We Have to Settle Up With the Past to Get to the Future

5 Intriguing Things is a curated collection of links that help us think about the future. Subscribe to the daily newsletter.

1. Ta-Nehisi Coates' cover story for our magazine on reckoning with the nation's "compounding moral debts" is so, so powerful.

"'In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,' the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. 'Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.' The sale of these slaves—“in whose bodies that money congealed,” writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian—generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country."

+ Having worked with TNC for years now, this story also feels like the culmination—or at least a major milestone—of his capital-P Project. He's been wrestling with these issues so deeply for so long.

2. I've always felt almost good that drug companies weren't coming up with new antibiotics—even though the old ones were growing less effective—because it meant we could just make new ones when we needed to. But...

"There's a persistent explanation for the state of antibiotic therapy that blames drug companies for supposedly walking away from the field. This has the cause and effect turned around. It's true that some of them have given up working in the area (along with quite a few other areas), but they left because nothing was working. The companies that stayed the course have explored, in great detail and at great expense, the problem that nothing much is working. If there ever was a field of drug discovery where the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean, it is antibiotic research."

3. One mobile app company encountered 11,868 different types of Android devices last year.

"Android devices come in all shapes and sizes, with vastly different performance levels and screen sizes. Furthermore, there are many different versions of Android that are concurrently active at any one time, adding another level of fragmentation. What this means is that developing apps that work across the whole range of Android devices can be extremely challenging and time-consuming... From a developer’s perspective, comparing fragmentation from this year to the previous year, we see that it has tripled, with even more obscure devicesfrom around the world downloading the app. If you want to understand the challenge of building an app that will work on all devices that want to download it, this image is a good place to start!"

4. The eyes of history.

"Faces offer an instant connection to history, reminding us that the past is full of people. People like us, but different. People with their own lives and stories. People we might only know through a picture, a few documentary fragments, or a newspaper article. On this site I’m exploring whether faces can provide a way to explore more than 120 million newspaper articles available on Trove. To create the site I filtered and downloaded thousands of illustrated articles from 1880 to 1954 using the Trove API. I then used OpenCV to look for faces within those illustrations, and eyes within the faces."

5. The placental microbiome may play an important role in developing the bacterial ecosystem inside babies' guts

"During pregnancy, the authors of the new study suspect, the wrong mix of bacteria in the placenta may contribute to premature births. Although the research is preliminary, it may help explain why periodontal disease and urinary infections in pregnant women are linked to an increased risk of premature birth. The findings also suggest a need for more studies on the effects of antibiotics taken during pregnancy. The new study suggests that babies may acquire an important part of their normal gut bacteria from the placenta. If further research confirms the findings, that may be reassuring news for women who have had cesareans. Some researchers have suggested that babies born by cesarean miss out on helpful bacteria that they would normally be exposed to in the birth canal."

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

blasé. Cloyed, surfeited. Pron. blä zā' or blä'-. A circumlocution-saver for being so surfeited with pleasure &c. as to be unable to enjoy ordinary things. 

A Picture, a Few Documentary Fragments