Weekend Reading: Figma Multiplayer, Rice vs. Wheat, and Tuft Cells

November 23, 2019 • #

🕹 How Figma’s Multiplayer Technology Works

An interesting technical breakdown on how Figma built their multiplayer tech (the collaboration capability where you can see other users’ mouse cursors and highlights in the same document, in real time).

🌾 Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture

A fascinating paper. This research suggests the possibility that group-conforming versus individualistic cultures may have roots in diet and agricultural practices. From the abstract:

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

An interesting thread to follow, but worthy of skepticism given the challenge of aggregating enough concrete data to prove anything definitively. There’s some intuitively sensible argument here as to the fundamental differences with subsistence practices in wheat versus rice farming techniques:

The two biggest differences between farming rice and wheat are irrigation and labor. Because rice paddies need standing water, people in rice regions build elaborate irrigation systems that require farmers to cooperate. In irrigation networks, one family’s water use can affect their neighbors, so rice farmers have to coordinate their water use. Irrigation networks also require many hours each year to build, dredge, and drain—a burden that often falls on villages, not isolated individuals.

🦠 Cells That ‘Taste’ Danger Set Off Immune Responses

I’ve talked before about my astonishment with the immune system’s complexity and power. This piece talks about tuft cells and how they use their chemosensory powers to identify parasites and alert the immune system to respond:

Howitt’s findings were significant because they pointed to a possible role for tuft cells in the body’s defenses — one that would fill a conspicuous hole in immunologists’ understanding. Scientists understood quite a bit about how the immune system detects bacteria and viruses in tissues. But they knew far less about how the body recognizes invasive worms, parasitic protozoa and allergens, all of which trigger so-called type 2 immune responses. Howitt and Garett’s work suggested that tuft cells might act as sentinels, using their abundant chemosensory receptors to sniff out the presence of these intruders. If something seems wrong, the tuft cells could send signals to the immune system and other tissues to help coordinate a response.

Given the massive depth of knowledge about biological processes, anatomy, and medical research, it’s incredible how much we still don’t know about how organisms work. Evolution, selection, and time can create some truly complex systems.