains why I've had this great song stuck in my head for months). I'm really excited about the move (the food! the music! the Reverend Al Green! Elvis! the mississippi delta! huge fenced-in backyard for the dogs! kool-aid pickles!?), and about working with such great writers in the MFA program there, where I'll teach creative nonfiction. The plan at this point: Live in Memphis during the academic year, and spend the rest of the year back in NYC and in my native Portland, Oregon.

The hiring process, combined with deadlines, teaching at NYU, and my work with the National Book Critics Circle have left this poor blog a little quiet. That will likely continue through the summer as I settle and get my book ready to go out into the world. But stay tuned for all kinds of interesting Memphis stories ...


Saturday, May 12, 2007

New Pets Column Now Live

I'm happy to report that I am now writing a monthly column about Pets for Prevention magazine. An editor at the magazine contacted me after reading this article I wrote about my dog Bonny plus several animal-related posts on this blog -- she suggested I combine my love of animal stories with my decade of experience as a veterinary technician to write a regular series for Prevention (which I thought was a fabulous idea).

My first column just hit stands in their June issue (now available in grocery stores everywhere) -- it's called "Feeding Disorders," and it was inspired by this post about pet obesity, which I wrote when the FDA approved a crazy new diet drug for dogs (interestingly, that is one of my most widely read posts, perhaps in part because of the amazing photograph I posted with it).

Stay tuned for more columns, which I'll post here each month as they run. And feel free to email me any tips or suggestions for future columns.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Messiness Linked to Creativity

Hallelujah ... that's all I can say about this. Hall-e-freakin-lujah:

From Prevention Magazine: "People who inhabit moderately messy spaces are more creative than those who work in very organized ones, says Columbia University management professor Eric Abrahamson, coauthor of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Amid clutter, many famous thinkers have made serendipitous connections between seemingly unrelated documents that led to great success."

I would post a photo of the way my office looks this very second to illustrate why I find this news so exciting. But I can't find my camera.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Dangers of Emailing, IMing, Texting, Calling ...

New studies show, yet again, that technology makes us stupid. Or at least less effective. And that the best way to accomplish something successfully -- whether it's driving a car, crossing a street, standing in a train station, or writing a book -- is to turn off the tech. I've blogged about the problems that come with constant emailing several times in the past. Now, today's New York Times reports on the newest studies into how multitasking messes with your brain:

"The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

"Mr. Marois and three other Vanderbilt researchers reported in an article last December in the journal Neuron that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once. Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images."
There was no delay when participants did the tasks one at a time, but when researchers asked them to do tasks two at a time, both tasks were completed slower. This isn't surprising. What's interesting to me is that they actually pinpointed the area in the brain where this bottleneck takes place, and showed that this delay happens regardless of what multitasking you're doing, and which senses it involves. So listening to something (say, music with lyrics, or a television) while reading something causes the same bottleneck effect in the brain as trying to read two things at once. Which is very interesting. The solution, according to the Times:

"These experts have some basic advice. Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea."

No big surprise there. But still, very interesting.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007


Okay, so Culture Dish has been sleeping -- sorry about that. But it will wake up soon, with plenty of news and developments (which will explain the blog silence). So stay tuned ...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Bush Pushes Genetic Privacy Legislation

Here's a newsflash I never thought I'd hear: Yesterday, with Frances Collins by his side, Bush began lobbying for Congress to pass the long-stalled Genetic Privacy Bill, which could help protect patients from genetic discrimination. This bill, in one form or another, has been in the works for about a decade, but has repeatedly been pushed aside over fears that it might inhibit research and industry. I'm very interested to see the version of the bill they're working with now, how it's changed since its last incarnation, and whether/how it will protect patients against insurance and other discrimination. If it does, passing it would be a huge step forward for the world of tissue research, one patients rights advocates have been fighting for endlessly.

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Tsunami Victims Selling Their Kidneys Instead of Fish

Police in India have found still more evidence of a black market in human organs: kidneys being sold illegally by fishermen and their families whose villages, boats, and incomes were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. The AP reports on what one police officer describes as "a big racket":

"Community leaders in Eranavoor village, just north of Chennai, admitted that about 100 people, mostly women, have sold their kidneys for 40,000-60,000 rupees ($900-$1,350) since the December 26, 2004, disaster." Including: "Thilakavathy Agatheesh, 30, who said she sold a kidney in May 2005 for 40,000 rupees in the hope of setting up a small restaurant -- only to see her alcoholic former fisherman husband waste the money." She told the AP, "I used to earn some money selling fish, but now the post-surgery stomach cramps prevent me from going to work." Which has to make you wonder: Who's removing those organs? Do they know what they're doing? Are they competent surgeons (doubtful)?

I recently did a lengthy Q&A with Amy Friedman (which will appear in the next issue of Proto Magazine). Not long ago, Friedman published a controversial editorial (co-written with her father; they're both kidney experts) titled, "Payment for Living Organ Donation Should be Legalized." Her argument: Living organ donations could solve the massive organ shortage. People are going to sell their organs whether we like it or not, so instead of having a growing and very dangerous black market, we should have a legal market that's closely regulated, where quality is controlled and operations are performed by quality physicians.

Friedman is certainly not alone in her efforts. Just check out And Gregory Pence, bioethicist and author of "Re-Creating Medicine," which includes a chapter called "Re-Creating Organ Donation." Though plenty of people disagree with him, he's been arguing his position for a long time. He says: "The question is not whether any risk of harm exists from commercialization -- it does -- but whether such risk justifies the sacrifice of thousands of dying patients. It doesn't."

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Study Shows Patients Have Issues With Tissue Research

In my ongoing coverage of all things human tissue related, I came across this article about a recent study examining public attitudes toward tissue banks: "Tissue banking raises cloning fears." Interestingly, there was absolutely no coverage of this study in the U.S., where tissue research is a huge issue. The study, conducted by the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, shows that Australians have many concerns over how their tissues are being used.

They're worried, for one, that scientists could clone them using stored tissue samples. There are many reasons people should question how their tissues are being used in research, but at this point, fear of being cloned isn't one of them (cloning humans isn't possible yet). But the study also found that people were opposed to tissues from their diagnostic samples -- like biopsies and blood tests -- being used "as a source of stem cells or by drug companies." to develop products. That is a very current and real issue worldwide: In the US, most people have their tissues in storage at this point, and the laws surrounding their use are unsettled and confused.

According to lead researcher Bronwen Morrell, this study shows exactly what I reported in my recent New York Times Magazine article: People want some level of control over how their tissues are being used in research and whether they'll be commercialized; they also want laws laying out requirements for consent, because at the very least, they want to know what's being done with their tissues.

Morrell also found that, when it came to the sticky issue of money, patients wanted to see profits funneled back into research, not into scientists' pockets (which is not standard practice now). Many said they trust the public sector more with their tissue than private companies: "As long as research was being done in a public hospital they would feel comfortable with that," she said. "But if it was a private company doing the research, especially drug companies, they wouldn't be that happy." This is interesting, in part because it indicates that the public isn't aware of how fuzzy the division between public hospitals and private companies can be these days.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Sad Day: FDA Approves First Dog Obesity Drug

The FDA just announced that they've just approved the first-ever obesity drug for dogs, which really makes me cringe. Why? Because dogs don't have eating disorders -- their owners have feeding disorders.

This summer, I adopted a new dog after she ran in front of my car on an interstate. She was starved, so I took her home and fed her. And fed her. And fed her. She weighed 20 pounds and could eat a heaping cup of food in 28 seconds (yes, I timed her). But that was fine, because she needed all the extra calories she could get. Then, about three months later, during a good wrestling match, I realized I couldn't feel her ribs anymore. Suddenly, she'd gone from being emaciated to being pudgy. So I did exactly what everyone else with a pudgy dog should do: I started feeding her less. Instead of getting a heaping cup at each meal, she got 2/3 of a cup. Three weeks later, she wasn't pudgy anymore. That's the amazing thing about dogs and weight: Humans control their calorie intake, and there's nothing dogs can do about it. If your dog needs to lose weight, you feed it less food.

It's true that there's an epidemic of canine (and feline) obesity right now, just like there's an epidemic of human obesity. Which is no coincidence: People don't exercise, which means their dogs don't exercise. When people eat, they feed their dogs scraps, so the dogs gain weight right along with their owners. And don't even get me started on the ingredients in dog food.

But there are other less obvious problems: Owners often have no idea how much they should feed their dogs, and if they follow the guidelines on most dog food bags, they're probably going to have obese dogs, because pet food companies encourage overfeeding. I had a 125 pound dog who lived to be 16 and was never an ounce over or under weight. If I'd followed the guidelines for his food, he'd have eaten 2 1/2 times what I actually fed him, and surely become obese. My very healthy 17 year old dog Bonny eats 1/4 the recommended amount, always has.

During my years as a veterinary technician, I saw many dogs die or become paralyzed from obesity. Today, when I see an obese dog on the street, I want to walk up to its owner and say, You love your dog, right? Then why are you killing it?

If it's come down to this, and people are unable to control themselves when it comes to feeding their dogs, I'd rather see dogs medicated than dead. But I hope vets who prescribe this stuff paste a sticker on every bottle that says, Dogs don't need obesity drugs. They need owners who will feed them the right amount, cut back when necessary, and make sure they get exercise. (Perhaps the FDA should consider a self-control drug for humans with dog feeding disorders.)

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Sunday, January 07, 2007


Yes, it's true ... I, like thousands of other sensible people out there, am completely addicted to Cuteoverload. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.

But it's not like I haven't gone very public with animal obsession several times already ... sometimes quite aggressively.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why is it So Damn Hard to Change?

This month's O, Oprah Magazine just hit the stands with my article, "Why is it So Damn Hard to Change," which looks at the neurology behind why it's so friggin hard to break old habits and pick up new ones (just in time for all those New Year's Resolutions). The story explores the workings of the human brain when it comes to exercising and dieting, quitting smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling ... you name it. I had a great time with it.

If you've read the story and came looking for a follow up ... well ... let's just say, it hasn't exactly been rollerblading weather in New York City lately. But I'm about to join a gym ... stay tuned for progress reports on what my dopamine system thinks of that idea.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

How to Teach Kids About Puberty

This is fabulous: a video from the NEMO Science Center's "Teen Facts" exhibit ... it is, as the website says, an "animated educative film showing a scientific experiment. For three minutes two kids are exposed to ten years of puberty." The narrator is a riot. The thing I find most interesting, culturally speaking, is that this video openly embraces the sexuality of teenagers. Naturally, it's from the Netherlands, not America, where many teaching teens about puberty like to pretend the sex portion of the lesson is optional. (Thanks once again, Marc)

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Study Shows Female Comic Book Characters Too Skinny

In a wonderful study titled, "Comparative Sex-Specific Body Mass Index in the Marvel Universe and the 'Real' World," a group of scientists has calculated the Body Mass Index (BMI) of Marvel comic strip characters and compared them to actual people, to see how comics stood up.

Their findings: 28% of Marvel women are underweight (funny, I would have guessed a higher percent from looking at their site). On average, female comic characters had BMI's on the low end of average. "This result is surprising, " the authors wrote, "considering that many of the women sampled are martial artists or extremely capable physically and should, if anything, have a BMI that indicates a higher body fat level than is actually present." Clearly, it takes a little more than a model's body mass to run at supersonic speeds or jump a 10 story building from a standstill.

The authors stress that their data is not conclusive, due to small sample size and "the physical and biological vagaries of the Marvel Universe." But, they say, "advance data indicates that Marvel women are portrayed as having a disturbingly low BMI compared to the healthy BMI range of their male counterparts ... The average Marvel female is approaching underweight despite a presumably active lifestyle. This may corroborate sociological and literary observations that in the Marvel Universe, women must fulfil criteria for being attractive by Western standards before fulfilling the criteria of biological realism." Though clearly, there is at least one exception to that rule.

Thanks for the link, Marc.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

2006 Year in Ideas

Today's New York Times Magazine published four stories of mine as part of their annual Year in Ideas issue -- a catalogue of interesting ideas from 2006. The stories are short, but oh so much fun:

Celebrity Narcissism: A new study, by Drew Pinsky (of LoveLine fame) and Mark Young, found that celebrities are nearly 20% more narcissistic than the general public, which probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

Tushology: A scientist named David Holmes has developed an equation to examine how perfect (or not) a person's rearend is (the story ran with the above illustration, which I think is brilliant -- in case you can't tell, each of those colored lines in the drawing is a strip of measuring tape)

The Ballot That's Also a Lottery Ticket: Mark Osterloh wants to increase voter turnout by offering a million dollar incentive to show up at the polls.

Publication Probity: Creating the Journal of Spurious Correlations, the first social science journal devoted entirely to publishing negative results.

The assignments I get for the Year in Ideas issue are always some of my favorites -- they're light, fun, and totally fascinating. In previous years, I've covered Why Yawns are Contagious, Celebrity Teeth, Why Some Popcorn Kernels Don't Pop, Creating a Singable National Anthom, and Eyeball Jewelery.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Best Science Books

I posted about this earlier today on Critical Mass, but had to post it here too, because it's a subject near to my heart: Discover Magazine has just published their list of the 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time. They picked Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species as number one. If you disagree with them, go vote on a different one ... you can choose one from their list, or add one you think they missed. (I can't believe Lewis Thomas didn't make the top 25!)

Clearly, their list is more about scientific umph than readability (with a couple exceptions, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). If we're talking about books that made great scientific contributions, I'd say their top 25 is right on, but if we're talking literary contributions, that's another story. Because unfortunately, so many important science books are unreadable. For their next list, I'd love to see Discover do the 25 best science reads of all time, because I think the best science writing conveys important and complicated information to the general public through storytelling. But unfortunately, those books can be hard to find.

I'd start with this Lewis Thomas book and Randy Shilts, an under-read writer responsible for one of the best and most important science books ever. Then off the top of my head, I'd turn to NBCC winner Jonathan Weiner, Oliver Sacks, Deborah Blum, Tracy Kidder, NBCC winner Anne Fadiman, Richard Rhodes, Paul Hoffman, Michael Pollan. I loved Gay and Laney Salisbury's The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, but I'm a sucker for a dog story. Burkhard Bilger is doing some of the best new science writing at the New Yorker, while Ted Conover's eerie essay Trucking Through the AIDS Belt has stuck with me for more than a decade. I think all science writers should read John McPhee's Travels in Georgia, then spend several days thinking about its structure, and several more thinking about its character development.

I'm curious to hear what others might add ...

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Monday, November 27, 2006

China to Tighten Organ Transplant Rules

Here's some breaking news in the it's-about-time department: China has finally agreed to create organ transplant rules that will, as the AP says, "prevent unqualified doctors and profit-hungry hospitals from abusing patients." This comes in the wake of reports finally documenting what's been clear anecdotally for years: It's common practice in China to harvest organs from executed prisoners, often without consent.

(AP) "The draft regulation, which has been sent to the State Council for review, would require a new organization under the Ministry of Health to be in charge of registering and allocating all donated organs, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said the regulations were expected to be passed soon, but gave no specific timetable.

Little information about China's transplant business is publicly available, and critics contend it is profit-driven with little regard for medical ethics. China has long defended the practice as legal ... Xinhua said that China's lack of clear organ transplant laws had led to transplants being carried out by "unqualified doctors with substandard medical equipment" which had caused deaths among patients. It also said there was a popular perception that Chinese hospitals were sacrificing quality care in order to perform many costly transplants." Full story here.
I just want to know, what took so long?


Unnecessary Dog and Cat Killing in S. Korea

Okay, this is absolutely awful: South Korea has just announced that they're going to begin slaughtering about 600 dogs and "an unspecified number of cats" because of fears over bird flu. There's a big outbreak of it there in chickens, so the South Korean government has been slaughtering those the thousands to prevent the virus's spread, which is what they're supposed to do, according to the WHO. Fine. But now they're going to slaughter all the dogs and cats in the area?! This is insane. There has never been a single case of dogs or cats catching bird flu and passing it on to humans. There is, in fact, no scientific evidence that such a thing is possible. Several Asian countries have been criticized for not taking the risk of avian flu seriously, so it's good South Korea isn't doing that ... but this is ridiculous.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

More Talking Dogs

For those who were properly impressed by the singing basenji I posted about last week, I give you Gibson (pictured left) the world's tallest dog (honest), who happens to be able to say "I love you." Really, check out his site and click on the paw under his picture. If you're like me, you'll click it compulsively about 20 times to hear it over and over again ... (thanks for that tip, Sarah!)

The other thing you'll do if you're like me: After verifying that Gibson is indeed the world's tallest dog, you'll waste far too much time looking at lots of other amazing things ... the world's longest rabbit ears, for example, or my personal favorites: Most tennis balls held in the mouth (pictured right) and fastest car window opened by a dog. Good stuff.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Catching Up

I just got back from several weeks of writing stories in hotel rooms and speaking at the 412 festival in Pittsburgh (pictured left, with Michael Rosenwald and Daniel Nester, talking about freelancing) and the Nieman Narrative Nonfiction conference in Boston, where I spoke about freelancing, writer/editor relationships, and narrative science journalism (including a panel with the wonderful Michael Pollan). The highlight of Nieman for me: hanging with Joe Sacco and Stacy Sullivan and finally getting to meet Marc Abrahams (I must hear the end of that story, Marc!)

Because of all my travels, the blog has been a bit quiet. To catch up a bit, here's a quick round-up of things I've been wanting to post about:

* A doctor in New York got the go-ahead to do the first ever womb transplant, which I find amazing: Elective organ transplantation for a non life-saving organ? No thank you.

* After a few scandals and a congressional investigation, the National Institutes of Health has finally tightened their ethics rules to restrict researchers' abilities to earn money from outside sources. As a result, a new survey says, though 73% of NIH researchers believe those new rules will increase the credibility of the organization, almost 40% say they're looking for new jobs because of the tighter restrictions.

* A group of children born as part of "Font of Life," -- the project Hitler developed to create a breed of people that fit his idea of the perfect human (blond hair, blue eyes, non-Jewish, etc) -- met for the first time as adults recently, to talk about the trauma they've experienced over their origins.

* The Chinese have admitted what experts have known for some time but haven't been able to prove: That they take organs from prisoners for transplantation, and Americans buy them on the black market.

* And a study found that elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror. How scientists figured this out is pretty fascinating, though it always frustrates me when researchers seem shocked to find that animals are just as intelligent/feeling/whatever as we are...

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Michael Lemonick on Science Writing

The Kenyon Review blog has an great two part interview with Michael Lemonick, a senior science writer for Time magazine and author of several science books. They talk with him about everything from his background and writing style to developing story ideas, making science sexy, and more. Check it out: Part I and Part II. Lots of good stuff there.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Patent on DNA Sequencing Technique Disputed

This could get interesting: A tiny biotech company called Enzo Biochem has just stepped forward claiming that they invented the technique for sequencing DNA, though the patent on it was awarded to some scientists at Caltech nearly 25 years ago. According to today's New York Times: "the government says it will consider, nearly a quarter-century after the invention was made, whether it awarded the patent to the wrong party." It will be fascinating to see how this turns out, and what they'll do if the patent is reversed and granted to Enzo, how they'll deal with the massive amounts of money Caltech and Applied Biosystems -- the company that licenses the patent from them -- have made from it. And we're talking about a lot of money: This is the technique used to sequence the human genome.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Singing Basenjis

I absolutely love this: Basenjis are always billed as barkless dogs, which most people take to mean they're quiet dogs. Not so. They, like malamutes, can't bark, but they can do all kinds of other things with their voices and often do. Much to the surprise of many new basenji and malamute owners, they're two of the most vocal breeds out there. Having had a malamute for 16 years, there's nothing I love more than the sound of a non-barking dog making noise ... it's melodic, nearly verbal, and totally hilarious. So I was very pleased to see that someone has recorded this wonderful duet for Basenji and flute. I laugh very hard and very loud every time I listen to it. Thanks to Marc over at Improbable Research for posting it.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Biojewellery: With This Bone I Thee Wed ...

Given my ongoing obsession with human tissues, here's a new development I can't help posting about: Through a company in the UK, it's now possible to get "biojewellery" -- a personalized wedding band made from the cultured bone cells of your future spouse.

From their website: "The project is seeking couples who want to donate their bone cells - a couple having their wisdom teeth removed would be ideal. Their cells will be prepared and seeded onto a bioactive scaffold [which eventually] disappears and is replaced by living bone tissue." This produces a bone ring, like the one pictured above. They then take the ring to an art studio at the Royal College of Art, where they combine the bone with "traditional precious metals" and shaped into a wedding band that can be "personalized and shaped."

Donors have their wisdom teeth removed in an hour-long surgery so bone cells can be extracted from their jawbones (!). And people are lining up to do it: The company recently selected four couples out of hundreds of applicants wanting to be part of an upcoming art exhibit, which will display couples' bone rings, their stories and photos.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Best Science Book Ever

The Imperial College London has taken the very bold move of naming Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" as the best science book ever, right up there with surprising front-runners like Norman Mailer's "A Fire on the Moon," and Jonathan Lethem's "As She Climbed Across the Table." I can't imagine picking one science book as best ever -- even if it was written by Levi -- but I absolutely love these folks for branching out from the predictable by focusing on narrative and including fiction in the running. This world needs more books that combine good narrative and science. Make sure to read through the science books blog by Jon Turney -- the professor behind the project -- is a wonderful resource for finding unexpected or forgotten science books.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Seriously Creepy Research: The Neurology of the Feeling That Someone's Watching You

Here's some crazy brain research for you: Most people, at some point or another, have had that creepy feeling that somebody's nearby. That they're being watched. Well, a group of scientists just figured out that they can stimulate that disturbing feeling by applying electric stimulation to a specific area in a patient's brain. But they didn't do it on purpose:
"Doctors unintentionally produced the delusion while evaluating a 22-year-old epileptic woman for possible surgery. Though the woman had no history of psychological problems, she repeatedly perceived a "shadow person" hovering behind her when doctors electrically stimulated an area of her brain called the left temporoparietal junction. "Our data most importantly show that paranoia might be related to disturbed processing of one's own body, [which] in some instances may become misrecognized as the body of somebody else," said Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The hallucinatory condition was temporary and ended when stimulations were stopped.

"During her ordeal, the patient described sensing an unknown person standing just behind her, mimicking her body positions. "He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it," she told doctors, who report their discovery in this week's issue of the journal Nature. When asked to lean forward and grasp her knees, the patient reported that she felt as if the shadow person were embracing her—a sensation she described as disturbing. When performing assigned activities, such as a language-testing card game, she said that the shadow tried to interfere. "He wants to take the card," she told doctors. "He doesn't want me to read."
The photo above is a computerized drawing -- she shadow behind the woman illustrates where she felt this man (and interesting that it was a man, not a woman). What's perhaps most creepy is, the patient -- who had no history of delusions -- thought this was real. She had no idea she was experiencing some kind of hallucination. The researchers think the electronic stimulation temporarily confused her brain's ability to comprehend its own body. Which could make sense, since the part of the brain they zapped is connected to self-perception, distinguishing self from non-self, and understanding where your body is in space.

Of course, this doesn't actually tell us much in the end, since it only happened to one patient, but it's totally fascinating. Perhaps someday it will lead to a larger study that looks at this phenomena ... Finding volunteers for that one might be tricky though. I sure wouldn't do it. Tooooo creepy.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Study Finds Egg In The Face Can Be Dangerous

Here's some good solid (and useful) science for you: Researchers in Liverpool have just announced that "being pelted by a raw egg may result in eye injury." How they know: They examined the medical records of 18,651 patients who'd gone to one eye unit over the course of 14 months. Thirteen turned out to be egg attack victims. As the BBC reported:
"The researchers warn that egg hurling, sometimes used as a form of protest or prank, is far from harmless. They point out, in the Emergency Medical Journal, that an egg has the same dimensions as a squash ball but carries even more weight when lobbed. Jon Durnian, lead author of the paper from the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, said: "The shape and weight of an egg makes it a perfect instrument to cause quite a lot of damage it it is thrown accurately ... Mr Durnian said the public should be made aware of the damage an egg can cause and that throwing eggs should definitely not be encouraged."
Durnian has a special beef with companies who sell eggs specifically designed for lobbing, like "Mischief Eggs," which are apparently sold during Halloween. Who knew?

Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, Who throws eggs anymore? I haven't heard of anyone throwing eggs in years! Well, I must say, if I'd known about those Mischief Eggs, I may have gotten some. Because the truth is, in the last few years, I've actually thrown a few eggs:

My apartment is directly above the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan, which means the streets below my windows turn into a huge parking lot during rush hour. And several times a week, people stuck in that traffic decide to lean on their horns endlessly, as if their blaring will help move cars that are stopped from here to New Jersey. This does not bring out the best in people: Some people roll down windows and shout obscenities at the honkers, others get out of their cars and puff up their chests and actually pound on the windows of honkers. And I have -- twice in three years -- opened my window and hurled eggs at honkers. Fortunately for them, they're in cars with their eyes not pointed toward the eggs. And my aim is terrible, so I couldn't hit a person if I tried. But I can apparently hit the hood of a car.