8 thoughts on “Hey! Check This Out! (2022)

  1. Sarah Zhang, one of several science writers at theAtlantic, has an interesting notion in this piece.

    Zhang presents an interesting idea here: If certain diseases were all but eliminated due to improvements in better sanitation of water–if no modern society would tolerate unsanitary conditions with regard to water and refuse–if we applied the same thought to airbourne diseases, could we eliminate many of them?

    Zhang starts by mentioning seasonal flu. With better ventilation and air filtering in our buildings, maybe the phenomena of seasonal flu would be a thing of the past? Could we have largely been spared of the havoc caused by COVID-19?

    One catch is the cost of not only upgrading existing building, but buildings may have to use more energy to achieve this–and my understanding is that buildings already consume a lot of energy. However, think of a more deadly airbourne disease that may eventually come about. If better building ventilation could reduce or prevent such a disease from spreading wildly, the cost might be worth it.

    1. The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill from Wired magazine is tangentially related to Zhang’s piece above. I recommend it–especially if you like a good detective story.

      If you’ve followed the news about the pandemic, you know that initially the scientific community didn’t think COVID-19 was an airbourne disease. Later they modified this stance.

      The article seems to identify the heart of the error–an error that involves the cutoff point that determines whether a pathogen can infect someone through the air. For a long time, that cutoff point, used by the major health institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC, was 5 microns (one micron = one-millionth of a meter). That is, any particle smaller than 5 microns could be airbourne, while anything larger would be considered a droplet (droplets fall quickly to the ground, and transmission can occur through touching surfaces those droplets landed on).

      However, the article mentions one problem with this:

      “The physics of it is all wrong,” Marr says. That much seemed obvious to her from everything she knew about how things move through air. Reality is far messier, with particles much larger than 5 microns staying afloat and behaving like aerosols, depending on heat, humidity, and airspeed.

      Marr, refers to Linsey Marr, a scientist who joined other scientists to study this question. One big component of their study involves answering the reasons 5 microns was the cutoff point. I recommend reading the article to find out the answer, but for those not interested, I’ll post the explanation below.

      (spoilers)

      The answer is somewhat complicated, but I’ll try to simplify it. First, in the 1934(!), an engineer named William Firth Wells and Mildred Weeks Wells, a physician (and his wife) “analyzed air samples and plotted a curve showing how the opposing forces of gravity and evaporation acted on respiratory particles.” Through this analysis they discovered that particles bigger than 100 microns sank within seconds, while particles smaller than this stayed in the air.

      This would suggest that the cutoff should be 100 microns, not 5. Why did the public health community choose 5 microns, instead of a 100?

      There isn’t a definitive answer, but the scientists and engineers that worked with Marr provide a compelling hypothesis.

      Next, two discoveries seem to matter. First, the mucus in human nostrils could effectively filter pathogenic particles larger than 5 microns–that is, smaller particles would not be filtered. Second, Wells also did some research on tuberculosis and discovered that tuberculosis particles that were 5 microns or less would lead to infections.

      Another factor might also be significant. One of the more prominent epidemiologists, at a nascent CDC, seemed to view the notion of airbourne transmission “as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the “miasma theory” that had prevailed for centuries.” Instead, the public health seemed to emphasis personal hygiene like handwashing.

      These factors may explain the reason the public health community focused on 5 microns, while forgetting about the earlier study that showed particles up to 100 microns could float around in the air. (Also, important: TB needed to go deep into the lungs to cause infection–the smaller and finer the particle of TB, the more chances of this happening. But other pathogens could do damage without going so deeply into the lungs.)

      In a way the 5 micron cutoff makes sense, given that mucus works as a good filter for any particles larger than 5 microns. Because of this, if public health ignoring pathogens bigger than 5, but less than 100 microns is somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, if the article is correct, it’s not a small error, and it should be corrected.

  2. The brain-as-a-computer metaphor has lead to a lot of problems. That’s the claim of science journalist Annie Murphy Paul in her discussion on the Ezra Klein Show. The problem, and disappointment, is that Paul (and Klein) don’t find a satisfying alternative. (She suggests the brain is a like a magpie, citing the magpie’s penchant for using all sort of things to build its nest.) Moreover, the critique of the computer metaphor (and also brain-as-a-muscle metaphor) doesn’t seem entirely valid and her claims and the totality of them seem muddled.

    And yet I’m recommending this podcast. Why? Well, I do think she presents some interesting ideas, in spite of the complaints above. For example, she points out the brain seems to function better while outdoors and while the body moves–not just walking or running, but she claims that moving one’s hands while thinking (talking) can help the brain function better. This idea does seem compelling to me, as does the explanation–namely, that we evolved in the outdoors therefore the brain is best suited for operating in this environment, while a person is moving and observing. On the other hand, sitting down indoors for long periods, and focusing on written language is very unnatural, and the brain may have to expend more energy to deal with this situation. My experiences align with this as well. I do think walking does help me thinking (although this applies indoors as well).

    Paul and Klein also talk about the way the body picks up on information we’re not conscious of, and when we make decisions we get signals from our body. (I do recall her saying “body” in this context and not the mind, which seems a bit odd and strange. I can understand if the mind picks up information subconsciously and then triggers a response in the body, like a “spider sense,” when we’re facing a decision. But the body picking up information seems odd.)

    Overall, I found this to be a stimulating and interesting discussion, one that was also relevant to children’s education.

  3. When I think of really good memorable articles, I usually think of ones where I learn something worthwhile. I don’t usually think of articles that are simply well-written and entertaining (although I don’t often come across such articles).

    What I Learned From the Worst Novelist in the English Language written by Barrett Swanson in the New Republic is an exception. I like this primarily because of the writing and because it’s entertaining and amusing.

    (Edit: I read this because of music historian/writer, Ted Gioia’s best online essays.)

  4. An Existential Crisis in Neuroscience. (This appeared on Ted Gioia best 2020 articles. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I’m putting it here, so I don’t forget about it.)

    When I asked if a completed connectome (Reid’s note: A connectome is a “complete wiring diagram of the brain”) would give us a full understanding of the brain, he didn’t pause in his answer. I got the feeling he had thought a great deal about this question on his own.

    “I think the word ‘understanding’ has to undergo an evolution,” Lichtman said, as we sat around his desk. “Most of us know what we mean when we say ‘I understand something.’ It makes sense to us. We can hold the idea in our heads. We can explain it with language. But if I asked, ‘Do you understand New York City?’ you would probably respond, ‘What do you mean?’ There’s all this complexity. If you can’t understand New York City, it’s not because you can’t get access to the data. It’s just there’s so much going on at the same time. That’s what a human brain is. It’s millions of things happening simultaneously among different types of cells, neuromodulators, genetic components, things from the outside. There’s no point when you can suddenly say, ‘I now understand the brain,’ just as you wouldn’t say, ‘I now get New York City.’ ”

    The Borges story reminded me of Lichtman’s view that the brain may be too complex to be understood by humans in the colloquial sense, and that describing it may be a better goal. Still, the idea made me uncomfortable. Much like storytelling, or even information processing in the brain, descriptions must leave some details out. For a description to convey relevant information, the describer has to know which details are important and which are not. Knowing which details are irrelevant requires having some understanding about the thing you’re describing. Will my brain, as intricate as it may be, ever be able to make sense of the two exabytes in a mouse brain?

    It’s clear to me now that while science deals with facts, a crucial part of this noble endeavor is making sense of the facts. The truth is screened through an interpretive lens even before experiments start. Humans, with all our quirks and biases, choose what experiment to conduct in the first place, and how to do it. And the interpretation continues after data are collected, when scientists have to figure out what the data mean. So, yes, science gathers facts about the world, but it is humans who describe it and try to understand it. All these processes require filtering the raw data through a personal sieve, sculpted by the language and culture of our times.

  5. I thought the following University of Chicago lecture was on writing in general, but it is actually a guide for academics to get published or win grants for research. I actually watched about an hour of this, but I began to lose interest, partly because the lecturer, Larry McEnerney, started to annoy me, which I’ll explain briefly later.

    Drilling down and identifying specific problems I have would be interesting, but I don’t have the energy, but I would cite two general problems I had with McEnerney:

    1. The very bottom-line lens by which he views and understands teachers, academics and their writing and thoughts. For example, he says teachers read their students’ writing because “their paid to care what you think.” If I were a teacher, I’d find this highly offensive. Teachers have to be paid for this? They don’t care about their students’ learning and ability to express themselves, unless their paid? Is this the way McEnerney feels? And by “bottom line” I mean this in the monetary, transactional sense.

    2. He sometimes specifies that the writing he has in mind is for a specific audience (i.e., academic communities or funding sources), with a specific purpose (i.e., to get published or receive funding), but at other times he seems to forget this and speaks as if that form of writing is “good,” in a more absolute sense, while traditional writing and reasons for it are “bad.”

    1. Yeah that would be annoying.

      Academics have a weird relationship with language. I’ve said this a lot at work. I’ve said the same thing with “lawyers” replacing “academics.”

      But if this thing is longer than half an hour, no way am I watching it! 🙂

    2. It’s not about academics, so much as writing in a such a way to increase one’s chances of being published or receiving a grant. McEnerney is actually criticizing the way most academics think about writing–how it’s an obstacle to getting published, etc.

      As for watching the video, I didn’t think I would watch as much as I did. I found it interesting, at least for the first 50 minutes or so.

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