Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Morning Reading -- April 24

Yesterday was an incredible day for Twitter messages. My timeline crackled like popcorn all day long, almost faster than I could read. Some days are like that. When the day ended this site had received over 170 hits. Wow!

Today  is more subdued. Hence the title "Morning Reading" instead of "Twitter Messages."  I still get links from Twitter and Feedly but content is more important than sources, so I don't always think to do a Hat Tip.


Good Timing: Twitter Will Soon Release a Two-Step Security Solution
Yesterday afternoon's hiccup almost resulted in a rash of strokes and heart attacks in the investment crowd but the hoax was found quickly and an electronic Heimlich Maneuver prevented anybody from choking to death. I'm working hard not to be sarcastic with a reference to poetic justice. 

Some Twitter employee — probably several employees, actually — had a pretty rough day on Tuesday, after a hack led to the AP sending a fake tweet to its 2 million followers. If only the hacker had waited, Twitter could've stopped them! Minutes before appearing on the Rachel Maddow Show to talk about the hack Wired's Mat Honan reported, "Twitter has a working two-step security solution undergoing internal testing before incrementally rolling it out to users, something it hopes to begin doing shortly." It is not quite the edit button Honan had asked for in a piece published not long after the AP incident, but it's a big step forward for Twitter security. (Plus, as The Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield reports, an edit button would never work.) 
Twitter security breaches, we've all learned, can be problematic. The AP hack on Tuesday reported to the world that the White House had been bombed and President Obama injured. It only took a few seconds to discredit the report, but that time frame was long enough to send the Dow plummeting. And then of course, seemingly everybody with access to the Internet had to write a blog post about how dangerous Twitter's its shaky security is.

This is not a new problem. Nearly two years ago, we pointed out how Twitter was content to remain hands off in hacking incidents, even those at news organizations that stand tos end fear into the hearts of millions of followers. After hacked NBC News account with hundreds of thousands of followers reported a terrorist attack in downtown Manhattan, Twitter declined to comment on the situation and directed disgruntled users to an FAQ about keeping your account safe. However, it now seems apparent that Twitter's own tools aren't enough to keep accounts safe, so Twitter's finally doing something. 
Of course, it'll be a little while before the feature rolls out to regular users. In the meantime, you have to applaud both Honan and Twitter for the timing of the update. Even though it's journalism and the two-step verification has been in the works for a long time, it feels like good customer service to hear that Twitter's taking action so soon after the AP boondoggle.

A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%
An Uneven Recovery, 2009-2011  by Richard Fry and Paul Taylor

Relative to that first link is this report which was also mentioned on one of the national evening news programs last night. This is NOT news, by the way. Lots of us have been saying it since before the Occupy Wall Street folks pointed it out.  
Go to the link for yet another pile of evidence. 
I don't know how long the nitwits blocking sensible tax reform will remain in denial. Probably as long as their corporate contributors continue to fund their campaigns. 

The reason this story is relative to that first link, as I said,  is that it is unimportance to those with no share in the wealth buckets affected  (except their passive participation in retirement arrangements).  Ordinary people are no more able to affect policies affecting their lives than passengers on a airplane can tell the pilot when and how to navigate. 

During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly released Census Bureau data.
From 2009 to 2011, the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244, while the mean wealth of the 111 million households in the less affluent group fell to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896. 
These wide variances were driven by the fact that the stock and bond market rallied during the 2009 to 2011 period while the housing market remained flat. 
Affluent households typically have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings, while less affluent households typically have their wealth more heavily concentrated in the value of their home.


When a Full Mastectomy Isn’t a Terrible Event3 HOURS AGO - BY MICHELLE COTTLE
After years of fearing the worst, culminating in a diagnosis of breast cancer, Michelle Cottle says ‘good riddance, girls.’

This brave woman tells her story well. She makes me more appreciative of my wife and our girls and the fears they face as women. 
I am reminded also of my good luck having been born male. 
To get a better sense of what was going on in there, my surgeon sent me for an MRI and a follow-up biopsy on my right breast, just to make sure that some new twinklies on that side weren’t malignant. Unfortunately, those spots were in a tough to reach area, surrounded by other, older spots, thus transforming a typically brief if uncomfortable procedure into a three-hour search-and-extract mission. By the end, I had two radiologists, two nurses, and a rep from the medical supply company that had just installed a new mammography machine all chipping in to get the needle to the right place. To no avail. They came close, but, when I headed into the OR on March 20th—first day of spring!--we still weren’t sure what to expect. 
Through it all, medical professionals kept reassuring me that I was a prime candidate for a breast-conserving lumpectomy. And every time they delivered this bit of comfort, I thought: “That’s wonderful. Tell it to someone else.” Because, whatever the usual protocol, the one sliver of a silver lining that I could discern in this massive cloud of shit was the opportunity to finally put the girls out of my misery: Screw a lumpectomy. This situation called for the Full Monty.


And finally, two long reads, one just published and another from last October. 

Microbes: The Trillions of Creatures Governing Your Health

Scientists are just now beginning to recognize the importance of the vast community of microbes that dwells inside us

Germs Are Us
Bacteria make us sick. Do they also keep us alive?

These two articles are long but complementary. The subject is microbiomes, a word I had never heard of prior to last October. The implications of these discoveries are just beginning to be explored. 

I expect this will be the science that eventually bridges the gulf separating the drug industry from a large and growing segment of the population that eschews medicines of all kinds, sometimes for good reasons, but often with the same blind ignorance that animates the anti-vaccine crowd.  

Couple of excerpts here that caught my eye.
... It was necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, little known outside neonatal intensive care units, but dreaded there as a sudden, fast-moving bacterial inflammation of the gut. On the operating table, a surgeon opened the baby boy’s abdomen and immediately closed it again. The intestinal tract from stomach to rectum was already dead. Warner, in tears, returned the child to die in the arms of his shattered parents. 
“It’s 15 years later, and there’s nothing new,” Warner says bleakly as she moves among her tiny patients, each one covered in tubes and bathed in soft violet light, in a clear plastic incubator. NEC is still one of the leading killers of preterm babies. But that may soon change, thanks to a startling new way of looking at who we are and how we live. 
Over the past few years, advances in genetic technology have opened a window into the amazingly populous and powerful world of microbial life in and around the human body—the normal community of bacteria, fungi and viruses that makes up what scientists call the microbiome. It’s Big Science, involving vast international research partnerships, leading edge DNA sequencing technology and data sets on a scale to make supercomputers cringe. It also promises the biggest turnaround in medical thinking in 150 years, replacing the single-minded focus on microbes as the enemy with a broader view that they are also our essential allies. 
The subject matter is both humble and intimate. In Warner’s neonatal care unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, researchers studying NEC have analyzed every diaper of almost every very low-weight baby delivered there over the past three years. They don’t expect to find a single pathogen, some killer virus or bacteria, the way medical discovery typically happened in the past. Instead, says Phillip Tarr, a Washington University pediatric gastroenterologist who collaborates with Warner, they want to understand the back-and-forth among hundreds of microbial types in the newborn’s gut—to recognize when things go out of balance. Their goal is to identify the precise changes that put a baby on track to developing NEC and, for the first time, give neonatal care units crucial advance warning.
That is a heartbreaking illustration of what we are up against. 
We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms—a hundred trillion or more. They are bacteria, mostly, but also viruses and fungi (including a variety of yeasts), and they come at us from all directions: other people, food, furniture, clothing, cars, buildings, trees, pets, even the air we breathe. They congregate in our digestive systems and our mouths, fill the space between our teeth, cover our skin, and line our throats. We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome—and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists like Blaser have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.

Computers have made it possible for researchers to purify the DNA contained in thousands of samples and to separate bacterial from human genes. (Scientists know how to identify human DNA; when they discard it, genes from the microbiome remain.) The initial results, published this summer, opened a surprising window on the human body, detailing the vast range of microbes that colonize nearly every surface we have. Most reside within the gut, but many also occupy our mouths, and one particular bacterium, Streptococcus mutans, has been recognized as the principal cause of tooth decay. When you eat sugar, S. mutans releases acid that corrodes the teeth. Many researchers who study the microbiome now look upon cavities as an infectious disease, and they are testing a mouthwash that kills S. mutans; if it works, dental cavities could vanish. Microbial communities vary widely within and among people, yet they are also specific; the microbes found in your mouth, for instance, are far more likely to resemble the bacteria in another person’s mouth than the bacteria found in any other part of your body. But our microbial world is enormous, and it changes constantly: a recent study of a hundred and twenty-four people in Denmark and Spain found at least a thousand different species of gut microbes, although each person carried, on average, only a hundred and sixty species. 
All animals have biomes. There is a cat microbiome, a dog microbiome, an alligator microbiome, and a dolphin microbiome. Earlier this summer, scientists in North Carolina State University’s Department of Poultry Science received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the chicken microbiome. Plants, too, need microbial communities to survive. Rhizobium, a bacterium that lives in nodules on the roots of legumes, helps its hosts carry out a series of chemical steps required to supply much of the earth’s nitrogen. “Like fifteenth-century explorers describing the outline of a new continent, Human Microbiome Project researchers employed a new technological strategy to define, for the first time, the normal microbial makeup of the human body,” Francis Collins, the director of the N.I.H., said when the project’s initial results were released, this summer. He called it a remarkable reference database that would lay “the foundation for accelerating infectious-disease research previously impossible without this community resource.” 
The Human Microbiome Project has helped scientists identify many species and learn which parts of our bodies they colonize. But to understand what goes wrong when we are sick the researchers will need to determine how these organisms interact with one another and with us. Hardly a week goes by without a new symposium, a call for a special issue of a scientific publication, or the announcement of a grant intended to decipher the role of bacteria in any number of diseases. “We are in that beautiful, euphoric, heady early period,’’ David A. Relman, a professor of medicine, microbiology, and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said. Relman was the first to sequence the genomes of a human bacterial community—which happened to come from his own mouth. “We see this in any kind of newly emerging science. I keep trying to inject a bit of moderation, while not wanting to dampen the enthusiasm of a truly exciting time. So far, though, there are relatively few circumstances where you can meet a patient who is benefitting from this.” Relman argues that our biome is a complex and dynamic network, but one that, despite its importance, remains poorly understood. “We have to stop looking at medicine as a war between invading pathogens and our bodies,’’ he told me when we met at his office, at the V. A. hospital in Palo Alto, where he is chief of infectious diseases. “This sort of stewardship has more in common with park management than it does with our current practice of trying, in the broadest way possible, to kill microbes.”

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