Saturday, July 30, 2005

Of Note: Pig Fever and Killing With Censorship

The recent outbreak of what was first simply called "swine fever" has been loosely traced to a bacteria found in pigs. The Chinese government says the bacteria, streptococcus suis, has killed 32 people and infected about 140 others, but there are some questions about whether that's true (which I'll get to in a minute). The Chinese government has finally started warning farmers about the disease -- saying they shouldn't eat sick pigs -- but they've been very slow to admit they have a problem on their hands. And they still swear pig fever is no big deal: China's Health Minister, Gao Qiang, insists that the outbreak is "under control," despite an increasing death toll and number of cases (the World Health Organization disagrees with him -- as spokesperson Bob Dietz says, "This is a disconcertingly high mortality rate”).

This kind of denial is a nasty habit with China -- their denial of SARS led to increased death rates and global panic. The Chinese government fears bad press, damage to the tourism industry, and the impact those things might have on their control over citizens, so they drag their feet and deny problems. Meanwhile, the disease gets worse: This swine fever has now spread to 100 villages, maybe more. No one knows for sure. Because the truth is, since the government controls the press in China, no one actually knows what's going on. And to me, that's the scariest part of this:

"State media says the pig disease is under control, but the authorities have banned independent reporting on the outbreak. The BBC's Nick Mackie in neighbouring Chongqing says foreign journalists found speaking to people are detained, and their notes and recordings erased; no official interviews are granted."

That's scary stuff. Reports about a government repeatedly letting its people die simply because said-government fears bad press ... that's something that could make a person question their rulers. And the Chinese government can't have that. So instead of allowing dissemination of information in order to save their citizens, they "detain" journalists and destroy their notes. They censor websites and filter out any news they don't want to their people to read (they'll surely be censoring this site any minute now). The effect this kind of censorship could have on the world is no joke: As everyone knows, the much-feared next flu pandemic will probably start exactly this way. People in China or a similar country will get the disease from chickens or pigs, the disease won't be properly contained in time, and it will spread to kill thousands, maybe millions worldwide.

Some reports are already calling this a swine flu, though as far as anyone knows, this is being caused by strep suis, not a flu virus. But the Chinese government hasn't allowed any independent laboratories to verify that diagnosis by looking at the samples, and the WHO and many experts doubt that a problem of this scale could be caused by strep suis, which has never killed so many or spread so fast, and which doesn't usually cause a key symptom seen in this outbreak: Bleeding under the skin. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has a bad track record in this department too: They originally claimed SARS was caused by a harmless infection too. So all of this means either strep suis has suddenly become more aggressive than ever, or the problem is being caused by something else.
"WHO spokesman Bob Dietz said it was too soon to say the bacteria was the cause or the only cause of the outbreak, adding that more laboratory tests were needed to see if other factors may be at work.'We can't discount the possibility there could be other bacteria, virus or something else active in here,' Dietz said."

Whatever turns out to be causing this, I'd be nice if countries that shun freedom of the press saw this as a test run and realized that their censoring ways could actually help cause a pandemic. But they're clearly not going to do that. I just hope that, as technology continues to move forward and information spreads online, restricting information will become a losing battle for everyone.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On Writing: Creative Book Promotion

In the book world, publicity is an ongoing (and often losing) battle for writers. More and more books are being published each year without increased funding for publicity. Which means under-staffed houses often publish more book than their publicist can even read, let alone publicize. So many writers are left to fend for themselves, or watch their books tank and vanish. A sorry fate for a book you spent years writing.

So, when I hear of writers thinking up brilliant publicity schemes for their books, I never know whether to cheer (because they pulled it off) or mourn (because I wish they didn't have to). Like the writer Corey Doctorow, who's come up with a seriously ingenious way to publicize his book. The idea sounds a little backward at first: As soon as his book hit stores, Doctorow released a free electronic version, which anyone can download on his website. He also released some of his copyright to allow people to alter or develop new products from his book. To most writers (and publishing houses) this might sound like a recipe for disastrous sales. But it's done quite the opposite: It resulted in things like video games based on Doctorow's book, and an online event where an animated Doctorow (above) did a virtual book signing in a world created entirely by one of his readers ... the end result: An impressive amount of publicity for the print version. (Thanks to Clive for that one)

Then there's John Wray, a Brooklyn-based author, who decided to scrap the idea of a traditional tour. Instead of flying from one town to the next giving readings, he decided to boat down the Mississippi for his tour on a homemade raft. And though his creative publicity scheme wasn't as successful as Doctorow's, it did land a big feature story about his book in the New York Times, which ain't too shabby:

The first night out was fitful, scary even. After putting in at Helena, Ark., the homemade raft got caught up in the wash of the massive towboats that surrounded it on the Mississippi. The craft bounced along in the inky black, and then searing beams of light from the towboats began to strafe it, the captains wanting to see what manner of contraption was before them. The ragtag crew slept in terrified shifts, dodging the tugs and avoiding a ledge formed by a dike that threatened to pitch them into the mud, water and mayhem.

John Wray, 33, a Brooklyn author who dreamed up the idea of conducting a reading tour by raft to draw attention to his new novel, "Canaan's Tongue" (Alfred A. Knopf), wondered if the adventure - a play for press and the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy - might turn as gothic as the book it was meant to promote. The novel is a fictional rendering of John Murel, a real-life horse thief and itinerant preacher who came up with a scheme to lure slaves into an escape and then promptly resell them. It is lavishly annotated with blood and violence, much of which is set on the river between Louisiana and Mississippi, where Mr. Wray floated along last Tuesday and Wednesday with a reporter and photographer jammed on board the tiny raft, bringing the total crew to five. The raft set out on June 21. Mr. Wray sold his skeptical publisher on the idea once liabilities were discussed, and Knopf financed the $5,200 in costs. Other than an inland trip to a bookstore in Oxford, Miss., that was spectacular, the readings so far - four in all, strung out along the route - have been a bust. People did not show up in the fetid summer heat, or the local bookstore demurred, or things just did not work out ... see full article for the rest.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Of Note: Drug-Induced Gambling

(I wrote and posted this about a week ago, but it never showed up on my blog for some reason, so I'm posting it again now. ) A few years ago I wrote a story for Popular Science about the science of addiction. At that point, several researchers I talked to suspected that having abnormally hight levels of dopamine -- a hormone that transmits signals in the brain -- might be connected to things like compulsive gambling, compulsive eating, and several other "behavioral addictions." They didn't have much scientific evidence to back up their hunch. And they weren't warmly received by a good chunk of the medical community since their idea smacked of medicalizing human behavior, of giving people excuses for pathologial behaviors. It's not my fault I can't stop gambling/eating/ exercising/shopping/looking at online porn ... my dopamine levels are off!

That whole debate pretty much faded from public view, but it might be resurfacing soon: A new potential Parkinson's drug may have just accidentally provided some hard science for the dopamine-and-addiction debate: The movement problems in Parkinson's patients are caused by dopamine deficiencies, so several studies have looked at treating them with a class of drugs called dopamine agonist -- drugs that essentially trick the brain into thinking it has more dopamine than it does. They hoped this would help Parkinson's patients move more normally, and it does. But in some cases, it also made them compulsive gamblers.

Eleven people with Parkinson's disease temporarily became compulsive gamblers After taking a class of drugs designed to control movement problems caused by the illness, a new study reports. "This is the latest in a series of case studies linking such drugs -- called dopamine agonists -- to pathological gambling in Parkinson's Patients. This lends continued support towards the hypothesis that this family of medicines may cause difficulty with behavioral issues in this population of patients," said Dr. M. Leann Dodd, lead author of the study and senior associate consultant in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.

That's one way to look at it: These drugs could definitely cause difficult "behavior issues" by turning Parkinson's patients into addicts of all kinds. But the side effect is pretty minimal: The drug helps hundreds of thousands of Parkinson's patients; the compulsive gambling thing only happens in 1% of those. The other way to look at it is, Whoa! How could a drug lead to gambling?! In some cases, it also led to an increased appetite for food, alcohol and sex. But at this point, we don't know much about the neurology of how these drugs caused these addictive behaviors, and the sample size of this study was so tiny, it's too soon to say much of anything. I'm sure this will lead to lots of interesting addiction research, and I'll be watching closely to see where it goes. But if anybody I know starts blaming their compulsions on dopamine levels, they get a swift kick. Beause it's just not that simple ...

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

On Writing: Finishing My Book

As you may have guessed by the sudden increase in my blog postings, I've finally left the hills of West Virginia and returned to New York City. After months of sitting and typing (and sitting and typing and sitting and typing), I've traded my beautiful view of the Appalachian foothills for this beautiful view of Times Square. Because, 447 pages and 124,013 words after I began writing my book, I have finally finished it (well, a draft of it anyway).

The day before yesterday, I walked into my editor's office and handed her a manuscript that weighed 19.5 pounds and was roughly the size of a New York City phone book. As you can see from this picture, taken moments before I turned in the book, I was a bit dingy from the whole thing (and sleep-deprived: note the bags under my eyes), but ecstatic. I've been working on this book for seven years -- the relief of finally getting it out of my head and onto paper is unlike anything I've ever experienced. I half-expect if I climbed on my bathroom scale, I'd actually weigh about 75 pounds lighter from finally losing all 124,013 of those words. And with this sudden lightness, I've found motion.

One thing you don't hear a lot about is how much writing actually hurts. Physically. I have been sitting in one place and typing for months. Years, really. But during this last push, I sat for months. I don't recommend this. Last night, I had a celebratory sushi dinner with my boyfriend and two of our friends, all of us writers, all of us finishing long book projects. To hear us whining about our writing related injuries was comical: My friend Mark rubbed his forearm between sips of champagne and asked if I could feel my fingers, because he couldn't feel his. They tingle, he said. Mine only tingle in the morning, I told him. David spent half the night standing next to the table because his back hurt too bad to sit; Marcela talked about how her body just shuts off, usually on Fridays, and she falls asleep no matter how much coffee she drinks. While we talked, I kept kicking my legs out from under the table with no warning because of hip cramps. At one point David had to massage Mark's back because of a spasm, I got in some weird yoga-like pose to stretch my hip, and suddenly we looked at each other like, Why are we sitting? So we ditched the table and the celebratory champagne and just walked. Which is all I've done since I turned in my book. I probably walked about six miles Friday, then another five or so yesterday. And I can't stop. Like I suddenly found water after being dehydrated for months. Which of course makes me think, Why am I sitting here typing? So on that note, I'm going for a walk.

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

On Life: Not Standing

My dog Bonny and I were out walking this morning when we came across this guy, sleeping in a recliner under a "No Standing" sign. At that point, his feet were actually propped on the fire hydrant, but by the time I ran to the apartment for my camera and came back, he'd unreclined a bit. As I stood in the street snapping pictures, a grey-haired, curler-wearing woman leaned out her street-level window a few feet from me, shook her head and whispered, It's rude to take pictures of people while they're sleeping. She said I should let him get his rest in peace. Never mind that he was sleeping on a busy New York City street just feet from the blaring horns of an impressive Saturday morning Lincoln Tunnel traffic jam.


Thursday, July 14, 2005

Of Note: How Science Finally Vindicated My Hate of Showering

When I was a kid, I refused to shower. Not just once, but always. My parents spent much of my childhood trying to think up new and clever ways to trick me into showering (buying cool shampoos and body-paint soap, or calling the whole thing "shaking a tower" instead of "taking a shower"). But nothing worked. I'd lock myself in the bathroom, turn on the water, stick my hair under the faucet so it looked showered, give my dry body a quick rub with a bar of soap so it smelled showered, then sit on the toilet lid with the water running for a while to make the whole thing seem legit. Of course, I did end up in the shower fairly regularly, but it was always a fiasco of tears and whining and flailing arms and legs.

The thing is, honestly, I never got over hating showers. I mean, don't get me wrong ... I shower, and no one has to throw me in the tub. I just don't like it. Feels like a waste of time: The shaving, the hair washing and hair drying, it takes forever. So getting me into the shower is still a chore: I'll walk around the apartment all day saying "I'm about to get in the shower" while my boyfriend laughs at me saying, "yeah, right."

Needless to say, this is not something I usually discuss publicly. But ALL of this is necessary background to understand why I feel especially vindicated by the recent news that daily showers can actually cause brain damage.

Scientists believe that breathing in small amounts of manganese found in water may harm the central nervous system. Dr John Spangler, of Wake Forest University in New Carolina, said: "If our results are confirmed, they could have profound implications for the world. Inhaling manganese, rather than eating or drinking it, is far more efficient at delivering it to the brain." Manganese is in food and rocks and enters the air, soil and water. It damages the brain leading to learning difficulties, tremors and changes in behaviour. Dr Spangler's team claim that a 10-minute shower a day for 10 years would expose children to three times higher doses than would be needed to damage a rat's brain. Adults with more years in the shower would receive doses 50 per cent higher.

See! I knew there was a reason I hated showers! I read this and immediately emailed my best childhood friend, Quail, who also happens to hate of showers. I sent her the article and we emailed back and forth all day feeling brilliant about the whole thing: "All those people who made fun of us for hating showers are going to get manganese brain poisoning!"

It's actually not big news ... it's kinda just common sense: if there are things in the water, those same things are probably present in the water vapor, and you probably breathe them in when you shower. Just after high school, I worked in a natural pet food store in Oregon (yes, it's true) with a quirky high-strung woman named Nancy who was in her 70s but looked 40. She always swore that the secret to her youthful longevity was that she never took hot showers, because she didn't want to breathe in any vaporized chemicals from the water. Last time I talked to Nancy she was in her 80s and still hyper as ever. Maybe she was on to something.

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Of Note: Grizzly Bear-Sized Catfish Caught in Thailand

That's just unbelievable. Those guys just caught a catfish the size of a grizzly bear. It's actually a sad story: The giant catfish is critically endangered -- they caught this female and tried to strip her of her eggs with hopes of breeding her offspring in captivity to increase their numbers. But the fish died, so they ate it. According to National Geographic, "Mekong people believe it's a sacred fish, because it persists on plant matter and 'meditates," and "eating the fish is supposed to bring good luck ... the Chinese believe that catfish meat boosts intelligence and prolongs life."

That particular catfish was the biggest freshwater fish on record. Check out the photo gallery, it's very impressive.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Of Note: Red Bull, a.k.a. Ox Bile Soda?

This just in: The FDA in Maharashtra, India has banned the sale of Red Bull, the ever-popular uber-caffinated drink, because it's recently been uncovered that one of the enzymes used to make the drink may come from the bile of Oxen, though the folks at Red Bull firmly deny this.

If this is true, I'm sure all those Red-Bull-and-Vodka guzzling hipsters in bars around the world will be surprised to hear this, especially the vegetarians of the bunch. First, of course, there's the eew factor -- I mean, who really wants to be drinking Ox bile? And second, there's the safety issue: Where are they getting the ox bile? How is it being handled? If the FDAs of the world aren't regulating it to make sure it comes from healthy oxen, who is? All very interesting questions. And if this is not true, I'd be very curious to hear how and why the rumor got started. But regardless of the whole ox bile issue, I wouldn't mind if Red Bull was banned all together ... really, who needs that much caffeine? I'm hyper enough without it, thank you: Just one of those babies and I'd be a jittery-babbling mess with no choice but to sprint from New York City to Maine just to get it out of my system.

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Of Note: Counting Sheep

Yesterday in Turkey, a single sheep ran off a cliff to its death, and 1,500 other sheep followed it. This is amazing to me. The first 450 sheed actually died, but the rest survived after landing on the pillowy mass of the others who'd jumped before them. The AP reported that the "stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 [sheep lept] off the same cliff."

What I want to know is, where were those shepherds eating breakfast?? I mean, how far does a shepherd stray from his flock for a meal? They could see the sheep, but they couldn't get to them before 1500 jumped? And what about sheep dogs? Where were they? Hanging out with the shepherds hoping for scraps? I mean, even my dog Bonny would know something funny was going on if she saw all those sheep running off a cliff, and she's a half-breed herding dog who's never seen a sheep, let alone herded one. She nips my heels if I start running, and I don't even have to be headed toward a cliff. So what gives? Obviously the blame for the mass-suicide falls on that first sheep, but the whole thing just baffles me a little. I want more details.

What amazed me most was this: "The estimated loss to families in the town of Gevas, located in Van province in eastern Turkey, tops $100,000, a significant amount of money in a country where average GDP per head is around $2,700." That's tragic.

I first heard about this story on my cell phone's news ticker -- it was actually the top breaking news story last night, which makes me wonder about the media outlet my phone service uses to determine what qualifies as breaking news. It's definitely an interesting story, don't get me wrong -- it raises all kinds of questions about pack psychology. But breaking news on a flashing red banner in the middle of my phone? Wow.

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