Internet Reading Club: Must-Reads in Science, Technology, and Health
The best stories from around the web in March.
Every month, we put together a list of some of the best science, technology, and health stories from around the Internet. March was a doozy. There is so much stellar reporting and writing out there, it boggles the mind. Here’s a tiny, impressive sampling from last month. (Plus a couple of silly yet satisfying links, too.) And if you want more, here are our picks from January and February.
Johnson & Johnson Has a Baby Powder Problem
Susan Berfield, Jef Feeley, and Margaret Cronin Fisk | Bloomberg Businessweek
More than 1,000 women and their families are suing J&J and Imerys, claiming the companies have known of the association with ovarian cancer for years and failed to warn them ...
Johnson & Johnson began selling Baby Powder more than 100 years ago, soon after the company was founded in New Brunswick, N.J. Among its first products were adhesives infused with pain relievers such as mustard seed, capsicum, quinine, and opium. When customers complained that removing the plasters left them with skin irritation, J&J’s scientific director sent them small containers of talc to help soothe any rashes. A few reported that the talc also seemed to ease diaper rash. In 1894 the company introduced Baby Powder, made of 99.8 percent talc and sold in a metal tin labeled “for toilet and nursery.”
The science may be limited, and it may be ambiguous. Many of the researchers involved, including Cramer, say more study is necessary. But the science wasn’t on trial in St. Louis; Johnson & Johnson was. “You don’t win with jurors on science. They don’t understand science, statistics, the design of studies,” says Erik Gordon, a professor at the School of Business and School of Law at the University of Michigan. “They do understand there was some evidence of a connection between talc and cancer, and J&J didn’t tell customers about it.”
Netflix should be investigated for throttling itself, FCC Republican says
Jon Brodkin | Ars Technica
Netflix has attempted to paint a picture of altruism whereby it virtuously sought to save these consumers from bumping up against or exceeding their data caps," [FCC Commissioner Michael] O'Rielly said. "There is no way to sugarcoat it: the news is deeply disturbing and justly generates calls for government—and maybe even Congressional—investigation."
O'Rielly went on to say that "the Federal Trade Commission may have grounds to scrutinize Netflix’s video throttling." O'Rielly—who voted against the FCC's net neutrality order in a 3-2 party-line vote—conceded that Netflix did not violate the net neutrality rule against throttling. That's because the rules only apply to Internet service providers and mobile carriers.
But he claimed that Netflix may have violated FCC rules when it did not mention its throttling in filings in which the company supported net neutrality rules.
Laura Parker | New Yorker
Doering, who is sixty-four, has a graying pixie cut and wears electric-blue eyeglasses. She works two days a week preparing specimens for storage in the museum’s research collection. By head count, the entomology department contributes the majority of the museum’s thirty-three-million-strong collection of specimens. “Certainly, we have the most by leg count,” Doering said. She works mainly with bees and wasps, sorting them into families after mounting them with steel pins, ready to be poked at by entomologists.
Specimens sometimes come from the field preserved in ethanol, which makes them gooey and unfit for display. (The chemical leeches the insects’ lipids, turning the alcohol a nice shade of yellow.) Doering’s job is to get the bees looking as much like themselves as possible, which means washing, drying, and brushing their matted fur. This isn’t just for aesthetic reasons; beautifying the insects helps their features stand out, making them easier to study.
She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’
A. Hope Jahren | The New York Times
The evasion of justice within academia is all the more infuriating because the course of sexual harassment is so predictable. Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” The opening lines refer to the altered physical and mental state of the author: “It’s late and I can’t sleep” is a favorite, though “Maybe it’s the three glasses of cognac” is popular as well.
The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body. Surprisingly, he often acknowledges that he is doing something inappropriate. I’ve seen “Of course you know I could get fired for this” in the closing paragraph; the subject line of the email sent to my former student was “NSFW read at your own risk!”
So much for the contents of the first email; now let’s picture its recipient. She’s shocked: Is this for real? She’s confused: Did she do something to make him think she wanted this? She’s worried: She has to see him tomorrow. Her thesis isn’t done, and she still needs his signature. What if he says no? She’s scared: If she rebuffs him, will he get angry?
What happens when you cook vintage Easter recipes? An unholy holiday meal
Molly Fitzpatrick | Fusion
Sam is conceptually disturbed by the bun bunnies: “Why do they have eggs? I know it’s Easter, but bunnies don’t lay eggs.” Which, fair: It’s a little like a pumpkin riding a broomstick, or a bald eagle wearing Uncle Sam’s top hat.
I expected the bunnies to be horrendously dry, but—while they are admittedly overbaked—they’re not that bad. The bread finishes sweet, and it’s easy to reach for another chunk of ear or tail once you’ve finished your first.
While we both agree that the buns look more like marsupials than rabbits (Happy Australian Easter!), I got positive reviews on their appearance. Sort of. “They’re cute, in that they look homemade,” Sam says. “They look like a child made them.”
Mat Honan | BuzzFeed
Google is also pushing hard into Indic languages. Although Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, with more than 400 million native speakers, that’s a small slice of the nation’s 1.3 billion–strong population. Google says it expects the next 300–400 million Internet users in India to come online speaking native languages. And so Google has rolled out support for 11 of them.
“That’s this head-exploding concept, when you think about the vernacular languages,” Pichai says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the leading newspapers in Tamil, my native language, had more circulation than the New York Times or other leading newspapers in the world.” (In fact, the biggest Tamil-language daily has a print circulation of 1.7 million to the New York Times’ 626,000. The second largest Tamil daily has a circ of 1.2 million.) “There are so many people who are very good at their native languages, but are completely cut off from everything. So in India, to go from 300 million users to a billion users, the path leads through vernacular languages.”
It also means bringing women online. This is a deeply personal issue for Pichai.
“My mom dropped out of high school for economic reasons, but she always was the one I turned to when I had difficulty with any of my schoolwork,” he says. “I could see the power of what she could contribute, but in some ways she couldn’t fully realize it because she didn’t have access to education. When you look at the internet, women account for less than one-third of the usage, and that number is much lower in rural areas, I think it’s an imperative for us to do that.”
The Incredibly True Story of Renting a Friend in Tokyo
Chris Colin | Afar
Miyabi would show up and just be a friend. You know, a normal, companionable, 27-year-old friend. She has been paid to cry at funerals and swoon at weddings, lest there be shame over a paltry turnout. Last year, a high schooler hired her and 20 other women just long enough to snap one grinning, peace-sign-flashing, I-totally-have-friends Instagram photo.
When I learned that friendship is rentable in Tokyo, it merely seemed like more Japanese wackiness, in a subset I’d come to think of as interest-kitsch. Every day in Japan, it seems, some weird new appetite is identified and gratified. There are cats to rent, after all, used underwear to purchase, owls to pet at owl bars. Cuddle cafés exist for the uncuddled, goat cafés for the un-goated. Handsome men will wipe away the tears of stressed-out female office workers. All to say I expected something more or less goofy when I lined up several English-speaking rent-a-friends for my week in Tokyo. The agency Miyabi works for exists primarily for lonely locals, but the service struck me as well suited to a solo traveler, too, so I paid a translator to help with the arrangements. Maybe a more typical Japanese business would’ve bristled at this kind of intrusion from a foreigner. But the rent-a-friend world isn’t typical, I would soon learn, and in some ways it wants to subvert all that is.
In Two Moves, AlphaGo and Lee Sedol Redefined the Future
Cade Metz | Wired
It showed that although machines are now capable of moments of genius, humans have hardly lost the ability to generate their own transcendent moments. And it seems that in the years to come, as we humans work with these machines, our genius will only grow in tandem with our creations.
This is what we should all take away from these astounding seven days. Hassabis and Silver and their fellow researchers have built a machine capable of something super-human. But at the same time, it’s flawed. It can’t do everything we humans can do. In fact, it can’t even come close. It can’t carry on a conversation. It can’t play charades. It can’t pass an eighth grade science test. It can’t account for God’s Touch.
But think about what happens when you put these two things together. Human and machine.
Measuring Trump’s Language: Bluster but Also Words That Appeal to Women
Claire Cain Miller | The New York Times
For every thousand words they say, the candidates typically tell four stories about people — their family members and people they’ve met on the campaign trail. Each tells more stories about men than women. Mrs. Clinton talks about men three times as often as she does women, and Mr. Rubio 18 times as often. Sometimes it seems the only woman Mr. Rubio tells stories about is his mother.
When Mr. Trump tells stories about women, they are usually about his wife and daughter. Mrs. Clinton’s stories have the broadest range of subjects, though she mentions her husband slightly more than she talks about anyone else.
All the candidates speak in violent language — commonly using words like “destroy,” “fight” and “obliterate” — though the targets of their aggression vary. It is evidence that for the job of commander-in-chief, voters expect militaristic language, Ms. Tannen said.
The Republicans consistently say they want to destroy ISIS, terrorists, “threats to our freedom” and “our enemies.”
Dune Lawrence | Bloomberg Businessweek
My husband was enraged and impatient: Couldn’t we do something? How could this guy be allowed to get away with this? My mother worried this was all just a prelude to something worse—violence, physical harassment. I soothed them the best I could, and I kept looking for help.
Friends and colleagues told me appealing to Google was pretty much hopeless, and I found that to be true. I couldn’t figure out how to report the stories as defamatory, although there was a “report images” option that I’ve been using to no avail for two years. Later, Google forwarded me its official policy. In the U.S., the company removes search results from its index only in very specific situations involving images of child abuse, copyright infringement, or exposure of sensitive information such as Social Security numbers. Google will also respond to a court order identifying pages or content as defamatory.
I didn’t sue for defamation. I talked to people about it, and all of them told me the same thing: It would be long, invasive, and horrible, and Wey would likely use the opportunity to further attack my privacy and reputation.
Wey kept at his trolling, with at least four more stories devoted to me, plus references in posts about his other targets. Whenever a new image of me came online, a Blot article followed, with the same insults stamped over the image: FRAUD, DUMB, RACIST, INCOMPETENT.
Whitewashing the Green Rush: How Black People Are Being Shut Out of America’s Weed Boom
Amanda Chicago Lewis | BuzzFeed
“It’s the people who push the limits, and those people are privileged people with resources and the ability to take risks,” Vazquez said. “Based on the color of your skin, the risk is exponentially different. Even if you accept the risk of getting caught, if you’re a person of color, the consequences could be so much more severe.”
Although 2.5 million black people live in California — more than in all the states that have legalized recreational marijuana combined — you don’t see many of them sitting on panels at cannabis conferences or weighing in on the latest marijuana court case in the Los Angeles Times.
Over the past few years, the Distributor watched with growing anticipation as a majority of the country came to see the folly of incarcerating addicts and nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time. He watched CNN and Fox News. He listened, breathless, to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association in August 2013, when he announced a plan to shift the focus of the criminal justice system away from nonviolent drug crimes.
“Most blacks don’t trust the system, because the system never helped them,” he said. “But by the time all of this irons itself out, you’re going to have like 94 percent of it owned by whites.”
MIT scientists find evidence that Alzheimer’s ‘lost memories’ may one day be recoverable
Ariana Eunjung Cha | The Washington Post
The revelations have “shattered a 20-year paradigm of how we’re thinking about the disease,” Rudy Tanzi, a Harvard neurology professor who is not involved in the research, told the Boston Herald. He said that since the 1980s, researchers believed the memories just weren't getting stored properly.
Doug Brown, director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, cautioned that the technique is not something that can be translated into a procedure that is safe for the estimated 44 million people worldwide with dementia just yet.
“While interesting," he told the Guardian, "the practicalities of this approach — using a special blue light to stimulate memory — means that we’re still many years away from knowing if it would be possible to restore lost memories in people."
The Secrets of the Wave Pilots
Kim Tingley | The New York Times Magazine
Worlds away, Huth, a worrier by nature, had become convinced that preserving mankind’s ability to way-find without technology was not just an abstract mental exercise but also a matter of life and death. In 2003, while kayaking alone in Nantucket Sound, fog descended, and Huth — spring-loaded and boyish, with a near-photographic memory — found his way home using local landmarks, the wind and the direction of the swells. Later, he learned that two young undergraduates, out paddling in the same fog, had become disoriented and drowned. This prompted him to begin teaching a class on primitive navigation techniques.
When Huth met Genz at an academic conference in 2012 and described the methodology of his search for the Higgs boson and dark energy — subtracting dominant wave signals from a field, until a much subtler signal appears underneath — Genz told him about the di lep, and it captured Huth’s imagination. If it was real, and if it really ran back and forth between islands, its behavior was unknown to physics and would require a supercomputer to model. That a person might be able to sense it bodily amid the cacophony generated by other ocean phenomena was astonishing.
Artificial Hearts Ticking Along Decades After Jarvik-7 Debate
Clyde Haberman | Retro Report / The New York Times
Back then, some medical ethicists arched eyebrows over these procedures and an accompanying ballyhoo in the news media. For them, the question boiled down to whether the operations enhanced life or prolonged the painful journey toward death.
Was the intention to “save a life or to serve the experimental interests of the surgeon?” a scholar on Jewish ethics asked at a 1985 symposium of religious figures and doctors in Louisville, Ky. A Jesuit theologian said that “in the Christian view, life is a basic good but not an absolute good,” and added, “There is a limit on what we may do to preserve our lives.” In January 1990, the federal Food and Drug Administration withdrew its approval of the Jarvik-7, citing concerns about the manufacturer’s quality control.
But that was hardly the end of the story. The holy grail of a working mechanical heart never disappeared, though the word “permanent” faded away. New devices have come along, each presented not as an abiding solution but, rather, as a temporary “bridge” to sustain patients until they can receive the transplant of a real heart. (Not that transplantation, first performed in 1967, is guaranteed to work. There is always a risk of a recipient’s body rejecting the new organ.)
In theory, replacing the heart might not seem the most daunting challenge. As essential as it is, it is also a relatively simple organ. All it does is pump blood. Humans have devised all manner of pumps for thousands of years. Then again, to describe the heart as merely a pump is much like saying that all the cellist Yo-Yo Ma does is drag horsehair across wires.
Meet The Man Who Convinced Taye Diggs to Follow You on Twitter
Freddie Campion | GQ
See, unlike every other famous person on Twitter, Diggs follows almost the same number of people that follow him. And he doesn’t just follow other celebrities, Taye Diggs follows just about anybody.
For years Diggs' liberal approach to Twitter and amassing followers was one of the great mysteries of the Internet. Then, in 2015, the Today show finally got him to admit what many had suspected for a while: a social media expert told him to do it. Diggs himself, it turns out, is actually a kind of a technophobe who says “social network” when he probably means social media.
What happened when Taye started to become famous for following a lot of people?
“There was tension on it. You know, people didn’t understand what was going on. My perspective on it is people acted rather immaturely. Look how many people Justin Bieber follows. [Ed’s note: Bieber follows 262K people and has 77.4 million followers.] However people interpreted it, I think most people in the world, when they got a follow from Taye Diggs, they felt happy.”
How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?
Allison Eck | Nautilus
His caution is understandable. The 34-year-old assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the architect of a new theory called “dissipative adaptation,” which has helped to explain how complex, life-like function can self-organize and emerge from simpler things, including inanimate matter. This proposition has earned England a somewhat unwelcome nickname: the next Charles Darwin. But England’s story is just as much about language as it is about biology.
There are some 6,800 unique languages in use today. Not every word translates perfectly, and meaning sometimes falls through the cracks. For instance, there is no English translation for the Japanese wabi-sabi—the idea of finding beauty in imperfection—or for the German waldeinsamkeit, the feeling of being alone in the woods.
What about life? We think we know life when we see it. Darwin’s theory even explains how one form of life evolves into another. But what is the difference between a robin and a rock, when both obey the same physical laws? In other words, how do you say “life” in physics? Some have argued that the word is untranslatable. But maybe it simply needed the right translator.
Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream
Kathryn Joyce | The Huffington Post
Both women protested to the managers that they were being retaliated against for their previous reports of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, the park launched an investigation, although both Superintendent David Uberuaga and Deputy Superintendent Diane Chalfant would later acknowledge in an official report that it may not have been thorough enough. In particular, the investigators weren’t made aware of the history between Anne, Lynn and the boatmen.
In a meeting, Lynn said Chalfant told her that Loeffler’s charges couldn’t be retaliatory, since Lynn’s previous sexual harassment complaint was confidential. Both Lynn and Anne were informed that their contracts would not be renewed. In Lynn’s termination letter, Chalfant wrote, “We cannot afford to have team members in our employment who are not on board with management’s expectations and requirements.”
“What happened to [Lynn] was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen,” said Chelly Kearney, who had made her own efforts to draw attention to the treatment of women on the river. About a year after she resigned in 2012, she wrote a 29-page letter to Grand Canyon Chief Ranger Bill Wright documenting multiple instances of harassment, assault and retaliation and describing a culture that protected male harassers while allowing victims to be targeted for retaliation. The Park Service requested a formal EEO investigation, but the final report was never distributed beyond the uppermost level of park management and no disciplinary actions were taken.
In my conversations with the women, they expressed great pride in their strength. For years, they had performed dangerous, physically demanding jobs. Many of them had faced life-threatening situations. All of them had operated within environments in which women had very little room for error. The harassment they described had not only brought about personal humiliation or the loss of a job or even a career. It had shaken their entire perception of themselves—as tough and resilient, able to handle anything that man or nature could throw at them.
Mechanomorphs and the politeness of machines
Alexis Lloyd | Medium
Tay serves as a perfect illustration of what can happen when bots engage with humans in conversation. The naive response to these kinds of incidents is, “Well, design your bot not to be offensive”. And indeed, much of what has happened with Tay is the result of a lack of thoughtful design.
But this situation brings up much larger issues about the inability of bots to negotiate the complexity of human conversation. I would go a step beyond “make your bot polite” and say that we should stop trying to make bots act like people. We need to develop new models for how we converse with machines that move beyond human verisimilitude towards something that is more in keeping with their abilities. Rather than humanoid bots, we should design mechanomorphs: bots that can create a different set of expectations around how we converse with them. If we make bots more machine-like, our conversations with them can have new boundaries, creating a new space less fraught with pre-existing social norms.
Siddhartha Mukherjee | The New Yorker
When my father and I visited Moni in 2012, I had not seen him for nearly two decades. Even so, I expected to recognize him. But the person I met in the visiting room bore such little resemblance to my memory of my cousin that—had his attendant not confirmed the name—I could easily have been meeting a stranger. He had aged beyond his years. His speech, once effusive and rapid, was hesitant and fitful; the words emerged with a sudden, surprising force, as if he were spitting out pips of food that had been put into his mouth.
The most memorable feature of his illness, though, was not the storm within his mind but the lull in his eyes. The word moni means “gem” in Bengali, but in common usage it also refers to something ineffably beautiful: the shining pinpricks of light in each eye. But this was precisely what was missing in Moni. The twin points of light in his eyes had dulled and nearly vanished, as if someone with a minute brush had painted them gray.
That schizophrenia runs in families was evident even to the person who first defined the illness. In 1911, Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss-German psychiatrist, published a book describing a series of cases of men and women, typically in their teens and early twenties, whose thoughts had begun to tangle and degenerate...
The Stevens and Barres study, published in the journal Cell in 2007, documented one of the most arresting instances of repurposing in biology: a protein designed to ticket germs and junk for destruction had been co-opted by the nervous system to ticket synapses for destruction. “It reinforces an old intuition,” my psychiatrist friend Hans, in Boston, told me. “The secret of learning is the systematic elimination of excess. We grow, mostly, by dying.” ... Schizophrenia, as McCarroll put it, “may be a disease of overpruning.” Synapses that should have been preserved get cut, like a garden that has been sheared back too aggressively in the winter.
These Unlucky People Have Names That Break Computers
Chris Baraniuk | BBC
Jennifer Null’s husband had warned her before they got married that taking his name could lead to occasional frustrations in everyday life. She knew the sort of thing to expect – his family joked about it now and again, after all. And sure enough, right after the wedding, problems began.
“We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again.
But to any programmer, it’s painfully easy to see why “Null” could cause problems for software interacting with a database. This is because the word 'null' can be produced by a system to indicate an empty name field. Now and again, system administrators have to try and fix the problem for people who are actually named “Null” – but the issue is rare and sometimes surprisingly difficult to solve.
For Null, a full-time mum who lives in southern Virginia in the US, frustrations don’t end with booking plane tickets. She’s also had trouble entering her details into a government tax website, for instance. And when she and her husband tried to get settled in a new city, there were difficulties getting a utility bill set up, too.