Internet Reading Club: June 2016

The best science, technology, and health stories from around the web.

Ina Fassbender / Reuters

Well, fine people of the internet, it’s July already. Which means it’s once again time for a monthly round-up of some of the most thought-provoking, surprising, clever, or otherwise worthwhile stories about science, technology, and health from the past 30 days.

(For previous month’s picks, check out our dedicated Internet Reading Club page.)

Happy summer reading!

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“Oh, Say, Can You See (but Not Hear) Those Fireworks?”

Steph Yin | The New York Times

In parts of Europe, quiet fireworks displays have grown increasingly common. In Britain, venues close to residents, wildlife or livestock often permit only quiet fireworks. One town in Italy, Collecchio, passed a law in 2015 that all fireworks displays must be quiet.

By relying on rich color effects and tight visual choreography, designers of quiet fireworks programs can forgo the big explosions and still deliver a stunning show. The hope is that softer celebrations mean less stress for noise-sensitive children, veterans, older people, pets and wildlife.

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The End of All Things Considered

Steve Lickteig | Slate

Here’s what I think the future sounds like: You will get in your car and say, “Play my news briefing, plus all of last night’s baseball scores, including highlights from the Yankees game. Oh, and give me last week’s Vows column from the New York Times.” Then, like magic, your audio system will assemble this playlist. That news briefing you asked for? It will come from sources you pre-selected, places like NPR and news organizations yet to be created. If you don’t know what you feel like hearing, you’ll ask your system to surprise you. If you don’t like what you hear, you’ll tell it to skip to something else.

No, it won’t sound the same as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but you will get the information you want when you want it and in the order you want it. And with nothing you don’t want. Even breaking news alerts will be tailored to your interests. In the audio future, you’ll never have to hear a story you don’t care about again.

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Hundreds of companies in the U.S. are selling unproven stem cell treatments, study says

Karen Kaplan | The Los Angeles Times

Some clinics said they used stem cells to enhance cosmetic procedures such as breast augmentation and wellness boosters that purport to improve sexual function.

The cells were also touted for more serious problems, including heart disease, immune system disorders, spinal cord injuries, lung disease and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s, among others. In many of these cases, “there is no established scientific consensus that proven safe and efficacious stem cell treatments now exist,” the researchers wrote.

Of particular concern to Turner and Knoepfler were clinics that targeted parents of children with autism, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. “This kind of advertising reveals another tangled knot of ethical and legal concerns,” they wrote, since the recipients of these dubious treatments aren’t the ones making the decisions.

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Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis

Susan Berfield, Craig Trudell, Margaret Cronin Fisk,  Jeff Plungis | Bloomberg Businessweek

When an air bag exploded in a Honda Accord in 2004, shooting out metal fragments and injuring the driver, Takata called it an anomaly. The accident, in Alabama, turned out to be the first of more than 100. Honda says it settled with the driver; the terms are confidential.

Around the same time, a former Takata senior executive based in Europe says he challenged Khandhadia about the use of ammonium nitrate, but Khandhadia had Tokyo’s support. The executive, who remained at the company for a decade, didn’t want to be named because he still works in the industry. He wasn’t the only one in Europe who considered ammonium nitrate too risky. Renault refused to buy air bags with it. The former executive went around Khandhadia rather than fight him. He says he hired a propellant specialist to help develop a more stable formula using guanidine nitrate, and since about 2008, Takata in Europe has sold air bags using that. He says Takata’s China team also adopted the formula

Bob Schubert, a Takata propellant engineer in the U.S., also worried about ammonium nitrate, according to the former executive. In January 2005, Schubert wrote to his boss that the company was “prettying up” air bag data sent to Honda. At one point, the devices were said to have passed tests that never occurred. “It has come to my attention that the practice has gone beyond all reasonable bounds and likely constitutes fraud,” he wrote in an e-mail produced in a lawsuit.

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The secrets hidden in my chatbot logs: You don’t know how to talk to bots
Sandi McPherson | Chatbots Magazine

I’ve learned a lot about how people engage with bots — Some of the things people chat about are surprising, heart-warming, and just straight-up weird … What I learned is that many people seem to have a (pretty strong) existing mental model around what a bot is. And that is some sort of all-knowing, omnipotent being, capable of responding to any possible question.

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The Dark Horse of Augmented Reality

Josh Miller | Backchannel

Without a doubt, the idealized augmented reality experience — a device largely hidden from view, and interface subtly integrated with the motions of your daily life — will be amazing. But, most people miss the fact that augmented reality technology is already used by tens of millions of people every single day — on Snapchat.

Specifically, Snapchat’s Lenses feature have already given augmented reality mass market appeal and adoption — as nascent and basic as their implementation may be. By pointing Snapchat’s camera at yourself (or another person), you can morph into a vampire or X-Men character, swap faces with a friend, blow pink heart kisses, and so on. Today, Snapchat takes the reality you are looking at (a face) and augments it with a digital experience (a Snapchat lens). Your iPhone screen is a modern day stand-in for the contact lens of the future.

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The Amazing iPhone-sniffing Prison Dogs

Maurice Chammah | The Marshall Project

I imprint the dogs on the odor of the battery, and then I train them to recognize different amounts, different thresholds of the odor. You want the dog to be able to smell a lithium battery, but then also a SIM card or another part of a cell phone that was next to a battery — a lot of the odor and a little of an odor and everything in between...

Sometimes when you go and search, everyone will know you’re coming and stash them, and you’ll go into the dayroom and you’ll find them everywhere—toasters, seat cushions, soda machines, ceilings. One time we searched a federal institution, the maintenance area. The dog found the electronics desk and everyone thought, ‘Oh well the dog is just trained to find electronics.’ But then there was a hole in the wall, with a second workshop, where the inmate was fixing cell phones.

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Curve Pictures of London

Scott Klein | Tinyletter

When The New York Times started publishing in 1851, the U.S. had 31 states, Thomas Edison was four years old, and there were no electric lights in New York City. The New York Post is even older. It was founded by Alexander Hamilton, the guy from the musical, just a few years before he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, sir. When The Hartford Courant started publishing, its readers were still British subjects. All three papers are still published every day and have survived wars, economic catastrophes, and inept management.

But there are also many examples of newspapers that burned incredibly brightly only to die young. This week’s example is from one of those papers. The Pall Mall Gazette was, briefly, one of the most influential newspapers in 19th-century London.

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The most interesting tech IPO of the year

Zachary M. Seward | Quartz

Twilio’s products are its APIs, primarily the ones for programmatically sending text messages and phone calls. Say you’re a developer, and the boss says, “Build a service that texts the weather to people every morning.” You could do it all yourself, handling all the complexities of international phone numbers, regulations, and so on. Or you could use Twilio for that, and focus on the weather forecast, which is hard enough.

Uber has been using Twilio in much the same way since 2011. Twilio sends texts to Uber customers to confirm their identity or send updates about their ride. It also connects drivers and riders by voice or text without revealing either person’s phone number.

That’s notable because Uber is otherwise considered a “full-stack startup,” meaning it owns all critical aspects of its business. For instance, Uber’s lack of proprietary mapping software was considered a liability and led it to make investments there. It is spending heavily on research and development in robotics and self-driving cars to better control those areas, as well. But the infrastructure for messaging customers is not something Uber has felt compelled to bring in-house.

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Netspeak and chill

Laur M. Jackson | Real Life

Before we submit to our emojilords, it’s worth asking about these ghosts of internet’s past that have wormed their way back into our language. Why are you back? Why, when Swype exists, when autocorrect has long surpassed its quaintisms, at a time when even basic dum-dum burner phones are equipped with slide-out keyboards?

Why do we need you?


For even as the characters look identical, it would be hard to characterize this (re)emergent language as a backslide into netspeak of old. There is an aestheticized edge, a jadedness that wasn’t there before. Questions have periods. Statements have question marks. Hashtags have gone ironic. Emojis and GIFs are as commonplace as ever, yet the simpler emoticons are starting to feel like the more acutely emotional or suggestive image. When punctuation and you-versus-u is no longer a matter of labor saving, there opens up opportunity for new meanings and inflection. The gap between “sure” and “sure” with a period is cosmic.

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How boxes of infant skulls helped solve a 19th-century medical mystery

Eric Boodman | Stat

“People had presumed that they didn’t dissect kids and they just dissected adult males, because we just kept finding adult males in cemeteries who had had their ribs and their skulls cut open,” Mitchell said.

Yet there were accounts from grave robbers about selling “smalls” — infant corpses, priced by the inch. And 19th-century English doctors learned and published a lot about the anatomy of the child. Mitchell uses some of that knowledge even today when operating on children.

“This was the time [when] people found the structure of the child. All this kind of stuff we only know because of dissections back in the 1800s,” he said.

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10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had

Melissa Dahl | New York

The odd thing about writing a book about discrete emotions you never knew existed is that you start to experience them — or is it that you were already experiencing them, and it’s just that now you know the name? Either way, Smith tells Science of Us that, while writing her book, she found herself batting away offers of help from others because she didn’t want to put them out. That is, she was feeling greng jai, a Thai term (that’s sometimes spelled kreng jai in translation) for “the feeling of being reluctant to accept another’s offer of help because of the bother it would cause them.”

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When Kodak Accidentally Discovered A-Bomb Testing

Matt Blitz | Popular Mechanics

On January 27, 1951, the first atomic detonation at the new Nevada Proving Ground took place. Days later and 2,500 miles away, a Geiger counter at Kodak's headquarters in New York state measured radioactive readings 25 times above normal after a snowstorm. Declassified 1952 documents obtained by Popular Mechanics reveals that Kodak alerted the Atomic Energy Commission about this out of concern this testing would wreck its film just as had happened in 1945. The AEC responded that it would look into it, but assured Kodak there was little reason to worry, even allowing the company to issue a press release to the Associated Press stating that snow "that fell in Rochester was measurably radioactive …" but "there is no possibility of harm to humans and animals."

In March 1951, a frustrated Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the "considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests..." Finally the company and the government came to an agreement. The AEC would provide Webb, by now the head of Kodak's physics division, with schedules and maps of future tests so that Kodak could take the necessary precautions to protect its product. In return, the people of Kodak were to keep everything they knew about the government's Nevada nuclear testing a secret.

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Secret Rules Make It Pretty Easy For the FBI to Spy on Journalists

Cora Currier | The Intercept

The classified rules, obtained by The Intercept and dating from 2013, govern the FBI’s use of national security letters, which allow the bureau to obtain information about journalists’ calls without going to a judge or informing the news organization being targeted. They have previously been released only in heavily redacted form.

Media advocates said the documents show that the FBI imposes few constraints on itself when it bypasses the requirement to go to court and obtain subpoenas or search warrants before accessing journalists’ information.

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How Christo Built His Latest Work: Two Miles of Floating Walkway

Margaret Rhodes | Wired

For decades, Christo worked with his wife, Jeanne-Claude. She died in 2009, and on Saturday, his first solo installation opened—after 46 years of planning and 22 months of building. The new project, the “Floating Piers” comprises two miles of marigold-yellow walkways gently bobbing on top of Lake Iseo, a small lake in northern Italy, connecting the waterside town of Sulzano with two small islands.

The spectacle part is easy—the floating paths almost compel visitors to try them out, and Sulzano expects about 40,000 people a day. But making them work was tricky.

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Taking the headphone jack off phones is user-hostile and stupid

Nilay Patel | The Verge

Raise your hand if the thing you wanted most from your next phone was either fewer ports or more dongles.

I didn’t think so. You wanted better battery life, didn’t you? Everyone just wants better battery life.

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Molly McHugh | The Ringer

Since discovering the Snapchat filter that resembled her work, Mykie has become an advocate for other artists in a similar position. But she’s still attempting to work with Snapchat. “Most recently their support team has not responded to my tweets [as well as tweets from others] wanting answers on this recurring issue,” she told me via email. “I also filed a report through the app with my particular case when the filter first appeared and their response was that they ‘Don’t believe that the filter infringes any copyright.’ That would ultimately be up to a judge to decide if the work had been altered enough to count as a new work.” As in Pinal’s case, the filter disappeared soon after Mykie posted evidence of the app’s copycat work to her Instagram feed.


Taking Snapchat to court would be even more complicated — how do you quantify the value of a filter? “It’s a huge exercise to try and say how much something like that is worth,” says patent lawyer Steve Schlackman. “How do you calculate how much money is being made on a free service — you have to take into account how long the filter was actually up, and … see how many people actually even used it. What if not that many people used it?” All the while, you’re paying legal fees. “Snapchat knows you’re not going to sue them. The numbers don’t work,” says Schlackman.

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Learning from History: How to make VR bigger than the Web

Mark Pesce | Medium

It seems inconceivable today to think that the Web was every small enough that you could surf the whole of it. But there was a time when that was true. Even then you could see that the Web was growing exponentially.

It feels exactly that way today in virtual reality. Back in March I had a look through many hundreds of apps written for Oculus Rift. More recently I’ve gone through many apps created for HTC’s Vive and Samsung’s GearVR. Any of you can do that — it will take time and a bit of money, but it can be done.

This is the last moment that will ever be true. The number of new VR apps are growing exponentially. This moment in 2016 feels exactly like that moment in 1993. By the end of this year, VR will be too big for anyone to visit all of it.