Recommendations for July 26, 2015

26 Jul

Kind of a long one this week, so lets get right into it. Fist, while you’re reading you can listen to…

Mix: FACT Mix 505 by Alessandro Cortini

I’m not sure exactly how much of his own imprint Cortini is putting on the tracks here, though I think it must be quite a bit. In any case, it goes from a moody, almost ambient beginning to some stuff with a pretty strong beat toward the end, moving through some pretty diverse source material while remaining cohesive and tonally consistent.


Article: “The Genesis Engine” by Amy Maxmen

The development of CRISPR-Cas9, a technique for manipulating DNA, is possibly the single most important science story of the last decade, and it’s starting to get more coverage in non-scientific (or at least non-specialist) publications. Basically, it allows scientists to precisely target particular segments of DNA and cut the DNA strand at that point. It potentially (and really, “potentially” here means “it’s already been done in the lab”) allows for “editing” of the genetic code of any organism in a way that is not only more precise, but much, much easier. As Maxmen puts it, “Compared to [older methods], this was like trading in rusty scissors for a computer-controlled laser cutter.”

It also allows changes to the “germ line” of a species, meaning changes that will be passed on to offspring, rather than affecting only the particular individual. Maxine discusses, for instance, techniques for making mosquitos more resistant to the plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. Using older methods, you basically had to capture as many as possible, make alterations, and then release them, hoping that an increased number of plasmodium-resistant individuals would lower the overall incidence of malaria enough to make a difference. And you had to keep doing it, because the altered mosquitos wouldn’t pass the resistance on, and mosquitos don’t live very long. Using CRISPR-Cas9, you can theoretically alter the genetic code of every living mosquito— a whole species— and it’s both easier and cheaper to do.

The world has changed. “Genome editing started with just a few big labs putting in lots of effort, trying something 1,000 times for one or two successes,” says Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford. “Now it’s something that someone with a BS and a couple thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can do. What was impractical is now almost everyday. That’s a big deal.”

A big deal, indeed. So, of course, we’re having stupid patent fights about which university should get all the royalties, and more or less failing to have useful discussions about the ethical implications of the technique while researchers in China are messing (unsuccessfully, so far) with human embryos. Haven’t any of these people read a Michael Crichton novel? Pretty much any of them?


Infographic: “The History of Icons” at Futuramo

Fair warning: this ends with what is more or less an ad for the icons this company makes. Despite that, though, it’s interesting, and beautifully presented, showing how icons became more and more “realistic” (and therefore complex) as the power of computers increased, then moved back towards a more “flat,” stylized look as everybody realized that all that realism wasn’t actually very useful. It’s a good lesson in “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” and also made me feel pleasantly nostalgic for Mac OS 7. I had never seen, or even heard of, many of the machines/operating systems presented here, so those were also interesting to see.


Article: “Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers” by Greg Miller

If you’ve read James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State— and you should— you know that policymakers in the Soviet Union were not afraid of big ideas, big projects, big plans. (Of course, if your governing ideology involves the radical recreation of human social relations, that only makes sense.) Less obviously disastrous than most of the projects Scott deals with, but perhaps no less ambitious, were the USSR’s efforts at mapping. Highly secret at the time, and still comparatively little-known, these maps were incredibly detailed, accurate, and packed with information. They’re clearly a relic of the time before everybody had a GPS receiver in their pocket, but they’re also models of good information design, and they provide a window into the concerns and perspectives of Soviet policymakers. For instance, while U.S. military maps from the Cold War were made to serve air power, Soviet maps were made to serve ground forces, and in particular tanks. This is one reason they have far more street-level detail; they were envisioned as a tool for an occupying force on the ground, while U.S. maps just needed to tell the air force where to pull the lever. The Soviets also made maps of places in the U.S. like Galveston, TX and Scranton, PA, which seem to have little military significance but were economically important— again, apparently thinking about achieving and maintaining control after a military victory. Finally, and maybe most interesting to me, Soviet maps were a repository for all kinds of not strictly geographic data, like how far various sounds would carry in particular kinds of terrain. They therefore served as a kind of general database on paper, a way to store all kinds of information that didn’t have any other obvious place to be collected and stored. Since they didn’t know, necessarily, which bits of data would be most useful, they held on to all of it, and found ways to depict it cartographically.

(As a side note, from now on when things aren’t going well, I will indicate distress with the phrase “All my reindeer have perished.”)


Article: “Overpasses: A Love Story” by Michael Grunwald

Over the last couple of years, the Illinois Department of Transportation has been considering various plans for dealing with traffic problems on a stretch of interstate running through the town where I live. One proposal was to extend the Chicago train system further out, allowing people in more distant suburbs to use it; a competing idea was to widen the existing freeway, in the process destroying any number of historically significant structures in the process. They found a middle ground that will add new lanes without doing any demolition, but I was pretty shocked by the idea that we would seriously want to focus on encouraging more people to drive, rather than getting as many cars off the road as we can. I guess I should be glad, though, that they didn’t just build a whole new stretch of freeway, with some kind of massive, complex overpass that would cast the whole town into shadow. Grunwald’s piece— about the continued push, mostly at the state level, for spending on new highway construction, at the expense of not only public transit but also repairs and maintenance for roads that exist— suggests that we got pretty lucky.

Today, we spend more than five times as many federal dollars on roads as we spend on public transit. We spend more building new road capacity than we spend fixing existing roads. Those priorities affect the competitiveness of our economy, the sustainability of our environment, the livability of our cities, and the mobility of the poor, not to mention the amount of time we spend banging our fists on our steering wheels in traffic and the likelihood that our bridges will collapse. But most of our transportation choices aren’t made in Washington. Congress is mostly a pass-through, funneling cash to states with relatively few strings attached.

Grunwald focuses on Milwaukee in part because it has built/is building a number of big, ambitious highway projects, and in part because Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has built his reputation in large part on reducing government spending, but has not only allowed but encouraged these big-ticket projects. The reasons are complicated: part ideology, part lobbying by construction companies, part path-dependence, part simple intransigence— in Milwaukee anyway, at least part racism— but the net effect is billions of dollars on new, complicated highway projects that don’t solve existing problems, and frequently create new ones. It’s also worth noting here that Walker wants to pay for these things with federal money, which is another way of saying that while he resists raising taxes for people in Wisconsin, he’s fine with taxpayers in other states subsidizing these things (and, in fact, with people in Wisconsin paying part of the cost in taxes, as long as the bill comes from the federal government and not the state).

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