Category Archives: Thoughts

ECigs: ETech Meets Public Health Again (Part Two)

[For information on why I've been missing-in-action here, please see this post at my personal blog: I expect to be back in business next week.]

So, in Part One, the eCig conversation was largely framed through health and legislative perspectives, with concerns hooked substantially on potential use by minors and young adults. In part two, I want to dig a little deeper into some of these issues, and spin off in new directions, mostly workplace use, more about minors, and issues of DIY and unintended uses of e-cigs.

I keep saying how complicated is the issue of electronic cigarettes. This tweet illustrates part of that.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) is one of the organizations most strongly advising caution with respect to e-cigs, and perceived as “the opposition” by the e-cig and vaping communities. Obviously, given that at least one person at their event was using an e-cig, this is not a topic with complete consensus, but it is also close enough to consensus to raise eyebrows and warrant comment. The issues are further complicated by the ACS accepting donations from e-cig manufacturers.

Similarly, despite the prolific and prominent vitriol from the vaping community regarding any suggestion that e-cigs warrant further research or concern or caution, there are elements of that community willing to work with the government and professional medical organizations on exactly those areas.

Growing Electronic Cigarette Manufacturer “Welcomes” FDA’s “Reasonable Regulation” Of Category:

Given that e-cigs are an emerging technological alternative to the issue of smoking and that smoking in public spaces and the workplace has been a major issue over the past few decades, it’s no real surprise that there are guidelines and suggestions being created to advise employers about best practices for managing e-cigs in the workplace. Given that my own campus, University of Michigan, only recently went smoke-free (July 1, 2011), and that several of my friends are still struggling to make the switch, I expect that this is an issue worthy of local attention.

What employers need to know about electronic cigarettes? Fact Sheet, September 2011. (pdf)
Main points:
Quick Facts About E-Cigarettes
• Not an FDA-approved tobacco cessation device.
• Contain nicotine and detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals.
• Look very similar to regular cigarettes (especially from a distance).
• Manufactured using inconsistent or non-existent quality control processes.
Actions for Employers
• Determine whether the use of e-cigarettes is allowed in their jurisdictions, including in the workplace.
• Understand whether unions, works councils, or other laws can raise barriers to implementing workplace
policies regulating e-cigarettes.
• Stay informed on any new laws and emerging scientific evidence regarding e-cigarettes.

Please note the date on those tips, and that they haven’t been updated, although the conversation is far from over!

Sullum, Jacob. Boston Bans E-Cigarettes in Workplaces, Just Because. Dec. 2, 2011

American Society for Quality: Should e-Cigarettes Be Allowed in the Workplace? April 15, 2013

One marketing firm addressed a sort of a case study of why one life insurance firm in Britain banned e-cigs at work, arguing against each of the points.

Should electric cigarettes be allowed in the workplace

Here are a couple links with pro and con information about the Standard Life policy decision. A major point seems to be the psychology of e-cig use, that because of their resemblance to real cigarettes they give the message that smoking is a good thing or at least permissible. I am not aware of any research into this assumption, although there is substantial evidence on the related concept of candy cigarettes.

The Scotsman: Standard Life bans employees from smoking electronic cigarettes at work (2012):

Daily Mail: Safety fears over electronic cigarettes because they are ‘unclean’ and unregulated:

And a couple pieces about the psychological impact candy cigarettes. Consider, though, that the research on candy cigarettes is looking explicitly at the impact on children, not adults.

Klein JD, Forehand B, Oliveri J, Patterson CJ, Kupersmidt JB, Strecher V. Candy cigarettes: do they encourage children’s smoking? Pediatrics. 1992 Jan;89(1):27-31.

Klein JD, Clair SS. Do candy cigarettes encourage young people to smoke? BMJ. 2000 Aug 5;321(7257):362-5.

Klein JD, Thomas RK, Sutter EJ. History of childhood candy cigarette use is associated with tobacco smoking by adults. Prev Med. 2007 Jul;45(1):26-30. Epub 2007 Apr 24.

Back to the American Cancer Society, and the issue of minors having access to e-cigs.

Anti-THR Lies and related topics: Who leads the fight against banning e-cigarette sales to minors? Guess again: it is the American Cancer Society:

As with everything surrounding the e-cig controversies, it’s never straightforward, and there are always multiple views with value. This tweet was in response to my Part One blogpost on e-cigs.

The links highlight the work of Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health.

Dr. Siegel:
“I do not question the need to balance the benefits of enhancing smoking cessation among adult smokers with the costs of youth beginning to use this nicotine-containing product. But show me at least one youth using the product before you call for a ban. This recommendation makes a mockery out of the idea of science-based or evidence-based policy making in tobacco control.”
The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary: American Legacy Foundation Sounds Alarm About Electronic Cigarette Use Among Young People, Calling for a Ban on Flavored E-Cigarettes, But Fails to Document a Single Youth Using These Products

In response to:

““While most candy-flavors – such as chocolate, vanilla and peach – were banned in 2009 from cigarettes, flavored tobacco products like cigars, hookah, snus and e-cigarettes persist in more than 45 flavors and are still legally on the market,” said Andrea Villanti, PhD, MPH, CHES, Research Investigator for Legacy. “These products can be just as appealing to young people as flavored cigarettes, offering a product appearing to be more like candy to those most at-risk of becoming lifelong tobacco users,” she added.”
FDA Should Extend Ban on Flavors to Other Products to Protect Young People, April 3, 2013

“Overall, 18.5% of tobacco users report using flavored products, and dual use of menthol and flavored product use ranged from 1% (nicotine products) to 72% (chewing tobacco). In a multivariable model controlling for menthol use, younger adults were more likely to use flavored tobacco products (OR=1.89, 95% CI=1.14, 3.11), and those with a high school education had decreased use of flavored products (OR=0.56; 95% CI=0.32, 0.97). Differences in use may be due to the continued targeted advertising of flavored products to young adults and minorities. Those most likely to use flavored products are also those most at risk of developing established tobacco-use patterns that persist through their lifetime.”
Villanti AC, Richardson A, Vallone DM, Rath JM. Flavored Tobacco Product Use Among U.S. Young Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 44(4):388-391, April 2013

Dr. Siegel:
“But I don’t think most anti-smoking groups or advocates care about the actual evidence. They’ve already made up their minds. Vaping looks too much like smoking. So forget about the fact that not a single nonsmoking youth could be found who has even tried the product. The advocates must continue to follow the party line and warn about the danger of electronic cigarettes as a gateway to nicotine addiction. Never mind that the gateway just doesn’t exist.”
The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary: New Study on Electronic Cigarette Use Among Youth Fails to Find a Single Nonsmoking Youth Who Has Even Tried an Electronic Cigarette:

In response to:

“E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that look like cigarettes and deliver a nicotine vapor to the user. They are widely advertised as technologically advanced and healthier alternatives to tobacco cigarettes using youth-relevant appeals such as celebrity endorsements, trendy/fashionable imagery, and fruit, candy, and alcohol flavors [2], [3]. E-cigarettes are widely available online and in shopping mall kiosks, which may result in a disproportionate reach to teens, who spend much of their free time online and in shopping malls.”
Grana, Rachel A. Electronic Cigarettes: A New Nicotine Gateway? Journal of Adolescent Health 52(2):135-136, February 2013.
[NOTE: Check out the bibliography]

“Only two participants (< 1%) had previously tried e-cigarettes. Among those who had not tried e-cigarettes, most (67%) had heard of them. Awareness was higher among older and non-Hispanic adolescents. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) participants were willing to try either a plain or flavored e-cigarette, but willingness to try plain versus flavored varieties did not differ. Smokers were more willing to try any e-cigarette than nonsmokers (74% vs. 13%; OR 10.25, 95% CI 2.88, 36.46). Nonsmokers who had more negative beliefs about the typical smoker were less willing to try e-cigarettes (OR .58, 95% CI .43, .79)."
Pepper JK , Reiter PL , McRee A-L , Cameron LD , Gilkey MB , Brewer NT . Adolescent males' awareness of and willingness to try electronic cigarettes. J Adolesc Health . 2013;52:144–150.

Wow. All smart people, working in or from the peer-reviewed literature, but with varying interpretations. For more information about flavors in e-cigs, check out these e-cig review and information sites.

Vapor Rater:
Vapour Trails:

The first thing I saw that actually sparked a moment of interest in e-cigs for me personally was the idea that you can make your own at home. I’m not a smoker, but I’m also not much of a drinker. I am, however, addicted to canning, pickling, and otherwise preserving produce and home goods. I go so far as to even make my own fruit shrubs as beverage mixes for my friends who do drink, even though I don’t partake. If you could convince me that e-cigs were safe and healthy and all that, you could tempt me to want to learn how to mix the vaping liquid for my friends, even if I don’t use it myself.

RTS Vapes: Lab Safety when Mixing Liquid Nicotine:

A brief detour down memory lane. When I was in high school I remember vividly a change in what and who was “cool” between sophomore and junior years. During freshman and sophomore years, the cool kids, the influencers, were those who snuck off into corners to make out and have sex. In junior and senior years it was no longer sex but drugs that was cool, and a lot of the smartest kids in school adopted drugs, creating and using intellect, technology, and creativity to explore this “counter-culture” area. In chemistry class, one of the top students used the chem lab to gold-plate a baby marijuana leaf into a pickle fork. A pair of National Merit Scholars broke into the high school academic system to do a statistical analysis comparing the IQs of known street drug users compared to street drug ‘virgins’ among the student population, with the drug users ‘proven’ to have the highest IQs. There was a perception that drugs weren’t just cool, but smart. I don’t know, but it would not surprise me to find that high school students today are also inquisitive and creative with exploring new technologies that allow them to buck the status quo. It is with that in mind that I read these next tweets.

Portable Vaporizer – Marijuana Pot Herbal Portable Vaporizers

For the record, I am a supporter of the legalization of marijuana, and it makes sense that if e-cigs are safer to want to extend those health benefits to persons who smoke anything recreationally. I’m not opposed to e-cigs, either, but do think there are benefits to information, education, and appropriate legislation. There are really two main questions. One, this is a new technology, and we don’t know that much about it. E-cigs were invented in 2004, and there simply hasn’t been time to fully research the technical, physical, and psychological health impacts of use. That is a problem for most new and emerging technologies, and we don’t have a solution for that at this point. The other main question is really about minors. So, the argument from Dr. Siegel is that youth don’t use e-cigs. Are you sure?

Buzzwords of the Day: Biohacking, DIYbio, and Quantified Self

Convenient title generator

One of the things I’ve noticed in my emerging technologies explorations is that buzzwords are super important in identifying trends and the evolution of concepts over time. Often the same idea will reappear over decades, but with different terms applied. Those in the field know it is a rebranding of the idea, but people outside don’t know this and may very well believe it is a new idea or that two related terms are distinct rather than overlapping. I started thinking maybe it would be helpful to others if I occasionally have brief blogposts highlighting specific terms I’m tracking in the e-tech or em-tech world. This would be the first post of this sort.

I’ve been increasingly involved with personal genomics over the past year. It started with being a subject of a campus research study, and has only become more important.

Personal Genomes: what can I do with my data?, by lablogga

I’m finding that it isn’t enough. When you start getting information that makes a HUGE difference in the quality of your life, you want more. You start to realize that good can become better. Even without aspiring to “ideal” or “perfect”, you realize that so much more is possible. In digging for more options, I found first the quantified self movement (in which I am stumbling around trying to find my way), then DIYbio, and finally biohacking. What all of these have in common is generating data and performing experiments to improve your own personal health and quality of life. They are closely related to the earlier terms of mobile health and e-health, but extend and focus those concepts. Between these three terms — biohacking, DIYbio, and quantified self — lines blur. There is substantial overlap as well as distinct differences between these terms, the technologies they use, their goals and methodologies. These are just a few slidedecks to give you quick introductions to these concepts. I hope to blog more about them in the future, as I truly believe these are very important, and even essential to the future of healthcare.


Biohacking refers to the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic.[1] Biohacking encompasses a wide spectrum of practices and movements ranging from Grinders who design and install DIY body-enhancements such as magnetic implants to DIY biologists who conduct at-home gene sequencing.

Quantified Self & Biohacking, by Teemu Arina.


“As molecular tools get cheaper, and the know-how for using them more widely distributed, I think we’re going to see a renaissance in science. The peculiar feature of this renaissance is that its going to take place outside of “science proper”, away from the universities which dominate now, and funded out-of-pocket by enthusiasts without PhDs.” Science without scientists,

Singularity University July 2010: DIYbio Demo Workshop, by Mac Cowell

On Experimenting with Others. The Rise of D-I-W-O Science, by Eli Gentry.

Quantified Self

“The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Such self-monitoring and self-sensing, which combines wearable sensors (EEG, ECG, video, etc.) and wearable computing, is also known as lifelogging or sousveillance. Other names for using self-tracking data to improve daily functioning are “self-tracking”, “auto-analytics”, “body hacking” and “self-quantifying”.”

Self tracking, Sensors, and mHealth: Trends and Opportunities, by C Torgan

Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy, All

Stack O' Books

I’m both a writer and a librarian, and I’m having trouble deciding whether to call this an index or a Table of Contents after the fact, or a collection, or something else, but the gist of the idea is along those lines. Here are links to all the posts in the Stack O’ Books series all in one place. At the bottom of the post, I also list the books by publication date, and alphabetical by author.

Part One:

The Anarchist in the Library (2004) by Siva Vaidhyanathan.
As the Future Catches You (2000, 2001), by Juan Enriquez.

Part Two:

The Best Science Writing Online 2012, by Bora Zikovic and Jennifer Ouellette.
Decentralization, Sketches Toward a Rational Theory (1980), by Manfred Kochen and Karl W. Deutsch.

Part Three:

Endless Frontier (1997), by G. Pascal Zachary.
Extreme Trust (2012), by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers.

Part Four:

The Filter Bubble (2011), by Eli Pariser.
Growth of Knowledge (1967), edited by Manfred Kochen.

Part Five:

Information for Action (1975), by Manfred Kochen.
Information for the Community (1976), by Manfred Kochen.

Part Six:

Invisible Colleges (1972), by Diana Crane.
My Stroke of Insight (2006), by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.

Part Seven:

Science Since Babylon (1961), by Derek John DeSolla Price
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), by Richard Feynman.

Part Eight:

Six Degrees (2003), by Dunan J. Watts.
The Transparent Society (1998), by David Brin.

In Sequence by Publication Date

1961: Science Since Babylon, by Derek John DeSolla Price
1967: Growth of Knowledge, edited by Manfred Kochen.
1972: Invisible Colleges, by Diana Crane.
1975: Information for Action, by Manfred Kochen.
1976: Information for the Community, by Manfred Kochen.
1980: Decentralization, Sketches Toward a Rational Theory, by Manfred Kochen and Karl W. Deutsch.
1997: Endless Frontier, by G. Pascal Zachary.
1998: The Transparent Society, by David Brin.
1999: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman.
2000: As the Future Catches You, by Juan Enriquez.
2003: Six Degrees, by Dunan J. Watts.
2004: The Anarchist in the Library by Siva Vaidhyanathan.
2006: My Stroke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.
2011: The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser.
2012: Extreme Trust, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers.
2013: The Best Science Writing Online 2012, by Bora Zikovic and Jennifer Ouellette.

Alphabetical by Author

Brin, David. The Transparent Society (1998).
Crane, Diana. Invisible Colleges (1972).
De Solla Price, Derek John. Science Since Babylon (1961).
Enriquez, Juan. As the Future Catches You (2000, 2001).
Feynman, Richard. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999).
Kochen, Manfred; Deutsch, Karl W. Decentralization, Sketches Toward a Rational Theory (1980).
Kochen, Manfred. Growth of Knowledge (1967).
Kochen, Manfred. Information for Action (1975).
Kochen, Manfred. Information for the Community (1976).
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble (2011).
Peppers, Don; Rogers, Martha. Extreme Trust (2012)
Taylor, Jill Bolte. My Stroke of Insight (2006).
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Anarchist in the Library (2004).
Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees (2003).
Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier (1997).
Zikovic, Bora; Ouellette, Jennifer. The Best Science Writing Online 2012.

Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy. Part Eight

Stack O' Books

Back in the 1950s, Kochen (a mathematician) and Pool (a political scientist) were the first to think about it but couldn’t find a solution without computers. Milgram (a psychologist), aided by White (a physicist-sociologist) and followed by Bernard (an anthropologist) and Killworth (an oceanographer), then attacked the problem empirically but couldn’t explain how it actually worked. Thirty years later, Steve and I (mathematicians) turned the problem into one about networks generally but failed to see its algorithmic component, leaving that door for Jon (a computer scientist) to open. Jon, in turn, left the door open for Mark (a physicist), Peter (a mathematician), and me (now a sociologist of sorts) to walk through and pick up the solution that now seems to have been lying there all along. It’s been a long trail, almost fifty years, and now we think we finally understand the problem, it seems like someone ought to have figured it out long ago. But it had to happen this way. (pp. 160-161)

Six Degrees, by Dunan J. Watts.

Comment: I admit, part of the reason I selected this quote was because it mentioned Fred, and I wanted to show that I’m not the only person who thinks he did some important work. More importantly, however, is the way in which this wonderful story illustrates the essential importance of boundary-spanning and collaboration in knowledge discovery. I spend a fair amount of time on this in the chapter, and while this particular quote didn’t fit into the story I was trying to craft, it supports it nicely, and I wish I could have included it.

Duncan Watts and Dalton Conley discuss Six Degrees of Separation

This new “immune system” may be imperfect … but at least we started noticing some dangers, like ozone depletion and species extinction, long before the trends grew too severe. Passionate advocates and antagonists swarm around each problem, hollering so loud we can’t ignore the peril, even when we squeeze our eyes shut and hope it goes away. This trend is especially important given society’s growing complexity and the rapid pace of change. Science and technology must progress swiftly, in order to offer any hope of solving the world’s problems. Still, with every advance, new questions and dilemmas burst forth to confound even a culture filled with large numbers of college graduates. As the recent furor over human cloning showed, it takes time for people to listen, argue among themselves, overreact, learn some more, and finally start making the sort of practical, as we go decisions that may (with luck) take us into the twenty-first century in fairly decent shape. (pp. 142-143)

The irony here is that our relative immunity against fallacy is in large part carried out via the adversarial tug and push of countless indignant, righteous, and often narrow-minded individuals, many of whome would be anything but tolerant or democratically inclined if by some magic or intrigue they ever achieved coercive power. The service they provide for the rest of us — the calm, relatively contented majority — cannot be overstated. (p. 143)

The Transparent Society, by David Brin.

Comment: For me, choosing quotes from this book is almost impossible. My first copy is studded with little shreds of torn paper marking places where David said something especially important. I agonized over the quotes to include in the book chapter, because I had limited space and many voices to include. I was trying so hard to give equal space to both sides of the debate, when what I wanted to do was just hand people copies of David’s book and make them read it. It was so hard for me to think of anything unique that I could bring to the conversation. I tried anyway.

The first time I met David was when he was on tour for this important book, having fought with his reluctant publishers to get it out in print. He spoke on campus in a rather unusual and elegant room in the UM Law School, a room which reminded me of a church in some ways. We chatted afterwards, and have stayed in touch over the years through various social media.

This was the most important book for me while I was working on my chapter. I bought extra copies of it, so that I would have access to it in many places without needing to depend on carrying it around with me. Then I carried it around anyway. David is quoted in my chapter several times, but not as many as I wanted.

This book is beyond being a must-read on the topic. After the book had been out for a few years, reviewers started to denigrate it based on its age, saying things like, “Surprisingly relevant, given how dated it is.” I always want to blow raspberries when I hear things like that. This book has at no point since publication been anything less than the most important work available on the topic of the dynamics of transparency and privacy in our evolving society. READ THIS! There are others that go into specific aspects in more depth, but I know of no other single work that does such a brilliant job of tersely describing the issues, trends, risks and benefits of various scenarios. (Not to mention that David studs the book with little gems of quotations from other writers, giving you clues about who else to read to extend your reading in this area.) David himself does take this to the next level with his new fiction masterpiece, Existence, which places many of these core concepts in story form for easy digestion. Read both!

The Transparent Society: Secrecy vs. Privacy, Part 1

The Transparent Society: Secrecy vs. Privacy, Part 2


Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy. Part Seven

Stack O' Books

The trouble seems to be that it is no man’s business to understand the general patterns and reactions of science as the economist understands the business world. Given some knowledge of economics, a national business policy can be formulated, decrees can be promulgated, recessions have some chance of being controlled, the electorate can be educated. I do not know, indeed, whether one might in fact understand the crises of modern science so well as to have the power to do anything about them. I must, however, suggest that the petty illnesses of science — its superabundance of literature, its manpower shortages, its increasing specialization, its tendency to deteriorate in quality — all these things are but symptoms of a general disease. That disease is partly understood by the historian, and might be understood better if it were any man’s professional province to do so. Even if we could not control the crisis that is almost upon us, there would at least be some satisfaction in understanding what is hitting us. (p. 193)

Science Since Babylon (1961), by Derek John DeSolla Price

Comment: Another important work from the classics I read in graduate school. I find it ironic that the challenges for the practice of science explicitly articulated here — “its superabundance of literature, its manpower shortages, its increasing specialization, its tendency to deteriorate in quality” — are even more prominent now, fifty years later, than they were in 1961 when Price described them as a disease.

You see, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to really get to know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it, they haven’t done the work necessary, haven’t done the checks necessary, haven’t done the care necessary. (p. 22)

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman.

Comment: It is always entertaining to read Feynman, and his insights into the practice of science, its dynamics, strengths and weaknesses, are valuable to consider even when you disagree with him. If you disagree with him, can you refute him, and if so, based on what evidence? The issues he raises here, about making mistakes and fooling yourself, are especially critical for each innovator to consider in this time of rapid change when innovations arise, crest, and vanish before we have time to evaluate their unknown risks and hidden costs.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman Interview (1981)

Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy. Part Six

Stack O' Books

There is some evidence that the diffusion of a scientific innovation is a fashion-like process in which influence is transmitted through steadily expanding networks of scientists. Thus it is plausible to view science as an enormous cluster of innovations, of which the most successful are diffused by means of a contagion process that produces a logistic curve in all facets of scientific activity. Behind the seemingly impersonal structure of scientific knowledge, there is a vast interpersonal network that screens new ideas in terms of a central theme or paradigm, permitting some a wide audience and consigning many to oblivion. (p. 76)

Invisible Colleges (1972), by Diana Crane.

Comment: Some debate the scholarship and design of the research on which this work is based, but say what you will, this was at that time one of the works that most influenced thought on how social relationships shape knowledge and our understanding of scientific discovery. Much of our current work on the influence of social networks on scholarship and policy development is based at root on the thoughts expressed in this book by Diana Crane. The influence of this book extends far past academia to the design and development of such now-everyday tools as Facebook and Twitter, and even to popular culture, with this anecdotal example:
IF “Invisible = Unseen”
AND “College = University”
THEN “Invisible College” = “Unseen University”.

It makes sense that having two cerebral hemispheres that process information in uniquely different ways would increase our brain’s capacity to experience the world around us and increase our chances for survival as a species. Because our two hemispheres are so adept at weaving together a single seamless perception of the world, it is virtually impossible for us to consciously distinguish between what is going on in our left hemisphere versus our right hemisphere. (p. 28)

My Stroke of Insight (2006), by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.

Comment: There were two specific ways in which this book caught my interest. One was this concept shown in the quote above that apparent opposites need not necessarily actually function in opposition to each other, but may instead be complementary and necessary aspects of forming a functional whole. The other aspect is the idea that we cannot easily perceive that which is part of our body or part of our existence when it functions normally, but only when it does not. Like Dr. Jill, I also suffered a kind of brain damage, most notably when I suffered severe chronic long term carbon monoxide poisoning a dozen years ago. We are often told that we cannot feel things inside our brain, but as part of the damage and healing process, I had powerful visceral sensations associated with trying to think about memories or skills located in the damaged area, as well as the sensations of the neurons sending out new or extended axons, probing around the damage, trying to find a new path to the old information. Similarly, we don’t tend to notice our feet unless they hurt, our lungs unless we are struggling to breathe, etcetera. Both of these are important lessons not just for how we as individuals listen and learn, but also how professions discover creativity, nations change economic and policy strategies, and possibly even for us as a species.

How it feels to have a stroke.

Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy. Part Five

Stack O' Books

Assuming it to be possible, should organized knowledge, codified understanding, and wisdom play a greater role in the political processes than has so far been the case? Have we perhaps reached limits on how much wisdom can be systematized for use in policy making? Is there such a thing as “wisdom in the wrong hearts”? Evil rulers, cruel tyrants, self-seeking potentates may act wisely on their own behalf but to the detriment of others. If they have at their command a concentrated, organized source of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, then their hold is even harder to break. When is it preferable to use incomplete, imperfect knowledge, understanding, wisdom rather than waiting until such knowledge and its organization is more perfect, though by then the issues may be even more complex? (p. 16)

Information for Action (1975), by Manfred Kochen.

Comment: One of the aspects of Fred’s work that I most admired was his fervor for illustrating and documenting the potential role of information for good, for positive change, for advocacy, for social welfare, for action. Fred was such a sweet man, so generous and kind to others. This book was published before his most interesting articles in this area, but as a book, it still ended up in my pile of books. I was lucky to get a copy he had inscribed to one of his friends, so you can see some of that sweetness in the inscription.

After Fred’s passing, I watched how the Internet / Web evolved, took shape, formed itself. Over the years, I’ve gone in circles regarding his thoughts in this area. Fred believed that if the general public was given access to the same types of information used by policy makers, decision leaders, and our government, that regular people would indeed select the best information from what was available, and make high quality and well informed decisions on matters of both personal and national importance.

At first, I watched and waited for this to happen. But what happened instead was that all the high quality information was mixed up with biased and inaccurate information, some of which was designed to intentionally mislead. I became disheartened, and thought Fred had been naïve. Little by little, especially watching health information online, I came back around to something closer to Fred’s original optimistic view, which I see as aligning closely with the thoughts of David Brin on the need for diverse views, diverse information sources, and engaged conversations in order to get at truths that may not be popular or credible at the moment they are first proposed. I also see this as respecting the rights of the individual to select their own information sources, make their own choices, and then live with the results of those choice.

Inscription from Fred

The threat to privacy is perhaps the gravest danger of a centralized, coordinated network. Centralization also threatens free competition and the informed choices available to clients, thus weakening quality and competition. It also widens the distance between the server and the client, making servers less responsive to clients and more to one another. Insofar as the service system proposed by Long is aimed at helping the disadvantaged — i.e., those most in need of such help — it is plagued by the basic problem of distrust. … Coordination does not remedy this: those that want business either give poor care, are too expensive, or both. The rare good ones have more cases than they can handle. (p. 5)

Merely to desire to inform is to judge that information is valuable and ought to be more freely available. In fact, that is perhaps in itself the most significant judgment, especially at a time when governments, industry, and social organizations appear increasingly able and willing to impose severe limits on the rights of the citizen to be informed. The desire to provide unbiased information should not be construed as an indifference to values; rather it should be seen as a commitment to the recipient’s right to all pertinent data, as well as the right to make his own judgment. (p. 17)

Information for the Community, by Manfred Kochen.

Comment: Here you see it again. Another book by Fred relating to the same types of concepts, those that led to the birth of the Internet, and shaping our understanding of information access and use as a force for good. Fred really was a formidable thinker in these areas. He is still highly regarded by those who knew him, but is under appreciated by many currently working in spaces that Fred first shaped.

Manfred Kochen 1987

“Kitemarking” Quality & Credibility in Healthcare?

Good Housekeeping, 1950's Good Housekeeping, 2010
Good Housekeeping, 2010 Good Housekeeping, 2010


This morning, catching up on my Linked In groups, I spotted this article.

Miller, Jennifer E. Bioethical accreditation or rating needed to restore trust in pharma. Nature Medicine 19, 261 (2013) doi:10.1038/nm0313-261

It’s a good article, worth a read, and well intentioned, as is the case with most proposals of rating and ranking systems.

I’ve encountered many kitemarking or accreditation systems (“Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” type of systems) in the area of online health information. I’ve been watching how they’ve worked in the online healthcare environment literally since the birth of the Web. In my opinion, there is not one I trust. Why? Many reasons.

1) They are typically extremely expensive projects to run in terms of time and costs of analysis.

2) Because of the expense, many marks of approval end up charging for their review time. This backfires because it excludes small groups without a lot of money (this might not apply in pharma.) It also gives the impression that the “mark” or seal of approval has been purchased, thus devaluing its credibility.

3) They are slow. The initial review is slow and time consuming. Then they are slow to respond to changes in the organization or their information. Better Business Bureau reviews of charitable organizations has a good way of handling this, with expiration dates, and transparency about when their reviews were run, with the date of approval, and date the company should be re-examined.

4) These programs are often biased, or ill managed. Almost always they are one of these, if not both. Ill managed usually means a volunteer organization that is understaffed or underfunded. They mean well, they try hard, but it is too big a project.

5) Policing is a problem. Some organizations (especially snake oil salesmen) “steal” the mark and place it on their site without the right to do so, and without following appropriate guidelines for the mark’s use.

I don’t name names in public on these issues, because some of the most offensive stories I know of kitemarking abuse in healthcare involve individuals or organizations that are highly litigious, and sadly also highly trusted. They have lots of money or lots of lawyers or both. I don’t. So for years, even decades in some cases, I sit back, silently simmering over trusted sources of online health information that were trusted mostly because they said you should trust them, loudly and frequently. What I usually end up saying in public is, “Who watches the watchers?”, coupled with a recommendation to ALWAYS question healthcare information, both the information and who says it is good or bad, even if it is peer reviewed. You’ve probably already seen RetractionWatch, and are aware of the increasing rate of retractions in science, which is only one indicator that the current peer review system isn’t accomplishing quite what it was intended to do.

What frustrates me, having seen these systems either fail or mislead over and over again, is the conversations still happening NOW, with good-hearted, well-intentioned people proposing these are needed. I’ve been in several of these conversations lately. Sometimes, people didn’t know any kitemarking systems already existed. Sometimes they knew, but were aware the old systems had failed and thought they could make a new one that works. There is a lot of the “If we build it, they will come” mentality that surrounds these. That has NOT worked so far. The librarians, bless their souls, have tried hard to adopt and embrace quality indicators for online health information. They’ve tried to spread the word and inform the public. Librarians have tried to build their own guidelines for vetting online health information. Enormous manhours have gone into developing tools to help with this. Many of them are excellent, but … now well known. And regarding the semi-official kitemarking system, I’ve found even librarians to be mislead by some of these. I’ve had a number of quiet, offline, private conversations when I was particularly deeply worried by enthusiastic endorsement of some of these.

So, what is it that made the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval the standard to which all other quality ranking / rating systems aspire? The accountability. Good Housekeeping, to this day, says that if a you buy a product they’ve approved and it doesn’t meet the standards, THEY WILL REFUND YOUR MONEY.

Good Housekeeping Seal List:

About the Good Housekeeping Seal:

Oh. Now, how would that fly in healthcare? Obviously, it can’t. You can’t refund someone’s limb, or pain, or life. How would it fly with information? Again, it can’t. It isn’t a standardized product with measurable units and production. You can’t guarantee that the person consuming the information digests it in the same way as the next person. There is no typical information physiology. Information consumption is too subtle, too personal, too individual of an experience, too filtered by local circumstance and prior experience and expectation.

Frankly, kitemarking without accountability is rather meaningless. If we can’t have accountability behind systems that endorse online health information, what you have is simply opinion. Some opinions are worth more than others. Some people like my opinions, but I make mistakes, too, and would not want to be held accountable legally for some quick blogpost I whipped up in a few minutes or a couple hours. I want people to question what they read, NO MATTER WHO SAID IT OR WHERE. Even if it’s me. And I want people to help each other, to talk with others about the things that matter, to build understanding as a community. I don’t want to put this process in the hands of some official organization. Not for health information. Build communities, not rubber stamps.

Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, 1930's


Stack O’ Books — Sources on Transparency and Privacy. Part Four

Stack O' Books

As Larry Lessig says, “A political response is possible only when regulation is transparent.” And there’s more than a little irony in the fact that companies whose public ideologies revolve around openness and transparency are so opaque themselves. (p. 229)

The Filter Bubble (2011), by Eli Pariser.

Comment: The Filter Bubble is deservedly famous. Like several other books in this post, choosing one quote was a real challenge, there is so much of value in the work as a whole.

Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”

The issue is whether or not research and development should continue to proceed solely in the direction of information-dispensing systems. By this we mean the providing of efficient procedures for dispensing pertinent and only pertinent information in immediate response to queries by researchers at the frontiers of their specialty. The stand taken here is to suggest an alternative goal for information-retrieval systems which deserves greater priority than the dispensing of information. This alternative is to assimilate and weld newly generated knowledge into a coherent overall image at sufficient speed, so as to counteract the tendency of knowledge to scatter centrifugally into isolated fragments; to impart understanding rather than dispense information; and to aim to serve primarily the interested nonspecialist and only secondarily the skilled specialist. Whereas the keyword of most enterprises and projects in information retrieval is access, the keywords proposed here as an alternative as evaluation and synthesis. (pp. xi-xii)

Growth of Knowledge (1967), edited by Manfred Kochen.

Comment: If you only get one book by Fred Kochen, make it this one. Look at this! 1967! And this was when he first collected thoughts that shaped his vision of what became the World Wide Web. In the 1980s, when I took a class with him, he still was requiring portions of this as readings, and it was still mind-blowing. We talked about this collection and the related concepts fairly often, since this is where both of us shared so much intellectual passion and excitement. I was able to share with him one additional piece that he wanted to add to this collection if he ever reworked it, which never happened, due to his unexpected death not long after. The piece I shared was a section of Gordon Dickson’s The Final Encyclopedia, around page 100 and for several pages following, where Dickson first describes the shape and function of the ultimate encyclopedia.

Manfred Kochen 1987

A Personal Timeline of Library Privacy & Transparency

Card Catalog

I’ve been hanging around libraries most of my life. I was the kid who spent so much time at the local public library that they ran out of books I was allowed to read. I read everything in the Children’s Room. Then I read everything in the Youth Room. Then they had my parents sign a waiver to allow me to read books from the “adult” section, and even the locked cases (Chaucer! Yay!). Even more bizarre, I was paying attention to how the library ran things, even if I didn’t realize I was doing so at the time. Following yesterday’s post, I wanted to share just a few of these memories of how, even just in my lifetime, libraries and librarians have encountered various issues relating to privacy and transparency, and always found a way to respond. Please note, these are being pulled from my memory, and I’m not planning to take the time to look up supporting materials or evidence. All dates are approximate.

1950s to Early 1960s

Library Charge Card / Checkout Card

My oldest memories of checking books out from the library were that you had to be able to write your name, legibly. That was the big divider between “baby” and “big kid.” The reason seemed to be because every book had in it a pocket and a card. When you wanted a book, you would take it to the Circulation Desk. The librarian (and in those days they really WERE librarians, not check out clerks or paraprofessionals!) would remove the card and stamp it with the due date, and also stamp the “Date Due” slip in the book. You would hand write your name on the card next to the date. The librarian would keep the card, and hand you the book.

When the books were returned to the library, the card would be returned to the pocket, complete with scribbled names. We never really thought anything about it, and most of the scribbles were illegible, so unless you already knew who it was, half the time you wouldn’t be able to decipher the name enough to figure out who had borrowed the book before you. This was especially true if some grown-up had written their name on the card in cursive! Completely unreadable. Sigh. But I was too young to care, yet.

Late 1960s

Library Charge Card / Checkout Card in Pocket

Sometime during the 1960s, I was delighted that the library switched to some new-fangled high-technology system that made things easier for everyone. We all got new library cards that had raised block letters with our name and mailing address. When we checked out the book (“charged” the book), the librarian would run our library card through a machine that would press the card against some sort of tape and print our name and address onto the tape. The tape came in two parts, like carbon paper, but with a sticky layer in between, rather like “sticky notes” now. The sticky part of the carbon layer would be stuck to the card and kept by the librarians until the book was returned.

As before, the cards were returned to the books after being returned, complete with the sticky tabs. I loved this. I was in late middle school, but was reading in the adult section of the library. I always read the book’s card before checking the book out. I quickly noticed that certain people tended to be interested by the same books I liked. I found that some folk checked out books I liked, and others checked out books I didn’t enjoy. I often made a decision whether or not to check out a book based on whose name was on the card.

I also kind of liked having their addresses. There were a couple a young men, a year or two ahead of me in school, who were, um, interesting. I liked knowing their addresses, what part of town they lived in, and what sort of books they were reading. Now, we’d probably think of that as being vaguely stalker-ish, but then I simply thought of it as research. ;) It never entered my mind that someone else could get the same information about me. I doubt I would have cared, though. I think at that age I would probably have been flattered. I was a scrawny, awkward, shy little thing. I would definitely have been flattered.


Library Charge Card / Checkout Card

Then the strips disappeared. Every now and then I’d find a date stamped on a card, but the cards were now empty. And we got yet another new high-tech library check out system. Hunh? What happened? I asked one of the librarians, who gritted her teeth and explained it to me.

Somewhere a disturbed young man had evidently set off some sort of bomb as a political protest of some sort. The bomb killed people. The young man was taken into custody. The authorities were researching the event, and everything to do with the young man. One of the ways in which they were researching him was going to his local library and asking for their records of everything he had ever checked out. This included such materials as The Anarchist’s Cookbook, which explained how to make bombs.

So far, so good, that all made sense. But the librarians immediately realized this had a huge potential impact that many people had not yet considered. It was almost as if they sensed the Patriot Act coming. These are public libraries. This is public information. They can’t deny information that they have to the proper authorities when requested with proper authorization. BUT. What if there was a police state, or a governmental agency that was in the business of watching private citizens, and then making decisions about whether or not they were dangerous? What if someone decided that EVERYONE who checked out The Anarchist’s Cookbook was a threat to the state, and should be rounded up? I had checked it out myself. I was a pre-pubescent girl at that point, but there was a lot of fuss about this book, and I was curious. Always curious. I checked it out, skimmed it, decided it was boring, and gave it back. I might find it more interesting now, since I am older and more aware of the importance it had as a symbolic pivot point in the shift towards a more transparent and open government, a key factor in the social and cultural dynamics of the 60s. But at that age, to me, it was boring. I was more interested in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Should I be taken in by the authorities because I checked it out? Should I go on a national “watch list”? Of course not. But what if?

That was one example, but it was because of those “what if”s that the entire national community of librarians had gotten together and devised new methods of charging books to patrons, of keeping records, or eliminating records. The new strategy was this. The FBI could ask for any records you had. If you didn’t have the records, they couldn’t ask for them. Therefore, libraries would not keep permanent records of patron borrowing habits. Yes, it meant, the libraries no longer had statistics and metrics that would allow them to personalize offerings for particular patrons. I could no longer PROVE that I had checked out every single book in the kids room. But the library profession had decided as a whole that it was more important for people to feel safe about borrowing library books without having to worry about whether Big Brother was watching.

Of course, now we have similar scenarios with Amazon, Google, Facebook, and such. All this information we are using online, linked to our personal identities or our computers, and the records kept in detail. But it isn’t the LIBRARIES who are keeping the records and giving them to federal agents, I assure you of that.

1990s to 2000s

Library Charge Card Ripped Out

What the librarian had explained to me about the FBI and library records was a conversation that kept coming up. It came up in grad school. It came up when I became a professional librarian, and patrons wanted to know WHY could I not tell them the name of that book they checked out 6 months ago or last year, and want to find again now? I’d explain the whole “Big Brother” idea, and they’d go away frustrated and irritated, but supportive at the same time. They thought this was perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill, but they weren’t so sure that they wanted me to change it.

Then came 9/11. Devastating, earth shattering, heart breaking 9/11. And on the heels of 9/11 came the Patriot Act. And the libraries were involved again in protecting the privacy, rights, and freedom to read and learn of all patrons. Librarians were involved deeply, and bitterly, and at risk of their own lives, safety, careers, and freedom.

Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Librarians:

And it is still going on.

Patriot Act Extended for Four Years With No Change to ‘Library Records Provision’. By Michael Kelley May 27, 2011.

Did you have any idea that librarians all around the United States of America have as part of their daily practice of their profession this dangerous balancing act? Any professionally aware librarian tracks this issue, the laws, the policies, the requirements. We read articles about anonymous librarians who have been “gagged.” We read articles about creative librarians who’ve come up with ways around the requirement of silence.

One of my favorites was a librarian who announces at every monthly board meeting, “There have been no legal requests for patron records.” Then, if she is ever asked, she will go silent, and the board will know. It happened. Many libraries emulated this once she thought of it, and there are libraries all around the country where we make forced silence obvious and evident by surrounding it with “sound” beforehand.


Hatcher Graduate Library

So, now we have this most interesting challenge to librarians’ freedom of speech happening in Canada. It reminds me a bit of the Third Reich and health care, where the doctors were required by law to report any “defective” children, so that they could be taken away from their families. The public version was that this would relieve the family of needing to devote time, energy, and resources to carrying for this child who is a burden on society. In reality, it didn’t matter if you wanted to keep your child or not, and chances are the child would die in the care of the state.

Here, the librarians (and support staff, volunteers, consultants, and anyone who works in any capacity in any Canadian federal library) are required to not talk, anywhere, to anyone, about anything, without the direct approval of their boss. The rules are pretty vague, in that you can’t talk in person, at a conference, as a teacher, in a blog, on Facebook or Twitter. The rules make it sound as if you better have a script written in advance, and you better not deviate. God help the student with a question in class, because you aren’t allowed to answer. The burden of informing the boss is borne by the employee. The penalties are borne by the employee. And it doesn’t stop when you leave your position. It’s horrifying. It’s ridiculous. It basically makes the entire role of being a librarian a joke. How can you be a librarian if you can’t answer reference questions without permission from your boss? Now I’m taking this to a silly extreme, because the guidelines lend themselves to such silliness.

But for me, looking back at the history I’ve observed in my own personal experience, I am willing to bet that somehow, the Canadian librarians will find whatever loophole exists in order to best serve their patrons, their profession, and their country, from the love of their hearts.