(City of Vancouver Archives)

A little while back, for a reason I can’t recall, I stumbled onto the amazingly well-digitized collection of the British Columbia Sugar Refining Company records at the City of Vancouver Archives. Their laboratory records, in particular, are going to be a huge help.

But by far the best thing I found was filed under “Collected Artworks“: this cartoon of an astronaut in an early-60s capsule radioing mission control to say he’d spotted a 10-pound bag of sugar floating in orbit.

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A couple of years ago, two physician-researchers in Boston, Leo Celi and Aaron Stupple, approached me about co-writing a paper on reproducibility. It’s been an exciting, fun, and sometimes twisty interdisciplinary challenge. Happily, the result was published this week in the open-access journal npj Digital Medicine. (npj stands for Nature partner journal.)

There’s no abstract, but here is the introduction:


The reproducibility crisis in the age of digital medicine

If anyone doubts the explosive growth of interest in digital medicine, consider a recent conference and workshop in Beijing, jointly organized by the People’s Liberation Army General Hospital and MIT Critical Data to showcase the opportunities and challenges of applying machine learning to the kind of data routinely collected during the provision of care.[1] In person, 500 attendees heard a keynote and panels and participated in a health data hackathon. Online, however, the event was streamed to more than one million unique viewers.[2]

As databases of medical information are growing, the cost of analyzing data is falling, and computer scientists, engineers, and investment are flooding into the field, digital medicine is subject to increasingly hyperbolic claims. Every week brings news of advances: superior algorithms that can predict clinical events and disease trajectory, classify images better than humans, translate clinical texts, and generate sensational discoveries around new risk factors and treatment effects. Yet the excitement about digital medicine—along with the technologies like the ones that enable a million people to watch a major event—poses risks for its robustness. How many of those new findings, in other words, are likely to be reproducible?

Digital medicine must take steps to avoid a reproducibility “crisis” of the kind that has engulfed other areas of biomedicine and human science in the last decade and shaken public confidence in the validity of scientific work. The goal of this paper is to use a historical perspective on reproducibility and its current crisis to suggest how digital medicine can avoid a reproducibility crisis of its own.

Now a bunch of physicians have heard of Otto Sibum’s great work on James Joule!

For years, I’d been meaning to write a story about frozen herring. In 2014, in the course of my research on sugar I’d come across a scandal from the 1890s, where the Treasury Department accused the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts of conspiring with customs officials there to import herring without paying any taxes. The roots of the issue, it turned out, went back decades and even involved real hand-to-hand fighting between American and Canadian (well, Newfoundlander) sailors. It was a fun story and I considered pitching it to the Atlantic or Slate or some similar publication.

One Monday morning in early June, just after Trump started a trade war with Canada, I realized that if I were ever going to write the piece, now was the time. So I did, and here it is! I can’t say it lit the internet on fire, but I’m quite proud of it (which is all down to Kathy and her wonderful editorship).

Also, it resulted in this golden tweet.