Friday, January 02, 2009
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Assistance Monkeys, Ducks, Parrots, Pigs and Ducks ... Should the law protect them? My Latest New York Times Magazine Story
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 ...
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Culture Dish Has Moved
See you at the new diggs ...
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Dusting Off The Cobwebs
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Blog Down Time
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.
Labels: Personal Updates
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Catalona Appeal Ruling: Patients Don't Control Their Tissues
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Having a Good Pet Death
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 ...
Monday, May 14, 2007
On The Road Again
Labels: Personal Updates
Saturday, May 12, 2007
New Pets Column Now Live
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.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Messiness Linked to Creativity
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.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
The Dangers of Emailing, IMing, Texting, Calling ...
"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."
"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."
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Friday, January 19, 2007
Bush Pushes Genetic Privacy Legislation
Tsunami Victims Selling Their Kidneys Instead of Fish
"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 Organselling.com. 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."
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Study Shows Patients Have Issues With Tissue Research
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.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
A Sad Day: FDA Approves First Dog Obesity Drug
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.)
Sunday, January 07, 2007
But it's not like I haven't gone very public with animal obsession several times already ... sometimes quite aggressively.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Why is it So Damn Hard to Change?
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.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
How to Teach Kids About Puberty
Friday, December 22, 2006
Study Shows Female Comic Book Characters Too Skinny
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.
Labels: Weird Science
Sunday, December 10, 2006
2006 Year in Ideas
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.
Labels: My Publication News
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Best Science Books
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 ...
Monday, November 27, 2006
China to Tighten Organ Transplant Rules
I just want to know, what took so long?
(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.
Labels: Bioethics: Use of Human Tissues
Unnecessary Dog and Cat Killing in S. Korea
Friday, November 24, 2006
More Talking Dogs
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
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...
Michael Lemonick on Science Writing
Labels: Science Writing
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Patent on DNA Sequencing Technique Disputed
Labels: Science and Money
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Friday, November 03, 2006
Biojewellery: With This Bone I Thee Wed ...
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.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Best Science Book Ever
Friday, September 22, 2006
Seriously Creepy Research: The Neurology of the Feeling That Someone's Watching You
"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.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.
"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 herÂa 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."
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.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Study Finds Egg In The Face Can Be Dangerous
"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.
Labels: Weird Science