January’s Must-Reads in Science, Technology, and Health

Stories not to miss from around the web

A lithograph of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption (Public Domain Review)

Here’s our collection of engrossing, original, troubling, and all-around extraordinary stories from around the web in the month of January. My mind’s still swimming from some of this stuff—dogged reporting, expert storytelling, fascinating thinking, and well worth the time.

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The Color of Surveillance

Alvaro M. Bedoya | Slate

We now find ourselves in a new surveillance debate—and the lessons of the King scandal should weigh heavy on our minds. A few months after the first Edward Snowden revelation, the National Security Agency disclosed that it had itself wiretapped King in the late 1960s. Yet what happened to King is almost entirely absent from our current conversation. In NSA reform debates in the House of Representatives, King was mentioned only a handful of times, usually in passing. And notwithstanding a few brave speeches by senators such as Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul outside of the Senate, the available Senate record suggests that in two years of actual hearings and floor debates, no one ever spoke his name.  

There is a myth in this country that in a world where everyone is watched, everyone is watched equally. It’s as if an old and racist J. Edgar Hoover has been replaced by the race-blind magic of computers, mathematicians, and Big Data. The truth is more uncomfortable. Across our history and to this day, people of color have been the disproportionate victims of unjust surveillance; Hoover was no aberration. And while racism has played its ugly part, the justification for this monitoring was the same we hear today: national security.

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Playing for Time

Jason Tanz | Wired

Amidst all the plasma guns and power-ups, it can be easy to overlook the fact that videogames are inherently metaphysical exercises. Designing one is like beta-testing a universe. Its creators encode it with algorithms, maps, and decision trees, then invite players to decipher its hidden logic. Intentionally or not, games contain implicit messages about purpose, free will, the afterlife. Master the secret rhythms of Super Mario Bros. and you can deliver the eponymous plumber to a princely paradise. But even the best Space Invaders player is fated to end the game in defeat, another futile circuit in its samsara-like cycle of death and rebirth.

In a 2011 lecture titled “Truth in Game Design,” developer Jonathan Blow declared that games were a unique platform through which to explore the mysteries of the universe. “We can come to the game with question after question after question and type in some code and get answer after answer after answer,” he said. “And if we’re tapping into the right thing, then the volume of answers available to us can actually be quite large.” Blow, whose time-bending puzzle game Braid was a breakout hit, was speaking mostly of questions pertaining to theoretical physics and advanced mathematics. The questions That Dragon, Cancer is asking, on the other hand, are the kind of spiritual and existential quandaries that have haunted humanity since Job: Why are we here? Can we influence our fate? What kind of God would allow such suffering? How do we endure the knowledge that we, along with everyone we have ever met and loved, will die?

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Baby Doe

Jill Lepore | The New Yorker

Victorian child-savers enlisted public support by telling sensational stories involving the deaths of poor children, especially babies. It became a convention of the dead-baby story to suggest that poor women are not to be trusted with babies, and as a result the public favors rescuing children but not if it means helping women. As a rule, setting the interests of poor children against those of poor women leads to reforms that fail, which leads, a few years later, to another dead-baby story. This next time around, the reform itself is blamed for the death of the baby, and an opposite reform is proposed. It, too, fails. And then the cycle begins again.

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Why do people keep coming to this couple’s home looking for lost phones?

Kashmir Hill | Fusion

An oddity in Atlanta’s tech infrastructure is regularly disturbing two people’s lives. A screw-up in the unseen signals flying through the air means that police and strangers are knocking on their door on a regular basis and there’s nothing obvious they can do to stop it. It’s enough to make you want to become an electrosensitive and move to the tech boonies.

“We rely on these tools and this data but we do so blindly,” said Westin. “Technology is not perfect. Law enforcement can rely on it and be wrong.”

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The Next Social Media We Want and Need!

David Chaum | Backchannel for Medium

Today’s social-media, as McLuhan said is always the case, initially copied the old media, but will next realize its full potential... This also resonates with what Maslow told us, people focus on the current need level until it is met (in this case basic social-media functionality) and only then switch focus to a new need defining the next level up (protecting informational self-determination). Technology permitting, a next level would seem inevitable.

If only this next level were merely a nice-to-have. Classical Athens created the main ingredients of Western civilization, from the sciences to the arts, arguably enabled by their democracy. Our own constitutions, like theirs, provide the mechanism of governance, which by all accounts is not enough to breathe life into democracy. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, albeit framed in the days of paper media, pretty much lays out the magic ingredient: people need justifiable confidence that their information and interactions are protected.

The explicit right to a free press it seems to me, though I’m no constitutional scholar, should translate today to an infrastructure not only for publishing information but for protecting those publishing, providing, or consuming it, as well as those financially supporting its publication.

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The strange life of Q-tips, the most bizarre thing people buy

Roberto A. Ferdman | The Washington Post

The cigarette analogy is an apt one. We continue to twist Q-tips in our ears thanks to a simple truth: It feels great. Our ears are filled with sensitive nerve endings, which send signals to various other parts of our bodies. Tickling their insides triggers all sorts of visceral pleasure.

But there's more. Using Q-tips leads to what dermatologists refer to as the itch-scratch cycle, a self-perpetuating addiction of sorts. The more you use them, the more your ears itch; and the more your ears itch, the more you use them.

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How ‘-Phobic’ Became a Weapon in the Identity Wars

Amanda Hess | The New York Times Magazine

One reason ‘‘homophobia’’ was such a provocative neologism was its somewhat trollish imputation that the person who holds anti-gay beliefs is pathetically scared of gay people. Weinberg’s alpha-male patients, you assume, would be significantly more comfortable with a diagnosis of hating gays than of fearing them.


Medical models have long served as metaphors for the spread of cultural ideas. ‘‘Xenophobia is a disease more dangerous to a free people than a physical plague,’’ reads a 1923 New York Times editorial against the Ku Klux Klan. The paper called for ‘‘a political Pasteur’’ who could ‘‘isolate and destroy the germ which shows itself in the indiscriminate hatred of other nationals or other races.’’ Nowadays, we pathologize ideas with talk of memes that mutate from host to host and information that reaches a critical mass by ‘‘going viral.’’ It’s a powerful trope, but it also risks trading one stigma for another: ‘‘Phobia’’ is now so embedded in our language that it’s easy to forget that it is a metaphor comparing bigots to the mentally ill.

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The Rise, Fall, and Almost Rise of The Caviar of Cantaloupe

Tori Marlan | BuzzFeed News

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease. The Irish Potato Famine is a case in point. The Cavendish banana, which makes up 99% of the banana export market, is being wiped out by a fungal disease for which there’s no cure, and the industry has no other banana variety on deck.


Taylor believes the problems associated with pesticides extend beyond the fate of bees and the food supply. “They’re killing the human population, too,” he says, “but that’s a slower process and harder to track.” Farmers and the public are being misled, according to Taylor. “They’re told by the government it’s OK to spray, but as a biochemist, I know it’s not safe.”

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The Day the Mesozoic Died

Sean B. Carroll | Nautilus

Rigorous testing proved there was no elevated level of plutonium. Everyone was at first disappointed, but the sleuthing continued.

Luis kept thinking of some kind of scenario that could account for a worldwide die-off. He thought that maybe the solar system passed through a gas cloud, that the sun had become a nova, or that the iridium could have come from Jupiter. None of these ideas held up. An astronomy colleague at Berkeley, Chris McKee, suggested that an asteroid could have hit the earth. Luis at first thought that would only create a tidal wave, and he could not see how a giant tidal wave could kill the dinosaurs in Montana or Mongolia.

Then he started to think about the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa, in 1883.

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How to Search the Internet of Things for Sleeping Babies

J.M. Porup | Ars Technica

"The bigger picture here is not just personal privacy, but the security of [Internet of Things] devices," security researcher Scott Erven told Ars Technica UK. "As we expand that connectivity, when we get into systems that affect public safety and human life—medical devices, the automotive space, critical infrastructure—the consequences of failure are higher than something as shocking as a Shodan webcam peering into the baby's crib."

Admiring the problem is easy. Finding solutions is harder. For his part, Tentler is sceptical that raising consumer awareness will be enough to solve the problem. Despite tons of press harping on about the privacy implications of webcams, it’s pretty clear, according to Tentler, that just telling people to care more about security isn’t going to make a difference.

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The Neurologist Who Hacked His Brain and Almost Lost His Mind

Daniel Engber | Wired

For about as long as there have been computers, there have been people trying to figure out a way to control them with our minds.


“Your brain will be infinitely more powerful than the brains we have now,” Kennedy continues, as his brain pulsates onscreen. “We’re going to extract our brains and connect them to small computers that will do everything for us, and the brains will live on.”

“You’re excited for that to happen?” I ask.

“Pshaw, yeah, oh my God,” he says. “This is how we’re evolving.”

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No food is healthy. Not even kale.

Michael Ruhlman | The Washington Post

"I submit to you that our beloved kale salads are not “healthy.” And we are confusing ourselves by believing that they are. They are not healthy; they are nutritious. They may be delicious when prepared well, and the kale itself, while in the ground, may have been a healthy crop. But the kale on your plate is not healthy, and to describe it as such obscures what is most important about that kale salad: that it’s packed with nutrients your body needs. But this is not strictly about nomenclature. If all you ate was kale, you would become sick. Nomenclature rather shows us where to begin.

“ ‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word,” Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, medical director of its Wellness Enterprise and a nutrition autodidact (“They didn’t teach us anything about nutrition in medical school”), told me as we strolled the aisles of a grocery store. “Our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious. I’m all about the words. Words are the key to giving people the tools they need to figure out what to eat. Everyone’s so confused.”

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The resolution of the Bitcoin experiment

Mike Hearn | Medium

When networks run out of capacity, they get really unreliable. That’s why so many online attacks are based around simply flooding a target computer with traffic. Sure enough, just before Christmas payments started to become unreliable and at peak times backlogs are now becoming common.


Many Bitcoin users and observers have been assuming up until very recently that somehow these problems would all sort themselves out, and of course the block chain size limit would be raised. After all, why would the Bitcoin community—the community that has championed the block chain as the future of finance—deliberately kill itself by strangling the chain in its crib? But that’s exactly what is happening.

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The Penis Implant is Here

Amy Wallace | GQ

Especially over the past five years, procedures such as calf and cheekbone implants have increased as men shake off the stigma and embrace the prime drivers of such surgeries in women: vanity and self-affirmation. Without exception, the Penuma patients I interviewed said that their lives had improved since getting the implant. And it wasn’t just about sex. To have continued to settle for the status quo, they said, would have been to deny their potential in every area of life.

By this point you may be wondering: How have I not heard about this? The answer: Elist is currently the only doctor authorized by the FDA to insert the Penuma, and he has all the patients he can handle without doing any marketing other than a basic website. A 66-year-old surgeon with 13 patents to his name, Elist has inserted about 1,300 of his implants in men from all over America and from other countries around the world.

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When chickens go wild

Ewen Callaway | Nature

By looking at feral animals, some evolutionary biologists hope to determine how domestic animals and their genes change in response to natural pressures. The research could also help to inform tricky conservation questions about how such animals affect native species, and ultimately whether and how to control them.

The natural history of the Kauai fowl makes them an important test case. “People have a really complicated relationship with the chickens,” says Eben Gering, an evolutionary ecologist at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, who is in Kauai with Henriksen and Wright. “Some people absolutely want them gone. Some consider them an integral part of the local culture.”

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How Stories Deceive

Maria Konnikova | The New Yorker

In fact, Bruner argues, narrative thinking is responsible for far more than its logical, systematic counterpart. It’s the basis of myth and history, ritual and social relations. The philosopher Karl Popper “proposed that falsifiability is the cornerstone of the scientific method,” Bruner told the American Psychological Association at their annual meeting, in Toronto, in the summer of 1984. “But believability is the hallmark of the well-formed narrative.” Even scientists construct narratives.

There is no scientific method without the narrative thread that holds the whole enterprise together. Stories make things more plausible, more convincing, and more fundable. Rightly or wrongly, a research proposal with a compelling narrative arc stands out. As the economist Robert Heilbroner once confided to Bruner, “When an economic theory fails to work easily, we begin telling stories about the Japanese imports.” When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.

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How companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks

Terrence McCoy | The Washington Post

Since 1975, insurance companies have committed an estimated $350 billion to structured settlements. This has given rise to a secondary market in which dozens of firms compete to purchase the rights to those payments for a fraction of their face value.

What happens in these deals is a matter of perspective. To industry advocates, the transactions get money to people who need it now. They keep desperate families off the streets, pay medical bills, put kids through school.

“What we do is provide equity for those people to buy homes,” said Access Funding chief executive Michael Borkowski. ... But to critics, Access Funding is part of an industry that profits off the poor and disabled. And Baltimore has become a prime target.

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When Good Drones Go Bad

Brian Barrett | Wired

However steep that learning curve turns out to be, it likely ends not in Syria or Iraq, but in one of the Western nations ISIS has clear intent to attack.

“The failure of Islamic State to successfully use drones for attack in Iraq and Syria shows that the method of attack has some difficulties,” says Abbott. “However, Iraq and Syria provides the group with the testing ground to perfect the delivery of IEDs by unmanned aerial or ground vehicles. Once perfected, multiple sources have suggested that the group is looking to use drone swarms to overwhelm any defenses and deliver spectacular attacks.”

The idea of a coordinated drone attack rightly sounds terrifying. (These are, after all, terrorists). For that matter, so does a precisely placed lone wolf quadcopter. How likely that type of attack is to take place outside of the Middle East theater, though, remains a question of some debate.

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My Last Day as a Surgeon

Paul Kalanithi | The New Yorker

I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the Earth. I drove home and told [my wife,] Lucy. It was a Thursday night, and we wouldn’t see [my oncologist] Emma again until Monday, but Lucy and I sat down in the living room, with our laptops, and mapped out the next steps: biopsies, tests, chemotherapy. The treatments this time around would be tougher to endure, the possibility of a long life more remote. T. S. Eliot once wrote, “But at my back in a cold blast I hear / the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” Neurosurgery would be impossible for a couple of weeks, perhaps months, perhaps forever. But we decided that all of that could wait to be real until Monday. Today was Thursday, and I’d already made tomorrow’s O.R. assignments; I planned on having one last day as a resident.

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Signs of Modern Astronomy Seen in Ancient Babylon

Kenneth Chang | The New York Times

The tablet, a couple of inches wide and a couple of inches tall, reveals that the Babylonian astronomers employed a sort of precalculus in describing Jupiter’s motion across the night sky relative to the distant background stars. Until now, credit for this kind of mathematical technique had gone to Europeans who lived some 15 centuries later.

“That is a truly astonishing find,” said Mathieu Ossendrijver, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, who describes his archaeological astronomy discovery in an article on Thursday in the journal Science.