Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Comment spam

I have a small dilemma, about leaving comments. It's great to receive comments, it was one of the most exciting things about this blog when the first person I didn't know left a comment. The trouble is that two of the blogs that I regularly read have been targetted by spammers, who essentially post a comment on each one of the blog posts. In my case that would be about 230 comments. If it happened, I could either leave them there, or delete each comment individually, which would take about half a minute each. Quite a job. The comments aren't offensive to an English reader, they're in Chinese. I don't know if they'd be offensive to Chinese readers, and I doubt that I have any Chinese readers anyway.

To prevent this I have a couple of choices: I can enable word verification, which I really don't want to do, given that it puts an unnecessary hurdle in front of anyone who can't see or read the word, even though there is an 'accessibility' button that reads out a number amid a load of background burble, and isn't too bad. I don't like leaving comments when I have to use word verification, but it's not out of the question. The one reader I know who would find this a nuisance hasn't yet left a comment, but that's not to say he won't, or that others wouldn't.

Another alternative is to restrict comments to 'registered users', which eliminates any anonymous postings. I don't think that would work, because the spam I've seen seems to come from a registered address.

My most likely option is to enable comment moderation, which means the comments you leave (those lovely few of you who leave comments) wouldn't appear until I'd approved them, which would mean a delay of up to a day, but probably much less. This is fine while I get less than 10 comments, but when I'm a Blog of Note and find myself receiving hundreds, it won't be so convenient. And pigs will grow wings and take to the skies.

If anyone's got a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Sub-group analysis

My presentation and summary all about the published paper on the link between coffee and Parkinson's disease is becoming more and more interesting.

The whole assignment started in January, when we were all sent away to choose a primary research paper from a limited choice of recent journals. We couldn't choose one that another student had already chosen, it couldn't be a review or summary of other research, and the choice had to be made to a deadline. I spent a while looking through the journals, but these things are tricky to skim, time was short, and inevitably a choice had to be made without fully exploring every angle of the chosen article. So I plumped for the results of a Finnish survey that suggested that high levels of coffee intake were associated with lower risk of Parkinson's disease.

The first task was to choose a magazine, any magazine, and write an article about the research paper that was pitched at the right level and designed to appeal to readers of that magazine. I chose the BBC Good Food Magazine, given that I've never read any other magazine regularly except if you count the supplements that come with the Sunday papers. [I mentioned this article in my last post - I saw the lecturer today to query my mark and all is well, as I suspected she hadn't seen the second page and is happy to re-mark.]

The next job was to create a presentation about the research paper, and write a handout to accompany it, this time pitched at a professional audience of dietitians. I've been working on that over the last week or two, and it has been extraordinarily interesting, but not because the paper is interesting, or the task is interesting. It's because, despite having read every word of this research paper multiple times, it wasn't until yesterday that I realised that none of the results was significant.

That's 'significant' in the statistical sense, which involves crunching the numbers in some arcane formula that spews out a 'p-value' - the probability that the results you obtained were distributed that way entirely by chance. If you toss a coin 100 times, you probably won't get 50 heads and 50 tails, but if you got 45 heads and 55 tails then the probability of this happening by chance is strong, and p will be large, approaching 1.0. If you got 7 heads and 93 tails, you'd suspect that something was wrong with the coin and your p value would be small. That's not to say that 93 tails out of 100 is impossible, just that the odds of it happening with a non-dodgy coin are small.

You can set the cut-off point at anything you like, but most of the scientific research I've come across uses a p-value of 0.05. Below this - there's something going on, something has been done to the coin to affect the way it falls. Above this - the coin may have been treated in some way, but not enough to say that the treatment has worked in a way that satisfies the scientific community.

Back to the coffee and Parkinson's disease paper. What the researchers did was go back to the results of a lifestyle survey administered in the 1970's in Finland, and look through the results for what people said about the number of cups of coffee drunk at that time, and cases of Parkinson's disease in the next 22 years. You can see several of the major flaws straight away: how big is a cup? what strength is your coffee? did coffee consumption stay the same over 22 years? what about other caffeinated drinks?

The subjects gave a lot of other information that might have an effect on coffee drinkers' risk of Parkinson's disease, so the researchers thought they'd look for other factors too. Age, sex, smoking habits, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol level and more were thrown into the calculations, but it was important to adjust the numbers first. People who drink lots of coffee may be more likely to be smokers; people who smoke might tend to drink a lot of coffee, so if coffee drinkers are found to have fewer cases of Parkinson's disease, might it actually be due to smoking?

This was going well; I'd written most of the handout and the presentation was coming along nicely. What happened yesterday was that I read Ben Goldacre's 25 April blog post about sub-group analysis. What he describes very eloquently is that in a completely random situation, it's possible to apply some criterion and find a significant result. "The coins are randomly distributed throughout your christmas pudding. If you x-ray it, and follow a very complex path with your knife, you will be able to create one piece with more coins in it than the others: but that means nothing. The coins are still randomly distributed in the cake."

This seemed to be directly applicable to this study. If you examine numbers about coffee drinking, Parkinson's disease and a whole load of other factors that are actually distributed completely randomly, you still might find something significant.

They found an association between coffee drinking and incidence of Parkinson's disease once they'd adjusted for everything, but it wasn't quite significant (p=0.18). Then they looked at all the different factors they'd used, and found two that were significant: people who said 22 years ago that they drank more than 4 indeterminate sized cups of indeterminate strength coffee per day and who subsequently were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease were a) more likely to be overweight (p=0.04), or b) more likely to have low cholesterol levels (p=0.03). Bingo! They'd sliced up the pudding every which way they could, and found a cluster of coins.

The Doctor Will Sue You Now image from bookSo my presentation and handout recommend that we take no notice whatever of this research paper. The strange nature of statistics means that they may be right, but until someone does a study starting from scratch using the proposition "the risk of Parkinson's disease in coffee drinkers is modified by body mass index/cholesterol," we won't know for sure. And even then, I'd have my doubts.

Hooray for Ben Goldacre! I strongly recommend his blog, and his book "Bad Science." He has posted a whole chapter on his blog that couldn't be included in the book because the subject was still suing him while it was being published. Go and read it. If I were not married, I would be tempted. Perhaps he would consider Lola II.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Coursework and badminton

I've been doing a lot of work, hence lack of blog time. Four lots of coursework are completed and handed in, and I'm working on the next four at the moment: a presentation about my 'coffee and Parkinson's disease' paper, a summary of the presentation in the form of a handout, a presentation of a case study of a man with 30% full thickness burns, and a report of that case study. Today we've been given yet another bit of coursework, a statistical analysis in the Computing module. So there isn't much time to blog, and not much time to do anything to blog about.

I do have a small problem with one of my assignments, the 'magazine article' about coffee and Parkinson's disease, returned today after marking. I got a mark that wasn't bad at all, I'd be quite happy with it really, but the marker made comments about two things she would have expected to see in the article. The thing is, they were both there, but on the second page - I don't think she noticed that there were two pages. I've actually made an appointment to see her on Monday, and will have to think carefully about how to manage that meeting.

I have had time to play badminton, and there's good news on that front. I've sorted out some coaching for the club, and 12 people have signed up, which is great. We started on Tuesday at the same venue as the club I used to play for, so I saw some of those lovely people for a few minutes. The other step forward is that my current club is very likely going to move to a new venue, which will not only be newer and nicer, but will also allow us more court time. At the moment we have one court for two hours and a second court for just one hour, so the number of people has to be limited. I'm one of the reserve players, so I only get to go when I'm invited. The new place has three courts for two hours, so I can play every week. It won't be that much more expensive, either.

Friday, 17 April 2009


Looking upwards at the sky through tree branches
Have a dream?
Make you scream?
Don't make a fuss
Just call us!

That was the answering message for the Dream Interpretation Service, which Lola II called following a particularly interesting dream some years ago. I gave her a full explanation of her dream, relating it to current events in her life, and from follow up calls she seemed very satisfied. She has called the helpline on multiple occasions, and the service cannot be faulted.

We have operated a number of helplines between us since then - I call the Exam Remembering Helpline when I've got some facts to remember, like which side of the carbon ring does the OH group go in alpha and beta glucose? The answer (provided by the ERH) is that 'al-far' glucose has the OH on the 'far' side. Not all the answers stick - I'm now trying to remember which of CD4 and CD8 was the T helper cell and which one was the T killer. Anyway, it's a good service and a fast response is guaranteed.

Less useful was the Toilet Helpline, which Lola II called on a particularly difficult day at work. The response had to be left as a voicemail message, and essentially went as follows "Thank you for calling the Toilet Helpline. If you have any toilet-related issues, please call someone else. Goodbye." Lola II has kept the message, so she may be able to provide the exact wording.

Just recently, well it's odd, but my phone must have been calling random helpline numbers from my pocket. Yesterday I received this text message:

Studying refraction?
Need a distraction?
Don't make a fuss
Just call us!
I think you called the physics helpline by mistake

I responded that I was studying omega-3 fatty acids, not physics. Within minutes, the following arrived:

Feeling flaccid?
Trying to learn about pesky omega 3 fatty acid?
Don't make a fuss
Just call us!

Now that's impressive service, don't you think? I said as much, and... what a surprise! I got another message:

Feeling impressed?
Want a weekend house guest?
And fancy a touch of Ebola?
Just call Lola!

I think she was having a difficult day in the office. Talking of difficult days in the office... well, the situation with Mr A hasn't improved yet. He's decided to go on the stress management course or whatever it is, starting next week. My difficult days in the office have been struggling with this essay on functional food (the omega 3 fatty acid business) but at last I've cracked it, and there's only the tables and references to finish now. I printed my timetable for the next month, and I have nine coursework deadlines, of which I have completed or nearly completed four. And then exams start, in just over a month! I'd better get back to it.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Easter weekend

It's been a fun-packed long weekend: four places in four days with Mr A and Lola II. A bit like a world tour: Northeast London, West London, Hampshire/Dorset and Warwickshire. A very short world tour that leaves out the part of the world that isn't the bottom half of England.

Close up of mum and Lola IIWe started at mum and dad's. The reconstruction of the bathroom was going well, lunch was lovely as usual, both computers in residence needed hardly any remedial work, the lamp I'd brought was safely delivered, and we also left a DVD of a relatively recent version of the Barchester Chronicles now that mum and dad have a DVD player. I hope they like it - Mr A and I loved it. Lola II and I each managed to delight a parent as well. Lola II found a small widget that was lost, which dad needs in order to make his projector screen work, and I gave mum a biro with only a tiny bit of ink left, so that she could finish it off. I'm pretty sure mum was more delighted with her pen than dad was with his widget, but of course it's not a competition. I did win, though.

Leaving the parents behind, we headed west for dinner at one of our two favourite Japanese restaurants in Ealing: Hare and Tortoise (the other is Okawari). Lola II likes it when other people go to Hare and Tortoise with her, because she's so often in there alone - it proves that she does have friends. The main difficulty when I'm there is that I want to order everything.

Next day was Saturday, and we voyaged south. We reached Winchester for lunch, and found our way back to the very fine pub where we lunched on Lola II's birthday weekend a year ago, the Wykeham Arms. It was just as good as we remembered it. A few miles further, and we paid a visit to Mr A's mum and dad, and his sister who happened to be there for Easter.

Mr A's mum has gradually been losing her memory over the past few years, and while it is very sad and sometimes distressing, it can make for some blackly amusing and highly repetitive conversations. At the present time, she is preoccupied with the habit of young people of living with each other rather than getting married, which her granddaughter (Mr A's niece) is currently doing with her boyfriend. Her own three children have had four failed and two successful marriages between them, so experience should indicate that marriage isn't necessarily the most sensible living arrangement. Because her short term memory is so impaired, we came at this subject a number of times, and from several different directions. I don't think I convinced her.

Last stop for Saturday was with Carole and Julian plus family and friends. Beer, wine, turkey dinner, trifle, jelly shaped like a wobbly Easter bunny with green jelly grass, chocolate eggs, hot cross buns, and a trip to Bournemouth beach on Sunday, where Lola II stood alone contemplating the waves like the French Lieutenant's Woman. It was, as ever, a very convivial visit, including after-dinner gymnastics instigated by the youngsters. The older among us remained relatively competitive, but were reminded of the passing of the years by a tendency to land very hard on the carpet. Why we were being challenged to form 'human loops', and why on earth we would respond to such a challenge is quite beyond my understanding. It's one of those things that just happens when you're having fun with good friends.

The walking party by the canalMonday brought our scheduled walk in the Warwickshire countryside. We had been promised about 6 miles, a full 139 feet ascent (and descent), a pub lunch and convivial company, and we got all that and more. Pete even managed to persuade the more easily led among the party (i.e. Mr A) to make an extra unscheduled stop at a second pub. We made sure we slagged off Rog because yet again he failed to turn up, visited Sal's hives, talked a bit about bees, did some walking, had lunch, walked some more, and then talked about bees again.

I trotted out my one bee-related fact about honey made of rhododendrons being poisonous, which Sal trumped with facts about colony size (50,000 bees in a hive at full capacity), bee poo (yellow, not in the nest unless something is very wrong), types of local forage (not a great deal), storage temperature for honey (below 10 degrees C), hive temperature (constant 34 degrees C), when to move a hive (winter when they're all inside, or they won't be able to find it again), more about bee poo ('cleansing' flights), bee glue (can't remember the fancy name for it), the going rate for letting a beekeeper put a hive in your field (one jar of honey a year), and there was probably more that I've forgotten. Then we talked about how to clean conservatory windows. We really know how to enjoy ourselves.

Now it's back to work, and not much time left either. I was hoping to have a few days of leisure at the end of the holiday, but it looks like I've used those up over the weekend. Oh, the life of a student is hard.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Another week passes

It's been a week when I've thought "It's time I wrote something on the blog" but then realised that nothing interesting has happened. I hesitate to inflict the mundane minutiae of everyday life on my public, but it's my blog so I can do what I like.

I play badminton and go to aerobics

I've been managing to do some serious exercise once or twice a week. I prefer badminton to aerobics, but I'd have to find another suitable club or group of people if I wanted to play badminton twice a week, and that would be tricky. I prefer aerobics to exercising in the gym, or swimming, or cycling, or going for a boring walk on my own. I used to enjoy aerobics a great deal in Manchester, but that was 15 years ago; now it just highlights how old I've become. I look like an idiot trying to follow the moves, and I still bump into people because of going the wrong way the whole time. It cleared my blocked nose, though - I'm not sure how exercise does this, but it's a blessed relief for an hour or two. And there's the benefit of the exercise itself.

I have a cold

Have I mentioned this? I've been ill since the weekend, but it's getting better now. On Wednesday the glands in my neck were sore and at least as big as coconuts but they're down to golf balls now. Stuffed up nose, occasional sneezing and coughing, and a serious amount of self-pity. I hate being ill.

We go next door to evaluate Smurf's 'music in the beer garden' idea.

When we were having a drink last week, Smurf mentioned that he was going to put some speakers out in the beer garden, but he wouldn't want us to be disturbed by the noise, so he was going to make sure the music wasn't intrusive and we could always ring or come round and there wouldn't be a problem, he'd turn it off. After reflecting on this proposal for a minute or two, Mr A and I decided that it was a Very Bad Idea, and gently conveyed this view to Smurf. Later in the week, we were duly invited to see and hear what was involved - a speaker thinly disguised as a rock, sitting on the decking in the garden. We continued to express our reservations about this Very Bad Idea, and it was duly abandoned. Phew. Smurf's business partner Mark privately expressed his gratitude to us later in the week for saving him several hundred quid by squashing the outside broadcasting project.

I do a ton of coursework

This week I concentrated on a 2000 word essay on 'functional foods' and omega 3 essential fatty acids. I must be about halfway through, and it's quite interesting. The evidence in favour of consuming these fatty acids is strong from what I've read so far, although vegans and vegetarians don't appear to suffer too badly considering that vegetable sources are supposed to be vastly inferior compared with eating fish. Another little problem is whether our fish stocks are sustainable if everyone actually eats as much seafood as is recommended. But I've still got work to do on this topic and I may hold different views when I've finished doing the research.

I do Mr A's accounts

Bad mistake to leave it for three months, but I had exams and then didn't get round to it. Doing one month takes about three hours, which I can manage in one go, but this time it's been two miserable days. And I'm not well. Did I mention that I have a cold?

Mr A has an appointment with someone

Off he went on Wednesday, and came back with a load of leaflets after having spoken to someone aged about fifteen. That was actually a big problem, but there's an option to go back but ask for someone a little older. There's also a possibility of six weekly sessions starting after Easter. I'm rather hoping he'll go for it.

We sit on the sofa and watch DVDs

This isn't news as such, but it's what we do in the evenings. We've been watching a compilation of BBC versions of Anthony Trollope classics (The Barchester Chronicles, The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right), The Onedin Line from 1971, The West Wing (just finished Series 4 for the second time round), and Band of Brothers, which is excellent even for someone like me who knows very little about World War II and isn't keen on watching people get killed. In terms of full length films, recently we've seen:
  • Jurassic Park 2 (The Lost World) which was pretty awful, but fun
  • The Darjeeling Limited: so annoying that we couldn't even finish it
  • True Romance: very bloody but at least we got to the end
  • Borat: which I wasn't sure I'd be able to finish but actually thought it was amazing (not exactly good, but definitely amazing)
  • Ice Age 2 (The Meltdown): we're not really the target audience, but it was OK
  • The Departed: similar to True Romance in terms of body count
  • Ratatouille: an odd film but strangely enjoyable
  • The Naked Truth, Too Many Crooks and Make Mine Mink (a Terry-Thomas box set): the best one was Make Mine Mink, but even that was a bit silly.

We prepare for a super Easter weekend

Going south on Friday, further south on Saturday, back home on Sunday and a jolly country walk on Monday. Four whole days off, what a treat. I hope it doesn't rain too much.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Spring at Lola Towers

My life fluctuates between alternate delightful and grim periods.

I did my last Visit Day as Student Ambassador for this academic year, and picked up some library books about burn injury while I was there. It was difficult to avoid the pictures, which are truly gruesome to look at, especially the colour ones. I had to open the books very carefully... Then I had a nice cup of tea and a chat with Dipti. I went to see Steve in Birmingham for a drink and a bite to eat after work - lovely to chat to him again and catch up with a bit of gossip.

White flowers and Victorian housesMr A and I took one of our walks around Leamington, just looking at the gorgeous buildings and spring trees around town, and it made us both feel uplifted for a short time. Magnolia trees are unbelievable - such large, beautiful flowers! The white blossom in the picture was scented too. We listened to some radio that made us laugh uncontrollably (Hamish and Dougal: You'll have had your tea...) and I made some great crab and gruyere tartlets.

To balance all the good vibes, there have been Mr A's work difficulties. He was due to go biking with some of the 'Big Trail Bike' crew around Wales this weekend, but in getting ready on Saturday he realised he wouldn't be able to cope, so he went off to spend an evening with some friends instead. I'm very glad - not only that he gets a change of scene, but that I get a break as well, and I'm not sure he'd have been entirely safe on a biking weekend with the state of his concentration at the moment.

Before you ask, there's nothing you can do. This has been going on for a long time, and I always think "it can't go on much longer" and then it does. There's always a glimmer of hope on the horizon: at the moment it's an appointment with some sort of health professional next week (I don't know the details). I hope it helps him before he has a proper breakdown. And no, really, there's nothing you can do, but thank you for asking anyway - there's very little I can do. I'm getting a lot of practice with my listening skills, so that's a positive side to the situation. No, really, I'm fine. Getting on with coursework while the house is quiet - although it's tragic to be inside on a glorious morning like this.

Friday, 3 April 2009

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel

narrated by Jeff Woodman
"After a colourful and loving upbringing in gorgeously-hued India, the Muslim-Christian-Hindu Pi Patel sets off with his family for a fresh start in Canada. His voyage is rudely interrupted when his boat sinks halfway across the Pacific, and he takes to a lifeboat with a spotted hyena, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg and a tiger called Richard Parker."
I absolutely loved this book. It's quite well-known - I'm pretty sure it has been in the best-seller lists for a while - and some reviews have advised readers to plough through the first half because 'it will get better.' I found the first part just as good, describing Pi Patel's upbringing in India, his dalliance with religion, his school and home life, and details about the animals in his father's zoo. Of course, the tale of life in the boat with the tiger was great too, and I was very pleased with the ending. This is rare, an audio book that I may listen to a second time.

Image of the book cover
Counselling Skills for Dietitians
by Judy Gable

"Dietitians need to use advanced communication skills as well as technical expertise in order to assess clients’ needs, identify their problems and help them to manage their diet and lifestyle. The ability to develop a helping relationship is fundamental to achieving a mutually satisfactory dietetic interview. Counselling skills, defined as advanced communication skills used intentionally in a helping relationship, are therefore essential for good dietetic practice at all levels of the profession."
I read a little bit of this at the start of the course, and was thoroughly daunted. Coming back to it now, it's much more relevant than I thought, although it's aimed at practising dietitians because it suggests you think about your clinic, patients you have seen, your colleagues and so on. While it's obviously important that we know all there is to know about nutrition, metabolism and various clinical conditions, I haven't changed my mind about communication and the ability to listen more than talk being the most important aspect of a dietitians skills. And for me, one of the most challenging.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Summer job?

I spent the morning on coursework again. Energetics calculations - how many MJ does this woman need for lactation, how much extra does she need to eat if she's using up fat reserves over 16 weeks... Lots of concentration on accurate calculation, attention to detail, that sort of thing.

Then I moved on to Communications Skills again - essentially a short essay on "wot I hav lurned from the corse" with reflective thinking about skills in the real world, and how best to listen and talk to people. I haven't finished it, and have no idea how to incorporate external references, but at least it's getting written more quickly than the previous one.

Complicated scribbled diagramsIn the afternoon I went to see a professor at Warwick University, to talk about an opportunity to gain lab-based work experience over the summer. He described at length the research he's been engaged with for nearly 30 years, relating to the behaviour of lipids in cells, particularly relating to diabetes. I listened so hard it almost hurt. I needed all the biochemistry we've been taught over the last 18 months and I've taken away the diagrams he drew to illustrate what he was talking about. He seems confident that there is a nice 8-week project that I'd not only be capable of doing, but should even produce interesting results. I am intrigued, flattered, thrilled and apprehensive in equal measure.

I was hoping for summer work doing something more directly relevant to dietetic practice, and there's still a chance of that. But if I do this instead, I will learn an enormous amount about one teeny tiny aspect of fat metabolism, and gain lots of experience in lab techniques, including separating protein by electrophoresis and handling radioactivity. That would be exciting.