August 9th, 2012
arvindsuguness
Super-sizing Medicine
Writing for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande argues that emulating the standardization of chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory can help fix our health care system:

“It is unbelievable to me that they would not manage this better,” Luz said. I asked him what he would do if he were the manager of a neurology unit or a cardiology clinic. “I don’t know anything about medicine,” he said. But when I pressed he thought for a moment, and said, “This is pretty obvious. I’m sure you already do it. But I’d study what the best people are doing, figure out how to standardize it, and then bring it to everyone to execute.”

This is not at all the normal way of doing things in medicine. (“You’re scaring me,” he said, when I told him.) But it’s exactly what the new health-care chains are now hoping to do on a mass scale. They want to create Cheesecake Factories for health care. The question is whether the medical counterparts to Mauricio at the broiler station—the clinicians in the operating rooms, in the medical offices, in the intensive-care units—will go along with the plan. Fixing a nice piece of steak is hardly of the same complexity as diagnosing the cause of an elderly patient’s loss of consciousness. Doctors and patients have not had a positive experience with outsiders second-guessing decisions. How will they feel about managers trying to tell them what the “best practices” are?

Read the full article here.
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Super-sizing Medicine

Writing for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande argues that emulating the standardization of chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory can help fix our health care system:

“It is unbelievable to me that they would not manage this better,” Luz said. I asked him what he would do if he were the manager of a neurology unit or a cardiology clinic. “I don’t know anything about medicine,” he said. But when I pressed he thought for a moment, and said, “This is pretty obvious. I’m sure you already do it. But I’d study what the best people are doing, figure out how to standardize it, and then bring it to everyone to execute.”

This is not at all the normal way of doing things in medicine. (“You’re scaring me,” he said, when I told him.) But it’s exactly what the new health-care chains are now hoping to do on a mass scale. They want to create Cheesecake Factories for health care. The question is whether the medical counterparts to Mauricio at the broiler station—the clinicians in the operating rooms, in the medical offices, in the intensive-care units—will go along with the plan. Fixing a nice piece of steak is hardly of the same complexity as diagnosing the cause of an elderly patient’s loss of consciousness. Doctors and patients have not had a positive experience with outsiders second-guessing decisions. How will they feel about managers trying to tell them what the “best practices” are?

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

August 1st, 2012
arvindsuguness
Fiction and Philosophy
Gore Vidal, the American writer and political activist, died yesterday at the age of 86. In this 1974 interview for The Paris Review, he discusses the art of fiction and why so many people hated him:

INTERVIEWER
Why will you always get a bad press?
VIDAL
That’s more for you to determine than for me. I have my theories, no doubt wrong. I suspect that the range of my activity is unbearable to people who write about books. Lenny Bernstein is not reviewed in The New York Times by an unsuccessful composer or by a student at Julliard. He might be better off if he were, but he isn’t. Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life. Then, of course, I am the enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys—as well as the American empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land. They knew I was wrong, but since they don’t read foreign or old books, they were forced to write things like “Vidal thinks Victor Hugo is better than Faulkner.” Well, Hugo is better than Faulkner, but to the residents of book-chat land Hugo is just a man with a funny name who wrote Les Misérables, a movie on the late show. Finally, I am proud to say that I am most disliked because for twenty-six years I have been in open rebellion against the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see the dictatorship start to collapse. I now hope to live long enough to see a sexual democracy in America. I deserve at least a statue in Dupont Circle—along with Dr. Kinsey.

Read the full article here.
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Fiction and Philosophy

Gore Vidal, the American writer and political activist, died yesterday at the age of 86. In this 1974 interview for The Paris Review, he discusses the art of fiction and why so many people hated him:

INTERVIEWER

Why will you always get a bad press?

VIDAL

That’s more for you to determine than for me. I have my theories, no doubt wrong. I suspect that the range of my activity is unbearable to people who write about books. Lenny Bernstein is not reviewed in The New York Times by an unsuccessful composer or by a student at Julliard. He might be better off if he were, but he isn’t. Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous—if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of American life. Then, of course, I am the enemy to so many. I have attacked both Nixon and the Kennedys—as well as the American empire. I’ve also made the case that American literature has been second-rate from the beginning. This caused distress in book-chat land. They knew I was wrong, but since they don’t read foreign or old books, they were forced to write things like “Vidal thinks Victor Hugo is better than Faulkner.” Well, Hugo is better than Faulkner, but to the residents of book-chat land Hugo is just a man with a funny name who wrote Les Misérables, a movie on the late show. Finally, I am proud to say that I am most disliked because for twenty-six years I have been in open rebellion against the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to see the dictatorship start to collapse. I now hope to live long enough to see a sexual democracy in America. I deserve at least a statue in Dupont Circle—along with Dr. Kinsey.

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

July 24th, 2012
arvindsuguness
Can Our Brains Become Immortal?
Writing for The Chronicle Review, Evan R. Goldstein explores the mapping of the human brain to create a “connectome” - the brain equivalent of our cellular genome - and whether it will allow us to preserve our brains and achieve immortality:

Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where “nature meets nurture.”
Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death.
…
J. Anthony Movshon, of NYU, takes a dimmer view. More than 25 years after the C. elegans connectome was completed, he says, we have only a faint understanding of the worm’s nervous system. “We know it has sensory neurons that drive the muscles and tell the worm to move this way or that. And we’ve discovered that some chemicals cause one response and other chemicals cause the opposite response. Yet the same circuit carries both signals.” He scoffs, “How can the connectome explain that?”

Read the full article here.
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Can Our Brains Become Immortal?

Writing for The Chronicle Review, Evan R. Goldstein explores the mapping of the human brain to create a “connectome” - the brain equivalent of our cellular genome - and whether it will allow us to preserve our brains and achieve immortality:

Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where “nature meets nurture.”

Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death.

J. Anthony Movshon, of NYU, takes a dimmer view. More than 25 years after the C. elegans connectome was completed, he says, we have only a faint understanding of the worm’s nervous system. “We know it has sensory neurons that drive the muscles and tell the worm to move this way or that. And we’ve discovered that some chemicals cause one response and other chemicals cause the opposite response. Yet the same circuit carries both signals.” He scoffs, “How can the connectome explain that?”

Read the full article here.

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July 12th, 2012
arvindsuguness
The Infiltration of Anonymous
Writing for Wired Magazine, Quinn Norton brings us the story of how Anonymous was born, developed into a hacking force, and was subsequently infiltrated by the FBI:

Sabu’s arrest cut to the heart of what Anonymous claimed to be, of how it claimed to organize itself. Or, more accurately: its claim that it did not organize itself, that it had no leaders and yet boasted participants so innumerable (“We are Legion,” as one of its popular slogans blares) that no ten or hundred or thousand arrests could ever stop it. But in Sabu the FBI had nabbed an anon who was not easy to replace. No one could deny he had served as a crucial force in many of 2011′s most spectacular hacking campaigns. Presumably the anons arrested on the evidence he helped gather were talented hackers, too. For years, when anyone tried to claim they had uncovered the leader, or leaders, of Anonymous, the group’s members would belittle them online and then sometimes hack them for good measure. Now, with these arrests, Anonymous’ whole self-conception was being put to the test.
The possibility that Anonymous might be telling the truth—that it couldn’t be shut down by jailing or flipping or bribing key participants—was why it became such a terrifying force to powerful institutions worldwide, from governments to corporations to nonprofits. Its wild string of brilliant hacks and protests seemed impossible in the absence of some kind of defined organization. To hear the group and its defenders talk, the leaderless nature of Anonymous makes it a mystical, almost supernatural force, impossible not just to stop but to even comprehend. Anons were, they liked to claim, united as one and divided by zero—undefined and indefinable.

Read the full article here.

The Infiltration of Anonymous

Writing for Wired Magazine, Quinn Norton brings us the story of how Anonymous was born, developed into a hacking force, and was subsequently infiltrated by the FBI:

Sabu’s arrest cut to the heart of what Anonymous claimed to be, of how it claimed to organize itself. Or, more accurately: its claim that it did not organize itself, that it had no leaders and yet boasted participants so innumerable (“We are Legion,” as one of its popular slogans blares) that no ten or hundred or thousand arrests could ever stop it. But in Sabu the FBI had nabbed an anon who was not easy to replace. No one could deny he had served as a crucial force in many of 2011′s most spectacular hacking campaigns. Presumably the anons arrested on the evidence he helped gather were talented hackers, too. For years, when anyone tried to claim they had uncovered the leader, or leaders, of Anonymous, the group’s members would belittle them online and then sometimes hack them for good measure. Now, with these arrests, Anonymous’ whole self-conception was being put to the test.

The possibility that Anonymous might be telling the truth—that it couldn’t be shut down by jailing or flipping or bribing key participants—was why it became such a terrifying force to powerful institutions worldwide, from governments to corporations to nonprofits. Its wild string of brilliant hacks and protests seemed impossible in the absence of some kind of defined organization. To hear the group and its defenders talk, the leaderless nature of Anonymous makes it a mystical, almost supernatural force, impossible not just to stop but to even comprehend. Anons were, they liked to claim, united as one and divided by zero—undefined and indefinable.

Read the full article here.

May 31st, 2012
arvindsuguness
Science Journalism is Hard
As the RTNT contributor with the greatest focus on science, I have read far too many articles that opt for sensationalism over trying to inform. Of course, as Chase would tell you, this is true of the news media in general.
For our six month anniversary, I’ve put together some of my favorite science writing. Here are pieces that grapple with the immensity of the scientific endeavour: the ethical quandaries, the difficulty of progress, and the basic questions of well-being that lie at the root of our desire for knowledge.
1. The Limits of KnowledgeWhy knowing does not always lead to understanding.Jonah Lehrer, Wired Magazine, December 2011 
2. The Torture of Solitary ConfinementTens of thousands of inmates in the United States are subjected to long-term solitary confinement. Research into the lasting psychological effects of this treatment makes a good case that it amounts to torture.Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 2009 
3. Are We Biological Machines?The problem with the mechanistic understanding of biology familiar to students everywhere.Stephen L. Talbott, The New Atlantis, Fall 2010 
4. A Life Worth EndingIn an age where it seems as though medicine can prolong life indefinitely, a son grapples with letting his mother go.Michael Wolff, New York Magazine, May 2012 
5. Curing The Common ColdIn the near future anti-viral drugs could cure everyday illnesses. But should we use them?Carl Zimmer, Wired Magazine, March 2012
Have you read any great science writing lately? We’d love to hear from you.
-Arvind Suguness, Contributor
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

Science Journalism is Hard

As the RTNT contributor with the greatest focus on science, I have read far too many articles that opt for sensationalism over trying to inform. Of course, as Chase would tell you, this is true of the news media in general.

For our six month anniversary, I’ve put together some of my favorite science writing. Here are pieces that grapple with the immensity of the scientific endeavour: the ethical quandaries, the difficulty of progress, and the basic questions of well-being that lie at the root of our desire for knowledge.

1. The Limits of Knowledge
Why knowing does not always lead to understanding.
Jonah Lehrer, Wired Magazine, December 2011 

2. The Torture of Solitary Confinement
Tens of thousands of inmates in the United States are subjected to long-term solitary confinement. Research into the lasting psychological effects of this treatment makes a good case that it amounts to torture.
Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, March 2009 

3. Are We Biological Machines?
The problem with the mechanistic understanding of biology familiar to students everywhere.
Stephen L. Talbott, The New Atlantis, Fall 2010 

4. A Life Worth Ending
In an age where it seems as though medicine can prolong life indefinitely, a son grapples with letting his mother go.
Michael Wolff, New York Magazine, May 2012 

5. Curing The Common Cold
In the near future anti-viral drugs could cure everyday illnesses. But should we use them?
Carl Zimmer, Wired Magazine, March 2012

Have you read any great science writing lately? We’d love to hear from you.

-Arvind Suguness, Contributor

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

May 22nd, 2012
arvindsuguness
How Corporations Became People
Writing for The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin recounts how conservative Justices on the Supreme Court were able to turn a narrow case, originally argued only over whether campaign finance law applied to video on demand services, into one that overturned decades of precedent, remaking how our elections are run:

Through artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts had turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship. The trio made Stewart—and thus the government—take an absurd position: that the government might have the right to criminalize the publication of a five-hundred-page book because of one line at the end.
…
On June 29, 2009, the last day of the term, the Court shocked the litigants—and the political world—by announcing, “The case is restored to the calendar for reargument.” The parties were directed to file new briefs. In plain English, the Court’s order told the parties that the Justices were considering overruling two major decisions in modern campaign-finance law. Most important, the Court was weighing whether to overturn its endorsement of McCain-Feingold in the McConnell case of 2003. As every sophisticated observer of the Court knew, the Court did not ask whether cases should be overruled unless a majority of the Justices were already prepared to do so.

Read the full article here.
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

How Corporations Became People

Writing for The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin recounts how conservative Justices on the Supreme Court were able to turn a narrow case, originally argued only over whether campaign finance law applied to video on demand services, into one that overturned decades of precedent, remaking how our elections are run:

Through artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts had turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship. The trio made Stewart—and thus the government—take an absurd position: that the government might have the right to criminalize the publication of a five-hundred-page book because of one line at the end.

On June 29, 2009, the last day of the term, the Court shocked the litigants—and the political world—by announcing, “The case is restored to the calendar for reargument.” The parties were directed to file new briefs. In plain English, the Court’s order told the parties that the Justices were considering overruling two major decisions in modern campaign-finance law. Most important, the Court was weighing whether to overturn its endorsement of McCain-Feingold in the McConnell case of 2003. As every sophisticated observer of the Court knew, the Court did not ask whether cases should be overruled unless a majority of the Justices were already prepared to do so.

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

May 10th, 2012
arvindsuguness
How The Atlantic Ocean Was Saved
Writing for The Washington Monthly, Alison Fairbrother tells the story of how an alliance of environmentalists, sport fishermen and scientists took on industrial fishers and saved the Atlantic Ocean:

Price is a lifelong striped bass fisherman with no formal training as a scientist. Yet he has spent the last four decades cutting open bass stomachs in a kind of renegade ecological study, charting the precipitous decline of the lowly menhaden. Price’s interest in the species is indirect; menhaden aren’t prized by anglers. But they are prized by striped bass. The little fish has historically been the striper’s most significant source of protein and calories. In fact, menhaden are a staple in the diets of dozens of marine predators in the Atlantic and its estuaries, from osprey to bluefish to dolphin to blue crab. In a host of undersea food chains, menhaden—also known as pogy and bunker—are a common denominator. They have been called the most important fish in the sea.
…
Harvested by the billions and then processed into various industrial products, menhaden are extruded into feed pellets that make up the staple food product for a booming global aquaculture market, diluted into oil for omega-3 health supplements, and sold in various meals and liquids to companies that make pet food, livestock feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics. We have all consumed menhaden one way or another. Pound for pound, more menhaden are pulled from the sea than any other fish species in the continental United States, and 80 percent of the menhaden netted from the Atlantic are the property of a single company.

Read the full article here.
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

How The Atlantic Ocean Was Saved

Writing for The Washington Monthly, Alison Fairbrother tells the story of how an alliance of environmentalists, sport fishermen and scientists took on industrial fishers and saved the Atlantic Ocean:

Price is a lifelong striped bass fisherman with no formal training as a scientist. Yet he has spent the last four decades cutting open bass stomachs in a kind of renegade ecological study, charting the precipitous decline of the lowly menhaden. Price’s interest in the species is indirect; menhaden aren’t prized by anglers. But they are prized by striped bass. The little fish has historically been the striper’s most significant source of protein and calories. In fact, menhaden are a staple in the diets of dozens of marine predators in the Atlantic and its estuaries, from osprey to bluefish to dolphin to blue crab. In a host of undersea food chains, menhaden—also known as pogy and bunker—are a common denominator. They have been called the most important fish in the sea.

Harvested by the billions and then processed into various industrial products, menhaden are extruded into feed pellets that make up the staple food product for a booming global aquaculture market, diluted into oil for omega-3 health supplements, and sold in various meals and liquids to companies that make pet food, livestock feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics. We have all consumed menhaden one way or another. Pound for pound, more menhaden are pulled from the sea than any other fish species in the continental United States, and 80 percent of the menhaden netted from the Atlantic are the property of a single company.

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

May 3rd, 2012
arvindsuguness
Design Without Deliberation
A/B testing is a method used by entities as diverse as political campaigns and online retailers that allows them to route users to different versions of a website in order to track the performance of alternate designs. Writing for Wired Magazine, Brian Christian examines the increasingly widespread use of A/B testing, and what it means for the future of web design:

One Kings Lane has a business model that involves swapping out inventory every day, and Optimizely’s A/B tool plays a big role in the on-the-fly improvement that happens within each of these “flash sales.” Why do people like the ottoman better if it appears to the left of the throw rug than if it appears to the right? There’s no time to ask the question, and no reason to answer it. After all, what does it matter if you can get the right result? Keep testing, keep reacting, and save your philosophizing for the off-hours.
If you find that last implication to be somewhat troubling, you’re not alone. Even if we accept that testing is useful in learning how to run a business, it’s hard to take the next step and accept that we won’t learn how to run our businesses at all. Indeed, as A/B becomes more widespread, we might not even know what choices the tests are making: One of the burgeoning trends in A/B is to automate the whole process of adjudicating the test, so that the software, when it finds statistical significance, simply diverts all traffic to the better-performing option—no human oversight necessary.

Read the full article here.
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

Design Without Deliberation

A/B testing is a method used by entities as diverse as political campaigns and online retailers that allows them to route users to different versions of a website in order to track the performance of alternate designs. Writing for Wired Magazine, Brian Christian examines the increasingly widespread use of A/B testing, and what it means for the future of web design:

One Kings Lane has a business model that involves swapping out inventory every day, and Optimizely’s A/B tool plays a big role in the on-the-fly improvement that happens within each of these “flash sales.” Why do people like the ottoman better if it appears to the left of the throw rug than if it appears to the right? There’s no time to ask the question, and no reason to answer it. After all, what does it matter if you can get the right result? Keep testing, keep reacting, and save your philosophizing for the off-hours.

If you find that last implication to be somewhat troubling, you’re not alone. Even if we accept that testing is useful in learning how to run a business, it’s hard to take the next step and accept that we won’t learn how to run our businesses at all. Indeed, as A/B becomes more widespread, we might not even know what choices the tests are making: One of the burgeoning trends in A/B is to automate the whole process of adjudicating the test, so that the software, when it finds statistical significance, simply diverts all traffic to the better-performing option—no human oversight necessary.

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

May 1st, 2012
arvindsuguness
The Ethics of Genetics
Writing for Walrus Magazine, Mike Czarnecki explores the advancing field of human genetics and the difficult ethical questions that we must confront in a world where we will be able to manipulate individual traits:

Still, reproductive technologies such as PGD have revived the possibility of “good” eugenics: Julian Savulescu, a neuroethicist at the University of Oxford, evangelizes for it at every opportunity, most recently in an iPad app. In his view, once a technology like PGD becomes available to all, parents and health care providers will have a moral obligation to create children with the best genes possible.
The enhancement debate highlights the fact that genomic research has vastly expanded the range and impact of long-standing ethical conundrums. One can understand rejecting an embryo identified by early testing as carrying the mutation for a fatal genetic disorder such as Tay–Sachs disease; from there, the ethical choices get thornier. For decades, prenatal tests have given parents the option of aborting a fetus with Down’s syndrome. But many people with Down’s enjoy satisfying lives with support from the health care system. As PGD and other prenatal technologies become more prevalent, should limits be placed on which conditions and diseases are screened for? And how should parents decide whether they can manage to raise a child with a disability?

Read the full article here.
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

The Ethics of Genetics

Writing for Walrus Magazine, Mike Czarnecki explores the advancing field of human genetics and the difficult ethical questions that we must confront in a world where we will be able to manipulate individual traits:

Still, reproductive technologies such as PGD have revived the possibility of “good” eugenics: Julian Savulescu, a neuroethicist at the University of Oxford, evangelizes for it at every opportunity, most recently in an iPad app. In his view, once a technology like PGD becomes available to all, parents and health care providers will have a moral obligation to create children with the best genes possible.

The enhancement debate highlights the fact that genomic research has vastly expanded the range and impact of long-standing ethical conundrums. One can understand rejecting an embryo identified by early testing as carrying the mutation for a fatal genetic disorder such as Tay–Sachs disease; from there, the ethical choices get thornier. For decades, prenatal tests have given parents the option of aborting a fetus with Down’s syndrome. But many people with Down’s enjoy satisfying lives with support from the health care system. As PGD and other prenatal technologies become more prevalent, should limits be placed on which conditions and diseases are screened for? And how should parents decide whether they can manage to raise a child with a disability?

Read the full article here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

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