Internet Reading Club: April’s Best Science, Technology, and Health Journalism

Must-reads from around the web.

A flapjack octopus swims in its darkened tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2014.  (Michael Fiala / Reuters)

There’s too much good stuff to read on the list this month! Who has time for an introduction? (For even more phenomenal stories, check out the lists from January, February, and March.)

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The Dark Side of Guardian Comments

Becky Gardiner, Mahana Mansfield, Ian Anderson, Josh Holder, Daan Louter and Monica Ulmanu | The Guardian

New research into our own comment threads provides the first quantitative evidence for what female journalists have long suspected: that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.

Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.

And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.

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The Secret Rules of the Internet
Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly | The Verge

Today, YouTube’s billion-plus users upload 400 hours of video every minute. Every hour, Instagram users generate 146 million "likes" and Twitter users send 21 million tweets. Last August, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook that the site had passed "an important milestone: For the first time ever, one billion people used Facebook in a single day."

The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?

While public debates rage about government censorship and free speech on college campuses, customer content management constitutes the quiet transnational transfer of free-speech decisions to the private, corporately managed corners of the internet where people weigh competing values in hidden and proprietary ways. Moderation, explains Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford, is "a profoundly human decision-making process about what constitutes appropriate speech in the public domain."

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Inky the Octopus Escapes From a New Zealand Aquarium
Dan Bilefsky | The New York Times

Octopus tracks suggest he then scampered eight feet across the floor and slid down a 164-foot-long drainpipe that dropped him into Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of North Island, according to reports in New Zealand’s news media.

The aquarium’s keepers noticed the escape when they came to work and discovered that Inky was not in his tank. A less independence-minded octopus, Blotchy, remained behind.

The aquarium’s manager, Rob Yarrall, told Radio New Zealand that employees had searched the aquarium’s pipes after discovering Inky’s trail, to no avail.

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Remote Control
Brian Anderson | Motherboard

In the past, those attempting to cross the Mexican border were accompanied by a coyote, or foot guide. Coyotes would lead large groups of migrants across la línea to a pre-arranged site on the American side where migrants would be passed off to another guide. Many migrants do still cross this way, according to Comanche, a Sinaloa cartel boss who heads up a borderland smuggling cell in Nogales, Sonora.

But these days, a guide may just be a voice on the other end of the line.

More people crossing the border than ever carry burners, according to law enforcement, government officials, smugglers, and migrants on both sides of the border. Migrants aren’t as likely to carry smartphones, as Chino did while crossing illegally. In most cases migrants already have their own phones on them as they attempt to cross. But it’s become common for polleros, or human traffickers, to push migrants, known as pollos (“chickens”), to purchase crossing packages that include burners explicitly to be used for communicating during the crossing and then to be ditched in the desert.

It’s unclear exactly how many migrants cross with phones. But at the very least, burners are now an assumed, even necessary part of the border-crossing industry...

“Where should I run?” Chino says into his phone.

“You have to go through the shrubbery,” one of the polleros replies.

Chino’s body finally kicks in and he sprints. It’s not long before he missteps, falling into a large mud puddle. Chino manages to hold onto his phone as he goes down, before he gets up and continues running. He leaves tell-tale footprints in undisturbed dirt, groomed daily by Border Patrol, as he clears the expanse of light. Then everything goes dark. Chino can’t see and goes down again, this time slamming into a cactus. He’s so nervous he doesn’t even feel the barbs biting into his arms and side.

The phone flings out of his hand but he sees where it lands. He picks it up.

“Are you OK?” asks the pollero.

“Yes. I just ran into a cactus,” Chino says.

“No, keep running,” the pollero commands. “Don’t stop. Run.”

And so Chino starts up once more. But after just a few strides the bottom drops out from under him. The hole is a meter-and-a-half feet deep. He never sees it coming. Chino falls in.

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Is Empty Nose Syndrome Real?
Joel Oliphint | BuzzFeed News

In December, Brett and his girlfriend broke up. He tried to tend bar, but working while feeling on the verge of drowning was torturous. To get through a shift, he’d sometimes run to the liquor store across the street to buy a pack of gum, which helped force him to mouth-breathe. And even though music was his greatest love, he stopped playing guitar. He moved back into his childhood home, where he spent his days and nights pacing the house with Kleenex stuffed up his nose. “I can’t live like this. This is miserable,” he told his parents. “I have no life now. I want my life back. I had a good life.”

Brett was embarrassed by what he’d become. He lost all his empathy. He even envied people with cancer. Everyone has heard of cancer. Doctors take it seriously. He envied strangers blowing their snotty, functioning noses. His sinus cavity, meanwhile, felt like a hollowed-out pumpkin. In frantic attempts to explain the sensation, he’d grab his mom’s fingers and stick them up his own nose. She tried to comfort him. “Sweetie,” Carol would say. “You know we haven’t seen all the doctors there are to see. We need to do some more research. Sometimes shit happens, and we’ll get through it. It’ll be OK.”

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Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?
Daniel Engber | FiveThirtyEight

All these tellings and retellings miss one important fact: The story of the spinach myth is itself apocryphal. It’s true that spinach isn’t really all that useful as a source of iron, and it’s true that people used to think it was. But all the rest is false: No one moved a decimal point in 1870; no mistake in data entry spurred Popeye to devote himself to spinach; no misguided rules of eating were implanted by the sailor strip. The story of the decimal point manages to recapitulate the very error that it means to highlight: a fake fact, but repeated so often (and with such sanctimony) that it takes on the sheen of truth.

In that sense, the story of the lost decimal point represents a special type of viral anecdote or urban legend, one that finds its willing hosts among the doubters, not the credulous. It’s a rumor passed around by skeptics — a myth about myth-busting. Like other Russian dolls of distorted facts, it shows us that, sometimes, the harder that we try to be clear-headed, the deeper we are drawn into the fog.


It seems plausible to me, at least, that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them. It lowers their defenses, in the same way that the act of remembering sometimes seems to make us more likely to forget. Could it be that the more credulous we become, the more convinced we are of our own debunker bona fides? Does skepticism self-destruct?

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U.C. Davis Learns Downside of Trying to Scrub Search Results

Daniel Victor and Karen Workman | The New York Times

The [University of California, Davis] paid at least $175,000 to two public relations firms to suppress the negative search results generated by its name, and the name of its chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, according to a report this week by The Sacramento Bee. The news has caused some California lawmakers to call for her resignation...

And that raises the question: Does this sort of thing work? In a word, no. Eliminating undesirable search results is not possible, said Danny Sullivan, an expert in search engine optimization. Mr. Sullivan is the founder of Marketing Land and Search Engine Land.

“I want to say it felt laughable,” he said of the contract. “It read like a document written from 1998.”

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A toxic web: what the Victorians can teach us about online abuse

J. Nathan Matias | The Guardian

Online harassment is not isolated to women or feminists, as decades of research and experience have shown. It’s a pervasive issue for millions of people, a complex web of problems with no easy solutions. By now we know that avoiding the internet isn’t possible, and that ignoring social problems won’t make them go away. What does that leave us with?

In search of inspiration, I followed the history of public safety from another period of rapid change in a life-sustaining network, the transition to industrial food production in the Victorian era. The 80-year history of efforts to study and respond to food contamination holds many lessons for our response to online harassment.

Every meal we share connects us to a social web of food, according to the archaeologist Martin Jones. Each table is a “depository of information and engine of its transfer … spread across space and time”. Even the simple ingredients in bread connect us through history, evolution, and the global supply chains that were just reaching the working classes during the Industrial Revolution.

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Studio 360

Andrew Marantz | The New Yorker

Bravo tweaked her screenplay to remove minor cinematic vestiges—insert shots, subtle blocking details—that would be either irrelevant or impossible in V.R.

“Then we had another big conversation,” Blackaller said. “Do we film a dummy?” In some V.R. experiences, the viewer feels invisible; in others, one can look down to see one’s body represented onscreen. In a clumsily animated V.R. segment produced by another company, I experienced a nightmarish version of the latter: I flew through the air, my legs dangling below me, scrawny and immovable. My arms were those of a white man in his thirties, which happened to match my anatomy but might have been distracting, if not alarming, to most humans. And when I craned my actual neck downward I saw a sharp line where my virtual neck ended, leaving a black void where my head was supposed to be.


Cinematic grammar no longer applies. There is no frame in which to compose a shot. An actor who directly addresses the camera isn’t breaking the fourth wall, because the viewer is already in the middle of the action. The viewer can look anywhere, so the director often adds subtle visual or auditory cues to indicate where to look, or to signal that the viewer’s gaze can wander without missing anything important.

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How the World Health Organization's cancer agency confuses consumers

Kate Kelland | Reuters

IARC gives no view on the relative levels of risk of getting cancer from, say, plutonium or alcohol; what it does say is that there is clear evidence that both are capable of causing cancer. Therefore it ranks both substances in its top category of being carcinogenic.

Geoffrey Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the United States who has publicly criticised IARC, says the classifications do the public “a disservice."  


In its meat assessment, IARC went beyond its normal remit of assessing hazard, not risk. It gave specific warnings about the risk of eating red and processed meat products.

IARC said, for example, that for each 50 gram piece of processed meat eaten daily, the risk of a person developing colon cancer increases by 18 percent. The observer who spoke to Reuters said these data appeared “to come from nowhere, overnight.”

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In a Perpetual Present

Erica Hayasaki | Wired

For decades, scientists suspected that someone like Susie McKinnon might exist. They figured she was probably out there, living an ordinary life—hard to tell apart from the next person in line at the grocery store, yet fundamentally different from the rest of us. And sure enough, they found her (or rather, she found them) in 2006.

McKinnon is the first person ever identified with a condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory. She knows plenty of facts about her life, but she lacks the ability to mentally relive any of it, the way you or I might meander back in our minds and evoke a particular afternoon. She has no episodic memories—none of those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie, always filmed from your perspective. To switch metaphors: Think of memory as a favorite book with pages that you return to again and again. Now imagine having access only to the index. Or the Wikipedia entry...

“It raises fairly large questions,” Levine says. “What exactly does recollection do for us?” If members of our species can get by so well without episodic memories, why did we evolve to have them in the first place? And how long are they liable to stick around?

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Facebook pulls down mega-popular celeb site The Shade Room’s page for alleged copyright violations

Laura Hazard Owen | Nieman Lab

On Monday, Facebook took down the Facebook page for celebrity news and gossip site The Shade Room. The page, which was verified, has (had?) more than 4.4 million likes...

Facebook confirmed that it took the page down “for IP violations” but didn’t say what those violations were. The takedown of such a large and popular page could add fuel to concerns that publishers are giving Facebook too much power. (Note, though, that The Shade Room does have its own standalone website and isn’t an Instant Articles publisher. It used its Facebook page to link to its Instagram posts and stories on its website.)

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Amazon Doesn’t Consider the Race of Its Customers. Should It?

David Ingold and Spencer Soper | Bloomberg

There’s no evidence that Amazon makes decisions on where to deliver based on race. Berman says the ethnic composition of neighborhoods isn’t part of the data Amazon examines when drawing up its maps. “When it comes to same-day delivery, our goal is to serve as many people as we can, which we’ve proven in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.” Amazon, he says, has a “radical sensitivity” to any suggestion that neighborhoods are being singled out by race. “Demographics play no role in it. Zero.”

Amazon says its plan is to focus its same-day service on ZIP codes where there’s a high concentration of Prime members, and then expand the offering to fill in the gaps over time. “If you ever look at a map of service for Amazon, it will start out small and end up getting big,” he says.

This is a logical approach from a cost and efficiency perspective: Give areas with the most existing paying members priority access to a new product. Yet in cities where most of those paying members are concentrated in predominantly white parts of town, a solely data-driven calculation that looks at numbers instead of people can reinforce long-entrenched inequality in access to retail services. For people who live in black neighborhoods not served by Amazon, the fact that it’s not deliberate doesn’t make much practical difference. “They are offering different services to other people who don’t look like you but live in the same city,” says Rasberry.

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I Talked to the Kid Whose Mom Used Craigslist to Find Him a Feminism Tutor, and It Got Weird

Ruth Graham | Slate

He called, and ’fessed up. He’s 27, not 22, and he’s not enrolled at UCLA. He used multiple aliases online, he said, because he’s been burned by using his real name online in the past. He made up the ad “to see what kind of responses it would get,” though he couldn’t explain exactly what he was hoping for. The whole thing was “sort of like a joke,” he explained.

This casts the ad posted by “Nate’s” “mother” in a scarier light: A guy accused of serial harassment of women places an ad seeking an expert in feminism to meet with him in person.

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Audubon Made Up At Least 28 Fake Species To Prank A Rival

Sarah Laskow | Atlas Obsurca

By the 1870s, the truth about the fish had been discovered. But the fish were only part of Audubon’s prank. In a new paper in the Archives of Natural History, Neal Woodman, a curator at Smithsonian's natural history museum, details its fuller extent: Audubon also fabricated at least two birds, a “trivalved” brachiopod, three snails, two plants, and nine wild rats, all of which Rafinesque accepted as real.

Woodman has been systematically checking through Rafinesque’s work in mammalogy. A mammalogist himself, he first started wondering about Rafinesque’s accuracy when he found that a shrew Rafinesque had identified was, in fact, a jumping mouse. One of Woodman’s long term goals is to try to identify the actual species Rafinesque was describing.

When he figured out that Rafinesque had also been naming mammals based on his time with Audubon, he started worrying.

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Crowd Source: Inside the company that provides fake paparazzi, pretend campaign supporters, and counterfeit protesters

Davy Rothbart | The California Sunday Magazine

I’d have never guessed how pleasing it would feel to geek out over these unknown life coaches from Cincinnati and Tampa. The most sterile, lame space imaginable — a conference room in the basement of a chain hotel — has been transformed into a surreal dreamland where everybody is desired, everybody is famous, and where famous people, thrillingly, return their fans’ embraces.

Two and a half hours later, the event is over. As I head to my car, I see Adam and Del, along with some of their crowd members, hurrying off to their next gig, a documentary screening where they’ve been hired to bolster audience numbers and lob softball questions at the filmmakers during the Q&A.

Adam waves me down. “You were late today,” he reminds me. “But I liked your commitment to the part. Ready for more work?”

“Of course!”

He nods. “Good. Welcome aboard. You’ll get a text from someone soon.”

Adam started Crowds on Demand as a 21-year-old UCLA undergrad. He’d volunteered with Jerry Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and found that it could be challenging to rally large crowds to speeches. Adam believed a niche service providing crowds might appeal to campaign directors. But once he launched the service, he found that he was asked to wield his crowds in a way he hadn’t anticipated — not only to support a candidate but to protest a candidate. A candidate might muster 500 supporters to a speech on a college campus, but if Adam sent just five recruits to demonstrate outside the auditorium, he discovered that the media would give equal coverage to both the rally and the demonstration.

That was only the beginning.

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A New Dark Age Looms

William B. Gail | The New York Times

Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.

To comprehend how this could occur, picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence. Significant global warming has occurred, as scientists predicted. Nature’s longstanding, repeatable patterns — relied on for millenniums by humanity to plan everything from infrastructure to agriculture — are no longer so reliable. Cycles that have been largely unwavering during modern human history are disrupted by substantial changes in temperature and precipitation.

As Earth’s warming stabilizes, new patterns begin to appear. At first, they are confusing and hard to identify. Scientists note similarities to Earth’s emergence from the last ice age. These new patterns need many years — sometimes decades or more — to reveal themselves fully, even when monitored with our sophisticated observing systems. Until then, farmers will struggle to reliably predict new seasonal patterns and regularly plant the wrong crops. Early signs of major drought will go unrecognized, so costly irrigation will be built in the wrong places. Disruptive societal impacts will be widespread.