Forge Friday Roundup - August 27, 2021

August 27, 2021

In today’s Roundup: pushing the boundaries of AI art; the Grateful Dead and an alternative vision of internet culture; bat babies babble like their human counterparts; accountability for public-sector algorithms; full approval for Pfizer/BioNtech COVID vaccine in adults but approval for children still months away; DIY air filters for classrooms; the coming wave of heat-related illness; CRISPR deletion blinds mosquitoes to their prey; how academia copes with grief; a success story in countering social media misinformation; parents buckling under pandemic stress; the long shadow of Theranos; more and better data needed for navigating the pandemic; much more:


Photograph of the Grateful Dead from a magazine promotion for the 1970 album American Beauty. Image credit: Herb Greene via Wikipedia.
Image credit: Herb Greene via Wikipedia

DEEP BREATHS

  • Uncle John’s Band(width). at N+1, Max Abelson takes a long, strange trip through a curious corner of the Internet Archive where virtually the entire corpus of Grateful Dead concert recordings – tens of thousands of them – resides. But Abelson is less concerned with the music as such than with the glimpse of an alternate, could’ve-been vision of online culture: “Kahle, the Internet Archive’s founder, tells me that he wishes more of the web was shaped like the Dead Archive. ‘What you’re looking at,’ he said, ‘is from an era of the Internet that I think is best typified by what Tim Berners-Lee called ‘pages.’’ Today, he said, instead, what dominates is the ‘feed.’ (‘Horrible word,’ he added.) Facebook and Twitter scroll by endlessly, unaccountably, and unpleasantly, but ‘it wasn’t always that way, and it was a choice.’” (H/T @MarkRDeLong).
  • “…bats are the only mammals other than humans that are known to babble like human babies. The babbling of bat pups includes adult syllables and sounds that only the young make, and the nature of the babbling changes over time as the bats learn territorial and courting songs. Also, their songs are not sung at the high-frequencies that bats use for echolocation.” The New York Times’ James Gorman puzzles over recent research that reveals that young of some bat species babble in a manner very similar to that of human babies, and investigates some potential evolutionary hypotheses for this strange convergence in behavior.

AI, STATISTICS & DATA SCIENCE

  • “The point is not whether we can distinguish AI-created music from human music but whether machines will be able to create music of their own, music which at present we cannot imagine. There are already machines, such as nSynth, capable of producing musical sounds we’ve never heard before, and which musicians can use to create music.” At Nautilus, Arthur L. Miller muses upon the brave new world of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and AI-generated art (or “art,” depending upon where you line up on that particular aesthetic-philosophical debate).
  • Programming languages, ranked by popularity, and sorry, R partisans, it’s Python for the win in 2021 (a little surprising to see HTML on the list!) (H/T @MIT_CSAIL).
    Closeup photograph of a computer monitor screen showing lines of HTML code specifying a website display. Image credit: Florian Olivo/Unsplash
    Image credit: Florian Olivo/Unsplash
  • “Grochow is among a growing chorus of researchers who point out that when it comes to finding connections in big data, graph theory has its limits. A graph represents every relationship as a dyad, or pairwise interaction. However, many complex systems can’t be represented by binary connections alone. Recent progress in the field shows how to move forward.” At Quanta, Stephen Ornes looks at new developments in graph theory that may help sift the enormous datasets of “big data” for meaningful relationships.
  • The General Practice Data for Planning and Research scheme is now on hold with no new date for implementation, and NHS Digital has made a series of concessions to campaigners to try to salvage it….Under the scheme, GP health data for everyone in England, with identities partially removed, would be made available to researchers and companies for healthcare research and planning. The scheme is more extensive than current GP data-sharing arrangements.” The Guardian’s Chaminda Jayanetti reports on a massive wave of refusal on the part of UK citizens who have opted out of data sharing scheme developed by the National Health Service – one that would make health data from NHS clients and patients available to third-party researchers (H/T @eperakslis).
  • “As governments are increasingly turning to algorithms to support decision-making for public services, there is growing evidence that suggests that these systems can cause harm and frequently lack transparency in their implementation. Reformers in and outside of government are turning to regulatory and policy tools, hoping to ensure algorithmic accountability across countries and contexts. These responses are emergent and shifting rapidly, and they vary widely in form and substance – from legally binding commitments, to high-level principles and voluntary guidelines.” A report jointly produced by the Ada Lovelace Institute, the AI Now Institute, and the Open Government Partnership addresses accountability for algorithmic tools adopted and deployed by governments and other public-sector entities.
  •  “…data brokers are openly and explicitly advertising data for sale on U.S. individuals’ sensitive demographic information, on U.S. individuals’ political preferences and beliefs,on U.S. individuals’ whereabouts and even real-time GPS locations,on current and former U.S. military personnel, and on current U.S. government employees.” Justin Sherman, a fellow with the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy’s Cyber Policy Program, has just relased a report detailing the profound reach of data brokers into the most sensitive details of American’s daily lives – and the brokers’ eager marketing of these data to other parties (H/T @rusincovitch).
  • “Less than three years after relaunching its ambitious health care division, Google Health, the tech giant is dismantling the organization and spreading its health efforts across the company. The reorganization follows the news that Google Health vice president David Feinberg is departing for health record company Cerner and kicks off another wave of speculation about whether tech giants can truly transform health care.” STAT News’ Erin Brodwin reports on a major reorganization underway for Google’s sprawling portfolio of health-focused projects.

BASIC SCIENCE, CLINICAL RESEARCH & PUBLIC HEALTH

Desert landscape, showing tessellated, fractured ground in the foreground, sun rising through a gap in mountains in the background. Image credit: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash
Image credit: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash
  • Welcome news on Monday: the FDA has granted full approval for the use of the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID vaccine for all persons 16 years or older (children as young as 12 who have been receiving the vaccine under the previous Emergency Use Authorization may continue to do so. However, in recent remarks reported by NPR’s Cory Turner, NIH chief Francis Collins has thrown some cold water on hopes that either approval or an EUA for children aged 5-11 years would be forthcoming before year’s end.
  • Blinding me with science, indeed: “For the first time, scientists have used the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9 to render humans effectively invisible in the eyes of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which use dark visual cues to hunt, according to a paper recently published in the journal Current Biology. By eliminating two of that mosquito’s light-sensing receptors, the researchers knocked out its ability to visually target hosts.” The New York Times’ Sabrina Imbler reports on what may prove to be a significant milestone in the long trek to defeat mosquito-borne diseases.
  • “We estimated that the BNT162b2 vaccine resulted in an increased incidence of a few adverse events over a 42-day follow-up period. Although most of these events were mild, some of them, such as myocarditis, could be potentially serious. However, our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 infection is itself a very strong risk factor for myocarditis, and it also substantially increases the risk of multiple other serious adverse events.” A study by Barda and colleagues published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine compares the relative incidence of a host of potential adverse events in patients who received the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID vaccine with a matched cohort of unvaccinated persons who had contracted COVID.
  • “Understanding the risks and benefits of the different treatment modalities available and their utility depending on the underlying etiology, encompassed with a multidisciplinary team approach, is vital to improve outcomes and minimize maternal and fetal complications.” A recent review article published by Alameh and colleagues in the journal Heart Failure surveys the current state of the art in treating myocardial infarctions during pregnancy (H/T @AnkurKalraMD).
  •  “The bedside vigil is playing out in a Shreveport hospital that is packed with patients from across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas and overwhelming medical staff, who describe crying on the way to work and becoming numb to the sound of zipping up body bags and sending dead patients off to funeral homes. About 120 of Willis-Knighton Medical Center’s 138 coronavirus patients are unvaccinated, including the Debroecks.” Journalist Sarah Blake Morgan, writing for the Associated Press, chronicles the appalling toll that the current wave of delta-variant COVID is taking in Louisiana (H/T @Barry_Yeoman).
  • “Hot weather and heat extremes harm human health, with poverty, ageing, and chronic illnesses as aggravating factors. As the global community contends with even hotter weather in a changing climate, there is a pressing need to better understand the most effective prevention and response measures, particularly in low-resource settings.” A pair of papers (and accompanying viewpoint articles) published last week in Lancet strike a somber note as they address the rising risk of heat-related health challenges on a warming planet. With additional coverage from CNN’s Jen Christensen.
  • “Blair, a citizen scientist in the Boston area, has been spending his spare time pulling together the resources and pro tips teachers like Schildge need to build this homemade air purifier for their classrooms.” We’re not sure whether this story is WBGH’s Gabrielle Emanuel, which profiles citizen scientist Don Blair and his open-source do-it-yourself air filter (based on a design by Richard Corsi and Jim Rosenthal) for school classrooms is more inspirational at the personal level or an indictment of the general lack of forward motion in terms of preparing public schools to safely meet the ongoing COVID pandemic as classes start up again. Maybe some of both.
  • “It’s not just that the architecture of the brain disrespects the boundaries between the established mental categories. It’s that there’s so much overlap that a single brain network ‘has more aliases than Sherlock Holmes,’ Barrett said.” Quanta’s Jordana Cepelewicz explains that cartography of neuroscience – that is, the mapping of brain functions as belonging to discrete locations within the brain – may be due for a reimagining.

COMMUNICATIONS & DIGITAL SOCIETY

  • “Academia rewards those who can make hardship invisible, who can be productive amid and despite crisis. Colleagues told me to take the time I needed, yet what I needed seemed unknowable….I remember sitting on my mother’s couch in Florida, toggling between writing my dad’s obituary, helping with my stepfather’s breathing treatments, and editing a grant due in 2 weeks—my son asleep on my lap. Meeting deadlines felt easier than requesting extensions, than explaining.” A JAMA “Piece of My Mind” essay by Krista Lyn Harrison confronts the fraught topic of coping with grief in professional academia.
    Photograph of a statue, partly covered with snow, showing a human figure with head bowed and cradled in one hand as if in sorrow. Image credit: Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
    Image credit: Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
  • “Employees want better work-life balance. Others are exploring jobs outside of academe. Members of an aging leadership cohort are retiring. Some professors and staff members say they no longer trust university leaders to have their best interests at heart, citing on-campus work requirements that feel dangerous with Delta’s spike, or pointless after remote work has proved feasible.” In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lindsay Ellis documents the growing discontent among staff workers in academia amid the dislocations of the COVID pandemic.
  • Content warning: the following item discusses suicide. “Interviews with a dozen suicide researchers, data collected from states across the country and a review of decades of research revealed that suicide is a growing crisis for communities of color — one that plagued them well before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated since.” A joint Kaiser Health News/NPR Science Friday investigation by Aneri Pattani reveals the worsening problem of suicide in communities of color – a crisis that has been accelerated by the pandemic, but did not start with it.
  • “While the White House is launching a project to pay micro-influencers to spread pro-vaccine messaging, a handful of carefully designed and self-policed online spaces, such as the Vaccine Talk group on Facebook, are showing that it is possible to change people’s minds, one nuanced post at a time. To do it, they’re adopting moderation systems and rules of discourse very different from those of the social media platforms.” An article at the Washington Post by Elizabeth Dwoskin, Will Oremus, and Gerrit De Vynck explores the corners of social media that are fighting back against misinformation – slowly, laboriously, but also (in at least some cases) successfully.
  • “Misperceptions about others are widespread, asymmetric, much larger when about out-group members, and positively associated with one’s own attitudes. Experimental treatments to re-calibrate misperceptions generally work as intended; they sometimes lead to meaningful changes in behaviors, though this often occurs only immediately after the treatments.” A working paper by Leonardo Bursztyn and David Y. Yang at the National Bureau of Economic Research offers a meta-analysis of research about how misperceptions about others affect and are mediated by one’s own attitudes (H/T @MattGrossman).
  • “It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable.” In an essay for The Atlantic, Dan Sinker utters a cri de coeur that will surely resonate with parents who are still attempting to navigate their children through the turbulent waters of a rebounding pandemic.
  • A review article and survey study by Sørensen and colleagues published in Humanities and Social Science Communications surveys recent challenges to research integrity and identifies areas of particular focus that may deserve attention from institutions.
  • “Using a within-person experience sampling study in which the use of the camera was manipulated, our results suggest that: (a) using the camera is fatiguing; (b) the fatigue effect is not attributable to time spent in or number of virtual meetings; (c) fatigue by itself is problematic for employee voice and engagement in meetings; and (d) women and newer employees were more fatigued by the use of cameras, perhaps due to self-presentation costs during calls on camera…” A study published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Shockley and colleagues suggests that turning off camera feeds in business videoconference meetings – or at least, allowing participants to do so without penalty – may reduce participant fatigue (H/T @AdamMGrant).
  • “A generation of female entrepreneurs — particularly those in life sciences, biotechnology and health care — is still operating in the shadow of Ms. Holmes. Though Theranos shut down in 2018, Ms. Holmes continues to loom large across the start-up world because of the audacity of her story, which has permeated popular culture and left behind a seemingly indelible image of how female founders can push boundaries.” The New York Times’ Erin Griffith describes the continuing – and deeply unfair – tech industry reverberations of the collapse of Theranos (H/T @eperakslis).

POLICY

  • “Misinformation, which has caused so much damage, thrives under conditions of confusion and uncertainty, particularly when the relevant authorities lose credibility and aren’t seen as timely. To this end, systematic and extensive data collection is an investment as necessary as ones for vaccines and therapeutics.” A lengthy opinion article in the New York Times by UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci makes an urgent case for more and better data to guide public health decision making – both clinical and policy oriented – as the pandemic continues to rage (H/T @califf001).
  • “The ongoing devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic creates an understandable allure for a quick-fix or magic-bullet solutions. But it is painstaking scientific testing — not magical thinking — that reveals what works and how well.” In a viewpoint article for STAT News, the former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Lurie argues that people need to avoid breathless hype about miracle cures for COVID – a plea that comes against a background of inadvertent poisonings reported in the press as people self-dose with formulations of ivermectin intended for use in deworming livestock.
  • “This year, the federal government ordered hospitals to begin publishing a prized secret: a complete list of the prices they negotiate with private insurers….But data from the hospitals that have complied hints at why the powerful industries wanted this information to remain hidden. It shows hospitals are charging patients wildly different amounts for the same basic services: procedures as simple as an X-ray or a pregnancy test.” An article at the New York Times’ Upshot by Sarah Kilff and Josh Katz reveals the capriciousness and opacity of insurance-negotiated pricing for medical procedures.
  • “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the use of preprints to the fore, researchers say the stance by the Australian Research Council (ARC) — which limits applicants’ ability to refer to the latest research — is out of step with modern publishing practices and at odds with overseas funding agencies that allow or encourage the use of preprints.” Nature’s Clare Watson reports on a growing furor over the Australian Research Council’s inflexible ban on citing preprints in funding support applications (H/T @RetractionWatch).
  • “We reviewed the privacy protections in the top 10 streaming apps, as well as the top five streaming devices, that include programming directed at kids and families and found that most apps and devices are using practices that are putting consumers' privacy at risk -- especially that of kids.” A new report released by Common Sense Media finds that many popular media streaming apps are using questionable practices when it comes to the privacy and security of personal data. Notably, these concerns extend to paid-subscription apps, not just free-to-user ones.