Quick hits (part I)

Happy 4th of July, my fellow Americans.

1) Say what you will about MLS, but, wow, is this one hell of a goal.

2) Can the bacteria in your gut explain your mood?  Of course they can.

Given the extent to which bacteria are now understood to influence human physiology, it is hardly surprising that scientists have turned their attention to how bacteria might affect the brain. Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and researchers like Lyte have found that among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety. Last year, for example, a group in Norway examined feces from 55 people and found certain bacteria were more likely to be associated with depressive patients.

3) A little appreciation for the public defenders who push back against our incarceration nation.

4) Tenured LSU professor fired for using bad language.  I’m not big on bad language (as you have probably realized), but by these standards I would definitely not want to be working at LSU.

I have long thought decrying “political correctness” was a politically-correct way of saying I wish to be unimpeded in my racism and sexism, and it infuriates me when this isn’t the case. Now I’m not so sure.

5) I especially enjoy reading about the ordinary-guyness of Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) because he spent his HS years in my hometown of Springfield, VA.

6) John Cassidy on Chris Christie.

7) Supreme Court looking to completely eliminate race in college admissions next year?  And all for a white student who probably would not have gotten in anyway.

8) How television won the internet.

9) Companies keep using drug testing despite any evidence it leads to a safer or more productive workforce.

10) Expect plenty of Republicans attacking the Supreme Court (and really, the legitimacy of the entire judiciary) in 2016.

11) I’m all for using more insect-based protein in our diets, so long as it is finely ground-up like in Wayback Burgers milkshakes.  As picky as I’m, so long as it did not affect the taste, I’d happily have this.  When one considers the huge cost to the environment that comes from our dependence on meat protein and the abundance insect protein, we really need more of this.  Count me in.

12) Scalia has really just become an anti-intellectual embarrassment.  Jon Stewart gives him the treatment.

13) Bill Ayers on the false dichotomy presented in pro-gun, self-defense arguments.

14) David Frum on how Obamacare should be modified to make it work better.  Reasonable suggestions, of course, Frum has been tossed out of the conservative movement for choosing to live in the real world and say things like:

Yet it’s simultaneously true that the Affordable Care Act meets some real national needs. It did provide insurance to millions who lacked it. It did put an end to some outrageous practices by health insurers. It does seem to be slowing the growth of per-person healthcare costs. If it vanished tomorrow, potentially as many as 23 million people would lose their coverage: the 11.2 million added to the Medicaid program since 2010, the 10 million in the state and federal exchanges, and the 5.7 million young adults under age 26 enrolled in parental healthcare plans.

15) I had never heard of “p-hacking” until I came across a mention last week.  Alas, it turns out I am very guilty of engaging in it.

16) James Surowiecki on why the future of Obamacare is now secure.

17) Who needs clean air anyway?  Certainly not NC Republicans.

18) Should we really be making it so hard just for female prisoners to attend their monthly hygiene?  And, as long as I discovered attn, we really shouldn’t make it so damn expensive for prisoners to make phone calls.

They charge up to $17 for a 15-minute phone call (although the FCC recently voted to limit rates to 25 cents per call for interstate calls). prisoners families’ only option is to pay the rate or not speak to their loved one.

Here’s why that’s totally backwards: Studies show that prisoners who are able to maintain a connection with friends and family are less likely to commit crimes while in prison and less likely to end up back in prison after release.

 

Women’s soccer

I’ve really been enjoying watching the Women’s World Cup.  Nothing like a western hemisphere world cup for my viewing pleasure.  What I have decided is that women’s soccer is just as entertaining, and often times more so, than men’s soccer.  I try to appreciate women’s basketball, but in truth, because it is played below the rim and because of the huge emphasis on athleticism in basketball, it is a very different game.  Women’s soccer strikes me as essentially like men’s soccer, just 10-15% slower at times.  Very little of soccer actually happens with players going full speed, and when they are all at top speed, it’s all relative anyway.  Furthermore, it’s not like it is any easier to dribble a soccer ball for a man than for a woman.  Sure, men can kick the ball harder, but the women sure launch plenty of screamers.  I suspect to a casual fan, if you just blurred the player’s images a bit, they wouldn’t even recognize the game as women vs. men.  Anyway, good stuff and go USA.

I enjoyed this 538 analysis of why the US is so good at women’s soccer (and why the world has caught up):

So how did we get here? Basically, it boils down to two things: 1) Women’s soccer has been on a great run for the past 30-plus years in the U.S., to the point where it’s poised to become our most popular women’s sport, and 2) the rest of the world has been relatively apathetic and/or hostile to the women’s game…

In the late ’70s, the number of high school women playing soccer was in the low five figures. By the time America won the World Cup in 1991, there were more than 120,000. By the time it won in 1999, there were more than 250,000. Now it is approaching 20 percent of all high school female athletes — about 375,000 — and has surpassed baseball/softball as the third-most-played team sport.

Soccer has grown both by taking women from other sports and by capturing a disproportionate share of “new” female athletes as more young women began to play sports…

For as much as the rest of the world loves soccer, it has been much slower to embrace the women’s game than the U.S…

Given that we pretty much started out on a similar playing field and have devoted more interest to women playing soccer in this country, I’m actually led to wonder why it is that we’re not even moredominant.

Alas, as good as the US women are at soccer (and as similar to the men’s game as it is– as I argue) it is really tough to get fans at games:

While they are on different teams, playing different games, the women are engaged in the same uphill climb: trying to break through and gain wider commercial success in the competitive United States sports marketplace.

A confluence of chauvinism and gender biases has made the ceiling they are up against a particularly difficult one to shatter…

The million-dollar question for the W.N.B.A. — and for less established organizations like the National Women’s Soccer League, which employs most of the World Cup team — has been how to attract a wider audience to watch supremely talented professionals compete against one another.

The original US women’s soccer league had a team right here in Cary, NC.  Alas, the current one does not.  But, if you like watching good soccer, you should be watching women as well as men.

Photo of the day

I love the photo by request features Alan Taylor puts together for In Focus.  In honor of heading to an NC beach tomorrow, I’m going with the “shark” photo:

An anonymous one-word request: “Sharks!”. I found this historic photo from around the year 1900 of an 18-foot shark caught in Port Chalmers, New Zealand.

David De Maus / Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand

It’s hard out here for a white male (no, not really)

So, I had already really enjoyed reading this post about what it means to be a straight white male when I realized it was by fine science fiction author, John Scalzi.  Anyway, it’s an extended video game analogy, and I think, a damn good one:

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get…

As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up. If you start with fewer points and fewer of them in critical stat categories, or choose poorly regarding the skills you decide to level up on, then the game will still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.

Likewise, it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.

And maybe at this point you say, hey, I like a challenge, I want to change my difficulty setting! Well, here’s the thing: In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun. And you say, okay, but what if I want to replay the game later on a higher difficulty setting, just to see what it’s like? Well, here’s the other thing about The Real World: You only get to play it once. So why make it more difficult than it has to be? Your goal is to win the game, not make it difficult.

I think that captures things pretty well.  I also enjoyed his response, which was basically him addressing all the straight white males who freaked out at this suggestion.

David Wong also had a fairly recent post on the same general principle that also makes some really nice points:

Write an article on the Internet about racism or sexism, and there’s always this annoyed backlash. “I did not cause slavery! I’m a white guy who works for minimum wage at Comcast, running the Random Call Disconnection machine! Would you please just move on so we can finally talk about something else?”

Then, every reply to that guy seems to come down to, “No, you really don’t get it! Slavery and Jim Crow weren’t just bad, they were really, really bad!” And then he rolls his eyes because, well, who doesn’t know that? “But I still didn’t start that fire. Don’t make me flip this table!”

Personally, I think everyone’s understanding of these problems is completely backward. And I think that’s why people feel like they’re never getting satisfying answers to questions like …

#5. “Why Do People Shit On Me Just Because I’m (White/Male/Straight/Etc.)?”

I’m going to tell you the weirdest and, yet, most obviously true thing you’ve ever heard:

You’re not a person.

This is going to sound like some real Rust Cohle shit, but bear with me because deep down you already know all of this.

For instance, you already know that you are, to a certain degree, a product of your genes — they go a long way toward determining if you would be physically imposing or weak, smart or stupid, calm or anxious, energetic or lazy, and fat or thin. What your genes left undecided, your upbringing mostly took care of — how you were raised determined your values, your attitudes, and your religious beliefs. And what your genes and upbringing left undecided, your environment rounded into shape — what culture you were raised in, where you went to school, and who you were friends with growing up. If you had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you would be a different person today. If the Nazis had won World War II, you would be a different person, still…

So, even when personal choices finally come into play, you’re still choosing within that framework — you can choose between becoming a poet or a software engineer, but only because you were raised in a world in which other people had already invented both poetry and computers. That means every single little part of your life — every action, every choice, every thought, every emotion, every plan for the future, everything that you are and do and can potentially be — is the result ofthings other people did in the past… [emphasis in original]

That means you can’t think of your life as a story. You have to think of it as one sentence in a much longer story … a sentence that doesn’t make any sense out of context. But, understand the context, and you will understand your life.

And there’s plenty more good stuff from Scalzi and Wong.  Strongly consider reading both posts in full.

A great New Yorker cartoon on topic:

Daily-Cartoon-070115

And lastly, my 15-year son sad he found this comic on the topic very eye-opening:

The revolution was not televised

So, DJC shared this Vox post on FB and asked for my thoughts.  Figured out I might as well share them here, too.  Anyway, Dylan Matthews makes a good case that the American Revolution ultimately did a lot more harm than good:

But I’m reasonably confident a world where the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.

I think these are all, true, but Matthew’s big mistake is only looking at half the story.  He addresses the bad that would have been largely avoided had the Revolution not happened, but pretty much ignores the good, that might not have happened (or taken a lot longer to happen).  Here’s what I inartfully wrote o FB:

Matthews fails to consider the other counter-factuals of the positive benefit that would not have happened if not for the American revolution. Now, I’m no scholar of American intellectual history, but the new nation and the Constitution were incredibly important, I think, in spreading notions of the Lockean social contract and government by consent of the governed (rather than divine right of kings). It is under-appreciated what an amazingly radical approach the US government was for the times. And, I think, there’s a lot of good that came to our nation– and the world– from that, which might have been significantly attenuated had the revolution never happened.

Now, those counter-factuals are probably a lot harder, but certainly no less important.

Jim Carrey vs. science

I did not think it worth wasting my time addressing the fact what Jim Carrey thinks about vaccines– as befits the former s.o. of Jenny McCarthy, he’s pretty skeptical.  Phil Plait of Slate does think it’s worth his time to debunk Carrey, so feel free to check that out.

I got excited today, though, as I learned that one of the kids that Carrey high-lighted as damaged by vaccines actually has a very clear cause of his autism– Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.  That’s right, the rare genetic disease that my son has.  So, some good as come out of this– more attention for TSC.  Nice write-up by science writer Emily Willingham:

Actor Jim Carrey took to Twitter this week to draw attention to a long-time cause of his, campaigning for what he calls “greener” vaccines. He was trying to make some points about his opposition to the newly signed California law requiring vaccines for all children attending schools in the state, allowing only medical exemptions. In his attempt, Carrey unleashed a series of tweets with statements such as “A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you? TOXIN FREE VACCINES, A REASONABLE REQUEST!” along with images of distressed children.

As it turns out, one of those children was Alex Echols, whose family emphatically did not give Carrey permission to use the image of their son in his tweets about vaccines and weren’t too happy about his having done so.

Carrey appears to be among those who believe that vaccines cause autism…

But Carrey’s efforts did more than draw attention to his belief that vaccines contain “neurotoxins” and cause autism, one of Alex’s diagnoses. Because of Carrey’s use of Alex’s image and the resulting story blowing up around it, he’s also inadvertently drawn attention to a genetic condition that has been confirmed as associated with autism: tuberous sclerosis.

[Disclosure: Because of my involvement in a “mom group” many years ago, I was briefly familiar with Alex and his mother at the time he was diagnosed.]

The condition gets its name from the potato (tuber)-like growths that develop in the brain, as visible on MRI, that eventually harden, or sclerose. It traces to two gene variants that result in the development of these benign growths in many tissues. ‘Benign’ references only the fact that they aren’t cancer—their effects are not benign, particularly in the central nervous system. While the effects can be mild, often the condition is associated with epilepsy, developmental delay, and … autism.

In fact, about a third to half of children who have tuberous sclerosis could also be diagnosed with autism. Each condition is associated with seizures, and there are hints that disrupted connections among brain regions might be responsible for both the seizures and the social communication deficits of autism.

It’s ironic that Jim Carrey, in his effort to argue a debunked link between vaccines and autism, accidentally drew attention to one of the few factors that have been strongly linked to autism. Some celebrities, however, such as Julianne Moore, were way ahead of the curve and have been working a little more deliberately to draw attention to tuberous sclerosis.

This is about as much media coverage as I’ve ever seen for TSC— so, thanks Jim Carrey!

Solve this!

Love this “problem solving test” from Dave Leonhardt in the Upshot.  Try it out (seriously!) then come back.

What a great way to show confirmation bias.  I’m happy to report that I was in the 23% that did not write a rule until I had a no (in fact, I wasn’t sure, until I had three no’s–wanted to make sure the rule did not involve positive numbers only, etc.).  Of course, this is a great example of why social science training is so handy.  I had a hypothesis and rather than trying to confirm it, I tried combinations to dis-confirm it.  Anyway, pretty cool.

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