The Blogosphere

This month's Discover Magazine has a neat-o map of the Blogosphere:
Even though the vast majority of blogs are either abandoned or isolated, many bloggers like to link to other Web sites. These links allow analysts to track trends in blogs and identify the most popular topics of data exchange. Social media expert Matthew Hurst recently collected link data for six weeks and produced this plot of the most active and interconnected parts of the blogosphere.
1 White dots represent individual blogs, sized according to number of links. Nearly 500,000 people visit the DailyKos every day, making it one of the world’s most popular blogs.

2 The bright spot here represents the popular site Boingboing, a “Directory of Wonderful Things.”

3 LiveJournal bloggers (like my sista, Charlotte)

4 Blue means blogs are reciprocal (they link to each other). The brightest light belongs to syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin.

5 Porn blogs. And no, I’m not going to link to them here.

6 Sports bloggers

But where, oh where, is the science blogosphere? Oh yeah, here.



Rolling groggy into Baltimore on Amtrak train 185 I had forgotten that all the roofs are flat; bricks painted green, blue, pink; windows boarded up. I thought of that new Atlantic article about snitchers in Baltimore ghettos. But the streets looked empty. Too early for drug deals, I guess.

Squalor. S-q-u-a-l-o-r I counted walking north from Penn station on the durty North Charles sidewalk. My intended destination: Tapas Taetro, right up there at 20th, for an early lunch. Hummus, maybe. Or crab cakes. Nope. Closed until 5:00. I wasn’t planning to go all the way north, those 12 blocks to campus. I’d just walk until I saw a place to eat. But each one I came to was (card)boarded up—one Chinese, one Korean, one “cool Caribbean,” two diners. No restaurants, but five hair salons, two realty offices, WYPR public radio and a “Big Boyz” bail bond shop. A few stuttering fat women, old, tired-looking, probably strung out out of their minds. A few teenaged gangsters giving me the up-down. Got to that big Safeway on 24th, cut across the parking lot to St. Paul. A young man dragged a blue-sneakered limp foot across the road with his brown-sneakered left. His neck collared with a plastic grocery bag. The sun h-o-t hot. And I was so preoccupied with forehead sweat running my makeup that 32nd startled me, those brown dumpsters in the alley behind The Allston. Up on the wobbly fourth-floor fire escape, the black asphalt roof still inviting, no girls sunbathe in bikinis.

It was supposed to rain—60 percent chance—but it’s not. Sun’s so bright I have to scrape my white-tableclothed table (did they used to have tablecloths?) at Donna’s so that the awning covers my shoulders.

All of those 7ams at Donna’s, writing about Mars with cinnamon hazelnut in a paper cup. The two female waitresses still work here. (That one Meagan and I always thought was a bit slow in the head, she still seems a bit slow in the head. Perhaps more so with those ridiculously plastic, ridiculously sea-foam green hoop earrings.) My waitor, Josh P., is new.

Next door is still Rocky Run, with the pricey beers, and then Charles Village Pub with the cheap ones. We watched the Ravens there that one Sunday afternoon. (That was before the Warhol exhibit in Chicago—or was it after? And long before the Warhol sleep documentary at PS 1 MOMA. Remember the afternoon skyline from the rooftop? It was so fucking hot.) And there’s still Eddie’s, still—a banner on the window says “celebrating 45 years.” I laugh, not out loud but in my head, because last week, in a compulsive fit, I cleared my desk and threw away the tattered Eddie’s discount card, thinking, When’s the next time I’ll be in Baltimore again, anyway?

April 25, 2007. The streets are quiet, still, empty. The Hopkins kids at the next table—in suits and lacrosse t-shirts, some young entrepreneurs club meeting, no doubt—are pretentious, discussing “border theory” of South America, and the air smells like the water, I think as I sign the check. “Donna’s,” it says at the top, “Charle’s Village.”


Dawkins vs. O'Reilly

Monday night, the Oxford evolutionary biologist (and ever-adorable) Richard Dawkins appeared on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor to debate the atheistic premise of his new book, The God Delusion. The final score: Roman Catholic imbecile host Bill O'Reilly uttered 609 words, Dawkins just 342. Try not to gag.

My last post on The God Delusion...

(Hat tip, PZ)

On Touching.

When Roberto Salazar was an infant, his parents thought he was the perfect baby: he never cried, and slept most of the day. But at three months, they knew something was wrong. Roberto was losing weight dramatically, and not interested in food. He didn't sweat, even on hot summer afternoons. And most startling, when he started teething, he chewed apart his own tongue, lips, and fingers.

Roberto, now almost 6 years old, is one of a couple of dozen people in the United States with "congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis," or CIPA--he was born without a sense of touch. More than half of all children born with CIPA--the most severe type of sensory neuropathy--die from heat stroke before age 3. Those who live must be on constant alert for unfelt injury; they may walk on a broken leg, or stay in the cold after frostbite's set in. And a lover's caress will never make them shiver with delight.

Of all our senses, touch is certainly the most essential to survival. And interestingly, being touched may be almost as critical.

Duke neurologist Saul Schanberg first started thinking about the power of touch after meeting children with psychogenic dwarfism, the stunting of growth that occurs after extreme emotional deprivation. Children who were ignored at home--both emotionally and physically--just stopped growing. Not only that but, as Diane Ackerman explains in her charming, poetic book, A Natural History of the Senses:
Schanberg found that even growth-hormone injections couldn't prompt the stunted bodies of such children to grow again, but tender loving care did. The affection they received from the nurses when they were admitted to a hospital was often enough to get them back on the right track. What's amazing is that the process is reversible at all.
Ackerman goes on to discuss premature infants, who gain weight at a much faster rate when physically massaged by parents, nurses, and hospital volunteers. Schanberg's experiments on rats showed this happens in the opposite direction, too: when an infant rat was denied its mother's touch, even for as little as 45 minutes, it lowered its food intake and slowed its metabolism, presumably to save energy until the mother returned. But if she didn't come back at all, the baby rats stopped growing.

This evolutionary importance of touching and being touched may also explain why it makes us feel just so damn good. As Schanberg told Ackerman, "It's ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch...We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it."

Wikipedia on Psychogenic Dwarfism



Greg Critser can feel good about this: Thursday the FDA rejected Merck's application to sell its new pain pill, Arcoxia, a Cox-2 inhibitor that Merck saw as the new Vioxx. The FDA panel's decision was unequivocal (vote was 20 to 1) , and the criticisms of the drug by FDA safety officers, who testified before the panel, were unusually harsh. The New York Times reports that one officer, Dr. David Graham, told the panel that if Arcoxia is approved for sale, “what you’re talking about is a potential public health disaster."

People with arthritis feel pain because of acids released by damaged cells. An enzyme system in the stomach, called COX, manages these and other acids. The Cox-1 system protects the stomach lining by producing acids that maintain cellular structure. The Cox-2 system produces acids that start the chain of reactions that leads to the pain response.

Traditional drugs for arthritis pain, including aspirin, inhibit both Cox systems--leading to a reduction of pain and inflammation, but also a damaged stomach lining. For people with arthritis who took anti-inflamatories regularly, this often led to gastrointestional bleeding, congestion, and ulcers.

Thus, when Cox-2 inhibitors--drugs that stopped the Cox-2 system without affecting Cox-1--like Vioxx were first marketed in the '90s, they were trumped as superaspirins that would take away the pain without hurting the gut.

So why do we even have that nasty Cox-2 enzyme system? Ohhh yea, it has lots of important functions, like preventing tiny bumps inside of arteries from exploding into blockages. But more problematic for heart health is that the Cox-1 system is also responsible for increases in blood clots, which often lead to heart attack; that is, it's good to inhibit it. So patients who switched from aspirin (6¢ per pill) to Cox-2 inhibitors ($3 per pill) were at a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Between 1999 and 2003, Merck sold 92.8 million prescriptions of Vioxx. For .03% of cases, patients died from a heart attack, which doesn't sound like much--until you realize that's 27,785 people. This risk isn't for a life-saving cancer drug; Vioxx is a pain pill, whose huge customer base is exactly why ensuring its safety is so important.

The sales potential, of course, is also the reason Merck's fighting so hard to get back into the pain market. Arcoxia is a Cox-2 inhibitor and almost identical to Vioxx, and thus contributes to heart attacks for the same reasons as Vioxx. According to the FDA safety experts, Arcoxia alleviates pain no better than Aleve, yet causes three times as many heart attacks, strokes and deaths. Yea...I'd say that's a no-brainer decision.

As Martha Solonche, another member of the FDA safety panel, said: "The idea should not be that we need new drugs. The idea should be that we need better drugs.”


How to Detect a Liar

I just found a fascinating post, via Kevin, about liars, how to detect them, and how to understand their motivations. (I say "them" in the most abstract sense...I lie every day, probably several times.) Kevin calls it "pretty basic stuff;" nevertheless, it's stuff that, despite my obsession with behavioral bio, I've never read before. Here's the gist:
Whether we lie depends on our calculation of the reward/punishment equation. This is called “situational honesty.” Because most of us are conditioned to believe lying is wrong, it creates stress...The degree of emotional discomfort is determined by two factors: the adverse consequences of the lie and our perception of being caught.
Those little white lies, the article explains, don't stress us out because a) there are no adverse consequences; and b) it's unlikely your deception will be found out. Conversely, if you're, say, Jeffrey Skilling (whom superlative-loving CBS news calls "the most vilified figure from the most notorious financial scandal of the decade"), then your lies have enormous adverse consequences AND are likely to be found out. Big lies thus put you in a high-stress mode, complete with "telltale behavioral changes."

What are these changes? I know from Meet the Fockers that your pulse races...but what do the real lie-detecting experts look for? The article mentions several lying behaviors:
  • Repetition of the question
  • Selective memory (I might have been there, I might have been off; I just don't remember)
  • Oaths (Honey, I swear on my mother's life, nothing happened!)
  • Character testimony (I'm an honest person--ask any of my friends)
  • Answering with a question
  • Overuse of respect
  • Avoiding emotive words
  • Covering mouth with hands
  • Assuming a "fleeing position" (That's because, when threatened, humans react with a “fight or flight” mentality....neat-o, right?)

This list is somewhat exhaustive, no? Makes me wonder, what behaviors are left for that hypothetical Ben Stiller, under duress, who's trying to tell the truth?


Angry Drunks

We all love a cheap beer, especially in New York. But what if low prices lead to more violence-related injuries? A new study from Applied Economics suggests this is indeed the case.

Using five years of data from 58 hospital emergency departments in England and Wales, researchers from Cardiff University's Violence and Society Research Group found that the higher the price of beer, the lower the rate of violence-related injuries.

If you ever get drunk with Irish guys, these results probably aren't too surprising. Still, the question of why alcohol spurs violence in some but not others is an interesting one. Mind Hacks suggests three theories of why alcohol and violence are linked:
  • because of the drug's effects on the brain [what effects, exactly, they don't explain. nor why these neuronal interactions would differ between individuals...]
  • because people use alcohol as an excuse for violent behavior
  • because people who use alcohol might be more likely to be violent, perhaps due to personality factors like sensation-seeking, impulsivity or risk-taking.

Anyway, alcohol's not the only culprit. The study found several others factors that independently correlated with increased hospital visits, including poverty, unemployment, major sporting events, and the summer months. (Which reminds me--Who's ready for summer at the beer garden?!)

And I don't know the man in this photo. It came up, quite appropriately, from my Google Image search for "angry drunk."

(Hat tip, Mind Hacks)


Easter Funnies

(PostSecret is my new obsession. Shhhh)


Call for Nerd Cartoonists!

Attention all doodlers! The Union of Concerned Scientists is now accepting entries for its second annual Science Idol: The Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest. The grand prize includes $500 and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. to tour the UCS offices and meet with Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post.

Here's the catch: You gotta make the distortion, manipulation, and suppression of science in the federal government, well, funny. An ambitious task, for sure, but the UCS does offer a couple of tips for creating that winning entry:
This year, we are especially interested in cartoons that focus on the recent actions the White House has taken to centralize decision-making authority...We'd also like cartoons that examine possible solutions to this wide-spread problem, including steps the next president might take to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making.
They also suggests steering clear of a few hot-button topics, including
the morality of stem cells or cloning, the teaching of evolution (sorry PZ!), and ethical lapses of individual scientists. At right, one of last year's 12 finalists, drawn by Xeth Feinberg of New York, NY.

Make sure to enter before the May 22 deadline!


Despite the date, this isn't a joke.

Salmon that have fled from the confines of the fish farm--beware! Forensically minded Norwegians are on your tails.

From the Institute of Marine Research (IMR):
A fish farm in western Norway is currently under police investigation after being identified by IMR as the source of a salmon escape. This is the first example of DNA methods being used to trace farmed escaped salmon to source of origin...

The Directorate took samples from all fish farms in the area and delivered them to IMR in Bergen. Samples from the escapees were also collected and analysed.

Results indicated that most of the recaptured escapees originated from a specific cage, and that it was highly unlikely that the escapees came from any other fish farm.
Needless to say, this technology is a monumental step forward in the quest to catch all of the world's marine fugitives. I'll sleep soundly tonight.