September Must-Reads: Science, Technology, and Heath

A roundup of the most compelling stories from around the web

Close-up of test tubes (Pedrosala / Shutterstock)

Okay, okay, okay. I love an expertly reported 10,000-word magazine story as much as the next person. But not all great reads are long reads. And there’s so much exceptional journalism out there these days, it’s easy to miss some real gems. So every month, we’ll collect our favorite links and share them with you. September’s collection is alternately heartbreaking, captivating, charming, odd, hilarious, frightening, and all-around worth the time.

* * *

Telling JJ: She's 10. She has HIV. This is the moment she learns the truth.
John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post

She wore a denim purse, its strap running cross-body through the silver “Love” inscribed on her T-shirt. Tucked inside the bag was a wallet-sized Lisa Frank notebook with a multicolored front covered in dolphins and penguins. She had used it to record her thoughts, just as Rakhmanina told her to do.

Three questions were scribbled on the second page:

“What hospital was I born in?”

“Did I get my virus from my parents?”

“Why was I adopted?”

* * *

The Killer Inside My Apartment
Casey Johnston | The Hairpin

If you’ve made it this far in life without seeing one maybe that’s for the best, but here is a picture if you’re violently curious. Let the fact that it would be unconscionable to embed an actual photo of one of these guys stand for a judgment of their appearance. I will say this: there are no visible eyes, no visible head, and more legs than body. It’s like if you took a giant black toothbrush and smashed its bristles flat.

* * *

What Searchable Speech Will Do To You
James Somers | Nautilus

The worry, then, is twofold: If you stopped working out the part of your brain that recalls speech, or names, or that-book-that-Brian-recommended-when- you-spoke-to-him-in-the-diner-that-day-after-the- football-game, maybe those parts of your brain would atrophy. Even more pernicious, as you came to rely more on the Record as a store of events and ideas, you would decide less often to commit them to your own long-term memory. And so your mind would become a less interesting place.

If that’s frightening, consider also what it might be like to live in a society where everything is recorded. There is an episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror set in a world where Google Glass–style voice and video recording is ubiquitous. It is a kind of hell. At airport security, the agents ask you to replay your last 24 hours at high speed, so they can clear all the faces you interacted with. At parties, instead of making new conversation, people pore over their “redos” and ask to see their friends.’ In lonely moments, instead of rehearsing memories in the usual way—using the faulty, foggy, nonlinear recall apparatus of their own minds—people replay videos, zooming in on parts they missed the first time around. They seem to live so much in the past as to be trapped by it. The past seems distorted and refracted by the too-perfect, too-public record. In the episode’s most vividly dark moment, we see a couple passionately making love, only to realize that the great sex is happening in “redos” that they’re both watching on their implanted eye-screens; in the real present, they’re humping lovelessly on a cold bed, two drugged-out zombies.

* * *

How Chicago Got Smart About Sensors
Susan Crawford | Medium Backchannel

This is the breathtaking, crucial, central element of the Array of Things mindset: the whole thing is aimed at creating a repository of public, free, real-time data in a single place. All the devices are set to communicate only with the Chicago researchers. No outsider can initiate a connection to one of these nodes. When the device connects to the central location in Chicago — at Argonne National Lab — it drops its data there, receives an acknowledgement that the data was received, and then deletes the data from its own local storage place. The City of Chicago, in turn, will take a feed of data from Argonne and pull it into its own open data portal.


Here’s another amazing, all-important element of this Chicago story: personal privacy is front and center for the city and its collaborators at the University of Chicago and around the world, as both a matter of substance and process.

* * *

How Much of Your Audience is Fake?
Ben Elgin, Michael Riley, David Kocieniewski, and Joshua Brustein | Bloomberg

Late that year he and a half-dozen or so colleagues gathered in a New York conference room for a presentation on the performance of the online ads. They were stunned. Digital’s return on investment was around 2 to 1, a $2 increase in revenue for every $1 of ad spending, compared with at least 6 to 1 for TV. The most startling finding: Only 20 percent of the campaign’s “ad impressions”—ads that appear on a computer or smartphone screen—were even seen by actual people.

“The room basically stopped,” Amram recalls. The team was concerned about their jobs; someone asked, “Can they do that? Is it legal?” But mostly it was disbelief and outrage. “It was like we’d been throwing our money to the mob,” Amram says. “As an advertiser we were paying for eyeballs and thought that we were buying views. But in the digital world, you’re just paying for the ad to be served, and there’s no guarantee who will see it, or whether a human will see it at all.”

Increasingly, digital ad viewers aren’t human. A study done last year in conjunction with the Association of National Advertisers embedded billions of digital ads with code designed to determine who or what was seeing them. Eleven percent of display ads and almost a quarter of video ads were “viewed” by software, not people.

* * *

Police Program Aims to Pinpoint Those Most Likely to Commit Crimes
John Eligon and Timothy Williams | The New York Times

The use of computer models by local law enforcement agencies to forecast crime is part of a larger trend by governments and corporations that are increasingly turning to predictive analytics and data mining in looking at behaviors. Typically financed by the federal government, the strategy is being used by dozens of police departments — including Los Angeles, Miami and Nashville — and district attorneys’ offices in Manhattan and Philadelphia.

At a time when many police departments are under fire for aggressive tactics, particularly in minority neighborhoods, advocates say predictive policing can help improve police-community relations by focusing on the people most likely to become involved in violent crime.

Civil liberties groups take a dim view of the strategy, questioning its legality and efficacy, and asserting that it may actually worsen the rapport between the police and civilians.

* * *

Important Sources of Protein for Introverts
Mallory Ortberg | The Toast

Seaweed, whispering


A rich inner life

A handful of Brazil nuts

Time to yourself

Being valued for your quiet strength

Leaving a cocktail party early to eat some bison

* * *

Hawaii's Deepest Secret
Marcia Bjornerud | New Yorker

In a modest paper published in the March 5, 1971, issue of Nature, the geophysicist Jason Morgan proposed that Hawaii and other isolated volcanic hot spots were surface manifestations of what he called mantle plumes—columns of hot (although not molten) rock, about a hundred miles in diameter, that rose from the core-mantle boundary and generated magma as they neared the surface. Morgan’s article was rather thin on actual data, but his theory was consistent with a number of observations.

First, lavas from Hawaii and similar archipelagoes, including Samoa, the Canaries, and dozens of others, differ markedly in their chemistry from those that erupt at the mid-ocean ridges, where plates diverge from each other. This suggests that they emanate from parts of the mantle that are distinct from those that produce ordinary seafloor basalt. Second, some island groups in both the Pacific and the Atlantic show a well-defined progression of ages. In the case of Hawaii, a string of successively older islands—and then an underwater mountain range, known as the Emperor chain—stretches to the northwest of the Big Island. Morgan’s greatest insight was that this pattern could be a result of the northwestward motion of the Pacific Plate. Just as the bars on a typewriter strike a fixed point on a moving sheet of paper, the stationary mantle plume was leaving its embossment on the surface of the drifting crust.


But, in the early two-thousands, a vocal group of skeptics began raising questions. By this time, global seismology had progressed from merely delineating Earth’s layers to measuring subtle variations in temperature or composition within the mantle using three-dimensional seismic tomography—analogous to medical CT scans. To the surprise of mainstream geoscientists, this method failed to reveal the expected columns of hot rock beneath oceanic islands. Even Hawaii, the paradigmatic plume site, did not seem to be fed by one.

* * *

Volkswagen and the Era of Cheating Software
Zeynep Tufekci | The New York Times

Computational devices that are vulnerable to cheating are not limited to cars. Consider, for example, voting machines. Just a few months ago, the Virginia State Board of Elections finally decertified the use of a touch-screen voting machine called “AVS WinVote.” It turned out that the password was hard-wired to “admin” — a default password so common that it would be among the first three terms any hacker would try. There were no controls on changes that could be made to the database tallying the votes. If the software fraudulently altered election results, there would be virtually no way of detecting the fraud since everything, including the evidence of the tampering, could be erased.

If software is so smart and its traces of tampering are possible to erase, does this mean that we have no hope of catching cheaters? Not at all. We simply need to adopt and apply well-known methods for testing computing devices.

* * *

New Dinosaur Species That Lived Above Arctic Circle Is Discovered
Nicholas Bakalar | The New York Times

“It had crests along its back like Godzilla,” said one of its discoverers, Gregory M. Erickson, a professor of biological sciences at Florida State University. The dinosaur’s jaw was lined with at least 1,000 teeth with coarse surfaces perfect for pulverizing plants.

U. kuukpikensis belongs to the hadrosaur group of duck-billed dinosaurs. It was 25 to 30 feet long, six or seven feet high at the hip, and probably covered with scales. While its front legs were much shorter than its back legs, it could walk on all fours.

* * *

Taking Power
PJ Vogt | Reply All

A lot of people see Comcast as this big powerful company that can and will do whatever it wants to its customers. Being a Comcast customer can make you feel infuriatingly weak. Like an angry mosquito buzzing in the ear of a giant. One of those mosquitoes is a guy named Chris Adams, a cinematographer in Nashville. And Chris wanted a discount on his Comcast bill. The company said no and so he posted a tweet, complaining that it hadn’t worked out. Comcast then actually did give him the discount and so he was happy. Happy until a few months later when his phone rang.

CHRIS ADAMS: Yeah so I got this call and I answer the phone and this woman says her name was Kendra and she was with Comcast and she said she was with their I believe she said social media team, something along those lines. She said that she had seen that I had posted a tweet about a negative experience I had had with Comcast and so she wanted to know if that issue had been resolved. So I told her, Yeah I’m pretty sure the issue was resolved. And she said, Okay well, since your issue has been resolved, I was hoping that maybe we could get you to delete the tweet because you know it is slanderous towards Comcast.

PJ: She said it was slanderous towards Comcast?

CHRIS: Yeah.

PJ: Here on Earth, companies usually don’t call their customers to complain about critical tweets. And this call only got stranger.

* * *

The War of the Hoverboards
Joseph Bernstein | BuzzFeed

The 2-foot-long, two-wheeled, twin-motored plastic board that glided to the forefront of American popular culture this summer could be the skateboard of the young century. The similarities are there. It’s a zeitgeisty short-distance ride that has started to yield its own, self-sustaining viral culture. And you can definitely draw a line from the amateur videos that helped skate culture conquer America to the sudden tide of Vines and Instagram videos that have made the boards a phenomenon. Then again, the so-called hoverboards could simply be the Tickle Me Elmos of 2015 — ubiquitous, overpriced trinkets with a single holiday-season half-life. Time and the collective attention span of America’s teenagers will tell.

This much is certain: For some weeks or years to come, these devices will be part of the future. Celebrity endorsements on television and social media, enthusiastic word of mouth, and a sudden crop of internet distributors that can barely import the things fast enough to mark them up and meet demand have seen to that.

Unlike most of the toy crazes of the past 20 years, however, hoverboards aren’t simply a case of a major brand developing a product followed by a rash of cheap imitators. Their popularity is weirder and harder to trace.

* * *

In A Turkish Village, A Conversation With Whistles, Not Words
Peter Kenyon | NPR

There are other whistled languages in the world, one in the Canary Islands for instance. But the Kuskoy bird language excited the interest of a Turkish-German bio-psychologist, Onur Gunturkun.

"I was absolutely, utterly fascinated when I first heard about it," he says. "And I directly saw the relevance of this language for science."

Gunturkun has been working on brain asymmetry research, which holds among other things, that spoken language is mainly processed by the left hemisphere of the brain, and music by the right. There is some overlap – when it comes to recognizing tones of voice, for instance - but basically they're seen as separate.

So how does the brain process a language in which syllables are rendered as whistled tones instead of spoken words?

Which of the best stories from the past month did I miss? If you’d like, let me know ( and I'll update this list with the best suggestions.