More evidence of the damage from social isolation

Via Sciencedaily, I see that researchers discover a specific brain circuit damaged by social isolation during childhood

Loneliness is recognized as a serious threat to mental health. Even as our world becomes increasingly connected over digital platforms, young people in our society are feeling a growing sense of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many countries to implement social distancing and school closures, magnifies the need for understanding the mental health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. While research has shown that social isolation during childhood, in particular, is detrimental to adult brain function and behavior across mammalian species, the underlying neural circuit mechanisms have remained poorly understood.

The ScienceDaily article is referring the research published in the paper A prefrontal–paraventricular thalamus circuit requires juvenile social experience to regulate adult sociability in mice in Nature Neuroscience, which unfortunately is behind of a paywall.

As is clear from both the extract I posted before, this is a study using a mouse model, so we should be careful to not draw too many conclusions from it yet. Yet, it does add to the generally accepted idea that social isolation can be harmful.

I think the ScienceDaily COVID-19 angle is problematic, as most people don’t experience total social isolation, but instead  experience limited social interactions and the use of technological solutions to keep contact with other people. Rather, I think the subject is more relevant for people kept in isolation in jails or refugee detention centers around the world. Here, the article is adding more fuel to the argument that isolation is a human rights violation.

When will the world speak out against Kagame?

The Economist has an article (behind a paywall) about how the humanitarian hero who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda has been arrested and accused for terrorism and genocide denial in Rwanda, due to him speaking out against Paul Kagame who rules Rwanda.

Mr Rusesabagina’s courage inspired a film, “Hotel Rwanda”. America awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, commending his “remarkable courage and compassion in the face of genocidal terror”. Some compared Mr Rusesabagina to Oskar Schindler, who risked his life saving Jews during the Holocaust. Yet in Mr Kagame’s Rwanda, Mr Rusesabagina is now portrayed as the equivalent of a Nazi fugitive, who must be abducted and brought home to justice (see article).

Although Mr Rusesabagina initially won official plaudits in Rwanda, too, this changed after he criticised Mr Kagame for rigging elections and spoke of entering politics. Government officials swiftly (and absurdly) accused him of genocide denial, a crime in Rwanda. Mr Rusesabagina disappeared after flying to Dubai. He reappeared a few days later in manacles in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. His family says he was kidnapped. Rwanda says he was arrested “through international co-operation”.

Getting thrown into jail or even killed is a common fate of people who criticize Paul Kagame and his rule.

As the Economist says:

Western governments occasionally tut at Mr Kagame’s abuses, but they also sell arms and provide aid to his government. They see Rwanda as an island of stability in a volatile region and him as a leader who gets things done. Yet 26 years after he first shot his way to power, he seems ever less constrained. His authoritarianism, once deemed by many a necessary evil to hold the country together, now risks pushing it back towards conflict. And that, in Rwanda, is a terrifying thought

Thinking back, it is hard for me to thinking of the last time I have heard the rest of the world criticize the totalitarian and undemocratic behavior of Paul Kagame and his regime.

The UK Skeptic magazine changes editorial team

On the latest Skeptics with a K the hosts broke the news that the Skeptic magazine, the UK version, has made some changes. More precisely the Merseyside Skeptics Society has take over the production, and Michael Marshall has take the job as edition, while Dr. Alice Howarth takes the role as deputy edition. I  am unsure if this is a new thing as well, but the magazine will be entirely online.

These changes bode well for the future of the Skeptics magazine in the UK. The Merseyside Skeptics Society hosts QED together with the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society, and have been one of the most effective skeptic groups in the world, especially while collaborating with the Good Thinking Society, in which Michael Marshall is the deputy director.

Go visit and read the Skeptic over at their website. If you want to support the online magazine, they have a Patreon.

 

 

Lazy linking – tech edition

I thought I’d share a few links about tech related stuff that I have found interesting in recent times.

Extreme Programming Creator Kent Beck: Tech Has a Compassion Deficit

Before, Beck saw technologists as “us” and management as “them,” he said. Now, he is “them,” and his view has changed.

“I do my one-on-one coaching, but I’m also in the room helping make strategic decisions with very little information, and I’ve gained a lot of respect and empathy for those decision-makers,” he said. “As a punk-ass programmer, I’d grumble about ‘management.’ Well, they have a job to do, and it’s a really difficult job.”

So, the capital-M management is alright with him. But that doesn’t mean Beck’s view of tech leadership is entirely rosy. Many of his anxieties about the tech industry center on power players and their evolving stances on issues like remote compensation, racial justice and content moderation.

“Not a lot makes me hopeful,” he said. “You caught me in isolation [due to COVID-19 precautions]. So this is not my day for bright sunshine.”

Kent Beck was the creator of eXtreme Programming (XP), which is probably the most programmer friendly agile methodology, and which has come up with many of the techniques and tools which is widely used in systems development today. I found this interview interesting because it shows how Kent Beck has evolved and shifted his focus to a much broader perspective than in earlier days.

For doubters of agile, there is also a great question/answer:

You signed the Agile Manifesto almost 20 years ago. How do you feel about agile now?

It’s a devastated wasteland. The life has been sucked out of it. It’s a few religious rituals carried out by people who don’t understand the purpose that those rituals were intended to serve in the first place.

I think he is a bit too pessimistic, but I also understand where he is coming from. From those of us, who have used agile for many years, it is some times scary to realize how little has improved over the years, and how little understanding there is of the ideas behind agile. When I try to explain to people that one of the main strengths of agile is rapid feedback, they all too often fail to understand that this is not just about implementing automatic testing (though that is a given), but also on making measurements and giving outsides the chance of providing feedback – either directly or through their behavior.

Agile and Architecture: Friend, not Foe

Continuing in the realm of agile, here is an article that is really partly a sales pitch for a book. Still worth reading nevertheless.

As an architect, I am frequently asked about the role that architecture can play in environments that practice agile development methods. The core assumption behind this question is usually that agile teams don’t need architecture or at least don’t need architects.

I once took a course by Kevlin Henney called Architecture with Agility, which went into how software architecture and agility could co-exist. One of the major points in the course, is that good architecture is a function over time. Things that were good decisions at one stage, can turn into being bad decisions later, when things change. As a natural consequences of this, you want to defer decisions as long as possible.

Gregor Hohpe seems to be making the same point, but he also makes the excellent point that software architecture allows you to defer certain decisions, until you have the knowledge to make it.

I have ordered his book, and am looking forward to reading it.

Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing

We all have biases, and my bias regarding blockchain is that it is an over-hyped technology which has been born out of a completely useless idea (crypto currency). There are many reasons why I feel this way, but I don’t think I have seen any article describe my feelings about the technology as well as this article by Jesse Frederik.

I’ve been hearing a lot about blockchain in the last few years. I mean, who hasn’t? It’s everywhere.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought: but what is it then, for God’s sake, this whole blockchain thing? And what’s so terribly revolutionary about it? What problem does it solve?

That’s why I wrote this article. I can tell you upfront, it’s a bizarre journey to nowhere. I’ve never seen so much incomprehensible jargon to describe so little. I’ve never seen so much bloated bombast fall so flat on closer inspection. And I’ve never seen so many people searching so hard for a problem to go with their solution.

I am sure that many blockchain fans can point to examples in the article where it is unfair, but it doesn’t change the overall message. Blockchain is, at its current state, completely over-hyped and largely useless. The article kindly doesn’t mention goes into this, but the performance issues of blockchain technology makes it useless at its current state, and it seems like the only solution to the performance problems is to basically redefine the basic premises of how permissions should work (see e.g. Performance and Scalability of BlockchainNetworks and Smart Contracts (pdf).

Lazy linking – there is a lot going on

As everyone else, I am somewhat overwhelmed at the moment, and find it hard to find the time to write blogposts – instead I am fairly active on twitter, where I can be found under the handle Kriswager.

One of the big issues have been the BLM movement and the push-back on police violence. During this, the police has amply demonstrated that they don’t care about basic human rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of press, and a number of other fundamental principles of a society.

I could post hundreds of links on this subject, but here is one that I have come across recently.

Beverly Hills facing criticism after arrests of 28 peaceful protesters

Beverly Hills is facing criticism after officers arrested 28 people during a peaceful protest against police violence overnight, two weeks after imposing an unusual ordinance banning demonstrations in residential areas that “disrupted the tranquility.”

The latest protest, which began about 7:30 p.m. Friday and drew about 75 people, was the third demonstration in Beverly Hills organized by the Black Future Project, but the first that resulted in arrests, said organizer Austin Tharpe, 29.

The whole concept of an ordinance banning demonstrations in certain type of areas is fundamentally at odds with democratic concepts like the right to assembly.

On great product of the BLM movement and the talk about racism, is how people are stepping forward with stories about discrimination in workplaces, many of which are considered progressive.

Black Influencers Shortchanged By Big Brands Are Starting To Talk

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, as a new wave of Black Lives Matters activism ripples around the Black community and the world, Black people are choosing to speak up about the way we are treated in society and workplace.

People are lifting the lid on structural and institutional racism in their companies, on microaggressions in the office, and on the substantial career blocks and pay gaps they have faced in comparison with their white counterparts.

And what’s true of traditional careers is also true for Black influencers.

It is easy to dismiss the problems of influencers, since it can some times be hard to figure out what they are doing for the money that they get, but it should be a fundamental principle – no matter the job – that you should get equal pay for equal work (with clout as a factor in this case).

How to Know You’re Not Insane (And how a Cards Against Humanity Staff Writer was fired.)

This story is scary. A lone Black employee starts speaking out against racism at Cards Against Humanity, and they manage to get him committed to a mental ward (though pressure on his family). When he managed to get out again (not as easy as it sounds), he came back and got fired shortly after.

Cards Against Humanity has a progressive reputation much like e.g. Southpark, and the company is certainly progressive, when it e.g. comes to stand against Trump’s border wall. Unfortunately, as the article shows, they are progressive only when it comes to actions outside the company, not within the company.

I have always found Cards Against Humanity fake-edgy and faux-progressive, so I am not really that surprised by these news – other than the fact that it is possible to get people committed under such circumstances. That is a system ripe for misuse, as was the case here.

Popular YouTube channel FBE turns out to be racist

FBE is behind the popular kids/teens/college kids/adults/elders react channels, where a, often quite diverse, group of people react to something. FBE stands for Fine Brothers Entertainment, and the organization came out in support of BLM, which made several people remark on the fact that the founders, and owners, the Fine Brothers, had made racist sketches in the past, wearing blackface.

This is not the first time FBE has come under fire for being racist and sexist – most noteworthy was an anonymous article by a former FBE employee from last year.

A lot of people involved with FBE steps forward and share their stories about the problems at the place, leading to a number of popular reactors (people participating in the react videos) announcing that they are leaving. Others publish the fact that they were already in the process of leaving.

The link in the header takes you to a timeline of what have happened with loads of links.

Black Employees, Don’t Sign Away Your Right to Speak Out

[A]s we hold companies accountable when they share “we believe Black Lives Matter” statements, we must demand that black people feel empowered to share their stories of feeling sidelined, ignored and racially discriminated against. I stand with the labor activists, like the unions representing Condé Nast employees, who are calling for the ban of NDAs in such cases. I stand with my black peers like Tiffany Wines, who recently broke her NDA to publicly recount her painful experiences while working for Complex magazine.

After you leave a toxic work environment, not caving in to a “hush your mouth” document makes it better for the next black person. You can leave the door cracked with a detailed note. The bright and eager food editors have a right to know the names of allies, and the best office location to say a little prayer when times are rocky.

Not related to work, but rather to life outside work, Corina Newsome writes in the Audubon Magazine and tells fellow birders about life as a black birder in It’s Time to Build a Truly Inclusive Outdoors

It’s early April and American Woodcocks have begun twilight mating displays, making whistling, twirling falls from the sky. You’ve seen them before with friends, but to abide by social distancing rules you decide on a solo trip. Then you recall the sound of gravel behind you as a police car followed you to a trail head the other day. You quickly but calmly grabbed your binoculars and pointed them to a nearby tree. Not because you saw a bird, but to prove your innocence—to de-escalate what you feared could unfold. It’s cold outside and will be colder tonight when the woodcocks dance. You should layer up with your hoodie, but you know how that makes you look. Especially at night. Especially alone. You decide it’s better not to go.

If anyone ever is in doubt about the systematic, widespread racism in the US, articles like this clearly demonstrates how every aspect of the life of Black people in the US is affected. It is well past time it is addressed.

Unsurprisingly to everyone, the Trump administration keeps on proving to be horrible.

Federal officials allowed distribution of COVID-19 antibody tests after they knew many were flawed

Federal officials failed to immediately stop the distribution of many COVID-19 antibody tests they knew were flawed, leading to inaccurate data about the spread of the virus. Congress is now investigating why the FDA did not review the tests it allowed to be distributed widely throughout the U.S

This won’t surprise anyone remotely aware of what Antifa is, but it will certainly come as a surprise to both the US president and to many people living in conservative areas, fearing the great perils coming from Antifa.

White nationalist group posing as antifa called for violence on Twitter

A Twitter account claiming to belong to a national “antifa” organization and pushing violent rhetoric related to ongoing protests has been linked to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, according to a Twitter spokesperson.

It is a common tactic of the far-right to make fake profiles claiming to belonging to organizations that they are against. Some times these profiles are persons, but quite often they are supposed to be the actual organizations themselves. The tactic is more successful with leaderless organizations, like Anonymous and the Occupy Movement, and non-organizations like Antifa.

A couple of science related things.

Ethical and privacy considerations for research using online fandom data

As online fandom continues to grow, so do the public data created by fan creations and interactions. With researchers and journalists regularly engaging with those data (and not always asking permission), many fans are concerned that their content might end up in front of the wrong audience, which could lead to privacy violations or even harassment from within or outside of fandom. To better understand fan perspectives on the collection and analysis of public data as a methodology, we conducted both an interview study and a survey to solicit responses that would help provide a broader understanding of fandom’s privacy norms as they relate to the ethical use of data. We use these findings to revisit and recommend best practices for working with public data within fandom.

This article by Brianna Dym and Casey Fiesler seems much needed, and honestly isn’t just a necessary read for scientists doing research, but also, as they mention, the journalists writing about fandoms.

It’s Time to Abandon the “Classical Twin Method” in Behavioral Research

Twin studies supply the “scientific evidence” most often cited in support of the claim that human behavioral differences are strongly influenced by heredity. Yet genetic interpretations of twin studies of behavior, including areas such as IQ, personality, criminality (antisocial behavioral), schizophrenia, and depression are based on the acceptance of highly questionable or even false assumptions. I am compelled to keep writing about this because these studies have not gone away, despite the critics’ airtight arguments that indicate that they should have gone away a long time ago.

Twin studies are one of the common arguments used by evolutionary psychologists, and like everything else evo-psychologists use, they are deeply flawed at best, worthless in general.

New research reveals what made Danes stay home, and what didn’t

In a new study, researchers have shown how recommendations to maintain social distancing affect our behaviour. An experiment conducted among Danish residents at the peak of the pandemic reveals that reminders to stay home only affect people in poor health. The ensuing lessons about human behaviour can be crucial for campaigns in the second phase of the corona virus crisis.

It is worth remembering that Denmark is one of the success stories, but it seems like it wasn’t because of public appeals, but rather due to public restrictions. Most people were forced to work from home, which is considered a key factor in how Denmark got the spread under control.

Links to good causes

A lot of people are posting some great links to petitions, organizations, and fund raisers, helping BLM and other great organizations. I thought I’d post some links to some other great causes.

Code cooperative

The Code Cooperative is a community of people who learn, use, and build technology to create life changing possibilities for individuals and communities impacted by incarceration.

This initiative seems like a good way to have a lasting impact on the people it helps.

Modest Needs

Many, perhaps most, Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and is just one bad incident away from not being able to pay essential bills. The incident could be getting sick with COVID-19, having the car break down, or something else. Modest needs help such people stay afloat, often saving them from getting evicted, getting their power or phone cut of, or loosing their jobs.

In these pandemic times, the need for help is higher than ever.

Doners Choose

Founded in 2000 by a high school teacher in the Bronx, DonorsChoose empowers public school teachers from across the country to request much-needed materials and experiences for their students. Right now there are thousands of classroom requests that you can help bring to life with a gift of any amount.

It is amazing that it is necessary in a rich country like the US, but all too many schools are dependent on teachers buying supplies out of their own wages and/or people donating money and things. Unsurprisingly, this especially affects schools with many POC.

 

A bit of radio-silence

As people might have noticed, I have been fairly quiet since the whole COVID-19 pandemic started in Europe. It is not because I have been sick, but rather it is because I have been very, very busy working on some essential IT-systems, used while paying compensation to Danish companies in the lock-down.

Obviously, I cannot talk too much about it, but it has been challenging to work on such systems in an ever-changing world.

But I consider myself lucky – I have had something really meaningful to do, which has been beneficial to a lot of people, at a time where others have lost their job, or haven’t been able to do their daily job.

We are not quite out of the COVID-19 crisis yet, not even in Denmark, where we have started to open up again, and I am not quite out of this extra-ordinary work situation just yet, but things are quieting down, and I hope to post more often.

This is why you cancel conferences in times like this

A facebook friend posted this link to an overview of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Cases in MA (pdf link), and pointed out that three quarters of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts are attributable to a conference in Boston for a company called Biogen.

NBC Boston has more: After Spreading Coronavirus, Boston Biogen Meeting Serves as Stark Warning

As the NBC Boston link says, this should serve as a warning. Don’t hold these large gatherings while a pandemic is going on. It will create a easy path for the virus to spread, making it more likely it will get in contact with vulnerable people.

 

Shutdown of Denmark

After a few weeks of trying to contain the COVID-19 through placing people in quarantine, the Danish government took much more drastic measures the last couple of days.

  • New time-limited emergency laws have been put in place, allowing:
    • The closing of schools and other institutes of learning, as well as public institutions in general
    • Forcing people into isolation if they have a dangerous disease
    • Allowing police to force their way into homes without a court order, if the Ministry of Health asks them to do so
    • Prohibiting events over a certain size
    • To put aside certain laws guaranteeing treatments for certain ailments within a certain time frame
    • Make it possible to limit access to public transportation, hospitals, and nursery homes
    • Create protective measures that guarantees delivery of goods
  • All public schools, high schools and places of higher education is shut down for two weeks from tomorrow (most closed down today)
  • All public cultural institutions (e.g. museums), libraries etc are closed down for two weeks
  • All state employees working in non-critical roles are sent home with pay for the next two weeks. If they can work from home, they should do so, otherwise they will get a paid leave.
  • Courts have closed down for the next two weeks, except in exceptional situations
  • The travel from certain places (Italy, Iran, China, parts of South Korea, different parts of Europe) are restricted, in the sense that you are forced to a mandatory examination
  • The government has asked for all events with more than 100 people to cancel the next two weeks
  • The government has suggested that cafe, restaurants, and bars consider closing down the next two weeks
  • The government has asked everybody to try to limit their travel on public transportation, especially during peak hours
  • The government has suggested that all private schools, high schools, and institutes of learning close down the next couple of weeks
  • The government has asked all private employers to get their employees to work from home or use their vacation if possible
  • The government has suggested that private religious congregations, museums etc close down for the next two weeks

As you can see, the actions taken are quite far-reaching, and affect most Danes. Personally, I will be working from home the next two weeks, communication with colleagues via the internet. For a lot of introverts, this probably sounds fantastic, for me, as an extrovert, it is not something I look forward to.

I am not too happy about the temporary law allowing the police to force their way into homes without a court order on behalf of the Ministry of Health, but I guess I can see the need for it under certain circumstances. If it is misused, the police and/or the Ministry of Health can be dragged in front of a court (unlike in some countries, people actually occasionally win over the state in Denmark).

The reason the Danish government is taking these actions, is because the spread of the virus was getting out of control, and because the Italian health minister warned Denmark that they needed to take drastic actions to avoid getting into a similar situations as Italy.

The measures taken is an attempt to both try to limit the spreading of the disease and to protect the most vulnerable. Before this, the idea was to contain the virus through asking people to go into quarantine – this clearly didn’t work, as the spread has more than doubled every day this week.

Generally, the steps taken by the government are widely supported, though a large minority believe that the whole threat is overblown. None of the later group appears to be working in health care or similar.

For more coverage, see The Local which has made the article free to read.

42

Tomorrow it is the International Women’s Day, and I have a couple of posts planned for that, but I also want to note that according to The Economist tomorrow is the 42th birthday of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

EVERY YEAR the world celebrates the anniversaries of masterworks and maestros. In 2020 there will be a host of events and publications commemorating the lives of Ludwig van Beethoven, Raphael, Charles Dickens, Anne Brontë and William Wordsworth. Such milestones usually come in neat multiples of 50. The 42nd anniversary of anything is rarely observed.

Yet on March 8th fans of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (“HHGTTG”) will pay tribute to the comedy science-fiction series, which had its radio premiere on that day in 1978 and was subsequently adapted into novels, TV series, video games and a film. To mark the occasion, Pan Macmillan has reprinted the scripts and novels in colourful new editions (“HHGTTG” was the first book published under their “Pan Original” imprint to sell more than 1m copies). The British Library will host a day of “celebrations, conversation and performance”. BBC Radio 4 has aired the original episodes; Radio 4 Extra will put on a “five-hour Hitchhiker’s spectacular” including archival material and specially commissioned programmes. Such is the enduring interest in Douglas Adams’s story that it is due to be adapted into a new television series by Hulu, a streaming service.

I first read Hitchhiker’s Guide in the Danish edition when I was a teen (it was published in Danish as Håndbog for vakse galakse-blaffere in 1985), a couple of years later in the English edition, and I have re-read it multiple times since then. It is at least 5 years since I last read it, so it is probably time to dust it off, and re-read it again (together with the sequels).

As most of you probably know, the Hitchhiker’s Guide didn’t start out as a book, but rather as a radio comedy, and has been turned into a TV series, several other radio shows, a movie, stage plays, vinyls, comics, and of course, a book (with sequels). I think the book is the best medium, but no matter what you medium you prefer, take a moment to appreciate the fact that Douglas Adams created this fantastic work 42 years ago.