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Dead Birds, Data Mining, and Dark Matter

By Livia Gershon

We’re killing all the birds (New York Times)
by John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra
Since 1970, populations of wild birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by a third as humans have wrecked their habitats. Even scarier, we only know this because scientists have been counting birds for a long time. The study probably reflects an even bigger crisis that also includes many species that we don’t monitor as closely.

Data mining your medical records (Wired)
by Megan Molteni
The Mayo Clinic is working with Google on a plan that would mine enormous troves of patient records using AI. The effort could new yield ways to predict and prevent serious disease. It could also be a huge threat to patient privacy.

Studying physics and learning about bias (Public Books)
by Lawrence Ware
Dr. Chandra Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist who does pen-and-paper calculations to advance humanity’s understanding of dark matter. As a black woman, she’s also—perhaps inescapably—become an expert in the impact of racism and sexism in physics.

Why we all need to know statistics (Aeon)
by David Spiegelhalter
What’s the cost of being part of the EU? Just how bad for your health is bacon? Statistics isn’t always taught in ways that help us connect math to real-world problems, but when it is, it can help us understand the world, be better citizens—and even catch a serial killer.

Do strikes work? (The Washington Post)
by Laura C. Bucci
It’s not just the UAW—strikes are on the rise in the U.S. today. And there’s reason to believe they are becoming increasingly effective.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Engagement Is the Enemy of Serendipity

By Dan Cohen

Whenever I’m grumpy about an update to a technology I use, I try to perform a self-audit examining why I’m unhappy about this change. It’s a helpful exercise since we are all by nature resistant to even minor alterations to the technologies we use every day (which is why website redesign is now a synonym for bare-knuckle boxing), and this feeling only increases with age. Sometimes the grumpiness is justified, since one of your tools has become duller or less useful in a way you can clearly articulate; other times, well, welcome to middle age.

The New York Times recently changed their iPad app to emphasize three main tabs, Top Stories, For You, and Sections. The first is the app version of their chockablock website home page, which contains not only the main headlines and breaking news stories, but also an editor-picked mixture of stories and features from across the paper. For You is a new personalized zone that is algorithmically generated by looking at the stories and sections you have most frequently visited, or that you select to include by clicking on blue buttons that appear near specific columns and topics. The last tab is Sections, that holdover word from the print newspaper, with distinct parts that are folded and nested within each other, such as Metro, Business, Arts, and Sports.

Currently my For You tab looks as if it was designed for a hypochondriacal runner who wishes to live in outer space, but not too far away, since he still needs to acquire new books and follow the Red Sox. I shall not comment about the success of the New York Times algorithm here, other than to say that I almost never visit the For You tab, for reasons I will explain shortly. For now, suffice it to say that For You is not for me.

But the Sections tab I do visit, every day, and this is the real source of my grumpiness. At the same time that the New York Times launched those three premier tabs, they also removed the ability to swipe, simply and quickly, between sections of the newspaper. You used to be able to start your morning news consumption with the headlines and then browse through articles in different sections from left to right. Now you have to tap on Sections, which reveals a menu, from which you select another section, from which you select an article, over and over. It’s like going back to the table of contents every time you finish a chapter of a book, rather than just turning the page to the next chapter.

Sure, it seems relatively minor, and I suspect the change was made because confused people would accidentally swipe between sections, but paired with For You it subtly but firmly discourages the encounter with many of the newspaper’s sections. The assumption in this design is that if you’re a space runner, why would you want to slog through the International news section or the Arts section on the way to orbital bliss in the Science and Health sections?

* * *

When I was growing up in Boston, my first newspaper love was the sports section of the Boston Globe. I would get the paper in the morning and pull out that section and read it from cover to cover, all of the columns and game summaries and box scores. Somewhere along the way, I started briefly checking out adjacent sections, Metro and Business and Arts, and then the front section itself, with the latest news of the day and reports from around the country and world. The technology and design of the paper encouraged this sampling, as the unpacked paper was literally scattered in front of me on the table. Were many of these stories and columns boring to my young self? Undoubtedly. But for some reason—the same reason many of those reading this post will recognize—I slowly ended up paging through the whole thing from cover to cover, still focusing on the Sox, but diving into stories from various sections and broadly getting a sense of numerous fields and pursuits.

This kind of interface and user experience is now threatened because who needs to scan through seemingly irrelevant items when you can have constant go-go engagement, that holy grail of digital media. The Times, likely recognizing their analog past (which is still the present for a dwindling number of print subscribers), tries to replicate some of the old newspaper serendipity with Top Stories, which is more like A Bunch of Interesting Things after the top headlines. But I fear they have contradicted themselves in this new promotion of For You and the commensurate demotion of Sections.

The engagement of For You—which joins the countless For Yous that now dominate our online media landscape—is the enemy of serendipity, which is the chance encounter that leads to a longer, richer interaction with a topic or idea. It’s the way that a metalhead bumps into opera in a record store, or how a young kid becomes interested in history because of the book reviews that follow the box scores. It’s the way that a course taken on a whim in college leads, unexpectedly, to a new lifelong pursuit. Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.

Pain, Prohibition, and #CursedImages

By The Editors

An emotional cure for pain (NPR)
by Patti Neighmond
For many chronic pain patients, standard cures do little good. Some are finding that what does help is delving into childhood traumas to reshape mental functioning.

Wait, did Prohibition actually work? (Vox)
by German Lopez
Everyone knows Prohibition failed, right? Actually, for all its problems, banning alcohol reduced drinking, improved some aspects of public health, and may have reduced violent crime. What does this suggest about drug and alcohol policy today?

Why we love to hate #CursedImages (Wired)
by Emma Grey Ellis
On the internet, #CursedImages are everywhere. Why do we click and share photos that disturb, confuse, and horrify us? It has to do with the appeal of novelty and the drive to investigate ambiguity and danger.

How wine shaped Marxism (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
Before Karl Marx was a revolutionary philosopher, he was a heavy-drinking, trouble-making student. In fact, his concern for the vineyards of the Mosel River Valley may have inspired his turn toward economic thinking.

The history of birthright citizenship (The Washington Post)
by Marixa Lasso
Birthright citizenship is under attack in the United States. To understand what that means, we need to look at how the concept was born—in Colombia and other nations emerging from Spanish colonialism—and how it spread to the U.S. That history has a lot to do with fighting racism and coping with the legacy of slavery.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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D-Day, Cricket Gourds, and Modern Lesbians

By The Editors

D-Day tricks and modern spycraft (The Washington Post)
by Danielle Lupton
Tricks and secrecy were crucial elements of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Seventy-five years later, reconnaissance satellites, drones, and social media make a strategy like that impossible to replicate.

Gourds were stages for private cricket concerts (Atlas Obscura)
by Claire Voon
Since the Tang Dynasty, some Chinese people have prized domesticated crickets for their songs. Artisans designed specially grown and intricately decorated gourds with the perfect acoustics to showcase the tiny musicians.

What does it mean to be a “modern lesbian”? (Longreads)
by Jeanna Kadlec
Anne Lister, the inspiration for the show Gentleman Jack, is sometimes called the first modern lesbian. What does that mean for our understanding of Lister and other women who loved, married, and had sex with women before the twentieth century?

Dancing toward understanding (Aeon)
by Kimerer LaMothe
Every human culture has a dance tradition. But why? Imitating and creating movements together may be a key to human survival and continuing adaptation.

Elephants have an astonishing sense of smell (The New York Times)
by Veronique Greenwood
When researchers want to see how well animals can estimate quantities, they typically give them two sets of objects to look at. But elephants can figure it out even with closed containers, just by sniffing with their trunks.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Hospital Bills, Intersectionality, and Civilizational Collapse

By The Editors

Where did that huge hospital bill come from? (The Conversation)
by Simon F. Haeder
Even people with good health insurance keep getting stuck with big medical bills. That’s the result of clashes between huge, consolidated medical and insurance companies where patients’ financial wellbeing can end up as collateral damage.

Intersectionality in theory and practice (Vox)
by Jane Coaston
“Intersectionality” is a buzzword on the left and a punching-bag on the right. But the way it’s represented today often bears little resemblance to its origins as a legal concept developed by the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Just how bad is the collapse of a civilization? (Aeon)
by Luke Kemp
Civilizational collapse sounds like a pretty bad thing, right? Actually, in many historical instances, it may not have been so bad for the masses of people who lived at the bottom rung of civilized societies.

What good is making art? (Pacific Standard)
by Michelle Weldon
For many people busy with work and family responsibilities, the idea of finding the time to make art might seem absurd. But research suggests just how valuable it can be.

Abortion and eugenics revisited (The Atlantic)
by Adam Cohen
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s recent concurring opinion on Indiana’s abortion law warned against abortion’s potential to be a tool of eugenics. But, as the author of a book on eugenics that Thomas cited explains, that’s not really the way that the history of eugenics ties into modern politics.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Public Picks 2019

Each year around this time we send our readers into summer with a curated list of the titles that dazzled, challenged, and inspired us most over the past year. For this, the seventh-annual edition of Public Picks, we’ve asked our editors for the Public Thinker series, Literary Fiction, Higher Education, Children’s & Young Adult Literature, Urbanism, Global Black History, TV, Print/Screen, and...

The post Public Picks 2019 appeared first on Public Books.

Knotweed, Scary Sounds, and Mass Extinctions

By Livia Gershon

The knotweed invasion (Slate)
by Henry Grabar
It tears up homes’ foundations and creeps up through floors, wrecks native ecosystems, and has been accused of contributing to madness. It’s Japanese knotweed, and it’s spreading across much of the country.

Why that soundtrack is so scary (Quartz)
by Adam Epstein
In the soundtracks for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Game of Thrones, you’ve probably noticed that a sustained sound makes listeners tense up in expectation of something very bad. A musicologist explains the many uses of the “drone of dread.”

A million species on the brink (NBC News)
by Denise Chow
Over the past fifty years, species have gone extinct tens to hundreds of times as fast as they typically did over the previous ten million years. A new U.N. report anticipates a million more extinctions in the coming decades.

Is this the first climate change-driven epidemic? (Vox)
by Julia Belluz
Chronic kidney disease is on the rise in Central America—and in India, Southeast Asia, and possibly California and Florida too. Could rising temperatures be to blame?

A 1,000-year-old psychedelic brew (National Geographic)
by Erin Blakemore
A pouch found at an archeological site in Bolivia contains the earliest known materials for an ayahuasca psychoactive brew along the lines of what people in the Amazon basin continue to use today.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Pandas, Potlucks, and Planetary Cooling

By The Editors

For pandas, bamboo is like steak (The Atlantic)
by Ed Yong
Giant pandas can come across like a vegetarian stereotype, dopily chewing bamboo rather than feasting on flesh like their grizzly cousins. But it turns out the bits of bamboo they seek out are less like a salad than a high-protein Impossible Burger, allowing the pandas to feed their carnivore-ish digestive systems.

The potluck is political (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
Since before Stonewall, potluck meals have been a central feature in lesbian political organizing. Cheap food, often served in private settings, has helped catalyze movements of women who lacked financial and social resources in their larger communities.

Could a conspiracy cool the planet? (Pacific Standard)
by Dave Levitan
The world’s nations may never unite to fight climate change. What if a handful of billionaires decided to do it themselves, unilaterally shooting sulfur into the atmosphere to cool the planet, heedless of unintended consequences?

Moon-mania (The New Yorker)
by Rivka Galchen
Fifty years after the first manned moon landing—and forty-seven years after the most recent one—countries and companies around the world are racing to be part of lunar exploration. They are vying for opportunities to do basic scientific research, collect energy and other resources, and build a launch pad into deeper space.

Pursuing resilience by not drowning (Quartz)
by Natasha Frost
Want to cultivate resilience, self-compassion, and coaching skills? A two-minute exercise in your local swimming pool, making use of our instincts for surviving in the water, might help.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here

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Root Canals, Cargo Cults, and Laser Mapping Notre Dame

By The Editors

Do you really need a root canal? (The Atlantic)
by Ferris Jabr
From the over-cautious scheduling of frequent cleanings to horror stories of unnecessary procedures, dental overtreatment is a common problem. Dentistry suffers from too little evidence to support specific procedures and too many incentives to err on the side of doing them anyway.

The myth and reality of cargo cults (Topic)
by Brooke Jarvis
“Cargo cults” were a major topic in twentieth-century anthropology, probably partly because white scholars could see them as proof of their own superior culture. But the term describes a range of real dynamic and complex belief systems, like the understanding of a mysterious man named John Frum in the Republic of Vanuatu.

The laser mapping that could help restore Notre Dame Cathedral (CNN)
by Michelle Lou and Brandon Griggs
In 2015, Vassar College art professor Andrew Tallon mapped Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral using 3D laser scanning. Now, his measurements could help in the restoration of the intricate building.

How drinking held an empire together (Atlas Obscura)
by Reina Gattuso
The South American Wari Empire, which came long before the rise of the Inca, was multiethnic, multilingual, and expansive. To hold the people together, Wari elites held summits at a brewery where leaders of diverse groups shared a spicy alcoholic brew while they talked politics.

Why puberty is starting younger (Scientific American)
by Virginia Sole-Smith
The age that girls enter puberty has dropped significantly in recent decades. Possible reasons include the rising use of plastics, calorie-dense diets, and trauma. The implications for girls’ lives in adolescence and beyond are worrying.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Black Holes, Plastic Bags, and AI Diets

By Livia Gershon

Beyond the black hole picture (FiveThirtyEight)
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
The world’s first picture of a black hole was made possible by some incredible technology and innovative methods of scientific collaboration. The process could change how researchers solve problems on Earth, too.

The trouble with bag bans (NPR)
by Greg Rosalsky
Banning plastic grocery bags is a good solution to unsightly plastic in fences and trees. But when it comes to large-scale environmental problems, the bans run into trouble.

Should you let a computer tell you what to eat? (The Cut)
by Edith Zimmerman
A diet that’s healthy for one person may be a bad idea for someone else. Artificial intelligence could help—if we’re willing to give it enormous amounts of data about ourselves.

Where Sudanese soldiers’ loyalty lies (Washington Post)
by Jean-Baptiste Gallopin
As protest shifts toward all-out popular uprising in Sudan, the outcome of the conflict may come down to which side individual members of military and police forces join. And that, previous conflicts suggest, will depend on who looks most likely to win.

What’s killing black abalone? (Hakai Magazine)
by Drew Harvell
As warming global temperatures and species extinctions disrupt ecosystems, diseases often find ways to spread more easily. In the ocean, where pathogens can swim in the water, it’s a particularly troubling problem.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Cat Names, Doubt Machines, and Christianity’s Future

By The Editors

Cats know more than they let on (Scientific American)
by Jim Daley
A new study finds that cats recognize their own names—at least from the mouths of their human companions. But that doesn’t mean they’ll come when called.

Building a doubt machine (Aeon)
by Hakwan Lau
One way of improving machine learning is pitting a network that generates images against another network that tries to determine whether they’re real or fake. This bears a striking resemblance to the way our minds use sensory perception and preexisting knowledge.

Christianity’s future is African (Quartz)
by Yomi Kazeem
By 2060, six African countries will be home to almost a quarter of the world’s Christians. Already, the growth of Christian institutions, including megachurches that are almost cities, is transforming much of the continent.

Do cooking and cleaning wreck our lungs? (The New Yorker)
by Nicola Twilley
Cooking Thanksgiving dinner generates levels of indoor pollution worse than outdoor air in the most polluted cities. Scientists are just beginning to understand the chemical reactions happening as we go about our days indoors, mopping, cooking, and just breathing.

Don’t worry about scientific literacy (Fivethirtyeight)
by Maggie Koerth-Baker
Did you hear about that survey that shows how many Americans don’t know basic science facts? It turns out it’s not as bad as you might think. More importantly, being science-savvy doesn’t lead to adopting science-backed policy ideas anyway.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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CRISPR Cows, Unscientific Medicine, and New Nuclear Energy

By The Editors

Livestock in the time of CRISPR (Wired)
by Gregory Barber
Emerging genetic engineering techniques could transform cattle and chickens, making the production of animal products more humane, or just more brutally efficient.

The trouble with mental illness (The Atlantic)
by Gary Greenberg
From inducing comas with insulin to prescribing Prozac, psychiatry has always offered solutions to mental illness without a clear model of how they were supposed to work. That’s a problem for practitioners who want to present their work as strictly scientific.

Will nuclear power make a comeback? (Pacific Standard)
by Kate Wheeling
U.S. public opinion turned against nuclear power in the wake of the Three Mile Island crisis. Could the threat of climate change convince us to embrace nuclear energy again?

What does it mean to be educated about sex? (Nursing Clio)
by Joseph Gamble
The new show “Sex Education” reveals how much conventional Sex Ed misses about where sexuality fits into the complicated lives of young people.

The new-body gene (The New York Times)
by Heather Murphy
The master control gene known as E.G.R. helps transform a worm cut into thirds into three worms. It probably won’t help people grow new limbs, or a whole new body, anytime soon, but the possibilities are intriguing.

Got a hot tip about a well-researched story that belongs on this list? Email us here.

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Virtual Roundtable on Fairness in College Admissions

The college admissions scandal exposed criminal and unethical actions that undermine the promise of the American university system. To get ... [none-for-homepage]

The post Virtual Roundtable on Fairness in College Admissions appeared first on Public Books.

What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students

By Dan Cohen

Over the last year, I was fortunate to help guide a study of the news consumption habits of college students, and coordinate Northeastern University Library’s services for the study, including great work by our data visualization specialist Steven Braun and necessary infrastructure from our digital team, including Sarah Sweeney and Hillary Corbett. “How Students Engage with News,” out today as both a long article and accompanying datasets and media, provides a full snapshot of how college students navigate our complex and high-velocity media environment.


This is a topic that should be of urgent interest to everyone since the themes of the report, although heightened due to the more active digital practices of young people, capture how we all find and digest news today, and also points to where such consumption is heading. On a personal level, I was thrilled to be a part of this study as a librarian who wants students to develop good habits of truth-seeking, and as an intellectual historian, who has studied changing approaches to truth-seeking over time.

You should first read the entire report, or at least the executive summary, now available on a special site at Project Information Literacy, with data hosted at Northeastern University Library’s Digital Repository System (where the study will also have its long-term, preserved form). It’s been great to work with, and think along with, the lead study members, including Alison Head, John Wihbey, Pakis Metaxas, and Margy MacMillan.

“How Students Engage with News” details how college students are overwhelmed by the flood of information they see every day on multiple websites and in numerous apps, an outcome of their extraordinarily frequent attention to smartphones and social media. Students are interested in news, and want to know what’s going on, but given the sheer scale and sources of news, they find themselves somewhat paralyzed. As humans naturally do in such situations, students often satisfice in terms of news sources—accepting “good enough,” proximate (from friends or media) descriptions rather than seeking out multiple perspectives or going to “canonical” sources of news, like newspapers. Furthermore, much of what they consume is visual rather than textual—internet genres like memes, gifs, and short videos play an outsized role in their digestion of the day’s events. (Side note: After recently seeing Yale Art Gallery’s show “Seriously Funny: Caricature Through the Centuries,” I think there’s a good article to be written about the historical parallels between today’s visual memes and political cartoons from the past.) Of course, the entire population faces the same issues around our media ecology, but students are an extreme case.

And perhaps also a cautionary tale. I think this study’s analysis and large survey size (nearly 6,000 students from a wide variety of institutions) should be a wake-up call for those of us who care about the future of the news and the truth. What will happen to the careful ways we pursue an accurate understanding of what is happening in the world by weighing information sources and developing methods for verifying what one hears, sees, and reads? Librarians, for instance, used to be much more of a go-to source for students to find reliable sources of the truth, but the study shows that only 7% of students today have consulted their friendly local librarian.

It is incumbent upon us to change this. A purely technological approach—for instance, “improving” social media feeds through “better” algorithms—will not truly solve the major issues identified in the news consumption study, since students will still be overwhelmed by the volume, context, and heterogeneity of news sources. A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential. Along these lines, for example, we’ve greatly increased the number of workshops on digital research, information literacy, and related topics at Northeastern University Library, and students are eager attendees at these workshops. We will continue to find other ways to get out from behind our desks and connect more with students where they are.

Finally, I have used the word “habit” very consciously throughout this post, since inculcating and developing more healthy habits around news consumption will also be critical. Alan Jacobs’ notion of cultivating “temporal bandwidth” is similar to what I imagine will have to happen in this generation—habits and social norms that push against the constant now of social media, and stretch and temper our understanding of events beyond our unhealthily caffeinated present.

Tracking Track Changes

By mkirschenbaum

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For news and updates related to my recently published book, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, please see my Tumblr site.


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Rosenbach Lectures

By mkirschenbaum

I recently gave the 2016 Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography at the University of Pennsylvania, under the collective title of Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage. All three nights are now available for viewing. The book version of the lectures is under contract to the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Transformissions of the Archive: Literary Remainders in the Late Age of Print


The Poetics of Macintosh: Recovering the Digital Poetry of William Dickey and Kamau Brathwaite


The RESTless Book: Bibliography and Bookish Media



Spring Talks

By mkirschenbaum

February 6 I’m running an introduction to MLA Commons for the UMD English department. We’re doing a BitCurator panel on ethics and digital forensics at the Personal Digital Archiving conference February 21-22. I’ll be giving a talk with Wendy Chun at NYU on March 1, both of us speaking under the general rubric of Media Archaeology. I’ll also be doing a workshop the afternoon before the event called “8-Bit DH: Locating the Literary History of Word Processing.” On March 21, I’ll be at McGill University to share current work from Track Changes for their annual Digital Humanities Lecture; something is also shaping up at Concordia the day beforehand, will add details when I have them. On April 5 I’ll be at Library of Congress for their Electronic Literature Showcase. On April 6 I’m one of the plenary speakers for the UMD Graduate English Organization’s conference on “(Dis)Realities and the Literary and Cultural Imagination” (my talk: “What Was Digital Humanities?” On April 25, I’ll be at Yale for the History of the Book Program, and will stay on to speak at the Beinecke’s conference on Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century that weekend.