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Niche Blog Friday: Better Book Titles December 3, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Just for Fun, Niche Blogs, reading.
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Have you ever tried to figure out what a book was about from its title? Have you ever read a book based on its title only to find out you were sorely misled? Well, this site: Better Book Titles, tries to remedy such situations by renaming books with literal (pun intended) titles. Check it out for a good laugh!

Possible Best Literary Award Ever? December 2, 2010

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Today I found out that the UK annually awards a “Bad Sex in Fiction Award”. Don’t you just love those randy Brits? According to Bloomberg.com, the award started in 1993 and was designed to, “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” This year’s winner was Rowan Somerville for a passage in his novel, The Shape of Her. Runners up were Jonathan Franzen and Alastair Campbell. Check out the whole story here.

Move over Neil Gaiman…Here Comes China Miéville November 29, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews, Of Interest, reading.
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If you’re like Dataduchess and me, you often wonder what all the hullabaloo surrounding Neil Gaiman is about. I liked Coraline (graphic novel version) and The Graveyard Book (both more than Dataduchess), but still didn’t see what the BIG DEAL was about. Similarly, American Gods left me with the feeling that Gaiman was reaching for something that he never quite grasped. While I do think his literature is something to be read and lauded as truly unique, I don’t think he deserves the numerous awards that have been bestowed upon him.

But this post isn’t about Neil Gaiman. It’s about an author who reminds me of him, but who excels exactly where Gaiman starts to flounder, an author similarly bestowed (but more deservingly) with numerous literary awards, an author dabbling in both Young Adult and Adult fantasy – China Miéville. While Miéville distinguishes himself from many of his colleagues by considering his writing “weird fiction”, Wikipedia’s definition of the genre sounds like an exact description of Gaiman’s writing as well: “weird tales often blend the supernatural, mythical, and even scientific.” So what impressed me so much with Miéville besides the fact that he looks like a pirate while actually being a Dungeons and Dragons-playing British socialist? Two books: The City & the City and Un Lun Dun.

At first, I was wary about The City & the City. When my library emailed me that it had arrived I had forgotten why I had requested this detective novel. Usually, in the heat of the moment, I request a book after seeing some blogging buzz or write-up in American Libraries, or its high-placement on some inconsequential “Top Ten” list that I believe reflects my highly nuanced taste. But I digress. The detective story on which the entire plot revolves plays second fiddle to the setting – two cities (Besźel and Ul Qoma) that co-exist “grosstopically” and the way that the citizens of the two cities run their lives so as not to wrongly enter into the other city. And by co-exist, I mean just that – the two cities are so interspersed that often houses next-door to each other are in the other city. Both cities’ denizens distinguish each other as fellow citizens by demeanor and dress. They learn to survive by “unseeing” the people and places in the other city. Should citizens of Besźel want to visit Ul Qoma (or vice-versa), they may, but only by crossing the international border in Cupola Hall (which exists in both cities) and with proper paperwork. Should a citizen accidentally or purposefully interact or even look at part of the other city Breach, a highly secretive force outside of both cities, quickly sweeps in and remedies the situation, usually by obliterating the existence of the offender. The forces that keep citizens from “breaching” into the other city, part actual threat from the menacing Breach and part psychological, are so strong that, a police officer from one city is not allowed to apprehend a criminal from the other city even if he is standing right beside him. Instead, he must “unsee” him. It is problems like these, amid many others, that make this murder-mystery far more than a detective novel.

Salon.com writer Laura Miller describes Un Lun Dun as “a sooty, street-smart hybrid of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,'” which is exactly the reason I requested this book, The Phantom Tollbooth, being one of my top-tens for as long as I can remember. The book starts with two best friends who find their way into another world – UnLondon, and saddled with the task of defeating the indomitable Smog. At first I was bothered with UnLondon’s lack of consistent rules. While I’ve always like Fantasy books, every realm has its set of rules that creatures must follow. Not so in UnLondon. The world of the “abcity” (a term for all of the “other cities” such as No York, Parisn’t,  Lost Angeles, etc.) seems to use the limits of imagination as its only guideline. And this, once accepted by the reader, works. It is particularly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth in this respect, and thus the reason that it’s a children’s/young adult book, and not an adult one. Deeba, the underdog-cum-hero, is accompanied on her mission to defeat the Smog by a half-ghost boy named Hemi, a tailor whose head is a pincushion and whose clothes are made of books named Obaday Fing, “utterlings”, creatures in various animal-like form made from speaking new words named Diss and Bling, and various other characters at other times. While Miéville often seems to throw obstacles at Deeba willy-nilly for the sake of creating the “quest” that the fantasy genre is known for, he is at the same time, having fun with the reader. Deeba is not your usual heroine. In fact, she is known as the unChosen, because she is only mentioned in a book of prophecy as the Chosen One’s “funny sidekick”. She is also given a number of tasks to complete before she can defeat the Smog. But after completing one, Deeba realizes that the quests themselves are pointless and that she can just jump to the last task. It is in these small ironies that the true genius of the book resides.

While I would like to do a more in-depth comparison of Gaiman and Miéville, it’s been a while since I read American Gods and Coraline and I’m loath to revisit them for the sake of a blog post. All I can say is this: Miéville has me requesting his entire oeuvre from the public library, while Gaiman, on the other hand, has not inspired such.

The Age of Misinformation, Part 3: Debunking Hallowed Ground – Medical Research October 30, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in education, InformationIssues, Of Interest.
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Today I experienced one of those small miracles where it seems like the entire universe has converged to say “Yes, I agree with you!” when I was e-mailed an article that expresses everything I have been examining and thinking for the last 8 months–“can any medical-research studies be trusted?” In recent months I have become increasingly involved in researching various medical discussions. While initially disgusted by the number of the people quoting statistics and “they say” aphorisms on the internet without citing any kind of research, my turn to peer-reviewed medical journals, government agencies, and well-established professional societies seemed promising. Boy was I wrong.

The first problem I encountered was a marked dearth of research on certain topics even when preliminary research and letters to the editor stressed the need for follow-up studies. Why had no one taken on the topics so easily presented to them?

My second problem was faulty or insufficient research. How were “peer-reviewed” journals approving studies that used narrow demographics or extremely limited participants as their population of study? And what about the literature reviews and topic analyses that incorporated data over ten years old (or older)? How about the number of studies that measure long-term effects of a drug/procedure when the “long-term” lasts six months?

The final straw was the directly contradictory data between comparable research studies. What could account for one study claiming that vaccinating pregnant women in the third trimester prevents influenza in newborns 63% of the time, while another study claims that the protection is negligible (both supplying method and hard numbers)? While the bias of certain professional organizations (often funded by pharmaceutical companies) was obvious in some, even bias cannot sway hard numbers, or so I believed.

So when “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” by David H. Freeman in the November issue of the Atlantic showed up in my inbox, I was more than thrilled to know I was not alone. The article follows self-proclaimed “meta-researcher” John Ioannidis who, along with his team, has proven, “that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong.”

We have become so accustomed to the way doctors, nutritionists, and scientists later retract studies, or the refutation of older studies by newer ones, that we rarely question why this has happened. Most people, I would surmise, make the assumption that science and research have improved over time and thus provided us with new evidence and information. But, according to Ioannidis, this is not the case. Faulty research, again and again, is. The common errors he lists range from “what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals.”

Does this mean scientists and researchers are lazy? Ignorant? Inherently evil? Why would such important and literally life-altering work be composed so shoddily? Bias. (Hmm…sound familiar?) Turns out that even unintentionally, bias has a way of making itself into every step of the research process, influencing outcomes greatly and it doesn’t matter if this bias is self-inflicted or the product of an outside pressure such as those funding the research. (I cannot help but to point out the irony here, in that we must question whether bias played a role in Ioannidis’ research on research.) And while bias is the source of the faulty research, a number of factors perpetuate the misinformation, including sensationalism, lack of thorough research (i.e. ignoring/missing later refuting studies), and lack of duplication of the experiment.

So what is the point of research refuting research? I’ll stop summarizing the article and give you a chance to decide for yourself. But let me leave you with this last thought: Ioannidis’ research, like medical research, provokes us to examine things we held to be true. And just like medical research, it seems to come up short, leaving us with the question, “well what can we do about it?” Perhaps further research is needed. ; )

The Age of Misinformation: Part 2 October 20, 2010

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There was recently an interesting conversation on (my new obsession) the Brian Lehrer Show (broadcast on WNYC and via XM’s NPR channel 134) on the prevalent and growing bias in news coverage. The host and his guest were discussing CNN‘s decline in ratings over recent years due to, they surmised, the outlet’s attempt to remain neutral. On the other hand, stations like NBC, CBS, and Fox News Channel are gaining popularity as the former two are known for leaning liberal and the latter, notoriously conservative. It seems, historically as well as recently, that people tend to seek out information that agrees with their own belief systems, better known as confirmation bias. I know I am as guilty of this as the next person.

So is there a danger in watching solely Fox or only NBC? Does such a practice really perpetuate our enemy–misinformation? An exhaustive study on confirmation bias done by Raymond S. Nickerson of Tufts University would overwhelmingly say yes. Nickerson’s research (presented in a 46 page paper) claims that confirmation bias, “can contribute to delusions of many sorts, to the development and survival of superstitions,and to a variety of undesirable states of mind, including paranoia and depression. It can be exploited…to press unsubstantiated claims.”  Nickerson later discusses another problem compounded by confirmation bias–inadequate research. Nickerson argues that confirmation bias leads people to accept the first plausible solution to a problem rather than to engage in thorough research. This, in turn, leads to a phenomenon that he will neither categorize as positive or negative–the perseverance of long-held beliefs.

You know you are guilty of it whether you’re a Democrat wincing at the site of Fox News Channel or a Republican who will only watch Fox News. You were probably also aware (on some level) that this is not the most intellectually engaging way of consuming information. So what are you going to do about it? Let me know in what ways we can all attempt to heal the growing divisiveness of American political television and thus thwart the pandemic of Misinformation!

The Age of Misinformation October 18, 2010

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Alas, here I am after months of avoiding blogging. The problem is that my head has been way too caught up with personal matters. But more recently I find myself time and time again consumed with anger during routine Google searches and so it is that I turn to the more savvy netizens (our fickle and fleeting reader base?) to uphold and support my cause–the death of Yahoo! Answers.

As a librarian and self-declared “information specialist” I have no problem admitting that I frequently turn to Wikipedia. While it is certainly no Encyclopedia Britannica, there are references that one can check. So when Wikipedia is returned by Google as the first or second hit, I can deal with it.

However, when Yahoo! Answers is returned in the first page of results (as it increasingly is) I wince inside, and then click on it. I can’t help it. It’s like driving past an accident; you can’t help but look. Not only have I found numerous highly-biased erroneous answers voted “best” by fellow commenters, but the subject matter of the questions concerns me even more. As a pregnant woman who often uses the internet to find quick answers (knowing, of course, that calling the doctor is the best and final way to go), I am shocked by how many people ask crucial, health-related questions.

What are the requirements for people submitting answers? There are none. And to add insult to injury, Yahoo! supplements answers with responses from their “Knowledge Partners”, aka corporate sponsors. As much as we librarians and savvier internet users try to stress the inaccuracy and dubiousness of such sites to our more trusting friends, we are often shrugged off as fuddy-duddy Luddites (have I mentioned I’m 27 by the way?). At the risk of sounding like a sensationalist, isn’t this just another step (or large leap) in the “dumbing down” of our country? I plead with you, as a fellow American, don’t click on Yahoo! Answers; don’t support it. And maybe someday in the not-so-distant-future it will just be a bad memory!

Niche Blog Friday: Turtles Eating Things September 10, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Just for Fun, Niche Blogs.
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Have you ever noticed how the mouth of a turtle uncannily resembles a geriatric gumming his food sans-dentures? Neither had I until I saw this surprisingly cute blog – Turtles Eating Things. And if your Friday is as hectic as mine, then you’ll definitely need the smile pictures like these put on your face.

Niche Blog Friday: Paleo-Future September 3, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Just for Fun, Niche Blogs, Of Interest, Technology can do anything.
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In times like these (whatever times these may be), it’s comforting to find out that most predictions about the future (eh hem…December 21, 2012) are DEAD WRONG. How do I know most predictions are wrong? Because this wonderful blog – Paleo-Future – has documented predictions dating from as far back as the 1870s and most of them are wrong. Some make astoundingly astute predictions about the way transportation, communication, and entertainment would evolve (although no one could predict the onslaught of reality TV programming that we’ve had to suffer). But when it comes to the larger issues – population growth, global food supply, disease, war, and even natural resources…we have no clue! So enjoy the often entertaining predictions of our predecessors especially if Hurricane Earl is making your day rather dreary!

Niche Blog Friday: Literally, A Web Log April 16, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Niche Blogs.
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There are few things that the Infomavens like better than blogs tracking grammatical mistakes. And so for your reading enjoyment, we present: Literally, A Web Log;  “an English language grammar blog tracking abuse of the word ‘literally'”. Enjoy!

The Music Industry and Online Piracy: Infographic April 15, 2010

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Oddee.com, one of my favorite list-loving sites (but rarely safe for work), has produced this interesting and well-organized infographic on the changing state of music and how it has affected the music industry. This graphic is definitely worth mulling over. Click on the picture for a large (and complete) view of the infographic.

From Oddee.com

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