Internet Reading Club: May 2016
Must-reads about science, technology, and health from around the web.
Every month, I put together a list of some of the most moving, thought-provoking, beautifully written, deeply reported, quirky, strange, or otherwise memorable stories about from around the internet. This month’s selection is striking for the creativity and talent of the writers, and for how different they are from one another. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I did.
How Air Jordan Became Crying Jordan
Ian Crouch | The New Yorker
It has become difficult to separate Jordan from the images of him that were sold to consumers. But he was no marketing cipher. The things that advertisers said were cool about him were actually cool: the wagging tongue; the acrobatic leaps; the clutch shots on the biggest stages; the shining, perfectly round bald head; the deadpan sense of humor and easy smile. The Jumpman logo that adorns his sub-brand of Nike shoes and apparel? He could really jump like that.
If you’ve spent any time on the Internet recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an image of Michael Jordan’s tearful face superimposed on someone else’s body. The meme, known as Crying Jordan, has been around for several years, but became ubiquitous on the Web starting this past fall. Whenever someone—an athlete, an actor, a politician—fails in a public way, his face will promptly be replaced by Jordan’s. When Donald Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, he became Crying Jordan. When the quarterback Cam Newton lost the Super Bowl, he became Crying Jordan. When Michael Jordan himself, sitting in the stands at the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship, watched as his alma mater North Carolina lost to Villanova, he became Crying Jordan. (The meme also works on non-human objects, like taco bowls.) At this very moment, someone, somewhere, is failing, and Crying Jordan awaits.
For those of us who were sentient when Jordan was winning championships, seeing his face become a mocking emblem of sadness and incompetence has been jarring. Jordan never lost when it counted, and even during his strange baseball interlude, few dared call him incompetent. But today, Crying Jordan is one element in a much broader repositioning of Jordan’s place in the culture.
The foul reign of the biological clock
Moira Weigel | The Guardian
The story of the biological clock is a story about science and sexism. It illustrates the ways that assumptions about gender can shape the priorities for scientific research, and scientific discoveries can be deployed to serve sexist ends. We are used to thinking about metaphors like “the biological clock” as if they were not metaphors at all, but simply neutral descriptions of facts about the human body. Yet, if we examine where the term came from, and how it came to be used, it becomes clear that the idea of the biological clock has as much to do with culture as with nature. And its cultural role was to counteract the effects of women’s liberation.
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Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu, Lauren Kirchner | ProPublica
Yet something odd happened when Borden and Prater were booked into jail: A computer program spat out a score predicting the likelihood of each committing a future crime. Borden—who is black—was rated a high risk. Prater—who is white — was rated a low risk.
Two years later, we know the computer algorithm got it exactly backward. Borden has not been charged with any new crimes. Prater is serving an eight-year prison term for subsequently breaking into a warehouse and stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of electronics.
Scores like this — known as risk assessments — are increasingly common in courtrooms across the nation. They are used to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts — as is the case in Fort Lauderdale — to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom. In Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the results of such assessments are given to judges during criminal sentencing.
Christine Schrum | The Rumpus
Humans are roughly sixty percent water. Maybe that’s why I feel in my element now, standing with Doug, under the wet-bellied clouds in Galiano’s Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park, here in Canada. It’s sunset. The sky is purple; the sea is purple—even the empty varnish clam shells beneath our boots are varying shades of lavender and amethyst on the inside. It’s as though the wind painted the whole scene with one fat tube of color in different degrees of saturation.
Doug’s hand is warm and certain in mine as we crunch across decades of castaway shells...
Even when I’m out adventuring and feeling healthy, there’s a quiet battle going on inside me: bacteria trying to colonize in my lungs. I’m typically reminded of this in the moments just before sleep. I take a deep breath, and there it is: a little rumble at the bottom of my chest like far-off thunder before a storm.
Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas have embarked on a journey within me, venturing ever deeper into the tributaries of my pulmonary arteries and veins to set up their sticky little camps. Even as I type this, armies of Staph are pitching tents along the inlets of my lungs, feasting on the iron in my red blood cells.
When the colonies grow too large, my lungs fight back, throwing out heavy sheets of mucus to drown out the invaders. The only problem: they’re drowning me, too. So my doctors bring in the antibiotic troops, and then the real war begins.
Bots are awesome! Humans? Not so much.
Esther Crawford | Chatbot Magazine on Medium
Earlier this week I built and launched EstherBot, a personal resume bot that can tell you about my career, interests, and values...
If you interacted with EstherBot odds are I’ve at least skimmed a portion of the transcript because I’ve been constantly tweaking the script to improve the flow and responses based on what I’m seeing humans do and say. (Yes, I even read yours, Josh from Arkansas, who tried sexting with it. When you use Messenger it links to your Facebook profile — you aren’t anonymous!)
Setting up interaction boundaries and expectations is key, but even when you do — it won’t be enough. Humans will push the limits. Structured templates can be helpful guides but you’ll likely need cues to get failing humans back on track.
Scripted bots are especially tough sells because they require a human to follow the rules. If you do go the scripted route, be sure to offer a wide variety of potential reactions to prevent the bot from repeating itself over and over. Humans hate that.
Sexiness, Social Media, and Teenage Girls [Audio]
Note to Self | WNYC
“We are sexualizing women all over the place and urging this performance of sexiness. So if all of that led to girls feeling like they had more agency, more of a voice, more pleasure, more power in their sexual encounters, I might say okay I’m just being old and fusty and I have to get over it. But it’s the inverse. And that confidence is coming off with their clothes...
“These are the girls who have opportunity. These are the girls who are the beneficiary of feminism. And if I had been interviewing them about their ambitions, about their education, about their political voice, I would have walked away impressed. They were leaning in all over the place, but then, in their personal lives, they were sort of toppling. I felt like, girls today, they felt like they could engage in sex, but they didn’t necessarily feel like they could enjoy it.
“Very early in the book I say, ‘I’m going to say this once and I’m not going to repeat it because it’s obvious: Not all men.’ Right? Duh. Not all boys. And to say that completely denies that we have an issue and that they’re equally responsible; whether they are those boys or whether they aren’t those boys.”
The Empty Brain
Robert Epstein | Aeon
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.
Flirting With Humanity
Moira Weigel | The New Republic
What would it take for a thing to go from being merely humanoid to actually human? The audiences who admired the toy musicians raved about their sensibilité—the way they seemed to be moved by their own performances. In the twentieth century, the criteria shifted. With the rise of computing and artificial intelligence (AI), scientists began to talk more about thinking, sentience, and self-consciousness.
“Feelings seem to be an inextricable part of genuine ‘intelligence,’” said Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, which co-chairs with Elon Musk the newly founded $1 billion research group OpenAI. The Turing Test is supposed to determine whether a machine can think, or seem to think. How would you test whether a machine can process and simulate feelings so well that a human user could develop real feelings for it? Well, how do you test whether you could love anyone?
Flirting might seem trivial. It is in fact a highly exacting test of intelligence. Think of all the things that you have to do in order to flirt successfully. Express certain desires via tone of voice and body language while hiding others. Project interest, but not too much interest. Correctly read the body language of others, who are also strategically dissembling. Say appropriate things and respond appropriately to what is said.
Evolutionary science has shown that, for humans, flirting is a key test of emotional and social intelligence. It assesses exactly the capacities that AI researchers are trying to endow machines with: the ability to generate feelings in others, and to understand context and subtext—or the difference between what a person wants and what a person says.
Fraying at the Edges
N.R. Kleinfield | The New York Times
Every 67 seconds, with monotonous cruelty, Alzheimer’s takes up residence in another American. Degenerative and incurable, it is democratic in its reach. People live with it about eight to 10 years on average, though some people last for 20 years. More than five million Americans are believed to have it, two-thirds of them women, and now Ms. Taylor would join them.
The disease, with its thundering implications, moves in worsening stages to its ungraspable end. That is the familiar face of Alzheimer’s, the withered person with the scrambled mind marooned in a nursing home, memories sealed away, aspirations for the future discontinued. But there is also the beginning, the waiting period.
That was Geri Taylor. Waiting.
Right now, she remained energized, in control of her life, the silent attack on her brain not yet in full force. But what about next week? Next month? Next year? The disease would be there then. And the year after. And forever. It has no easy parts. It nicks away at you, its progress messy and unpredictable.
“The beginning is like purgatory,” she said one day. “It’s kind of a grace period. You’re waiting for something. Something you don’t want to come. It’s like a before-hell purgatory.”
Tornado Town, USA
Maggie Koerth-Baker | FiveThirtyEight
Why do tornadoes strike some places and not others? About 1,000 tornadoes touch down in the United States every year, and the majority of them happen in one of two areas — a vertical swath running from roughly Nebraska to Texas and a horizontal swath from Oklahoma to Georgia. Within that, there are places where tornadoes seem to cluster, such as Birmingham and Little Rock, said Tom Grazulis, a researcher who, in the 1980s, compiled records of American tornadoes back to the 17th century for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But those clusters usually happen over longer periods of time, say, 40 years or 100 years. He couldn’t think of any other place hit as hard in such a short period of time as Moore.
Nobody knows how likely it is that a given town would be hit by four violent tornadoes in 16 years; if we knew that, then we’d also know whether Moore really is especially tornado prone, or just suffering a streak of bad luck. But we do know big tornadoes, themselves, are rare. Devastating EF4s made up 1.37 percent of all the tornadoes that hit the U.S. from 1994 to 2012.2 Just 0.14 percent were incredible EF5s.
And that’s enough to make Moore’s recent history turn heads. People who live in the Plains states, as I once did, have a special relationship with tornadoes, wary but familiar, like your grandma’s dog that’ll bite if you aren’t careful. This is a part of the country where little kids dream about growing up to be storm chasers. Where tornado sirens go off every Wednesday at lunchtime, just as a test of the system. It’s a part of the country where art professors like my dad duck outside for a peek at one of the most powerful tornadoes in recorded history.
But this thing with Moore even weirds out Oklahomans. “For years people have asked me, ‘What about Moore?’ ” said Gary England, a retired TV meteorologist who shepherded generations of Oklahomans through more than 40 tornado seasons. “People talk about topography. They talk about geomagnetic forces. I think it’s very unusual. But I think most scientists would probably tell you it’s just a roll of the dice.”
If You Are What You Eat, America Is Allrecipes
Nicholas Hune-Brown | Slate
In the world of online recipe aggregators, Allrecipes is distinctly unglamorous. While rival website Epicurious culls recipes from Bon Appétit and the now-defunct Gourmet, Allrecipes takes crowdsourced creations from home cooks and then writes them up in standardized form. In the era of the ornate food description, Allrecipes favors a house style shorn of ostentation. The site uses “stir” or “cook” instead of “sauté” (“because that’s a French word,” explains Esmee Williams, Allrecipes’ vice president of consumer and brand strategy). Sugar cookies are “easy.” Pancakes are “old fashioned.” Many, many dishes are “creamy.”
Allrecipes is the most popular English-language food website in the world. According to ComScore, last December the site got almost 50 million visits, the biggest month by any food site ever. Thanks to its mastery of search engine optimization, the site’s recipes constantly appear near the top of Google search results. If you look for “lasagna recipes,” as I did the other day, you’ll immediately find “World’s Best Lasagna,” a recipe that has been one of the website’s most popular dishes for 15 years. The recipe (which makes a perfectly tasty lasagna) was viewed more than 6 million times last year alone and has received more than 11,000 five-star ratings. In an era of celebrity chefs and recipe-kit delivery services developed by experts, a pasta dish by a Dallas dad who describes his heritage as “entirely Anglo-Saxon” is quite possibly America’s most-cooked meal.
What’s remarkable isn’t so much Allrecipes’ dominance but how distant the site feels from the food conversation in the media.
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The Wall Street Journal
Facebook’s role in providing Americans with political news has never been stronger—or more controversial. Scholars worry that the social network can create “echo chambers,” where users see posts only from like-minded friends and media sources. Facebook encourages users to “keep an open mind” by seeking out posts that don’t appear in their feeds.
To demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, The Wall Street Journal created two feeds, one “blue” and the other “red.” If a source appears in the red feed, a majority of the articles shared from the source were classified as “very conservatively aligned” in a large 2015 Facebook study. For the blue feed, a majority of each source’s articles aligned “very liberal.” These aren't intended to resemble actual individual news feeds. Instead, they are rare side-by-side looks at real conversations from different perspectives.
Your Legacy on Earth May Be a Plant
Veronique Greenwood | Nautilus
“If you find daffodils in a wild area, you can usually find chimneys,” says Robert Warren, an ecologist at Buffalo State University. Warren lived for years in North Carolina, another place where daffodils are thick where there used to be homes—the flowers just keep going on their own, for decades after they’re no longer tended. The old residents “got them through the Sears-Roebuck catalog—the bulbs,” says Warren. When he goes hiking, he likes to try to read the landscape, looking for signs of an area’s history in the vegetation.
It was this habit that, many years ago, led Warren to notice something peculiar about a tree species sprinkled through the southern Appalachians. Honey locust trees are distinctive: They’re covered with enormous, glossy thorns, some as long as your hand, and they bear long brown seed pods. Their preferred ecological niche involves poor, salty soil. But Warren was seeing them scattered in the lush river valleys. He would stumble on a thorny monolith in a place where it had no business being, and he would wonder. “One day I was out in the field,” he recalls, “and it dawned on me that every time I saw a honey locust, I could throw a rock and hit an archaeological site.”
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Archaeology must open up to become more diverse
Raksha Dave | The Guardian
I’d like to see archaeological organisations get smarter about audiences. So let’s talk the same talk as the rest of the world: lose the jargon, lighten up on information embargos and recognise that tailoring our messages to the audiences we want to engage with is an achievement, rather than the pernicious dumbing down we fear so greatly.
There isn’t a king under every car park and that’s okay, because there are unlimited numbers of great stories to tell about all archaeology that will sound and feel familiar to people of any background. There’s sex, death, displacement, war, prejudice, power, gender, wealth, poverty, ability, love, success and happiness.
We don’t need to pander to people from diverse backgrounds to get their attention; we just have to do a better and more strategic job of sharing what we have already got. Archaeological organisations must make this a key performance indicator equal in importance to financial return or other markers of success, or suffer the consequences.
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Will virtual reality kill the YouTube comment?
Adi Robertson | The Verge
When Google revealed that it was rebuilding YouTube for its new Daydream virtual reality initiative, I began wondering what would happen to one of the platform's notorious weak spots: the comments, often vitriolic or racist or generally incoherent, that cluster under videos. The answer, apparently, is that Google doesn't know.
The first Daydream phones aren't coming out until this fall, so Google still has months to make a call on including comments. But it will be dealing with what is, at this point, a very familiar question: are comments worth saving? And if they are, what should they look like in an experience that encompasses the viewer's entire world?
YouTube comments are notoriously bad, and fixing them has never seemed high on Google's priority list. But Daydream could change that. Like many VR platforms, its creators are desperate to create a welcoming environment for users. Web services are so entrenched that there's no real incentive to make things better: if you hate YouTube, you still probably can't avoid it. But if Google can't actively draw people into things like YouTube for Daydream, then Daydream — and possibly virtual reality itself — dies.
‘You Want a Description of Hell?’ Oxycontin’s 12-Hour Problem
Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion, Scott Glover | The Los Angeles Times
Over the last 20 years, more than 7 million Americans have abused OxyContin, according to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The drug is widely blamed for setting off the nation’s prescription opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 190,000 lives from overdoses involving OxyContin and other painkillers since 1999.
A West Virginia supervisor told one of his highest performing sales reps in a 1999 letter that she could “blow the lid off” her sales and earn a trip to Hawaii if she persuaded more doctors to write larger doses.
In an August 1996 memo headlined “$$$$$$$$$$$$$ It’s Bonus Time in the Neighborhood!” a manager reminded Tennessee reps that raising dosage strength was the key to a big payday.
“He who sells 40mg” the largest pill available at the time “will win the battle,” the manager wrote.
By 2004, Purdue was seeing “a trend away from prescribing OxyContin” more frequently than every 12 hours, according to a company filing with the FDA.
In the training materials reviewed by The Times, little was said about the effect of higher doses on patient health. Those on higher doses of opioids are more likely to overdose, according to numerous research studies. An analysis of the medical records of more than 32,000 patients on OxyContin and other painkillers in Ontario, Canada, found that one in 32 patients on high doses fatally overdosed.
“In other words,” the lead researcher, David Juurlink, said in an interview, “they are more likely to die as a result of their medication than almost anything else.”
Errol Morris | The New York Times
In the 1970s, D.A. Henderson and a group of determined scientists successfully eliminated smallpox — at least from the general population...
But did they really eliminate it? The answer — and I hope I’m not giving anything away here — is no. Not really. In a handful of laboratories around the world, there are still stocks of smallpox, tucked away in one freezer or another. How can you say it’s eliminated when it’s still out there, somewhere…? The demon in the freezer.
In the story from classical Greece, Pandora was warned: Don’t open the box. She opens it anyway. The various pestilences are unleashed on the world but Hope remains at the very bottom of the box. Today there are microbiologists who want to continue to research smallpox. If they are given a free hand, what might they unleash?