Forge Friday Roundup - September 17, 2021

September 17, 2021

In today’s Roundup: US “mortality penalty” takes toll; new framework for data stewardship; thinking about higher dimensions; challenging the axioms of obesity research; surgery to restore proprioception; what Facebook knew about toxic problems on platform; NEJM to require additional data reporting; new approaches to predicting protein folding; states pruning back public health authority; Lancet paper reports data on COVID vaccine boosters; much more:


A black Fender Stratocaster-style electric guitar on a stand. Image credit: Zhanna Fort/Pexels
Image credit: Zhanna Fort/Pexels
  • “Centeno and colleagues think the changes were made by David in 1787–88, presumably to rescue the image of his sitters as France tipped towards revolution. What we’ll probably never know is whether this was done through the discretion of the artist or at the request of the Lavoisiers as they saw which way the wind was blowing.” Chemistry World’s Philip Ball reports on a new analysis of a famous portrait of Enlightenment-era French scientists Antoine Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze-Lavoisier, painted by Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David shortly before the French Revolution, which shows clear signs of “editing” to change the original subtext of the composition.
  • “The classic Fender Stratocaster guitar is a versatile industry staple, famously played by legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Rory Gallagher as well as emerging artists alike. The iconic instrument and accompanying setup has now been meticulously reimagined in red and black using 1,074 lego bricks.” WE’RE NOT WORTHY: Hypebeast reports that Lego has released a Fender Stratocaster kit. Rock on! (H/T @SVRaoMD).


  • “…she still considers herself an oddball as a mathematician. ‘I came out of left field,’ she says — she trained as a physicist before migrating into mathematics. ‘And I think there are people who feel left field is where I belong.’ She doesn’t mind. She revels in finding meaningful and practical problems — and solutions — where other mathematicians assume there are none. Indeed, she puzzles over any problem she can find, and she is always game to take on the problems of others as well.” The New York Times’ Siobhan Roberts profiles Duke mathematics professor Ingrid Daubechies, whose expertise in the domain of signals processing has rippled through a startling array of different fields.
  • “Throughout this report, we explore – using case studies and accompanying commentary – a range of mechanisms for achieving participatory decision-making around the design, development and use of data-driven systems and data-governance frameworks. This report provides evidence that involving people in the way data is used can support greater social and economic equity, and rebalance asymmetries of power.” A new report from the Ada Lovelace Institute advances a framework for data stewardship that rejects secretive and heavy-handed approaches to the use of consumer data in favor of a more transparent and participatory model.
  • “But what about proteins that don't match up so well with the ones in the enormous database?... There's a new preprint that says it can deal with those, actually. The system uses a new language to describe protein sequence (aminoBERT) and a model for protein backbone structure, and the resulting recurrent geometric model (RGN) is said to significantly outperform AlphaFold and RoseTTAFold on such orphan proteins.” A post by Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline highlights a new approach to predicting protein structures, one that is apparently outperforming machine-learning approaches such as those used by AlphaFold is situations where the given protein is not categorized in a database of extant examples.
  • “The surprising realities of high-dimensional space cause problems in statistics and data analysis, known collectively as the ‘curse of dimensionality.’ The number of sample points required for many statistical techniques goes up exponentially with the dimension. Also, as dimensions increase, points will cluster together less often. Thus, it’s often important to find ways to reduce the dimension of high-dimensional data.” If you’re in the mood to have your brain stretched, this David S. Richeson column at Quanta on higher-level dimensions should do the trick.
  • “In the contemporary world of AI and machine learning, empathy is too frequently treated as a blanket solution for what ails technology. The logic goes something like, if we can understand the user’s experience more deeply, we can code a semblance of good relations. This drives development in robotics, virtual agents, and chatbots to replace humans for care, companionship, and other forms of automated (and frequently feminized labor).” A guest post by Hannah Zeavin at AI Now Institute’s Medium page addresses the strange place that “empathy” occupies in AI development circles – and whether it’s being applied as a sort of catch-all solution for problems that are far more complex.
  • “The app, which Google Health PR bills as a ‘mobile medical device’, was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service in the years since, with a number of NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.” TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas reports that Google is retiring Streams, a clinical decision-support app that was largely in use at UK hospitals. The retirement of the service comes on the heels of a flap about whether the use of patient data collected from National Health Service patients was allowable under British privacy protections.


  • “We’re a long way from a complete understanding of the American mortality penalty. But these three facts—the superior outcomes of European countries with lower poverty and universal insurance, the equality of European life spans between rich and poor areas, and the decline of the Black-white longevity gap in America coinciding with greater insurance protection and anti-poverty spending—all point to the same conclusion: Our lives and our life spans are more interconnected than you might think.” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson unpacks the implications of a recently published National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Schwandt and colleagues that shows that people in the United States, regardless of age cohort, tend to die earlier than people living in European countries – a trend that long predates current downturns in longevity due to COVID, drug overdose, and “diseases of despair.”
    Statue of a grieving human, with hand clasped to face, partly covered with snow. Image credit: Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
    Image credit: Marek Studzinski/Unsplash
  • “This energy-in-energy-out conception of weight regulation, we argue, is fatally, tragically flawed: Obesity is not an energy balance disorder, but a hormonal or constitutional disorder, a dysregulation of fat storage and metabolism, a disorder of fuel-partitioning.” In an article for STAT News (and, more importantly, in a review article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for which he is a co-author), science journalist Gary Taubes argues that the prevailing medical model that underlies contemporary understanding of, and treatment for, obesity and related disorders is fundamentally flawed. As Taubes himself notes, his view is highly controversial within the field, and is sure to generate a great deal of animated discussion.
  • “Outside of a brain scanner, the restoration of proprioception can in some ways give patients the feeling of having a real foot. One AMI amputee was hiking recently while wearing a standard prosthesis and stepped into a creek. He later described having the sensation of water flowing over his prosthetic foot even though it had no way to perceive that.” STAT News editor Gideon Gil has a remarkable story about a new surgical technique that restores proprioception – the awareness of a limb’s spatial orientation and movement – in patients who have undergone a limb amputation.
  • “The paper is sure to add to debate about whether the White House got ahead of its scientific agencies in outlining plans for general boosters, which the Biden administration had signaled would start rolling out next Monday.” STAT News’ Andrew Joseph reports on a paper, published this week in Lancet, that presents evidence against a COVID booster vaccination for people without immune compromise. Significantly, the paper’s authors include two high-level FDA staffers who resigned recently, apparently as part of disagreements over the Biden administration’s handling of decisions to make booster shots available.
  • “COVID-19 vaccines were never going to give us sterilizing immunity; it’s possible they never will. But the reason isn’t just their design, or the wily nature of the virus, or heavy and frequent exposures, though those factors all play a role. It’s that sterilizing immunity itself might be a biological myth.” At The Atlantic, Katherine Wu poses the question of whether our expectations for the benefits potentially available from vaccines are set unrealistically high, possibly due to the influence of an idea known as sterilizing immunity.
  • “As inspiring as the early gene therapy results have been, the pace of progress has been slowed by the same factor that could greatly limit the treatments’ wide availability if and when they come to market: their sheer expense, with an expected price tag of $1 million to $2 million per patient.” The New York Times’ Gina Kolata unfolds the complexities facing patients with sickle-cell disease, who may stand to benefit from innovative gene therapies – but only if they are available and affordable.
  • “There are four other VOIs [variants of interest] being watched by the WHO – eta, iota, kappa and lambda – but none of these have been reclassified as a VOC [variant of concern]. That might be the case with mu as well, but we have to await further data. What makes mu particularly interesting (and concerning) is that it has what the WHO calls a ‘constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape’. In other words, it has the hallmarks of being able to get around existing vaccine protection. At The Conversation, biochemist Luke O’Neill lays out a primer for understanding the implications of the latest variation on the COVID virus, the so-called “Mu variant.”
  • Also at The Conversation this week: Vaughn Cooper and Lee Harrison walk readers through the reasons for the latest surge in coronavirus infections: “It’s natural to wonder if highly effective COVID-19 vaccines are leading to the emergence of variants that evade the vaccine – like dark peppered moths evaded birds that hunted them. But with just under 40% of people in the world having received a dose of a vaccine – only 2% in low-income countries – and nearly a million new infections occurring globally every day, the emergence of new, more contagious variants, like delta, is being driven by uncontrolled transmission, not vaccines.”
  • “Daily contact testing of school-based contacts was non-inferior to self-isolation for control of COVID-19 transmission, with similar rates of symptomatic infections among students and staff with both approaches. Infection rates in school-based contacts were low, with very few school contacts testing positive.” A new research article by Young and colleagues published in Lancet reports results from a cluster trial of daily COVID testing vs. isolation as a means of controlling disease transmission in English secondary schools.
  • “The role of clinicians is not to prioritize a single likely or unlikely hope. Rather, the role of clinicians is to help their patients recognize and diversify the breadth of their hopes. With time, doing so allows patients to psychologically adjust, identify goal-concordant decisions, and more successfully navigate their illness.” A Viewpoint article published in JAMA by Rosenberg and colleagues addresses the surprisingly fraught issue of hope in the setting of grave illness.


Selective focus photograph of emoji faces. Image credit: Domingo Alvarez E/Unsplash
Image credit: Domingo Alvarez E/Unsplash
  • “The Instagram documents form part of a trove of internal communications reviewed by the Journal, on areas including teen mental health, political discourse and human trafficking. They offer an unparalleled picture of how Facebook is acutely aware that the products and systems central to its business success routinely fail….The documents also show that Facebook has made minimal efforts to address these issues and plays them down in public.” A deeply reported article (one of a series of two) by Wall Street Journal reporters Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman reveals how Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram fall short in addressing known problems with its products – including ones that make the platforms toxic for younger users, particularly girls (H/T @CraigSilverman).
  • “Although a clear and widely accepted definition of CIB is currently missing, the concept of malicious account networks, using varying ways of interacting with each other, is observed as central to any attempt to identify CIB. Responding to the growing need for transparency in such identifications, there are several other efforts from researchers and investigators in exposing CIB. The response is at the crossroads of manual investigation and data science. It needs to be supported with the appropriate and useful tools, considering the potential and the capacity of these non-platform-based efforts.” A recent publication by the EU Disinfo Lab’s Antoine Grégoire describes the “4th branch” of a “tree” approach for detecting a key sign of online disinformation – coordinated inauthentic behavior, or CIB.
  • “…when I looked at the figures, my surprise turned to shock. I had generated two of the figures, as well as the underlying data, a couple years earlier, when I was a research fellow in the lab after finishing my master’s degree. Based on my contribution, I should have been included as an author. Then I discovered the group had published other papers about our work without even acknowledging me. I had become a ghost author, my contributions used without credit.” An article in Science’s “Careers” section by Karishma Bisht describes the plight of early-career researchers who get shunted into “ghost author” status – that is, doing substantive work on manuscripts intended for peer-reviewed publication, but denied authorship credit.
  • The Annenberg Public Policy Center has posted the results of its annual American civics literacy survey, and the results suggest that there’s still some work to be done, especially in the area of reinforcing the distinction between the United States government and Facebook’s Terms of Service: “More than half of Americans (61%) incorrectly said Facebook is required to permit all Americans to express themselves freely on Facebook under the First Amendment.” On the plus side, many more Americans seem to know what the three branches of government are, compared with previous surveys.
  • “While credibility labels are now a standard and widespread misinformation intervention, little is known to the public about the efficacy of these interventions and how their design affects users. This lack of knowledge stems in part from the inaccessibility of social media platforms’ data, but also from credibility label designs and implementation policies that are both constantly changing and differ significantly between platforms.”  A recent blog post by the Credibility Coalition at MisinfoCon offers a window into attempts to design elements into the online user experience that can provide information to users about the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of news items shared on social media.


Woman sitting at a table with head in hands, surrounded by paperwork. Image credit: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Image credit: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
  • “In meetings and conversations over the past month, senior officials from the White House Covid-19 task force and the Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly accused CDC of withholding critical data needed to develop the booster shot plan — delaying work on the next step of President Joe Biden’s vaccination campaign and making it more difficult to set clear expectations for the public.” Politico’s Erin Banco, Sarah Owermohle, and Adam Cancryn report on yet another aspect of what is becoming a recurring theme of lack of coordination (or even basic agreement) among federal public health agencies: in this case, plans for administering booster shots for COVID vaccinations.
  • “Patients frequently do administrative tasks that can create burdens resulting in delayed/foregone care. The prevalence of delayed/foregone care due to administrative tasks is comparable to similar estimates of cost-related barriers to care.” A research article recently published in the journal Health Services Research by Michael Anne Kyle and Austin B. Frakt shares findings that indicate that patients are shouldering a significant proportion of the administrative burden of U.S. healthcare, to the detriment of their own well-being.
  • “As schools open and much of the country languishes without pandemic-related restrictions, epidemiologists say widespread rapid-test screening — along with vaccination and mask-wearing — is critical to controlling the delta variant’s spread. Yet shortages, little competition and sticky high prices mean routine rapid testing remains out of reach for most Americans, even if prices drop 35%.” An article by Kaiser Health News’ Hannah Norman explores the question of why rapid, over-the-counter COVID tests (of which multiple varieties are approved for use in the United States) are costing US consumers so much relative to other countries.
  • “For too long, we have tolerated conditions that actively exclude groups from critical resources in health care delivery, research, and education. This exclusion has tragic consequences and undermines confidence in the institutions and the people who are conducting biomedical research. And clinicians cannot know how to optimally prevent and treat disease in members of communities that have not been studied.” The editors of the New England Journal of Medicine have announced a new publication policy requiring research papers published by the Journal to include supplementary tables that describe background information on the condition studied and the representativeness of the study population being reported on in the paper (H/T @DukeHFDoc).
  • “The NBA and NBPA [National Basketball Players Association] continue to negotiate aspects of COVID-related protocols and procedures for the upcoming 2021-22 campaign, but the NBPA has refused to budge on whether players would be required to take the vaccine, sources say, and that aspect of negotiations remains a ‘non-starter.’” ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Adrian Wojnarowski report that the National Basketball Association (NBA) appears to be unlikely to require league players to receive vaccinations for COVID (H/T @ArthurCaplan).
  • “With the public health emergency in place through the end of 2021, researchers estimated that Medicaid enrollment could grow to 17 million new members since the start of the pandemic. That would bring the total number of Medicaid beneficiaries under the age of 65 to 76.3 million….Should the public health emergency conclude at the end of 2021 as anticipated, however, 9 million adults and 6 million children could lose coverage through 2022, according to the report.” Becker’s Nick Moran covers a recently released report from the Robert Wood Johnson-supported Urban Institute that projects up to 15 million people in the US could lose emergency Medicaid health care coverage once the COVID pandemic (finally) subsides.
  • “A KHN review of hundreds of pieces of legislation found that, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb such public health powers since the covid-19 pandemic began. While some governors vetoed bills that passed, at least 26 states pushed through laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health.” Kaiser Health News’ Lauren Weber and Anna Maria Barry-Jester report that even with Delta-variant COVID resurgent and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths mounting nationwide, more than half of US states have pruned back the powers of their public health agencies.
  • “Theranos and COVID-19 testing are both cautionary tales of failed medical oversight, but the morals flip from one case to the other. Each addresses, in its way, how much control the FDA should exert over laboratory tests before they come to market.” In an essay at The Atlantic, Benjamin Mazer traces the mirror-image “cautionary tales” that the Theranos debacle and the long lag in developing cheap rapid COVID testing tell, in their different ways, about the challenges of regulating so-called laboratory developed tests.