This week’s staff picks

ASBMB Today Staff
By ASBMB Today Staff
January 25, 2020

At the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, we love to read as much as we love to write. We also love to talk about what we’re reading. Our office is always buzzing (either with not-so-hushed voices or the ping of email delivery notifications) as we share the inspiring, emotionally compelling, fascinating or simply funny articles or videos we can’t put down or stop watching/scrolling through. So, we figured, why not keep the conversation going?

Here’s a compilation of what our staff has been reading this week. Enjoy, and feel free to tweet us (@ASBMB) your thoughts.

Growing up behind bars (Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, CNS & PBS NewsHour)

This is a powerful project. It delves into the history of how large numbers of juveniles in Maryland were sentenced to life in adult prisons without parole during the “tough-on-crime political climate” of the 1990s. Reporters at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism talked to those impacted by this policy and whose future is still uncertain. I was moved by the experiences of prisoners, advocates who work to build bridges of forgiveness between perpetrators and family members of victims, and former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who says he regrets his “life means life” policy. This multimedia project follows the thread of each experience and weaves them together to create a multidimensional story about forgiveness, compassion and justice.

— Allison Frick, multimedia and social media content manager

Form follows function (Guggenheim Museum class syllabus)

Form follows function according to some; according to others, they should be united in one spiritual union. This course description follows Frank Lloyd Wright and the principle of form follows function in the design and building of the Guggenheim Museum. It discusses the way the building gently pushes and pulls you to discover the museum’s preordained path, whether you’re aware of it or not. Who could be more brilliant than Frank Lloyd Wright? Enjoy.

— Lisa Schnabel, senior designer

When is a bird a ‘birb’? An extremely important guide (Asher Elbein, Audubon Magazine)

Full disclosure: I read this over the holidays, so it’s not super fresh. But it’s so hilarious that I feel others who don’t know about it should know about it. OK, so here’s the deal. Those of us who spend even a little time on Twitter think nothing of funny spellings for animals. Gibberish like “doggo” and “smol fren,” as in “My doggo made a smol fren,” makes total sense once you’re exposed to it enough. Same goes for “birb,” which is a particular kind of bird (not a species or anything, but a bird with certain qualities, such as cuteness and fluffiness), according to this “extremely important guide.” I hate to give away much more of the criteria, but let me just give the author props for creativity and integrating multimedia. You can listen to the calls of many of the birbs mentioned in the piece. So clever.

— Angela Hopp, communications director and ASBMB Today executive editor

The secretive company that might end privacy as we know it (Kashmir Hill, New York Times)

The biggest lie tech people tell themselves — and the rest of us (Rose Eveleth, Vox)

The company Clearview has developed a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street — or participate in any act of public life — anonymously. The little-known startup, which scrapes search engine–linked photos and uses a self-described neural net to convert those images into vectors based on facial geometry, is magnitudes more effective at turning up matches to a suspect’s image than the image databases that police departments have used for decades. It’s also far more invasive than the facial-recognition software being developed by companies including Amazon, running roughshod over user privacy policies to compile a database of more than 3 billion images scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites. The company has found wild success partnering with law enforcement, with more than 600 agencies using the software in the past year.

Tech companies such as Clearview pitch facial recognition and the surveillance devices that make it possible as if they’re an inevitability — if their company doesn’t develop it, somebody else will. These claims often tout accelerationism, borrowing the language of evolution to assert their development as “natural” — a framing that futurologist Rose Eveleth vivisects as both the embrace of a poor metaphor and an American infatuation with the allure of progress.

John Arnst, science writer

Lottery underway for spinal muscular atrophy gene therapy (Lisa Winter, The Scientist)

Novartis has designed a global program to increase the availability of its breakthrough spinal muscular atrophy drug (incidentally, the most expensive the FDA has ever approved) to 100 patients who live in countries where the drug has not yet been approved. It’s a lottery: Parents of SMA patients under age 2 can sign them up for a chance to receive a gene therapy that restores some SMN1 function.

Pharmaceutical companies are grappling with how to provide access to medications that show potential for changing patients’ lives but cost a great deal to manufacture safely and reproducibly. Novartis reports that it worked with bioethicists to come up with the best way of distributing limited supplies. (The drug is expensive for good reason. Anyone who has ever prepared lenti in the lab knows the travails of variable transfection and viral titer ... and that’s before we get to the safety questions that arise when you’re dosing humans instead of a dish full of cells.) Still, it’s difficult to imagine being a parent faced with enrolling a child with a lethal genetic disorder in a lottery for treatment.

If you’d like to know more about the lottery’s mechanics, Fierce Pharma has the details.

Laurel Oldach, science communicator

Gourmet makes (Bon Appétit on YouTube)

Have you ever stopped to think how Skittles are made?  Did it occur to you that the process might resemble an old-fashioned taffy pull?  This is the kind of creative problem-solving you find on this YouTube series about re-creating (and improving) junk food.  I’m a little late to this particular party — the first of these videos appears to date back to summer 2017 — but that means I can binge three or four on a Friday night when I want to watch something silly/serious — like how to keep Cheetos from going flat in the fryer. Host Claire Saffitz, a pastry chef, approaches her job with alternating enthusiasm and exasperation as her Bon Appétit co-workers wander in and out to taste and critique her efforts. Some of the best moments involve destroying kitchen equipment to create specialized tools.

— Comfort Dorn, ASBMB Today managing editor

ASBMB Today Staff
ASBMB Today Staff

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