Good news about that horrific brain-eating amoeba

Turns out, it doesn't kill absolutely everybody it infects. A 12-year-old girl in Arkansas is recovering from her battle with the killer single-celled organism. She's the third known person to survive. Nobody knows yet how she, or the other survivors, made it through. Why? Well, that's more (sort of) good news. There've only been 130 recorded cases of brain-eating amoeba infection since 1962. It's so rare, that it's difficult for doctors to study.

Who’s afraid of the amygdala? Research blows away "fear center" myth

New revelations about your brain’s so-called “fear center” explain why it’s misleading to say “this part of the brain does x”. Maggie Koerth-Baker talks to neuroscientist Paul Whalen and learns that there’s more to fear than fear, itself.

Read the rest

How safe is safe?

The precautionary principle comes up a lot when you're talking about the side effects of technology in the real world. When you don't have evidence that something is dangerous — but you suspect it might be — you could cite the precautionary principle as a reason to ban or limit the use of that thing. It's a messy idea, though, and I'm still not sure what to think about it. On the one hand, technology is often available before data on the wide-ranging effects of that technology are available. Do you use it or not is a legitimate question. On the other hand, following the precautionary principle in a blind sort of way can lead to things like this.

Forced internment of British civilians during World War II

Something I didn't know about world history: During World War II, the British government rounded up thousands of its own citizens — people of German, Austrian, or Italian ancestry. Some were put into camps, others deported to Canada and Australia. Others were simply labeled as potential enemies and spied upon. The really crazy part: Many of these people were Jewish refugees who had become citizens of Britain in order to get away from the Nazis. (Via Carol Roth)

The risks of visiting volcanoes

In 1993, Stanley Williams survived a close-encounter with a volcano. A volcanologist, he was standing on the rim of Colombia's Galeras volcano when it erupted with little warning. Six of his scientific colleagues and three tourists were killed. Williams fled down the mountain's slope — until flying rocks and boulders broke both his legs. With a fractured skull, he managed to stay conscious enough to huddle behind some other large boulders and dodge flying debris until the eruption ended and his grad students rescued him.

Williams and the other scientists were there to study Galeras, and hopefully get a better idea of what signals predicted the onset of eruptions.

This is something we still don't understand well.

While volcanologists have identified some signals — like distinctive patterns of small earthquakes — that increase the likelihood of an oncoming eruption, those signals aren't foolproof predictions. There are still volcanoes like Galeras that give no warning. And volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens. In 2004, that volcano gave signals that it would erupt. And it did. Sort of. The Seattle Times described it as "two small burps and a lava flow". Basically, the signals don't always precede an eruption, and even when they do happen it doesn't tell you much about how big any ensuing eruption will be.

And that presents an interesting question, writes Erik Klemetti at Wired's Eruptions blog. How close to volcanoes should tourists really be? That's a question with real-world applications. This year, New Zealand's White Island volcano has been ... rather grumbly. Even as tourist boats continued to ferry people over for a view of the crater.

There has always been a fragile relationship between volcanoes and tourism. Volcanic features are some of the most fascinating in the world – just look at the millions of people who visit Yellowstone or Crater Lake National Parks for but two examples of hundreds of volcanic tourist attractions around the world (and that doesn’t even consider all the extinct volcanoes or volcanic deposits that can create amazing landscapes as well). However, with the splendor of volcanic features comes the danger that you, as a tourist, are visiting an active volcano. Sometimes, that danger is low, where either the volcano has been dormant for thousands of years, but the signs of magma beneath are still visible. However, the danger can appear to be low in some places but in reality, you are literally putting your lives in the hands of tour operators when you make the visit.

Read the full story

Read Stanley Williams' account of surviving the Galeras volcano

Photo by Michael Rogers, via GFDL and CC

Surviving a plane crash is surprisingly common

I'm a nervous flyer. But I'm a lot better at it then I used to be. That's because, a few years ago, I learned that it's actually pretty common to survive a plane crash. Like most people, I'd assumed that the safety in flying came from how seldom accidents happened. Once you were in a crash situation, though, I figured you were probably screwed. But that's not the case.

Looking at all the commercial airline accidents between 1983 and 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 95.7% of the people involved survived. Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%. Yes, some plane crashes kill everyone on board. But those aren't the norm. So you're even safer than you think. Not only are crashes incredibly rare, you're more likely to survive a crash than not. In fact, out of 568 accidents during those 17 years, only 71 resulted in any fatalities at all.

I was talking about this fact with a pilot friend over the weekend, and he mentioned one crash in particular that is an excellent example of the statistics in action. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost all its hydraulic controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa, going more than 100 mph faster than it should have been. You can see the plane breaking apart and bursting into flames in the video above. Turns out, that's what a 62% survival rate looks like. (All the pilots you can hear talking in the video survived, too.)

Read more about United Airlines 232 on Wikipedia

Read the full NTSB report from 2001

In 2007, Popular Mechanics examined 36 years of NTSB reports and found that the majority of surviving passengers were sitting in the back of the plane. But that seems to depend a lot on the specifics of the crash and may not be a reliable predictor of future results.

Thanks, Shav!

Cow Week: Angry cows vs. angry mothers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public's fascination with and fear of sharks. Turns out, cows kill more people every year than sharks do. Each day, I will post about a cow-related death, and add to it some information about the bigger picture.

Now that we have three entries behind us, Cow Week is starting to fulfill its intended function—a format in which to talk about what we do and don't know about why we consider some things risky and some things safe.

Today, we're going to look at the way different emotions have different effects on how we perceive risk. But first, the cow-related violence:

In 2011, a British teenager named Emma Gregory was attacked by cows. Like yesterday's victim, Gregory was crossing a cow pasture with a dog in tow. (Bear in mind here, crossing cow-occupied pastures as part of moving around your community is a more normal thing in the United Kingdom than it is in the United States.) Gregory survived and her furious mother launched a campaign to change signage around the field and generally make sure that people are familiar with the fact that cows are not always docile, friendly, and adorable.

Mrs Gregory also wonders whether or not it would be “reasonably practicable” to install temporary fencing alongside the public right of way to keep ramblers and cattle separate.

“Yes, I accept cows are extremely protective about their calves, but people need to be warned about the dangers through signs, [she said]. “There was no indication this sort of thing can happen and I know it is not unusual for cows to go after dogs, but there should be more warnings.”

This angry mom who took a chance and tried to convince her community to change its norms reminded me of a 2001 research paper by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and University of California, Berkeley. In the paper, the researchers documented four different studies that lead them to a single conclusion: Fear and anger affect our judgement, decision-making, and perception of risk in different ways. Specifically, the researchers found that people who self-reported as carrying around a lot of feelings of fear thought about the world in a more pessimistic way, and were liable to make the choices they thought would help them to avoid risk. The problem: The "safest" option wasn't always as safe as it seemed. It just looked that way to people who felt like failure, or doom, was imminent.

Meanwhile, people who told the researchers they were angry a lot of the time had responses that were more like those of happy people—they were more optimistic; and they were more liable to take risks and try something new.

The catch is that this distinction was strongest when the subjects were dealing with ambiguous events—situations where it wasn't clear whether there was actually a risk or how big the risk was, and where it wasn't clear how much control the subject had over the situation. In those circumstances, fearful people basically clammed up and tried to avoid doing anything new. In contrast, happy people and angry people didn't assume that the worst was going to happen, so they were more willing to try a different approach to solving the problem—a "risk" that, ironically, might make them more safe.

Read the rest of the story about the attack on Emma Gregory at Get Surrey

Read the study on fear, anger, and risk

PREVIOUSLY
Cow kills Irish pensioner
Bull gores man, follows him until certain he is dead
Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Image: cows, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from emmett_ns_tullos's photostream

Cow week: Welsh cattle hate dog walkers

Editorial note — Cow Week is a tongue-in-cheek look at risk analysis and why we fear the things we fear. It is inspired by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the popularity of which is largely driven by the public’s fascination with and fear of sharks.

Read the rest

Lies, damned lies, and flame-retardant furniture

All this week, The Chicago Tribune is posting a multi-part investigative report about the fire-retardant chemicals that turn up in everything from the foam in our couch cushions, to the plastic casings on our television sets. Turns out, research shows these chemicals don't actually prevent fire deaths and injuries. Worse, research does show that these chemicals are dangerous to human health—especially in the quantities to which we are exposed. Dose makes the poison, but we're not talking about small doses here. As the Tribune so succinctly puts it: This isn't something where we measure exposure in parts per million, it's measured in pounds.

The Tribune has also done a very good job of documenting both the existence and history of a pattern of corporate lies and manipulation that has made sure these chemicals remained a mandated part of our lives even as science shows they aren't helping us.

The lies are infuriating, but the history part is particularly fascinating. After all, it's easy to understand why chemical companies would lie and manipulate politics in order to maintain a lucrative market for their products. But why does that market exist, to begin with? Behind the scenes, our continued exposure to these chemicals comes down to two key issues: One poorly designed product safety test that encouraged heavy use of flame-retardants in foam instead of small doses of safer chemicals in fabric, and a 1970s-era attempt to deflect negative press away from cigarettes.

The problem facing cigarette manufacturers decades ago involved tragic deaths and bad publicity, but it had nothing to do with cancer. It had to do with house fires.

Smoldering cigarettes were sparking fires and killing people. And tobacco executives didn't care for one obvious solution: create a "fire-safe" cigarette, one less likely to start a blaze. The industry insisted it couldn't make a fire-safe cigarette that would still appeal to smokers and instead promoted flame retardant furniture — shifting attention to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames.

But executives realized they lacked credibility, especially when burn victims and firefighters were pushing for changes to cigarettes. So Big Tobacco launched an aggressive and cunning campaign to "neutralize" firefighting organizations and persuade these far more trusted groups to adopt tobacco's cause as their own. The industry poured millions of dollars into the effort, doling out grants to fire groups and hiring consultants to court them.

Playing With Fire: The entire four-part series updated all this week.

So far, parts 1 and 2 have been published.

Image:Image: ghost chair, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wwworks's photostream

How a culture of fear thrives in attention economies, and what that means for "radical transparency" and the Zuckerberg doctrine

Danah boyd's "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics" is a speech delivered at SXSW and Webstock New Zealand (that's where this video comes from). Danah first defines a culture of fear ("the ways in which fear is employed by marketers, politicians, technology designers [e.g., consider security narratives] and the media to regulate the public"), then shows how "attention economics" can exploit fear to bring in attention ("there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention") and how this leads fear to dominate many of our debates:

Every day, I wake up to news reports about the plague of cyberbullying. If you didn't know the data, you'd be convinced that cyberbullying is spinning out of control. The funny thing is that we have a lot of data on this topic, data dating back for decades. Bullying is not on the rise and it has not risen dramatically with the onset of the internet. When asked about bullying measures, children and teens continue to report that school is the place where the most serious acts of bullying happen, where bullying happens the most frequently, and where they experience the greatest impact. This is not to say that young people aren't bullied online; they are. But rather, the bulk of the problem actually happens in adult-controlled spaces like schools.... Online, interactions leave traces.... The scale of visibility means that fear is magnified."

And that's where her critique of "radical transparency" starts:

Increasingly, the battles over identity are moving beyond geek culture into political battles. The same technologies that force people into the open are being used to expose people who are engaged in political speech. Consider, for example, how crowdsourcing is being used to identify people in a photograph. It just so happens that these people were engaged in a political protest.

Radical transparency is particularly tricky in light of the attention economy. Not all information is created equal. People are far more likely to pay attention to some kinds of information than others. And, by and large, they're more likely to pay attention to information that causes emotional reactions. Additionally, people are more likely to pay attention to some people. The person with the boring life is going to get far less attention than the person that seems like a trainwreck. Who gets attention – and who suffers the consequences of attention – is not evenly distributed.

And, unfortunately, oppressed and marginalized populations who are already under the microscope tend to suffer far more from the rise of radical transparency than those who already have privilege. The cost of radical transparency for someone who is gay or black or female is different in Western societies than it is for a straight white male. This is undoubtedly a question of privacy, but we should also look at it through the prism of the culture of fear.

The whole paper and the video are both worth your attention. "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics" (via Schneier)

International terrorist group targets nanotech researchers

Yesterday, Craig Cormick—the public awareness manager at Australia's Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, and the person who invited me to the 6th Science Center World Congress—leaned over during a conference session and showed me this story on his blackberry. I had to double check and make sure it wasn't a sketchy email forward.

But the truth is that, sometimes, anti-science sentiment coalesces into violent attacks on scientists themselves. That's happened to researchers who work with animal models in the United States. And it's also happening to researchers around the world who are working with nanotechnology. The threat seems to be particularly prevalent in Mexico. In manifestos, the terrorists have said that they're attempting to prevent scientists from inventing self-replicating nanobots that could turn the entire world into "grey goo."

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Nanotechnology was singled out as a target for the attacks in manifestos posted on the Web by the group behind the bombs, which calls itself "Individualities Tending Toward Savagery." It has been linked to attacks in France, Spain, and Chile, and to a bomb sent earlier this year to a scientist at another Mexican university who specializes in nanotech. An analyst who helped identify the Unabomber—who turned out to be a former professor—says the posts show signs of someone well-educated who could be affiliated with a college.

The new group's latest package exploded in an office on the campus of the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, outside of Mexico City, in early August. The blast wounded its intended target, Armando Herrera Corral, director of a technology-transfer center, which the group's manifesto said is key to the university's plan to promote research projects that "are relevant for the progress of nanobioindustry within the country." The explosion also wounded a nearby colleague, Alejandro Aceves López, director of the university's graduate school of engineering and science.

In the group's online post (written in Spanish) claiming credit for the latest bombing, the terrorists complained about the growing number of nanotechnology experts in Mexico, which it estimated at 650. "The ever more rapid acceleration of this technology will lead to the creation of nanocyborgs that can self-replicate automatically without the help of a human," it said.

While it's entirely possible that this "group" is actually one dude (in the gender-neutral sense of "dude"), I still think it's appropriate to use the label of "terrorism." When you carry out violent acts against non-combatants in an effort to scare a broad category of people or political entities into doing what you want, I think that counts as terrorism. That's a bit of a broad definition, and imperfect. But you get the idea. This, to me, goes well beyond simple "violent crime."

And now, a few words about brain-eating amoebas

This summer, Naegleria fowleri is the new great white shark. A freshwater-dwelling amoeba that can invade the human nervous system and, on rare occasions, kill, N. fowleri (or, as they are more commonly known, "brain-eating amoebas") have apparently succeeded in making everybody a little more afraid to get in the water.

But is the fear justified?

Most of you can probably guess that the answer is, "No." But why, specifically? Julia Diebol at the Risk Science Blog does a nice job of clearly laying out why these amoeba are so attention-grabbing, and why they shouldn't keep you up at night.

Shorter version: Just being in amoeba-infested waters doesn't mean you'll get one up your nose. Or, at least, it doesn't mean that you'll die. The amoebas have only killed 129 Americans since 1937. That's more than I'd previously thought, but not remotely enough to justify a panic. Especially given that the risk of infection doesn't seem to be increasing.

Granted, there's a lot we don't know about N. fowleri. Key question: Why can hundreds of people swim safely in lake water that leads to amoeba infestation and death for one person? Nobody knows yet what factors make some people susceptible and others, apparently, not. But we do know this: On your list of things to worry about, brain-eating amoebas should be near the bottom.

The pros and cons of irradiated food

Irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, and it does kill dangerous bacteria, like the E.coli that killed many Europeans this summer. But it's also not a panacea against food poisoning and it's definitely not the most popular idea ever thought up. In a column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman examines the evidence behind irradiation, and how that evidence does and doesn't get considered in the choices we make about food.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.

Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”

There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”

Via Andy Revkin

Image: NAM - Nabob Irradiated Coffee, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from lifeontheedge's photostream

Man with camera in park who fled angry parent sought by police (turns out he was taking pix of his grandson)

A woman in Pocatello, Idaho spotted an "older white man" taking pictures of "children" at a park, so she ran up to him and screamed at him until he left, and then called the police, who duly issued an alert asking the public for information about this mysterious stranger. The local press picked it up.

Then the man called the police himself. He was in the park with his grandson, and he was taking pictures of his grandson. He didn't run away from the woman, he left because she was freaking him out with her wild, unfounded accusations that he must be up to no good because he was a) an adult, b) in a park, c) with a camera. For some reason, the police found this to be suspicious, too -- despite the fact that statistically the most likely abuser in a child's life is a relative or close acquaintance, not a stranger. Who needs evidence-based policing when you've got unfounded terror, though?

Pocatello Police are warning people of a suspicious man spotted taking pictures of children at Ammon Park. Police say parents spotted the man photographing their kids, and when they confronted him the man ran off. He is described as an older white man with white hair and a beard. He was wearing a western-style button-down shirt and blue jeans and was driving a tan/brown van. If anyone has information about this man, police would like them to call police dispatch at 234-6100.

...

Lt. Paul Manning said the man in question called in the Pocatello Police Department himself, saying he was at the park taking pictures of his grandson. The man also said that he did not run away, but simply walked away from a woman who had gotten very close to him and was yelling at him. Manning said police are no longer worried about the man and he is not suspicious.

Man Photographing Grandson In Park Deemed Suspicious By Police And Media (via Free Range Kids)

Kids on the sex-offender registry: fuelling terror and ruining lives

Lenore "Free Range Kids" Skenazy talks about the insanity of sex-offender registries, citing the case of two fourteen year olds who sat on some other kids' heads and are now on the registry. For the rest of their lives, they'll have to register with the police four times a year, turn off their lights during Hallowe'en, live a set distance from bus-stops, schools and libraries and every potential employer will know that these people are on a list of "sexual predators" but will not know why. What's more, these kids' neighbors will be forever terrified to know that "predators" are in their neighborhoods. Kids as young as 13 have been added to these permanent blacklists, as have people whose "sex offense" was urinating in public or other minor offenses.
"These lists were originally conceived by most of the voters who cheered them on as lists of people who had some sort of psychological compulsion to sexual predation," explains Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. People assume anyone on it is "a permanent menace."

These guys are more like Dennis the Menace, which is why we have to change the criteria that land folks on the registry. These young men were never "predators." And as the years go by, the idea that they pose a danger to children will become even more ridiculous. When you're 20, 30, 40 -- 80! -- you don't do the things you did as a 14-year-old trying to impress your buddies. Why is Megan's Law blind to human nature?

If it were making kids safer, maybe we could overlook how obtuse it is. But a 2008 study found that, in New Jersey at least -- where little Megan Kanka, for whom the law is named, was murdered -- the law showed no effect in reducing the number of sexual re-offenses or reducing the number of victims.

New Outrage: Sex Offender or Teenage Jerk?

(Image: To Offend, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from vek's photostream)