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Each year, literary über-agent and big idea wrangler John Brockman of Edge.org poses a new question to an assortment of scientists, writers, and creative minds, and publishes a selection of the responding essays. This year's question, which came from George Dyson, is "What *Should* We Be Worried About?"
We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.Many people more interesting than me responded—here are the 2013 contributors, and the list includes some amazing minds: Brian Eno, Daniel Dennett, Esther Dyson, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Danny Hillis, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Kelly, Tim O'Reilly, Martin Rees, Bruce Schneier, Bruce Sterling, Sherry Turkle, and Craig Venter, to name just some. And here's an index of all the essays this year.
Following is the full text of my contribution, "Science Has Not Brought Us Closer To Understanding Cancer."
Read the rest
Read the rest
This is a really important long read that we all need to pay attention to. It concerns how we treat people with who are suffering from paranoid delusions — and how we treat people whose families worry that they are a threat to others. It concerns the relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. It concerns the ethics of clinical trials — the risks we run as we test potential treatments that could help many, or hurt a few, or both. If we want to reform mental health care, this needs to be part of the discussion.
In 2004, Dan Markingson committed suicide. The story behind that death is complicated and depressing. At the Molecules to Medicine blog, Judy Stone documents the whole thing in three must-read chapters. Many people find help in psychiatric drugs, and credit those drugs with making their lives better. (Full disclosure, I'm one of them. I have used Ritalin for several years. I am temporarily on an anti-depressant.) But we have to pay attention to how those drugs get to us. This isn't just about treating people. It's about the process that gets us there. Because, if that process is compromised, the treatments we get won't be as effective and lives will be lost along the way.
Markingson began to show signs of paranoia and delusions in 2003, believing that he needed to murder his mother. He was committed to Fairview Hospital involuntarily after being evaluated by Dr. Stephen Olson, of the University of Minnesota. He was subsequently enrolled on a clinical trial of antipsychotic drugs—despite protests from his mother. This study was a comparison of atypical antipsychotics for the treatment of first episodes of schizophrenia (aka the CAFÉ study), sponsored by AstraZeneca. The study’s structure was that of a Phase 4 randomized, double-blind trial comparing the effectiveness of three different atypical antipsychotic drugs: Zyprexa (olanzapine), Risperdal (risperidone) and Seroquel (quetiapine), with each patient to be treated for a year.
After about two weeks on study treatment in the hospital, Markingson was discharged to a halfway house—again over his mother’s objections. Over the coming months, Dan’s mother, Mary Weiss, continued to express concerns about her son’s deterioration, even asking if her son might have to kill himself before anyone else would take notice…then, in fact, her son violently committed suicide on May 7, 2004, mutilating himself with a box cutter. The University of Minnesota and their IRB have maintained that the study was conducted appropriately and that they have no responsibility for Dan’s death. Dan’s mother and bioethicist Carl Elliott believe otherwise.
We’ll explore some of the major issues of contention in this case over several posts, as illustrative of basic clinical research principles, including adequacy of informed consent, IRB oversight, conflicts of interest, and coercion, including threats to a bioethicist whistleblower.
Read the second part: How clinical trials should be done and how they were done in this case.
Read the third part: Conflicts of interest between the researchers and the pharmaceutical industry.
At PBS NewsHour, Jenny Marder has a truly epic report on so-called "bath salts," a term commonly used to refer to a variable cocktail of drugs linked to a number of violent episodes throughout the US. Her investigative feauture is the most extensive and authoritative I've seen on the topic, a long read full of the stuff that makes great reporting great: nitty-gritty chemistry mysteries, personal stories about the people who use the drug, and big-picture questions about why the stuff is so widely available, and why it seems to be so destructive. Don't miss the slide shows and video that accompany the beautifully laid-out feature. There's even an instructional animated gif!
Users are often hyper-agitated, hot and sweating, she said. Their heart rate is dangerously high, their blood pressure is up, and seizures are common. Often even high doses of common sedatives don't help them. Doctors instead must turn to antipsychotics or other powerful medications.
Early on, doctors began noticing something else that was strange. Compared with other drugs, bath salts didn't follow a normal dose-response pattern. With cocaine or methamphetamine, the drug entered the bloodstream, and, within hours, began to wear off. Not so for bath salts. “Some patients were in the hospital for 5 days, 10 days, 14 days,” Ryan said. “In some cases, they were under heavy sedation. As you try to taper off the sedation, the paranoia came back and the delusions."
As Ryan was scrambling to grasp the scope of the problem in Louisiana, scientists 1,000 miles away were beginning to tease out the drug's chemistry. What was it about this substance, they wondered, that could make a man cut his own throat or a mother leave her 2-year-old in the middle of a highway?
Read: "Bath Salts: The Drug That Never Lets Go" (newshour.org)
(Disclosure: I've worked with Jenny before, on PBS Newshour stories with science correspondent Miles O'Brien).
I grab a chair from a stack in the corner and take a seat, studying a sign that implores me to be "true" and "passionate" and "creative." In reality, passion and creativity have nothing to do with it. Labor Ready provides warm bodies for grunt work that pays minimum wage or thereabouts. "Here's a sledgehammer, there's the wall," is how Stacey Burke, the company's vice-president of communications, characterized the work to Businessweek back in 2006.
Read the whole piece here: "Everyone Only Wants Temps" (Mother Jones).
Web startups are made out of two things: people and code. The people make the code, and the code makes the people rich. Code is like a poem; it has to follow certain structural requirements, and yet out of that structure can come art. But code is art that does something. It is the assembly of something brand new from nothing but an idea.
Read: How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet. (Gizmodo)
Margie Profet did not have a Ph.D. In fact, she didn't even have a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology, the field that most of her work revolved around. But she won a McArthur Genius grant and presented some really interesting theories on the body's defenses against cancer and poisonous substances that might turn out to be correct. And then she disappeared.
Nobody has seen or heard from Margie Profet since at least 2004 or 2005, writes Mike Martin at Psychology Today. His piece is an interesting biography of a woman who was incredibly intelligent, and who also likely suffered from some serious symptoms of mental illness for years. Only her closest family and friends seem to have been aware of what was going on in Profet's personal world. Over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Profet shut them, and everyone else, out of her life so successfully that nobody is really sure when she vanished.
This is one of those long reads that will take you a little while to get through, but it's worth checking out. Even aside from the mysterious disappearance, I found Martin's explanation of Margie Profet's contribution to science really fascinating. Profet presented several, interconnected theories suggesting that allergies, morning sickness, and menstruation all evolved as means of blocking or removing poisonous, cancer-causing, and disease-causing substances from the body.
Read the rest
Frank Bures is a friend of mine here in the Twin Cities. He's also one of the best travel writers I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. You might remember his work from a post a couple of years ago, about Bigfoot hunting in northern Minnesota.
He has a more-serious piece out in the recent issue of The Washington Post magazine. Twenty years ago, Frank spent a little over a year working as an English teacher in Tanzania, just outside the town of Arusha. Recently, he went back, both to re-connect with the people he'd met so many years ago, and to make a trip he'd always regretted not taking the first time around—climb Mount Meru.
Unlike most people who travel to Tanzania, I had no desire to climb Kilimanjaro, which seemed like an overrun fundraising cliche. But Meru was different. Meru was difficult, unforgiving, temperamental, with an air of hard beauty and mystery.
Our bus rolled forward, and I stared out the window at the mountain’s outline. After all these years, it looked the same, though much else had changed. Seeing it again reminded me of my last glimpse of it through a bus window, and of the ache of departure, of the bitterness of leaving all my friends and students and neighbors, but also of the sweetness of having known them.
This was a reunion of several kinds. After too long I was back in this place — to reconnect with people, to find out how things had changed.
But also, I was finally here to meet the mountain.
This is a long read, but worthwhile. At it's heart is a story you don't often hear about Tanzania, and other African countries. Turns out, some of the biggest changes that have happened over the last 20 years have been economic. In a good way. When Frank returns to Arusha, he finds that many of his former students have pulled themselves into the middle class. They're creating comfortable, happy lives for themselves and making their own country better.
In the photo above (taken by Washington Post photographer Sarah Elliot), you can see Simon Moses, and his wife Nai, in front of the home they built themselves. Moses was one of Frank's students. Twenty years ago, he asked Frank to take him to America, because he was afraid of having no future in Arusha. Today, Moses owns a travel company. His wife is an accountant.
Via Doug Mack
You've probably seen this caveat pretty often: Just because a study that uses mice as subjects produces a specific result, doesn't mean you'd get the same result using human subjects. Mice are handy research animals, but they aren't perfect analogues to humans. A mouse study is a stepping stone towards better evidence. It is something we do because there are potentially useful ideas that we should not try out on humans first. But mouse studies should not count as incontrovertible proof of anything.
Usually, when that caveat comes up, the person giving it is talking about fundamental differences between mouse biology and human biology. For instance, a mouse might only need one copy of a genetic factor to grow normally. Meanwhile, a human needs to have both copies or risk altered sexual development.
But there are other problems with mice, problems that have more to do with how we select, breed, and raise mouse models. In a fascinating three-part series on Slate.com, Daniel Engber looks at how we undermine the usefulness of our own lab mice, and the risks we take when we do so.
If you put a rat on a limited feeding schedule—depriving it of food every other day—and then blocked off one of its cerebral arteries to induce a stroke, its brain damage would be greatly reduced. The same held for mice that had been engineered to develop something like Parkinson's disease: Take away their food, and their brains stayed healthier.
But Mattson wasn't so quick to prescribe his stern feeding schedule to the crowd in Atlanta. He had faith in his research on diet and the brain but was beginning to realize that it suffered from a major complication. It might well be the case that a mouse can be starved into good health—that a deprived and skinny brain is more robust than one that's well-fed. But there was another way to look at the data. Maybe it's not that limiting a mouse's food intake makes it healthy, he thought; it could be that not limiting a mouse's food makes it sick. Mattson's control animals—the rodents that were supposed to yield a normal response to stroke and Parkinson's—might have been overweight, and that would mean his baseline data were skewed.
Crowds at the OWS Day of Action, November 17, 2011, in New York City. © C.S. Muncy/csmuncyphotography.com
You'll want to read this essay on OWS as API by Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal—and then you'll want to share it with friends who don't totally get OWS yet:
The most fascinating thing about Occupy Wall Street is the way that the protests have spread from Zuccotti Park to real and virtual spaces across the globe. Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that's surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions.
Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.
This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, "I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway." If you get the idea, go ahead and skip ahead to the documentation below. If you don't get, let me explain why it might be the most useful way of thinking about #Occupy.