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Archive for the ‘trawling the interwebs’ Category

Unintuitive

There is a well written article on NYT regarding mammogram screening that I want everyone in the world to read.  The author describes the underlying motivation of that poor panel, much excoriated at this point: that statistically, financially, and for the women in question – physically, emotionally – it just doesn’t make sense to screen before age 50.

I’ve tried explaining this to a number of my friends, often to no avail – it’s a tough subject.  The author points out the fact that understanding very large and very small numbers, and even more so, very large and very small probabilities, is not intuitive for many people. Because it is intuitive to me, and also because I have spent the last several years learning to understand those ideas, I have a hard time explaining it to them.

Without even considering the negative effects of frequent and unnecessary exposure to radiation from mammograms (which is a very interesting part of this problem to me), it’s simply not worth it.  There are too many false positives, false negatives – reading the article for the discussion of these concepts alone is worth clicking over.  Can you imagine the emotional and physical toll of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, only to find out you don’t have it?

The problem is more easily explained with colon cancer screening, I’ve found.  Colonoscopies are uncomfortable, embarrassing, and risky.  Perforation of the colon occurs at a rate of about 1 in 1400 to 1 in 1000 – that is, for every 1400  (or less!) people who get a colonoscopy, a hole gets ripped in one of their colons (source below).  This requires surgery, with its inherent risks – you know how you sign a piece of paper that says you could die every time a scalpel or anesthesia is involved?  Yeah.

So the fact that colonoscopies are recommended for everyone over the age of 50?  A little scary.  I would wager that I know at least 500 people in that age group, professionally or personally.  That number will obviously go up as I get older.  And as you are to get one per year?  God, I’m getting scared just thinking about it.  But, 1 in 1000 is considered a low risk – that’s only 0.1%.  It all depends on how it is presented – I interpret the latter as less risky, intuitively, than the former.

Back to mammograms.  It’s tough to say whether I will follow the new screening advice (you know, if it hasn’t changed in 15 – 25 years when it becomes more relevant to me).  It’s hard to weigh the more nebulous risks of exposure to an invisible mutagen, and the possibility of unnecessary treatment against the more tangible (and publicized) demon – breast cancer.  It’s hard for me – for us – to consider “invisible” risks (things that will happen so far in the future that they seem disconnected from their stimuli) in a rational way.

What do you think?  Will you get mammograms before age 50 if you are asymptomatic?

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Panteris, et al. 2009.  Colonoscopy perforation rate, mechanisms and outcome: from diagnostic to therapeutic colonoscopy.  Endoscopy 41, 941 – 951.

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One of my twittery friends turned me onto Track Your Happiness, a research project that aims to gather data on what, exactly, governs happiness.  After signing up, the website emails or text messages you a link to a survey three times a day.  The survey wants to know how you feel Right Then!  What are you doing?  Have you eaten/exercised/slept?  And etc.

I have some criticisms of the project – it targets iPhone users, as we happen to be attached to our devices and able to answer the surveys right away, yielding more applicable results.  This also means that the population they are gathering data about is not a representative sample – we are generally affluent, for instance.  Thus, the conclusions drawn from the data really only apply to um… iPhone users.  I’ll stop before my scientist brain gets too into this, but you get the idea.

Despite my criticisms, I have found the project to be very useful for me personally.  In answering the surveys and looking at the little bits of results they give me about my individual habits and happiness, I have realized some things:

1.  I am, by far, consistently happiest when I am busy and working towards a goal.  The only thing that so far compares to that level of joy is seeing an old, dear friend.

2. I am much less happy on the days when I procrastinate.

3.  Watching TV does nothing for me. Possibly because it makes me feel neither busy nor goal-oriented.

4.  I often sleep too much (9+ hours a night).  I know, that’s sort of criminal.

Some of those things sound obvious, but it’s cool to see them on a graph with semi-quantitative data about me.  Since I have started participating in this, I have been more goal-oriented about my work, and also about working out.  I have also been making an effort to consistently get 8 hours of good sleep, no more and no less.  And to not watch TV unless it’s a program I really enjoy (like the Daily Show, but not the Colbert Report) or something that I do while interacting with other people (like making fun of legitimately enjoying ABC Family shows with Fiance).

I still haven’t learned how to stop procrastinating, but I guess being aware of the consequences on my psyche is a good first step…

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things that are neat (and are helping me procrastinate):

picclick –  A visual search engine for ebay.  This is a lot more appealing that the basic interface!  (via mightgirl.com)

bingtweets – combines twitter trends and bing searches so you get to look at the relevant tweets and short linked descriptions thereof simultaneously.  I really like the different trend categories of this site…. Nice to leave open and come back to every once in a while just to see what’s hot.  This is what is really cool about Web 2.0 to me – a visual landscape of what people are talking about (and also how the media/marketers can influence it and set agenda!) (also mightygirl.com)

google latitude – incorporates gps info from smart phones with social networking.  I can see where my friends are, and quickly call or text them from the map.  OR I can get all Edward Cullen on them and stalk them like never before.  Granted you can control who can see your location, but I can see this being a little bit creepy in some situations or relationships.  I can also see it being super useful – if I lose my iphone while I’m running errands, I can see approximately where it is (Answer: the post office) (via bingtweets).

suck it sarah palin – VF edited her resignation speech.  Pretty funny, though I don’t agree with all the editorial choices (via bingtweets).

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once upon a time there was an ocean, paul simon

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