Quick hits (part I)

1) The total disrespect for science out of the Trump administration is so depressing.  USDA version (one of many there):

One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study — which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories — but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year.

“You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Ziska said in a wide-ranging interview. “That’s so sad. I can’t even begin to tell you how sad that is.”

2) So, apparently that walking around with a water bottle all day to hydrate may not be so great.   Some interesting research suggests hydrating is much more effective with meals.  Hooray for me and my 60 ounces of Diet Dr Pepper with pizza lunches:

“If you’re drinking water and then, within two hours, your urine output is really high and [your urine] is clear, that means the water is not staying in well,” says David Nieman, a professor of public health at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus. Nieman says plain water has a tendency to slip right through the human digestive system when not accompanied by food or nutrients. This is especially true when people drink large volumes of water on an empty stomach. “There’s no virtue to that kind of consumption,” he says…

“People who are drinking bottles and bottles of water in between meals and with no food, they’re probably just peeing most of that out,” Nieman says. Also, the popular idea that constant and heavy water consumption “flushes” the body of toxins or unwanted material is a half-truth. While urine does transport chemical byproducts and waste out of the body, drinking lots of water on an empty stomach doesn’t improve this cleansing process, he says.

3) This is cool. “Everything you thought you knew about gravity is wrong.”

Consider the assumptions underlying that common answer:

“Gravity is the force of attraction that makes things fall straight down.”

Well, yes — depending on what we mean by “force.” We can say gravitation is one of the four fundamental forces, but it’s such an outlier that the word “force” becomes nearly meaningless. The strong nuclear force (which keeps atomic nuclei intact) is about 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force (which creates the light spectrum), which in turn is up to 10,000 times stronger than the weak nuclear force (which facilitates the subatomic interactions responsible for radioactive decay). Three forces, all within six orders of magnitude of one another. Then comes gravitation. It’s about a million billion billion billion times weaker than the weak nuclear.

To put that discrepancy into perspective, you can try this experiment at home. Place a paper clip on a tabletop. There it remains, unmoving, anchored to its spot by its gravitational interaction with the entire planet beneath it. The Earth’s mass is 6,583,003,100,000,000,000,000 tons. A paper clip’s mass is 4/100 of an ounce. Now take a refrigerator magnet and wand it over the paper clip. Presto! You have counteracted the gravitational “force” of the entire Earth with a wave of your hand…

So: “Gravity is.”

Well, yes — depending on what we mean by “is.” We know what gravity does, in the sense that we can mathematically measure and predict its effects. We might anticipate what happens when two black holes collide or when we let go of a rock. But we don’t know how it does what it does. We know what its effects are, and we can give the name “gravity” to the cause of those effects, but we don’t know the cause of that cause.

Not that cosmologists particularly care. In science, knowing what you don’t know is a good start. In this case, it has led scientists to believe that finding a quantum solution to gravity is a key — perhaps the key — to understanding the universe on the most fundamental level. Until then, they will work with what they do know, no matter what every bone in their bodies tells them:

Gravity is not the force of attraction that makes things fall straight down.

4) I find it astounding and depressing that we still have headlines like this in 2019.  How clueless of a school administrator do you need to be to not get this.  “Georgia school faces backlash over display of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ black hairstyles.”

5) Don’t quite understand what the Fed does and feel like you should?  Just take 5 minutes with this from Planet Money.

6) Michelle Goldberg asks, “Why Not Cory Booker? He’s winning the debates and he’s great on paper. When will he catch on?”  I’m not about to put money on him, but Booker is good stuff and I think there’s still a non-trivial chance he’ll catch on.  I would be a very enthusiastic supporter.

7) Our criminal justice system is so disgustingly screwed up in systematically unfair ways.  This Radley Balko headline kind of says it all, “A young black football player was arrested after claiming ‘cocaine’ on his car was bird poop. It was bird poop.”

This is ridiculous. These field tests are notoriously unreliable. That hasn’t stopped police departments from using them, of course. And it also doesn’t mean we should just shrug it off when someone is falsely arrested, portrayed in the media as a drug user, and subjected to national ridicule because the police relied on tests known to have a high rate of false positives.

Even putting aside the reliability issue, I have questions.

  • Do the officers who pulled Werts over really believe that cocaine would remain on the hood of a car after that car was driven at 80 miles per hour? What manner of consuming cocaine would cause the cocaine to stick to the hood? I’m having a difficult time imagine any interaction with the drug that would result in portions of it being stuck to the hood of a car in a manner that could withstand wind at 80 miles per hour.
  • Given all of that, why would these deputies see a white substance on the hood, and immediately assume it was cocaine, rather than the dozen or so other more likely explanations? Have they ever mistaken bird poop for cocaine before? Why would they decide that this was a substance that needed to be tested at all?
  • Is it possible that they were influenced by — and I’m just spit-balling here — the fact that Werts was a young black guy driving a sports car?
  • 4) Even if it was cocaine, how did they plan to tie it to Werts? It would be one thing if that powder was inside the car. But were they prepared to hold the man liable for a substance on the outside of his car — and could have come from anywhere? …

Finally, if you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know that I’ve been keeping a list of substances that have resulted in false positives from these tests. Here’s the list: Sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaptortilla doughdeodorantbilliards chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mintsloose-leaf teaJolly RanchersvitaminsKrispy Kreme doughnut glazeairTylenoljust about every brand of chocolate at your local convenience storedry wallBC powdercotton candypowdered sugar, and now . . . bird poop.

8) Dahlia Lithwick with the best take of the photo of the Trump’s with the orphaned baby in El Paso:

Trump is really only good at one thing: being on television. Any event that can be engineered to look like a scene from The Apprentice can be fudged to his advantage. Stadium rallies, press availability from inside the Oval Office, even canned speeches read from a teleprompter can be salvaged; so long as he is essentially only producing a simulacrum of presidenting, he can shift along. But reality confounds him. Take him out from behind the oceans of fawning MAGA hats and put him next to a real survivor of sexual violence, and all the grinning and preening tricks fail him. Put him next to actual heads of state discussing actual international policy, and he sulks and mopes. Oh, he can pull off the photo-op; this is a man made of photo-ops. But time and time again, when he is called on to deal with real people—not glassy superfans but genuine human beings whom he allegedly serves as president—he fails to meet the occasion. The consummate reality-TV president is unerringly confounded by reality.

It’s not simply that an injured baby had to be returned to a hospital so that a grinning president could throw a Fonzie-style thumbs-up for the Twitter fans—that’s gross, yes, but it misses the point. The point is that this president, who understands only ratings and adulation and crowd size and “getting credit,” is seemingly incapable of subordinating all that to the moment. This was a moment in which grieving Americans wanted nothing more than for him to show up and be with them. The “catastrophe,” with all due respect to the unparalleled wisdom of Scaramucci, is not that he failed to show the requisite “compassion” or “empathy” for the cameras. Neither Donald Trump, nor his wife, nor his handlers and enablers, will ever understand that the real catastrophe isn’t how he appeared on television or Twitter. The real catastrophe is that Americans are dead and dying and their president is mass-producing a television show about his presidency, with their personal tragedy as a set choice.

Trump cannot function in reality. He lives in a hall of mirrors with his made-for-TV family, as the national security apparatus, the national intelligence apparatus, the foreign service, and foreign policy detonate all around him. And on the rare occasion on which he is called to step out from behind the glass panopticon that he has built, he fails, spectacularly, because that which really matters can’t be tweeted or reduced to a campaign video.

9) Another only-in-America health care story (at least among industrialized nations), “He lost his insurance and turned to a cheaper form of insulin. It was a fatal decision.”

10) Love what David Morse is doing with his students, “I teach my college students to lie. Honestly. Whoppers. It’s good for them.”

To begin, each student adopted the persona of a real-world politician, journalist or so-called expert, then used a Twitter-style platform to advance their arguments, criticize their opponents and introduce new “evidence.” With gusto, the Liars took advantage of the tools in the deceivers’ playbook, larding their lies with facts (e.g., government experiments on vulnerable populations), asking leading questions, posing worst-case scenarios. Meanwhile, the Truthers, beholden to the facts, could not provide an accurate answer to the liars’ demands as to the location of the missing prisoners. Instead they feebly attempted to shift the debate to the jobs that NASA creates, or criminal justice reform.

11) As much as I love Vox on policy, articles like this always end up with me rolling my eyes in dismay, “Orange Is the New Black celebrated diverse women. It also exploited their stories.”  One of the few shows that tells stories of diverse women to a mainstream audience, apparently, because the writing is sometimes cliche and mediocre, they are actually “exploiting” these women.

12) David Graham on presidential appointments:

Ideally the goals of serving the president and serving the people and the Constitution do not conflict, but the important moments are the ones when they do. Friday afternoon, President Trump announced the withdrawal of Representative John Ratcliffe, the Texas Republican he’d tapped to replace Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. That abortive nomination lays bare how acute this tension has become in the Trump administration.

13) I watch Jurassic Park movies pretty much every time they are on basic cable TV (I still love having cable and just flipping through the guide on weekends to see what’s on).  Anyway, was utterly fascinated to learn this about amber fossils:

That amber fossils exist at all is a bit of a miracle—a succession of miracles, even. First, a tree has to be oozing sap (in the Dominican Republic, amber forms from the sap of the Hymenaea tree). Healthy trees don’t dribble goo—trees do so only when they are stressed by damage, insects, fires, or disease. The resin acts like a translucent bandage, protecting the tree from further injury.

Then, an insect or other creature has to be trapped in the resin. The most common victims are flies (about half of biological inclusions are flies), but social insects such as ants, bees, and termites are also often found in stalactites of resin. The creature either drowns as the sticky goo fills its mouth and spiracles (bug lungs) or starves as it struggles to escape the resin. Most insects or arthropods fossilized in amber are less than seven-eighths of an inch long, since larger creatures can usually pull themselves out of the resin’s deadly grasp.

The resin must then land on wet, swampy soil and, eventually, end up in a freshwater current—if the resin lands on a dry forest floor, it will disintegrate into powder or crack into pieces. Once in freshwater, the resin must flow to an ocean or marsh, where it can be covered by sediment in an oxygenless environment. In this prehistoric kitchen, with millions of years of time plus pressure, the resin hardens into a polymer, in the same way plastic is made from petroleum. The resin has then become amber—nonreactive, stable, and a perfect preserver for the life caught inside.

When plate tectonics or erosion brings the amber to the surface, human hands can pick it up or chisel it out of the surrounding gray layers of lignite.

14) Good stuff in Wired on the difficulty of human spaceflight all the way to Mars.  Maybe a good pillow would help.

15) Misunderstanding of the nature of opioid addition are so common.  Great stuff from Sally Satel:

In tightening controls on doctors who prescribe pain relievers, state and federal agencies were focusing on the aspect of the problem most subject to regulatory intervention.

To some degree, the strategy worked. According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths declined by around 5 percent in 2018—a dip attributable almost exclusively to fewer deaths from oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other prescription opioids. (Fentanyl deaths are still climbing.) Now that the fever of the opioid crisis may be breaking, Americans can revisit some of the stories we have told ourselves about the role of prescription medication in the crisis.

Did policymakers and public health experts correctly assess who was at risk of becoming addicted to opioid medications? Were their views on the addictive potential of such drugs realistic? Did they anticipate the consequences of policies devised to constrain doctors from over-prescribing? In retrospect, policymakers seriously misjudged the answers to these questions, overestimating the risk that these drugs posed to the average patient while simultaneously doing too little to urge clinicians to identify those most vulnerable to addiction. The best time to correct course is now—while the opioid problem still commands public attention, and before the restrictions imposed at the height of the crisis harden into permanent practice…

In fact, only 22 to 35 percent of “misusers” of pain medication report receiving the drugs from their doctor, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (Misuse is a term that includes anything from taking an extra pill beyond the quantity prescribed by a doctor to full-blown addiction.) About half obtained pain relievers from a friend or relative, while others either stole or bought pills from someone they knew, bought from a dealer, or went out looking for a doctor willing to write prescriptions.

People who abuse pills are rarely new to drugs. The federal government’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, for example, revealed that more than three-fourths of misusers had used non-prescribed benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, or inhalants. A study of OxyContin users in treatment found that they “were not naive individuals with accidental addictions who were introduced to painkillers by their physicians as reported by the media…[instead they had] extensive drug use histories.”

Among people who are prescribed opioids, addiction is relatively uncommon. The percentage of patients who become addicted after taking opioids for chronic pain is measured in single digits; studies show an incidence from under 1 percent to 8 percent. Most of the estimates are skewed towards the low end of this range, when those at risk (due to a history of substance abuse or, to a lesser but meaningful extent, concurrent mental illness) are removed from the sample. In Feldman’s case, the nature of the risk was constant anguish. When she was 4 years old, her heroin-addicted mother left the family and died of an overdose before she was 12. “For so much of my childhood, I felt abandoned, worthless, unlovable, and confused,” she told me. Her first Percocet came from a girlfriend. “Being numb helped,” she said. Before Percocet, though, she had achieved “escape” with marijuana, alcohol, PCP, benzodiazepines, and cocaine.

16) Jonathan Bernstein: “The Long, Slow Destruction of the U.S. Government: The Trump administration continues its attacks on foreign policy, innovation and economic management.”

Item: Sue Gordon announced her plans to retire as principal deputy director of national intelligence, taking decades of experience with her, in a less-than-appreciative letter — what Dan Drezner called “Mattis Letter II.

Item: A Foreign Service officer resigned in an op-ed, saying “ I can no longer justify … my complicity in the actions of this administration.”

Item: The Donald Trump administration is finding creative ways to destroy the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, which Catherine Rampell describes as “arguably the world’s premier agricultural economics agency.”

That’s all from Thursday. They are hardly the only examples of how the administration is, to put it bluntly, destroying the U.S. government.

We’ve seen this from the start of Trump’s presidency, and it continues. I don’t think there’s any full accounting of all the damage that’s being done, whether it’s attacks on government statistics or the capacity to do science or the well-publicized war against an accurate census.

Some of this, like the attacks on the intelligence community, seem to be a combination of Trump’s personal preferences and conspiracy-minded thinking in Republican-aligned media. Some of it is mindless budget-cutting from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that Trump likely neither knows or cares about. Some of it is what happens when the government is turned over to the short-term interests of major corporations.

But in the long term, the U.S economy will likely pay dearly for it. Economic management will suffer without reliable statistics. Productivity will suffer without government assistance in innovation (regardless of what ideologues on one side or the other will claim, innovation in the U.S. has always been a product of both public and private initiatives).

And the same thing for U.S. foreign policy, and really everything else.

This is of course not to say that everything the federal government does is worthwhile or running at maximum efficiency. Or that every federal bureaucrat is delivering for the nation. But there’s nothing systematic about any of what’s happening here. No plan. No strategy. No effort to separate the worthwhile from the worthless. It’s just basically random attacks on random pieces of the government. It will take years to recover from. In some ways, perhaps the nation will never recover.

17) This is really good from Peter Beinart, “What the Measles Epidemic Really Says About America:
The return of a vanquished disease reflects historical amnesia, declining faith in institutions, and a troubling lack of concern for the public good.”

Declining vaccination rates not only reflect a great forgetting; they also reveal a population that suffers from overconfidence in its own amateur knowledge. In her book Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines, the University of Colorado at Denver’s Jennifer Reich notes that starting in the 1970s, alternative-health movements “repositioned expertise as residing within the individual.” This ethos has grown dramatically in the internet age, so much so that “in arenas as diverse as medicine, mental health, law, education, business, and food, self-help or do-it-yourself movements encourage individuals to reject expert advice or follow it selectively.” Autodidacticism can be valuable. But it’s one thing to Google a food to see whether it’s healthy. It’s quite another to dismiss decades of studies on the benefits of vaccines because you’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos. In an interview, Reich told me that some anti-vaccine activists describe themselves as “researchers,” thus equating their scouring of the internet on behalf of their families with the work of scientists who publish in peer-reviewed journals.

In many ways, the post-1960s emphasis on autonomy and personal choice has been liberating. But it can threaten public health. Considered solely in terms of the benefits to one’s own child, the case for vaccinating against measles may not be obvious. Yes, the vaccine poses little risk to healthy children, but measles isn’t necessarily that dangerous to them either. The problem is that for others in society—such as children with a compromised immune system—measles may be deadly. By vaccinating their own children, and thus ensuring that they don’t spread the disease, parents contribute to the “herd immunity” that protects the vulnerable. But this requires thinking more about the collective and less about one’s own child. And this mentality is growing rarer in an era of what Reich calls “individualist parenting,” in which well-off parents spend “immense time and energy strategizing how to keep their children healthy while often ignoring the larger, harder-to-solve questions around them.”

18) Definitely the summer of Fornite for the Greene kids (and the neighbor kids who are over here playing it with them every day).  And, oh my, is my poor wife tired of it.

Advertisements

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: