Quick hits (part II)

1) This Vox interview with social-psychologist extraordinaire, Paul Slovic, on “psychic numbing” is terrific.  Read all of it:

Paul Slovic

I’ve been doing research on risk for close to 60 years now. [In the 1970s] I was struck withDaniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on prospect theory. It had something called a value function in it, which indicated how people value things as the amounts increased. Changes at small levels had a big impact, and then as the magnitudes got larger, it took more and more of a difference to be noticeable.

The difference between, say, $0 and $100 feels greater than the difference between $100 and $200. If you’re talking about $5,800 or $5,900 — [both] seem the same, even though it’s still $100 difference.

I talked with Tversky about that, and [wondered] if that applied to lives. We both figured it would — and that this is really a pretty scary kind of thing.

It means that there is no constant value for a human life, that the value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.

Brian Resnick

Is this what you call psychic numbing? The larger number of people, the more apathy.

Paul Slovic

Yes. And the opposite side of that is something we call the singularity effect, which is an individual life is very valued. We all go to great lengths to protect a single individual or to rescue someone in distress, but then as the numbers increase, we don’t respond proportionally to that.

People care about individuals. We see it over and over again: There’s a child who needs an operation, his parents can’t afford to pay for this operation, and there’s a story in the newspaper. An outpouring of money donations and support is often tremendous. We do care a lot about individuals. We don’t scale that up, even when we’re capable.

2) For Trump’s EPA head, it’s neverclimate change. the right time to talk about

3) The purpose of sleep?  To forget:

A pair of papers published on Thursday in the journal Science offer evidence for another notion: We sleep to forget some of the things we learn each day.

In order to learn, we have to grow connections, or synapses, between the neurons in our brains. These connections enable neurons to send signals to one another quickly and efficiently. We store new memories in these networks.

In 2003, Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli, biologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposed that synapses grew so exuberantly during the day that our brain circuits got “noisy.” When we sleep, the scientists argued, our brains pare back the connections to lift the signal over the noise.

4) Among other things, I’m a bit of a hurricane science nerd.  Thus, this Nate Cohn piece on how to follow and understand hurricane science (and apply it to Irma) is one of my favorite Upshot pieces ever.

5) Adult marijuana use is rising; teen marijuana use is falling.  That sounds fine to me– especially if the adult use is displacing alcohol use.

Public health experts tend to worry more about adolescent than adult drug use because adolescent brains are still developing. Teen drug use is linked to a host of health problems later in life, including addiction, criminal behavior and cognitive deficits.

The marijuana trend defies the warnings of those who oppose its legalization, who have long predicted that loosening restrictions on marijuana would “send the wrong message” to teens and increase teen drug use.

6) A new front in GMO wars?  GMO moths being used to control agricultural pests.  As you might expect, sounds good to me.

7) Interesting take about why China does not do more about North Korea:

Flash forward to 2003, when China, at the behest of the United States, set up the six-party talks to try to deal with North Korea after it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This move, too, had a key domestic component: to show China’s people how important China — and thus the Chinese Communist Party — had become. The idea, according to exiled Chinese writer Chang Ping, was not actually to solve the problem, but to maintain a situation in which as China “secretly aids the kidnappers, as middleman, it also helps negotiate the ransom.”

Why does China continue to aid “the kidnappers”? For one, despite the increased criticism of North Korea permitted in the state-run press, a significant faction within the Communist Party continues to believe that China’s support of North Korea chips away at American strength and prestige. Undermining the United States within China and around Asia remains a central goal of the party, which sees itself as embattled by what it calls “hostile Western forces” — in other words, the United States.

Second and possibly even more important, Chinese Communist officials have to be concerned about the ramifications inside China of a more aggressive stance on North Korea. If Beijing steps in and installs a more malleable leader to replace Kim, who is to say North Koreans would not revolt and turn their country into an Iraq or, perhaps even worse, a democracy?

8) Went to a birdwatching class with Sarah to come back and unintentionally come across this Wirecutter article on the best binoculars.  Apparently, there’s been a revolution in low-cost optical technology making good binoculars way more affordable.  I paid about $200 for a pair around 12 years ago, but if this article is right, I’d be much better off with a new set of $150 binoculars.

9) Blatant sexual harassment in the Texas Tech Biology department?  A-Ok.  “Big” Steve Saideman used to always tell me of pretty horrendous tales in the TTU PS department before I arrived.

10) How Donald Trump’s FCC may ruin the internet.

11) This NYT “How to be a modern parent” guide seems to have a lot of useful information.

12) I’ve been loving the “Manhunt: Unabomber” show on Discovery.  I half remembered the basic details, but this is really fascinating and really entertaining television.

13) Pretty cool moving images of cargo ships avoiding hurricane Irma.

14) Dispiriting, but I think accurate, take on the horrendous Equifax breach:

In the end, the truth of the Equifax breach—who was affected, and how, and what the company will do to help, and what the terms of such assistance entail—might not be the most important lesson from this incident. More than anything, it suggests that a corner has been turned in corporate consumer data responsibility. Like severe weather, breaches have become so frequent and severe that they can begin receding from prominence. No matter their grievous effects, Equifax’s response suggests that fatalism might replace responsibility, planning, and foresight. This is just what happens now.

15) David Graham on Trump’s shrinking, but absurdly passionate, base.

16) Got to love this (since deleted) FB post from a Republican mayoral candidate in Charlotte, NC, “REPUBLICAN & SMART, WHITE, TRADITIONAL.”

17) I missed this David Hopkins post from last December about the massive generation gap and it’s potential long-term consequences.  It’s good.

18) Open tab for too long– the changing racial gaps at universities throughout the U.S.  Lots of fascinating graphics.  For example, Duke went from 80% white the year I started (1990) to 52% white now (mostly from dramatic increase in the Asian population).

19) Very relevant at this time of horrific hurricanes– why people value their pets over other humans.

20) Interesting essay on the ambivalence of the obscenely wealthy.

21) Trying to get to the bottom of all the counterfeit solar eclipse glasses.

22) Trump lawyer refers to himself and chief of staff John Kelly as “the adults in the room.”  As Dan Drezner regularly puts it, “I’ll believe that Trump is growing into the presidency when his staff stops talking about him like a toddler.”

23) Loved Derek Thompson’s take on Hollywood’s bad summer:

To explain the bad news, movie executives are trying out fresh excuses (blame … Rotten Tomatoes?), while journalists are rehashing familiar criticisms (people are bored with sequels!).

Both of these explanations are wrong. The subtler truth is that the domestic movie market is in a slow, decades-long structural decline. To lasso millions of busy and distracted people into movie theaters, the major studios are spending more money on fewer films. This has led, predictably, to spiky returns—huge hits, huge flops, and less in between. As a result, entire quarters can hinge on the success of one or two movies. Rather than react hysterically to every single bad month or weekend, it’s more useful to consider the bigger picture…

What really happened this summer? It might be as simple as bad timing. The box-office champion of 2016, Finding Dory, came out in July, so its revenue fully counted toward the summer box office. But the biggest film of 2017 so far, the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, came out in March. If Finding Dory is subtracted from 2016’s summer box office—or if Beauty and the Beast is added to the 2017 summer box office—there is very little difference between the summers of 2016 and 2017. Once again, this is predictable: Entire seasons hinging on the success of one or two blockbusters is exactly what one should expect from the franchise-blockbuster strategy currently en vogue in Hollywood.

And what about that strategy? Variety is the latest to claim that people are “tired” of sequels and reboots. The claim is either vapid or wrong. First, “sequels” is not a movie, and no first date has ever said, “Would you like to see a reboot with me this weekend?” Audiences aren’t tired of sequels. They’re indifferent toward bad films. The entire concept of video entertainment that extends or updates a familiar character or story is not invalidated by the ostensible failure of one Transformers movie. In fact, episodic video entertainment that recycles or develops characters and stories across many, many hours is the definition of a television show. And nobody seems to be making the argument that audiences have had it with TV.

Second, to the extent that one can make any hard claims about the economic value of sequels as a business strategy, it’s awfully difficult to quantitatively prove that audiences don’t want to see them. The seven highest-grossing films of 2017—Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Despicable Me 3, Logan, and The Fate of the Furious—are all sequels, reboots, and franchise extensions. In a year when The Lego Batman Movie out-earned a historic indie hit like Get Out, it’s hard to argue that American audiences are desperate for entirely original stories.

As I’ve written, the problem for Hollywood isn’t that audiences are ignoring sequels, adaptations, and reboots. The problem is that audiences are ignoring everything else. [emphasis mine]

24) Everybody is talking about Ta-Nahesi Coates‘ “The first white president.”  Sounds great– I’ll be reading it when I get my hardcopy Atlantic in the mail.

25) This Lee Drutman essay on the “doom loop” in American politics is fabulous.  You really, really should read it:

f polarization were simply a matter of parties negotiating on behalf of competing economic interest groups and allocating federal dollars, it follows that there are deals to be made (and plenty of earmarks!). Under such a politics, political leaders of both parties can trade roads and bridges over whisky cocktails at after-hours parties. Different sides might offer different perspectives, creating contrasts for voters. But at the end of the day, everyone understands that there are no permanent winners or losers — just temporary electoral swings. This is normal “interest-group politics,” in the jargon of political scientists.

When division involves purity and impurity, when it devolves into a pure contest between “us” and “them” — then there is no bargaining, because there are no negotiable principles, just team loyalties. “We” are good and pure, while “they” are evil and corrupt. And, of course, you cannot compromise with evil and corrupt. The preferred cocktails of such a politics are of the Molotov variety, and the roads and bridges are not to be traded, but to be burned.

This is doom-loop partisanship, because it contains many reinforcing dynamics that can quickly spiral out of control.

American politics has been transitioning from interest-group politics to doom-loop politics for decades, and we are now deep into a crisis.

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