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Links for Fall 2023
Welcome to the inaugural link post for Perambulations. I’m not very active on other social media, and my love language is sending links, so I thought I’d try posting a choice set of cyber delectations here on a quarterly basis. Without further ado…
Cats are evolutionarily perfect : Some organisms have evolved to occupy a specific environmental niche, while others have evolved to be adaptable. This interview with an evolutionary biologist describes how cats’ extreme specialization for hunting has led them to vary so little except in size. This low level of variation can be interpreted as meaning that no additional adaptations would be beneficial to survival within their niche. I also liked the discussion of how other mammals have “tried to be cats” and how bears are the anti-cats.
Friends don't let friends make bad graphs : Data visualization is a minefield of potential cognitive errors — both for readers and the researcher doing the visualization! This catalog of common visualization faults serves as a useful reminder to consider all the ways your message can be misconstrued because of seemingly mundane choices. Consider it a primer in applied psychology.
Performance of Polygenic Risk Scores in Screening, Prediction, and Risk Stratification : A modeling study that found extremely marginal benefits to polygenic risk scores (PRS) in disease screening. For each test in a catalog of PRS algorithms, Hingorani and colleagues first set a threshold at the point when 5% of unaffected patients would be classified as high risk. Using this threshold to define a high risk group, they found that only 11% of affected patients would be included. The method was clever, but ultimately seemed to misunderstand that unaffected people are always going to way outnumber affected people in a screening population. Rather than looking purely at the number of false positives, a full consideration of the value of PRS would need to consider what action is taken to mitigate elevated risk: if high risk people get a statin prescription, it’s one thing, but if high risk means an invasive procedure it’s another. This paper also took the step of determining how much a PRS adds to established clinical markers of risk and here it was more convincing. It found that an additional 6,000 to 9,000 people would need to have PRS done to avert a single adverse cardiac event. As genetic testing becomes cheaper, that may become worthwhile, but for now, it’s a strike against the idea of population-wide risk stratification using PRS.
Lupin’s oral contraceptive is called Kurvelo. This is also, very unfortunately, the Serbo-Croatian word for “whore.”
In vivo photopharmacology with light-activated opioid drugs : These researchers developed methods for “caged” opioids to bypass the blood-brain barrier and then be activated within the brain by light pulses sent through fiberoptic implants. This is an important advance, since most side effects come from the activation of off-target receptors. If drugs can be administered in a benign form and precisely activated at the site where they’re needed, it could improve their effectiveness by allowing for greater concentrations. This is especially true in cancer, where toxicity to non-cancer tissues is a major limitation.
Who can claim Palestine? : A compelling case that there is no ethically consistent answer to the question of whose land it is.
Bentham's mugging : Should a utilitarian give a mugger $10 if that mugger credibly said they’d cut their finger off unless they got the money? An exploration of all the loopholes needed to make utilitarianism seem consistent. I’ve long been drawn to utilitarianism, but am increasingly convinced that it’s not suitable for individuals. Only institutions can (and probably should) meaningfully strive towards utilitarianism.
Anxiety, credit cards, and meth: When did fragrances get so abstract? : If I hadn’t ended up a data scientist, I might’ve become a perfumer. I have a very acute sense of smell and am endlessly fascinated by how scent affects us. My personal favorite weird perfume is Bruno Fazzolari’s Room 237, which features “a bracing vinyl shower curtain note followed by a supernatural green-floral accord that includes wild fleabane and estragon” — all in a bizarre olfactory tribute to Kubrick’s The Shining.
Link #9 is also a nod to the topic of my next planned essay, which is about how olfaction and cognition are intertwined. I’ll see you then.
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