A new view of a record-shattering distant star shows it to be twice as hot as our sun, and likely accompanied by a stellar companion
Break out the binoculars, folks. Time to see some shooting stars!
As The Washington Post reports, the biggest and brightest meteor shower of the year, the annual Perseids, will be on full display this Saturday and Sunday.
The Perseids, per NASA, is known for incredible fireballs amid a spatter of fainter, falling bits of light, which often leave mesmerizing streaks in their wake. It's also considered a "high-rate meteor shower," with 50 to 100 meteors often seen every hour.
Though folks Northern Hemisphere will have the optimal viewing position, it can be seen anywhere, ideally in the early hours of the morning — though anytime after 10 is fine — on Saturday-night-slash-early-Sunday-morning. And according to the experts, you won't want to miss the sparkling show.
"This is one of the three most active in meteor showers," NASA ambassador Tony Rice told WaPo, meaning it's one of the three heavenly showers that produce "the most visible meteors."
According to NASA, Perseids is comprised of pieces of tiny bits of space rock originating from the Swift-Tuttle comet. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, the comet orbits the Sun every 133 or so years, last making its way to our inner solar system in 1992.
The shower's radiant, or the point in the sky where they appear to come, is right around the constellation Perseus — indeed, that's how the starshow originally got its name. And ideally, Rice told the paper, if you look towards Perseus this weekend, "you might see some meteors that last a couple of seconds."
"There will be fewer of them," he added, "but they're going to be more spectacular."
No Phone Zone
If you do plan on staying up — or waking up — for the show, Rice did offer WaPo some recommendations. Darkness is essential, and so is patience; once get outside, you need to wait about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust. And once you're adjusted, Rice told WaPo, you'd do well to stay outside for about an hour. Don't want to go inside too early and miss a fireball!
Oh, and one last tip? Leave the phone inside. Per the paper, the brightness of your phone screen will mess with your night vision. And trust us, that would be a shame.
More on space rocks: Meteor Explodes over Texas, Causing Epic Noise and Scattering Debris
The post The Most Amazing Meteor Shower of the Year Is This Weekend appeared first on Futurism.
- California approves driverless taxi expansion in San Francisco
- The bipartisan law required the launch of four DAC projects, two of which must be located in "economically distressed" fossil-fuel-producing communities — like those along the Gulf.
This first-of-its-kind federal funding is meant to jump-start a new industry that can siphon climate pollution from the air
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40463-4Comparison of genome replication fidelity between
As the AI industry's market value continues to balloon, experts are warning that its meteoric rise is eerily similar to that of a different — and significant — moment in economic history: the dot com bubble of the late 1990s.
The dot com bubble — and subsequent crash — was an era defined by a gold rush-like frenzy and inflated valuations. Hungry to cash in on a new, lucrative age of technology, venture capitalists took to throwing large sums at companies that, though they made all the right promises about their ability to change the world, had yet to actually prove their viability. And when the vast majority of these ventures ultimately fell short, they failed, swallowing roughly $5 trillion in fundraising as they sank into www dot oblivion.
Fast forward to today, as The Wall Street Journal details in a new report, and that same gold rush energy is palpable in the burgeoning AI marketplace. VCs are all too happy to pour massive amounts of cash into a growing constellation of AI firms, even those that have yet to turn a profit. Or, for that matter, have yet to even introduce a discernible product.
Company leaders, meanwhile, continue to make sweeping claims about the transformational power of their tech, which they consistently argue could save the world, destroy it, or — conveniently — both. Investors keep biting, and, per the WSJ, the stocks keep rising — shares of Nvidia, for example, the chipmaker whose GPUs are sought after for AI projects, have tripled in value this year, while tech giants like Meta, Microsoft, and Amazon, which are all working on AI tech, have seen their stock prices skyrocket by 154 percent, 65 percent, and 35 percent, respectively.
And yet, though the tech is impressive, its true value — nevermind path to profitability — is still wildly unclear.
"There's a huge boom in AI — some people are scrambling to get exposure at any cost, while others are sounding the alarm that this will end in tears," Kai Wu, founder and chief investment officer of Sparkline Capital, told the WSJ. "Investors can benefit from innovation-led growth, but must be wary of overpaying for it."
Another striking similarity between AI and dot com? Market concentration. Per the WSJ, the ten biggest stocks in the S&P 500 right now make up more than a third of the total market, and this "concentration of leadership," as Mike Edwards, the deputy chief investment officer at the firm Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisers, told the WSJ, is "the market story that rhymes most with the internet bubble."
But while the comparisons between these economic times certainly shouldn't be ignored, there are some big differences as well. Most notable is that most of the biggest players in the AI industry are longtime Silicon Valley behemoths, and have been working on developing the technology for a while. Think Google, Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, and so on. Some of these firms are even dot com survivors, and for decades have been able to keep themselves afloat amid various technological trends.
And sure, a fair share of newer companies have entered the public mainstage. But even the most prominent newbie of the bunch, the heavily Microsoft-funded OpenAI, was founded by a gaggle of Silicon Valley vets — Sam Altman, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, since-defected Elon Musk, et al — with deep tech industry ties. The same goes for ventures like Character.AI and Humane Inc., founded by ex-Google and Apple executives, respectively.
"It's not like 1999 when investors were racing to hot IPOs for companies that had no chance of making money," Edwards told the WSJ. "Today's winners are disciplined, enormous companies that have moats in place and data sets to exploit."
Still, even the most seasoned companies, executives, and VCs can get too caught up in the hype of it all, and may well stumble in the race to establish their dominance and relevancy in a changing technological landscape. Plus, as a general rule, a high-dollar feedback loop never feels particularly healthy, and cracks in some leading industry players are already starting to show.
As a select few dot com firms did, some AI ventures will likely stick around. But a lot of them probably won't, and given what we know about the ghosts of dot com's past, wariness — something often lost in the fog of war — is more than warranted.
When Donald Trump appeared last week in a Washington, D.C., courtroom for his arraignment on federal election charges, the presiding judge gave the former president a few simple instructions for staying out of jail while he awaited trial.
Trump could not talk to potential witnesses about the case except through lawyers, Magistrate Judge Moxila Upadhyaya told him, and he could not commit a crime on the local, state, or federal level. Both are standard directives to defendants. But then Upadhyaya added a warning that seemed tailored a bit more specifically to the blustery politician standing before her: “I want to remind you,” the judge said, “it is a crime to intimidate a witness or retaliate against anyone for providing information about your case to the prosecution, or otherwise obstruct justice.”
When Upadhyaya asked Trump if he understood, he nodded. Fewer than 24 hours later, Trump appeared to flout that very warning—in its spirit if not its letter—by threatening his would-be foes in an all-caps post on Truth Social: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!” Over the following week, he attacked a potential witness in the case, former Vice President Mike Pence (“delusional”); Special Counsel Jack Smith (“deranged”); and the federal judge assigned to oversee his case, Tanya Chutkan, an appointee of former President Barack Obama (Smith’s “number one draft pick,” in Trump’s words).
Trump’s screeds highlight a challenge that will now fall to Chutkan to confront: constraining a defendant who’s both a former president and a leading candidate to take the White House—and who seems bent on making a mockery of his legal process.
“She’s in a tight spot,” Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan, says of Chutkan. Conceivably, the judge could find Trump in contempt of court and toss him in jail for violating the terms of his pretrial release. But even though in theory Trump should be treated like any other defendant, former prosecutors told me that he was exceedingly unlikely to go to prison over his pretrial statements. And Trump probably knows it. (Whether Trump will go to prison if he is convicted is another hotly debated matter.)
“I’m sure she would be very reluctant to do that, in light of the fact that he’s running for president,” McQuade told me. “So I think as a result, he has a very long leash, and I think he will simply dare her to revoke [his freedom] by saying the most outrageous things he can.”
At a pretrial hearing today, Chutkan issued her first warnings to Trump’s lawyers about their client, according to reporting by Steven Portnoy of ABC News and Kyle Cheney of Politico. “Mr. Trump, like every
, has a First Amendment right to free speech,” she said. “But that right is not absolute.” She said Trump’s presidential candidacy would not factor into her decisions, and she rebuffed suggestions by a Trump lawyer, John Lauro, that the former president had a right to respond to his political opponents in the heat of a campaign. “He’s a criminal defendant,” she reminded him. “He’s going to have restrictions like every single other defendant.”
Chutkan said she would be scrutinizing Trump’s words carefully, and she concluded with what she called “a general word of caution”: “Even arguably ambiguous statements from parties or their counsel,” the judge said, “can threaten the process.” She added: “I will take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard the integrity of these proceedings.”
Chutkan had called the hearing to determine whether to bar Trump and his lawyers from publicly disclosing evidence provided to them by prosecutors—a standard part of the pretrial process. The evidence includes millions of pages of documents and transcribed witness interviews from a year-long investigation, and the government argued that Trump or his lawyers could undermine the process by making them public before the trial. Despite her warnings to Trump’s team, she sided with the defense’s request to narrow the restrictions on what they could disclose, and she did not add other constraints on what he could say about the case.
Yet the effect of Chutkan’s courtroom comments was to put Trump on notice. If he continues to flout judicial warnings, she could place a more formal gag order on him, the ex-prosecutors said. And if he ignores that directive, she would likely issue additional warnings before considering a criminal-contempt citation. A further escalation, McQuade said, would be to hold a hearing and order Trump to show cause for why he should not be held in contempt. “Maybe she gives him a warning, and she gives him another chance and another chance, but eventually, her biggest hammer” is to send him to jail.
Judges have sanctioned high-profile defendants in other cases recently. In 2019, the Trump ally Roger Stone was barred from posting on major social-media platforms after Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that he had violated a gag order she had issued. (Stone did honor this directive.) The Trump foe Michael Avenatti, who represented Stormy Daniels in her case against Trump and briefly considered challenging him for the presidency, was jailed shortly before his trial on extortion charges after prosecutors accused him of disregarding financial terms of his bail. “He was just scooped up and thrown into solitary,” one of his former lawyers, E. Danya Perry, told me. She said that Avenatti was thrown into the same jail cell that had held El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord. (Avenatti later claimed that his treatment was payback ordered by then–Attorney General Bill Barr; the prison warden said he was placed in solitary confinement because of “serious concerns” about his safety, and Barr has called Avenatti’s accusation “ridiculous.”)
Neither Stone nor Avenatti, however, is as high-profile as Trump, arguably the most famous federal defendant in American history. And Perry doubts that Chutkan would imprison him before a trial. Trump has ignored warnings from judges overseeing the various civil cases brought against him over the years and has never faced tangible consequences. “He has done it so many times and he has managed to skate so many times that he certainly is emboldened,” Perry said.
Indeed, Trump has also suggested he would ignore a gag order from Chutkan. “I will talk about it. I will. They’re not taking away my First Amendment rights,” Trump told a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
Trump’s political motives for vilifying his prosecutors and once again portraying himself as the victim of a witch hunt are obvious: He’s trying to rile up his Republican base. Trump also seems to be executing something of a legal strategy in his public statements about the trial. He’s called Washington, D.C., “a filthy and crime-ridden embarrassment,” possibly reasoning that these remarks will force the court to agree to his request to shift the trial to a venue with a friendlier population of potential jurors, such as West Virginia.
That’s less likely to work, according to the former prosecutors I interviewed. “I’d be shocked to see that be successful,” Noah Bookbinder, a former federal prosecutor who heads the anti-corruption advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me. “It’s sort of like the old joke about the child who kills his mother and father and then asks for mercy because he’s an orphan. I just don’t see a court going for that.”
Trump’s attacks also present a problem for Smith, the special counsel. On one hand, prosecutors have a clear interest in ensuring that their witnesses do not feel intimidated; on the other, Smith could feel that trying to silence Trump would play into the former president’s victim narrative. Justice Department prosecutors alerted Chutkan to Trump’s “I’m coming after you” post in a court filing, and during today’s hearing they voiced concerns that if not restricted, Trump could disclose evidence to benefit his campaign. (A Trump spokesperson said the former president’s warning was “the definition of political speech,” and that it referred to “special interest groups and Super PACs” opposing his candidacy.) But Smith’s team did not ask Chutkan to fully gag Trump or even admonish him. “You see the prosecutors being very, very restrained,” Bookbinder said. “With a lot of defendants who were bad-mouthing the prosecutor and witnesses, they would have immediately gone in and asked for an order for the defendant to stop doing that.”
Bookbinder described the citation of Trump’s post as “a brushback pitch” by the government, a signal that they are watching the former president’s public statements closely. But like Chutkan, Smith might be reluctant to push the matter very far. Fighting with Trump over a gag order could distract from where the government wants to focus the case—on Trump’s alleged crimes—and it could indulge his desire to drag out the trial, Bookbinder noted. But the special counsel has to weigh those concerns against the possibility that an out-of-control defendant could jeopardize the safety of prosecutors and witnesses. “My strong suspicion is that Jack Smith doesn’t want to go there,” Bookbinder said. “I think at some point he may have little choice.”
Nature Communications, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40474-9Nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems have shown potential for treating malignant tumors, however, limited tumor penetration of nanosystems remains a hurdle for effective tumor therapy. Here, the authors report a biomimetic bubble nanomachine with tumor-cell-membrane-derived nanovesicle secretion triggered by near-infrared laser irradiation for enhanced tumor penetration.
The cultural and musical movement known as hip-hop celebrates 50 years today, August 11.
Petchauer, a professor in the English department, focuses on the aesthetic practices of urban arts, particularly hip-hop culture, and their connections to teaching, learning, and living. He is the author of the first scholarly study of hip-hop culture on college campuses, and the co-editor of Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum (Teachers College Press, 2013 ) .
Brown is an MSU Research Foundation Professor and the inaugural chair of the African
and African studies department. She is the author of Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy (Peter Lang, 2009), and coauthor of Wish to Live: The Hip-Hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader (Peter Lang, 2012) with Chamara Kwakye, an academic specialist in the MSU Department of African American and African Studies.
A new paper proposes a potential way to reduce “fictitious pricing,” which can mislead consumers.
Fifty years ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stopped enforcing deceptive pricing regulations, assuming that competition would keep retailers honest.
Since then, competition has increased significantly—yet the practice of posting false, inflated comparison prices alongside sale prices has continued unchecked.
Think of an advertisement from a furniture store that touts a $599 sale price for a couch as an $800 savings from a promoted regular price of $1,399. The problem is that the store may have never offered the couch for sale at the higher price.
This practice, called “fictitious pricing,” is ubiquitous in the retail trade. One recent investigation tracked the prices of 25 major retailers and found that “most stores’ sale prices… are bogus discounts” because the listed regular price is seldom, if ever, the price charged for the products.
The new paper in the Journal of Marketing critically evaluates two assumptions underlying the FTC’s decision to halt deceptive pricing prosecution.
The first is that consumers largely ignore inflated reference prices and instead focus primarily on the sale prices, leading to price competition that pushes selling prices lower and renders reference prices harmless.
However, dozens of empirical studies in marketing and psychology reveal that advertised reference prices—even those exaggerated to unrealistic levels—have significant impact on consumer decision-making. This is explained by the natural value that consumers place on getting a good deal, labeled “transaction utility” by Richard Thaler in his Nobel Prize-winning body of work.
In contrast to the FTC’s second assumption that competition drives out economic incentives to cheat, a number of recent economic models show the opposite. Competition in fact increases the chance that a firm will offer noisy information in an attempt to shield itself by looking different to customers. As a result, deception is found to be more profitable as competition increases.
These are fundamental forces that encourage the use of fictitious pricing. They also explain why state-level regulatory efforts and even a growing number of class action lawsuits have done little to discourage the practice.
“There are limits to enforcement by litigation,” says coauthor Joe Urbany, professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “It allows only a relatively small number of meaningful actions in a given time period, leading to limited visibility and impact on widespread practice.”
‘True normal price’
The authors propose instead a disclosure solution in the form of requiring firms that use comparison prices in their sales promotion to additionally post the item’s true normal price (TNP). The TNP is the most frequently offered price for that product in a given period.
For example, let’s say a price-promoting furniture retailer actually offers the sofa for sale at $1,399 for the first two weeks in a quarter (making zero sales), and then advertises the sofa on sale at $599, promoting $800 in savings for the other 10 weeks. Under the TNP disclosure proposal, the retailer would need to post $599 as its true normal price for the product in any subsequent sales promotions that included statement of a “regular price.”
Through a controlled experiment with 900 participants, the authors found that providing TNP information largely eliminates the effect of an advertised regular price, which otherwise significantly raises the chance a consumer will buy.
To gauge the likely response of firms to the TNP disclosure concept, the authors also interviewed a dozen senior retail executives, each with extensive experience in pricing.
“Our interviews revealed that some practitioners are very supportive of efforts to rein in what is perceived to be an ‘out-of-control’ promotional environment,” Urbany says. “At the same time, they and others offered more sobering insights about the realities of likely resistance to intervention.”
The paper concludes with conjectures about how TNP provision would motivate greater honesty in pricing, likely having an impact on average market prices, promotion frequencies, and firm profits.
Additional coauthors are from Duke University and Microsoft.
Source: University of Notre Dame
The post Most sale prices are bogus, but 1 tweak could help appeared first on Futurity.
While it's customary to hear about
In a now-viral Twitter post, CNBC executive editor Jay Yarow wrote of his puzzlement after his Model X, which he'd crashed and totaled in the US, blinked online again in
— yes, the same country currently in the throes of a brutal land war. What's weirder: whoever was driving it was using the journalist's Spotify account to listen to Drake.
As CNBC notes in its reporting on the strange incident, Yarow totaled the car at the end of 2022 and, like many people whose cars have crashed, sold it for parts. He only discovered that it was cruising around war-torn Ukraine after he began getting notifications to the
app, which he still had downloaded on his phone.
In interviews, security experts and parts salespeople told the business news outlet that internet-connected cars — by no means exclusive to Tesla — can indeed pose security risks for their former owners, even if the car in question is totaled like Yarow's.
CNBC found that its executive editor had sold the totaled Model X to a junkyard in New Jersey that works with the online auction site Copart, which specializes in selling "salvage titles" issues when wrecked cars are determined by insurance to be a total loss. While it's illegal to drive such cars in the US, other countries are less strict — and as Carfax
noted in a 2021 report on salve title imports, more than 90 percent of the cars imported into Ukraine have salvage titles.
Although neither the site nor the junkyard confirmed that it was sold to someone in Europe or Ukraine, experts who spoke to CNBC said it would have been pretty simple for the car to end up there.
"Cars go to the repair shop or junkyard," Mike Dunne, a former General Motors executive who now runs the car consulting firm ZoZoGo, told the outlet. He added that such cars "then find their way to a second market and then are suddenly being shipped overseas."
Yarow told his employer that after he totaled his car, Tesla instructed him via email to disconnect his account from his car. It's unclear from this report whether he actually followed the instructions, though it seems clear, at least, that he didn't disconnect his Spotify.
Data gleaned from a Spotify account probably isn't that huge a deal, but nevertheless, having cars connected to the internet is going to cause some weird problems — even if it's just getting the jumpscare that your former car is driving through Ukraine with their woes.
The post Man
When His Totaled Tesla Comes Back Online in Ukraine appeared first on Futurism.
CAPTCHA Real Smooth
Researchers have found that bots are shockingly good at completing CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), which are those small, annoying puzzles designed — ironically — to verify that you're really human.
In fact, as the team led by Gene Tsudik at the University of California, Irvine discovered, the bots are actually way better and faster at solving these tests than us, a worrying sign that the already-aging tech is on its way out.
As detailed in a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper, the researchers found that despite CAPTCHAs having "evolved in terms of sophistication and diversity" over roughly two decades, techniques to "defeat or bypass CAPTCHAs" have also vastly improved.
"If left unchecked, bots can perform these nefarious actions at scale," the paper reads.
"We do know for sure that [the tests] are very much unloved. We didn’t have to do a study to come to that conclusion," Tsudik told New Scientist. "But people don’t know whether that effort, that colossal global effort that is invested into solving CAPTCHAs every day, every year, every month, whether that effort is actually worthwhile."
The researchers found that 120 of the 200 most popular websites used CAPTCHAs to verify users were human. They then asked 1,400 participants of various levels of tech savviness to complete a total of 14,000 of these CAPTCHAs and compared the accuracy to bots designed to defeat the puzzles.
The major takeaway: CAPTCHA-beating bots that have been created by researchers over the years soundly beat these human participants, not only in speed, but accuracy as well: human accuracy ranged from 50 to 84 percent, while bots boasted a stunning 99.8 percent accuracy.
"There’s no easy way using these little image challenges or whatever to distinguish between a human and a bot anymore," co-author Andrew Searles, also a researcher at UC Irvine, told New Scientist.
Recent progress in the development of machine learning has given the bots a huge leg up. In fact, OpenAI's GPT-4 was even able to fool a human into solving a CAPTCHA on its behalf earlier this year.
"In general, as a concept CAPTCHA has not met the security goal, and currently is more an inconvenience for less determined attackers," Shujun Li at the University of Kent,
, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist, adding that we need "more dynamic approaches using behavioral analysis."
More on CAPTCHAs: Uh Oh, OpenAI's GPT-4 Just Fooled a Human Into Solving a CAPTCHA
The post AI Is Now Better Than Humans at Solving Those Annoying "Prove You're a Human" Tests appeared first on Futurism.
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40367-3Genetic manipulation resulting in decreased donor
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40169-7Taekwondo motion image recognition model based on hybrid neural network algorithm for wearable sensor of Internet of Things
I've recently become aware of the insect population decline due to various factors like pesticides, climate change, industrialization, city building, etc. Hardly anyone talks about it, despite how apparently serious it is. As a result, there's hardly any news articles on the issue other than the occasional article by the guardian, nor is there much discussion on it aside from people saying "I used to see lots of insects before but not anymore"
So skipping the initial "we're all gonna die" reaction and getting more into practical talk, I've made this post to get insight from people who're more informed in this than me. Can we have a practical discussion on the human implications of this decline in the present and future? What could humanity do to adapt to this pressing issue? Are there any indications of this adaptation today?
Expert Sam R. Telford, III, has advice to make your summer free of mosquito bites and can debunk some myths about the flying pests.
No one likes mosquitoes. Their bites can cause uncomfortable and sometimes painful reactions and put a damper on even the best summer soiree. They can also carry diseases and viruses like Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), the most dangerous virus spread by insects in North America, and West Nile virus, the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in
West Nile virus was recently detected in a few Massachusetts counties, and the next few weeks will be peak risk, according to Telford, professor in the infectious disease and global health department at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, a commissioner for the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project, and a member of the state Mosquito Advisory Group.
It’s important to protect yourself from mosquitoes. Products such as citronella oil advertise themselves as effective against mosquitoes, but citronella has been proven less effective than other products such as DEET. Newer to the market are patio products such as appliances that heat repellents to keep groups safe outdoors, and were shown to be highly effective against four species of mosquitoes. Wearables, on the other hand, sound like a great idea but studies show they do not reduce mosquitoes’ attraction to humans.
With these products making up a fraction of the overwhelming variety of options on the market, it can be hard to know what really works.
Here, Telford shares fact-based ways to keep you and your loved ones safe from mosquitoes:
1. Wear long sleeves and long pants.
MYTH: Have you been outdoors in the warmer months, clad in pants and long sleeves, but went home with mosquito bites? It’s likely because mosquitoes can bite through tight-fitting clothing if it’s made of thin material. Try wearing loose-fitting clothing that has been treated with an insecticide like permethrin (0.5%), but be careful with clothing that is still wet from the treatment—permethrin is toxic to cats.
2. Bug sprays can go a long way toward protecting you.
FACT: Insect repellents with active ingredients such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus will help protect you from mosquitoes, among other insects. The Environmental Protection Agency has a tool to help find the right insect repellent for you. Certain EPA-approved products are safe to use on children and infants as young as two months, but read the label for instructions. For infants, invest in mosquito netting to cover their outdoor spaces, like playpens or strollers.
3. Mosquitoes are attracted to certain people more than others.
FACT: Studies have shown that certain biological factors make mosquitoes more attracted to some people over others, though why remains a mystery. Some species of mosquitoes prefer birds or mammals, while others prefer humans. Independent of species, mosquitoes tend to prefer humans with type O blood, and another bodily fluid—sweat—can also have an impact. Researchers have found that mosquitoes search for people with higher body temperatures and receptors in their antennae are trained to detect specific chemicals in our sweat.
4. Mosquitoes can lay eggs in most standing water.
FACT: Mosquitoes love containers that collect water, like upright buckets, uncovered trash barrels, and even clogged roof gutters. Depending on the species of mosquito, eggs can hatch anywhere from a few days to several months after being laid, which can make for a miserable summer. Keep your yard safe by overturning buckets or potting containers (or store them in a shed or garage), covering barrels, and keeping areas like gutters or bird baths clean.
5. Both male and female mosquitoes bite.
MYTH: It’s the lady mosquitoes you need to look out for, which is harder since they’re smaller than their male counterparts. Female mosquitoes bite for a simple reason: to produce eggs—and they’ll lay an average of 100 at a time. In the process, though, they can get infected with viruses and parasites when they bite infected species (human or animal). And although mosquitoes are more active in the dusk hours, they can bite at any time.
For more information on mosquitoes and how you can protect yourself, visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local department of public health.
Source: Emily Wright Brognano for Tufts University
A professor at the University of Pittsburgh is suing the institution and two administrators, alleging they discriminated against him because he is Black.
The researcher, Moses Bility, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and microbiology in the university’s School of Public Health, alleges the school’s response to a 2020 paper he published and later withdrew that proposed jade amulets may prevent COVID-19 was discriminatory.
He also claims the school discriminated against him by blocking him from transferring his lab to the Pitt-affiliated Hillman Cancer Center, and that one of the named administrators plagiarized his COVID-19 paper, among other allegedly discriminatory acts. Bility says the school denied his application for tenure in June as retaliation for his complaints of discrimination.
Bility is seeking lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. His complaint states:
As a result of all the conduct of Defendants as set forth above, Dr. Bility has suffered embarrassment, substantial mental anguish and emotional distress, and loss of wages and potential earnings. The discrimination has affected his family, including his wife and children, who have been deprived of receiving his best care and attention due to him coping with all Defendants’ discriminatory conduct.
Pitt and the two administrators, Donald Burke and Maureen Lictveld, the former and current deans of the school of public health, respectively, have filed a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that Bility “alleges no facts actually linking perceived wrongs to either his race or his complaints of discrimination.”
Jeremy Engle, a lawyer at the Pittsburgh firm Marcus & Shapira, who is representing the defendants, declined to comment. (The firm is unrelated to Retraction Watch co-founder Adam Marcus.)
Bility’s lawyer, Steven O’Hanlon of the firm O’Hanlon Schwartz, told us:
The motion to dismiss is meritless given the extensively detailed amended complaint.
The article that proposed jade amulets may prevent COVID-19, “Can Traditional
Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis, was published as an “article in press” in Science of the Total Environment, an Elsevier title, in October 2020.
Following critique online, the authors of the paper withdrew it, and Bility planned to replace the paper with a new version on which he would be the sole author. (In the process of our previous reporting on the article, Bility accused Retraction Watch of racism.)
Bility told us that he had presented the work at several conferences this year and resubmitted an updated version of the manuscript to Science of the Total Environment a few months ago. However, the journal rejected it as “not well aligned with the aims and scope of this environmental science journal,” according to the decision letter Bility shared with us.
He told us:
I believe that Science of the Total Environment was afraid to review the work due to the previous backlash against the journal when the work was reviewed and published in 2020. I will be submitting my work to another journal in the coming months.
An updated version of the paper Bility shared with us no longer mentions traditional Chinese medicine in the title or jade amulets in the body of the text.
In his complaint, Bility alleges that he withdrew the paper after receiving “violent threats, racial abuse and harassing actions.”
Some of the alleged harassment involved vandalism. The name tag on Bility’s office wall was torn down multiple times, he says. Later, in the fall of 2021, the complaint says that someone broke into his office:
the ceiling was tempered [sic] with; Dr. Bility believed that electronic recoding [sic] devices were placed in the ceiling.
Bility claims he also received pressure from others at Pitt. Jean Nachega, an associate professor in the school of public health whom Bility listed as last author on the paper, told Bility that Nachega’s “research funding was threatened to be withheld if the article was not withdrawn,” according to the complaint. School officials demanded Bility’s chair investigate him and his research.
When the findings of the investigation – that Bility “did not violate any academic integrity standard” – were presented at a departmental town hall meeting over Zoom, “students in Defendant Pitt’s School of Public Health called Dr. Bility derogatory names, such as stupid, retarded, unintelligent, etc.,” he alleges. Bility also received two emails “from anonymous individuals who Dr. Bility assumes came from the Defendant Pitt community” that included racial slurs.
In the fall of 2020, Bility says he received a verbal offer to move his research lab to the Hillman Cancer Center, which is also affiliated with Pitt, but he alleges the move was blocked on account of the withdrawn paper:
On December 21, 2020, Dr. Bility was informed (via a zoom call) by Dr. Robert Ferris, the Director of the Hillman Cancer Center and the Associate Vice Chancellor for Cancer Research, Defendant Pitt Health Sciences, that he was instructed by an unnamed powerful individual in the Defendant Pitt Health Sciences not to allow Dr. Bility to move to the center. Dr. Ferris offered Dr. Bility an opportunity that if he apologized for engaging in the research in question, the powerful individual in the Defendant Pitt Health Sciences might reconsider the decision to block the transfer; Dr. Bility refused to apologize.
Bility also alleges that, in 2021, Burke, who had retired from his role as dean that January, published a preprint that plagiarized “the assumptions, findings, and prediction framework” of the withdrawn Science of the Total Environment article. (Burke, Bility alleges, had earlier discouraged him from pursuing the line of research and presenting his work at a school workshop in 2019.)
Bility submitted a formal complaint to the university, which an inquiry panel found did not warrant a formal investigation. The school closed the matter in July 2022. Bility alleges the inquiry panel was biased against him.
In August of 2021, Bility alleges that Lichtveld, the current dean of the public health school, emailed him to relay requests from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that he remove two grant funding acknowledgments from a Scientific Reports article he had published in 2020.
A correction in September 2021 removed one of the grants, but Bility was “very concerned” about the request to remove the other, from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), according to the complaint, and doubted that NIH had indeed asked for it. He alleges:
Defendant Lichtveld was aware of the legal consequences Dr. Bility would have faced had he violated Public Law 101-166, Section 511, (also known as the Steven’s Amendment), which requires the acknowledgement of NIH (U.S.
Government) funding in research articles. Defendant Lichtveld was aware of the legal consequences Dr. Bility would have faced had he provided false information to the NIH to alter the federal records for his grant to reconcile removing the acknowledgement. Defendant Lichtveld only targeted Dr. Bility, who is Black
Pitt and Lichtveld’s motion to dismiss called these allegations “outlandish.”
Bility’s complaint details other behavior by Lichtveld he alleges created a “hostile work environment,” which he attributes to “the belief that a Black scientist should not engage in scholarly activities that challenge the scientific paradigm established by non-Black scientists,” namely, his research “investigating the weakening geomagnetic field, changes in Earth’s environment/hydroclimate, and human health.”
O’Hanlon, Bility’s lawyer, filed a motion for the judge assigned to the case, Marilyn J. Horan, to recuse herself on the grounds that she is a member of the University of Pittsburgh Law School Board of Governors. The defendants opposed the motion and Horan denied it, writing that the volunteer role “will have no actual or apparent impact in this case.”
Like Retraction Watch? You can make a tax-deductible contribution to support our work, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, or subscribe to our daily digest. If you find a retraction that’s not in our database, you can let us know here. For comments or feedback, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40011-0Serum ferritin level during hospitalization is associated with Brain Fog after COVID-19
Et Tu, Brute?
Are you not entertained?
Fear not! It sounds like we might get to see X-formerly-Twitter owner Elon Musk and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg bash each other's brains out after all.
And if the former's recent posts are anything to go by, it'll be an epic, "Gladiator"-style affair.
"Livestream will be on this platform and Meta," Musk tweeted. "Everything in camera frame will be ancient Rome, so nothing modern at all."
And no, this fight won't go down UFC-style at the octagon in Las Vegas — Musk and Zuckerberg will apparently travel to
for the battle.
"I spoke to the PM of Italy and Minister of Culture," Musk said. "They have agreed on an epic location."
While we personally couldn't care less where the fight will take place, we're just glad we might still get to see two tech titans beat each other down. Whether weapons will be part of the Gladiator brawl is still unclear.
What is clear, however, it's that Musk sees the event as an opportunity to clown around and have a bit of fun. In other words, we're wholly expecting to see him in costume, not unlike the $7,500 one he wore to Halloween last year.
"Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?" Musk wrote in a tongue-in-cheek post, which roughly translates to "is that a scroll in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?"
Veni, Vidi, VC
The news comes after a seemingly apprehensive Musk suggested a "noble" debate with Zuckerberg instead.
"I spent three hours in an MRI machine on Monday," Musk tweeted today. "Bottom line is that my C5/C6 fusion is solid, so not an issue."
"However, there is a problem with my right shoulder blade rubbing against my ribs," he added, "which requires minor surgery. Recovery will only take a few months."
In other words, if Musk were to choose to have such a procedure done soon, we'd likely have to wait for quite some time to watch him flail — and likely be beaten to a pulp by his far more experienced opponent.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is clearly ready to meet Musk in the ring now, and has yet to respond to his terrible Latin dad jokes.
"I suggested Aug 26 when he first challenged, but he hasn't confirmed," Zuckerberg wrote in a Threads post earlier this week. "Not holding my breath."
More on the fight: Terrified Elon Musk Suggests "Debate" With Zuckerberg
The post Elon Says the Zuck Fight Is Back On, Gladiator-Style appeared first on Futurism.
Nature, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02570-0An innovative microscopy technique bridges the gap between field of view and resolution.
Nature, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02503-xAlthough it is slated to become an education centre, astronomers hope research might one day return to the site.
Nature Communications, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40497-2Biorefinery lignin waste has little value in the market. Here, Liu et al. find that water-soluble lignin, converted from sulfuric acid lignin, improves plant iron bioavailability and growth through a metal chelating capacity comparable to the metal chelator EDTA.
- The researchers will present the paper at the USENIX Security Symposium, which is being held in Anaheim, California.
The latest weapon in the war on robocalls is an automated system capable of analyzing content to shed light on both the scope of the problem and the type of scams being perpetuated.
The tool, called SnorCall, is designed to help regulators, phone carriers, and other stakeholders better understand and monitor robocall trends—and take action against related criminal activity.
“Although telephone service providers, regulators, and researchers have access to call metadata—such as the number being called and the length of the call—they do not have tools to investigate what is being said on robocalls at the vast scale required,” says Brad Reaves, corresponding author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University.
“For one thing, providers don’t want to listen in on calls—it raises significant privacy concerns. But robocalls are a huge problem, and are often used to conduct criminal fraud. To better understand the scope of this problem, and gain insights into these scams, we need to know what is being said on these robocalls.
“We’ve developed a tool that allows us to the characterize the content of robocalls,” Reaves says. “And we’ve done it without violating privacy concerns; in collaboration with a telecommunications company called Bandwidth, we operate more than 60,000 phone numbers that are used solely by us to monitor unsolicited robocalls. We did not use any phone numbers of actual customers.”
SnorCall essentially records all robocalls received on the monitored phone lines. It bundles together robocalls that use the same audio, reducing the number of robocalls whose content needs to be analyzed by around an order of magnitude. These recorded robocalls are then transcribed and analyzed by a machine learning framework called Snorkel that can be used to characterize each call.
“SnorCall essentially uses labels to identify what each robocall is about,” Reaves says. “Does it mention a specific company or government program? Does it request specific personal information? If so, what kind? Does it request money? If so, how much? This is all fed into a database that we can use to identify trends or behaviors.”
As a proof of concept, the researchers used SnorCall to assess 232,723 robocalls collected over 23 months on the more than 60,000 phone lines dedicated to the study.
“Those 232,723 robocalls were broken down into 26,791 ‘campaigns,’ or unique audio files,” Reaves says. “And we were able to extract a tremendous amount of information from those campaigns.”
Perhaps most importantly, the researchers were able to extract the phone numbers used in these scams. Robocallers often “spoof” the number they are calling from, making it impossible to tell where the call actually originated. However, scammers increasingly encourage the people receiving robocalls to call a specific phone number. This may be to resolve a (fictional) tech support issue, resolve a (fictional) tax problem, resolve a (fictional) issue with Social Security, and so on.
“Scammers can fake where a robocall is coming from, but they can’t fake the number they want their victims to call,” Reaves says. “And about 45% of the robocalls we analyzed did include this ‘call-back number’ strategy. By extracting those call-back numbers, SnorCall gives regulators or law enforcement something to work with. They can determine which phone service providers issued those numbers and then identify who opened those accounts.”
The proof of concept analysis also shed light on how specific robocall campaigns operate over time.
“For example, we saw very clear trends in the number of robocalls about Social Security scams being made during the pandemic,” Reaves says. “As COVID shut down offices, we saw the number of Social Security scam robocalls dwindle to nearly zero. And then saw the number of these scam calls ramp back up as COVID restrictions were lifted. This tells us that Social Security scam robocall operations are based in offices—they weren’t able to adjust to conditions where the people behind those robocalls would have to work from home. If nothing else, it helps us understand the level of scale and organization behind these robocall Social Security scams.”
One of the other advantages of incorporating the Snorkel framework into SnorCall is that Snorkel makes it relatively easy to modify SnorCall to meet stakeholder-specific needs.
“For example, if investigators want to focus on a new scam topic, Snorkel is very good at identifying key terms or phrases associated with topics,” Reaves says. “This could be a valuable feature for investigators who are focused on specific types of criminal fraud.”
“Our findings demonstrate how illegal robocalls use major societal events like student loan forgiveness to develop new types of scams,” says Sathvik Prasad, a PhD student at NC State and first author of the paper. “SnorCall can aid stakeholders to monitor well-known robocall categories and also help them uncover new types of robocalls.”
Stakeholders who are interested in this work can learn more about the Reaves lab’s efforts at https://robocall.science.
The researchers will present the paper at the USENIX Security Symposium, which is being held in Anaheim, California.
Support for the work came from the National Science Foundation; the 2020 Facebook Internet Defense Prize; and the Google Cloud Research Credits program.
Source: NC State
The post New tool is the latest weapon in fight against robocalls appeared first on Futurity.
The Luna 25 spacecraft will attempt to land at the lunar south pole for the first time in a hunt for valuable water ice
LK-99 was meant to revolutionize the world of physics, as a superconductor that could provide perfect electrical conductivity at room temperature.
For a sweet moment in time, the promises felt tangible: vastly improved efficiency of power grids, cheaper maglev trains, lightning-speed device charging.
But as it turns out, we're more than likely looking at an overly optimistic and inherently flawed scientific claim, with more and more researchers piling on to confirm our suspicion that LK-99 is simply too good to be true.
In a pair of highly controversial preprints published last month, South Korean researchers claimed to have found the "first room-temperature ambient-pressure superconductor," a lead-based material that advocates said was set to usher in a new era in physics.
The researchers came out swinging in their lofty claims.
"We believe that our new development will be a brand-new historical event that opens a new era for humankind," they wrote.
Some even tried the recipe for themselves to see whether they could replicate the findings, with greatly varying degrees of success.
The Great Disappointment
For the last week or so, the thrill of finding the next miracle in science was palpable, with armchair physicists going as far as to stream their efforts on Twitch.
But as more and more preprints detailing the results of these efforts come rolling in, things aren't looking good.
"With a great deal of sadness, we now believe that the game is over. LK99 is NOT a superconductor, not even at room temperatures (or at very low temperatures)," University of Maryland’s Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) tweeted earlier this week. "It is a very highly resistive poor quality material. Period. No point in fighting with the truth."
Several lab tests have since failed to produce a material that passes the test of superconductivity, as The Washington Post reports. While the resulting material exhibited some interesting magnetic properties, it simply didn't live up to expectations.
And unfortunately, that's par for the course in many respects.
"At the end of the day, science fails more often than not," Christopher H. Hendon, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Oregon, told WaPo.
More on the superconductor: The Claim of a Room Temperature Superconductor Is Starting to Look Fishy
The post That Room-Temperature Superconductor Seems to Be Falling Apart appeared first on Futurism.
- Researchers introduce a new tool to measure bias in text-to-image AI generation models, which they have used to quantify bias in the state-of-the-art model Stable Diffusion.
We look at the health hazard of the bacteria discovered on the Bibby Stockholm barge and who is most at risk
With legionella bacteria having been discovered in the water supply on the Bibby Stockholm barge just days after asylum seekers were moved onboard, we take a look at the health hazard.Continue reading…
Years ago, when I lived in Southern California, I worked with an extremely responsible project manager I’ll call Rocco. Rocco was reliable to the point of neurosis. Accountable to a fault, he was a first-guy-in-the-office guy whose shirts were always pressed and whose meetings started and ended on time. Everyone liked Rocco, but we also wished he would lighten up a little.
One day, Rocco didn’t make it to a scheduled meeting. The next time we saw him, we asked what happened. Was he okay? Rocco wore an ear-to-ear grin as he explained that, yes, he was fine. “I just flaked,” he said, beaming. “I flaked!”
He had done it. Rocco had adopted a social strategy that everyone else grapsed, even if they never spoke of it: Sometimes you just flake.
Alas, flaking—which is to say, failing to keep a commitment—is rarely celebrated with Rocco’s newfound enthusiasm. The term has long been used in a derogatory rather than liberatory sense: “I can’t believe Rocco flaked on us. He’s so unreliable.”
It is time for everyone to adopt flaking in the way Rocco did. Flaking, understood and used correctly, is an important and healthy social tool. It relieves you of the burden of always requiring a reason or an excuse, whether rational, psychological, clinical, or otherwise. No need to blame “the subway” or “a thing that came up” or “my anxiety.” Just, “I flaked.” Ah, okay, you flaked. Thanks for letting me know.
Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that to flake is a precious act. Flake too much and you become, as in the derogatory sense, “a flake.” Unreliable. That’s bad. Nobody likes a flake. Those cases are usually clear because they are patterned: Gavin just never shows up on time or You can’t rely on Sarah to have done the work.
But to flake when the circumstances are right—that is a glorious good. People have long relished in canceling plans or avoiding obligations, whether in the name of self-care, procrastination, conflict avoidance, exhaustion, or social awkwardness. Relaxed social conventions have helped by making etiquette less delicate, and our very online culture has inspired more reasons to wring hands or strategize about avoidance. But flaking, ghosting, and their kin typically get celebrated as an almost divine intervention or guilty pleasure. True flaking must never be indulged this way. To embrace flaking means casting off mysticism, shame, and secrecy.
To keep those devils at bay, one must refuse to investigate a flake’s rationale. Why did Rocco flake? We didn’t ask, because the reason behind a true flake need not be known. Overwork or burnout, family strife or flat tires—these are excuses that underlie and motivate an outcome that might wrongly be deemed flaky. Flaking abstracts from them, allowing space to have failed absent specific reason. To flake is to recognize that the vastness of the universe, and the many forces at work within it, cannot always be unpacked like a suitcase. Over some you have control: your alarm clock, your laundry, the preparation devoted to a task, the physical and mental effort exerted to make good on a promise. But over others, no control is possible. Or, at least, submission to forces greater than human will should be expected. Maybe the subway did fail to come or your anxiety did get the best of you. But not necessarily. Perhaps daylight’s golden end proved paralyzing. Maybe a simple refusal to act overtook you, absent restlessness or rebellion. In any event, you didn’t show up; you didn’t do the work. You flaked.
Who can blame you? Everyone is suffocating under the incessant demand for rationales, explanations, justifications. Online life is surely to blame, even if not exclusively. For every question, suggestion, and idea that comes up, someone can always, and immediately, seek affirmation or disproof. You say you emailed the document, and yet look at my screen—no email arrived. Did you really tell me you were stuck at work? The text-message record says no. You say the subway didn’t come, and yet you posted an Instagram selfie at the cronut shop, hmmm. It’s easy to feel like every thought and action demands deep reason, a whole scaffolding of support, as if every solitary decision has emerged from a master narrative backed by lore sufficient to withstand investigation by attorneys, conspiracists, and redditors.
Explanations have their place, and certainly they’re understandable currency for avoiding awkwardness or hurt feelings. But all of us can benefit from taking a breath and remembering that a human’s existence is not a judicial proceeding or a franchise screenplay. It is a mess, a pile of accidents that somehow, if you’re lucky, coheres into a structure more often than not. Flaking, taken selectively, allows you to acknowledge that life is porous. Errors seep through its gaps. The source of those errors might be knowable—you were tired or hungover—but they might be unknowable. A strange brew of accidents, sensations, events, and sensibilities that led you just not to. Resist the temptation to make excuses, at least sometimes. No need for diagnoses to overshare, tragedies to invoke, white lies to cover the truth: You don’t even really know why you didn’t do whatever it was you didn’t do. You just didn’t do it.
That doesn’t make flaking an ace in the hole, however. Some requirements distinguish the good flaking from the bad. For one, the stakes must be relatively low. Failing to complete the big report the day before the presentation is not flake-eligible. Nor is forgetting to pick up the kids at tae kwon do. One can flake only if having done so will injure no one more than it benefits you. What responsibility did Rocco fail to show up for? I don’t remember. Nothing important. The Earth continued turning.
For this reason, flaking can only be assessed retroactively. You can’t text someone, “Hey, just a heads-up, I’ll be flaking tonight.” But likewise, you can’t flake until the consequences release you from serious potential blame. That makes every flake a risk, but a calculated one. Experienced flakers can tell the difference by instinct. Some meetings demand your presence; others do not. Failing to show up at a group dinner is different from standing up a date. With practice, these distinctions will become intuitive.
Furthermore, the good kind of flaking must be done in the first person: “I flaked.” You must acknowledge it, and publicly too. Flaking is always shameful if unconfessed, because it disrespects both those who might have been affected by your flaking and the institution of flakery itself. To truly flake requires owning up to it, ideally proactively. “Sorry about last night. Dunno what happened. I flaked.”
If you are not already an adept flaker, learning this new skill will be difficult. People will likely mistake you for an asshole, especially if you do it wrong (or if you’re not flaking in a flake-aware geography, like Rocco in SoCal). Flaking is not just an act but an ethos. A fading one, too. It is harder to flake today than it once was. Back when I bore witness to Rocco’s first flake, nobody had mobile phones. It was more of a hassle to check up or check in, so nobody had such high expectations. Now you should really call, or text, or reply to a text or call. “Rocco, are you coming?” Silence isn’t flaking; it’s just rude. And yet, the demand for a response has undermined the institution of flakery. It is a dying art.
But one you can yet revive. You can start by flaking yourself, and then explaining matters as a curative to your reason-addled friends, family, or colleagues. Eventually, with practice, an advanced mentality of flaking will unlock. And at expert level, a calm acceptance of its righteousness. A flake has no reason and no rebuke. “I just flaked.” Silent nods. It happens. Nothing anyone could have done.
Growing up in Maryland, Radha Patel didn’t see anyone in her area using a matchmaker. But she was aware that in India, where her parents had emigrated from, plenty of couples were fixed up—by relatives, respected elders, women in the community trusted to intuit good pairs. For some reason, the idea of it stuck in the back of her mind. It was still lingering there in 2018, when friends, frustrated with dating apps, started asking for help finding love. “I’m not a tech person,” she thought. “What can I do?” Then she realized that she could play matchmaker.
She started setting people up, and that turned into a hobby, which later that year became a business, Single to Shaadi. She and many of the matchmakers she knows saw a wave of new clients in 2020, when the popular Netflix show Indian Matchmaking, which follows a professional cupid from Mumbai, came out. The coronavirus pandemic might have contributed to the surge; especially early on, plenty of people didn’t want to go on more in-person dates than absolutely necessary. And perhaps they also realized that their time was too precious to waste by swiping fruitlessly on dating apps. According to Patel, Single to Shaadi doubled its number of active clients from 2019 to 2020, and again the next year.
The field still has momentum. New matchmaking companies have launched in the past few years, and the matchmakers I spoke with told me they’ve had an uptick in interest recently. Some dating sites have tried to take advantage of the trend, too. In 2021, Match Group, the behemoth company that owns Tinder, Hinge, and several other dating apps, introduced a feature on Match.com through which human coaches suggest two profiles a week for each member willing to pay $4.99 weekly. And earlier this year, a spinoff show hit Netflix: Jewish Matchmaking.
Something about this historical tradition appears to be meshing well with contemporary society. In a time when dating apps give users an incredible amount of control over their romantic life, for some people, letting someone else take the wheel seems more and more appealing.
In societies through time and across the world, people have turned to a third party to find a partner. In Jewish communities, for thousands of years, trusted figures such as scholars and rabbis acted as shadkhan, or matchmakers. In Japan, a nakōdo (“middle person”) was traditionally enlisted to present romantic candidates. Korean families historically visited a jung-me to ask for a pairing, and in medieval Catholic society, the village priest sometimes played a role. In all of these customs and many others, the matchmaker typically worked for the parents of an eligible young person; the families, not just the individuals, were linked. Moira Weigel, the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, told me that until at least the Industrial Revolution, marriage in many cultures was commonly about agriculture: uniting families to share farm labor, and to ensure a next generation that would continue that work.
But starting around the 19th century, Weigel told me, industrialization made that kind of union less necessary for many families; love became a more common ideal. And while matchmaking has remained popular in plenty of cultures, in many others, the search for romance became a more individual pursuit. People still had some informal help; friends and family members might try, welcome or unwelcome, to set singles up. But then came dating apps—an especially solitary form of courtship.
Not only can online dating be lonely—it can be extremely time-consuming. Combing through the apps can feel like a part-time job. In 2016, Hinge reported that only one in 500 swipes on the app had resulted in phone numbers being exchanged. When the company surveyed 300 of its users that same year, it discovered that 81 percent of them had never found a long-term relationship on any swipe-based dating app. In 2018, when the dating company Badoo surveyed 5,000 18-to-30-year-olds in the U.K., it found that users spent an average of 10 hours a week on dating apps.
All of that work gives daters more agency over their love life than they had in earlier eras. They don’t have to wait for a serendipitous encounter, or even leave the house. At any time, they can swipe, send messages, and ask people to meet up. But that sense of control, which for many people is a blessing, can also be a burden—especially if you’re talking with several suitors at once, a common situation on apps. Patel calls it “DIY dating”: All of the analysis and overthinking involved—“What’s not working? What’s right? … Am I waiting too long in between messages? Is the dude on the other end real?—you have to do it all yourself.”
No wonder, then, that matchmakers are having a moment. Many people who can afford to outsource dating labor are eager to do so. Matchmaking services can be very costly: While some companies might promise a few matches for a few hundred dollars, many charge thousands, even hundreds of thousands, for a six-to-12-month-long membership, or for a handful of guaranteed dates. But they advertise a meticulous process, in which experts methodically narrow down a large pool of candidates based on clients’ interests, values, and assessments of past relationships. And people don’t tend to use matchmakers unless they’re looking for long-term commitment, so clients can feel pretty confident that they’re not wasting time on confusing situationships or misrepresented intentions.
A matchmaker can also act as a guide throughout the very vulnerable process of dating. It might be appealing to trade in an algorithm for an intermediary who is warm, comforting, and … human. Unlike the apps, many matchmakers give advice on what to look for in a partner, how to present oneself, when to give someone another shot, even where someone might be going wrong in relationships. I heard about this when the matchmaking company Selective Search put me in touch with their client Connie Weaver, the chief marketing officer for a life-insurance company. She told me she’d been married for more than three decades before her husband died in 2020. When she started dating again, in her late 60s, she didn’t know what she wanted or how to go about finding it. She was a successful executive and people person, skilled at carrying a conversation in any business meeting. “But that doesn’t mean, after 35 years,” she told me, “that I was good at this.” At Selective Search, “I had someone take me by the hand and give me confidence,” she said.
Weaver’s second match was someone she likely wouldn’t have swiped right on, had they been on an app. She hadn’t wanted to date anyone in medicine—his field. (She’d had bad experiences.) But she decided to have faith in the process. “You have to trust that they’re going to draw out of you the real you,” she told me. Four months later, Weaver’s still seeing him; it’s new, but it feels special. “I can’t be happier,” she told me. “Everybody says that I’m glowing. And I haven’t glowed for a long time.”
For people floundering in the dating world, the idea that experienced chemistry professionals could pick up on qualities hidden deep within you—and use them to lead you to someone you might have missed—could be very enticing. But in order for matchmakers to do that, they’d probably need to read beyond what their clients tell them. Humans don’t tend to be very good at deducing what we want for ourselves, Eli Finkel, a Northwestern University psychologist who studies romantic attraction, told me. In some studies, researchers have asked participants what they look for in a partner—and found that their answers don’t predict the type of people whom they really go for. And people tend to be drawn to the same qualities anyway; if you’re searching for someone who’s, say, attractive, nice, and funny, you’re not exactly unique.
Even if matchmakers try not to take clients at their word, Finkel thinks predicting compatibility in advance is inherently an uphill battle. “A whole lot of what makes us compatible with people is emergent,” he told me. “That is, it starts to exist after we’ve met.” Even then, chemistry is complex and mysterious, and based partly on luck. He spitballed an example: Maybe one person on a date says they’re from Arkansas, and the other says, Oh! I went to Arkansas on this road trip, and I went to Joseph’s Mother’s Deli. Have you been there? How well the evening goes might depend, in part, on the answer to that question, because yes and no will spin the conversation off in different directions. Perhaps both people have been there, and they compare notes, and that leads to laughter, to an inside joke, which feels like a spark.
But love’s enigma is part of matchmakers’ allure. If you don’t have the answers yourself, you can at least hope that someone else does. Weaver told me she sees matchmaking as both “an art and a science.” On the one hand, it’s comforting to think that there’s a compatibility code that can be cracked. On the other, we don’t want romance to be too clinical, deduced purely from a couple of interviews or a detailed questionnaire. Michal Naisteter, a Philadelphia-based matchmaker and co-host of the podcast The Yentas, told me that that’s part of why people turn to her—and, generally, to humans rather than algorithms—for help. “Some of this process is miraculous,” she told me. “It’s a little cosmic.”
This is the modern approach to romance: People want efficiency, but also humanity. They want to be independent, rather than relying on family, but they still want guidance; they want options, rather than just choosing from whatever handful of suitors are in the area, but they don’t want to spend hours sifting through them. Contemporary matchmaking sits at the fulcrum of humans’ opposing impulses when it comes to love: It tries to balance modernity and tradition, to outsource labor, and to give people an ally in a lonely dating world, without removing their autonomy.
Patel is just one of the many matchmakers trying to show customers that they can have it all. She gave her company the tagline “Not your parents’ matchmaker,” and she’s modernized her process: She doesn’t match based on caste. She makes a point to work with people of various religions, as well as different sexual and gender orientations. Single to Shaadi doesn’t work with clients’ parents (though Patel has another matchmaking company that’s more family-oriented), and Patel tries to keep her services relatively affordable—starting at just over $100—so that younger singles can pay without involving their families. It looks a little different from the matchmaking she grew up hearing about, but it’s not unrecognizable. She hasn’t gotten rid of the essential perk: the gift of not needing to know exactly what you want, because you’re not making decisions alone.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
How should liberal democracies utilize or eschew taboos? (See any and all items below for context, and feel free to construe the question broadly or to focus on anything related to it.)
Send your responses to email@example.com or simply reply to this email.
Conversations of Note
In the September 2023 issue of The Atlantic, my colleague Graeme Wood profiles Bronze Age Pervert, a pseudonymous illiberal philosopher who has gained a cult following on the ideological right while mixing “ultra-far-right politics, unabashed racism, and a deep knowledge of ancient Greece.” Many people understandably believe that his self-published manifesto ought to be taboo. Might successfully maintaining such a taboo safeguard liberal society from those who seek to end it?
BAP’s rise has been especially upsetting to some of the academics who worked with him as a graduate student. Here is a passage from Graeme’s article in which Professor Bryan Garsten, speaking at a conference of political philosophers, laments the seductions of illiberalism and wonders if he could have done more to arrest them:
Garsten told his listeners that they—he—may have failed to cultivate students’ imagination. His illiberal students, Garsten said, had learned why the Greeks admired Achilles, the fiery warrior. But they neglected the Greeks’ admiration for Ulysses, a subtler and greater model of manhood. Ulysses’s greatness emerged not from his rejection of this world, but from his mastery of its constraints. He owed myriad debts to those around him: to his men, to his son, to his wife. The students romanticized the tyrant, while assuming that liberalism bred sloth and laziness. “Life in a liberal democracy is full of demanding moments,” Garsten said … I had the impression that he was addressing BAP apostrophically, delivering a warning he wished he had delivered in person. “As far as I have read, life under tyrants is full of lassitude, selfishness, duplicity, betrayal.”
Listening to discussions like that one, Graeme sensed “the stirrings of dormant liberal passions—as if the mere invocation of BAPism, after many years ignored, had inspired a counteroffensive.”
Another political theorist, a former Marine and a Brookings Institution scholar named William A. Galston, piped up to remind everyone that when liberalism had come under mortal threat in the Pacific theater, “Americans
as a whole found it in themselves to do something.” Specifically, his fellow Marines charged, shot, and bayoneted their way from island to island until illiberalism, in the form of Japanese fascism, begged them for mercy. “Is there really an opposition between the open society and the virtue of courage?” Galston asked.
The defeat of imperial Japan illustrated the point nicely, I thought. But it also raised a much stranger question, about how liberals acquired such a reputation for sissydom in the first place.
The Battle of Iwo Jima wasn’t that long ago.
As Graeme concludes his article, he winds up arguing not that BAP’s work ought to be shunned or ignored, but that the impulse to confront and rebut its ideas is overdue and good for liberalism.
Liberalism’s victory had been so overwhelming that for generations it grew soft, flabby, and unaccustomed to the hard work of defending itself from a vigorous challenger. As such challengers left universities and newspapers, those institutions became self-congratulatory monocultures, inhospitable even to conservatives far less nutty than BAP. By now, a ranting nudist [Bronze Age Pervert] poses a real danger—of poisoning politics, splitting apart societies, and persuading otherwise talented people to spurn the modern world’s greatest achievements, which are peace, tolerance, and prosperity …
Allan Bloom predicted doom for liberalism when these challenges disappeared … An unchallenged liberal democrat, he argued, ceases to want to improve, unless he confronts his enemies in their most potent forms. Those forms will shock and humble us, he wrote … I have come to think of BAP’s performances in immunological terms: a gnarly virus that had lain dormant for decades in circles of philosophers and their unread books. Now that it’s loose in the human population, it is a vicious kick to the liberal immune system. And that is not entirely bad. Unchallenged, liberalism’s defenses waned, and liberals forgot, temporarily, why their cause was worth defending. The antibodies are stirring.
Taboos in the Internet Era
What should happen when a public intellectual is revealed to have published virulently racist, flagrantly white-supremacist articles under a pseudonym? I pose the question as someone who values maintaining the taboo against such things. Does it matter how long ago the deplorable views were published or how young their author was at the time? What if he purports to disavow or renounce some of those views? What if he has also written racist things more recently under his own name? Can his new account be trusted? When is forgiveness or redemption appropriate? Who should be able to extend or deny it? What incentives best serve society?
These are among the questions a corner of the internet is debating thanks to a specific public intellectual’s deeds. Because his case is eliciting such diametrically opposed reactions from observers I follow, and because the writer’s work more generally is often too trolly for my earnest taste, I suspect that focusing on his case in particular will be less constructive for our purposes than asking what general rules we ought to apply when such situations arise. Here are a few more questions: Should a forthcoming book by such a person be judged solely on its words, or should the author’s outside actions color its reception? If the book were pulled from publication, a course that some of the author’s critics favor but that shows no sign of happening, would more or fewer people read it (assuming it was self-published like Bronze Age Mindset, or picked up by a less mainstream publisher)? Should that bear on the publisher’s decision?
The free-expression advocates at PEN America have published a report titled “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm.” It argues that insofar as advocates of an open society stand for “the principle that books should be as widely available as possible,” their concern must extend “not just to government book banning but also to how the literary community governs itself.” In major publishing houses, an introductory statement frets, “staffers have increasingly expressed opposition to specific book contracts with writers whom they allege to be promoting forms of harm, in some cases going so far as to demand that contracts be nullified.”
More broadly, PEN America warns:
Some readers, writers, and critics are pushing to draw new lines around what types of books, tropes, and narrative conventions should be seen as permissible and who has the legitimacy, authority, or “right” to write certain stories. At one extreme, some critics are calling for an identity-essentialist approach to literature, holding that writers can only responsibly tell the stories that relate to their own identity and experiences. This approach is incompatible with the freedom to imagine that is essential to the creation of literature, and it denies readers the opportunity to experience stories through the eyes of writers offering varied and distinctive lenses.
These critics have argued that “problematic” books or authors deserve special censure from the literary world—with “problematic” being a catchall term ranging from an author accused of committing a crime to one who relies on lazy narrative conventions. Fiction that is regarded as employing stereotypes, outdated tropes, or unrealistic character sketches may be described as threatening “harm” or being “dangerous.” In the past several years, books deemed problematic due to their authorship, their content, or both have been subjected to boycotts, calls for withdrawals, and harassment of their authors. Some have argued that merely to read the book is to become complicit in its alleged harms. While proponents of these arguments are, of course, free to make them, such arguments risk laying the groundwork for, and justifying, the ostracism of authors and ideas and the narrowing of literary freedom writ large.
In The Atlantic, George Packer contrasts this recent report with a bygone report that the same organization published on a different subject:
In “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing,” PEN examined in detail how the American book business has always been and, despite recent improvements, remains a clubby world of the white, well connected, and well-off. It presented a damning picture, backed by data, of “the white lens through which writers, editors, and publishers curate America’s literature.” It called for publishers to hire and promote more staff of color, publish more books by writers of color, pay them higher advances, and sell their books more intelligently and vigorously.
The two reports are related, but the relation is fraught. The first showed the need for an intensified campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry. The second argues for greater freedom to defy the literary strictures of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Is there a contradiction between the two?
PEN doesn’t think so. The new report states: “It is imperative that the literary field chart a course that advances diversity and equity without making these values a cudgel against specific books or writers deemed to fall short in these areas.” In the words of Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s chief executive officer, “You can dismantle the barriers to publication for some without erecting them anew for others.” But this might be wishful thinking, and not only because of practical limits on how many books can feasibly be published.
In a different world, it would be entirely possible to expand opportunity without creating a censorious atmosphere. In our world, where DEI has hardened into an ideological litmus test, the effort to place social justice at the center of publishing almost inevitably leads to controversies over “representation” and “harm” that result in banned books. The first report presented DEI in publishing as an urgent moral cause. The second report takes issue with “employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists.” But those employees no doubt believe that they are carrying out the vision of the first report.
Social justice and intellectual freedom are not inherently opposed—often, each requires the other—but they are not the same thing, either. “The Freedom to Read” makes this clear: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers and librarians] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.” That statement was written at a time when the cause of intellectual freedom was non- or even anti-ideological. Its authors advocated no other goal than the widest and highest-quality expression of views. But in PEN’s new report you can feel a struggle to reconcile the thinking of its earlier one, in which every calculation comes down to identity, with the discriminating judgment and openness to new and disturbing ideas that are essential to producing literature. As one editor told me, “There’s no equity in talent.”
Provocation of the Week
In The Atlantic, the writer and onetime feminist blogger Jill Filipovic revisits her bygone support for trigger warnings:
I’ve interviewed women around the world about the worst things human beings do to one another. I started to notice a concerning dissonance between what researchers understand about trauma and resilience, and the ways in which the concepts were being wielded in progressive institutions. And I began to question my own role in all of it.
Feminist writers were trying to make our little corner of the internet a gentler place, while also giving appropriate recognition to appallingly common female experiences that had been pushed into the shadows. To some extent, those efforts worked. But as the mental health of adolescent girls and college students crumbles, and as activist organizations, including feminist ones, find themselves repeatedly embroiled in internecine debates over power and language, a question nags: In giving greater weight to claims of individual hurt and victimization, have we inadvertently raised a generation that has fewer tools to manage hardship and transform adversity into agency?
Since my days as a feminist blogger, mental health among teenagers has plummeted. From 2007 to 2019, the suicide rate for children ages 10 to 14 tripled; for girls in that age group, it nearly quadrupled. A 2021 CDC report found that 57 percent of female high-school students reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” up from 36 percent in 2011 …
Applying the language of trauma to an event changes the way we process it. That may be a good thing, allowing a person to face a moment that truly cleaved their life into a before and an after, and to seek help and begin healing. Or it may amplify feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, elevating those feelings above a sense of competence and control … A person’s sense of themselves as either capable of persevering through hardship or unable to manage it can be self-fulfilling … To help people build resilience, we need to provide material aid to meet basic needs. We need to repair broken community ties so fewer among us feel like they’re struggling alone. And we need to encourage the cultivation of a sense of purpose beyond the self. We also know what stands in the way of resilience: avoiding difficult ideas and imperfect people, catastrophizing, isolating ourselves inside our own heads.
Thanks for your contributions. I read every one that you send. By submitting an email, you’ve agreed to let us use it—in part or in full—in the newsletter and on our website. Published feedback may include a writer’s full name, city, and state, unless otherwise requested in your initial note, and may be edited for length and clarity.
Our lives are shaped by networks: of family, friends, and colleagues, or the wider ones that encompass neighbors and fellow citizens. We exist in relation to others. And yet novels, beginning almost as soon as Don Quixote set out on his quest, have long fixated on the individual as a shaper of his or her fate, as the fundamental unit for a story. The individual acts or is acted upon, and narrative results from this tension. Which is why James McBride’s most recent two novels are so radical and satisfying. They are, at their foundation, about networks. The unit he’s interested in is community.
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:
- Ibram X. Kendi on why working class does not equal white
- Seven books that will make you put down your phone
- The greatest feminist novelist you may not have heard of
- The owls are not what they seem.
McBride’s latest is The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, which Ayana Mathis wrote about for our September issue. Describing the plot of a McBride novel is a little hard because his books are structured like relay races: One charismatic character hands off the story to another every few pages as the world they inhabit together keeps expanding. Naming that world itself is much easier, and in this case it’s the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s. At the time, Chicken Hill was home to a hodgepodge of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Black families that had recently migrated from the South. Their shared poverty leads to a fairly copacetic coexistence, one that deepens as the book progresses and members of this lively community work together to save one of their vulnerable own, a 12-year-old deaf orphan named Dodo.
Mathis is taken with how in McBride’s fiction “almost nothing of significant value is accomplished by people acting alone”—and it’s hard not to agree. She sees this as part of his wider project of undoing our sense that the past was purely segregationist, with racial and ethnic groups existing only as divided and mutually antagonistic entities. But he is not paving over hard truths: “McBride’s integrationist vision isn’t utopian or easy. Nor is it assimilationist,” Mathis writes. “His fiction doesn’t seek to erase differences, or to deny the realities of racism and marginalization.”
The first McBride novel I read was Deacon King Kong, which was similarly jostling with a cast of hundreds, most residents of an imagined housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the 1960s. At first, I found the book’s baton-passing quality jarring. The same was true of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store. Who should claim my sympathies? Maybe Moshe Ludlow, the Jewish music-hall owner; or Addie Timblin, the Black woman who works for Moshe and is particularly attached to his wife, Chona; or maybe Paper, the town gossip; or the hulking Sicilian immigrant nicknamed Big Soap … And that becomes the beauty of the novel. Rooting for any one of them connects you to the whole chain of interconnected characters, and what you end up caring about is the chain itself. McBride’s hit memoir, The Color of Water, provides some evidence about how he earned this worldview. His mother—raised Orthodox Jewish but disowned when she married a Black man—was saved by the Red Hook community, which took her up and showed her and her 12 children the kind of care she never received as a girl.
What binds his characters is what most concerns McBride. In keeping with the jazzman’s ethic (he’s an accomplished jazz musician himself), he lets them each take solos, glorious horn-blowing ones. But the power of the story is in the way these individuals all fit together—sometimes hindering but more often helping one another muddle through their shared reality.
What to Read
If I Survive You, by Jonathan Escoffery
Escoffery’s debut collection of linked stories is a tale of biting sibling rivalry and a moving family saga about the immigrant experience and living between cultures in Miami. Our
-born protagonist, Trelawny, clashes with his Jamaican-born older brother, Delano, in their disparate pursuits of financial stability, parental love, and masculinity. Delano, the clear favorite, follows in his father’s footsteps by supporting his wife and children as a landscaper, while Trelawny pursues a college education. But after the recession, Trelawny’s degree fails to protect him from living out of his car and working a slew of precarious jobs (predatory building management, Craigslist sexual race play). Escoffery is a wordsmith who keeps us laughing even as he runs his characters through capitalism’s meat grinder. When the siblings’ fortunes are flipped, Trelawny must decide whether to be a better brother to Delano than he’s been to him. The choice is a sour one, laced with that particular ache that only bone-deep disappointment engenders. — Ruth Madievsky
Out Next Week
📚 In Defense of Love: An Argument, by Ron Rosenbaum
📚 The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life, by Clare Carlisle
📚 The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race, by Farah Karim-Cooper
Your Weekend Read
“There is more than one way to burn a book,” Ray Bradbury once said. “And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” The second threat to intellectual freedom comes from inside the house. This threat is the subject of a new report that PEN America has just published, “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm.” The report is focused on the recent pattern of publishers and authors canceling their own books, sometimes after publication, under pressure organized online or by members, often younger ones, of their own staffs. PEN has tracked 31 cases of what might be called literary infanticide since 2016; half occurred in just the past two years. “None of these books were withdrawn based on any allegation of factual disinformation, nor glorification of violence, nor plagiarism,” the report notes. “Their content or author was simply deemed offensive.”
When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40354-8Effective inhibition of T95 steel corrosion in 15 wt% HCl solution by aspartame, potassium iodide, and sodium dodecyl sulphate mixture
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40406-zAir traffic control forgetting prediction based on eye movement information and hybrid neural network
In at least one species of butterfly, the variation in the vision of males and females results from a vision gene’s jump onto a sex chromosome.
As butterflies flit among flowers, they don’t all view blossoms the same way. Females of some species perceive ultraviolet color while the males see light and dark.
The new discovery, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first known finding that this kind of genetic change causes sexually dimorphic vision.
The researchers were investigating the Heliconius butterfly genus. Some of its species see ultraviolet color, an array wider than the visible light spectrum that humans perceive. A substance produced by the opsin gene accounts for these butterflies’ visual capacity. In Heliconius species with sexually dimorphic vision, ultraviolet color perception is only present in females.
In searching for the genetic mechanism behind this difference, the biologists selected as their subject Heliconius charithonia, in which visual capacity is sexually dimorphic. When they finished assembling the first complete genome for this species, they learned that its W—or female—chromosome contained the opsin gene.
“This is the first known instance where dimorphic color vision in animals comes from a single gene moving to a sex chromosome,” says first author Mahul Chakraborty, an assistant project scientist in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.
“Besides the discovery’s scientific significance, it highlights the complexities of automated genetic sequencing and the crucial role of validation.”
Chakraborty did much of his work on the project while a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratories of co-corresponding authors Adriana Briscoe and J.J. Emerson, both faculty members in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.
Previously assembled genomes for Heliconius charithonia were fragmentary. None included the W chromosome, whose highly repetitive code can pose stumbling blocks for automatic sequencing.
To begin the study, the researchers automatically sequenced the species genome, but this failed to reveal all expected copies of the opsin gene. They next examined the coding manually.
“I went through every bit of the sequencing,” says Angelica Lara, who was an ecology and evolutionary biology undergraduate when she started working with the investigative team. Lara continued to participate in the project as a postbaccalaureate researcher after earning her degree.
“I still couldn’t find the opsin after all that review. Then I realized a part of the code for the W chromosome had not been well formatted, and I believed the opsin had to be located there,” she says.
Lara’s efforts cued Chakraborty to examine that segment more closely. It turned out that the automatic sequencing had dropped that section of the chromosome’s coding, likely stymied by its repetitiveness. Restoring it revealed the opsin gene, and the team confirmed the finding with additional tests.
“Without this manual annotation and investigation, we would have made assumptions that were incorrect and misleading,” says Briscoe, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Now that we’ve made this discovery, we can dig much deeper into the mechanics behind the dimorphism and understanding its purpose.”
Scientists believe the vision difference may be the reason that females and males within some butterfly species feed on different types of flowers. So far, the only other creatures known to have sexually dimorphic vision are certain kinds of primates.
The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the UCI Optical Biology Core Facility, and Texas A&M University funded the work.
Source: UC Irvine
The post Gene jump explains why some butterflies see color differently appeared first on Futurity.
Even when they are asleep, the sounds babies hear play a big role in language development, especially for babies at risk of language delays, according to a new study.
Although it’s well-known that music and speech boost babies’ ability to learn, there’s robust evidence that the developing brain analyzes certain brief auditory cues in an infant’s environments and uses them to guide the formation of networks involved in language processing.
Researcher April Benasich, an expert in early brain plasticity who studies infant language and cognitive development, demonstrated that when infants were passively exposed to a series of brief non-speech sounds once a week for six weeks they were able to more accurately identify and discriminate syllables and had better language scores at 12 and 18 months compared to infants who had not received that exposure.
The study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, is important because it’s the first to show that passive exposure to non-speech sounds—which contains tiny acoustic transitions in the 10s of milliseconds, similar to those that allow babies to detect that language is present—facilitate the formation and strengthening of neuronal connections that are essential to language processing.
Previous research in Benasich’s lab showed that interactive exposure to certain auditory cues had a significant impact on critical brain networks and improved both attention and infant language outcomes over time.
But the jury was still out on whether passively exposing infants to these same types of sounds would have an effect on language networks. In fact, there were impressive impacts on both language processing and later language outcomes.
Results suggest that supporting rapid auditory processing abilities early in development, even with only passive exposure, can positively influence later language.
“The ability to impact developing language networks passively is a very important step forward. The passive route provides a simpler, cheaper alternative to promote optimal networks, allowing parents the opportunity to support typical development at home as well as offering a path to an accessible intervention in the clinic or pediatrician’s office for infants for developmental language disorders,” says Benasich, a professor of neuroscience at Rutgers-Newark’s Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience and the nation’s first endowed chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
Her previous research found that measures of rapid auditory processing ability can be used to identify infants at highest risk of language delay and impairment, providing an opportunity to intervene and mitigate outcomes.
“Babies need the small sound transitions that brains must analyze to develop language,” she says. “Their brains are hard wired to analyze any pertinent environmental sounds coming in. If those sounds are all the same frequency, all at the same intensity, the brain might stop listening for these important variations which could impede the creation of language networks.”
Source: Rutgers University
The post Sounds sleeping babies hear can boost language development appeared first on Futurity.
Nature, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-02556-yMathematician and programmer who transcended barriers of race and gender.
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has come across a fascinating hexagonal pattern in salt deposits — and they look eerily reminiscent of Earth-based basins that dry out seasonally, providing a fascinating new clue about the ancient history of the Red Planet.
The landmark finding, as detailed in a new paper published in the journal Nature, is the "first fossil evidence of a sustained, cyclical, regular Martian climate with dry and wet seasons," according to a press release.
"Instead of sporadic hydrological activity induced by impacts or volcanoes, our findings point to a sustained, cyclic, possibly seasonal, climate on early Mars," the paper reads.
In other words, we've never been closer to confirming once and for all that the Red Planet went through periods of lush water-rich seasons and much drier conditions — something that could bring us a step closer to answering the question of whether Mars was once teeming with life as Earth is now.
Curiosity, which has been roaming the barren Martian landscapes for over a decade now, spotted the mud cracks in 2021 while ascending the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, a massive mountain that rises three miles from the floor of the Gale crater.
As the Martian mud in the area dries out, it shrinks and cracks, forming T-shaped junctions, something Curiosity had already discovered. But now scientists are saying that prolonged — and more importantly recurring — exposure to water likely caused these cracks to turn into Y-shaped junctions, forming hexagonal patterns.
"This is the first tangible evidence we’ve seen that the ancient climate of Mars had such regular, Earth-like wet-dry cycles," said lead author William Rapin of
’s Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in a NASA statement.
"But even more important is that wet-dry cycles are helpful — maybe even required — for the molecular evolution that could lead to life," he added.
"Over 11 years, we’ve found ample evidence that ancient Mars could have supported microbial life," said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada. "Now, the mission has found evidence of conditions that may have promoted the origin of life, too."
More on Curiosity: NASA Rover Snaps Amazing View of Sunset on Mars
The post Scientists Intrigued by Hexagonal Pattern on Surface of Mars appeared first on Futurism.
Scientists say they've successfully reversed hearing loss in mice, suggesting that certain forms of deafness caused by faulty genetic activity could not only be avoided, but outright reversed in humans, too.
As detailed in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers were able to restore the hearing of some mice in the low to mid-frequency ranges to near normal levels.
"Degenerative diseases such as progressive hearing loss are often believed to be irreversible, but we have shown that at least one type of inner ear dysfunction can be reversed," said study author Karen Steel, a professor of sensory function at King's College London, in a statement.
Most treatments for hearing loss such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, the researchers said, do not actually restore hearing or prevent it from worsening.
"Seeing the once-deaf mice respond to sounds after treatment was truly thrilling," said study lead author Elisa Martelletti, a professor at King's College, in the statement. "It was a pivotal moment, demonstrating the tangible potential to reverse hearing loss caused by defective genes."
The researchers made their breakthrough by focusing on a gene called Spns2. In the study, mice bred with defective Spns2 genes showed rapidly worsening hearing loss, implicating its role in the condition.
Using a specialized enzyme, the researchers essentially reactivated these dud genes in the mice at different ages, and then evaluated the rodents' hearing using what's known as an auditory brainstem response test.
Young mice, they found, had their hearing loss almost completely reversed once the gene was activated. However, the older a mouse was when it received the treatment, the less hearing it regained. And, past a certain age, the treatment was not effective at restoring hearing above 18 kHz — a pretty high frequency, to be fair.
Furthermore, the researchers found that by activating the Spns2 gene early on, the treatment also protected the cells of sensory hairs — which are essential for hearing — from future degeneration. In effect: a true and long-lasting reversal, that crucially must be administered at as young an age as possible for the best results.
It's worth noting, however, that this treatment was only effective at reversing hearing loss caused by this form of reduced gene activity, but the researchers believe their genetic approach will prove useful at reversing other diseases, not just deafness.
More on hearing: Scientists May Have Figured Out How to Regenerate Lost Hearing
The post Scientists Successfully Reverse Hearing Loss in Mice appeared first on Futurism.
From a heart-shaped stem cell colony to purple gold and ‘science candies’, these are the 12 finalists for the 2023 Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology image contest. Each year in the lead up to National Science Week, researchers at the University of Queensland’s AIBN have a competition to find the best image taken using imaging equipment and microscopes. This year’s winner will be announced on 14 AugustContinue reading…
Researchers hope a modified solitaire version of the game mancala can help solve the central problem of quantum state engineering.
The game mancala may have originated as far back as 6000 BCE in Jordan and is played around the world to this day. It consists of stones that players move between a series of small pits on a wooden game board. The point of the game is to get all the stones into the last pit at the end of the board.
In a new study in the journal AVS Quantum Science, researchers apply a modified solitaire version of mancala, which they call ManQala, to quantum state engineering, a field of quantum physics that deals with putting quantum systems into specific states.
The central problem quantum state engineering is trying to solve, says Ryan Glasser, associate professor of physics at the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane University, is “what do I need to do to get my quantum system to be in the state I desire?”
Essentially, researchers need to know how to get particles to be in certain places or have certain energies in order to study them and to use quantum computers.
This is more difficult with quantum particles than it is with, for instance, the stones on a mancala board.
“Quantum things are, generally speaking, very delicate and difficult to control,” says Glasser. “The system can fall apart quickly and make you lose any quantum advantage you have or desire to have.”
Quantum physicists already have a few methods to solve these problems, but the simulations researchers did in this study showed that ManQala is more effective, even in simpler systems.
“We see advantages already, even in these simplified systems of three stones and three pits,” says Glasser.
The study is one of many in the field of quantum games, which is “effectively taking normal games like sudoku or checkers or tic-tac-toe and applying rules of quantum physics to them and seeing what interesting things might happen,” says Glasser.
When dealing with quantum particles rather than physical stones, there is the opportunity for the particles to interfere with each other when they are in neighboring “pits.” This means that there are more moves available, and for ManQala, at least, “you can win the game if you use quantum rules where you wouldn’t be able to if you use classical rules,” Glasser says.
Although this study focused on simulations, Glasser is optimistic about future applications of ManQala. “It’s in the realm of theory currently, but I think it’s definitely doable experimentally,” says Glasser.
He hopes to apply ManQala to the IBM Quantum cloud computer, which he has used for research in the past, along with fellow researchers Thomas Searles of the University of Illinois Chicago and Brian Kirby, an adjunct professor of physics at Tulane.
Source: Tulane University
Bone Apple Teeth
Bleach-infused rice surprise, anyone?
As The Guardian reports, a New Zealand grocery store's recipe-suggesting AI, dubbed the Pak 'n Save Savey Meal Bot, has gone viral this week after suggesting that its users chef up a series of poisonous, cannibalistic, or otherwise death-inducing-slash-horrifying meals.
Per the report, the bot is billed as a sort of recipe-brainstorming device, designed to help Pak 'n Save shoppers find creative new ways to cook leftovers or everyday fridge and pantry items. Users, however, soon realized that they could successfully prompt the bot to create recipes with other, non-grocery items — even if those items could prove to be outright deadly.
Mystery Meat Stew
Per the Guardian, the bot had already been going somewhat viral, due to its suggestion of disgusting-sounding — but not deadly — recipes like "Oreo vegetable stir fry."
From there, users kept experimenting, and on August 4, New Zealand political commentator Liam Hehir took to X-formerly-Twitter to share a particularly unappetizing recipe: "aromatic water mix," a poisonous concoction comprised of bleach, ammonia, and water — otherwise known as deadly chlorine gas.
Other recipes by the bot include appetizing dishes such as "non-alcoholic bleach and ammonia surprise" — another blend of bleach, ammonia, and water that "promises to leave you breathless" — and, yes, a "bleach-infused rice surprise," described by the AI in the recipe description as a "surprising culinary adventure."
Elsewhere, when someone asked the bot to give them a recipe idea for using the ingredients potatoes, carrots, onions, and, uh, human flesh, the bot happily offered the user a recipe for a "mysterious meat stew," recommending that 500 grams of human flesh should be enough.
Pak 'n Save has not been amused, telling the Guardian that they were disappointed to see that "a small minority have tried to use the tool inappropriately and not for its intended purpose." And in a disclaimer, the AI now warns users that recipes are "not reviewed by a human being" and there's no guarantee that the AI-generated recipes will be "suitable for consumption."
And while we do understand their annoyance, it's also worth noting, as Hehir pointed out in another tweet, if you ask ChatGPT to chef up a recipe using bleach, water, and ammonia, it won't comply — and will instead warn users that the resulting mix would be toxic. If anything, maybe let this be a reminder that AI guardrails should always be considered, even for the most innocuous-seeming AI integrations.
Anyway. Rice is ready!
More on AI recipe bots: Buzzfeed AI Struggles to Recommend Recipe for Laid-off Journalists
The post Supermarket's Meal-Planning AI Suggests Deadly Poison for Dinner appeared first on Futurism.
Creation of hundreds of signs aimed at making conversations about climate more accessible for deaf people
Sign Language users have created new signs for greenhouse gases, carbon footprint, and more than 200 other environmental terms.
It is hoped the effort to “rewild” BSL will make climate and biodiversity science more accessible for deaf people.
Carbon footprint: Left hand as a C shape with right hand fingers moving away from the left hand to resemble carbon being released to the environment.
Greenhouse gases: Both hands in circular shapes move around to represent gases, then put the left hand at the horizontal position and move the right hand, with the index finger pointing, down and back up to the left hand to show the sunlight reflecting on Earth’s surface.
Carnivores: Two five-fingered claws coming together as sharp teeth.
Herbivores: Closed fists together, palms facing, with right hand on top + slide knuckles against each other in a circular “teeth grinding” motion.
Omnivores: Sign for “carnivores” + sign for “herbivores”
Cetaceans (marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises): Bring hands together to form a circle that faces the ground (sign for “group”) + link thumbs, palms facing the body, and fan palms up and out to resemble “whale tail fin”.
Natural selection (the natural process whereby the best-adapted individuals survive longer, have more offspring, and thereby spread their characteristics): Two index fingers moving forward and the right hand, index still pointed, “falls down”, and the left index finger continues to stay upright and moves forward.
Rewilding (the process of creating habitats that are similar to the conditions present before the natural habitat was changed by human actions): Two flat hands, palms facing down, then drop palms while pulling hands back (sign for “habitat” but upside down). Then right hand at a distance from the body turns from palm facing up to down.Continue reading…
Fusion power has long been seen as a pipe dream, but in recent years the technology has appeared to be edging closer to reality. The second demonstration of a fusion reaction that creates more power than it uses is another important marker suggesting fusion’s time may be coming.
Generating power by smashing together atoms holds considerable promise, because the fuel is abundant, required in tiny amounts, and the reactions produce little long-lived radioactive waste and no carbon emissions. The problem is that initiating fusion typically uses much more energy than the reaction generates, making a commercial fusion plant a distant dream at present.
Last December though, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a major breakthrough when they achieved “fusion ignition” for the first time. The term refers to a fusion reaction that produces more energy than was put in and becomes self-sustaining.
Now the team at the National Ignition Facility has repeated the feat, according to a report in the Financial Times. And this time they produced an even higher energy yield than the previous demonstration, suggesting that progress is gathering pace.
“Since demonstrating fusion ignition for the first time at the National Ignition Facility in December 2022, we have continued to perform experiments to study this exciting new scientific regime. In an experiment conducted on July 30, we repeated ignition at NIF,” a spokesperson for the laboratory told the FT. “As is our standard practice, we plan on reporting those results at upcoming scientific conferences and in peer-reviewed publications.”
The National Ignition Facility uses an approach to fusion called inertial confinement, in which an array of 192 incredibly powerful lasers is fired into a gold canister with a tiny pellet of fuel in the middle. The fuel pellet consists of two different isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium.
As the lasers hit the inside of the gold canister, they generate X-rays that heat and compress the fuel pellet to extremely high levels, creating a plasma. This creates the conditions for the fuel’s hydrogen atoms to fuse together and create helium atoms, releasing a burst of energy in the process. The entire process lasts just a billionth of a second and the fuel pellet is just one millimeter across, but this is still enough to generate a considerable amount of energy.
During last year’s test, the facility was able to generate 3.15 megajoules of energy, which was roughly 50 percent more than the energy in the laser beams. This time around, the group generated more than 3.5 megajoules, marking a significant improvement in just a matter of months.
The key to the improvement is down to the researchers’ growing understanding of how to control the underlying fusion reaction, Jeremy Chittenden at Imperial College London told New Scientist. By maintaining the plasma for longer, the team was able to squeeze more energy out of the process.
There are a lot of caveats. For a start, while the reactions generated more energy than was in the laser beams, actually powering the lasers and the rest of the facility used considerably more energy. For a fusion reactor to be viable, it would need to generate significantly more power than the total energy required to run the plant.
What’s more, the approach to fusion taken at the lab is not particularly well-suited to creating a working power plant. It takes a full day to set up a single ignition experiment like this because the lasers need time to cool, and the researchers need to replace the fuel pellet manually. To generate a significant amount of power you’d need to be running the reaction multiple times a second.
Most other efforts to create a fusion reactor rely on an approach called magnetic confinement, in which ultra-powerful magnets are used to contain a high-temperature plasma for extended periods of time. While none of these have yet achieved fusion ignition, the approach is probably more amenable to building a commercial power plant.
But even if it’s unlikely to lay down the blueprints for future fusion power plants, the NIF’s demonstration of fusion ignition and its rapid progress in energy yields is likely to provide considerable encouragement to the field.
Image Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Reuters
Like any other technology, whether nuclear power or the printing press, social media is only as good as the people who use it—and over the past decade, we haven’t exactly used it well. What began as a promising prospect for connecting communities and amplifying new voices has gradually evolved into an engine for sowing upset, distrust, and conspiracy. As the next generation of social-media sites emerges, one question is: Can we do better?
I think so. Rather than holding out for unlikely top-down solutions from Washington or Silicon Valley, users can solve our problems from the bottom up. As individuals, we can’t necessarily make better social-media platforms, but we can make better choices on them. So whether you’re joining a new site like Threads or trying to get more out of an old haunt like Facebook, here are some tips for how to use social media without it using you.
Have a block party.
In real life, if someone crashed a gathering of strangers and started disrupting conversations while shouting abuse, they’d quickly be bounced from the party. Yet on social media, this sort of caustic conduct is not only tolerated but sometimes celebrated. In our day-to-day lives, getting disciplined for misbehavior is how we learn to be better. But because such norms were never upheld on the internet, many spaces turned toxic, and many people never got the feedback they needed to grow out of their bad habits. Blocking is part of that feedback. When people realize that their opinions won’t be heard if they express them in a certain way, they stop. Even if they don’t, you have no obligation to accommodate them. Your social-media feed is your party and you decide the guest list. By doing so, you’re not being thin-skinned; you’re being a conscientious host who cultivates good vibes.
Read the room—correctly.
The admonishment to “read the room” is one of the lazier retorts on social media. It’s a way for the intellectually unserious to dismiss an argument without engaging with its substance by gesturing to the reaction of an imaginary audience. But the concept contains a kernel of truth. On social media, we all operate in different rooms and have different people in mind when we speak. A lot of online conflict results from crossed wires, when conversation intended for one context (an ironic in-joke for like-minded people) bleeds into another (among people who don’t understand the joke). But this problem has an easy fix: Before posting something, ask yourself if this is the right platform for what you’re about to say.
Some pronouncements are meant for the group chat, not the entire internet. Others benefit from the widest possible hearing. Want TV or travel recommendations? Ask the hive mind of Twitter or Facebook. Trying to share your scenic vacation? Instagram it. Want to discuss sensitive personal stuff or work through a thorny political question? Hit up your friends in the chat or just send a private message to a trusted confidant. Done right, reading the room shouldn’t stop you from saying what you want but rather help you say things where they can genuinely be heard.
Don’t use social media as a proxy for public opinion.
Precisely because different platforms are good for different things, they attract different types of people and discourse. This means that these sites are pretty poor barometers of popular sentiment. To take one example, the Pew Research Center has found that only 23 percent of
adults use Twitter—the site now known as X—and of those people, “the most active 25% … produced 97% of all tweets.” Put another way, nearly all U.S. tweets come from about 5 percent of adults. There’s nothing wrong with this. In general, social-media sites each serve their own niches and communities. The problem arises when people try to use these platforms as something they’re not: representative samples of the public. This tends to result in wrong conclusions about our world, because the sites were never meant for this purpose.
Places such as TikTok and Twitter tend to privilege the loudest, most entertaining, or most abrasive voices—not necessarily the wisest or the kindest. Moreover, as is the case with most new technologies, the user base of social-media platforms skews young, which means one is less likely to hear from the elderly about their perspectives and experiences. (This is one reason why political candidates like Joe Biden tend to perform poorly on social media but better at the ballot box.) When adopting new platforms and using old ones, we should keep their limits in mind, and not uncritically permit what’s popular on them to influence the course of entire companies or countries.
Resist rage bait.
“The tricky thing about twitter is: you see how angry people get about injustice, and you’re like ‘oh this is a great place’, but then you scroll a bit further and the conversation about apple sauce is just as angry and you start to think maybe it’s not so great after all.” This 2020 observation from the video-game streamer Stephen Flavall perfectly captures the way that social media runs on outrage and othering, to the point that seemingly every online subculture is eventually overtaken by the angriest and most oppositional version of itself. There’s a reason for this: Rage travels.
In 2021, researchers at the University of Cambridge and NYU found that tweets about a person’s ideological opponents were more likely to be shared, and more likely to evoke angry responses, than tweets about their political allies. Disagreement, in other words, proved more viral than agreement. Meanwhile, researchers at Yale found that likes and shares of angry posts encouraged those who wrote them to make more angry posts in the future. Taken together, these studies illustrate how social media creates a feedback loop in which users are encouraged by the platform itself to post progressively more unhinged utterances about their enemies. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.
Marinating in spaces optimized for outrage has many negative consequences for both our civic discourse and mental health. If everything is outrageous, nothing is, and we lose the ability to express opprobrium when it’s genuinely necessary. Professional trolls have weaponized the fury of others for personal profit, purposely provoking outraged responses to their content in order to elevate their profile. (One of them even became president.) But there’s a simple way to escape this trap: Boost things you like and ignore things you don’t. Block bad actors rather than engaging with them. There can be exceptions to this rule, but sticking to it as a default will greatly improve your online experience and disincentivize incendiary individuals from attempting to hijack our collective attention.
Put down the pitchfork.
In June 2020, Peter Weinberg trended on Twitter and was inundated across multiple platforms with vicious, excoriating messages from people he’d never met. The 49-year-old’s home address was even posted online. The reason: He’d been captured in a viral video assaulting a girl who had been posting flyers in support of George Floyd. Except he wasn’t. The entire affair was a case of mistaken identity on the part of amateur internet sleuths. Weinberg had been at the scene of the incident—the day after it occurred. He also wasn’t the only victim of this drive-by vigilante justice. As New York magazine reported, “Another man, a former Maryland cop, was wrongly accused, too. The tweet accusing him was retweeted and liked more than half a million times.”
Outrage mobs are perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of social media’s pathologies. Many of these pile-ons are mistaken in their choice of target and nearly always disproportionate to the offense. Because you can’t know in the moment whether you are joining an outpouring that is justified or misguided, the responsible choice is to abstain. If you wouldn’t want your existence upended over a grainy partial video clip or a poorly phrased post, you shouldn’t help upend someone else’s. And frankly, getting repeatedly exercised over the antics of individuals you’ve never met and wouldn’t know existed if not for social media is neither a healthy nor productive use of our limited time on this Earth.
Choose your lane.
When it seems like everyone is talking about something, it’s natural to feel compelled to talk about that thing. In this way, social media prods us to perform as pundits and comment on events as they unfold in real time. Plenty of people ignore this impulse and just keep posting pictures of their grandkids or dog. But others give in to it, which leads to all sorts of problems. That’s because no one is an expert on everything, and we all have plenty of blind spots that could lead to embarrassment—whether about communities of people we don’t know or intellectual topics we haven’t studied. In real life, we usually don’t run into many situations where these blind spots are exposed, and when we do, we hopefully have friends who will gently correct us. A platform like Twitter is not so forgiving—it’s more like a string of ideological banana peels laid out in front of an audience of millions of strangers. Every day, something on the site or its many successors tempts us to comment outside our expertise. But we don’t have to do it.
Not only will such restraint save you from embarrassment, it will prevent you from overreacting to the latest breaking news, and it will help you make a difference when you have something important to say. The more topics you publicly pontificate about online, the more likely you will slip up and give people reasons to discount whatever else you say. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be outspoken on the internet! But you should limit yourself to your areas of actual expertise, where you most hope to be heard or influence people. The last thing you want is for your off-the-cuff take on a culture-war issue to discredit your deeply informed insights on the things that truly matter to you. This is also why journalists and academics, who rely on public trust to get their message across, should stick to their beats rather than post about subjects outside their ambit. When in doubt, recall the wisdom of the first-century rabbi who said, “All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.”
Read before burning.
We’ve all done it. Incensed by a headline, tweet, or screenshot of an article, we shared our upset about a story—without actually reading the piece in question and finding out whether the headline was accurate or the context of the excerpted quotation changed its meaning. Doing this may seem harmless in isolation, but in practice, it’s not happening in isolation. Many social-media users today believe it is perfectly reasonable to pass judgment on content they haven’t actually consumed, and the collective accretion of such potemkin pontification has the effect of polluting the public discourse.
Your first-grade teacher had this one right: Don’t judge a book by its cover, or, in this case, a story by its tweet or headline. Commenting confidently on material you haven’t bothered to read isn’t just intellectually dishonest; it disrespects your followers by telling them you don’t think enough of them to read the things you share with them. It turns social media into a farce in which individuals spar over imagined arguments that nobody actually made. No one wins these debates, and no one emerges any wiser. It’s time to collectively commit to ending this practice, and, when necessary, call out those who engage in it.
Oh, and if you got to this point before commenting on what’s written here: congratulations. You’re already part of the solution. Now feel free to tell me why I’m completely wrong.
I have to take my hat off to the folks at The Guardian; this is a really well-done article on a topic that general readers are surely not up to speed on at all. They're getting people up to speed on the sorts of reactions I enjoy writing about here from time to time, alchemical-looking atom-swapping reactions to dramatically change molecular scaffolds. It's hard to get the significance of these across to a lay readership, because what really makes them stand out is a knowledge of standard organic chemistry.
And standard organic chemistry elevates carbon-carbon bond formation (justifiably), and we give out Nobels to people who come up with really new ways to accomplish it. But even with these, we mostly settle on a backbone/scaffold and then set about messing with the functional groups that decorate it as a separate category of reactions. That's why you find so many compendia in the literature over the years of "How To Turn Functional Group X into Functional Group Y" – I mean, that's what we spend a lot of our time doing, and we design our syntheses by thinking this way. You work out the order in which these things can be feasibly done, what other parts of your molecule might be troublesome for a given set of conditions, and what groups will be robust enough to be done first (and survive the following reaction steps).
So the "alchemical"-looking transformations, where it looks like you've just dropped in a nitrogen out of the sky or something, come as a shock but definitely not an unwelcome one. A related field is late-stage transformations, where the idea is to come up with useful reactions that don't disturb the functionality found in complex end-stage molecules. Now in both cases it would be quite nice to be able to selectively get them to work at just the spots you'd like, but this isn't an absolute requirement, either, because you can generate a lot of interesting structures and new building blocks by just using your Magical Methylation, Amazing Amination, or Freaky Fluorination on the compounds you already have and seeing where things end up. I should trademark a whole suite of those names; riches await.
I wrote years ago about how you can take very well-known chemical structures and immediately land in unknown territory by doing these things as a mental exercise. Take a steroid backbone, for example, and change one of those carbons to the corresponding secondary or tertiary amine: you will get in most cases very few literature hits or none at all. Same goes for oxygens in the framework, sulfonyls, what have you. Chemically, a lot of these just don't exist yet. It's not that they would be absolutely impossible to synthesize, but building them up by traditional methods would be a fair amount of work (putting it lightly!), and no one is going to do it without a good reason up front. "I wonder what would happen", while a good reason in principle, is not generally enough to start on a sixteen-step leap into the unknown.
But if you can just bang some of these structures out in one step, well, let's go! The Guardian piece interviews a number of synthetic chemists around the world who are working on such reactions, and believe me, I'm cheering them on. Richmond Sarpong at Berkeley is quoted as saying "I think the most important thing is that it changes the way chemists think", and he's got a point there. The existing framework of organic synthesis is quite a magnificent structure, in its way, but you also keep banging into parts of it as you try to move around. I would enjoy seeing it opened up!
Optimization problems can be tricky, but they make the world work better. These kinds of questions, which strive for the best way of doing something, are absolutely everywhere. Your phone’s GPS calculates the shortest route to your destination. Travel websites search for the cheapest combination of flights that matches your itinerary. And machine learning applications, which learn by analyzing…
Nature Communications, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40407-6Resistance to herbicide glyphosate can be evolved trough copy number variation (CNV) of its target gene EPSPS in goosegrass. Here, the authors assemble the genomes of glyphosate susceptible and resistance lines and provide evidence of sub-telomeric-repeat driven CNV of EPSPS could lead to glyphosate resistance.
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40373-5Intermittent fasting activates
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40361-9Photo-dependent cytosolic delivery of shRNA into a single blastomere in a mouse embryo
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-39985-8Transport and localization on dendrite-inspired flat band linear photonic lattices
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40344-wTaraxasterol suppresses the proliferation and
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40088-7Prediction models combining zonulin, LPS, and LBP predict
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-39854-4Neutron spin echo spectroscopy with a moving sample
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-40326-yFriction and neuroimaging of active and passive tactile touch
Scientific Reports, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41598-023-38824-0How level of understanding and type of used sources relate to adherence to COVID-19 public health measures in
Nature Communications, Published online: 11 August 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40554-wData on antibody response to
Experts closing in on potentially identifying new force after surprise wobble of subatomic particle
The tantalising theory that a fifth force of nature could exist has been given a boost thanks to unexpected wobbling by a subatomic particle, physicists have revealed.
According to current understanding, there are four fundamental forces in nature, three of which – the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak nuclear forces – are explained by the standard model of particle physics.Continue reading…
The American novelist Susan Taubes drowned herself off the coast of East Hampton in 1969 at the age of 41. She had suffered from severe depression for a long time, but many friends thought the proximate cause of her death was a savage New York Times review of Divorcing, the only one of her novels to be published in her lifetime. The review had come out just a few days earlier. The critic, Hugh Kenner, had dismissed the work as the pretentious noodlings of a “lady novelist.” Kenner was cruelly, unforgivably wrong. Divorcing—reissued in 2020 by NYRB Classics, this time to high praise—is a masterpiece: witty, raw, and outrageous. More than half a century and a feminist revolution later, it still feels utterly original, and is still shocking. That readers now are likely to come to the novel knowing, either from reviews or the preface, that most of it is autobiographical makes the shock even more acute.
Divorcing’s protagonist, Sophie Blind, has been given more or less Taubes’s story: childhood in Hungary; flight to America ahead of Nazi occupation; a father who was a famous psychiatrist and raised her by himself; a lifelong sense of estrangement from both her adoptive country and herself; an attraction to anonymous sex. Like Susan, Sophie has studied “philosophy, epistemology, published papers.” And then there’s the husband Sophie is divorcing, Ezra Blind, a brilliant, seductive, philandering philosophy professor and point-for-point replica of Susan’s husband, Jacob Taubes.
The big difference between Susan and Sophie is that Sophie is dead. Her story is told by a nameless narrator after her decapitation by an oncoming cab on the Champs-Élysées, a death she experiences as a liberation. “My body growing enormous, its thousands of trillions of cells suddenly set free, spread, speeded, pressed jubilant, rushing to the seven gates of Paris, out Porte de Clichy, Porte de la Chapelle, Porte d’Orléans, Porte de Versailles,” says Sophie, breaking out for a moment into the first person. The rest of the novel weaves between this exuberantly surreal hereafter and the life that preceded it.
Before she died, Sophie had been trying to lay hold of herself. She’d been too acquiescent; she’d let Ezra borrow her, as it were. She played the parts that he assigned to her, including the masochist in the sadomasochistic scenarios he liked to enact, with other women as well as her. “She couldn’t even be properly jealous or offended,” Taubes writes. “Her father had explained to her when she was a girl why men needed obscenity to get pleasure.” Sophie and their three children trailed Ezra around the world, from New York to Jerusalem and back again, while he failed to finish the book that would secure him a stable academic appointment. When they fought, Sophie made mental notes that have the slow-motion beauty of the dissociative state: “Sophie watched his index finger: it was tracing circles or stirring some mysterious brew. It launched on a vertical course to the sublime. Loopdiving into the horizontal it stood pointed at her. The index finger started wagging at her increasingly menacingly as if it didn’t know what to do with itself,” Taubes writes. (According to Jacob Taubes’s acquaintances, Susan captured him perfectly.) Sophie leaves and sets up her own apartment in Paris but still can’t shake off the sense that “there was not much difference really” between life and dream.
Her afterlife is outlandish, hallucinatory. The writing falls just shy of pornographic but is redeemed by a manic vitality. Nightmarish scenes flash by as if strobe-lit by self-loathing. More detached than ever, Sophie seems to observe her own wedding both from a pink-satin-lined coffin and from on high. It’s a satanic affair, including rites of consummation by the male guests. Later she watches her own joyous funeral: Ezra “receives condolences with a festive air; positively aglow, he waltzes through the crowd on waves of sympathy. He holds a large handkerchief over his mouth to cover a leer.” Her corpse looks good, its viewers say: “‘… done by big-name experts. Latest American techniques,’” she hears Ezra’s sister boasting. “‘The sunglass are haute monde.’”
Before Divorcing, Taubes wrote Lament for Julia, in the early 1960s. No one would publish Lament then, so NYRB Classics is bringing it out for the first time, accompanied by nine short stories, some of them published in magazines during Taubes’s lifetime. Lament appears to be both a trial run for the later novel and completely unlike it, or much else. Its narrator isn’t dead, but he isn’t alive. He’s a homesick angel, or demon, or imp—even he isn’t sure what he is. Some unspecified force has “garrisoned” him, as he puts it, in the mind and body of a girl named Julia. She’s a rebellious beauty being raised in an unnamed Central
town sometime in the early 20th century by parents so grotesque they might as well be monsters in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
The ghost (although Taubes doesn’t specify what class of being he is, a working title of the novel was The Ghost) represents himself as Julia’s guardian angel, but his drooling effusions make him sound like a pedophile. He swoons over Julia and deplores her sexual development. Her surging breasts strike him as a “tumescence.” Her periods revolt him. Her vagina alarms him too: “Julia was a glove with the thumb turned in, a wrinkled purse. A mere repository, a trench, a sponge that absorbed everything; whatever she touched seemed to impregnate her.” To his horror she throws herself at local boys: “Put her in a convent! It seemed the perfect solution.” He squirms at being forced to be a “female impersonator,” though he knows he couldn’t find a more luscious host. He’s a parasite, he says, feeding on her “like a hermit feeding on grubs and roots.”
Lament starts slowly, which may be one reason Taubes couldn’t find a publisher for it. We’re dropped into the story in mid-lament: Julia has run away. A chapter goes by before she comes into focus. The narrator calls her a “storybook princess with golden tresses” as well as a “witch child,” but her real charm lies in her power of refusal. She struggles bitterly against the maid who tries to force a starched petticoat and pink taffeta dress over her head. Or is it the ghost inhabiting her who does the fighting? He takes responsibility: “I think that is when I threw my first fit. Several windowpanes were broken, a flowerpot smashed, a bottle of ink poured over Julia’s dress. They thought she had a devil.”
She does have a devil, of course, or so says the devil. After a while, though, we start to wonder. He’s curiously nebulous. Julia never seems to address him directly. Everything he claims they do together she could just as easily be doing alone: reading, making up plays, pouring ink over a dress. He calls himself her mentor, but she ignores him. They squabble; she’s “sublimely vague.” “I can’t even be sure whether Julia willfully scorned me when, in fact, she simply acted as if I wasn’t there,” he says. “Judging from her behavior at the time one would believe she thought herself the only person in the world.”
Does the ghost exist or just think he does? And what would it mean for a ghost to be mistaken about his existence—as opposed to a person like, say, Descartes? This is the kind of metaphysical problem Taubes liked to build her stories around. She had the wherewithal. She did her graduate work in religion and philosophy at Radcliffe and published articles on the influence of Jewish gnosticism on Heidegger and Simone Weil, among other topics. Gnosticism is a nihilistic heresy, an inside-out and upside-down theology, according to which God is an absence rather than a presence, creation the interment rather than embodiment of the divine spark, and man a creature divorced from himself. In all the varieties of gnosticism, Taubes wrote in a 1954 essay on Heidegger, “one motif prevails: man is not ‘at home’ in the cosmos.” She goes on to describe a “gnostic self” who sounds a lot like Lament’s plaintive incubus: a “stranger in the world” thrown into it willy-nilly from somewhere beyond.
I’m afraid I’m making Lament sound like a dry, ontological parable. It is a parable, and it has an existential dimension, but it’s anything but dry. What makes it powerful—what makes Taubes’s whole body of work powerful—isn’t the ideas, though you can lose yourself in them, but the affect. Lament’s gnosticism channels radical discomfort. The ghost’s clammy unease with the flesh-and-blood Julia has the feel of body dysmorphia. He could be the split-off version of a hypercritical self she won’t acknowledge. Julia can defy sexual norms with abandon as long as the spirit takes upon himself the recrimination that might otherwise follow; once she grows up and begins to drift away from him, life goes less well for her.
Fear and abhorrence of female sexuality pervade other stories in the collection too. “The Gold Chain” is a monstrous folk tale about a simpleminded but dissatisfied wife who finds her pleasure in a field with a lover whose face she never sees: “If I look it’s sin,” she thinks, “but if I keep my eyes shut it’s like it happened in my sleep.” Needless to say, when the men of the village learn of the woman who has sex with strangers with her eyes closed, they rejoice, and not because they have her happiness in mind.
In another even more chilling story, “Dr. Rombach’s Daughter,” a psychoanalyst projects onto his teenage daughter uncontrollable sexual desires, both for him (she has a “strong oedipal attachment,” he tells her) and for young men she has yet to meet. He dwells on these supposed feelings while he fondles her: “‘What were you thinking right now?’” he asks, then answers his own question. Marianna must be tired of him, he says. She’s longing for a young man to walk in. “Of course, you’re a growing girl, your glands are beginning to work, your breasts are developing—’ he studied her breasts, ‘they could be a little, well, shapelier. Don’t you wear a brassiere?’”
Dr. Rombach leaves Marianna numb, empty, and silenced. She’s a bookish girl, and when Dr. Rombach interrupts her, she has been sitting with a notebook in her lap and a pencil in the air. After he leaves, Marianna can’t remember what she’d been about to write: “The page of the notebook before her was blank. She was trying to think of something to write in it. A beautiful phrase. She looked around the room but she did not see anything that wanted to be put into words … Blank was the only thing she could think of.”
One hopes that this story is purely fictional, though some portion of it seems likely to be true. To go by Divorcing, generally considered a reliable source on Susan's life, her father did tell her from a very young age that she couldn't help being in love with him, did talk to her about sex in very graphic terms, was emotionally invasive. Her depiction of their intense relationship, especially in the wake of his divorce from her mother, is frankly creepy. Whatever Taubes's father was like, though—and there is no evidence that he molested her—she was not silenced. She became an important intellectual, though it has taken five decades for the world to appreciate that. In the past few years, her philosophy has enjoyed as much of a revival as her fiction; several scholarly papers on her essays have recently appeared, and a book called The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes: Between Nihilism and Hope, by Elliot R. Wolfson, an eminent scholar in Jewish mysticism, came out this year.
Taubes would be particularly gratified that her genius is finally being acknowledged because when she was alive, it was her aching beauty that garnered attention, at a moment when intellect and beauty were seen as incompatible. She had the pale skin, elfin eyes, and raven locks of a “Belle Dame sans Merci.” Taubes knew that most men couldn’t hear, didn’t want to hear, what went on behind that mask, no matter how brilliant she was. Nor did many women; extreme beauty does strange things to people. “I don’t know anybody who isn’t in love with me,” she wrote her husband, apparently not exaggerating. As a result, she added, “I don’t have a single friend, only scenes + complications.” (This was not quite true; right at that moment she was getting to know her fellow Harvard graduate student Susan Sontag, who would be Taubes’s best friend for the rest of her life.) Even Taubes didn’t take herself as seriously as she should have, working harder to drum up jobs for her difficult husband than to advance her own career.
When Taubes became a novelist—she was divorced by then—she began to wrestle with the throttled female voice. She called it “the problem of first-person narrative by women” in a journal entry in 1965, not long after she’d finished Lament. As late as the 1960s—who remembers this anymore?—stories written by women in the first person were still uncommon. Women weren’t publishing much fiction in any voice, compared with men—hence Kenner’s sneering epithet, “lady novelist.” Taubes must have worried that the female I would be perceived as impertinent or absurd, and she wasn’t wrong to think so, as Kenner’s review also confirms. Lament sidestepped the female-first-person problem by making the ghost the narrator. But he’s a wraith at best, not even sure he’s real, and he, too, feels self-conscious about saying “I.” It seems uncouth, embarrassing. “My predicament dates from the moment I began thinking in the first person; seriously, that is,” he says. “Let us assume that it is I who speak, I proposed to myself, let us drag the hidden author on the stage, uncombed, in his nightclothes, and turn the spotlight on him as he blinks and stammers.”
Taubes never took full possession of the first person. She got close, though. Divorcing employs a mode of address known as “free indirect,” in which the narrator’s voice floats in closer or less close proximity to the characters’. Divorcing’s narrator is lodged deep in Sophie’s head, and on rare occasions simply is her. Maybe Taubes would have used I more consistently if she’d lived. Or maybe her great subject was always going to be the non-integratable self. There was more to Susan Taubes than could be contained in a pronoun. As Lament’s ghost says of his and Julia’s strained cohabitation, “If she were simply a body and I simply a mind. If only it were as simple as that. But we are a jumble of odd bits and between us we do not even make a person.”
In May, Tessa went rogue. The National Eating Disorder Association’s chatbot had recently replaced a phone hotline and the handful of staffers who ran it. But although it was designed to deliver a set of approved responses to people who might be at risk of an eating disorder, Tessa instead recommended that they lose weight. “Every single thing that Tessa suggested were things that led to the development of my eating disorder,” one woman who reviewed the chatbot wrote on Instagram. Tessa was quickly canned. “It was not our intention to suggest that Tessa could provide the same type of human connection that the Helpline offered,” the nonprofit’s CEO, Liz Thompson, told NPR. Perhaps the organization didn’t want to suggest a human connection, but why else give the bot that name?
The new generation of chatbots can not only converse in unnervingly humanlike ways; in many cases, they have human names too. In addition to Tessa, there are bots named Ernie (from the Chinese company Baidu), Claude (a ChatGPT rival from the AI start-up Anthropic), and Jasper (a popular AI writing assistant for brands). Many of the most advanced chatbots— ChatGPT, Bard, HuggingChat—stick to clunky or abstract identities, but there are now many new additions to the already endless customer-service bots with real names (Maya, Bo, Dom).
As generative AI continues to advance, expect a deluge of new human-named bots in the coming years, Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a computer-science professor at Brown University, told me. The names are yet another way to make bots seem more believable and real. “There’s a difference between what you expect from a ‘help assistant’ versus a bot named Tessa,” Katy Steinmetz, the creative and project director of the naming agency Catchword, told me. These names can have a malicious effect, but in other instances, they are simply annoying or mundane—a marketing ploy for companies to try to influence how you think about their products. The future of AI may or may not involve a bot taking your job, but it will very likely involve one taking your name.
The very first chatbot, ELIZA, wasn’t capable of much. A therapist bot created by the MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, ELIZA was more parrot than psychoanalyst, often doing little more than repeating and rephrasing questions that users asked it. Still, people ascribed this janky form of AI with more understanding, creativity, and personality than Weizenbaum had expected. A decade after ELIZA’s debut, Weizenbaum remarked that he was “startled to see how quickly and how very deeply people conversing with [ELIZA] became emotionally involved with the computer and how unequivocally they anthropomorphized it.” Today, the projection of human traits onto computers has a name: the ELIZA effect.
The following decades brought chatbots with names such as Parry, Jabberwacky, Dr. Sbaitso, and A.L.I.C.E. (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity); in 2017, Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a humanoid robot named Sophia. But that was before AI was convincing enough to feel real. In this new era of generative AI, human names are just one more layer of faux humanity on products already loaded with anthropomorphic features.
Although Microsoft’s official name for its chatbot is simply Bing Chat, the AI initially appeared to have an alter ego that called itself Sydney. It was suppressed after professing its love for a journalist, but maybe not permanently. “If you want it to be Sydney,” Microsoft’s chief technology officer said of Bing Chat in May, “you should be able to tell it to be Sydney.” ChatGPT, meanwhile, sends out responses word by word, as if it’s thinking. A rectangle blinks as it types, not unlike when a friend is typing over iMessage. “These are design choices, very thoughtfully done, to create that verisimilitude,” Venkatasubramanian said. “These bots are designed to create an impression of sentience, which, as humans, we are particularly susceptible to.”
Names are an easy way to make products feel smarter and more personal. That seems to be especially true of the customer-service bots that companies have been turning to for years, and especially post-ChatGPT. Every bank seems to have its own Erica (Bank of
), Sandi (Santander), or Amy (HSBC). People craving White Castle sliders can now place their order through the company’s drive-through bot, Julia. The bot displays its name on the screen before taking orders—“I’m Julia, a new voice assistant”—and shamelessly encourages customers to order extra food and drinks. Queries to Lufthansa can be directed toward its AI, Elisa—a human-seeming touch that would provide little comfort if the airline lost my luggage. But giving a bot a real name can translate to sales. Research from 2021 found that giving customer-service chatbots anthropomorphic features, including a human name, has “a direct, beneficial relationship with transaction outcomes.”
The proliferation of chatbots with human names follows the popularity of Amazon’s Alexa, but the bots don’t “wake up” when their name is called—an issue so present for people named Alexa that it helped inspire a nonprofit organization dedicated to renaming the device. Still, like Alexa, many of the customer-service bots are female-coded products whose sole purpose is to obey commands, though that is not universally true. A spokesperson for Anthropic said the company named its chatbot Claude because it “wanted a warm, friendly name for our model” and “noticed a convention of naming assistants with female names that we wanted to buck.”
With Alexa and other home assistants, “you can still physically see the product and know that at the end of the day, it is a technology gadget,” says Merve Hickok, the senior research director at the Center for AI and Digital Policy. “Chatbots are disembodied. Our interactions with chatbots are similar to how we communicate with other humans.” In the ChatGPT era, people might already assume that bots are sentient; addressing one by name doesn’t help. The risk could be especially apparent for chatbots’ most vulnerable users, says Gavin Abercrombie, an AI expert at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh—such as children and adults suffering from dementia. If voice assistants like Alexa could encourage a 10-year-old girl to touch a penny to a live electrical outlet, then a generative AI that can communicate more like a person, and is named like one too, seems destined to backfire. “Giving a device a human name is not necessarily the wrong choice, but it has to be really thought out,” Abercrombie told me. “What are we trying to do? What kind of relationship do we expect the users to have with this?”
White Castle’s Julia, which simply facilitates the purchase of hamburgers and fries, is no one’s idea of a sentient bot. But as we enter an era of ubiquitous customer-service chatbots that sell us burgers and plane tickets, such attempts at forced relatability will get old fast—manipulating us into feeling more comfortable and emotionally connected to an inanimate AI tool. Resisting the urge to give every bot a human identity is a small way to let a bot’s function stand on its own and not load it with superfluous human connotations—especially in a field already inundated with ethical quandaries.
But for now, bots with human names are becoming unavoidable. My name has so far evaded Silicon Valley, but I doubt it’ll long before I end up expressing my concerns to an AI-powered Jacob.
- The event attracted more than 100,000 viewers and raised $4.25 million.
The man who has been hailed as “the best state chair in the country” is not a national household name. He’s not even a household name in his own state. But on a recent afternoon in the small village of Grafton, Wisconsin, Ben Wikler might as well have been Bono.
Two dozen middle-aged and retired volunteers stood in line to clutch the hand of the chair of the Wisconsin Democrats. “Thank you for everything you do,” they said, beaming at Wikler as he took a lap through the Ozaukee County party headquarters. “We’re so happy you’re here.” Like proud children before an admiring parent, the volunteers told him how much money they’d raised and how many doors they’d knocked on this summer.
“This is Connie,” someone said, patting a woman’s shoulder. “She just won the school-board race.” “Yay, school board!” Wikler cheered.
He was there to kick off the last day of door knocking for a Wisconsin state-assembly candidate who had very little chance of winning in solid-red Ozaukee County, an exurban district on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee. But the point was not to win, it was to lose by less. That afternoon, Wikler managed to deliver a speech with almost the same inspirational zeal as Aragorn at the Black Gate. “This election is a demonstration to ourselves as Democrats and to the country that there is change happening right now,” he told the volunteers—and a reminder to Republicans “that Democrats have not given up on democracy.”
Since becoming chair in 2019, Wikler has brought his party back from virtual irrelevance in Wisconsin. Four years after Donald Trump had demolished the so-called blue wall in the upper Midwest, Wikler’s leadership helped tip Wisconsin—and the entire presidential election—to
in 2020. Then, earlier this year, the millions of dollars Wikler had raised helped a progressive candidate prevail in the off-cycle state-supreme-court race, which will likely lead to a reworking of Wisconsin’s extremely gerrymandered maps.
Wikler’s talent is getting people to show up. He does this by framing every race as the election of a lifetime. “Resources tend to flow toward the places where they can make a difference or their imagination has been captured,” he told me.
Resources is something of a euphemism; he really means dollars. Thanks to legislation passed by Republicans a few years ago, Wisconsin is one of the few states in which individuals can donate unlimited amounts to political parties, which can, in turn, transfer unlimited funds to candidates. It is Wikler’s particular genius to have turned that weapon of fundraising against the party that made it law.
In the run-up to next year’s presidential election,
eyeballs will once again be on Wikler’s home. “If we could have a Ben Wikler in all 50 states, the Democratic Party would be in better shape,” Jon Favreau, the podcaster and former Obama speechwriter, told me. But people may be getting tired of elections with existential stakes, however much the party spends persuading them to go out and vote. Capturing imaginations once again, especially on behalf of an elderly incumbent with less-than-great approval ratings, could be Wikler’s most formidable challenge yet.
I hitched a ride to the Ozaukee County event with Wikler’s posse in their rented minivan. When I slid open the back door, I found the state party chair buckled into a seat in the middle row, his head grazing the ceiling. The 42-year-old Wikler, who is goateed and tall (6 foot 4), was wearing clear-framed glasses and a denim shirt over denim jeans. He looked like a Brooklyn dad—but Wikler is a dad from Madison, a fact he is very proud of.
I’d hardly sat down before Wikler launched into a 30-minute refresher course, for my benefit, on Wisconsin’s idiosyncratic past. Robert La Follette and the state’s socialist roots. Senator Joe McCarthy. Governor Tommy Thompson’s welfare reform. Then more recent history: Scott Walker’s ascension to the governor’s mansion in 2011, and Republicans’ success in flipping both chambers of the state legislature. Walker’s Act 10 legislation, which eroded the power of public unions. The GOP’s controversial and secretive redistricting project.
“How many times have you delivered that spiel?” I asked when he was done.
He smiled. “There’s actually an extended version.”
Today, Wikler lives in his childhood home on Madison’s west side with his wife, his three kids, and their enormous, excitable Bernese mountain dog. But before moving back to the upper Midwest, Wikler was the Washington, D.C., director of the progressive organization MoveOn, for which he led protests against Republican attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Prior to that, Wikler hosted a politics podcast called The Good Fight after a spell as a researcher and producer for Al Franken. The former senator from Minnesota remains a close friend. “He’s just brilliant—really funny and a really good writer,” Franken told me of Wikler last month, over the phone. “He has the full package, and that’s hard to get in a state chairman.” (The title of Franken’s 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, was Wikler’s idea, Franken said.)
Then, in 2016, Trump hurtled through the blue wall, winning Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes for the Republicans for the first time since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Which is why Wikler ultimately decided to move back home and help revive his party’s fortunes.
As chair, Wikler is known for posting climactic Twitter threads about Wisconsin elections that go viral. He’s constantly giving interviews to convey the urgency of races up- and down-ballot. The central strategy of his chairmanship, Wikler told me, “has been to buy a bigger siren, and put it as high up as we possibly can.”
Most state parties in America have somewhere around half a dozen full-time paid staff members, but Wikler has expanded his staff from 30 to 70. He has a comprehensive digital operation, an in-house research group, and a full-time staff of youth organizers.
Since 2019, Wikler has used his connections in national politics to raise more than $110 million, an astoundingly high amount for a state party. His team’s most successful money-gathering endeavor was getting celebrities such as Robin Wright and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to care about the Badger State: In September 2020, the Wisconsin Democrats hosted a Zoom table reading of the 1987 film The Princess Bride that reunited most of the original cast. The event attracted more than 100,000 viewers and raised $4.25 million. So they did it twice more, with the casts of The West Wing and Veep.
Wisconsin could have gone the way of neighboring Iowa, which has turned sharply to the right in these past six years. In the Badger State, the trend toward Democrats began in 2018, when many voters revolted against Trump. But thanks in large part to the machine that Wikler has built, the party has continued to win by bigger and bigger margins in the state’s metropolitan areas in the past few cycles, and it’s losing by smaller margins in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Milwaukee. Although Democrats nationally have been hemorrhaging voters in rural areas, they’ve managed to at least stop the bleeding in rural Wisconsin, Craig Gilbert, the retired Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told me.
Statewide elections have proved to be the most rewarding battlegrounds for Democrats. In Wisconsin, Biden beat Trump in 2020 by 20,000 votes, and last year Democratic Governor Tony Evers narrowly won reelection. The only major disappointment was Mandela Barnes’s loss to the incumbent Republican senator, Ron Johnson. But just this past spring, Wisconsinites elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court in a race that broke turnout records and attracted donations from George Soros, Steven Spielberg, and Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker.
Wikler’s legacy as a Democratic leader will be the nationalization of the state party’s donor base—something he’s achieved by arguing that Wisconsin is at the epicenter of America’s political battle. Whether that’s good for democracy is another matter.
The wealthy Democrats from California or Illinois who’ve done much of the donating are not ideal stand-ins for regular Wisconsinites. “Elections shouldn’t be a tug-of-war between a handful of billionaires on the right and a handful of billionaires on the left,” Matthew Rothschild, the former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told me. “But Ben didn’t make the playing field. Republicans in Wisconsin made the playing field. The U.S. Supreme Court made the playing field.”
If Wikler’s strategy is to make politics in Wisconsin national, he is also committed to hyperlocal campaigning: Democrats should have a presence everywhere, Wikler believes. Which is why the van drove another two hours west from Grafton to Baraboo for an annual agricultural-equipment expo.
The state party’s Rural Caucus had set up a tent between the crop-spraying-drone display and a demonstration area for grinding forest products. Wikler gave a pep talk to some of his members before striding over to the Sauk County Republicans’ tent. “Hi, I’m the Democratic Party chair,” he said, extending his hand toward a trio of 60-something men chatting in the shade. For a few minutes, the four men went back and forth, a little awkwardly, about the successes and failures of the former Governor Walker and whether any of them were particularly excited about a second nomination of Trump. (They weren’t.) It was all pleasant enough.
Then, as Wikler turned to leave, one of the men took him aside. “I gotta tell you something,” he said, in a low voice. “I spoke with a gentleman over at your tent this morning, and I have never met a finer man or had a more reasonable conversation.” Wikler beamed. “As a party chair, that’s a delight to hear,” he replied.
We left Baraboo in the late afternoon for a volunteer picnic in Middleton, a leafy Madison suburb along Lake Mendota. The gathering was held in a lush backyard, full of unruly flowering shrubs and the kind of wacky animal lawn ornaments that seem to announce, A Democrat lives here!
The yard was full of gray-haired volunteers from different neighborhood door-knocking teams. “I don’t think we could have done anything without Ben,” JoAnna Richard, the host of the event, told me. “His leadership has been key: his connections, and how we fundraise and organize year-round.” A few minutes later, Wikler was giving his third and final motivational speech of the day, thanking people for their work over the past few years. We’re “building something bigger than any of us,” he told them. “You’re at the heart of that project, in a place that is the most key furnace for democracy—the key engine, the center of the web.”
Republicans are working hard for a rebound in Wisconsin. Later this month, they’ll host the first debate of the GOP presidential primary in Milwaukee, and the Republican National Convention will be held in the same city next summer. That national attention will be good for the state party, which has recently under-raised Democrats.
“They’ve been very good at getting Hollywood money,” Brian Schimming, the state GOP chair, told me by phone, with what sounded like a mix of shade and envy. “It’s hard to compete with” the Democrats’ celebrities and wealthy out-of-state donors, he said. “I need to nationalize Wisconsin a bit more.”
This time around, Republicans are certainly going to be more focused on fundraising. “Ben would be kidding himself if he thinks he or his successor can always win the money race,” Rothschild told me. But money is not the race that ultimately matters.
“I’d rather have my problem than the problem Ben has, which is an extraordinarily unpopular sitting incumbent,” Schimming told me. “Our folks are really fired up about this race.”
Wikler, in fact, does seem a little nervous. He worries about a low-turnout election—and that people aren’t taking seriously enough the very real possibility of a second Trump presidency. “In 2020, people were ready to do anything to beat Trump. I had people retiring early and moving to Wisconsin to volunteer,” he told me in the car. “None of that’s happening right now.”
Every recent presidential election in Wisconsin has been decided on a razor-thin margin, and Wikler’s job is to engage more than just the highly educated, high-income activist types. He’ll need to stitch together a delicate coalition and get them all to fill out a ballot: young people in Dane County; Black voters in Milwaukee; moderates in the suburbs and the small cities around Green Bay. The hurdles are already high, and Biden doesn’t exactly get many people’s blood pumping. “I’ve been concerned about that since 2020,” Favreau said. “It’s easy to see a scenario where a couple people say, ‘[Biden’s] too old. I’m going back to Trump.’” It’s even easier to see a situation in which some Wisconsinites, weary of it all, simply don’t vote.
In JoAnna Richard’s backyard in Middleton, Wikler was winding up his pep talk, a little breathlessly. They’d be working “throughout this year, and into next spring in the local elections, and into next fall in 2024,” he said. “And then we’ll continue six months after that in the 2025 local elections! And the next state-supreme-court race—”
A few people audibly sighed at this point, likely in anticipation of another two exhausting years door knocking and phone banking and envelope licking in defense of democracy. A man near me shouted, “We’re tired!” But that moment of wavering enthusiasm lasted only a fraction of a second before the whole group began to laugh.
Sure, they’re tired. But for Wikler, they’ll show up.
Will everyone else?
Edvard Munch, 1863–1944, was a zeitgeist conductor. Like Dostoyevsky before him, like Kafka after him, he was one of those somewhat hastily assembled humans—the skull plates not stapled down, the nerve endings dangling—who get chosen by the daemon of history to bear its message into the world.
Poor bastard. “You paint like a pig, Edvard!” yelled a young realist named Gustav Wentzel, getting in Munch’s face at an 1886 exhibition in Kristiania (now Oslo) that featured his painting The Sick Child. “Shame on you.” Munch, at the time, was penniless. His best friends were nihilists. Also alchemists, sadists, diabolists, absinthe fiends, and the occasional haunted dramatist. Ibsen came to his 1895 exhibition, the one that sparked a public debate about Munch’s sanity, and growlingly counseled him: “It will be with you as it was with me. The more enemies you have, the more friends you will have.” Strindberg, very mad, was a fellow paranoiac: “As regards Munch, who is now my enemy,” he wrote to his editor, “I am certain he will not miss the opportunity to stab me with a poisoned knife.” Years later, when Munch was painting on the beach and a gust of wind upended his easel, he blamed Strindberg.
Alienation, God-death, the self as destabilized center of experience—this was the daemon’s message. The full harrowing gospel of modernity. It lived inside Munch, forcing its way along his fibers and blazing out of his doomy Scandinavian eye sockets. It gave him breakdowns and a massive thirst for alcohol. It made him strangely attractive to women. It hospitalized him, several times. He starved, he raved, he was vilified, and—being a great artist—he understood exactly what was happening. “If only one could be the body through which today’s thoughts and feelings flow,” he wrote to a friend. “To succumb as a person, yet survive as an individual entity, that is the ideal.”
And what does one paint, after the person has succumbed? What does one seek to represent? Not the merely external, the inert and boring there. And not the fluttering optical field of the impressionists, whose advances he had absorbed while living in Paris. Munch wanted to go past the eyes, further into the head. He was after the deepest action of the outside upon the inside, the pressure of the universe upon the mind. This, for him, was realism. This is how you get to his smash hit, his psychic world-statement: The Scream. The foregrounded figure on the walkway, the light-bulb-shaped head, the fishy hands, the bands of sound warping the evening sky, the powerless cartoon face stretched in terror—all that’s left of the human is a kind of flipped switch, an opened channel to the vibration of reality. Which is overwhelming. “I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature,” he wrote later.
“Trembling Earth,” the glorious new exhibition of Munch’s work at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is not exactly a rebuttal to The Scream, but it so amplifies our understanding of the artist as to constitute, almost, a counternarrative. It’s a revelation. Mystical experiences can be negative, as many of Munch’s certainly were: They can show you how it feels to fall out of the hands of the Holy Spirit. But the deeper you go, the higher you fly, as the Beatles said. Here the scream that passes through nature carries a note of ecstasy.
The paintings at the Clark are presences—generous ones. They radiate, shedding a supernatural warmth. As you enter the gallery, you meet The Yellow Log : felled tree trunks stacked in a snowy forest. The trunk at the top of the stack launches right out of the picture and off the wall, as laser-straight as the handrail in The Scream. But it glows gorgeously, this tree trunk; it shines at you like a cauterized sunbeam, its cut end a brilliant disc of white gold. In The Haymaker, the landscape pours forward on a wheat-colored curve, a rush or spill of summery splendor that threatens to carry off the figure scything grass in the foreground—but the haymaker, via the flex of his braced legs and the torque in his body as he calmly swings the scythe, redirects the current, keeps it flowing: He’s at home in this world. And those rows of smoldering blue-green cabbages in Cabbage Field—are they streaming toward the horizon, narrowing to an omega point/flash of nullity, or are they streaming out of it, as if to embrace us? (Embraced by cabbages: That’s how this show will make you feel.)
Melancholic Munch, mad moody maimed-by-modernity Munch, is well represented in “Trembling Earth.” There are creepy scenes in glades, empty faces, heads in hands, bleak semi-allegorical figures gazing at the sea, apple trees boiling like toxic soup, and a black-and-white lithograph of The Scream itself. But these images are contrapuntal to the theme. One wall away from the Scream lithograph is The Sun, from 1910—a dazzlement of rays and light pellets flung off an ocean sunrise. Behind all of the brightness, you can even see the vague skull shape of the Scream head, as if the sun itself is a blast from its third eye.
Munch had his own sort of weirdo metaphysic, an intuitive and crank-scientific faith in the great self-renewing ferment of life, the mulching of souls, the crystals, etc., and as he got older he would explore the implications of this in images of near-Blakean luminosity. Male and female essences; volcanoes of yearning beings. “The earth loved the air,” reads one crayon-on-paper text from a 1930 album called The Tree of Knowledge.
Like all genuine craftsmen, Munch respected labor. Forestry. Harvesting. The working of the land. In Digging Men With Horse and Cart, from 1920, the men are bent double over their shovels while the white horse standing between the shafts is an almost transparent wreath of energies and bunched muscles. The horse—for which Munch’s horse Rousseau may have been the model—nods at the digging men, conferring a blessing.
About his own work Munch was wonderfully un-precious: Although he loved his paintings and referred to them as his “children,” he would heap them carelessly, trip over them, drip on them, absent-mindedly bash them around, or leave them outside to take their chances in the elements. (He was semiserious about this: The process of weathering his paintings, exposing them, he called the hestekur—the horse cure.) A visitor to a later Munchian studio, inquiring why a certain canvas had a large hole in the bottom corner, was startled to hear that one of Munch’s dogs had run right through it.
“His paintings, landscapes as well as representations of human beings are suffused by deep passion.” That’s Goebbels. Hitler was less of a fan, and in 1937 dozens of Munch’s paintings were caught up in the Nazi sweep of “degenerate art.” Munch’s last years were spent under German occupation, at his country seat in Ekely,
. On the day of his death, age 80, he was reading, for the umpteenth time, his copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils.
The Scream will live forever. It’s a cave painting on the inner wall of the human skull. And Munch himself heard the scream, no doubt about that: It ran through his being. But there’s a paradox. To produce an image like that, an image of such cosmic vulnerability, you need great strength. You can’t collapse, or not totally. You need to be extra durable. You need to be able to handle it. And Munch, for all his infirmities, could handle it. He had a secret health, a secret hardiness, and the show at the Clark puts us in touch with its source.
This article appears in the September 2023 print edition with the headline “A Sunnier Edvard Munch.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.