Internet Reading Club: Science, Technology, and Health

Stories not to miss from around the web in February

Sergeant fish swim near coral reefs at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt, in November 2015. (Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)

February was a month for exploring gravitational waves, space archaeology, Internet origin stories, complicated rock legacies, and uncanny computerized voices, among other things.

I hope you’ll find the reporting and writing on this month’s list as engrossing and memorable as I did. (And for more, check out must-reads from September, October, November, December, and January.)

* * *

New Databases Offer Insights Into the Lives of Escaped Slaves

Eve M. Kahn | The New York Times

New databases are enabling historians and descendants of slaves to piece together family trees and identify patterns in the lives of runaways. These searchable listings indicate how often slaves managed to leave with their children, how some were able to pass for white and how many recaptured slaves kept trying to escape ... Mary Niall Mitchell, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans who is also working on Freedom on the Move, said escaped slaves who ended up in New Orleans could sometimes mingle with the city’s free blacks and find work. But newspapers would have kept white citizens informed about what the fugitives looked like, so blacks on the streets would have been scrutinized. “It’s a whole web of gossip and surveillance,” Dr. Mitchell said.

Meaghan E. H. Siekman, a senior researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, said the owners wrote ads “describing people like a jacket that they’d lost.” By noting the slaves’ skills—ranging from carpentry to violin playing—the ads made it harder for them to find jobs in free states, she said. Revealing their expertise left them vulnerable to being identified and recaptured.

* * *

The 10,000 Year Clock

Kara Platoni | Hazlitt

The clock is the brainchild of star programmer Danny Hillis, who conceived it, Rose says, “as a kind of antidote to what he had spent most of his life working on, which was building the very fastest supercomputers in the world.” The problem, Hillis felt, was that the cultural emphasis on speed was prompting people to sacrifice the good of the future for the needs of the present. As a species, we had become too focused on short-term time spans like electoral cycles or fashion seasons. “His fear was that there were certain problems that could only be solved on a much longer timescale,” says Rose, “things like climate change or hunger or education. These are not things you solve in a four-year election horizon.” The clock would be a counterexample, Rose says, essentially “the slowest computer in the world,” a behemoth that would force you to see yourself not at the forward edge of time’s progress, but at just one point along its way. “The original kind of poetic version of it was a clock that ticked once a year and bonged once a century and the cuckoo would come out once a millennium,” says Rose.

* * *

Creating a Computer Voice That People Like

John Markoff | The New York Times

It is not yet possible to create a computerized voice that is indistinguishable from a human one for anything longer than short phrases that might be used for weather forecasts or communicating driving directions.

Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the “uncanny valley,” in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring. The phrase was coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. He observed that as graphical animations became more humanlike, there was a point at which they would become creepy and weird before improving to become indistinguishable from videos of humans.

The same is true for speech.

* * *

What Should We Say About David Bowie and Lori Maddox?

Jia Tolentino | Jezebel

And the “separate the art from the artist” argument has been permanently changed by Bill Cosby, who will be remembered as a serial rapist, as he deserves. For Bowie, the same idea has started to foment—that this encounter with Maddox (and the others it implies) should be, as with Cosby, his major legacy. “RIP a child rapist,” said a tipster. On Twitter, a search for “David Bowie rapist” pulls up hundreds of people expressing combinations of anger, smugness, contrarianism, righteousness, and sincere conviction that the Grammys should not be celebrating him, that Tavi Gevinson should not be writing about him, the “rapist” description is primary and exactly right.

There are two underlying assumptions here that I question: first, that we either have to write off David Bowie in deference to the women, or write off the women in deference to David Bowie—that we can’t value one without devaluing the other. The second is that it’s a critical dodge to even bring up the fact that we’re talking about the 1970s.

* * *

Sarah Parcak Is a Space Archaeologist. Soon You Will Be Too

Liz Stinson | Wired

Space archaeologists don’t actually work in space. Instead, they use satellite imagery, taken by spacecraft whizzing 400 miles above Earth’s surface, to find things buried within the planet’s crust. Parcak is among a small but growing number of researchers using this technology to find potential excavation sites. The field has been around since the early 1980s, when NASA hired its first archaeologist, Tom Sever, to exploit new satellite technology. But in the last decade, higher-resolution imagery has triggered a boom in archaeological discoveries. According to TED, Parcak has helped find 17 potential pyramids, upwards of 3,000 settlements, and 1,000 lost tombs—and that’s just in Egypt. She has, in her own words, “beat Indy.”

“I won—I mapped Tanis,” she says, referring to the once-lost Egyptian city made famous in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Parcak isn’t the first space archeaologist, but she’s perhaps the most well-known.

* * *

How the Internet Flips Elections and Alters Our Thoughts

Robert Epstein | Aeon

The forces that Packard described have become more pervasive over the decades. The soothing music we all hear overhead in supermarkets causes us to walk more slowly and buy more food, whether we need it or not. Most of the vacuous thoughts and intense feelings our teenagers experience from morning till night are carefully orchestrated by highly skilled marketing professionals working in our fashion and entertainment industries. Politicians work with a wide range of consultants who test every aspect of what the politicians do in order to sway voters: clothing, intonations, facial expressions, makeup, hairstyles and speeches are all optimized, just like the packaging of a breakfast cereal.

Fortunately, all of these sources of influence operate competitively … But what would happen if new sources of control began to emerge that had little or no competition? And what if new means of control were developed that were far more powerful—and far more invisible—than any that have existed in the past? And what if new types of control allowed a handful of people to exert enormous influence not just over the citizens of the U.S. but over most of the people on Earth?

It might surprise you to hear this, but these things have already happened.

* * *

An Oral History of The First Presidential Campaign Websites in 1996

Mike Shields | The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Kubasko: At that point if you didn’t have a website you were old and antiquated and Bob Dole didn’t need to seem any more antiquated than he was. But was there a plan? Nooo! Literally it was, “we need to have a website,and it needs to be better than Bill Clinton’s.” That was steps one and two. Step three was, maybe collect data. I wish we were more visionary about that.

There also wasn’t a “cloud” to lean on to support the site. And communications between the Web team and the Dole campaign were rather primitive.

Mr. Kubasko: We would do stuff on the website, we’d post it live. The campaign guys would print it out, annotate them and fax the changes back to me. I had 17 feet of faxes all over my dorm. It was so ridiculous. And I’d go through the edits.

* * *

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens

Elspeth Reeve | The New Republic

Lilley and Greenfield’s tax returns showed they made $249,000 that year. The three of them started to think about building a company that would connect brands to Tumblr blogs and cut out the middleman—or better yet, become the middleman and take a cut. (“Everyone who’s been a publisher has had that thought,” said Lilley.) It would be a platform on which social media accounts could find advertising campaigns to post on their site, and they would charge a portion of the revenue for the convenience. They’d call the company Exposely.

But at the end of 2013, disaster: AdSense banned Lilley and Greenfield just as they were due a large check—Greenfield estimated it was $50,000. Months later, an anonymous person claiming to be a Google employee would post a supposed tell-all on Pastebin, a text-sharing site used primarily by coders, claiming that AdSense intentionally bans people just before big checks are due. (Many tech blogs suspect the confession is a fake.) A class action lawsuit was filed against Google in 2014, and Business Insider noted, “Google often behaves so mysteriously that many advertisers and publishers will actually welcome the suit: It may finally shed some light on exactly how and why Google kicks web sites out of its vast, $60 billion-a-year advertising system.” The class action case was dismissed in early 2015, as was a similar suit, in which Google canceled a site’s account when it allegedly owed $535,000, then later reinstated it, but didn’t pay the money. “It was a huge wake-up call,” Lilley said. “It felt like working somewhere, putting in a lot of work, and you show up one day and they throw all your shit in a box and they’re like ‘get the fuck out’ and they won’t even say why you were fired.”

* * *

The Last Job on Earth

The Guardian

* * *

Should Dictionaries Do More to Confront Sexism?

Nora Caplan-Bricker | The New Yorker

Feminists and linguists have been talking about the sexism that lurks beneath the surface of dictionaries since at least the nineteen-sixties. The question of how to eradicate it is bound up in a broader debate about the role of lexicography: Should dictionaries be proscriptive, establishing a standard of usage, or should they be descriptive, reflecting usage as it exists in the world? In the eyes of editors, their mandate is the latter ...

But the choices about what to include in a dictionary, like the construction of any historical record, are, arguably, inherently political. There is a circular logic to the descriptivist ethos: Lexicographers say that the words and meanings they add to the dictionary have already been validated by the public’s use, but, to the public, a word’s inclusion in the dictionary is the thing that legitimizes it. For this reason, feminist linguists argue that, in some instances, lexicographers should put a thumb on the scale. In a corpus, “it may be that the most common collocate feels a little sexist, or a little something else,” Anne Curzan, a historian of English at the University of Michigan, told me. “As an editor, you can decide to use the second most common example.”

Connor Martin told me that she and her colleagues often look for example sentences without gendered pronouns, especially to illustrate socially “fraught” words. Sarah Shulist, a linguistic anthropologist at MacEwan University, suggests that if the corpus shows gendered usage for a word, like “shrill,” lexicographers can choose to reflect that fact, but they should mark it as pejorative instead of presenting it without comment. Dictionaries have increasingly relied on labels to demarcate racist language, for instance, since the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People threatened to boycott Merriam-Webster over its definition of the N-word, in 1997. (The entry back then read, “a black person—usu. taken to be offensive”; today, Merriam-Webster notes that the word “ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.”) “It’s standard practice with slurs to mark them as a slur,” Shulist said. “The real question is where to draw the boundary. I think they should move it.” For lexicographers, making this shift might mean acknowledging that words such as “overbearing” and “hysterical,” or “bossy” and “nagging”—two more entries whose gendered examples Oman-Reagan and his followers flagged as sexist—have never been neutral.

* * *

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Charles Duhigg | The New York Times Magazine

As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

* * *

When the Hospital Fires the Bullet

Elisabeth Rosenthal | The New York Times

Hospitals can be dangerous places. From 2012 to 2014, health care institutions reported a 40 percent increase in violent crime, with more than 10,000 incidents mostly directed at employees, according to a survey by the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety. Assaults linked to gangs, drug dealing and homelessness spill in from the streets, domestic disputes involving hospital personnel play out at work, and disruptive patients lash out. In recent years, dissatisfied relatives even shot two prominent surgeons in Baltimore and near Boston.

To protect their corridors, 52 percent of medical centers reported that their security personnel carried handguns and 47 percent said they used Tasers, according to a 2014 national survey. That was more than double estimates from studies just three years before.

* * *

The Case of the Missing Perpetrator

Rebecca Solnit | Literary Hub

What is a woman? According to the CDC, all women are in danger of becoming pregnant. “Drinking too much can have many risks for women,” their chart tells us, [Ed. note: the chart has since been changed. See below for the original] and itemizes them for “any woman.” “Injuries/violence” top the list and “unintended pregnancy” brings up the rear. “Drinking too much can have risks for women including… any alcohol use for women who are pregnant or might be pregnant.” Medical professionals should “advise a woman to stop drinking if she is trying to get pregnant or not using birth control with sex.” This in a few deft, simple strokes reduces all women to fertile females in their breeding years who have what you might call exposure to fertile men. It denies the existence of many other kinds of women and the equal responsibility of at least one kind of man. Maybe it denies the existence of men, since women seem to get pregnant here as a consequence of consorting with booze, not boys.

* * *

Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them

Nicola Twilley | The New Yorker

“It never should have been built,” Isaacson told me. “It was a couple of maniacs running around, with no signal ever having been discovered, talking about pushing vacuum technology and laser technology and materials technology and seismic isolation and feedback systems orders of magnitude beyond the current state of the art, using materials that hadn’t been invented yet.” But Isaacson had written his Ph.D. thesis on gravitational radiation, and he was a firm believer in LIGO’s theoretical underpinnings. “I was a mole for the gravitational-wave community inside the N.S.F.,” he said.

It took years to make the most sensitive instrument in history insensitive to everything that is not a gravitational wave. Emptying the tubes of air demanded forty days of pumping. The result was one of the purest vacuums ever created on Earth, a trillionth as dense as the atmosphere at sea level. Still, the sources of interference were almost beyond reckoning—the motion of the wind in Hanford, or of the ocean in Livingston; imperfections in the laser light as a result of fluctuations in the power grid; the jittering of individual atoms within the mirrors; distant lightning storms. All can obscure or be mistaken for a gravitational wave, and each source had to be eliminated or controlled for.

* * *

Should you edit your children’s genes?

Erika Check Hayden | Nature

“As a parent with an incredibly sick child, what are we supposed to do — sit by on the sidelines while my child dies? There’s zero chance of that,” Wilsey says. “CRISPR is a bullet train that has left the station — there’s no stopping it, so how can we harness it for good?”

A meeting convened in December 2015 by the US national academies of sciences and medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London recommended such a moratorium in light of multiple safety and ethical concerns. Still, many bioethicists and scientists have argued that if defects in single genes causing fatal and debilitating conditions could be corrected in an embryo, then they should be. Shakespeare notes that embryo editing for conditions that cause major disability and death are likely to raise less concern and criticism in the long term. But, he says: “As soon as you get away from the archetypal terrible condition, then you’ve got a debate about whether a condition makes life unbearably hard.”

* * *

How you can use Facebook to track your friends’ sleeping habits

Søren Louv-Jansen | Medium

Everybody I’ve shown this to have been equally fascinated and outraged by the accuracy with which it predicts their sleep habits. In this digital world we leave footprints where we go, and when we do it, without even thinking about it. Facebook might block this little “hack”, so your friends no longer can track you, but Facebook will always be able to do their own data analysis which is undoubtably way better than what I’ve come up with. They are likely using this data for profiling, and creating more user-specific ads.

* * *

Meet the woman responsible for the greatest gifs on the internet

John Walker | Fusion

You might not know Cat Frazier by name, but I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen her work. The 24-year-old is the creative genius behind the Animated Text Tumblr, where she creates intentionally tacky-looking gifs of rotating text that occupy some tonal void between “Feeling Myself” and “Teenage Dirtbag.” Aesthetically, the gifs—each one requested by a follower—look similar to the kind of animated welcome banners you might have seen on someone’s personal web site circa Y2K...

By injecting more and more of herself into the Animated Text project, she became more and more comfortable with being vulnerable on the internet, something she did not expect when she was designing ostentatiously disaffected gif mantras like “lol nothing matters” or “blog the pain away.”