----- 4 stars -----
The Man Who Refused to Spy / New Yorker
The F.B.I. tried to recruit an Iranian scientist as an informant. When he balked, the payback was brutal.
There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it. This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries. [...] This kind of behavior, alternating between being super infectious and fairly noninfectious, is exactly what k captures, and what focusing solely on R hides. Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor of epidemiology and complex systems at Northeastern, told me that this has been a huge challenge, especially for health authorities in Western societies, where the pandemic playbook was geared toward the flu—and not without reason, because pandemic flu is a genuine threat. However, influenza does not have the same level of clustering behavior. [...] Overdispersion should also inform our contact-tracing efforts. In fact, we may need to turn them upside down. Right now, many states and nations engage in what is called forward or prospective contact tracing. Once an infected person is identified, we try to find out with whom they interacted afterward so that we can warn, test, isolate, and quarantine these potential exposures. But that’s not the only way to trace contacts. And, because of overdispersion, it’s not necessarily where the most bang for the buck lies. Instead, in many cases, we should try to work backwards to see who first infected the subject.
At first, the doctors assured us that this inappropriate behavior was a passing recovery phase of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The lewd remarks eventually subsided, but his behavior took another ominous turn. “He always had a wild streak,” Caroline told me. It’s true that before the accident, Conway had loved flouting the rules. He’d cut across an empty park on his motorcycle to avoid traffic, or build a towering bonfire in his backyard for kicks. “But there was no violence,” she said. After the accident, Conway flew into rages so vicious the hospital staff put a cage over his bed to contain him. When he finally left the hospital, Conway attempted to return to his former life, but he struggled to run his business and pay the bills. He and Caroline’s marriage began to fray. Hopes for a full recovery waned, and eventually Conway’s neuropsychologist confirmed our fears that the personality change might be permanent. “He’s recovered 95 percent brain function,” she said, “But the final 5 percent, it might never return.” [...] My first day of neuroanatomy class was just weeks after Conway’s accident. While he lay in the hospital in restraints, lashing out indiscriminately, I’d just begun graduate school in neuroscience — a career I was pursuing because I thought it would help me make sense of our father’s dementia. And now I thought it would help me make sense of my brother’s brain injury.
This is the judging room of the World’s Original Marmalade Awards, an annual event in Penrith, England, in the English Lake District. I’m here because I’m obsessed with marmalade. Not with making or eating it — although I enjoy both — but the enigma it represents. I suppose I’m obsessed with those obsessed with it: what is the appeal? Marmalade is made from a sour, bitter fruit that doesn’t grow in the UK; a fruit that requires days of preparation to render remotely edible. And yet, marmalade holds a central role in British life and British culture. It appears in the diaries of Samuel Pepys; James Bond and Paddington Bear eat it. Officers that served in British wars received jars of marmalade to remind them of their home country. Captain Scott took jars to the Antarctic with him, and Edmund Hillary took one up Everest. Marmalade is part of our national myth. I want to know why.
Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change. Construction of a reactor, called Sparc, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said. Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.
In August 2013, less than a month after their match, they met at a café. She walked in to find him more dapper than his photos suggested: his silver-flecked hair and square glasses gave him an air of seriousness. At five feet, eight inches, he was short, but had a strong, athletic physique. He was a gregarious and engaging storyteller, practically brimming with extraordinary, rollicking stories of his business career, of making millions off a deal and of champagne-soaked dinners with the billionaire Richard Branson. Smith was enamoured, and they met again and again. He introduced her to his two young sons. It struck her as strange that he drove an SUV and not the Aston Martin he often mentioned, but he explained that away: he sometimes drove his brother-in-law’s car because as a very private, very wealthy person, he liked to keep a low profile. Smith had been a stay-at-home mom when her kids were young and came away from the divorce with her home, a condo that she rented out and around $600,000 in the bank. As their relationship progressed, Shaun often steered the conversation to his various business ventures, one of which was an idea called Trivia for Good. It was a gaming app, sort of like a forerunner to HQ, but with a charity angle, and it intrigued her. One day, he made his pitch: “Most of the company has been invested in, but there are still a few opportunities,” he said. She would get regular dividends and, later, if she wanted, she could sell her shares for a profit. Smith was excited to be involved in an endeavour that would make her money and do some good in the world. In mid-September, a month and a half after they met, she handed over a bank draft for $160,000. [...] We all want to believe we’re too smart to fall for a con. But our propensity to believe in something, or someone, rests far more on our state of mind than some predisposition. Someone going through a major life change—a lost job or a bad breakup—is more susceptible, because their equilibrium is off, but anyone anywhere can be had if the scammer is skilled enough. In the U.S. in 2019, some 25,000 people reported being the victim of online romance scams, with losses estimated at more than $200 million (U.S.). In Canada in that same year, 760 Canadians lost $22.5 million to romance scammers, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre and the RCMP. In both countries, according to the FBI, romance scams now constitute the highest-loss form of consumer fraud.
Why does Western music divide the octave into 12 different notes? Why not 13, or 19 or 24 notes? For such a simple sounding question, the answer is actually a tangle of history, physics and human preference. Get ready for some serious music theory!
Whether crows, ravens, and other “corvids” are making multipart tools like hooked sticks to reach grubs, solving geometry puzzles made famous by Aesop, or nudging a clueless hedgehog across a highway before it becomes roadkill, they have long impressed scientists with their intelligence and creativity. Now the birds can add one more feather to their brainiac claims: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and analytical thought long believed the sole province of humans and a few other higher mammals. A second study, also in Science, looked in unprecedented detail at the neuroanatomy of pigeons and barn owls, finding hints to the basis of their intelligence that likely applies to corvids’, too.
Over the past couple of months, many Britons have imported American discourse on race wholesale. When asked to analyze the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent. [...] To understand the experience of black Britons, it is not only necessary to grasp how different their history is from that of black Americans: we need to understand the diversity captured by the label “black British.” For example, around two out of every three students with Congolese or Somali origins get free school meals, a standard indicator that their parents are poor. Among students with Nigerian or Ghanaian origins, only one in five do. It is also noteworthy that black Caribbean students are twice as likely to be excluded from school as black African students. The discrepancy in educational attainment is just as stark. On average, 58% of black African students graduate from middle school at grade level (defined as achieving A* to C grades at GCSE)—about the same number as white students. But black Caribbean students are significantly less likely to do so—while those whose parents hail from Nigeria actually outperform their white peers by a considerable margin. [...] There has, for example, been a lot of concern about the underrepresentation of black Britons in professions like the arts and publishing. But why would you choose to go into theater or journalism—rather than law, medicine or finance—if you are a talented child of ambitious but not well off immigrants? This is not a flippant question. While representation can be important, anybody who actually wants to improve the condition of black Britons should at least be a little curious about why they are overrepresented in some prestigious professions and underrepresented in others. In a country in which black people make up only three percent of the population, for example, six percent of junior doctors are black. Would the country—or the black community—really benefit if more black Britons chose to ditch medicine for the theater? The debate is worth having. But in the place of that debate, there have only been pious paeans to diversity.
The first study to compare the immune response in children with that in adults suggests a reason for children’s relative good fortune. In children, a branch of the immune system that evolved to protect against unfamiliar pathogens rapidly destroys the coronavirus before it wreaks damage on their bodies, according to the research, published this week in Science Translational Medicine. “The bottom line is, yes, children do respond differently immunologically to this virus, and it seems to be protecting the kids,” said Dr. Betsy Herold, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who led the study. In adults, the immune response is much more muted, she and her colleagues found. When the body encounters an unfamiliar pathogen, it responds within hours with a flurry of immune activity, called an innate immune response. The body’s defenders are quickly recruited to the fight and begin releasing signals calling for backup. Children more often encounter pathogens that are new to their immune systems. Their innate defense is fast and overwhelming. Over time, as the immune system encounters pathogen after pathogen, it builds up a repertoire of known villains. By the time the body reaches adulthood, it relies on a more sophisticated and specialized system adapted to remembering and fighting specific threats. If the innate immune system resembles emergency responders first on the scene, the adaptive system represents the skilled specialists at the hospital.
Ginsburg’s death also means a huge loss of power for Roberts. For the first time in decades, there will be no swing justice poised to decide whether the liberals or conservatives will prevail in close cases. According to our analysis from earlier this year, Justice Brett Kavanaugh will probably be the new median on the court, assuming the new justice falls to his right, and that means the center of gravity within the conservative wing will shift dramatically — especially if the new justice is closer ideologically to Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, the court’s two most right-leaning justices. One way to think about what the court could look like is to revisit some of the recent 5-4 decisions in which Roberts cast a deciding vote with the liberals — decisions that presumably would have gone the other way with Kavanaugh as the new median. Just this past term, Roberts joined the liberals in a high-profile abortion case involving a Louisiana law that was nearly identical to a Texas restriction struck down by the court in 2016. Roberts wrote in his concurring opinion this summer that he still thinks the 2016 case was decided incorrectly, but, at the same time, he said he wasn’t willing to undo the precedent it set. The other four conservatives, on the other hand, were perfectly ready to start rethinking fundamental aspects of the court’s approach to abortion rights.
----- 1 star -----
Rocket Launch as Seen from the Space Station / NASA
Maybe I should have given this four stars; this was awe-inspiring:
Have you ever seen a rocket launch -- from space? A close inspection of the featured time-lapse video will reveal a rocket rising to Earth orbit as seen from the International Space Station (ISS). The Russian Soyuz-FG rocket was launched ten days ago from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying a Progress MS-10 (also 71P) module to bring needed supplies to the ISS. Highlights in the 90-second video (condensing about 15-minutes) include city lights and clouds visible on the Earth on the lower left, blue and gold bands of atmospheric airglow running diagonally across the center, and distant stars on the upper right that set behind the Earth. A lower stage can be seen falling back to Earth as the robotic supply ship fires its thrusters and begins to close on the ISS, a space laboratory that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
And so 2020 brought a great college football experiment, the collision of college football’s traditionalist league with one of the sport’s most radical outsiders. Leach’s first Mississippi State team was not supposed to be good, either — media members picked the Bulldogs to tie for fifth in the SEC West. But in his SEC debut, Leach shocked the college football world again. Led by graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello, Mississippi State passed for 623 yards and upset national champion Louisiana State, 44-34.
Nonetheless, researchers believe that the techniques used to create GPT-3 could contain the secret to more advanced AI. GPT-3 trained on an enormous amount of text data. What if the same methods were trained on both text and images? Now new research from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, AI2, has taken this idea to the next level. The researchers have developed a new text-and-image model, otherwise known as a visual-language model, that can generate images given a caption. The images look unsettling and freakish—nothing like the hyperrealistic deepfakes generated by GANs—but they might demonstrate a promising new direction for achieving more generalizable intelligence, and perhaps smarter robots as well.
I’ve said before that understanding where our modern standard of living comes from, at a basic level, is a responsibility of every citizen in an industrial civilization. Let’s call it “industrial literacy.” Industrial literacy is understanding… That the food you eat is grown using synthetic fertilizers, and that this is needed for agricultural productivity, because all soil loses its fertility naturally over time if it is not deliberately replenished. That before we had modern agriculture, more than half the workforce had to labor on farms, just to feed the other half. That if synthetic fertilizer was suddenly lost, a mass famine would ensue and billions would starve. That those same crops would not be able to feed us if they were not also protected from pests, who will ravage entire fields if given a chance. That whole regions used to see seasons where they would lose large swaths of their produce to swarms of insects, such as boll weevils attacking cotton plants in the American South, or the phylloxera devouring grapes in the vineyards of France. That before synthetic pesticides, farmers were forced to rely on much more toxic substances, such as compounds of arsenic. That before we had electricity and clean natural gas, people burned unrefined solid fuels in their homes—wood, coal, even dung (!)—to cook their food and to keep from freezing in winter. That these primitive fuels, dirty with contaminants, created toxic smoke: indoor air pollution. That indoor air pollution remains a problem today for 40% of the world population, who still rely on pre-industrial fuels. That before twentieth-century appliances, housework was a full-time job, which invariably fell on women.