December 16, 2005
Microsoft's new "We ShareYour Pain" project
Have you ever been running a program that unexpectedly quit? Do you feel frustrated and angry? Wish you could convey that to the programmer responsible for the buggy code?
Well, now you can! Thanks to the new Microsoft© "We ShareYour Pain" project: leverage customer feedback for software quality. To find out more, go to the IT's ShOwtime WSYP Project page and click on "See a preview". Note: the page seems to work best in IE (it's Microsoft© after all).
Yes, it's a joke. But made all the more funny because it's produced by Microsoft© employees! Thanks to Ben and his co-workers for passing it around. As they deftly noted, the gag takes a while to get rolling, but stick with it because it's quite funny. Great deadpan humor!
December 13, 2005
Download subway maps to your iPod
Just read about this in the premiere issue of green*light e-magazine: William Bright has created iSubwayMaps.com, a web site where you can download subway maps to your iPod. There are maps not just for US cities but for major cities around the world. Jeez, that's cool!
December 8, 2005
What a wonderful world...
This was the striking Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday from NASA. It's actually a composite picture of satellite images taken both at night and during the day, plus artificial exaggeration of the lights.
The following companion picture was featured a few years ago, titled "A Digital Sunset over Europe and Africa."
December 6, 2005
Smoother ride for NYC bike commuters
Here's a news item for all of my cycling friends: Bridge Is So Smooth Now, Why Not Have Breakfast While You Ride? - New York Times
(Note: Link has been fixed.)
HHS Pandemic Preparedness Tour
Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced a plan today for a 50-state summit tour on pandemic flu preparedness. He and his fellow federal agency representatives will be traveling to every state and commonwealth to meet with local officials, starting with our own Star of the North. Leavitt will be here next Wednesday, December 14, to jointly chair the preparedness meeting with Governor Tim Pawlenty.
In a news report about the plan, there were some mixed feelings from health officials. States vary widely in their public health resources, and many see this state-by-state approach as bringing focused attention from the federal government to many states that need more help. Other health officials are worried that we've gotten into a rut of one narrowly-focused preparedness plan after another: anthrax, small pox, SARS, and now pandemic flu. And some see the risk of "fatigue" amongst the professionals and the public in response to another health threat.
I'd like to hope that these meetings will forgo hierarchical barriers that exist in public health and allow frank exchange of ideas. This approach will allow Sec. Leavitt to personally take the pulse, so to speak, of each state so that the feds will have direct knowledge -- a direct connection -- to key personnel, key issues, and key strengths across the nation. I can imagine many ways in which this 'face time' may reap true benefits in the coming months, even if a human influenza pandemic doesn't materialize. Will these meetings be a thoughtful exploration or a more heavy-handed approach? I'll keep you posted.
Some random thoughts on the matter:
Â· I think the most likely danger related to H5N1 to reach our shores isn't a human epidemic but an animal one. Not to dismiss the former, but the later threat is the one I'm hoping will get the attention it deserves. After all, a readily transmissible "highly pathogenic" H5N1 in birds is what we have. And we all know how highly mobile birds are. What will be the economic cost of H5N1 in our chicken and turkey flocks? What about the ecological cost to wild birds? I read a poignant Op-Ed piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago titled Cull of the Wild that got me thinking about this.
Â· This is the first time I've seen the government create a web site dedicated to a single health threat -- PandemicFlu.gov. Just a little exploration on the site is enough to grasp the immensity of the coordination effort that is being attempted here. You can see the scope of the national and international activities.
Â· Also on the web site is information from today's "Convening of the States" planning meeting that spearheaded the 50-state summit announcement. I was intrigued by a link titled Pandemic Planning Assumptions. What I found brought joy to this epidemiologist's heart. An explicit list of assumptions! Wow, just what I've always wanted! (I should explain that part of my work focuses on bringing more transparency to public health science and decision making.) These particular assumptions define the parameters of pandemic flu for health preparedness planners, so they have tangible characteristics to mold their plans around. Impressive!
December 2, 2005
Outbreaks, Dissertation work, and Sprouts
An e-mail newsletter in my Inbox today contained links to two stories. The first story described a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest concluding that produce contributed to more illnesses than poultry, eggs, and other animal products. CSPI studied reports of food-related outbreaks and noted the implicated foods that were the source of the disease-causing organisms.
This report comes at a very influential time in the food safety arena and it raises exactly the questions I am tackling in my dissertation work. There's a great interest in these types of attribution studies that seek to learn where foodborne illness cases are coming from. What types of foods are contributing most to the burden of disease?
But what we really want to know isn't just "what" but also "how" and "where." How are these foods becoming contaminated? Where in the food production, transportation, and preparation steps is this contamination occurring?
In outbreak investigations, the point of contamination can sometimes be difficult to discern. Produce may have been contaminated in preparation, often cross-contaminated from other foods in the kitchen. But there are increasing numbers of multi-state outbreaks where cases crop up in multiple places at about the same time. In these instances, it seems most likely that the implicated food was contaminated on the farm or during processing or shipping. This is where our ability to conduct trace-back investigations is key to solving the mystery of exactly where and how, and, hopefully, preventing similar contamination in the future. CSPI is lobbying for better record-keeping and ID tagging of foods to help in these efforts.
Another difficulty is lack of data. This study looked at outbreaks that had both an identified pathogen -- the bacteria, virus, toxin, or parasite was recovered -- and an identified source -- there was conclusive evidence that pointed to a food. But what about the unknown and unidentified? What about the people who become ill and never see a doctor and don't get tested? We don't have great data on the food side, either -- especially produce where no routine testing is done.
My work is to identify the first two of Sec. Donald Rumsfeld's information trilogy -- the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns -- and give an account of where our knowledge lies in attributing Salmonella cases to foods at the point of production. [Secretary Rumsfeld got a lot of ribbing after that news briefing, but I've found his words very useful in my work and explaining my work to others!]
The other story in that e-mail relates more to a personal joke than the actual news item. The story is about a recent Salmonella outbreak in Ontario from mung bean sprouts. There have been several Salmonella outbreaks from various types of sprouts in the past decade or so. One of the difficulties in preventing these outbreaks is that Salmonella can contaminate the sprout seed itself, as well as during the growing phase.
The joke here is that I'd heard extensive accounts of these sprout-associated outbreaks from one of my major professors, Dr. Craig Hedberg. We'd worked closely on several food safety projects when I first arrived at the U of M. One time when we were on our way to a meeting off campus, we stopped for lunch at a little sandwich shop. I ordered the veggie special but told them to "hold the sprouts." Craig's eyebrow shot up, he gave a wry smile and said, "Don't do that on my account." I gave a snort and replied that if not on his account -- foodborne disease expert, veteran outbreak investigator -- than whose? And I'm not the only one. Our entire department, it seems, is sprout averse from Craig's stories. So, you see why I smiled when I saw that headline today. Craig is now over in Paris for a year, working with French officials on improving their foodborne disease surveillance. I have to wonder if he's sitting in a little French cafÃ© at this moment, regaling his company with similar stories.