On ants and infection.

On ants and infection.

I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.

Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.

IU officials “have seen a photothat shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.

I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.


Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.

When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.

My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.

Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.

Infection is almost always lethal.

If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.


The FDA will approve any Covid-19 vaccine that cuts risk by half. It’s very unlikely that a Covid-19 vaccine will cut the risk by more than about two-thirds, and the vaccine will work least well for people who need protection most.

Most likely, the Covid-19 epidemic will end before there’s vaccine. The herd immunity threshold seems to be much lower than some researchers feared – our current data suggest that the epidemic will end after about 40% of the population has immunity.

The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.

In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.

In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.


The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.

Most schools ban socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.

Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.

In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.

I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.

This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.


We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.

Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.

A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.

I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.

With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.


When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.

When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.

Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”

Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.

Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”

When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.


It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.


Erika Meitner’s 2006 poem “Pediatric Eschatology” begins

the nurse called back and told us to use bleach
on anything we touch, she said wash everything
in hot water
, insisted we won’t treat you if
you’re asymptomatic, we won’t
, and made us
an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited
with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters

It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.

Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.


I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.

But, punishing young people for socializing?

We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.

Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.

Red ant: photograph by William Cho

On cheating in school.

Find the first essay I wrote about this topic here.

I have a little bit more to write about McBrayer’s “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” editorial.  But this’ll be the end of it, I swear!  It’s just that I didn’t manage to cram anything in as a response to this passage:

“It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”

StateLibQld_1_100348Which is something that’s probably worth addressing, the idea that it is not morally wrong to cheat at college.  Because I think that’s probably the biggest distinction between facts and opinions: with opinions, value judgments, et al., two people presented with all the same evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions.  I felt that McBrayer wrote his editorial as though it were obvious that anyone reading would think that cheating at college was morally wrong, and I disagree.

Not that I cheated on tests or homework when I was in college.  And if you’d asked college me about it, he probably would’ve said immediately that cheating was invariably wrong, and maybe strung together some unpleasant-sounding adjectives to describe people who did.

I’ve mellowed out some since then, but also, the practice of writing a novel that dabbles in free indirect discourse was good for me.  It forced me to empathize more with a wide variety of people, and consider why they do the things they do.

So let’s get to it, then!  An argument for why it isn’t immoral to cheat in college.  (Not that you should do it.  This argument is based on the idea of fighting back against bad actions with more bad actions, which I think is a crummy way to live.  But philosophically justifiable, in my opinion.)

If you don’t have a college degree, you’re less likely to find a job, and the job you do find will probably pay less than if you do have a college degree.  I assume most people have seen the handy employment charts like the one below printed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: here’s a link in case you want more information.


If you do have a college degree, you might not find a job.  And many jobs you might find won’t put your degree to any use.  Here: in a token gesture toward political neutrality, I’ll include a quotation from a Forbes article written by George Leef (tagline: “I write on the damage big government does, especially to education”).

“The solution to the paradox is that the gap is widening because credential inflation is steadily wiping out good careers for people who don’t have college degrees.”

The issue here is that, given the number of available jobs, and the number of job seekers with and without a college degree, employers can chose to preferentially hire degree holders even for work that doesn’t require it.  Possibly employers are extracting extra value from their workers this way: I mentioned information sets in one previous essay, but it’s probably worth a quick discussion of Michael Spence’s “Job Market Signaling” paper.  Which, if you have a minute, you should at least read the first two paragraphs; you won’t learn anything about his model, but it might make you smile, and it’s not super common for economics articles to be funny.

A quick, approximate summary of his work is that all people have a hidden variable, known only to themselves, that indicates how good they are at tasks relevant for both education and employment.  Education will not alter this variable in the slightest (which obviously goes against my beliefs, since I like to maintain a growth mindset about most everything in life), nor will education teach you anything that would be of use in eventual employment.  Education is also costly — it’s hard work, studying, getting good grades, moving on — and is more costly the lower your value of that hidden variable.  So the model assumes that brilliant students will be effective workers, and that your brilliant student would be just as effective if you hired him or her out of middle school or after waiting until a whole litany of advanced degrees have been obtained.

31VGKPCQN0L._SY300_The idea, then, is that employers for high-paying jobs will preferentially hire those with fancy degrees.  The fancy degree indicates that this person will be an effective worker.  Less effective workers don’t have fancy degrees because their costs of getting degrees are higher, so the break-even point, where they’re better off quitting school and settling for whatever job they can get with the degrees they have already, comes sooner.  Maybe after high school, maybe after a B.A., maybe after an M.A., whatever.

Under all the assumptions of the model (which, right, obviously everyone knows a brilliant student or two who’s a crappy worker.  There are plenty of jobs for which I’d fall into that category: I’m clumsy and don’t deal well with authority figures, two strikes against me for many forms of employment), this could work out reasonably well if there are plenty of jobs.  People get a fair chance, and, yes, their college degrees are just a waste of time and effort to obtain, but at least they get their good jobs.

In a bad economy, though, where job offers are doled out by a cartel of employers with near-monopsonic power, future employees are pushed to obtain more and more useless degrees… the idea of a break-even point arriving is based on knowing that there’ll be a job available for you when you stop out of education.  But if there are many people, including ten potential high achievers, all striving for nine jobs, then there’s no reason to stop out of education… you could keep accruing degrees hoping to supplant anyone holding those jobs currently.  And, given that the degrees come at a cost to you, and all they accomplish is signaling to a potential employer, and there’s no reason to want to signal honestly provided you can do the work, then it would be moral to take whatever measures necessary to reduce your cost of obtaining degrees.  Including cheating.

And all of this is especially relevant now because: one, the economy is bad enough that many college graduates can only find minimum-wage jobs; two, at many universities the quality of education is not super high (it’s worth looking at Murray Sperber’s “Beer and Circus” for a thorough discussion of this point); and, three, the cost of college education has been rising dramatically.  Financial cost, that is.  The effort cost of many college degrees has been dropping, but the rising financial cost alone is pretty horrible.  These three factors in concert seem sufficient to make our current world more closely resemble Spence’s model than the world did when his paper was published.

Not to say that I think people should cheat.  I think a better system would be for jobs to be available, and for each level of education to be sufficiently rigorous that students gain something from the experience (honestly, there’s an additional essay lurking behind this sentiment, the idea that many “low achieving” students are written off and purposefully not challenged by their teachers during school — one thing K does really well is that she forces students in her intro-level / you’re-shunted-into-this-if-you-seem-like-a-screw-up science class to work, and the students generally seem to enjoy being forced to work because it means one hour in which they’re not bored out of their skulls), and for students to comply with educator-imposed morality during school.

But that would require many things to be different about our world — to start, new fiscal policy with increased spending so that more jobs would be generated, and major restructuring of education at all levels, including elementary, secondary, collegiate and graduate.  Until those changes occur, though, I think cheating can be justified as a morally-reasoned response to an all-around bad situation.

On how friends don’t let friends study alone.

Studying in Starbucks by quatar, on Flickr

I often felt frustrated while reading William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”  And not, I imagine, in the way he intended.  Because, sure, the crumby stuff he was discussing —  perpetuated aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy, the conflation of a person’s income with their value, etc. — is frustrating.  But I imagine that most people who are moderately informed about the state of elite universities has thought about those issues.  And there were some passages that I found irritating but only because of my own prejudices.   Deresiewicz devoted a lot of space to the idea that your college courses teach you how to think, and so it doesn’t matter what your major was, that’s right, go ahead and major in the humanities… and yet also writes that he should’ve been an English major and that his choice of biology and psychology was a slog through dry material that shut down options.

Obviously, given my own background and interests, I’d like to think that a science background can help you be a writer just as much as a humanities background can help you be a doctor (for instance my sister, just now completing her residency, after majoring in women’s studies).

But the main reason I felt frustrated was because the book seemed to be written to advise young people, and I would guess that the young people most receptive to advice would be relative outsiders just entering the system he’s describing.  As in non-white, non-wealthy students admitted to elite universities.  And I feel that some of the advice was actively harmful.

For instance, the following passage:

But never mind the grades; it’s even hard to give your students honest feedback.  Kids who have been raised under a regimen of positive reinforcement, and whose self-esteem depends on perfection, are not well equipped to handle criticism.  Besides, they have better things to do than hit the books.  At a big, public party school–let’s call it the University of Southern Football–that probably means beer and television.  At elite colleges, it means those all-consuming extracurricular activities.  Extracurriculars certainly have value: they’re fun; they’re social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right); they enable students to express and develop abilities that classes ignore; and they’re good for making contacts and testing out vocational options.  They also organize the campus social scene.  But given kids’ addiction to keeping busy, their fear of ever missing out on anything, they tend to expand to fill the available space.

Really, I only wanted to quote the fragment “…social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right)” but I always think it’s skeezy when sentence fragments are quoted out of context, like, what are you trying to hide here?  So I slapped up the whole paragraph.

The issue I have with this is that effective studying *is* social.  There is a fair amount of data out there about how well students learn when they’re studying in a social versus isolated environment (which I would have assumed Deresiewicz should’ve seen, given his perspicacious arguments against the utility of MOOCs).  So to state so off-handedly that if you’re studying in a social environment you’re doing it wrong… to me, shows a lack of concern for the plights of many students.  There’s a good passage to put this into perspective in Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi:”

Soon a group difference came into view, one in which blacks and Asian students differed the most, with whites in the middle.  Asian students studied in groups, formal and informal, more than black or white students.  This practice produced powerful advantages for learning calculus.  It brought many heads to the homework, so that if one person couldn’t solve a problem, someone else could, and that person could explain it.  They could spend more time on the concepts involved in calculus, and less time doing the arithmetic of the homework.  (It shortened homework time.)  Misunderstandings could be quickly identified and corrected, even when they came from the teaching staff.  Asian students also made little distinction between their academic and social lives.  Saturday night studying in the library counted as social life for a group of friends bonded, in part, over studying and doing math problems together.

White students studied more independently.  But they readily sought help from other students and teaching assistants.  They talked shop about calculus outside of class, even compared notes on difficult problems, but focused their social lives less on academics than did Asian students.

Black students, Treisman found, offered a contrast to both styles.  They were intensely independent, downright private about their wok.  After class, they returned to their rooms, closed the door and pushed through long hours of study–more hours than either whites or Asians.  Many of them were the first of their family to attend college; they carried their family’s hopes.  What Treisman saw, sitting on the bunk bed, watching many of his black students work, explained a lot about what was happening to them in his class.  With no one to talk to, the only way to tell whether they understood the concept of a problem was to check their answer in the back of the book.  They spent considerable time doing this, which made them focus less on calculus concepts and more on rechecking their arithmetic against answers in the book.  This tactic weakened their grasp of the concepts.  Despite great effort, they often performed worse on classroom tests than whites and Asians, who they knew had studied no more, or even less, than they had.  In light of the racial stereotype in the air over their heads, this was a frustrating experience, which made them wonder whether they belonged here.

So, black students had internalized the idea that if you’re smart enough you study alone.  And that idea came from somewhere.  And, look, it’s not Deresiewicz’s fault: he obviously didn’t make up that myth, and his book was published long after all the studies discussed in “Whistling Vivalidi” … but I still felt upset seeing him propagate it further.