Forge Friday Roundup - September 24, 2021

September 24, 2021

In today’s Roundup: patterns of light and darkness; trees, algorithms & human society; a “wider, weirder” pandemic; debiasing data is not enough; field guide for increasing vaccine confidence; the implications of public health mandates; kids feeling the psychological toll of worries about climate change; gun laws, domestic violence & pregnant women; digital health products need scrutiny; CDC Director overrules advisory panel on vaccine boosters for healthcare workers; who is shouldering the COVID mortality burden in the US; computer files and the youth of today; much more:


  • This art project by @susierosedalton – one which captured the daily patterns of light and dark over more than 450 days of social isolation during the COVID pandemic – is as moving as it is stark.
  • This episode of NPR’s Short Wave podcast, hosted by Emily Kwong and Thomas Lu, takes you to Bougainville Island, courtesy of some intrepid student scientists who help mapped a century-old collection of rare bird species to their precise location of origin – and managed to restore some lost credit to some of the Whitney South Sea Expedition’s most critical contributors.

Low-perspective photograph showing dense tangle of bare tree branches overhead. Image credit: Yoksel Zok/Unsplash
Image credit: Yoksel Zok/Unsplash


  • “Wouldn’t that be grand? An algorithm that could calculate how many trees would atone for the historical and contemporary inequities of urban planning and environmental injustice, that could undo processes of deforestation wrought through centuries of colonial violence, that could heal a landscape destroyed by clear cutting? A dashboard that grants us datafied dominion over all of creation?... Or maybe not. As trees become data points, they are all too readily cast as easy fixes for profound problems.” A truly remarkable essay by Shannon Mattern published in Places Journal explores the forking, branching, and intertwining of forestry, ecology, data science, and human societies (H/T @CatBrinkley).
  • “Specific subareas of academic research related to digital clinical measures are not keeping pace with the rapid expansion and adoption of digital sensing products. An integrated and coordinated effort is required across academia, academic partners, and academic funders to establish the field of digital clinical measures as an evidence-based field worthy of our trust.” A systematic review, recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research by Shandhi and colleagues, examines the quality of reporting on the clinical relevance of digital measures being deployed in digital health products, including wearable devices. A feature article by Katie Adams in Becker’s Hospital Review provides some additional context (H/T @_DiMeSociety).
  • “…we suggest a significant overhaul of the scoring process of machine learning conferences. It is clear that reviewers are picking up on at least three different components for a paper. There is a notion of ‘quality’, that in its upper range seems to be independent of citation impact. There is a notion of ‘impact’ that is only weakly correlated with the measured citation impact, and we speculate that there is also a notion of clarity: reviewers were more confident about papers that later turned out to have a high citation impact.” A preprint by Cortes and Lawrence, available from arXiv, presents findings from a study that re-runs a 2014 study evaluating the degree of consistency in peer review of papers accepted at NeuroIPS, a premier conference for machine learning research (H/T @MazurowskiPhD).
  • A research paper published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology Open by Bhattacharya and colleagues presents findings from a study that evaluated a machine learning model for identifying patients with atrial fibrillation and a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy using data in electronic health records.
  • In a story for MIT Technology Review, Patrick Howell O’Neill notes that even with more than 3 months left to go in the year, 2021 has attained the distinction of seeing the most zero-day hacking attempts by far – but the news is not necessarily all (or even mostly) bad: “No one we spoke to believes that the total number of zero-day attacks more than doubled in such a short period of time—just the number that have been caught. That suggests defenders are becoming better at catching hackers in the act.”
  • A Twitter thread highlighting a recent preprint article by Guo and colleagues – one that describes a simple and ingenious machine learning algorithm for identifying fake profile pictures on social media by homing in on irregularly shaped pupils in facial portraits – occasions a reminder from machine learning expert and medical student @IAmSamFin that real life is more complex than sometimes assumed and that such algorithms could end up contributing to “21st century ableism.”
  • “Even if policymakers develop a better grasp of the technical methods of debiasing data or algorithms, debiasing approaches will not effectively address the discriminatory impact of AI systems. By design, debiasing approaches concentrate power in the hands of service providers, giving them (and not lawmakers) the discretion to decide what counts as discrimination, when it occurs and how to address it…Debiasing approaches divert important political questions into the realm of the technical.” A new report published by European Digital Rights (EDRi) and authored by Agathe Balayn and Seda Gürses questions the ultimate effectiveness of approaches to algorithmic fairness rooted in “de-biasing.”
  • A commentary at Lancet Digital Health by Google authors Chen, Mermel, and Liu explores the process of developing a reference standard for the “ground truth” used in a predictive model when that ground truth necessarily involves a subjective judgement.

A girl or sitting on concrete steps with head cradled in her arms as if distraught. Image credit: Zhivko Minkov via Unsplash
Image credit: Zhivko Minkov via Unsplash.


  • “Despite the strong results, it will be some time before the general public can see an official rollout of vaccines for children ages 5 to 11. Once analysis of the trial is completed, Pfizer and BioNTech will submit the results ‘in the near term to the Food and Drug Administration for review and possible emergency use authorization.” Some long-awaited news on the vaccine front emerged this Monday. Per NPR’s Jaclyn Diaz: Pfizer has announced that data from its own pediatric trials shows that the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID vaccine appears to be safe and effective, setting the stage for FDA review and a subsequent CDC recommendation for the use of the vaccine in children between the age of 5-11 years. In other vaccine news, the New York Times reports that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has overruled a CDC advisory panel that recommended 3-2, that Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine boosters not be routinely administered to health care workers.
  • “Climate change is causing distress, anger and other negative emotions in children and young people worldwide, a survey of thousands of 16- to 25-year-olds has found. This ‘eco-anxiety’ has a negative impact on respondents’ daily lives, say the researchers who conducted the survey, and is partly caused by the feeling that governments aren’t doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe.” At Nature, Tosin Thompson reports on a survey that indicates climate worries are weighing on the world’s youth and impacting their psychological well-being.
  • “As outbreaks spread, more types of rare events become noticeable as well. A wider pandemic is also a weirder pandemic. Many aspects of COVID-19’s mystique—the range of symptoms and affected organs, the possibility of persistent illness, reinfections—are common to other viral illnesses, but go unnoticed because most illnesses don’t sweep the world in a short span of time.” Although it may not feel like it, winter is on its way – and we’re not done with COVID yet. At The Atlantic, Katherine J. Wu, Ed Yong, and Sarah Zhang explore what that means for you.
  • “Beyond excess deaths alone, the COVID-19 pandemic imposed a greater life expectancy burden on persons aged 25 to 64 years, including those with average or above-average life expectancies, and a disproportionate burden on Black and Hispanic communities.” A simulation-based study by Reif and colleagues published in the Annals of Internal Medicine probes the granular details of the “mortality burden” imposed by the COVID pandemic in the United States.
  • “The miniature aircraft, which can be made as small as a grain of sand, could be dispersed by air over long distances. Scientists envision that these microfliers, when equipped with wee sensors for measuring environmental conditions, could monitor pH, test for heavy metals or assess hazards like chemical spills, for example.” An article at Science News by Emily Conover describes the development of tiny “microfliers” whose design was inspired by the natural helicoptering of maple seeds.
  • “Earlier this month, Biogen executives admitted publicly that the launch of Aduhelm, its treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, was going slower than expected. Privately, the company is facing a situation far bleaker than what it has publicly disclosed, forcing Biogen to consider cost-cutting measures, including layoffs….Just over 100 patients with Alzheimer’s had been infused with Aduhelm as of Sept. 11 — a number that is rising slowly but is drastically below Biogen’s internal projections and Wall Street’s expectation that thousands of patients would be using the drug by now.” At STAT News, Adam Feuerstein and Damian Garde report (log-in required) that uptake of the Alzheimer therapy Aduhelm (aducanumab), whose approval by the FDA despite a downvote from the expert panel convened to evaluate the supporting data has generated considerable controversy, has been weaker than anticipated.


  • “Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project….But over and over, she was met with confusion. ‘What are you talking about?’ multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question….Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.” This great story by The Verge’s Monica Chin about generational differences shaped by the evolving assumptions and affordances of digital technologies is - if you are of a certain age - almost guaranteed to make you feel older.
    Photograph showing an old-style library card catalog with one of the drawers open. Image credit: Maksym Kaharlytskyi/Unsplash
    Image credit: Maksym Kaharlytskyi/Unsplash
  • “The COVID-19 Vaccination Field Guide outlines selected strategies to help increase vaccine confidence and uptake. These strategies were drawn from historical (non-COVID-19) vaccination efforts and supported by positive outcomes from evaluation research….The Field Guide also includes examples from communities currently using these strategies to increase COVID-19 vaccine confidence and uptake.” The CDC has released a field guide intended to help public health and community organizations effectively increase public confidence in, and acceptance of, COVID-19 vaccination.
  • If you’ve every felt like the negativity and toxicity that characterize so many online interactions were like a gigantic positive-feedback loop, well, you’re not exactly wrong, according to a recent publication in the Journal of Communication by Kim and colleagues: “…we find that people who comment on articles in the real world use more toxic language on average than the public as a whole; levels of toxicity in comments scraped from media outlet Facebook pages greatly exceed what is observed in comments we elicit on the same articles from a nationally representative sample. Finally, we demonstrate experimentally that exposure to toxic language in comments increases the toxicity of subsequent comments.” (H/T @AdamMGrant).
  • An interview broadcast on Boston public radio station WBUR examines the merits and demerits of recently enacted vaccination mandates, and features participation from Duke law and philosophy professor Nita Farahany: “Our best strategy is to try to work on trust in the individuals who are not vaccinated. Not by forcing them to become vaccinated, but by getting out into communities, by getting out into community leaders with whom they relate, and providing them with the best possible information. We need to flood the markets with accurate information to counter misinformation, and disinformation. And restore trust and public health agencies in order to encourage vaccine hesitant individuals to get vaccinated.”
  • “Facebook says it protects users through a mix of automated systems and human reviews. But a ProPublica investigation based on internal corporate documents, interviews and law enforcement records reveals how those safeguards fail to protect buyers and sellers from scam listings, fake accounts and violent crime.” Adding to a spate of unflattering press for Facebook this month, a ProPublica investigation by Craig Silverman, A.C. Thompson and Peter Elkind details how the platform’s popular Facebook Marketplace feature leaves users exposed to potential abuse and scams.
  • “For a lot of reasons, we would all stand to benefit if we could better isolate the effect of Facebook — or YouTube, or TikTok, or Twitter — on the larger world. But because they keep their data private, for reasons both good and bad, we spend a lot of time arguing about subjects for which we often have little grounding in empiricism. We talk about what Facebook is based on how Facebook makes us feel. And so Facebook and the world wind up talking past each other.” In an article at his Platformer newsletter, Casey Newton analyzes the current ferment around recent journalistic revelations about Facebook’s inner workings.
  • “…the closer you look at the collaboration research, the more caveats you find. Yes, collaboration in the office has seemed fundamental to solving big problems. This is in part because although casual conversations aren’t immediately productive, they build the trust necessary for groups to freely exchange ideas and feedback without making everybody hate one another. But a great deal of office-based collaboration turns out to have been pure wasted time. Other research suggests that we’ve been consumed by ‘collaboration overload’ for years and that we might be better off clawing back up to 20 percent of collaboration time for ourselves...” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson tallies up what has been lost and gained in the COVID-accelerated exodus from the physical office.
  • “Due to the ‘extreme inaction and inappropriate requirements’ placed on public colleges by the system’s Board of Trustees and the acting chancellor, the letter says, ‘we have chosen to take what action we can to protect the students and staff we directly teach or supervise, even if these actions are in defiance of current USG rules’ and could lead to discipline, including dismissal.” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Emma Pettit reports that a mutiny is underway among tenured faculty at the University of Georgia, where a number of professors are insisting on masking in class, in defiance of the states’ university-system-wide order banning mask mandates.


Photograph of a public sculpture showing a pistol with its barrel twisted into a knot. Image credit: Image credit: Maria Lysenko/Unsplash
Image credit: Maria Lysenko/Unsplash
  • “We found that state laws prohibiting possession of firearms and requiring relinquishment of firearms by people convicted of domestic violence–related misdemeanors were associated with substantial reductions in homicide of pregnant and postpartum women. State policy makers should consider further strengthening domestic violence–related firearm regulations and their enforcement to prevent homicide of pregnant and postpartum women.” A study by Wallace and colleagues, published online this week ahead of print by Health Affairs, investigates the effectiveness of laws requiring the surrender of firearms after a domestic violence conviction in preventing homicide in pregnant women and new mothers.
  • “The Oregon board's order said that LaTulippe "did not wear a mask when treating patients" in his clinic between March 2020 and December 2020, did not require patients or clinic visitors to wear masks unless they were acutely ill, coughing, or congested with signs of respiratory illness. He told board investigators that at least 95% of his patients chose not to wear a mask while in his clinic.” MedPage Today’s Cheryl Clark reports on an unusually severe sanction – in this case, the revoking of a license to practice medicine – levied against an Oregon pain specialist for spreading misinformation about COVID and failing to practice masking while seeing patients, among other offenses.
  • “In general, trials designed to inform rapidly evolving policy issues should develop mechanisms to revisit social value while recognizing that the value of research varies for diverse stakeholders with legitimate reasons to weigh evidence differently.” A paper published this month by Shah and colleagues in the journal Clinical Trials examines ethics insights garnered over the course of a clinical trial evaluating approaches to preventing perinatal transmission of HIV.
  • “Our findings raise concerns about the extent to which certain MA [Medicare Advantage] companies may have inappropriately leveraged both chart reviews and HRAs [health risk assessments] to maximize risk adjusted payments. We found that 20 of the 162 MA companies drove a disproportionate share of the $9.2 billion in payments from diagnoses that were reported only on chart reviews and HRAs, and on no other service records. These companies' higher share of payments could not be explained by the size of their beneficiary enrollment.” A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report presents the results of an investigation into “upcoding” – that is, tweaking medical diagnosis codes to make patients seem sicker than they actually are – among companies taking part in the Medicare Advantage program (H/T @EmilyG_DC).
  • A report on trends in statewide healthcare costs released by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission contains some stark juxtapositions (such as this one highlighted by @dp_oneill) that have implications for national trends in costs and the approaches currently being applied to mitigate them.
  • “Part of the disagreement arose because President Joe Biden had announced that Americans could get a booster as soon as Sept. 20, a date Fauci and colleagues had suggested to him as practical and optimal in one of their frequent meetings just days before — though he cautioned that boosters would need CDC and FDA approval….Now it appears that that decision and the timing rest with the FDA, which is the normal procedure for new uses of vaccines or drugs.” At Kaiser Health News, Sarah Jane Tribble and Arthur Allen try to untangle the threads of seemingly contradictory communications from different federal health agencies about the likelihood of approval for booster shots for COVID vaccines.
  • “Certain drug makers have been roundly criticized for abusing the Orphan Drug Act, which not only provides lucrative tax incentives but gives drug makers the exclusive right to sell a drug for seven years. A committee aide explained that the policy is meant to crack down on one such abuse known as ‘salami slicing,’ where drug makers split up an orphan drug application into several separate indications to reap the benefits.” STAT News’ Nicholas Florko reports on legislative maneuvers in the House of Representatives that, if passed as part of spending package, will rein in the ability of the pharmaceuticals industry to qualify for tax credits related to research involving so-called orphan drugs.