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Immunology Is Where Intuition Goes to Die / The Atlantic
Another great piece from Ed Yong -- including a primer on the immune system, if your high school biology's a bit rusty:
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.” [...] Immunity, then, is usually a matter of degrees, not absolutes. And it lies at the heart of many of the COVID-19 pandemic’s biggest questions. Why do some people become extremely ill and others don’t? Can infected people ever be sickened by the same virus again? How will the pandemic play out over the next months and years? Will vaccination work? To answer these questions, we must first understand how the immune system reacts to SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Which is unfortunate because, you see, the immune system is very complicated. [...] Normally, the immune system mobilizes different groups of cells and molecules when fighting three broad groups of pathogens: viruses and microbes that invade cells, bacteria and fungi that stay outside cells, and parasitic worms. Only the first of these programs should activate during a viral infection. But Iwasaki’s team recently showed that all three activate in severe COVID-19 cases. “It seems completely random,” she says. In the worst cases, “the immune system almost seems confused as to what it’s supposed to be making.” [...] There are also preliminary hints that some people might have a degree of preexisting immunity against the new coronavirus. Four independent groups of scientists—based in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore—have now found that 20 to 50 percent of people who were never exposed to SARS-CoV-2 nonetheless have significant numbers of T-cells that can recognize it. These “cross-reactive” cells likely emerged when their owners were infected by other, related coronaviruses, including the four mild ones that cause a third of common colds, and the many that infect other animals. [...] Even if the cross-reactive cells are beneficial, remember that T-cells act by blowing up infected cells. As such, they’re unlikely to stop people from getting infected in the first place, but might reduce the severity of those infections. Could this help to explain why, politics aside, some countries had an easier time with COVID-19 than others? Could it explain why some people incur only mild symptoms? “You can go pretty crazy pretty quickly with the speculations,” says Crotty, who co-led one of the studies that identified these cross-reactive cells. “A lot of people have latched onto this and said it could explain everything. Yes, it could! Or it could explain nothing. It’s a really frustrating situation to be in.” “I wish it wasn’t,” he adds, “but the immune system is really complicated.”
An eccentric Dutchman began living in a giant underground facility built by the German military—and ran a server farm beloved by cybercriminals. [...] In the mid-nineteen-seventies, the West German Army, the Bundeswehr, built a vast underground bunker near the town of Traben-Trarbach. It was five stories deep, had nearly sixty thousand square feet of floor space, and was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Eighty days’ worth of survival provisions were stored inside, including an emergency power supply and more than a million litres of drinking water. You entered the facility through an air lock; the interior temperature was set to seventy degrees. The walls were concrete, thirty-one inches thick, and some were lined with copper. The rooms were soundproof and transmission-proof. Between 1978 and 2012, the bunker was the headquarters of the Bundeswehr’s meteorological division, and at any one time about three hundred and fifty civilian contractors worked there; most of them focussed on predicting and plotting weather patterns wherever the German military was deployed. New employees often got lost. On each level, the walls were painted a different color, to help people orient themselves—but the bunker was symmetrical, so one side looked much like another. There was no natural light. In winter, workers on day shifts arrived in the dark and left in the dark. In 2012, the Bundeswehr moved its meteorological division to another site. Germany’s federal real-estate agency, known as BImA, listed the bunker for three hundred and fifty thousand euros. The low price reflected the unusual nature of the property and the expense of maintaining it. The bunker sat beneath a plot of some thirty acres, in a forested area on a hill outside Traben-Trarbach, which is an hour east of the Belgian border. The perimeter of the property was marked by ramparts and a fence, and aboveground the site contained several large structures, including a gatehouse, an office building, a tall aerial with satellite dishes, a helipad, and barracks constructed by the Nazis in 1933. The Bundeswehr had employed twelve men, who worked in shifts around the clock, solely to insure that the bunker was properly ventilated and did not flood. The German government hoped that a technology business, or perhaps a hotel, might want the premises, but there were few prospective buyers. [...] In 2012, a foundation controlled by a fifty-three-year-old Dutchman named Herman-Johan Xennt proposed to buy the bunker complex. Xennt travelled to Traben-Trarbach to explain his plans to a closed session of the town council. He was a striking man, with a cascade of shoulder-length gray-blond hair, and wore a dark suit, which highlighted the pallor of his face. Xennt told the council that he intended to set up a Web-hosting business at the bunker complex, and promised to create as many as a hundred jobs for local people, but he was vague when pressed for details. Several council members were concerned about Xennt’s credentials. Although he said that he had been in the Web-hosting business for years, he did not name any blue-chip clients. But there were no other viable buyers, and so, in June, 2013, the property was sold to Xennt’s foundation. One of the council members, Heide Pönnighaus, later told a newspaper, “I didn’t have the best feeling about it.”
When I applied to study in the US in the 1980s, I filled out a questionnaire that asked if I had ever been a member of the Communist party. The point of the question was presumably to avoid ideological risks. But it is beyond doubt that the Chinese students coming in with me included many party members who were headed to some of the US’s finest schools, often with scholarships. Americans generally assumed that these students would feel the appeal of liberal values, which they would then take back to China. What happened more often, though, was that Chinese students were quick to see the cultural differences between the two countries, and to draw the very logical conclusion that American values are fine for America but would never work in the Chinese system. If those US hopes for the exportation of values had panned out, much of China would have been won over by now. But what has actually happened? Returnees are now leaders in much of Chinese business and industry, but anti-American expression in China is as strong today as it has been since the Mao era. Washington bears much of the responsibility for what has happened. In the years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, administrations of both parties touted the absurd theory that the best plan was to let China get rich and then watch as freedom and democracy evolved as byproducts of capitalist development. But did capitalist competition, that ravenous machine that can chew up anything, change China? The regime’s politics did not change a whit. What did change was the US, whose business leaders now approached the Chinese dictatorship with obsequious smiles. Here, after all, was an exciting new business partner: master of a realm in which there were virtually no labour rights or health and safety regulations, no frustrating delays because of squabbles between political parties, no criticism from free media, and no danger of judgment by independent courts. For European and US companies doing manufacture for export, it was a dream come true.
College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots / The Atlantic
An oft-treated topic covered insightfully, with good historical perspective:
From my parents' teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed. I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. [...] What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal. And I and my cohort of hippie-to-yuppie liberal Baby Boomers were complicit in that. [...] Another reason people like me found unions kind of boring was that a unionized job was almost by definition a boring job. When I started work as a writer at Time in 1981, I joined the union, the Newspaper Guild, but I understood that everything I cared about in that job—good assignments, decent salary increases, titular honorifics—would be entirely at my editors’ discretion, not a function of collectively bargained rules. A union? Sure, fine. But I was talent. I was creative. I was an individual. College graduates tend to think of themselves that way, younger ones all the more, younger Baby Boomers at the time probably the most ever. And the intensified, all-encompassing individualism that blew up during the 1960s—I do my thing, and you do your thing—was not a mindset or temperament that necessarily reinforced feelings of solidarity with fellow workers or romantic feelings about unions. [...] Two-thirds of the Post’s unionized editorial employees didn’t stop working at all, and a majority voted again and again against striking in solidarity with the pressmen. “What I find ominous is that a number of Guild people don’t think they have common cause with craftsmen,” a Post journalist told a reporter at the time. “They feel professionally superior to guys with dirt under their fingernails.” At a guild meeting, a Post reporter referred to the striking pressmen as “slack-jawed cretins.” Four weeks into the five-month strike, a Times article reported that “if a Post Guild member is asked why he or she is not supporting the strike,” many “say they do not see themselves as ordinary working people. One said, ‘We go to the same parties as management. We know Kissinger, too.’” [...] The new approach propagated rapidly. Soon almost every up-and-coming national Democratic politician was a New Democrat: Hart, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton—all first elected senator or governor between 1974 and 1984 when they were in their 30s, all about to become serious presidential candidates. For two generations, liberals had been in control of the government and the news media and the culture, so it seemed as if that hegemony afforded them the luxury of true liberalism—admitting mistakes, cutting some slack for the other side, trying new approaches. For 44 of the previous 48 years, Democrats had controlled both houses of Congress, and they had also held the presidency for most of that half century. All through the 1970s, when the GOP had only about a third of Senate seats, a third of that small Republican minority were bona fide liberals. Of course good-faith compromise and consensus between left and right were possible.
My first interview with Gates was in 1983, and I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve spoken to him since. He’s yelled at me (more in the earlier years) and made me laugh (more in the latter years). But I’ve never looked forward to speaking to him more than in our year of Covid. We connected on Wednesday, remotely of course. In discussing our country’s failed responses, his issues with his friend Mark Zuckerberg’s social networks, and the innovations that might help us out of this mess, Gates did not disappoint. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. [...] I’m surprised at the US situation because the smartest people on epidemiology in the world, by a lot, are at the CDC. I would have expected them to do better. You would expect the CDC to be the most visible, not the White House or even Anthony Fauci. But they haven’t been the face of the epidemic. They are trained to communicate and not try to panic people but get people to take things seriously. They have basically been muzzled since the beginning. We called the CDC, but they told us we had to talk to the White House a bunch of times. Now they say, “Look, we’re doing a great job on testing, we don’t want to talk to you.” Even the simplest things, which would greatly improve this system, they feel would be admitting there is some imperfection and so they are not interested. [...] The majority of all US tests are completely garbage, wasted. If you don’t care how late the date is and you reimburse at the same level, of course they’re going to take every customer. Because they are making ridiculous money, and it’s mostly rich people that are getting access to that. You have to have the reimbursement system pay a little bit extra for 24 hours, pay the normal fee for 48 hours, and pay nothing [if it isn’t done by then]. And they will fix it overnight.
It’s not a serious health threat. The CDC doesn’t even recommend regular testing. So how did herpes get so aggressively feared? [...] If you are an American between the ages of 14 and 49 reading this, there is a decent chance you have genital herpes and don’t know it. About 11.9 percent of Americans in that range have herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV-2, the kind most commonly associated with genital outbreaks, and most of them—more than 4 in 5, by some estimates—have no idea. That’s partly because government health officials think we’re better off that way. In 2019, a herpes diagnosis still carries an intense stigma. There are more than 1,000 posts on Reddit, the online discussion forum, containing the words herpes and devastated. Perennial articles chronicle the months, or even years, it takes for people who test positive to regain their self-worth and begin dating or having sex again. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually recommends against widespread screening for genital herpes. In addition to the risk of false positives, “the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits” of testing everyone, the agency says. Many doctors don’t include the test in a standard STI panel unless a patient shows symptoms. Since many people with HSV-2 have either no symptoms or very mild symptoms, the majority never seek treatment and are never diagnosed. This points to the medical reality of genital herpes: It is, for the vast majority of people, no big deal. Along with the 11.9 percent with HSV-2, 47.8 percent of Americans in the 14-to-49 age range carry HSV-1, or “oral herpes,” which generally causes cold sores around the mouth but can also cause genital herpes. If you’ve had chickenpox, shingles, or mononucleosis, you’ve also been infected by another virus in the herpes family. For the people who do have symptoms from genital herpes, they’re generally no worse than, well, cold sores, only they’re not on your face. Genital herpes only causes complications in people with compromised immune systems, and when it does, they’re usually treatable. In short, herpes simplex is a common, generally harmless skin condition that happens to sometimes be spread sexually. Barry Margulies, an associate professor of biological sciences at Towson University, said he tells students that herpes viruses are “extremely common pathogens that have actually sort of evolved a fabulous coexistence with us”—because “in most cases, nobody ever knows they have them.”
Last year, I briefly ran an analogue dating service. I’ll never know what inspired me to start it—maybe my stable relationship had me missing the excitement of single life—but I loved the simplicity of it. There were no questionnaires, no algorithms, no thoughtful matchmaking. Instead, I collected phone numbers from singles I met at bars, soccer games, and dinner parties, and arbitrarily set them up with each other. While most of my “matches” never went anywhere, I was surprised by how many turned into second or third dates. Even more surprising was how easy it was to recruit singles. Everywhere I went, it seemed there was someone frustrated enough in their love life to take a chance on a date arranged by a complete stranger. This strategy may not be as crazy as it sounds. When it comes to predicting who we’ll click with, your guess truly may be as good as mine. At least that’s what a recent study, “Negligible evidence that people desire partners who uniquely fit their ideals,” suggests.1 It was published this June in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The data were very compelling in telling the story that we might not have a lot of insight into what’s really driving our romantic desire,” says Jehan Sparks, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cologne and the lead author of the paper. “We tested it in a lot of different ways and got really consistent results.” [...] When the duo surveyed singles about the personality traits they were looking for in romantic partners, they found that a similarity model—the age-old idea that birds of a feather flock together—best described the data. But when they asked people in long-term relationships to rate their current partners using the same personality dimensions, the similarity model didn’t quite hold up. It seemed the happiest couples differed in terms of dominance, the tendency to take control of the situation. Other research has found similar results: From best friends to married couples, the most compatible people seem to differ on this key personality dimension.
I’m focusing on this specific exchange, but the truth is that a combination of vilifying common business practices and begging the question was a consistent theme. Things like market research or copying competitor features or improving products were held up as obvious crimes and evidence of monopoly, when they were often not crimes at all, or only crimes if a monopoly in the relevant market had first been established. That is not to say that the committee’s investigation didn’t produce evidence of illegal anticompetitive actions, but rather that said evidence, such that there was, too often begged the question. The combination of the Republicans’ focus on the political aspects of antitrust and the tendency of the Democrats to see antitrust crimes even in normal business proceedings produced what was, I think, the most obvious political takeaway for tech companies: the Democrats have made up their minds (that tech is guilty), while the Republicans are willing to cut a deal. The outline of that deal could not have been more obvious: Republicans are fine with the consumer welfare standard (which, as I noted back in 2016, inherently favors Aggregators) and tech’s business practices, as long as tech companies don’t “censor”; the alternating format of Congressional hearings placed these demands in direct contrast to Democratic assumptions of guilt. To put it in explicit terms: “We, Republicans, are your friends in Washington, but if you want us to defend you from the Democrats, you need to stop censoring conservatives.” Again, it doesn’t matter that conservative websites tend to do particularly well on social media, or that the destruction of the media business model helped lay the groundwork for President Trump’s rise; Republicans expect that tech companies — by which they mostly mean Google and Facebook (and Twitter) — err on the side of not censoring or checking conservative content if they want help in Washington, because that help is not coming from the Democrats.
Decades ago, a marketing stunt promised Philippine soda drinkers a chance at a million pesos. But an error at a bottling plant led to 600,000 winners—and to lawsuits, rioting, and even deaths.
People with consistently high levels of blood sugar could get less benefit from exercise than those whose blood sugar levels are normal, according to a cautionary new study of nutrition, blood sugar and exercise. The study, which involved rodents and people, suggests that eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods, which may set the stage for poor blood sugar control, could dent our long-term health in part by changing how well our bodies respond to a workout.
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Many Americans Are Convinced Crime Is Rising In The U.S. They’re Wrong.
You probably know this, but it's worth repeating anyway:
Take the crime rate. In 2019, according to a survey conducted by Gallup, about 64 percent of Americans believed that there was more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago. It’s a belief we’ve consistently held for decades now, but as you can see in the chart below, we’ve been, just as consistently, very wrong. [...] The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the rate of violent crimes per 1,000 Americans age 12 and older plummeted from 80 in 1993 to just 23 in 2018. The country has gotten much, much safer, but, somehow, Americans don’t seem to feel that on a knee-jerk, emotional level. [...] So why do Americans still think crime is high? Turns out, the local news may be responsible for convincing Americans that violent crime is more common than it really is. Researchers have consistently found that “if it bleeds, it leads” is a pretty accurate descriptor of the coverage that local television broadcasters and newspapers focus on. For years, rarer crimes like murders received a lot more airtime than more common crimes like physical assault. And that hasn’t changed as the crime rate has fallen.
On Monday, American swimming gold medalist Katie Ledecky shared a video showing her swim the length of a pool with a full glass of chocolate milk on her head, never spilling a drop.
We construct network measures of nursing home connectedness and estimate that nursing homes have, on average, connections with 15 other facilities. Controlling for demographic and other factors, a home’s staff-network connections and its centrality within the greater network strongly predict COVID-19 cases. Traditional federal regulatory metrics of nursing home quality are unimportant in predicting outbreaks, consistent with recent research. Results suggest that eliminating staff linkages between nursing homes could reduce COVID-19 infections in nursing homes by 44 percent.
Singapore researchers have developed “electronic skin” capable of recreating a sense of touch, an innovation they hope will allow people with prosthetic limbs to detect objects, as well as feel texture, or even temperature and pain.
Using de- identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre- pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post- lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity.