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kottke.org posts about medicine

An International Eye Test Chart (circa 1907)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2020

Mayerle Eye Test Chart

From the collection of the US National Library of Medicine, an eye test chart designed by George Mayerle around 1907 to be a complete vision testing solution for speakers of several languages.

Running through the middle of the chart, the seven vertical panels test for acuity of vision with characters in the Roman alphabet (for English, German, and other European readers) and also in Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. A panel in the center replaces the alphabetic characters with symbols for children and adults who were illiterate or who could not read any of the other writing systems offered. Directly above the center panel is a version of the radiant dial that tests for astigmatism. On either side of that are lines that test the muscular strength of the eyes. Finally, across the bottom, boxes test for color vision, a feature intended especially (according to one advertisement) for those working on railroads and steamboats.

Mayerle was a German optometrist working in San Francisco when he made the chart, designing it for use in a city with a diverse population. My pals at 20x200 are offering limited-edition prints of Mayerle’s chart in a variety of sizes.

See also the history & typography of eye test charts, Optician Sans (a font based on eye chart typography), and Eye Charts for Drones.

We Interrupt This Brain Surgery to Bring You a Violin Solo…

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2020

This is the most metal shit ever: the doctors removing violinist Dagmar Turner’s brain tumor woke her up during the procedure to play the violin to make sure that she didn’t lose any parts of her brain vital to her playing.

After explaining concerns she had over losing the ability to play the violin, Prof Ashkan and the neurosurgical team at King’s devised a plan. Prior to Dagmar’s operation they spent two hours carefully mapping her brain to identify areas that were active when she played the violin and those responsible for controlling language and movement. They also discussed with Dagmar the idea of waking her mid-procedure so she could play. This would ensure the surgeons did not damage any crucial areas of the brain that controlled Dagmar’s delicate hand movements specifically when playing the instrument. With her agreement, a team of surgeons, anaesthetists and therapists went on to meticulously plan the procedure.

During the operation Prof Ashkan and the team performed a craniotomy (an opening in the skull) and Dagmar was brought round from the anaesthetic. She played violin while her tumour was removed, while closely monitored by the anaesthetists and a therapist.

Face ID Compatible Respirator Masks

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2020

Face ID Respirator Masks

This site is making N95 respirator masks that work with facial recognition software, so that, for example, you can unlock your phone while still wearing a mask.

After uploading your face, we use computational mapping to convert your facial features into an image printed onto the surface of N95 surgical masks without distortion.

Our printer uses inks made of natural dyes. It’s non-toxic and doesn’t affect breathability.

You can use your mask for everyday life as a barrier for airborne particle droplets.

Face ID Respirator Masks

Face ID Respirator Masks

It is unclear whether these will actually ship or not — “Q: Is this a joke? A: Yes. No. We’re not sure.” — but they’re definitely not planning to make them while there are mask shortages related to COVID-19. And it appears the masks will work with iPhones…you just add a new face (while wearing the mask) to your phone’s face database.

Map of Areas Most Often Missing During Handwashing

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2020

With news of more than 70,000 confirmed cases and 1700 deaths from the COVID-19 virus, the importance of handwashing is once again front and center. Using data from a 1978 study on the hygiene of health professionals, this is a map of the most missed areas when washing hands.

Hand Washing Map

This more recent paper contains a short review of various studies of missed areas, most of which conclude that people often forget to wash their fingertips:

In 2008, the WHO designed a handwashing leaflet, making reference to Taylor, who indicated that the fingertips, interdigital areas, thumbs, and wrists are the most commonly missed areas in handwashing. Pan et al. also found that the tips of the nails and the fingertips had the largest amount of residual florescent stains left after handwashing among healthcare workers in Taiwan. The commonly missed areas among medical students in the study conducted by Vanyolos et al. was the first metacarpal, the proximal part of the palm (lateral), the distal phalanges, and the nail beds. In healthcare workers in Škodová et al.’s study, the thumbs and fingertips were the most commonly missed areas. In this study, the most frequently missed area was also the fingertips. However, the medial aspect and back of the hand were the second and third most missed areas, respectively. Moreover, the interdigital area and the front and back of the fingers were the least missed areas, which is in contrast to Taylor’s study.

So wash those fingertips! Here’s the CDC-recommended guide to washing your hands properly.

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

See also this TED Talk on how to properly dry your hands with a paper towel. (via a map a day)

Ghost City Photos of a Usually Bustling Shanghai During Coronavirus Outbreak

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2020

One Person City

One Person City

One Person City

For her series One Person City, photographer nicoco has been taking photos of Shanghai that emphasize how deserted the city was due to the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed more than 1000 people in China. In an interview with Hyperallergic, the photographer said:

My objective for this series was to capture the feeling of apocalyptic emptiness. Some of the photos may look as if they were captured at strange early morning hours, but as a collection, it seeks to reinforce there were no people, anywhere.

These are Shanghai’s busiest locations that can compare to Times Square in New York City, Big Ben in London, the Bean in Chicago, or the Washington Monument in DC. They are very popular on an average day, and very, very popular during holidays as domestic tourists and residents spend time with their families and check out festive displays, shop, or just meander around.

You can find the photos on her Instagram.

Shake: A Typeface with Parkinson’s Disease

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2020

Shake typeface

Shake is a typeface made from the real handwriting of a person living with Parkinson’s disease. Creative director Morten Halvorsen:

My mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago. And her handwriting has changed in the years since. I created this font to preserve her handwriting, and enable her to continue to write with her own letters.

A new version of the font will be available each year to capture his mother’s worsening condition. Donate a few dollars (or more!) to download the font — all proceeds go to finding a cure. You can also download a template so that you can document the handwriting of a loved one living with Parkinson’s — for a fee (donated to Parkinson’s research), Halvorsen will turn it into a font for you. (thx, kevin)

Pandemic - How to Prevent an Outbreak

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2020

With the Wuhan coronavirus in the news, this is a timely release from Netflix: Pandemic is a 6-part series on the inevitable worldwide disease outbreak and what’s being done to stop it, or at least to mitigate its effects.

Departing Gesture

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2019

At the Sebrell Funeral Home in Ridgeland, MS (just outside of Jackson), they perform funerals and cremations for people with HIV/AIDS, some of whom have been abandoned by their families because of their disease or sexual orientation.

In almost one-third of the AIDS-related deaths serviced by Sebrell Funeral Home, the family or next-of-kin will either abandon the deceased entirely or refuse to accept the cremains.

HIV/AIDS is a growing problem in the American South, due to social stigma, poverty, and decreased access to healthcare. In this short documentary, we meet Trey Sebrell, who thinks of caring for all deceased people, no matter who they were in life, as part of his mission as a funeral director.

“My Day as an Abortion Care Provider”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2019

In a piece for the NY Times, obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Lisa Harris shares her experience of a typical day at her practice, where she and her staff provide abortions.

My youngest patient of the day is 14 and here with her parents. The oldest patient is 41, here with her husband. As on all days, my patients come from every walk of life. Most have children already; many have arranged their appointment so that they’ll be done in time to pick them up after school. They assure me, again, that they are certain about their decision.

By the end of the day, I’ve seen 17 people, and made sure each received the care and time she needed. After counseling, two others left without having an abortion. One decided to continue her pregnancy and become a parent. Another appeared to need more time to think about it, and I encouraged her to do that. I support all of my patients’ decisions and needs; doing so is core to my work.

This was a typical day, and on the way home some of it plays back in my mind. A mother of three crosses herself and then takes the mifepristone pill she requested. Another requests a copy of the ultrasound picture for her memory box. After the abortion procedure, one asks to see what had been in her uterus and is relieved that the fetus is less than an inch, so much smaller than she had imagined.

See also What Illegal Abortion Was Like in the 1960s and Harrowing Illegal Abortion Stories from Before Roe v. Wade.

Nobody Dies in Longyearbyen

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2019

From filmmaker David Freid, Nobody Dies in Longyearbyen is a short film about Longyearbyen, Norway, the one of the northernmost towns in the world. The town of about 2100 residents is situated on the Svalbard archipelago and is the home of the Global Seed Vault. Freid went to investigate the rumor that no one is allowed to die in Longyearbyen and discovered that if climate change results in the permafrost melting in places like this, diseases from long ago may be released back into the world.

But for more than 70 years, not a single person has been buried in Longyearbyen. That’s due to the region’s year-round sub-zero temperatures: Bodies don’t decompose, but are preserved, as if mummified, in the permafrost. Should anyone die there, the government of Svalbard requires that the body is flown or shipped to mainland Norway to be interred.

See also A Trip to the Northernmost Town on Earth.

How Flu Vaccines Are Made

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2019

Ten years ago, in the midst of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, I wrote about the manufacturing process for the H1N1 flu vaccine. It involves billions of chicken eggs.

The most striking feature of the H1N1 flu vaccine manufacturing process is the 1,200,000,000 chicken eggs required to make the 3 billion doses of vaccine that may be required worldwide. There are entire chicken farms in the US and around the world dedicated to producing eggs for the purpose of incubating influenza viruses for use in vaccines. No wonder it takes six months from start to finish.

The post holds up pretty well because, according to the CDC, this is still the way most flu vaccines in America are manufactured. Here’s a look at pharmaceutical company GSK’s egg-based process:

Two other techniques for making flu vaccines were approved for use in the US in 2012 and 2013 respectively, cell-based flu vaccines:

‘Cell-based’ refers to how the flu vaccine is made. Most inactivated influenza vaccines are produced by growing influenza viruses in eggs. The influenza viruses used in the cell-based vaccine are grown in cultured cells of mammalian origin instead of in hens’ eggs.

A cell-based flu vaccine was developed as an alternative to the egg-based manufacturing process. Cell culture technology is potentially more flexible than the traditional technology, which relies upon adequate supply of eggs. In addition, the cell-based flu vaccine that uses cell-based candidate vaccine viruses (CVVs) has the potential to offer better protection than traditional, egg-based flu vaccines as a result of being more similar to flu viruses in circulation.

And recombinant flu vaccines:

NIAID and its industry partners have made progress in moving from both the egg-based and cell-based flu vaccine production methods toward recombinant DNA manufacturing for flu vaccines. This method does not require an egg-grown vaccine virus and does not use chicken eggs at all in the production process. Instead, manufacturers isolate a certain protein from a naturally occurring (“wild type”) recommended flu vaccine virus. These proteins are then combined with portions of another virus that grows well in insect cells. The resulting “recombinant” vaccine virus is then mixed with insect cells and allowed to replicate. The flu surface protein called hemagglutinin is then harvested from these cells and purified.

Both of these new techniques make production quicker, thereby resulting in more effective vaccines because they are more likely to match the strains of whatever’s “going around”.

As a reminder, you should get a flu shot every year in the fall. The CDC recommends that “everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exception”, especially those “who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza”. Flu vaccines are covered by your health insurance without copay (thanks, Obama!) and are often available at drug stores without an appointment or a long wait. So go get one!

Fighting the Measles and Dangerous Ideas

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2019

For the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten writes about this year’s measles outbreak in the US, the largest such outbreak in decades. The outbreak is solely due to a growing number of people who decline to vaccinate their children, so the fight has become one not against a disease, as it was decades ago, but against dangerous ideas.

But, if we have to pick a Patient Zero, Andrew Wakefield will do. Wakefield is the British gastroenterologist who produced the notorious article, published in The Lancet in 1998, linking the M.M.R. vaccine to autism. The study, which featured just twelve subjects, was debunked, the article was pulled, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine — as well as his reputation, in scientific circles anyway. But, owing to his persistence in the years since, his discredited allegations have spread like mold. In the anti-vaxxer pantheon, he is martyr and saint. There are also the movement’s celebrities, such as Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stubborn in the face of ridicule, and the lesser-known but perhaps no less pernicious YouTube evangelists, such as Toni Bark, a purveyor of homeopathic products, and the Long Island pediatrician Lawrence Palevsky. If your general practitioner is Dr. Google, you can find a universe of phony expertise. The movement seems to sniff out susceptibility. Not surprisingly, there is money there, though the financial incentives behind this strand of advocacy are less clear than, say, what has led the Koch brothers to champion fossil fuels. This spring, the Washington Post reported that the New York hedge-fund manager Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have given more than three million dollars to anti-vaccination causes and helped finance “Vaxxed,” Wakefield’s 2016 documentary, which purports to reveal a C.D.C. conspiracy to cover up the connection between vaccines and autism. Needless to say, the anti-vaccination ethos is by no means exclusive to the New York tristate-area Orthodox community. It thrives in certain pockets — affluent boho-yoga moms, evangelical Christians, Area 51 insurgents. The vaccination rates are about the same in Monsey and in Malibu. Before New Square, the three most recent big outbreaks of measles occurred among Somali immigrants, in Minnesota; Amish farmers, in Ohio; and a hodgepodge of visitors to Disneyland.

“It’s shocking how strong the anti-vax movement is,” Zucker said. “What surprises me is the really educated people who are passionately against vaccinations. I see this as part of a larger war against science-based reality. We need to study vaccine hesitancy as a disease.” He gave a TEDX talk recently about the crippling disconnect between the speed at which information, good or bad, spreads now and the slow, grinding pace of public-health work. He managed, by way of the general theory of relativity, to establish the equivalence of H1N1, Chewbacca Mask Lady, and Pizzagate: “How do we immunize and protect ourselves from the damaging effects of virality?”

The internet is such an efficient way to spread ideas (regardless of their validity) that you begin to wonder if instant global individual-to-individual and individual-to-everyone communication is an insurmountable Great Filter for societies.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2019

The servers at The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders, a series of pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, are all living with dementia, which means that you might not receive what you ordered.

All of our servers are people living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right.

However, rest assured that even if your order is mistaken, everything on our menu is delicious and one of a kind. This, we guarantee.

“It’s OK if my order was wrong. It tastes so good anyway.” We hope this feeling of openness and understanding will spread across Japan and through the world.

At the first pop-up, 37% of the orders were mistaken. This video explains a bit more about the concept and shows the restaurant in action.

The Mosquito: Humanity’s Greatest Enemy

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

For the New Yorker, Brooke Jarvis reviews Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.

It turns out that, if you’re looking for them, the words “mosquitoes,” “fever,” “ague,” and “death” are repeated to the point of nausea throughout human history. (And before: Winegard suggests that, when the asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already in decline from mosquito-borne diseases.) Malaria laid waste to prehistoric Africa to such a degree that people evolved sickle-shaped red blood cells to survive it. The disease killed the ancient Greeks and Romans — as well as the peoples who tried to conquer them — by the hundreds of thousands, playing a major role in the outcomes of their wars. Hippocrates associated malaria’s late-summer surge with the Dog Star, calling the sickly time the “dog days of summer.” In 94 B.C., the Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote, “In the area south of the Yangtze the land is low and the climate humid; adult males die young.” In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion.

And then there’s this:

In total, Winegard estimates that mosquitoes have killed more people than any other single cause — fifty-two billion of us, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. He calls them “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds,” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”

Two other recent reviews of the book: In ‘The Mosquito,’ Humans Face A Predator More Deadly Than The Rest (NPR) and The mosquito isn’t just annoying — Timothy C. Winegard says we’re at war (LA Times).

What It Feels Like to Die from Heat Stroke

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2019

From Outside magazine, an article on what your body goes through and what it feels like to die from heat stroke. A perhaps unnecessary note: this gets intense and a little graphic.

There are two kinds of heatstroke: classic and exertional. Classic heatstroke hits the very young, the elderly, the overweight, and people suffering from chronic conditions like uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Alcohol and certain medications (diuretics, tricyclic antidepressants, antipsychotics, and some cold and allergy remedies) can increase susceptibility as well. Classic heatstroke can strike in the quiet of upper-floor apartments with no air-conditioning.

Exertional heatstroke, on the other hand, pounces on the young and fit. Exercise drastically accelerates temperature rise. Marathon runners, cyclists, and other athletes sometimes push into what used to be known as the fever of exercise and is now called exercise-induced hyperthermia, where internal temperatures typically hit 100 to 104 degrees. Usually, there’s no lasting damage. But as body temperature climbs higher, the physiological response becomes more dramatic and the complications more profound. The higher temperature can ultimately trigger a cascading disaster of events as the metabolism, like a runaway nuclear reactor, races so fast and so hot that the body can’t cool itself down. A person careens toward organ failure, brain damage, and death.

It’s a sequel of sorts to this piece about what it feels like to freeze to death, which I vividly remember reading many years ago.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.

The Possible Link Between Seasonal Allergies and Anxiety & Depression

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Olga Khazan on The Reason Anxious People Often Have Allergies:

“There is good circumstantial evidence that’s growing that a number of mental illnesses are associated with immune dysfunction,” says Sandro Galea, a physician and epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health.

If the link is in fact real, allergies could be causing anxiety and other mood disorders in a few different ways. For one, it’s stressful to be sick, and people with allergies frequently feel like they have a bad cold. The experience of straining to breathe, or of coughing and wheezing, could simply make people feel anxious.

Then there are biological explanations. Allergies trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can interfere with a feel-good brain chemical called serotonin. It’s not clear how the cortisol does this, Nanda says; it might inhibit the production of serotonin or make it fail to bind with its receptors properly. But when something goes wrong with serotonin, the theory goes, depression or anxiety might set in.

Huh. I definitely suffer from seasonal allergies (they have thankfully slacked off for the summer) and have struggled with anxiety since I was a kid (though I’ve never been clinically diagnosed). I’ll be following this research with interest.

Is Your Phone’s Electromagnetic Pollution Making You Ill?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2019

According this video by Kurzgesagt (and their extensive list of sources), the answer to that question for now is: no, our electronic devices are not causing long- or short-term health problems in the brains or bodies of people who use them.

Electrosmog is one of those things that is a bit vague and hard to grasp. When personal health is involved, feelings clash extra hard with scientific facts and there is a lot of misinformation and exaggeration out there. On the other hand, some people are really worried and distressed by the electricity that surrounds them. And just to wave this off is not kind or helpful.

While there is still a lot of researching being done on the dangers of constant weak electromagnetic radiation, it is important to stress that so far, we have no reason to believe that our devices harm us. Other than… well… spending too much time with them.

The Hayflick Limit

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 28, 2019

Cells Dividing.jpg

Biology is one field I don’t know supremely well, having had a couple of college courses and then mostly just public television documentaries. So it’s always cool to get a new concept or two to play with, like the Hayflick Limit.

What is it?

In normal, replicating cells, all the important genetic code in a cell’s nucleus is protected by telomeres—sections of non-coding DNA on the ends of chromosomes. (Elizabeth Blackburn, who won a Nobel for her work on telomeres, compares them to the caps on the end of shoelaces that keep them from fraying.) Every time cells divide, telomeres shorten ever so slightly; the white blood cells in newborn humans have telomeres that consist of about 8,000 base pairs, which falls to around 1,500 in the elderly.

The Hayflick limit is thought to occur when telomeres are gone and cell division would be risky, because without their protection, loss of genetic information would occur. When cells no longer replicate, they’re considered “senescent”: they carry on most of their normal cellular activity and eventually die. The Hayflick limit is one cause, but external stress, like an infection, physical trauma, or UV radiation can hasten cell death, according to Jan van Deursen, a cancer biologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Senescent cells are a culprit in aging, but they also have benefits. They give off proteins that can recruit immune cells, which can promote wound healing, and they’re one of our body’s defenses against cancer. One of the reasons cancer occurs is when cells switch on a gene that allows them to rebuild their telomeres—kind of like speeding through a stop sign. That’s why the only immortal human cells are cancer cells.

So the Hayflick Limit, if it could be waived, could theoretically prevent or delay aging. But as it is, it’s a built-in cap on how many replications a body’s cells and tissues can undergo, so it guarantees our mortality.

Here’s what Hayflick himself had to say about it:

To slow, or even arrest, the aging process in humans is fraught with serious problems in the relationships of humans to each other and to all of our institutions. By allowing asocial people, tyrants, dictators, mass murderers, and people who cause wars to have their longevity increased should be undesirable. Yet, that would be one outcome of being able to tamper with the aging process.

I guess at a minimum, as bad as everyone is, at least they (as an individual) are not around to be bad forever? I’ll take that silver lining.

On Managing Pain

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 07, 2019

About two weeks ago, I had my right shoulder replaced. This was the second time I’ve had surgery on that shoulder, after multiple knee surgeries and arm surgeries, and abscesses and god knows what else. This surgery took place in the middle of what’s now, to me, a very familiar, and very tedious dance with my doctors around pain, pain management, and painkillers.

The way it works is this. Everyone knows that surgery, and the injuries that lead to surgery, are painful. Everyone also knows that the best way to treat pain of this kind is through the regular administration of opiates. However, because these drugs are addictive, everyone has to act as if they don’t know anything of the kind.

So instead of just prescribing the drugs, and preventing the pain, the doctors and nurses will wait until the patient asks for the pain medication. Or they’ll prescribe pain pills, but not enough to get the patient through to the next meeting with the doctor. They put the onus on the patient to beg for relief of his/her pain. Ideally with a buffer in between, like a nurse or a pain management specialist, so that the decision never comes directly from the person you’re interacting with, but an intercessor. This is why some patients end up medicated up to the gills, and others are left to grind their teeth and just get through it.

It’s really stupid. I suspect it heightens rather than lessening patients’ feelings of dependence on these drugs, which can do so much to reduce their acute pain and chronic discomfort. Instead, they’re doled out in a semi-arbitrary fashion, generally carefully rationed but sometimes overprescribed, based on your willingness to perform pain for someone else and that person’s level of compassion or complicity with your suffering.

This is all to say: no, I’m not on pain medication. Yes, I’m terribly uncomfortable. No, I’m not uncomfortable enough to jump through hoops and beg for more drugs. (Maybe if I were, things would be different.) And at the times I was most uncomfortable, those were the times when medicine was the least available to me, by design.

We’ve got to get over our weird Puritanical crap about pain and pain medication, and accept the fact that in certain contexts, we need the drugs. And by “we,” I mean myself, the medical system; everybody. We can’t be responsible for the entire opioid epidemic every second of every day. Sometimes we just need to be able to go to sleep.

What Illegal Abortion Was Like in the 1960s

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2019

Diane Munday, an 86-year-old women’s rights activist, recalls what illegal abortion had been like in the UK in the 1960s.

“Women would drink bleach to try to induce miscarriage. They would have very hot baths, or move heavy furniture, or try to do it themselves with a needle or a crochet hook,” says Munday.

As a result, an underground network of backstreet abortionists ran quietly across the country. Some of them, says Munday, became involved by force. It was not unknown for women who had carried out abortions for their close friends and family to be blackmailed by desperate pregnant women who threatened to report them to the police if they didn’t help them, too. Like women who had abortions, those who carried out the procedure illegally could be sent to prison.

“These people were unskilled. Some might have had a bit of nursing experience or had worked in a hospital, or carried out procedures for a friend or daughter,” says Munday.

Munday became active in the campaign to legalize abortion in the UK after she had one herself following giving birth to three children in less than four years.

See also Harrowing Illegal Abortion Stories from Before Roe v. Wade.

On the Safety of Vaccines and the Low Risk of Side Effects

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2019

The development of vaccines against infectious diseases is among the greatest of human accomplishments and has saved ten of millions of people from dying. And yet some are still hung up on their side effects (and also the widely disproved and debunked fraudulent claim that vaccines cause autism). In this video, Kurzgesagt looks at how vaccines work and compares the impact of their side effects (minuscule) to the potential effect of the diseases they protect against (children dying).

The extensive list of sources they used for the video can be found here.

The title of this video is “The Side Effects of Vaccines - How High is the Risk?”, which seems like it’s maximized for clicks and to spread amongst anti-vaxxers on social media. I wish it had a more accurate title — something like “The Absurdly Low Risk of Vaccine Side Effects” or maybe “Vaccines. And Now My Kids Don’t Die.” — but perhaps positioning it this way is a good strategy to get folks who may not be quite so radicalized to watch it.

Our World Is Built for Men

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2019

In her new book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez argues that the data that scientists, economists, public policy makers, and healthcare providers rely on is skewed, unfairly and dangerously, towards men.

…because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our systems. And women pay tremendous costs for this bias, in time, money, and often with their lives.

The Guardian has a lengthy excerpt of the book, including a discussion of crash test dummies:

Crash-test dummies were first introduced in the 1950s, and for decades they were based around the 50th-percentile male. The most commonly used dummy is 1.77m tall and weighs 76kg (significantly taller and heavier than an average woman); the dummy also has male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. In the early 1980s, researchers based at Michigan University argued for the inclusion of a 50th-percentile female in regulatory tests, but this advice was ignored by manufacturers and regulators. It wasn’t until 2011 that the US started using a female crash-test dummy — although, as we’ll see, just how “female” these dummies are is questionable.

Designing cars around the typical male body type means women are more likely to be injured or killed:

Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in them. But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed — and for whom.

Another example Criado Perez cites involves women’s healthcare:

When Viagra — sildenafil citrate — was tested initially as heart medication, its well-known properties for men were discovered. “Hallelujah,” said Big Pharma, and research ceased. However, in subsequent tests the same drug was found to offer total relief for serious period pain over four hours. This didn’t impress the male review panel, who refused further funding, remarking that cramps were not a public health priority.

On the Health Benefits of Sleep

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2019

In this piece for The Guardian, Matthew Walker says that sleeping well is the best thing you can do for your health. Here are just a couple of examples:

Routinely sleeping less than six hours a night also compromises your immune system, significantly increasing your risk of cancer. So much so, that recently the World Health Organization classified any form of night-time shiftwork as a probable carcinogen.

Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions of two to three hours for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path towards cardiovascular disease, stroke and congestive heart failure.

A lack of sleep may also increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, decrease your athletic performance, make it more difficult to control your appetite, and have mental health consequences. Walker, who is the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, says we should change our cultural attitudes towards sleep.

I believe it is therefore time for us, as individuals and as nations, to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the terrible stigma of laziness. I fully understand that this prescription of which I write requires a shift in our cultural, professional, and global appreciation of sleep.

In my media diet roundup post for 2018, I said that getting adequate sleep has “transformed my life” and that sleep is “even lower-hanging self-help fruit than yoga or meditation”. I have not been sleeping well for the past several weeks and it’s taking a toll: I’ve been sluggish, eating poorly & erratically, feeling down, and not anywhere near my peak mental performance. This morning I woke up at 4am, couldn’t really get back to sleep, and I feel like I’m running at 60% capacity, 65% tops.

Roald Dahl: Not Vaccinating Your Kids Is “Almost a Crime”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2019

Roald Dahl’s oldest daughter Olivia died from the measles when she was seven years old. She died because there wasn’t a reliable measles vaccine then, and in this heartfelt letter he wrote years later, Dahl wants everyone to know that there is such a vaccine now.

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

I feel so tired when I think about parents not vaccinating their children against easily preventable fatal diseases. It’s child abuse and the kids know better! Here’s a tweet from Erin Faulk sharing some screenshots of teens asking how they can get vaccinated over their parents’ objections.

Teen Vaccine Legal

“Vaccines. And now my kids don’t die.”

The Incurable Disease vs the Relentless Couple

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2019

When Sonia Vallabh lost her mother to a rare disease called fatal familial insomnia, she soon found out that she had inherited the disease, that there was no cure, and that she’d be dead in “a decade or two”. Despite almost no scientific training, Vallabh and her husband both quit their jobs to work on a cure. Talk about going all-in.

Within a few weeks of the diagnosis, Sonia had quit her job to study science full time, continuing classes at MIT during the day and enrolling in a night class in biology at Harvard’s extension school. The pair lived off savings and Eric’s salary. Sonia had expected to take a temporary sabbatical from her real life, but soon textbooks and academic articles weren’t enough. “The practice of science and the classroom version of science are such different animals,” Sonia says. She wanted to try her hand in the lab. She found a position as a technician with a research group focusing on Huntington’s disease. Eric, not wanting to be left behind, quit his job too and offered his data-crunching expertise to a genetics lab. The deeper they dove into science, the more they began to fixate on finding a cure.

They’re now on the brink of getting their Harvard PhDs and are pushing ahead with a promising medical therapy.

As soon as the couple began their presentation, Lander says, there was a sense of “pushing on an open door” — quite a surprise, given the agency’s stodgy reputation. “People still flat-out don’t believe the FDA was cool with it,” Minikel says. Afterward, one of the 25 scientists in the audience pulled Lander aside and said, “That was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen.” Schreiber agreed. He alluded to a pharmaceutical company he’d helped set up early in his career. “Twenty-four years into that company, there was nothing to show for it. Not one thing,” he says. “For two graduate students who are not trained in science to come in and do what they did? Absolute forces of nature, savants. They keep seeing things that other people don’t see.”

Update: D.T. Max wrote a book on prions and prion-based diseases called The Family That Couldn’t Sleep. I looked in the kottke.org archives and found a 2010 post on a National Geographic article Max wrote about sleep that specifically referenced fatal familial insomnia:

The main symptom of FFI, as the disease is often called, is the inability to sleep. First the ability to nap disappears, then the ability to get a full night’s sleep, until the patient cannot sleep at all. The syndrome usually strikes when the sufferer is in his or her 50s, ordinarily lasts about a year, and, as the name indicates, always ends in death.

(via @mattbucher)

Sunshine Considered Harmful? Perhaps Not.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2019

For Outside magazine, Rowan Jacobsen talks to scientists whose research suggests that the current guidelines for protecting human skin from exposure to the sun are backwards. Despite the skin cancer risk, we should be getting more sun, not less.

When I spoke with Weller, I made the mistake of characterizing this notion as counterintuitive. “It’s entirely intuitive,” he responded. “Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. Until the industrial revolution, we lived outside. How did we get through the Neolithic Era without sunscreen? Actually, perfectly well. What’s counterintuitive is that dermatologists run around saying, ‘Don’t go outside, you might die.’”

When you spend much of your day treating patients with terrible melanomas, it’s natural to focus on preventing them, but you need to keep the big picture in mind. Orthopedic surgeons, after all, don’t advise their patients to avoid exercise in order to reduce the risk of knee injuries.

Meanwhile, that big picture just keeps getting more interesting. Vitamin D now looks like the tip of the solar iceberg. Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.

These seem like benefits everyone should be able to take advantage of. But not all people process sunlight the same way. And the current U.S. sun-exposure guidelines were written for the whitest people on earth.

Exposure and sunscreen recommendations for people with dark skin may be particularly misleading.

People of color rarely get melanoma. The rate is 26 per 100,000 in Caucasians, 5 per 100,000 in Hispanics, and 1 per 100,000 in African Americans. On the rare occasion when African Americans do get melanoma, it’s particularly lethal — but it’s mostly a kind that occurs on the palms, soles, or under the nails and is not caused by sun exposure.

At the same time, African Americans suffer high rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, internal cancers, and other diseases that seem to improve in the presence of sunlight, of which they may well not be getting enough. Because of their genetically higher levels of melanin, they require more sun exposure to produce compounds like vitamin D, and they are less able to store that vitamin for darker days. They have much to gain from the sun and little to fear.

AI Algorithm Can Detect Alzheimer’s Earlier Than Doctors

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2019

A machine learning algorithm programmed by Dr. Jae Ho Sohn can look at PET scans of human brains and spot indicators of Alzheimer’s disease with a high level of accuracy an average of 6 years before the patients would receive a final clinical diagnosis from a doctor.

To train the algorithm, Sohn fed it images from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a massive public dataset of PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment or no disorder. Eventually, the algorithm began to learn on its own which features are important for predicting the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and which are not.

Once the algorithm was trained on 1,921 scans, the scientists tested it on two novel datasets to evaluate its performance. The first were 188 images that came from the same ADNI database but had not been presented to the algorithm yet. The second was an entirely novel set of scans from 40 patients who had presented to the UCSF Memory and Aging Center with possible cognitive impairment.

The algorithm performed with flying colors. It correctly identified 92 percent of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98 percent in the second test set. What’s more, it made these correct predictions on average 75.8 months — a little more than six years — before the patient received their final diagnosis.

This is the stuff where AI is going to be totally useful…provided the programs aren’t cheating somehow.

The Healthiest Vegetables, Ranked

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2019

MEL Magazine’s Ian Lecklitner talked to clinical nutritionist David Friedman (author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction) about which vegetables Friedman thinks are the healthiest. Happy to see that asparagus is #1:

“This tasty green stalk comes in first place on my vegetable ranking,” Friedman says. “Asparagus is a great source of vitamin K, which helps with blood clotting and building strong bones.” Friedman also mentions that asparagus provides vitamin A (which prevents heart disease), vitamin C (which supports the immune system), vitamin E (which acts as an antioxidant) and vitamin B6 (which, like vitamin A, also prevents heart disease).

Asparagus is also loaded with minerals, including iron (which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells), copper (which improves energy production) and calcium (which improves bone health). “Asparagus increases your energy levels, protects your skin from sun damage and helps with weight loss,” Friedman continues. “It’s also an excellent source of inulin, a type of carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, supporting the growth of health-promoting bacteria in the colon.”

Personal faves brussels sprouts, beets, and broccoli also rank pretty high.

Optician Sans

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2018

Optician Sans

Eye charts at your optometrist’s office typically only have 10 letters on them: CDHKNORSVZ. Inspired by that lettering, creative agency ANTI Hamar and typographer Fábio Duarte Martins have expanded that abbreviated alphabet into a free font with a full alphabet called Optician Sans. Here’s a video look at how they did it:

(via khoi)

What Doctors Know About CPR

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2018

For this month’s issue of Topic, palliative care doctor Nathan Gray wrote & illustrated a comic about What Doctors Know About CPR. It does not match what you might have seen on TV.

CPR Comic

CPR holds an almost sacred space in medicine. Most doctors won’t refuse to perform it, even if they think it will be harmful or useless.

See also a hospital’s playlist of songs for doing perfect CPR chest compressions featuring Crazy in Love, Sweet Home Alabama, and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.