December's Must-Reads: Science, Technology, and Health

Stories not to miss from around the web this month

Ivan Timofeenko, dressed as Santa Claus, exhales a cloud of liquid nitrogen during a scientific show for children in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on December 24, 2015.  (Ilya Naymushin / Reuters)

I know, I know, the Internet is saturated with lists right now. The best overlooked science writing of the year, the best books of the year, the best podcasts, the best television, the best movies—and that’s just The Atlantic!

Welp, here’s another one to add to your list of lists: Our final monthly round-up of 2015 includes some of the best, most creative, funny, odd, and enlightening things from around the web in December.

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How to Destroy an American Family

Aaron Sankin and William Turton | The Daily Dot

Deliveries started arriving at the Strater residence in 2010. Chinese food would come that no one remembered ordering. Every nearby pizzeria would arrive, one stack of large pies right after another. Amy told all the restaurants in town to ignore calls from their address. If they wanted food, they’d get it themselves. Once, a large bouquet of flowers arrived—cash on delivery.

The deliveries culminated in a truck pulling up to the house with instructions to dump three tons of gravel in the driveway. “How was I going to get my car out?” Paul quips. “I don’t have a Dustbuster nearly big enough for all that gravel.”

Such events could be seen as the harmless pranks of teenagers with too much time on their hands. When the family started getting notices about their utilities being disconnected, they realized things were escalating out of control. Utility provider Commonwealth Edison once called the house to iron out the details about a request to have the power turned off after a supposed move. Something similar happened with their trash service. On Halloween 2013, Comcast shut off their cable and Internet service.

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A Radically Simple Idea May Open the Door to a New World of Antibiotics

Carl Zimmer | Stat

Bacteria make antibiotics naturally, which means that if you can grow new bacteria in a lab, the microbes can offer up new drugs. Unfortunately, for the past century, microbiologists have failed to unlock the secret to cultivating the vast majority of bacterial species. Now Epstein and his colleagues have found a way to make many of them thrive.

“Everyone thought the solution would be high-tech,” said Epstein. But the one that he and his colleagues have found is remarkably straightforward.

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The Radical Politics of the Blockchain

Morgen Peck | Backchannel

With some scrolling and a few clicks, first Mayel and then Edurne cryptographically signed the digital document prepared for them by BitNation. A hash (or condensed version) of their marriage contract was irrevocably added to the blockchain.

The newlyweds and their dissident friends raised their flutes of champagne and cheered. It was done. Well, something was done. But are they in fact legally married? Will anyone recognize this contract?

Bolting legal frameworks and verifiable personal identities to the blockchain in many ways flips bitcoin on its head. The digital currency was designed to completely replace institutions with cryptography and math. There is no court of appeal for errors, no recourse for fraud, theft or carelessness—a transaction is a transaction and cannot be undone, barring a systemwide failure known as a 51 percent attack. Bitcoin ownership comes in the form of a digital key, which does not trace back to any real world person. Therein lies the conundrum for blockchain governance: no amount of math can validate that a person is who they say they are—so far, only a state can.

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What’s a Species, Anyways?

Ben Crair | The New Republic

It is illegal under federal law to kill a red wolf, given their status as an endangered species. But since the year 2000, shootings have become the number-one cause of death among red wolves, decimating the population. Today, the number of red wolves in North Carolina stands between 50 and 75 animals—half what it was a decade ago. Once again, the red wolf is on the verge of disappearing from the wild.

To environmentalists, the idea of letting the red wolf go extinct is simply unthinkable. But scientific research has complicated their standoff with local hunters and property owners. Since the red wolf was originally classified as an endangered species, biologists have studied it intensely—sequencing its DNA, scrutinizing its morphology, and piecing together its evolutionary history. And they’ve put forward a compelling new theory: The red wolf, an animal the U.S. government has spent decades and millions of dollars attempting to save from extinction, may not actually be a distinct species at all.

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The First Person to Hack the iPhone Built a Self-Driving Car. In His Garage

Ashlee Vance | Bloomberg Business

“Hold this,” he says, dumping a wireless keyboard in my lap before backing out of the garage. “But don’t touch any buttons, or we’ll die.” Hotz explains that his self-driving setup, like the autopilot feature on a Tesla, is meant for highways, not chaotic city streets. He drives through San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and then onto Interstate 280.

With Hotz still holding the wheel, the Acura’s lidar paints a pixelated image on the dash screen of everything around us, including the freeway walls and other cars. A blue line charts the path the car is taking, and a green line shows the path the self-driving software recommends. The two match up pretty well, which means the technology is working. After a couple miles, Hotz lets go of the wheel and pulls the trigger on the joystick, kicking the car into self-driving mode. He does this as we head into an S curve at 65 miles per hour. I say a silent prayer. Hotz shouts, “You got this, car! You got this!”

The car does, more or less, have it. It stays true around the first bend. Near the end of the second, the Acura suddenly veers near an SUV to the right; I think of my soon-to-be-fatherless children; the car corrects itself. Amazed, I ask Hotz what it felt like the first time he got the car to work.

“Dude,” he says, “the first time it worked was this morning.”

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Watching People Live Stream Themselves Sleeping Can Be Dull, Creepy, and Strangely Sweet

Willa Paskin | Slate

I saw one girl streaming herself lying in bed, reading her iPhone, while, in the background, The Polar Express played on a TV she was ignoring. Another woman lay in bed silently, sometimes playing with her hair, at others reading on an iPad she held so it entirely blocked her face. Watching people on their screens through a screen: It sounds like end times, but it feels more like watching a yule log burning, ambient background motion dependent on our lizard brains’ fascination with the movement of fire and other people.

#Sleepingsquad, like so much about technology, conflates our vanity and our vulnerability, our self-obsession and our sharing instincts, in confusing ways. Broadcasting oneself sleeping, like tweeting about one’s breakfast, seems like the height of self-involvement: Who could possibly care? But what kind of vanity is it that invites people—potentially predatory ones—to see you at your most exposed, most pedestrian, most mouth breathing? If this is narcissism, it’s a narcissism that doesn’t put forth a polished, perfect face but an actual snoring one. What better way to proclaim that you woke up like this than to actually show yourself waking up?

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Why Dictionaries Have Started Sanctioning Even the Dumbest Internet Slang

Caitlin Dewey | The Washington Post

Dictionaries have always added new words, of course; if they didn’t, they’d be useless. But skeptical philologists are correct in observing that the pace has gotten faster, the incubation times shorter, and the neologisms frequently more “ridic.”

As always, you can blame the Internet. “The lifecycles of words are infinite,” said Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “But the cycle has changed, and it’s now quite quick.”

We’ve long known, of course, that the Internet and the mess of technologies we use to access it shape the way we communicate. Less discussed, but equally important, is how the Internet has changed the institutions documenting, codifying and endorsing the language.

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Love Thy Reader, Securely

Basile Simon | Nieman Journalism Lab

2015 was supposed to be the year we all moved to HTTPS—sadly, it didn’t happen. HTTPS provides a first layer of security for our digital news offerings. It guarantees the authenticity of our content through certificate authorities. Most importantly, because all traffic is encrypted over HTTPS, individual browsing histories are protected from curious eyes. This encryption also helps prevents Man In The Middle (MITM) attacks—where content is altered or even completely removed.

Some governments, though, are exploiting the lack of attention news orgs have given to security to spy on their own cititzens. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s call to the news industry to switch to HTTPS to “protect the integrity of their content and the privacy of their readers” hasn’t been followed by enough action.

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How Machines Write Poetry

Elizabeth Preston | Motherboard

Without this human connection, Colton says, “We have to ask ourselves: what is the point of computer-generated poetry?”

Colton thinks computer poetry should be treated as its own genre, separate from human poetry. And rather than judging an artificially intelligent poet only on its output, Colton wants to address the “creative” process itself. His own program, called Full-FACE, writes poems based on newspaper articles. Along with each poem, it writes a summary of its process. I read a story in the Guardian culture section entitled: “South Africa's ANC celebrates centenary with moment in the sun,” Full-FACE wrote in part to explain one poem. The program had focused on a sentence about a man at the celebration who was wearing blue overalls:

the repetitive attention of some traditional african chants

a heroic struggle, like the personality of a soldier

an unbearable symbolic timing, like a scream

blue overalls, each like a blueberry

some presidential many selfless leaders

oh! such influential presidents

such great presidents

blueberry-blue overalls

lark-blue overalls

a knight-heroic struggle

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The Long, Incredibly Tortuous, and Fascinating Process of Creating a Chinese Font

Nikhil Sonnad | Quartz

“Chinese-script projects are crazy. The scope is mind-blowing.”

So says font designer David Březina, chief type officer at Rosetta Type, a Czech firm that specializes in designing custom typefaces for multiple scripts (a font is a digital representation of a typeface).

To see what Březina means, consider a letter: e. Deciding what an e looks like is the job of typeface designers. To design a typeface for English, a designer needs to create symbols for each of the 26 Roman letters in upper and lower case, as well as punctuation, numbers, and so on. Each of these symbols is called a “glyph.”

Each Chinese character is a glyph, too—for instance, 水 (that’s shui, which means “water”). Behind the e glyph and the 水 glyph, however, are two very different processes. The main difference is scale.

The default set for English-language fonts contains about 230 glyphs. A font that covers all of the Latin scripts—that’s over 100 languages plus extra symbols—contains 840 glyphs, according to Březina. The simplified version of Chinese, used primarily in mainland China, requires nearly 7,000 glyphs. For traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the number of glyphs is 13,053.