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Posts from May 2010

Endings, Beginnings

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010 4:06p.m.

This weekend, one of my favorite academic-flavored blogs on the internet shuttered its doors. Effect Measure was a blog about public health and public health policy. The authors, who collectively wrote under the pseudonym "revere" in recognition of Paul Revere's service on the first local Board of Health in the U.S., are expert epidemiologists that brought detailed technical expertise to issues of public health along with a broad knowledge of public health policy and its role on American health. Although I read their blog regularly, their daily -- indeed, sometimes hourly -- analysis of the swine flu outbreak were indispensable and made it a daily read during and after the outbreak. Being flu epidemiologists they provided sorely-needed analysis of the technical aspects in common language that really helped explain the crisis. They were so skilled at doing this that their writing ended up being more science journalism than expert testimony. They brought the same level of attention to topics such as food safety, occupational health, and science policy. They have handed off their role of the public health blog of record at Science Blogs (a great collection of blogs about various topics relating to different disciplines of science and medicine) to The Pump Handle. Although I will miss the "reveres," if they recommend a blog as highly as they do The Pump Handle, I look forward to reading more.

And, speaking of looking forward to reading more, also filling the absence will be a new blog -- Improving Population Health -- founded and edited by David Kindig at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.1
David is not only an expert in the field, he literally defined the field. He writes that it is "intended to serve as a forum for discussion and a call for action as we consider what all of us -- across all sectors -- can do to improve the health of our communities." His work has already done that for many years, most recently with the publication of the County Health Rankings earlier this year. The blog is already off to an auspicious start with a great lineup of guest contributors including my colleague, Sarah Gollust, in a few weeks.

Godspeed, Reveres, thank you for your contribution to the world of public health and welcome to the blogosphere, Dr. Kindig!


  1. The blog is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who funds the Health & Society Scholars Program that pays my salary. 

  tags: blogs, David-Kindig, population-health, public-health category: Media

Seeing Obesity Over Time

Monday, May 10th, 2010 7:26p.m.

The blog Graphic Sociology, part of the Contexts community of blogs, provides an excellent forum for discussing the visual presentation of information. The blog's author, Flaneuse(a.k.a., Laura Noren), provides examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly in data visualization with a narrative of "what works" and "what needs work" for each graphic.

Yesterday, Flaneuse had a post on obesity trends that originated at the blog Flowing Data. Nathan Yau, the author of Flowing Data posted a challenge to his readers to make an image that answers the question are people getting fatter faster?1 that improves on the following one:

Flowing Data Obesity Trends

Despite the solutions posted at Flowing Data, I actually think that the original graph is not a bad representation of the data; however, it suffers from a few technical problems that I think would be easy to solve. First, the graph does not indicate that the lines are birth cohorts (though Nathan's text does indicate that is what the lines represent). Second, given that they are successive birth cohorts in the study, I think that the colors could have been used more creatively to indicate that they are successive (i.e., the oldest cohort could have been rendered in light gray and the youngest in dark gray with appropriate scaling in between). There are two reasons that I like this graph better than many of the alternatives. First, it follows people over time, which makes a narrative easier to figure out from the image. Second, because what we are interested in is the change in slope of the percent obese across successive cohorts, the original image displays this very well.


  1. I don't agree with the phrasing "getting fatter," but that's what he wrote. 

  tags: data-visualization, graphics, obesity category: Public Health

Learning from the Great One

Saturday, May 8th, 2010 1:48p.m.

"You miss 100% of the shots you never take." -- Attributed to Wayne Gretzky

I was reminded of this quote this week after I had a grant submission rejected. Although it stung, the criticisms were legitimate and, as one of my advisors told me, "rejection is part of the process." It was this comment that reminded me of Gretzksy's quote and realizing that, although it doesn't feel good to be rejected, it does mean that I made an effort -- I can't make a shot that I don't take after all.

This was a lesson that was hard to learn in grad school and I was fortunate that I had people around me -- advisors and more advanced grad students -- advise me that it is important to send things out. In fact, as I became an advanced grad student myself and subsequently took my post-doc, it is now something that I try to advise others about. As academics, we are perfectionists. As academics, it is good to be perfectionists, it is what gives us credibility and without that instinct we would not have gotten to where we are. At the same time, it is important to remember that things will be more perfect if we seek advice and help from others; this, too, is the essence of scientific inquiry.

  tags: advice, grants, rejection, research-process category: Academe

Matching Substrings Entirely Within Stata

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010 7:59p.m.

At Orgtheory, Fabio asked about how to identify substrings within text fields in Stata. Although this is a seemingly simple proposal, there is one big problem, as Gabriel Rossman points out: Stata string fields can only hold 244 characters of text. As Fabio desires to use this field to analyze scientific abstracts, then 244 characters is obviously insufficient.

Gabriel Rossman has posted a solution he has called grepmerge that uses the Linux-based program grep to search for strings in files. This is a great solution, but it comes with one large caveat: it cannot be used in a native Windows environment. This is because the grep command is only native to Linux-based systems (which include Apple computers). Therefore, I set out to find a solution that was a) platform-independent and b) internal to Stata (if possible).

Below is the solution that I developed. The solution, it turns out, is not to rely on Stata's string variables or string functions (both can only handle 244 characters), but instead to rely on Stata's local macros ("macros" are what other programming languages call "variables;" however, this would be confusing given that Stata also has variables, thus Stata calls them "macros"). The second key comes from the extended functions of Stata's macros. These are functions that build in much of the programming functions for Stata. There is no function defined to search for strings that are immediately like regex() or strpos(); however, there is an extended function to substitute within strings that will also provide a count of the number of substitutions made. Since all we really care about is the number of times a string would be substituted, then if we know that the count of substitutions is greater than we have the information that we need.

  tags: gabriel-rossman, macros, orgtheory, Stata, strings category: Programming

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