What I'm Reading (Aug. 27)

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On tap this time around: Is natural always best, or even better? ... Channeling Rod Serling on digital clutter ... "Slow down, you move too fast" ... How do penguins survive the winter? ... And, can food coloring help against COVID-19?

“It’s an easy conclusion, often appropriate. Given a choice, most people gravitate toward the natural over the artificial. After all, natural environments are preferable to garbage dumps, natural foods are nearly always healthier than stuff concocted in a chemistry lab. Yet it needs to be said loud and clear: Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good. “Smallpox is natural,” Ogden Nash noted. “Vaccine ain’t.” Gangrene, acne, hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19—all bona fide natural.”

This essay, Just Because It’s Natural Doesn’t Mean It’s Good, from Nautil.us, is a look at evolution and ethics. As the author goes on to point out, “Evolution is a wonderful thing to learn about, a terrible thing to learn from.”

“It was all so enchanting at first, the very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.” 

Cal Newport spends a great deal of time decrying digital clutter, and I am happy that he does. I remain a big believer in flow, those moments in the OR or keyboard, where you are entirely caught up on being there, rather than the doing of typing or operating. In this blog post, Ray Bradbury Got It Exactly Right, he doesn’t so much channel Bradbury as quote him from a prescient story from 1953. What is that saying – the more things change, the more they stay the same?

“Why hadn’t we stockpiled key supplies and machines, built up hospital capacity, or ensured the robustness of our supply chains? The reason, of course, is that it would have been seen as inefficient and profit-robbing. Money spent on masks and gowns gathering dust in a warehouse could always be put to more ‘productive’ use in the marketplace. Likewise, employing more people than needed under ‘ordinary’ circumstances, or making products yourself rather than relying on international supply chains, would have been seen as inefficient. One lesson, then, is that to be better prepared next time, we need to learn to live less ‘efficiently’ in the here and now.”

Perhaps it is my age, but I am increasingly drawn to the idea of slowing down enough to enjoy the view, or letting a bit of inefficiency guide my day. From Aeon, Why efficiency is dangerous and slowing down makes life better

Animals have evolved to protect against the cold in myriad ways. Whales insulate with blubber. Bison congregate near geothermal springs. Black bears shelter in caves. And emperor penguins, facing Antarctica’s subzero temperatures and gale-force winds, huddle.   

“A penguin huddle looks like organized chaos,” said François Blanchette, a  mathematician at the University of California, Merced. “Every penguin acts individually, but the end result is an equitable heat distribution for the whole community.”

It turns out that penguins execute their huddles with a high degree of mathematical efficiency

From Quanta, Math of the Penguins

And finally, a bit of contrarian “wisdom?” What happens when you aerosolize FDA-approved food coloring. Some might argue that it puts “bad chemicals” into the air; these scientists found that it might neutralize virus particles in the air. From The Conversation, A potential new weapon in the fight against COVID-19: Food coloring