Tag Archives: Medicine

A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

image

Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

What’s Up With My Data, Doc?

I can’t find the original article on the IHT website, but there’s a great piece in today’s edition on how pharmaceutical companies push their drugs by funding — I would say bribing — doctors. It’s written by Daniel Carlat, who writes a blog and publishes the Carlat Psychiatry Report.

The most interesting part of the piece is on something called prescription data-mining, where data from pharmacists on prescriptions — what patients are given what medicines — are linked to the doctors prescribing said medicines. This allows pharmaceutical companies to target doctors and get them to push their drugs by paying them to make presentations to other doctors.

Carlat himself made $30,000 in a year doing this before he saw the light. He is now a major critic of the practice, and challenges in a recent blog post the absurd industry defense of the practice of prescription data-mining that it’s all about transparency:

Today, however (on a tip from PharmaGossip), I read the most absurd argument in its defense yet, reported in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. The reporter, Karl Stark, quoted Jody Fisher, Verispan’s vice president of product management, as saying: “Doctors are trying to create a special right of privacy. I can certainly appreciate where they’re coming from. But the way the world is going is toward increased transparency of information.”

“Transparency of information”! What a wonderful Web 2.0 buzz phrase!

Of course, I’m interested because you can see in it the power of data-mining. The original pharmacist data doesn’t include the doctors’ names, only their Drug Enforcement Agency registration numbers. It’s the American Medical Association that effectively reveals the doctors’ names to Big Pharma by licensing its file of U.S. physicians, allowing data-mining companies like IMS Health and Verispan to match the numbers with the names, Carlat writes in today’s IHT piece. The AMA makes millions of dollars in this process, by the way.

Are similar things being done with our Internet-based data? Is the anonymous becoming less anonymous? If it’s not being done now, assume it will be in the future. It’s a great example of how data aren’t always valuable until they’re linked to other data, and then they’re extremely valuable.

The Carlat Psychiatry Blog: September 2007

The Big Chill

 Freeman and Ferguson in a tank

Football (OK, soccer) is pushing to the forefront of adopting interesting technologies. Here’s one I hadn’t heard from Bolton Wanderers, where players enter a chamber at minus 120 degrees Celsius to enhance muscle recovery after training. It’s called cryotherapy, according to the Daily Mail:

The technique was originated in Japan in 1978 to help arthritis sufferers and patients with joint conditions. In time, athletes claimed it enhanced muscle recovery and reduced muscle pain. [Bolton’s new head of sports science and medicine Richard] Freeman said: “It’s made from liquid nitrogen and liquid oxygen mixed to the right proportion to become liquid synthetic air. It’s quite safe despite the temperatures.

“It’s still in its infancy but players benefit. It’s like stretching before a game. There’s little scientific evidence why it works but it clearly does. The players like it and feel they benefit. After a heavy training session, a weights session or an intense game, they feel better quicker and it has been shown to improve muscle structure and muscle function.

Cryotherapy, according to Wikipedia, stretches from applying an ice pack to this chamber approach, which is properly called cryogenic chamber therapy:

The chamber is cooled, typically with liquid nitrogen, to a temperature of –110 C. The patient is protected from acute frostbite with socks, gloves and mouth and ear protection, but in addition to that, wears nothing but a bathing suit. The patients spends a few minutes in the chamber. During treatment the average skin temperature drops 12 C, while the coldest skin temperature can be 5 C. The core body temperature remains unchanged during the treatment, while after it, it may drop slightly. Curiously enough, some patients compare the feeling to sauna at +110 C. Release of endorphins occurs, resulting in analgesia (immediate pain relief).

Want one of your own? Buy the CryoCabin CYRODOC from the Zwolle-based company of the same name:

Treatment in the CRYODOC CryoCabin takes only 3 minutes at a temperature of -130 Cº to -150 Cº , producing several important salutary effects throughout the body: energy boost, skin regeneration and rejuvenation, protection against fading skin, strengthening of the immune system, fighting stress and chronic fatigue, increased metabolic rate, weight reduction, fighting cellulite, pain reduction, and generally improving the overall state of health.

I’ll spare you some of the more graphic pictures on their website (think cellulite and elbow rash. But I like the way this lady’s earrings twinkle in her CryoCabin:

image
Come in, the air is lovely

Why giving players the cold shoulder – and everything else – is keeping Bolton Poles apart | the Daily Mail

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Directory of RSI Software

This is the first in a number of posts about RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury, the subject of this week’s column, out tomorrow. Here is a collection of software designed to ease RSI. RSI software tries to help in a number of ways:

  • working out how long you’ve been at the keyboard and reminds you to take breaks;
  • suggesting exercises for you to perform while you’re taking those breaks;
  • records macros (shortcuts) to specific tasks you do a lot so you don’t have to use the keyboard as much (especially keystroke combinations);
  • reduces mouse usage by allowing you to control the mouse from the keyboard (including dragging)
  • reducing mouse clicks by automating the process (move the cursor over something you want to click on and hold it there, and the software figures out you want to click and does it for you)

Here are some programs I found. I’m sure there are more. Let me know!

RSI Shield provides breaks, records macros and controls the mouse via hovering or via the keyboard. For Windows only. About $40 from RSI-Shield.

RSI Guard includes a break timer that suggests breaks at appropriate times, mouse automatic-clicking option and shows animations of exercises. Windows only. £81 from Back in Action, or $40 for the Standard and $65 for the Stretch Edition from RSI Guard.

Workrave frequently alerts you to take micro-pauses, rest breaks and restricts you to your daily limit. For GNU/Linux and Windows (can be run on a Mac using Fink). Free from Workrave.

WorkPace Personal charts your activity, reminds you to take breaks and guides you through exercises. For Windows and Mac. $50 from Wellnomics.

AntiRSI forces you to take regular breaks, yet without getting in the way. It also detects natural breaks so it won’t force too many breaks on you. For Macs, free (donations welcome) from TECH.inhelsinki.nl.

[resting]

Xwrits reminds you to take wrist breaks, with a rather cute but graphic graphic of a wrist which pops up an X window when you should rest. For Unix only. Free from Eddie Kohler’s Little Cambridgeport Design Factory.

OosTime Break Software for reminding yourself to take rest breaks from your computer. For Windows only, from the University of Calgary. Another break reminder: Stress Buster for Windows, £10, from ThreadBuilder. Another break reminder for Windows, also called, er, Break Reminder for $60 a year (that can’t be right) from Cheqsoft.

Stretch Break reminds you to stretch, then shows you how with Yoga-based stretches and relaxing background music. For Windows only, $45 from Paratec.

ergonomix monitors keyboard and mouse activity and helps structure computer use. For Windows only, $50 from publicspace.net.  (A Mac version called MacBreakZ is also available for $20.)

ActiveClick automatically clicks, drags content and makes you stretch. For Windows only, $19 from ActiveClick.

No-RSI monitors keyboard and mouse activity and suggests you to take a break regularly. For Windows only, $15 from BlueChillies.

Also check out the Typing Injury FAQ for some more RSI software. A more recent collection can be found in a piece by Laurie Bouck at The Pacemaker. A good piece, too, by Jono Bacon at ONLamp.com.

There are also mice that try to help counter RSI. The Hoverstop, for example, “detects if your hand is on the mouse. It then monitors if you are actually using it (clicking, scrolling). If you are not using it for more than 10 seconds, it will vibrate softly to remind you to take your hand away and relax.” About $90 from Hoverstop.

My favorite? Workrave, though I must confess I often ignore the breaks. More fool me.

Directory of RSI Software

This is the first in a number of posts about RSI, or Repetitive Strain Injury, the subject of this week’s column, out tomorrow. Here is a collection of software designed to ease RSI. RSI software tries to help in a number of ways:

  • working out how long you’ve been at the keyboard and reminds you to take breaks;
  • suggesting exercises for you to perform while you’re taking those breaks;
  • records macros (shortcuts) to specific tasks you do a lot so you don’t have to use the keyboard as much (especially keystroke combinations);
  • reduces mouse usage by allowing you to control the mouse from the keyboard (including dragging)
  • reducing mouse clicks by automating the process (move the cursor over something you want to click on and hold it there, and the software figures out you want to click and does it for you)

Here are some programs I found. I’m sure there are more. Let me know!

RSI Shield provides breaks, records macros and controls the mouse via hovering or via the keyboard. For Windows only. About $40 from RSI-Shield.

RSI Guard includes a break timer that suggests breaks at appropriate times, mouse automatic-clicking option and shows animations of exercises. Windows only. £81 from Back in Action, or $40 for the Standard and $65 for the Stretch Edition from RSI Guard.

Workrave frequently alerts you to take micro-pauses, rest breaks and restricts you to your daily limit. For GNU/Linux and Windows (can be run on a Mac using Fink). Free from Workrave.

WorkPace Personal charts your activity, reminds you to take breaks and guides you through exercises. For Windows and Mac. $50 from Wellnomics.

AntiRSI forces you to take regular breaks, yet without getting in the way. It also detects natural breaks so it won’t force too many breaks on you. For Macs, free (donations welcome) from TECH.inhelsinki.nl.

[resting]

Xwrits reminds you to take wrist breaks, with a rather cute but graphic graphic of a wrist which pops up an X window when you should rest. For Unix only. Free from Eddie Kohler’s Little Cambridgeport Design Factory.

OosTime Break Software for reminding yourself to take rest breaks from your computer. For Windows only, from the University of Calgary. Another break reminder: Stress Buster for Windows, £10, from ThreadBuilder. Another break reminder for Windows, also called, er, Break Reminder for $60 a year (that can’t be right) from Cheqsoft.

Stretch Break reminds you to stretch, then shows you how with Yoga-based stretches and relaxing background music. For Windows only, $45 from Paratec.

ergonomix monitors keyboard and mouse activity and helps structure computer use. For Windows only, $50 from publicspace.net.  (A Mac version called MacBreakZ is also available for $20.)

ActiveClick automatically clicks, drags content and makes you stretch. For Windows only, $19 from ActiveClick.

No-RSI monitors keyboard and mouse activity and suggests you to take a break regularly. For Windows only, $15 from BlueChillies.

Also check out the Typing Injury FAQ for some more RSI software. A more recent collection can be found in a piece by Laurie Bouck at The Pacemaker. A good piece, too, by Jono Bacon at ONLamp.com.

There are also mice that try to help counter RSI. The Hoverstop, for example, “detects if your hand is on the mouse. It then monitors if you are actually using it (clicking, scrolling). If you are not using it for more than 10 seconds, it will vibrate softly to remind you to take your hand away and relax.” About $90 from Hoverstop.

My favorite? Workrave, though I must confess I often ignore the breaks. More fool me.

Tamiflu and the Online Buying Epidemic

Sadly, this might be the way of the future: Selling prescription drugs that everyone wants in the middle of a pandemic to the highest bidder. The Register reports that people have been selling Tamiflu on eBay for up to four times its usual price:

Internet auctioneer eBay has shut down sales through it service of Tamiflu, which can help reduce the severity of avian flu, amid growing concern of a potential pandemic that could kill humans. An eBay spokesperson told The Register that the company had pulled a handful of listings from its UK web site, because the sales contravened eBay’s policy over the sale of controlled substances and prescription drugs.

eBay acted as packets of Tamiflu, which comprise 10 capsules, had reached £104 and attracted 84 bids. Tamiflu is usually available through prescription only, for between £25 and £30.

(I’m not quite sure who to credit for this story: A very similar account appears on ZDNet, quoting Reuters.)

Another story from AFP (via Singapore’s TODAYonline), highlights some of the dangers of this kind of thing. It quotes David Reddy, a senior executive at Tamiflu’s maker, Roche as saying he had heard heard of reports of Internet sales “of a drug that was purported to be Tamiflu but in fact was not.” He declined to give details until the matter had been investigated. A Taiwan newspaper, meanwhile, catalogues a Tamiflu buying frenzy since August.
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Update: Worms Still Worming

 Viruses still plague many networks and not everyone is taking it lightly: U.S. colleges are getting tough on students with infected PCs, unplugging them and fining them, Associated Press reports.
 
Back-to-back waves of devastating infections that spread quickly across the Internet during August crippled some college and high school networks just before the start of the fall semester. At the University of North Texas, technicians are removing viruses from roughly 16 computers every 90 minutes — plus assessing a mandatory $30 cleaning fee. Vanderbilt University found infections in computers of roughly one-fourth its returning 5,000 students. Stunned technicians shut off connections to nearly 1,200 computers they determined were infected and gradually restored service over the next several days after ensuring each machine was clean.

News: Bothered By Mosquitoes? Use Your Cellphone

 From the Why Use Bugspray When You Can Use Your Cellphone Dept, a report from the Korea Times on a new service by SK Telecom. Its seems South Korea’s top mobile operator is offering downloadable ring tones which, er, generate anti-mosquito sound waves that deter mosquitoes within a range of one metre.
 
 
The mosquito repelling service uses a particular spectrum of sound waves, which are undetectable by human ears. But the frequencies annoy mosquitoes, SK Telecom said. And presumably you, when you get the bill, at 3,000 won a download. One of the other downsides pointed out by the correspondent is that “the service takes up more battery power, but customers can effectively use the service with rechargeable equipment.” Or you could just throw your cellphone at the mosquitoes when the battery runs out.
 
Who said technology isn’t making our lives easier?