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February, 2020

Oh my god, just wash your hands

Oh my god, just wash your hands

Please wash your damn hands. 

It’s 2020 and yes, full grown adults still need to hear it. 

Health officials in Washington confirmed the first death from the new coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, on Saturday. The virus is highly contagious, and as of Saturday, has infected 85,641 people worldwide and is responsible for 2,933 deaths. Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

As panic around the virus rises, preventative supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer are becoming increasingly difficult to buy. They’re out of stock in most drugstores and big box stores like Walmart and Target. On Amazon, brands like Purell and Germ-X are only available through third party sellers at high mark-upsFrustrated shoppers on social media warned others of the hand sanitizer shortage, crowdsourcing lists of stores that still had an inventory.  Read more…

More about Hand Sanitizer, Coronavirus, Culture, and Web Culture

Why you can’t overlook the small details in the pursuit of innovation

This week, we read a very short story, The Great Silence, as we start to head toward the end of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. This story asks questions about how we connect with nature, and also how to think about innovation and where new ideas come from.

We will finish the remaining two stories in the collection in the coming week, and then it will be time (sadly!) to change books. I’ll announce the next book in the book club hopefully shortly.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at [email protected] (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Great Silence

This is a quite short story with a simple message. The narrator is a parrot discussing humanity’s quest to seek out artificial life elsewhere in the universe. The parrot, observing these actions, reflects on why humanity spends so much time looking for intelligence elsewhere, when it itself is intelligent, and located right next to us. The devastating line Chiang delivers comes toward the end:

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species ever will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light-years away?

The author offers us some obvious points to think about around environmental destruction and species extinction, and those are obvious enough that I think any reader can sort of surmise how the story connects to those issues.

So I want to instead connect this discussion to a theme dear to the heart of TechCrunch readers, and that is the quest for science and innovation.

To me, Chiang isn’t just criticizing our disdain for the animal species around us, but is also critiquing an innovation community that constantly strives for the big and “shiny” discoveries when so many smaller and local discoveries have yet to be made.

We invest billions of dollars into satellites and telescopes and radar arrays hoping to capture some fleeting glimpse into an alien world somewhere in the galaxy. And yet, there are deeply alien worlds all around us. It’s not just parrots — Earth is filled with species that are incredibly different from us in physiology, behavior, and group dynamics. What if the species most alien to our own in the whole galaxy is located right under our noses?

Of course, there would be huge headlines in finding even a single-celled organism on another planet (assuming there was even some way to detect such life in the first place). But that is precisely the type of narrow-minded, novelty-seeking behavior that Chiang is pointing out here.

Nonetheless, innovation can be a weird beast. It isn’t hard to look around the Valley these days and be dismayed at just how adrift a huge part of the industry is. We are creating more “smart” products than ever, yet huge social challenges and scientific frontiers remain completely unfunded. It’s easier to raise funding to start up an upgraded handbag company with a new brand and marketing strategy than it is to build an engineering team to push quantum computing forward.

There are certainly many valid arguments for moving our money to more “worthwhile” pursuits. Yet, fresh ideas that change industries can sometimes come from the oddest places, with even frivolous products occasionally creating fundamental advances in technology. Facebook as a social network might be a time sink for its users, but its huge scale also triggered all kinds of new data center infrastructure technologies that have been widely adopted by the rest of the tech industry. Solving a frivolous problem became the means to solving a problem of more depth.

In the end, you need to seek answers. Don’t overlook the obvious around us or get inured to the quotidian challenges that may just be the fount of innovation. Maybe figuring out the communication of parrots does nothing for us. Or maybe, exploring that area will open up whole new ideas for how to communicate and understand the neural patterns of speech. We can’t know until we tread along the path.

Now, to take one aside before we close out: Exhalation is a collection of previously-published short stories, but Chiang manages to work in his arch-symbol of breath and air into this piece in a fairly tight way:

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

It’s a symbol we saw most substantively in Exhalation (the short story itself, not this whole collection) which we talked about a few posts ago. It’s a gorgeous little motif, and Chiang nicely embeds it to create an empathetic connection between humans and animals.

Some question about Omphalos

For the next and penultimate short story Omphalos, here are some questions to think about as you read the story.

  • What is the meaning of belief? How does belief influence both our views on our place in the world and our approaches to science and the scientific method?
  • Does existence and existentialism flow from external symbols or internal rationales?
  • How do religion and science mix? How did Chiang frame this narrative to make this question easier to contend with?
  • The story focuses on the dynamics of archaeology and astronomy — why these two disciplines and not some other field of science?
  • What’s the ultimate message of the story? Or is there more than one that can be read into the text?

FDA allows new diagnostic technologies to test for coronavirus before receiving emergency approvals

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said today that it would allow new diagnostics technologies to be used to test for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at elite academic hospitals and healthcare facilities around the country.

The agency’s new initiative comes as critics have assailed various U.S. government agencies for being woefully underprepared to effectively address the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country despite being aware of the potential risks the virus posed since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China in early December.

As the first diagnosed cases of the new virus appeared in the country, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had conducted only 459 tests. Meanwhile, China had five commercial tests for the coronavirus on the market one month ago and can now conduct up to 1.6 million tests per week. South Korea has tested another 65,00 people so far, according to a report in Science Magazine. Initial tests in the U.S. were hampered by the distribution of test kits which contained a faulty reagent — rendering the kits useless.

The CDC isn’t the only U.S. agency criticized for its mishandling of the response to a potential outbreak. On Thursday a whistleblower complaint was filed against the Department of Health and Human Services alleging that the agency sent over a dozen employees to Wuhan to evacuate American citizens from the country without the proper training or protective gear, as first reported by The Washington Post.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration is opening the doors for research centers across the country to use new technologies that have yet to be approved for emergency use in order to dramatically increase the number of tests healthcare facilities can perform.

“We believe this policy strikes the right balance during this public health emergency,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, in a statement. “We will continue to help to ensure sound science prior to clinical testing and follow-up with the critical independent review from the FDA, while quickly expanding testing capabilities in the U.S. We are not changing our standards for issuing Emergency Use Authorizations. This action today reflects our public health commitment to addressing critical public health needs and rapidly responding and adapting to this dynamic and evolving situation.”

The new policy allows laboratories to begin to use validated COVID-19 diagnostics before the FDA has completed review of the labs’ Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) requests, the agency said in a statement.

In cases where the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that there’s a public health emergency or a significant potential for a public health emergency, the FDA can issue these EUAs to permit the use of medical products that can diagnose, treat, or prevent a disease. The HHS secretary determined that the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus was just such an emergency on February 4.

So far, the FDA has authorized one EUA for COVID-19 that’s already being used by the CDC and some public health labs, the agency said.

“The global emergence of COVID-19 is concerning, and we appreciate the efforts of the FDA to help bring more testing capability to the U.S.,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD).

Development of new diagnostics tests are handled by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the HHS Office responsible for preparedness and response to health issues.

“This step may reduce development costs, speed the process for availability at more testing sites, incentivize private development and, ultimately, help save lives,” said Rick Bright, the BARDA’s director.

Startups like the Redwood City, Calif.-based genome sequencing device manufacturer, Genapsys, and Co-Diagnostics, another molecular diagnostics startup out of Salt Lake City, have been approached by the Chinese government and European testing facilities, respectively.

In the U.S. a number of large, publicly traded companies and startups are pursuing new diagnostics tools that can be used to identify the novel strain of the coronavirus.

“At BARDA, we are identifying industry partners to develop rapid diagnostics that can be used in commercial and hospital labs or even doctors’ offices so that medical professionals and their patients have the information they need to take action,” Bright said.