Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Blackberry Addiction 'Similar to Drugs'

They don't call them crackberries for nothin: A study just out from Rutgers University says those Blackberry email devices you see attached to everyone's hips (including mine) "can be so addictive that owners may need to be weaned off them with treatment similar to that given to drug users," and that Blackberries are "fuelling a rise in email and internet addiction, with sufferers able to survive only a few minutes without checking for new mail." Reports on the study call Blackberries "seriously damaging to mental health," and offer this as a diagnostic aid: "One key sign of a user being addicted is if they focus on their Blackberry ignoring those around them." Professor Gayle Porter, the scientist who lead the study, says becoming Blackberry addicted can be "devastating." And they say someday soon, we may start seeing lawsuits over this.

It's certainly true that our culture has become email-obsessed to a pathological degree. But I don't think Blackberries are the problem. I actually think they can be part of the solution. I spend far far far (far) too much time dealing with email. It's safe to say I get several hundred emails a day. For years, many of the messages I've written started with the sentence, Sorry for my slow response, but [insert excuse here, usually it's I was out of town and my inbox is now filled with hundreds of unanswered messages I'm wading through]. Because of all this, I was worried about getting my new Blackberry. I knew it might take over my life. But in fact, it's liberated me: I now don't have to wade through hundreds of unanswered emails when I come home from traveling, because I can respond to them while I'm away. Before I got a Blackberry, I spent about half of each day responding to emails, but now sometimes I go all day without even turning on my email program (because I can see if any important emails arrive with my Blackberry and ignore the rest), which allows me to focus on my writing when I'm at my computer instead of my emailing. Plus, the Blackberry forces me to keep my responses short and fast, because you can only type so much on those tiny keyboards. So honestly, I feel like the Blackberry has helped fix my email problem.

It's true, some people might find it strange that I email while dog-walking, or that I often exchange 20 or more emails a day with one particular friend -- who shall remain nameless -- and that we've been known to do this when we're both sitting in the same room. People might find it suspicious that, after this same friend convinced me to buy my Blackberry and helped me pick it out via telephone from hundreds of miles away, he started sending regular emails saying things like, "how is your berry?" and "don't you just love your blackberry," to which I always responded, "yes" within seconds. Recently, on a particularly Blackberry-heavy day, we both noted that we seemed to be developing tendonitis in our thumbs. But we've agreed: We're not addicted. Our Blackberries have helped us get our lives back (we've been emailing like this for years, now we just spend less time at our desks doing so). This morning, another good friend -- who shall also remain nameless, but who I'll call "Dinty" -- forwarded this article with a note saying he's, "consumed by guilt" over over the fact that he and our other friends have become "classic 'enablers" by not taking our blackberries and locking them away. But he has nothing to worry about: He sent that email nearly an hour ago and I have even replied yet. I'm so not Blackberry addicted! What more proof could a person possibly need?!

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Glass of Wine and a Bullet to Bite: Surgery Before Anesthesia

Thomas Dormandy's just published an amazing sounding book called The Worst of Evils, about surgery before the era of modern anesthetics. I love this sort of history of medicine book. Can't wait to get my hands on it -- just reading this review of it nearly made me pass out from imagining the pain:
"The horror of surgery before anaesthetics is scarcely imaginable today. A patient who had his foot amputated without it recalled 'suffering so great that it cannot be expressed in words.' As well as the pain, he was overwhelmed by a 'sense of desertion by God and man.' Novelist Fanny Burney endured her mastectomy in 1810 with nothing more than a glass of 'wine cordial' to deaden the pain. Afterwards she described the 'terrible cutting' of the initial incision and the sickening feeling of 'the knife rackling against the breast bone, scraping it.' She remained conscious throughout. If patients didn't die of shock during the operation, many would later succumb to infection. 'In terms of survival, men were safer on the battlefield of Waterloo than on admission to a surgical ward in any of London's teaching hospitals,' writes chemical pathologist Thomas Dormandy in his remarkable cultural history of pain."
Check out the full review here.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Bogus Rabbit Flu Spreading Fast

The bogusness of the deadly Rabbit Flu I reported on earlier today is getting worse as misinformation spreads to more species: Media outlets are now warning people that "Pet owners bitten by cats or dogs could be at risk of contracting a fatal animal flu strain." But it's totally bogus -- there is no new fatal animal flu. Somebody stop them before they cause mass hysteria!

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Rabbit Flu and Bogus Headlines

Today papers around the world reported that a young British man named John Freeman died suddenly after contracting the rare and terrifying Rabbit Flu, which he got from handling an infected rabbit. They called it the "First Case of Rabbit Flu," as if this marked the beginning of a long-feared epidemic. But, um, it wasn't Rabbit Flu: Freeman died from pasteurella, a bacterium that infects many different animals, and has been causing rarely-deadly problems in humans for centuries (think cat scratch fever). No big new epidemic, no cause for alarm, just bad headlines. I hate it when that happens.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Time to Toss the BMI

One of the most widely reported science stories yesterday was about a group of scientists who've just shown that the standard measurement of obesity -- the Body Mass Index (BMI) -- is completely flawed. All the media coverage made it sound like this was a new and surprising finding, but in fact, the BMI has been known to be flawed for years.

I wrote about this last June, when a study from the CDC was widely misreported as saying that people who were slightly overweight lived longer than those who weren't overweight. People went nuts. In a column I was writing for Popular Science at the time, I explored the problems with that study, and the way it was being interpreted by the media (and therefore the public). The biggest problem, I wrote, was the BMI:
"The study’s most obvious limitation is its use of the unreliable “body mass index” (BMI)—a number determined by a person’s height and weight—to define “normal” and “overweight.” A BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is “normal,” between 25 and 29.9 “overweight,” and 30 or more “obese.” But BMI doesn’t take into account many important factors: physical activity, fat versus muscle, gender, diet. This means George W. Bush—a nearly-six-foot-tall 200-pound guy who eats well and works out regularly—has the same BMI as a six-foot-tall 200-pound guy who sits on the couch all day eating junk. With a BMI of 27.1, they’re both “overweight.” But President Bush has precisely the right amount of body fat for his age, and he’s in great cardiovascular health. I’d like to see the same study use some kind of body fat index. Bush’s percentage of body fat is 18.3, which is considered excellent for his age. Not the case for that out-of-shape guy on the couch."
When you scrap the BMI and determine obesity by looking at hip-to-waist ratio instead, which is what these authors did, you actually triple the number of people who qualify as being at risk for heart disease. Many will argue against this, but the way I see it, this Lancet study (free registration required), has finally proven that BMI is not the way to go. That always seemed pretty obvious via common sense. But common sense doesn't always apply when dealing with obesity, so apparently we need hard stats to back it up.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

More Focusing Strategies from the Pros

Last week, I posted a list of strange things writers do to get themselves writing. Well, this morning, I ran across a few more for the list (subscription required for full story, scroll down to "Why I Write"):

"Emile Zola pulled the shades and composed by artificial light. Francis Bacon, we are told, knelt each day before creating his greatest works. Martin Luther could not write unless his dog was lying at his feet, while Ben Jonson needed to hear his cat purring. Marcel Proust sealed out the world by lining the walls of his study with cork. Gertrude Stein and Raymond Carver wrote in their cars, while Edmond Rostand preferred to write in his bathtub. Emily Dickinson hardly ever left her home and garden. Wallace Stevens composed poetry while walking to and from work each day at a Hartford insurance company. Alexander Pope and Jean Racine could not write without first declaiming at the top of their voices. Jack Kerouac began each night of writing by kneeling in prayer and composing by candlelight."

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Immortal Dog?

Carl Zimmer has a great post over at The Loom about an incredible phenomena going on in dogs right now: Sticker's Sarcoma -- a tumor that's actually transmissible from dog-to-dog through licking and mating.

The amazing thing is this: A group of scientists just conducted a study to figure out what's going on with this tumor, and they found that all of these tumor cells -- regardless of which dog the tumor is from -- have the same genetic markers. Which means they all came from the same dog. Scientists have now traced this cancer back to its roots and found that it's most likely the remnant of one Asian dog or wolf who died 200 years ago, or more. A dog who has achieved an immortality similar to that of Henrietta Lacks, the woman I'm writing my book about.

Carl invoked Henrietta in his post, which does a great job explaining this phenomena and the paper just published on it:

"So here's the big question which the authors [of the scientific paper] don't tackle head on: what is this thing? Is it a medieval Chinese dog that has found immortality? If so, then it resembles HeLa cells, a line of cancer cells isolated from a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951. After her death, scientists have propagated her cells, and in that time they have adapted to their new ecological niche of Petri dishes, acquiring mutations that make it grow aggressively in the lab. One biologist even suggested that the cells should be consider a new species.

Scientists put Henrietta's cells into a petri dish to grow them in the 50s, and they're still alive today. The seriously freaky thing about this dog-thing is, no scientist took a sample from some dog and helped it live in culture. This whole thing happened naturally. Which is seriously freaky. Though this cancer isn't usually fatal -- it appears to vanish a few months after it appears -- this is yet another reminder that all those scientists of the 50s who were ridiculed for thinking viruses caused cancer were right. And they knew it: Decades ago, they actually injected HeLa cells into people to prove their point, and the result was similar to the dog cancer: small tumors grew, but soon vanished.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tissue Update: Skin Art

Oh boy would I love to go to the University of Tasmania to check out this woman's art ... or at least to Melbourne, to see the opening of her exhibit tomorrow. I love this stuff: The artist, Alicia King, has taken cultured skin cells -- her own, and the cells of some volunteers -- and allowed them to grow into a sheet over a glass form, which she fixes and dyes (the end result is pictured on the left). As she describes it:
"I basically drip the cells over the glass and they stick to the surface and they slowly start to grow and spread out until there is a thin membrane ... It's quite hard to see with the naked eye so I dye it with a tissue culture dye."
When my story about the afterlife of tissue samples ran in the NY Times Magazine, they gave it this tagline: "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?" Well, if you live in Tasmania and you go to the Royal Hobart Hospital, this art project is one thing your tissues may be used for someday. But for now, there's a bit of a hold up: The University of Tasmania's Human Research and Ethics Board approved the artist's request to use skin cells for this project, but the hospital is refusing, saying it's "inappropriate." It took the ethics board six months to give artist permission to use her own cells for the project -- I'm guessing it'll take much longer to settle the question of using other people's cells. As the artist said in a wonderful understatement: "It's much more clear-cut with ethics if I am using my own."

Fortunately using her own skin cells is fine by King -- at least for now -- because she has some interesting personal motives:
“I'm really interested to see if it changes my relationship to my own body, my perspective on self," she says. "… When I was 17 I had an operation, I had my top jaw moved forward. I remember after I came out of the intensive care I looked in the mirror for the first time and didn’t recognise myself at all and just completely flipped out. But it changed the relationship with my body completely. So I wonder if this will be another change.”

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Focusing Techniques: Learn From The Pros

I just posted about this over at Critical Mass, but had to post here too, because I love this so much: In a fit of procrastination the other day, while I was supposed to be writing, I was (as usual) rearranging my bookshelves. I stumbled on Diane Ackerman's wonderful A Natural History of the Senses, and suddenly remembered that in it, Ackerman wrote about the many bizarre things writers do to get themselves writing. For those looking for focusing strategies, I thought I'd post a few highlights:

"Dame Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin for a while before she began her day's writing. [When Ackerman told a poet friend this, he said: "If only someone had thought to shut it."] ...

"The poet Schiller used to keep rotten apples under the lid of his desk and inhale their pungent bouquet when he needed to find the right word ...

Amy Lowell, "enjoyed smoking cigars while writing, and in 1915 went so far as to buy 10,000 of her favorite Manila stogies to make sure she could keep her creative fires kindled ... "

George Sands shared Lowell's cigar fetish, but also had another stragegy: "she went directly from lovemaking to her writing desk ...

"Voltaire ... used his lover's naked back as a writing desk ...

"Both Dr. Samuel Johnson and the poet W.H. Auden drank colossal amounts of tea -- Johnson was reported to have frequently drunk twenty-five cups at one sitting. Johnson did die of a stroke, but it's not clear if this was related to his marathon tea drinking.

"Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin, and many others felt that they did their best work if they wrote in the nude. D.H. Lawrence once even confessed that he liked to climb naked up mulberry trees -- a fetish of long limbs and rough bark that stimulated his thoughts.

"Colette used to begin her day's writing by first picking fleas from her cat ...

"Hart Crane craved boisterous parties, in the middle of which he would disappear, rush to a typewriter, put on a record of a Cuban rumba, then Ravel's Bolero, then a torch song, after which he would return, 'his face brick-red, his eyes burning, his already iron-gray hair straight up from his skull. He would be chewing a five-cent cigar which he had forgotten to light. In his hands would be two or three sheets of typewritten manuscript ... "Read that," he would say, "isn't that the grrreatest poem ever written!"'...

"Stendhal read two or three pages of the French civil code every morning before working on The Charterhouse of Parma -- 'in order' he said, 'to acquire the correct tone.' "Willa Cather read the bible. ...

"Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Truman Capote all used to lie down when they wrote, with Capote going so far as to declare himself 'a completely horizontal writer' ... "Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Woolf, and Lewis Carroll were all standers ... "Benjamin Franklin, Edmond Rostand, and others wrote while soaking in a bathtub ...

T.S. Eliot "preferred writing when he had a head cold. The rustling of his head, as if full of petticoats, shattered the usual logical links between things and allowed his mind to roam ...

"Mary Lee Settle tumbles out of bed and heads straight for her typewriter, before the dream state disappears ... [so does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc]

"Aldous Huxley 'often wrote with his nose.' In The Art of Seeing, Huxley says that 'a little nose writing will result in a perceptible temporary improvement of defective vision.'"


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Totally Nailed: Home DNA Tests Ruled a Scam

The senate hearing I posted about recently turned out to be quite interesting: The Government Accountability Office released the results of a year long investigation into at-home DNA test kits, which have minimal federal oversight or quality control, but offer actual medical advice to consumers. Their investigation showed -- beyond any doubt in my book -- that these companies are bogus:

"GAO investigators bought tests from four genetic testing Web sites, including Market America, Genelex, Sciona and Suracell. After collecting cheek swabs from an unrelated man and woman, they used the DNA samples to create profiles of 12 fictitious consumers with different age and lifestyle descriptions.

But the Web sites found different results for each profile.

'If the recommendations were truly based on genetic analysis, then the nine fictitious consumers that GAO created for these sites using the female DNA should have received the same recommendations because their DNA came from the same source. Instead, they received a variety of different recommendations, depending on their fictitious lifestyles,' the GAO report said."
These companies sent massive packets (like, 75-pages worth) of detailed information showing extensive genetic differences between each of the 12 people they thought they tested
(though there actually only tested 2), including diseases they'd be pre-disposed to, custom vitamin regimens they should take (which the companies happen to sell). The results claimed to have found "damaged genes" that would cause heart disease, diabetes, etc. Of course, at this point, there are no such gene defects: Scientists have isolated certain genes that may be connected to these diseases, but they don't know if and how these genes actually cause these problems.

You can read all the statements and see a video of the hearing here; the committee's entire massive report is here; Kathy Hudson's testimony is here, and you can check out the Federal Trade Commission's advisory against these tests here.

Since this investigation was done by a committee with no actual enforcement power, the end result of all this is a recommendation to the federal government that they require oversight of DNA testing, and a warning to consumers saying "a healthy dose of skepticism may be the best prescription," when dealing with these test results. May be? They've essentially been caught falsifying DNA results -- I'd say that warrants more than potential skepticism. I'm thinking that's grounds for full-fledged rejection. Good to keep in mind, since the companies are still operating in full force.

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