Mis establos!!!

None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained). Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

I work on the EPSRC-funded @CHI_MED project; all views are my own. I used to work at Diabetes UK (until 22 June 2012) as a Science Information Officer (effectively a science-specialist librarian but not quite a clinical librarian). Before that it was ScienceLine and back in the mists of time it was lipid chemistry & neuroscience.

Contact: @JoBrodie or reconfigure this email address me.meeeee @ gmail.com (replace me and meeeee with obvious letters, eg... jo.brodie@ etc).

Oh OK then it's jo dot brodie at gmail dot com

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Big-screen films with some science or sci-fi in them, explained by scientists, with @popupscreens this weekend

This is a lovely idea - an opportunity to watch films in a slightly different way. There are some science or science fiction films and they'll be screened alongside discussions about the science within them, in Chelsea.

Pop Up Screens also do open air screenings, but these ones below are indoors.


On 13 May 2015 at 12:30, Pop Up Screens <hello@popupscreens.co.uk> wrote:
Science Flicktion adds a unique scientific insight into a series of films offered up by a super smart scientist and a fairly smart comedian.

Watch a movie.  Learn something.

it's going to be educational and awesome 

A quick reminder that is weekend we're going to answer all your questions about the science in some brilliant movies.  When I was a kid I wanted to know why a terminator made of metal could move like liquid.  When I was 13 I had nightmares about face huggers.  When I was 15 I wanted to know what the problem was Houston.  When I was 17 I wanted to know what any of the maths was and then embarrassingly when I was 20 I still wanted to know why zombies can't run... this weekend all those questions will be answered and then at least 16 more.  Want to know how this is all going to work?  First there'll be an introduction to the film from a super smart scientist and a smartish comedian, then the film will start and then at certain points in the movie we'll pause it and explain what you're about to see or what you've just seen.  You WILL leave knowing something new.

Alien

Friday 15th May / 6:30pm
T I C K E T S ... £ 1 8

Apollo 13

Saturday 16th May / 1pm
T I C K E T S ... £ 1 8

Terminator 2

Saturday 16th May / 6:30pm
T I C K E T S ... £ 1 8

Shaun of the Dead

Sunday 17th May / 1pm
T I C K E T S ... £ 1 8

Good Will Hunting

Sunday 17th May / 6:30pm
T I C K E T S ... £ 1 8
Facebook
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popupscreens.co.uk



Sunday, 10 May 2015

Twitter metrics tools and automated spam

This is a small grumpy rant. In the global scheme of things if this is all I / we have to worry me / us then we're not doing too badly. But honestly, I ask you - why are we OK with automated services spamming people with irrelevant tweets about interactions etc on Twitter? 

Recently I and a few other people were thanked collectively in a single tweet. While I recognised someone else in the list I'd no idea who the sender was or why it had come to me. After searching for any previous conversations we had I realised I'd replied to a tweet that had been RTed into my timeline, and I was now being thanked for doing so.

However the person hadn't sent this tweet, an automated system had.

Tweet management and analytic services like commun.it, SumAll and Tweet Jukebox do a bit of behind-scenes number crunching and then send auto-tweets from the accounts of people who've signed up saying things like "Thanks to @Harry, @Hermione and @Ron for the RTs this week (name of the Twitter tool + link)".

Perhaps my dislike of these tweets is a bit extreme but here are my objections.
1. There are thousands of these identical tweets being sent from different accounts, it's pretty spammy
2. It's poorly formatted. If it's meant to be sent to someone then their @name should be first, not in the middle. Presumably this means it's intending to thank people more publicly, which seems self-serving to me. Public thanking has its place (sparingly done) but pinging these out and telling all your followers about someone else's interaction with you seems odd
3. It isn't sent in reply-to anything in particular (no threading to cue you into a conversation) so puzzled people might have no idea why they're receiving a tweet
4. Four or five otherwise-unrelated people are included in the tweet for no obvious reason
5. It's automated and the person whose account sent it may be unaware that they've thanked a bunch of people - algorithmically-generated gratitude doesn't come across as very genuine

Blocking people who send these kinds of tweets is overkill and ineffective because the tweet hasn't really come from them, but from the Twitter-metric tool. I'd have thought using automated tools to send spam to a number of people would be against Twitter's terms of service but given the volume of these tweets in existence I suppose not.

I had an email exchange with commun.it after I received a couple of tweets from people, and I absolutely failed to make my point with them. They were very nice and offered me a free trial of the VIP service and my suggestions that I never wanted to receive another tweet from* them were met with puzzlement (*well not 'from' them, from someone else via them) though I've not actually received another commun.it tweet since.

"THANK YOU TWEETS: When a user mentions you, where we come from it is common to "thank" them. Using our Thank You Tweet tool, you automatically thank up to 50 people for their interaction every Friday. Your jukebox system will thank the top Twitter™ users that mentioned you during the week. This feature is automatic, you don't have to do anything. Yes, that's right, more free time. Woohoo!"

It is polite to thank people but it's a bit impractical to thank everyone that interacts with you on Twitter (and a little bit weird). Weirder still when it's done by a machine.

Tweet Jukebox did at least understand my bleating and may well instigate something that lets me tell its system that I never want to receive these, which is great.

Ideally these kinds of tweets would be easier to switch off for users - presumably you can still get your Twitter insights without having to tweet this information to your followers. I don't think anyone I know receives the paper.li spam because as soon as it started sending these out in 2010 there was wailing and gnashing of teeth and the instructions were shared to stop this (send a 'no mentions please' tweet to @newscrier just like all these people).

Tweets I'd be happy never to see in my timeline or mentions again
- anything from Storify telling me one of my tweets has been used in it
- any automated tweet thanking me for doing normal interactive things on Twitter
- tweets telling me how well you did on Twitter, even though I like you and am happy things are going well :)




Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Things about horses that have amused me

My mother once told me that a horse is the only animal you can legally hammer a nail into and ever since then I've been trying to find where that quote came from. Along the way I've come across all sorts of other strange horse-related items and I've decided to keep them together here because I like making unordered* lists. *Numbered for reference only :)

1. Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudications against companies making misleading claims in products sold for horses

ASA Adjudication on Harmonic Power Ltd: Harmonic Power Ltd t/a Fine Fettle
http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2010/12/Harmonic-Power-Ltd/TF_ADJ_49485.aspx
After worrying readers that modern horse food is packed full of toxins and the groundwater polluted the advertiser reassures with - "The surest and least expensive way of protecting your horse from this creeping environmental poisoning is to add Happy Tummy Charcoal to its daily feed." - the ASA said no.

ASA Adjudication on Calinnova Ltd: Calinnova Ltd t/a EquiFeast
http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2014/9/Calinnova-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_259007.aspx 
Selling horse-calming chelated calcium, unfortunately without any evidence.

ASA Adjudication on Horse Requisites Newmarket Ltd
http://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2012/11/Horse-Requisites-Newmarket-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_202177.aspx
More things to calm horses. "With regard to the design of the study, our expert was concerned that it did not detail the formulation of the active product or placebo and that bias had not been ruled out with regard to the selection of the horses included in the study and that it was entirely possible that the selected horses were of a non-nervous disposition (and therefore not the horses which were likely to be the subject of the ad)."

Ragwort alarmists rapped by Advertising Standards Authority
http://wildlifenews.co.uk/2011/07/ragwort-alarmists-rapped-by-advertising-standards-authority/
"Monsanto made false claims that land owners have a legal obligation to control ragwort and prevent it’s spread. There is no such legal obligation. If ragwort becomes a problem in an area and there is a major threat to livestock then a control order can be put in place to require land owners to control the spread but it is not mandatory requirement without the local control order. In fact the government’s own agency the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs make it clear that ragwort is an import native plant for wildlife and especially insects."

See also
ASA Adjudication on Redwings Horse Sanctuary
http://asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2013/9/Redwings-Horse-Sanctuary/SHP_ADJ_232455.aspx

2. Getting and using a horse passport
https://www.gov.uk/horse-passport
All horses (and zebras, ponies and things like that) need to have a horse passport. This document also states whether or not the animal can enter the human food chain at the end of its life which amazed me but Guy Herbert explained that horses are eaten in other countries and so this information needs to be recorded.

"You may also need a diagram of the animal (‘silhouette’)." - it's much less exciting than it sounds (no professional horse silhouettists working by candlelight) and is just marking a bit of paper with generic horse shapes drawn on it.

3. Government documents about horses and ponies etc
The Government is an amazing resource for horse-related matters (as it is for everything, as anything that can be measured will get measured by someone). Search for horses or ponies here if you don't believe me https://www.gov.uk/government/publications

The Code of practice for the identification of semi-feral ponies
http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2014-0299/Code_Of_Practice_Final_January_2014.pdf
This was deposited in the House of Lords library on 27 February 2014. There's information in Appendix 1 (p8) on what branding marks mean.

Military helicopter low flying safety: a guide for riders
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/military-helicopter-low-flying-safety-a-guide-for-riders
Two-page document on avoiding your horse being spooked by low flying helicopters. If it goes a bit wrong you can report any horse accidents here.

4. Walk, trot, canter, gallop and "tölt"
One gait-keeper gene allows horses to move in unusual ways - Not Exactly Rocket Science
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/08/29/one-gait-keeper-gene-allows-horses-to-move-in-unusual-ways/
Power-walking Icelandic horses which have an unusual gait thanks to a particular gene. I wonder if the history of photography might have been different had Muybridge and Stanford (of 'all four hooves off the ground at the same time' fame) had been Icelandic.

5. Sensible veterinary blog posts
I'm probably going to keep blanketing my horse - The Near Side
http://www.horsechannel.com/the-near-side-blog/2015/0107-im-probably-going-to-keep-blanketing-my-horse.aspx
"You’re reading this blog, which means you’re probably a regular reader of horse-related websites" - well this has just become truer with time. This post discusses whether or not horses need an extra blanket - "Blanketing is a surprisingly heated issue in the horse world. You would think this is something where the non-blanketers could just quietly laugh at the blanketers who spend a lot of money on horse clothes and then fret all winter about which weight is the right one to use. Alas, that’s not always what happens. People get really inflammatory about blankets, accusing blanketers of messing with nature."

The gas they pass (hopefully)
http://www.doctorramey.com/gas-pass/
A skeptic blog post about horse farts. They're hindgut fermenters which means that (a) they fart quite a bit and (b) probably don't need vitamin supplements.

5. Unevidenced alternative health sites (see also 1 above)
Horse treatments from Dove Health
http://www.donotlink.com/f094
It includes this much-loved picture. I'm sure there's an extra comma somewhere in the 'kit inclues' contents.
Horse iridology and herbal health for horses
http://www.donotlink.com/f097 
http://www.donotlink.com/f096
Rolling my eyes so the horses don't have to.

6. Horse miscellany
The first one is probably the thing that started this whole thing off - it's the Guide Horse Foundation who appear to be no more and whose website has turned into a Japanese site that I don't understand.

Guide Horse Foundation
http://web.archive.org/web/20050225090824/http://www.guidehorse.org/ - archived page
This was an organisation that apparently provided miniature horses to people as companion animals in the US. Don't miss 'Helping Hooves' the book explaining the history of the foundation. I have to say that a lot of the pictures of the small horses look... a bit like stuffed toys to me.

This young horse enjoying a space hopper


Potoooooooo the horse
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potoooooooo
"Pot-8-Os acquired the strange spelling of his nickname when a stable lad was asked to write it on a feed bin. The lad's version, Potoooooooo, was said to amuse his lordship so he kept it, and it appears in the General Stud Book."

Henry Ford's attributed quote about faster horses
http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/07/28/ford-faster-horse/

"If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse." - the evidence that he ever actually said it isn't particularly strong though.

Pegasus road crossing for horse riders
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegasus_crossing
The same as a regular pelican crossing but with an extra raised panel for those on horseback. There's one at Hyde Park Corner but they also have this alarming sculpture nearby in Marble Arch so not the best place for skittish horses. These crossings "are primarily used in the United Kingdom and Peru."

Why is the Blackwall tunnel so bendy?
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/05/why-blackwall-tunnel-so-bendy
It may be due to the difficulty in boring a hole through the type of rock in the area or it might have been a deliberate plan to prevent horses travelling through it from bolting when they see the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone argues about it in the comments.

Snoring horse rescued from swimming pool
http://home.bt.com/news/oddnews/snoring-horse-rescued-from-swimming-pool-11363939734598
Firefighters in the US got a big surprise when they had to rescue a horse from a back yard pool.

Only Fools and Horses: Trigger's best one-liners
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10576681/Triggers-best-one-liners.html
In celebration of Call Everyone Dave Day (a day remembering Roger Lloyd Pack who played Trigger in Only Fools and Horses and who persistently called Rodney 'Dave' - the actor died of pancreatic cancer and Call Everyone #DaveDay raises money for and awareness about the disease).

Sonic Wonderland: a scientific odyssey of sound, by Trevor Cox
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sonic-Wonderland-Scientific-Odyssey-Sound/dp/1847922104
I recommend this great little book on everyday sounds, and some really not that everyday ones. A quote that made me think (particularly about horses) was this one, on the artificially added sounds to silent-engine cars: "Would cars all make the sound of horses’ hooves instead of the newfangled and confusing drone of an internal combustion engine?"

The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery 
http://www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/info/200064/local_history_and_heritage/1139/the_kings_troop_royal_horse_artillery
The King's Troop moved from St John's Wood to Woolwich in 2012 and brought about 110 dark-haired horses with them. Several times a week the horses are exercised through Blackheath, pooing freely as they go. It is quite a sight to see them trundling past - usually in blocks of about 30 with 10 or so 'triplets' of horses, one rider riding the middle one and a horse reined on either side. Those riders must have some skill. On special days the horses and riders are in full dress and pulling some gun barrels behind them, that makes quite a good sound.

I remember being on a bus on the heath with a man on it ringing in to work to explain he was going to be late "I'm stuck behind some horses...yeah, horses".

Albedo100 Horse and Pets
http://www.albedo100.co.uk/product/horse_and_pets/hp_reflective_spray.html
A light-reflective sprayable paint for animals which makes them look quite ridiculous but very findable in the dark, with a torch.

Not amusing things about horses
OK these aren't very amusing at all but I'm not going to start a separate post about things about horses that haven't amused me.

Newbury horse racing deaths blamed on electrocution
http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/horse_racing/9395743.stm
I'm not sure if anyone worked out what was going on here. It was suggested that wet grass above an underground electricity cable (presumably the insulation failed) resulted in two horses dying from electric shock thanks to stray voltage. I don't know enough about it to know if this is plausible but there are other examples of this in the veterinary literature (that's not easy to say!).

London has had a spate of 'pavement explosions' some of which have also apparently been caused by problems with underground cables, leading to fires - I witnessed one of these on Saturday morning. Perhaps electricity is out to get us (and the horses).

Electrocution of horses by a "hot" ground
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1790310/?page=1

Death and disarray at America's racecourses: mangled horses, maimed jockeys
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/us/death-and-disarray-at-americas-racetracks.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& 
An awful read.




Monday, 4 May 2015

How can homeopathy be both a useless placebo and dangerous at the same time?

Summary
There are two ways in which apparently inert pills could be harmful - (1) by getting in the way of real medicine and (2) turning out not to be inert after all, and one way (3) in which inert pills are harmless to people who didn't need a real medicine in the first place. I hope this post below is clear in explaining this in more depth but let me know in the comments if bits need tightening up, thanks.



Recently an article with the same title as this blog post was published on an alternative health news website which expressed amazement that this could possibly be true.
"The two dominant criticisms made against homeopathic remedies are antithetical to each other. Critics complain that due to a lack of regulation homeopathic remedies are dangerous, but then they turn around and say that homeopathic remedies are simply useless sugar pills with no therapeutic effect whatsoever, and no better than a placebo.

Both cannot be true." From http://www.donotlink.com/ezid
Both can be true. In fact there are two separate ways in which homeopathy can be dangerous and yet still be a harmless placebo, here's how.

(1) Imagine you're in a field and there's a beautiful hand-made wooden gate between the field and the road. Suddenly a bull appears but you can't get this lovely gate open in time and things don't go too well with you bull-wise. The inert and harmless gate has impeded you in getting the help you need.

(2) Imagine you're in the same field, there's no bull this time but on opening the gate you discover that it's been badly made and you get a nasty splinter from using it.

(3) This time you're in the field, there's a nice-looking gate and no bull about but you use the gate with no problems and leave safely.

Hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.

In situation (1) you're in peril and need appropriate help. The inertness of homeopathy's sugar pills can't help you here unfortunately. When someone needs appropriate medical attention seeing a homeopath or faffing about with homeopathy pills instead might delay the correct treatment. While many homeopaths are perfectly sensible and work appropriately with medical doctors enough of them don't to cause problems to patients and confusion to the public. There are far too many homeopaths claiming they can help with some serious conditions (asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure) and plenty of them suggesting homeopathy as alternatives to vaccines. It's these homeopaths that have caused skeptics to pay particular attention to homeopathy as a whole.

An absence of treatment (ie empty homeopathy pills) where treatment is actually needed could be dangerous. However an absence of treatment, where none is needed, is not likely to be harmful and as homeopathy contains such highly diluted amounts of substance - if properly prepared - there's unlikely to be anything there that can cause any active harm - this is basically situation (3).

However - and this is important, some 'low potency' homeopathy pills are not diluted as much as people might think, and may still contain some of the active ingredient. It's possible for these, sold over the counter without prescription, to cause people harm and this is situation (2). This testimony to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, USA) from Adriane Fugh‐Berman is worth a read, see in particular the section on 'Safety is not a given'.

Situation (2) also arises where poorer manufacturing processes, or deliberate 'doping' with an active ingredient, results in pills being sold as homeopathy but which actually contain something that shouldn't be there. It is this class of pills which appears to have caused the FDA to sit up and take note. Pills that contain things that they shouldn't (especially if the ingredients aren't properly listed or the risks associated with them explained) could be dangerous and cause active harm to people taking them.




RSS to Twitter - turning website updates into automated tweets, with IFTTT

Some Twitter accounts are broadcast-only (they send tweets but there isn't a person behind the account typing out these tweets) and they're useful for getting news feeds from various websites and sources.

There are several ways of creating one of these "bots" (Twitter robots, automated accounts) - you don't need to know how to program and you don't need your own server.

Probably the easiest way to set up such a Twitter account is to use the free IFTTT service (which stands for 'IF This, Then That'). If a website has an RSS feed (look for an orange square icon with a radiating white pattern) then you can use that to set up a system that will ping out a tweet for you.

You will need
  • an input, in this case an RSS feed
  • an output - a spare Twitter account
To make your own Twitter feed based on an RSS feed you can use an IFTTT recipe that converts RSS feed items into tweets, it's called RSS to Twitter.

The steps are
  1. Create your spare Twitter account and log in
  2. Create an IFTTT account and log in there too
  3. While logged into both IFTTT and Twitter go to https://ifttt.com/twitter and activate Twitter as a channel (this will be your output) you probably won't need to activate RSS as a separate channel but just in case its https://ifttt.com/feed
Here's an example from one that I've made, the @moviesinconcert feed for the Movies in Concert website - my IFTTT 'recipe' is a modified version of the RSS to Twitter recipe, it's at https://ifttt.com/recipes/262124-film-music-concert-info-from-movies-in-concert-rss-to-twitter
Here’s what it looks like under the bonnet with the RSS feed as the ‘trigger’ causing the action of sending out a tweet. I’ve added the hashtag #filmmusic and asked the recipe to publish this along with the title of the update from Movies in Concert along with the address (Entry URL) and the first line of the page.

If you click into the lower box it looks like this and you can click on the blue ‘science flask’ icon to change the options, this will change what the tweets look like.