Does the data we produce serve us, or vice versa?


You’ve heard the argument before: Genes are the permanent aristocracy of evolution, looking after themselves as fleshy hosts come and go. That’s the thesis of a book that, last year, was christened the most influential science book of all time: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

But we humans actually generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and we carry much of it into the future. The data outside of our biological selves—call it the dataome—could actually represent the grander scaffolding for complex life. The dataome may provide a universally recognizable signature of the slippery characteristic we call intelligence, and it might even teach us a thing or two about ourselves.

It is also something that has a considerable energetic burden. That burden challenges us to ask if we are manufacturing and protecting our dataome for our benefit alone, or, like the selfish gene, because the data makes us do this because that’s what ensures its propagation into the future.

Take, for instance, William Shakespeare.

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Who’s in charge?: The bard has become a living part of the human dataome.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and his body was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His now-famous epitaph carries a curse to anyone who dares “move my bones.” And as far as we know, in the past 400 years, no one has risked incurring Will’s undead wrath.

But he has most certainly lived on beyond the grave. At the time of his death Shakespeare had written a total of 37 plays, among other works. Those 37 plays contain a total of 835,997 words. In the centuries that have come after his corporeal life an estimated 2 to 4 billion physical copies of his plays and writings have been produced. All of those copies have been composed of hundreds of billions of sheets of paper acting as vessels for more than a quadrillion ink-rich letters.

We have been pumping out persistent data since our first oral exchange of a good story.

Across time these billions of volumes have been physically lifted and transported, dropped and picked up, held by hand, or hoisted onto bookshelves. Each individual motion has involved a small expenditure of energy, maybe a few Joules. But that has added up across the centuries. It’s possible that altogether the simple act of human arms raising and lowering copies of Shakespeare’s writings has expended well over 4 trillion Joules of energy. That’s equivalent to combusting several hundred thousand kilograms of coal.

Additional energy has been utilized every time a human has read some of those 835,997 words and had their neurons fire. Or spoken them to a rapt audience, or spent tens of millions of dollars to make a film of them, or turned on a TV to watch one of the plays performed, or driven to a Shakespeare festival. Or for that matter bought a tacky bust of “the immortal bard” and hauled it onto a mantelpiece. Add in the energy expenditure of the manufacture of paper, books, and their transport and the numbers only grow and grow.

It may be impossible to fully gauge the energetic burden that William Shakespeare unwittingly dumped on the human species, but it is substantial. Of course, we can easily forgive him. He wrote some good stuff. But there is also a sense in which the data of Shakespeare has become its own living part of the dataome, propagating itself into the future and compelling all of us to support it, just as is happening right now in this sentence.

Shakespeare, to be fair, contributed barely a drop to a vast ocean of data that is both ethereal yet actually extremely tangible in its effects upon us. This is both the glory and millstone of Homo sapiens.

We have been pumping out persistent data since our first oral exchange of a good story and our first experimental handprint on a cave wall. Neither of those things were explicitly encoded in our DNA, yet they could readily outlive the individual who created them. Indeed, data like these have outlived generation after generation of humans.

But as time has gone by our production of data has accelerated. Today, by some accounts, our species generates about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day. That’s more than a billion billion bytes for each planetary rotation. And that rate of output is still growing. While lots of that data is a mixture of fleeting records—from Google searches to air traffic control—more and more ends up persisting in the environment. Pet videos, GIFs, political diatribes, troll responses, as well as medical records, scientific data, business documents, emails, tweets, photo albums, all wind up as semi-permanent electrical blips in doped silicon or magnetic dots on hard drives.

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In perspective: The human genome fits on about two CDs. The human species produces about 20,000 CDs worth of data a second.

production and storage takes a lot of energy to maintain, from the moment someone’s hands scrabble for rare-earth elements in the soil, to the electricity that sustains it all. There’s a reason that a large company like Apple builds its own data server farms, and looks for ways to optimize the power generation that these air-conditioned, electron-pushing factories demand, whether it’s building massive solar farms in Nevada or utilizing hydroelectricity in Oregon.

Even Shakespeare’s medium—traditional paper—is still an energy-hungry beast. In 2006 it was estimated that United States paper production gulped down about 2,400 trillion BTUs (about 4 million trillion trillion trillion Joules) to churn out 99.5 million tons of pulp and paper products. That amounts to some 28,000 Joules of energy used per gram of final material—before any data is even printed on it. Or to put it another way, this is equivalent to roughly 5 grams of high-quality coal being burnt per page of paper.

Why are we doing this? Why are we expending ever increasing amounts of effort to maintain the data we, and our machines, generate? This behavior may represent far more than we at first think.

Our dataome is both an advantage to us humans, and a burden.

On the face of things, it seems pretty obvious that our capacity to carry so much data with us through time is a critical part of our success at spreading across the planet. We can continually build on our knowledge and experience in a way that no other species seemingly does. Our dataome provides us with a massive evolutionary advantage.

But it’s clearly not free. We may be trapped in a bigger Darwinian reality where we are in effect now serving as a supporting organelle for our own dataome.

This is an unsettling framework for looking at ourselves. But it has parallels in other parts of the natural world. Our microbiome, of tens of trillions of single-celled organisms, is perpetuated not so much by us as individuals, but by generations of us carrying this biological information through time. Yet we could also flip this around and conceptualize the situation as the microbiome carrying us through time. The microbiome exists in us because we’re a good environment. But that’s a symbiotic relationship. The microbes have to do things a certain way, have to work at supporting their human carrying systems. A human represents an energetic burden as much as an evolutionary advantage to microbes. Similarly, our dataome is both an advantage to us humans, and a burden.

The question is, is our symbiosis still healthy? The present-day energetic burden of the dataome seems like it could be at a maximum level in the history of our species. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re experiencing a correspondingly large benefit. We might do well to examine whether there is an optimal state for the dataome, a balance between the evolutionary advantages it confers on its species and the burden it represents.

The proliferation of data of seemingly very low utility (that I might grumpily describe as cat pictures and selfies) could actually be a sign of worrying dysfunction in our dataome. In other words, undifferentiated and exponential growth of low-value data suggests that data can get cancer. In which case we’d do well to take this quite seriously as a human health issue—especially if treatment reduces our global energy burden, and therefore our impact on the planetary environment.

Improving the utility of our data, purging it of energy-wasting junk might not be popular, but could perhaps be incentivized. Either through data credit schemes akin to domestic solar power feeding back to the grid, or making the loss of data a positive feature. What you might call a Snapchat approach.

In that case, the human-dataome symbiosis might become the only example in nature of a symbiotic relationship that is consciously managed by one party. What the long-term evolutionary robustness of that would be is hard to say.

But more optimistically; if the dataome is indeed an integral and integrated part of our evolutionary path then perhaps by mining it we can learn more about not just ourselves and our health, but the nature of life and intelligence in general. Precisely how we interrogate the dataome is a wide-open question. There may be emergent structure within it that we simply haven’t recognized, and we will need to develop measures and metrics to examine it properly. Existing tools like network theory or computational genomics might help.

The potential gains of such an analysis could be enormous. If the dataome is a real thing then it represents a missing piece of our puzzle; of the function and evolution of a sentient species. We’d do well to at least take a look. As Shakespeare once said : “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”

Caleb Scharf is an astrophysicist, the Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York, and a founder of yhousenyc.org, an institute that studies human and machine consciousness. His latest book is The Zoomable Universe: An Epic Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from Almost Everything to Nearly Nothing.

Scientists Want to Align Your Internal Clock Because Timing Is Everything


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In life, timing is everything.

Your body’s internal clock — the circadian rhythm — regulates an enormous variety of processes: when you sleep and wake, when you’re hungry, when you’re most productive. Given its palpable effect on so much of our lives, it’s not surprising that it has an enormous impact on our health as well. Researchers have linked circadian health to the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration. It’s also known that the timing of meals and medicines can influence how they’re metabolized.

The ability to measure one’s internal clock is vital to improving health and personalizing medicine. It could be used to predict who is at risk for disease and track recovery from injuries. It can also be used to time the delivery of chemotherapy and blood pressure and other drugs so that they have the optimum effect at lower doses, minimizing the risk of side effects.

However, reading one’s internal clock precisely enough remains a major challenge in sleep and circadian health. The current approach requires taking hourly samples of blood melatonin — the hormone that controls sleep — during day and night, which is expensive and extremely burdensome for the patient. This makes it impossible to incorporate into routine clinical evaluations.

My colleagues and I wanted to obtain precise measurements of internal time without the need for burdensome serial sampling. I’m a computational biologist with a passion for using mathematical and computational algorithms to make sense of complex data. My collaborators, Phyllis Zee and Ravi Allada, are world-renowned experts in sleep medicine and circadian biology. Working together, we designed a simple blood test to read a person’s internal clock.

Listening to the Music of Cells

The circadian rhythm is present in every single cell of your body, guided by the central clock that resides in the suprachiasmatic nucleus region of the brain. Like the secondary clocks in an old factory, these so-called “peripheral” clocks are synchronized to the master clock in your brain, but also tick forward on their owneven in petri dishes!

Your cells keep time through a network of core clock genes that interact in a feedback loop: When one gene turns on, its activity causes another molecule to turn it back down, and this competition results in an ebb and flow of gene activation within a 24-hour cycle. These genes in turn regulate the activity of other genes, which also oscillate over the course of the day. This mechanism of periodic gene activation orchestrates biological processes across cells and tissues, allowing them to take place in synchrony at specific times of day.

The circadian rhythm orchestrates many biological processes, including digestion, immune function, and blood pressure, all of which rise and fall at specific times of the day. Misregulation of the circadian rhythm can have adverse effects on metabolism, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health.
The circadian rhythm orchestrates many biological processes, including digestion, immune function, and blood pressure, all of which rise and fall at specific times of the day. Misregulation of the circadian rhythm can have adverse effects on metabolism, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health.

The discovery of the core clock genes is so fundamental to our understanding of how biological functions are orchestrated that it was recognized by the Nobel Committee last year. Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young together won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.” Other researchers have noted that as many as 40 percent of all other genes respond to the circadian rhythm, changing their activity over the course of the day as well.

This gave us an idea: Perhaps we could use the activity levels of a set of genes in the blood to deduce a person’s internal time — the time your body thinks it is, regardless of what the clock on the wall says. Many of us have had the experience of feeling “out of sync” with our environments — of feeling like it’s 5:00 a.m. even though our alarm insists it’s already 7:00 a.m. That can be a result of our activities being out of sync with our internal clock — the clock on the wall isn’t always a good indication of what time it is for you personally. Knowing what a profound impact one’s internal clock can have on biology and health, we were inspired to try to gauge gene activity to measure the precise internal time in an individual’s body. We developed TimeSignature: a sophisticated computational algorithm that could measure a person’s internal clock from gene expression using two simple blood draws.

Designing a Robust Test

To achieve our goals, TimeSignature had to be easy (measuring a minimal number of genes in just a couple blood draws), highly accurate, and — most importantly — robust. That is, it should provide just as accurate a measure of your intrinsic physiological time regardless of whether you’d gotten a good night’s sleep, recently returned from an overseas vacation, or were up all night with a new baby. And it needed to work not just in our labs but in labs across the country and around the world.

A mismatch between our internal time and our daily activities may raise the risk of disease.
A mismatch between our internal time and our daily activities may raise the risk of disease.

To develop the gene signature biomarker, we collected tens of thousands of measurements every two hours from a group of healthy adult volunteers. These measurements indicated how active each gene was in the blood of each person during the course of the day. We also used published data from three other studies that had collected similar measurements. We then developed a new machine learning algorithm, called TimeSignature, that could computationally search through this data to pull out a small set of biomarkers that would reveal the time of day. A set of 41 genes was identified as being the best markers.

Surprisingly, not all the TimeSignature genes are part of the known “core clock” circuit — many of them are genes for other biological functions, such as your immune system, that are driven by the clock to fluctuate over the day. This underscores how important circadian control is — its effect on other biological processes is so strong that we can use those processes to monitor the clock!

Using data from a small subset of the patients from one of the public studies, we trained the TimeSignature machine to predict the time of day based on the activity of those 41 genes. (Data from the other patients was kept separate for testing our method.) Based on the training data, TimeSignature was able to “learn” how different patterns of gene activity correlate with different times of day. Having learned those patterns, TimeSignature can then analyze the activity of these genes in combination to work out the time that your body thinks it is. For example, although it might be 7 a.m. outside, the gene activity in your blood might correspond to the 5 a.m. pattern, indicating that it’s still 5 a.m. in your body.

Many genes peak in activity at different times of day. This set of 41 genes, each shown as a different color, shows a robust wave of circadian expression. By monitoring the level of each gene relative to the others, the TimeSignature algorithm learns to ‘read’ your body’s internal clock.
Many genes peak in activity at different times of day. This set of 41 genes, each shown as a different color, shows a robust wave of circadian expression. By monitoring the level of each gene relative to the others, the TimeSignature algorithm learns to ‘read’ your body’s internal clock. 

We then tested our TimeSignature algorithm by applying it to the remaining data, and demonstrated that it was highly accurate: We were able to deduce a person’s internal time to within 1.5 hours. We also demonstrated our algorithm works on data collected in different labs around the world, suggesting it could be easily adopted. We were also able to demonstrate that our TimeSignature test could detect a person’s intrinsic circadian rhythm with high accuracy, even if they were sleep-deprived or jet-lagged.

Harmonizing Health With TimeSignature

By making circadian rhythms easy to measure, TimeSignature opens up a wide range of possibilities for integrating time into personalized medicine. Although the importance of circadian rhythms to health has been noted, we have really only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding how they work. With TimeSignature, researchers can now easily include highly accurate measures of internal time in their studies, incorporating this vital measurement using just two simple blood draws. TimeSignature enables scientists to investigate how the physiological clock impacts the risk of various diseases, the efficacy of new drugs, the best times to study or exercise, and more.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done. While we know that circadian misalignment is a risk factor for disease, we don’t yet know how much misalignment is bad for you. TimeSignature enables further research to quantify the precise relationships between circadian rhythms and disease. By comparing the TimeSignatures of people with and without disease, we can investigate how a disrupted clock correlates with disease and predict who is at risk.

Down the road, we envision that TimeSignature will make its way into your doctor’s office, where your circadian health could be monitored just as quickly, easily, and accurately as a cholesterol test. Many drugs, for example, have optimal times for dosing, but the best time for you to take your blood pressure medicine or chemotherapy may differ from somebody else.

Previously, there was no clinically feasible way to measure this, but TimeSignature makes it possible for your doctor to do a simple blood test, analyze the activity of 41 genes, and recommend the time that would give you the most effective benefits. We also know that circadian misalignment — when your body’s clock is out of sync with the external time — is a treatable risk factor for cognitive decline; with TimeSignature, we could predict who is at risk, and potentially intervene to align their clocks.

Data is the new lifeblood of capitalism – don’t hand corporate America control


Data has become the world’s most important resource. Now Silicon Valley giants want to keep government from standing in the way of profits

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One hundred and sixty years ago, the first transatlantic telegram traveled from Britain to the United States along a rickety undersea wire. It consisted of 21 words – and took seventeen hours to arrive.

Today, the same trip takes as little as 60 milliseconds. A dense mesh of fiber-optic cables girdles the world, pumping vast quantities of information across the planet. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 543 terabits of data are flowing across borders every second. That’s the equivalent of roughly 13 million copies of the complete works of Shakespeare.

The velocity and the volume of global communication aren’t the only things that have changed. So has its economic significance. Telegrams were useful for businessmen. But data is nothing less than the lifeblood of global capitalism.

The flow of data now contributes more to world GDP than the flow of physical goods. In other words, there’s more money in moving information across borders than in moving soybeans and refrigerators.

This is a big shift – and one that has yet to fully sink in for most people. Corporate America, on the other hand, understands it well. Which is why the tech and financial industries are pushing hard for international agreements that prohibit governments from regulating these flows. The most recent example is Nafta: representatives from the US, Mexico, and Canada just concluded another round of talks on renegotiating the treaty. American companies are lobbying for changes that would deregulate data across the three countries.

The corporate crusade against data governance is only getting started. If it succeeds, the world’s most important resource will be entrusted to the private sector and the profit motive, and the rest of us will have even less power to participate in the decisions that most affect our lives.

Over the past year, a growing number of people have come to realize that data has a dark side. The information revolution has turned out to be something less than total liberation. The digital sphere is not intrinsically democratic; rather, what matters is who owns it and how it’s organized.

The digitization of everything has made this abundantly clear. As more of our lives are made into data, the companies that control that data have grown rich and powerful. It’s not merely that they know so much about us, from our favorite type of toilet paper to our favorite type of porn. It’s that they use what they know to inform algorithmic decisions that have a significant impact on society as a whole –decisions like what kind of news (if any) we consume, or how long we go to prison.

But the stakes are even higher. The emphasis on personal data has obscured the fact that data is not just personal – it’s commercial, industrial, financial. The reason that corporations are so concerned about who controls the packets that flow through the world’s fiber-optic cables is because a vast array of profit-making activities now depends on them.

The global circulation of data, then, is really about the global circulation of capital. And it has enormous consequences for the global organization of wealth and work.

Data flows enable employers in higher-wage countries to outsource more tasks to workers in lower-wage countries. They help firms coordinate complex supply chains that push manufacturing jobs to the places with the cheapest labor costs. They empower a handful of big companies to dominate markets and monopolize digital infrastructure all over the world.

For these reasons, countries may want to make rules about how information travels across their borders. But corporate America disagrees. Such laws would amount to “digital protectionism” – an irrational regression to a more bordered world. Innovation, efficiency, and prosperity would suffer.

So corporations are demanding international agreements that lock in the total liberalization of data flows. The Internet Association, a major lobby that represents Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, is one of the industry groups leading the effort to “modernize” Nafta by making it the gold standard for data deregulation.

According to the Internet Association, governments should be prohibited from requiring that certain kinds of data, such as sensitive personal information, be stored or processed in the country where it’s acquired. They should be banned from treating platforms like Facebook and Google as publishers and holding them responsible for the content that appears on their sites. They should be forbidden from requiring companies to disclose the secrets of their algorithms, such as the all-powerful Facebook News Feed. They should be prevented from regulating online services as public utilities, or imposing tariffs on digital trade.

The audacity of these demands is impressive. At a time of rising public concern about the power wielded by tech companies, those same companies want to sharply constrain our capacity to govern data in the public interest.

Of course, data governance isn’t always in the public interest. It often serves a different purpose: to protect a ruling regime. China, for instance, restricts data flows in order to help the government control the information available to its citizens and watch them more closely.

The Chinese regulations aren’t just about repression, however – they also play a valuable economic role. By building a fence around the Chinese internet, the government has nurtured a homegrown tech industry, in much the same way that restricting imports of manufactured goods can nurture a homegrown manufacturing industry. It’s hard to imagine that China would have a booming local tech sector, centered on big firms like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, without such measures.

The Chinese example is a useful one, because it shows that the main justification for data liberalization – that it will enrich the world as a whole – is false. For decades, the United States has been lecturing developing countries on the importance of free trade and free markets. Yet, as the economist Ha-Joon Chang has explained, nearly all of today’s rich countries became rich by doing the exact opposite: they used tariffs, subsidies, and other protectionist policies to promote their own industries. Indeed, for nearly a century, the United States was the most protectionist country in the world.

This isn’t to say that everyone can follow the Chinese model. Yet regulating data flows for the purposes of economic development is certainly a legitimate use of state power. And it represents just one of many reasons that governments may want to actually govern data, rather than surrendering it to investors.

Letting capital run wild across the globe hasn’t exactly produced the best of all possible worlds. It’s strange to think that letting data do the same would yield a different result.

The 25 Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2017


Every week in 2017 seemed to bring new, objectively bad news about environmental degradation, government officials being awful, or video gamesbeing ruined by microtransactions. But it wasn’t all bad news: Very exciting and groundbreaking research was added to the scientific literature this year, reminding us that not everything is moving backward.

The 25 studies below, representing the biggest breakthroughs of the year, represent a wide and eclectic range of research areas. Let these snippets from Inverse’s interviews with researchers offer a sense of just how many scientific fields strode forward in 2017:

  • “It’s a terrible way to define different populations,” a geneticist studying skin color said.
  • “Best-case scenario, some of the advertising is true. Worst-case scenario: very little to none of the advertising is true and people may actually get hurt,” said a psychologist about the problems with mindfulness.
  • “What we showed is that diarrhea is actually really good for you,” said a scientist researching diarrhea.

Without further ado, here are the studies that rocked the science world this year, presented in order of popularity among our readers, though not necessarily importance:

25. Neanderthals Never Would Have Outlived Us

Humans still contain a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. Even though we know that humans and Neanderthals overlapped for about 15,000 years, scientists aren’t sure how our ancient cousins died out. They’re pretty sure that Neanderthals would have been replaced by humans no matter what. Computer modeling shows that humans migrating out of Africa would have replaced Neanderthals, whether or not they died out from other factors. But while they lived together, Neanderthals left their genetic legacy imprinted in our DNA.

24. Magic Mushrooms Can Help with Depression

Scientists put tripping patients into fMRI machines to observe what their brains did under the influence of psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic, “magic,” mushrooms. They found that patients with depression described feeling “reset” after a trip, and brain scans supported this conclusion. Patients who reported feeling better also showed reduced blood flow to parts of the brain associated with depressive symptoms.

23. Teeth From 9.7 Million Years Ago Could Rewrite Human History

Scientists found teeth in Germany that they suspect come from hominins. They date back to before similar human ancestors arose in Africa, suggesting that we may need to rework the entire human evolutionary timeline. Whether it’s a product of convergent evolution or simply related species, these fossils raise more questions about human origins than they answer.

22. Eating Weed and Spicy Food Is Good for Your Gut

More good news from 2017! Researchers found that marijuana and spicy food can ease inflammation in your digestive system, potentially paving the way for new treatments for Type 1 diabetes, colitis, and other gut issues. Capsaicin, the spicy stuff in chili peppers, makes your digestive system produce a type of cannabinoid that can offer protective benefits to your gastrointestinal tract, suggesting that edible marijuana could do the same thing. This is good news for lovers of spicy food and edibles.

21. Dogs Are Genetically Predisposed to Being Good Boys

It’s not all bad news for 2017: Scientists examining dog genetics found that dog genes predispose them to domestication and prosocial behavior. This study is the first to show why, on a molecular level, dogs are _so good). Interestingly, the scientists also found that the same genetic changes that led to domestication also seems to have made dogs less intelligent than wolves.

20. You’re More Likely to View Atheists as Serial Killers

Even though atheism has become more common in modern society, it turns out believing in something might make you seem less like a psychopath, according to a study published this year. People are more likely to believe that a killer in a hypothetical scenario is an atheist instead of a person of faith, according to research published this year. This finding even held true for atheists, perhaps suggesting some internalized stigma leading to unconscious bias. Even Mark Zuckerberg has taken note of this anti-atheist prejudice, announcing his faith a year ago.

19. Human-Pig Chimeras Have a “Safety Switch”

Scientists shocked the world when they announced they’d developed a human-pig chimera, bringing us a step closer to growing human organs inside pigs. But they also soothed our fears of a pig-man apocalypse when they assured us that there is a self-destruct mechanism for human stem cells that accidentally travel to the pig brains. It’s not even clear whether that would lead to enhanced consciousness, but if this safety switch works, we won’t have to worry about it.

18. Psychologists are Growing Skeptical of Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness has become a pop psychology buzzword recently, and psychology professionals are concerned. Fifteen psychologists published a paper this year outlining their concerns that corporate seminars, meditation workshops, and the like are offering psychological benefits that are unproven while ignoring risks. After all, psychological health is not one-size-fits-all.

17. Even Occasional Drinks Can Affect Your Brain Health

We all know that drinking too much can cause chronic health problems, but a massive cohort study of British civil servants found that moderate drinking accelerates cognitive decline. Over 30 years of surveys and health check-ups, the participants who consumed 14 to 21 units of alcohol per week “had three times the odds of right sided hippocampal atrophy,” an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a serious buzzkill, since previous research has suggested that moderate drinking could have certain benefits for heart health. Following this cohort of research subjects further will reveal more about their health as they age.

16. Your Face Shows Signs of Class Boundaries

It’s sometimes easy to tell whether someone is wealthy based on their clothes, car, home, and other material things. But this year researchers found that social status may show in your face, too. This doesn’t mean that some people are genetically predisposed to be rich, but rather that being poor can impart subtle, lifelong mood symptoms that observers can see on your face even when you’re wearing a neutral expression. Worryingly, the researchers found that this judgment can impair hireability, which could perpetuate class boundaries.

15. Scientists Identified the Maximum Human Lifespan

Life extension advocates like to say that, with the right supplements and therapies, you’ll be able to live long enough to see science bring about immortality. But more conventional-thinking researchers say this isn’t so. They identified the maximum human lifespan as 115.7 years for women and 114.1 years for men. This area of research is still hotly debated, but the new findings fit pretty closely to what other groups have said.

14. A Supervolcano Could Go Off Way Sooner Than We Think

As if 2017 wasn’t bad enough, statisticians say we’re overdue for a supervolcano eruption. On the basis of geological records, a team of researchers estimated that cataclysmic supervolcano eruptions on Earth occur, on average, every 17,000 years. The last one happened 20 to 30 thousand years ago. You do the math.

13. Geneticists Discovered That Light Skin Variations Originated in Africa

Science has often been used in the service of justifying racism, but scientists shut down outdated notions of genetic differences among humans of different ethnic groups this year. Geneticists found that variants associated with light skin actually originated in Africa, not only disproving the backward notion that people with darker skin are less human, but also calling into question the notion that skin color can be associated with certain ethnic groups.

12. Scientists Find the Oldest Human Skeleton in the Americas

After re-examining a skeleton stolen from a submerged cave in Mexico, scientists determined that it may represent the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas. At 13,000 years old, the 80-percent-complete skeleton suggests that humans came to the Americas thousands of years before the people that were previously thought to be the first Americans.

11. Diarrhea Is Your Body’s Immune System Savior

Diarrhea sucks, but there’s actually a good reason for it. Mice infected with a mouse bacteria similar to E. coli exhibited changes in intestinal cells in a way that seemed to cause diarrhea. Scientists have long suspected that diarrhea was the body’s way of clearing out disease, but this study provided the first solid proof.

10. Redditors’ Dicks Match Up With Dick Size Desires

Many penis-havers worry about whether their penis size will match up with the preferences of penis-likers. In a study conducted by and among redditors, they found that penis sizes matched up pretty well with what their potential partners want. These findings fit with what academic researchers have found, but maybe this citizen science confirmation will be more digestible for redditors.

9. Porn Can Change Your Brain

People who watch a lot of pornography don’t necessarily have an addiction or a psychological condition. But neuroscientists have found that people who struggle with their porn use exhibit brain changes. They react more strongly to reward cues associated with porn, similar in some ways to gambling addicts. It’s not clear whether porn addiction is a real condition, though.

8. Scientists Send Data to and from Space Using Quantum Entanglement

Scientists in China transmitted a quantum state almost a thousand miles into space, much farther than had been done previously. This development brought scientists one step closer to the kind of technology that could enable quantum computing. Quantum entanglement is a burgeoning topic in physics that even Albert Einstein didn’t believe could exist.

7. Human Mini-Brain Organoids Raise Ethical Concerns

Scientists can grow miniature models of human organs, called organoids that allow them to perform research that would be unethical on living. But when scientists reported that human brain organoids grafted onto rat brains had begun to integrate, this raised ethical red flags. If a rat has a partially human brain, should we be doing science on it that we wouldn’t do on a human?

Alex Jones

6. Conspiracy Theorists Think Differently

European social psychologists have shed some light on what makes the nearly half of American conspiracy theorists different from the rest. They exhibit a phenomenon called illusory pattern perception, which makes them see patterns of danger where there is no danger. This is the first scientific evidence linking illusory pattern perception to belief in conspiracy theories.

5. Ancient Humans Knew How to Avoid Incest

We know that incest increases the chances of developing genetic diseases, but it turns out our early human ancestors knew about the risks of incest, too. Geneticists and archaeologists examining 34,000-year-old human remains from Russia found that four people buried together were no closer than second cousins, suggesting that even ancient humans made efforts to avoid inbreeding. Researchers say this probably means these early humans made a purposeful effort to mix outside their family groups, including some semblance of romance, as indicated by the jewelry included in their collective burial.

4. Scientists Discovered Our Black Hole Neighbors

Astronomers using NASA’s NuSTAR X-ray telescope found evidence of two super-massive black holes. At the center of galaxies near the Milky Way, they’re still millions of light-years away, but in relative terms, they’re our next-door neighbors.

3. Long-Term Marijuana Use Changes Your Brain

Marijuana is safe, as far as drugs go, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally free of long-term consequences. In a mouse study, neuroscientists found that long-term marijuana use can lead to abnormally high dopamine levels. This suggests that marijuana could be messing with your brain chemistry more than you thought.

2. Scientists Figured Out That Tattoo Ink Doesn’t Stay Put

That’s right, even though the whole idea of a tattoo is that the ink goes into your skin and never comes out, researchers have found that ink pigment nanoparticles migrate and accumulate in people’s lymph nodes. It makes sense since your lymphatic system gets rid of bad stuff and tattoo ink is essentially a foreign invader.

The 25 Most-Read Inverse Culture Stories of 2017


Looking back on 2017 is probably not something most of us are prepared to do just yet. That being said, taking a glance at the year’s most-read Culture stories definitely reads like a greatest hits on what captivated our attention in this most crazy of years.

Above the cacophony of Trump gaffs and Twitter feuds, Inverse readers gravitated towards stories that could satisfy their curiosities about this big weird world. From the political (can you legally punch a Nazi?) to the whimsical (what is tentacle porn?), Inverse readers had a lot of questions in 2017. And as technology continues to move at a speed that we can barely keep up with, readers also wanted to know about how apps, AI and the internet at large is affecting our social lives — and our sex lives.

Here are the 25 Culture stories that Inverse readers loved in 2017.

25. Why the Internet Turned on Vine and YouTube Star Jake Paul

By Emily Gaudette

An adult’s guide to the young Vine star who has matured into a weird — and problematic — Youtube celebrity.

24. 8 Surprising Images That Were Banned From Instagram

By Grace Scott

When it comes to what imagery is too sexual or explicit for Instagram, female bodies seem to get caught in the crossfire of the debate over what’s appropriate to post online. These images, many of which appear to be quite benign, were still too controversial for the social media platform.

23. A 95-Year-Old “Real Life Tomb Raider” Isn’t a Hero, She’s a Thief

By Rae Paoletta

Joan Howard spent the ‘60s and ‘70s pilfering historical artifacts from the Middle East. Several archaeologists told Rae Paoletta about why Howard’s activities were highly unethical, likely illegal, and deeply offensive.

Artist Isaac Kariuki had this portrait of a woman with a cellphone taken down from his Instagram.

22. ‘Get Out’ Fans Will Love Jordan Peele’s Viral Tweet About Trump

By Paige Leskin

Jordan Peele made a perfectly-meta dig at Donald Trump over Twitter.

21.How to (Legally) Punch a Nazi Who’s Threatening You

By Katie Way

Civil rights lawyer and activist Dan Siegel spoke to Inverse about the legal parameters of self-defense and Nazis.

20. The Librarian Behind This Tough Topics Poster Says It Will Hang Indefinitely

By Nick Lucchesi

The person responsible for a sign directing teens to books on tricky topics, from abusive relationships to acne, tells us why it’s important that kids get the information they’re sometimes afraid to ask for.

19. Why Google is Celebrating 131 Years of the ‘Essential’ Hole Punch

By Mike Brown

When Google chose to highlight Dutch designer Gerben Steenks in a November doodle, it gave us the perfect excuse to school readers on the fascinating history of the hole punch. It’s actually very interesting!

This poster that helps young people find literature on the more awkward of topics went viral on Reddit.

18. States and Cities Where Weed Won This November

By Sarah Sloat

The November election was a game-changer for marijuana activists, as legislators in favor of legalization were voted in across the board.

17. The Right Hates That Vogue Cover Because They Still Own Patriotic Imagery

By Emily Gaudette

Jennifer Lawrence’s Vogue cover caused a stir back in August as hardline conservatives argued that the background use of the Statue of Liberty was a cryptic dig at President Trump’s immigration reform. Yes, really.

16. New Study Reveals Bartenders, Casino Workers Most Likely to Get Divorced

By Emily Gaudette

Unfortunately, data tends not to lie.

15. Sex Doll Brothel Opens Up in Barcelona

By Cory Scarola

Claiming to be the first of its kind, a sex doll brothel opened up in Spain early in the year. Obviously we decided to write about this, as well as expound upon whether you can get an STI from a sex doll.

LumiDolls, the world’s first sex doll brothel, captured readers’ attentions in 2017.

14. Most Americans Still Lie About How They Want Their Steak

After it was revealed that Donald Trump likes his steak disturbingly well done, we decided to look into how the rest of America enjoys their sirloin. It turns out we don’t like it on the rare side either.

13. The White House Website Under Trump No Longer Has a Spanish Option

By Nick Lucchesi

As the Trump presidency dawned upon America back in January of 2017, people were paying close attention to how government websites might change under new hands. It didn’t take long for the Spanish language option to disappear from WhiteHouse.gov.

12. Watch the Founding Fathers’ Descendants Gather in One Room

By Emily Gaudette

In honor of Independence Day, Ancestry.com gathered living descendants of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence together. For a commercial. Emily Gaudette explores the complicated — and problematic — history behind the advertisement.

11. The Latest Optical Illusion Stumping the Internet Is This Photo of Strawberries

By Gabe Bergado

It didn’t end with the dress. Akiyoshi Kitaoka, a professor of psychology at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, created an image that got the internet seeing red.

This strawberry image boggled minds across the internet in February.

10. JFK Conspiracy Theorists Are About to Receive the Motherlode

By Emily Gaudette

When it was announced that the remainder of the JFK files were to be released, conspiracy theorists had a hey day. We theorized on what new information might come to light — and what probably wouldn’t.

9. Power Outages Coincide in LA, New York, and San Francisco

By Cory Scarola

The trippy coincidence occurred back in April and captured the nation’s attention. We investigated.

2018? 2019? Place your bets.

8. Trump Impeachment Odds Now at 60 Percent

By Jame Grebey

Well, at least as far as an Irish betting house is concerned. Betting odds favoring Trump’s impeachment skyrocketed after Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey and became embroiled in the investigation into Russian meddling.

7. When and How Do Most Americans Lose Their Virginity?

By Emily Gaudette

It’s actually a pretty loaded question and depends very much on what you personally define as virginity. We parsed through the data.

6. The 21 Best Subreddits for Free, Creative Porn

By Emily Gaudette

Reddit is the go-to place to talk about and share just pretty much anything, including porn. Emily Guadette details some of the best subreddits out there.

Tentacle porn made a splash on Twitter thanks to Kurt Eichenwald.

5. A Helping Hand for Finding Great Tentacle Porn Online

By Emily Gaudette

A deep dive (no pun intended) into the slimy, sexy world of tentacle porn, including its origin and history. Inspired by an “accidental” tweet from Vanity Fair’sKurt Eichenwald of tentacle porn, we felt the internet could use a primer on the genre as Eichenwald’s tweet subsequently went viral.

4. Trump’s Tweets Just Went From Bad to Unconstitutional: Here’s Why

By Monica Hunter-Hart

Back in the summer it looked as if President Trump’s bombastic twitter habits were about to land him in the legal hot seat. It didn’t exactly happen, but as we enter 2018 with the President still glued to his feed, anything is possible.

3. What is Saraha?

By Katie Way

In 2017, we had a lot of questions about the app that seemed to go viral overnight, Saraha. Deriving its name from the Arabic word sarahah, which translates to “honesty” or “candor,” the app lets its brave users send and receive messages anonymously, for better or for worse.

Netflix’s Dear White People.

2. People Are Canceling Their Netflix Accounts Because of ‘Dear White People’

By Gabe Bergado

Oh brother. Throughout a year of outrage, the trailer for Dear White Peopleprompted white supremacists to decry Netflix’s “anti-white agenda.” The reason? The trailer showcases the show’s protagonist, black college student Sam White, stating that white students shouldn’t dress up in blackface on Halloween.

1. Pornhub Released a Detailed Map of the World’s Porn Interests

By Cory Scarola

Inverse readers seem to be really curious about porn, because this story was read more than any other in 2017. So where in the world do women watch the most porn? And why do Americans want to watch sexy videos that are Overwatch-themed? We don’t know… but Pornhub has dug up the data, along with so much more about our carnal interests.

The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data


The data economy demands a new approach to antitrust rules

A NEW commodity spawns a lucrative, fast-growing industry, prompting antitrust regulators to step in to restrain those who control its flow. A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era. These titans—Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—look unstoppable. They are the five most valuable listed firms in the world. Their profits are surging: they collectively racked up over $25bn in net profit in the first quarter of 2017. Amazon captures half of all dollars spent online in America. Google and Facebook accounted for almost all the revenue growth in digital advertising in America last year.

Such dominance has prompted calls for the tech giants to be broken up, as Standard Oil was in the early 20th century. This newspaper has argued against such drastic action in the past. Size alone is not a crime. The giants’ success has benefited consumers. Few want to live without Google’s search engine, Amazon’s one-day delivery or Facebook’s newsfeed. Nor do these firms raise the alarm when standard antitrust tests are applied. Far from gouging consumers, many of their services are free (users pay, in effect, by handing over yet more data). Take account of offline rivals, and their market shares look less worrying. And the emergence of upstarts like Snapchat suggests that new entrants can still make waves.

But there is cause for concern. Internet companies’ control of data gives them enormous power. Old ways of thinking about competition, devised in the era of oil, look outdated in what has come to be called the “data economy” (see Briefing). A new approach is needed.

Quantity has a quality all its own

What has changed? Smartphones and the internet have made data abundant, ubiquitous and far more valuable. Whether you are going for a run, watching TV or even just sitting in traffic, virtually every activity creates a digital trace—more raw material for the data distilleries. As devices from watches to cars connect to the internet, the volume is increasing: some estimate that a self-driving car will generate 100 gigabytes per second. Meanwhile, artificial-intelligence (AI) techniques such as machine learning extract more value from data. Algorithms can predict when a customer is ready to buy, a jet-engine needs servicing or a person is at risk of a disease. Industrial giants such as GE and Siemens now sell themselves as data firms.

This abundance of data changes the nature of competition. Technology giants have always benefited from network effects: the more users Facebook signs up, the more attractive signing up becomes for others. With data there are extra network effects. By collecting more data, a firm has more scope to improve its products, which attracts more users, generating even more data, and so on. The more data Tesla gathers from its self-driving cars, the better it can make them at driving themselves—part of the reason the firm, which sold only 25,000 cars in the first quarter, is now worth more than GM, which sold 2.3m. Vast pools of data can thus act as protective moats.

Access to data also protects companies from rivals in another way. The case for being sanguine about competition in the tech industry rests on the potential for incumbents to be blindsided by a startup in a garage or an unexpected technological shift. But both are less likely in the data age. The giants’ surveillance systems span the entire economy: Google can see what people search for, Facebook what they share, Amazon what they buy. They own app stores and operating systems, and rent out computing power to startups. They have a “God’s eye view” of activities in their own markets and beyond. They can see when a new product or service gains traction, allowing them to copy it or simply buy the upstart before it becomes too great a threat. Many think Facebook’s $22bn purchase in 2014 of WhatsApp, a messaging app with fewer than 60 employees, falls into this category of “shoot-out acquisitions” that eliminate potential rivals. By providing barriers to entry and early-warning systems, data can stifle competition.

Who ya gonna call, trustbusters?

The nature of data makes the antitrust remedies of the past less useful. Breaking up a firm like Google into five Googlets would not stop network effects from reasserting themselves: in time, one of them would become dominant again. A radical rethink is required—and as the outlines of a new approach start to become apparent, two ideas stand out.

The first is that antitrust authorities need to move from the industrial era into the 21st century. When considering a merger, for example, they have traditionally used size to determine when to intervene. They now need to take into account the extent of firms’ data assets when assessing the impact of deals. The purchase price could also be a signal that an incumbent is buying a nascent threat. On these measures, Facebook’s willingness to pay so much for WhatsApp, which had no revenue to speak of, would have raised red flags. Trustbusters must also become more data-savvy in their analysis of market dynamics, for example by using simulations to hunt for algorithms colluding over prices or to determine how best to promote competition (see Free exchange).

The second principle is to loosen the grip that providers of online services have over data and give more control to those who supply them. More transparency would help: companies could be forced to reveal to consumers what information they hold and how much money they make from it. Governments could encourage the emergence of new services by opening up more of their own data vaults or managing crucial parts of the data economy as public infrastructure, as India does with its digital-identity system, Aadhaar. They could also mandate the sharing of certain kinds of data, with users’ consent—an approach Europe is taking in financial services by requiring banks to make customers’ data accessible to third parties.

Rebooting antitrust for the information age will not be easy. It will entail new risks: more data sharing, for instance, could threaten privacy. But if governments don’t want a data economy dominated by a few giants, they will need to act soon.

No Room for Privacy: Facebook Launches Friend-Spying Feature ‘Nearby Friends’.


A new feature introduced by Facebook to allow meeting the Facebook friends in real time when they are actually close by has had mixed reactions from its users.

Nearby Friends, an optional mobile application, taps steady stream of location information and makes it possible for friends to track each other in real time and meet up in real life.

  • For example, when you’re headed to the movies, ”Nearby Friends” will let you know if friends are nearby so you can see the movie together or meet up afterward,” says the Facebook newsroom.

When selected, it means one can have information about:

A list of approved Facebook friends who have selected this feature and their locations; number of friends nearby; list of friends with their locations, distance from your location and a time stamp of their visits.

The new application has options that allow you to share your general location with your customized Facebook friends, or close friends, depending upon the settings you select.

To avoid stalking, the location is shared only with people who have installed this feature on their mobile and who have agreed to share their location.

Initially, the feature, available on iOS and Android apps, will work only for a few locations.

A worrisome fact about this proximity sharing feature is that it has a ‘Location History’setting that needs to be left on for it to function properly. This feature continuously gathers details about your whereabouts in the background, even when you are not using this feature to check friends nearby.

  • When Location History is on, Facebook builds a history of your precise location, even when you’re not using the app. See or delete this information in the Activity Log on your profile,” reads the description under the Location History Setting.

Additionally, it says,

  • Location History must be turned on for some location feature to work on Facebook, including Nearby Friends. Facebook may still receive your most recent precise location so that you can, for example, post content that’s tagged with your location or find nearby places.”

Josh Constine, A TechCrunch reporter, sees a catch in this. He says that Facebook still collects location data when necessary whether or not you use the new feature.

When left on, your location coordinates are added periodically to your activity log. He adds,

  • It’s a bit sketchy that these maps don’t show up in the default view of Activity Log like most other actions.  It’s almost like Facebook is trying to discourage use of the Clear Location History button.”

However, the new feature will make your experiences better.

  • Location History helps us know when it makes the most sense to notify you (for example, by making sure we don’t send you a notification every time a Facebook friend who works with you is also in the office),” reported TechCrunch quoting the company.

However, it could be used for advertising in future, said a company spokesperson.

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