Better late than never quick hits

0) Had a terrific vacation at the beach last week.  Read plenty of good stuff, but, more important to sit in the sun than to work on the blog.  And when I got back home, set back due to an AC failure.  Good news is that I had it repaired in less than 24 hours and I’m typing this in pleasant climate-controlled air.  Anyway…

1) Great conversation between Yascha Mounk and Sabrina Tavernise:

Mounk: You’re somebody who has spent much of your career as a foreign correspondent living outside the United States. You spent time in Russia and Turkey, some time in Lebanon and other places. But coming back to the United States, you suddenly felt like your experience of covering deeply divided societies gave you insight into the United States. [The U.S.] suddenly felt similar to both societies in a way that it hadn’t done when you were growing up here. What lessons can we take from these deeply divided societies? And how can we make sure that we have empathy for our fellow citizens who are on the other side of a political divide without excusing the most reprehensible actions?

Tavernise: I moved to Russia when I was 24 years old, and I started in journalism when I was 26. And I didn’t really know very much about the way the world worked at that point. And I feel like I kind of went out into that society speaking very good Russian—my Russian was very fluent—without very much humility, and with a lot of arrogance about who they were and how they were supposed to get their act together. I remember traveling to these little provincial towns, and I’d be writing about an aluminum plant or an oil company or a local election. And I remember thinking and writing in this way, “You know, guys, the widget factory is never coming back. I know everybody wants the widget factory because that was what was comfortable and safe. But that was a communist thing, and communism is over. You really need to get your act together. Why don’t you just go out and kind of invent something? Go out and build a business, go out and rearrange your life and your town in a way that will make you prosperous and more like us.” 

When I first came back to the United States, I’d been gone for the better part of more than a dozen years. And I started talking to Americans, also in provincial places, and I realized they were saying, “Oh, if only the widget factory that was here in the 70s, in the 80s, would come back! If only it would come back, then all of our problems would be gone.” I realized, oh, my God, it was the same thing. It was the same dynamic. And part of that was economic collapse. Part of that was extreme lack of trust in government and in each other. 

Another parallel was the disinformation that started to spread in Russia, quite early and very virulently. [With] every person you would talk to, every cab driver, you would get into it: “Gorbachev is actually being run by MI6.” Everybody had a theory of why life was so messed up, and who was responsible, who was to blame. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is just a bunch of tinfoil-hat stuff. These people were in the Soviet cave for 70 years, and they kind of got a little wacky in there. They didn’t modernize with everybody else.”

[But] more recently, in my own society, people say, “Oh, yeah, the election was stolen? Absolutely. Biden has basically been kidnapped, and there are all these people around him who are actually making the decisions and pulling the strings.” I realized we are absolutely not exceptional in any way. We basically have exactly the same problems and exactly the same group dynamics and exactly the same divides. We were richer and more developed, [but] that didn’t matter. That’s pretty sobering, because now we’re stuck. How do we get out of this situation? No one on the right I’m talking to even thinks that Biden is kind of a sentient, conscious individual. The elections [going forward] are going to be really fraught, because there’s been this poison pill injected into them by Trump, and it’s hard to know where it’s going. 

2) Great stuff on cuttlefish and the implications for the evolution of intelligence:

These studies suggest that cuttlefish are capable of self-control and of remembering their own past experiences. The next step will be tests of whether, like the jays, they are aware of how they will feel in the future, and can plan for it.

“We’re adapting these experiments that have been done in chimpanzees and corvids,” Dr. Schnell said, “to see if these animals that diverged from this lineage 550 million years ago have the same capacity.”

If they do, cuttlefish will have an important role in illuminating how and when intelligence evolves. Corvids and certain primates — including humans — each developed the ability to plan for the future, but they seem to have arrived at it independently, rather than inheriting the capacity from a common ancestor. Both kinds of creatures have complex social lives and lengthy life spans to learn from, commonalities that make it hard for biologists to say what traits or environment make intelligence a good investment for an organism.

The cuttlefish promises to add another dimension to the study of intelligence because they must have developed it in a completely different context.

“They don’t live a long time, unlike the corvids. They’re not highly social, unlike the corvids,” Dr. Clayton said. “It was very unlikely that it was social intelligence that was driving the evolution.”

There are still more tests to come. It’s not clear whether cuttlefish will turn out to have all the same skills as apes and corvids, or just a handful. If what they have is similar, then it’s possible that profound vulnerability, rather than long life or social complexity, is what has forced them to become so canny.

3) Philip Bump, “Want to know how a county voted? Find out how many White Christians live there.”

Here, as the title of the image says, are two maps of the United States. One shows every county in which at least half of the population is made up of non-Hispanic Whites who are Christian, as estimated by PRRI as part of its 2020 Census of American Religion. The other map shows counties that Preside nt Donald Trump won in the 2020 election. The darker the coloration, the greater each percentage.

 

So which is which?

The easiest way to tell is by looking at the Northeast. Much of New England votes reliably Democratic but is also densely White. So you can tell that Map B is the map of White Christians and Map A the map of 2020 election results.

The point, of course, is that it isn’t easy to differentiate between them. Looking at PRRI’s maps of the distribution of religious groups, the superficial similarity of White Christianity and Trump support is immediately obvious. But, of course, national maps of county-level data tend to obscure underlying trends, as anyone who has had a debate over how to depict presidential-vote results can attest.

4) I literally don’t get why paramedics are paid so little.  I’d like to see that addressed in this article.  I mean, like what’s going on economically that you can actually have a sufficient supply of people trained to treat heart attacks, major trauma, etc., on the spot for only $17/hour?

The misconception that emergency medics provide transportation, not medicine, leaves them to cope with all sorts of indignities. “They’re used to being second-class citizens,” says Michael Levy, the president of the National Association of EMS Physicians. In one hour—during which they may respond to several 911 calls—the median paramedic or EMT makes a little more than $17. That’s half the hourly pay of registered nurses and less than one-fifth the pay of doctors—if they’re paid at all. During the pandemic, emergency medics were literally enclosed in rolling boxes with COVID-19 patients. But in some states, they were not prioritized alongside other essential health-care workers for the first round of vaccines. After delivering their precious cargo to a hospital, in many cases they don’t learn the final diagnosis, or whether their patient ever makes it back home.

That medicine treats emergency medics like disposable, low-wage workers instead of the health-care professionals they are isn’t just unfortunate for the workers themselves—it also leads to less than optimal care for the rest of us on the day we may need it most.

5) Good Post editorial, “The U.S. is growing more unequal. That’s harmful — and fixable.”

First, the data: The combined wealth of all households in the United States added up to $129.5 trillion in the first quarter of this year. The wealthiest 1 percent held 32.1 percent of the total, up from 23.4 percent in 1989. The top 10 percent of households owned $70 of every $100 in household wealth, up from $61 in 1989. The bottom half, whose share never exceeded 5 percent, now holds just 2 percent of household wealth in the United States…

Though wealth inequality has grown in other industrialized democracies too, the U.S. figures mark this country as an outlier. A 2018 study of 28 countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, the top 10 percent of households owns 52 percent of wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 12 percent. But in the United States the top 10 percent held 79.5 percent and the bottom 60 percent held 2.4 percent…

The wealth gap did not develop overnight. It neither can, nor should, be entirely eliminated; but the United States could aim for a more equitable distribution similar to that of our peer nations today — and, indeed, that which prevailed in the country during the era of its greatest international prestige. Policy reforms, starting now, could make it happen.

6) This was interesting, “The Secrets of ‘Cognitive Super-Agers’: By studying centenarians, researchers hope to develop strategies to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and slow brain aging for all of us.”

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans reach the age of 100, and new data from the Netherlands indicate that those who achieve that milestone with their mental faculties still intact are likely to remain so for their remaining years, even if their brains are riddled with the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Findings from the Dutch study may eventually pave a path for many more of us to become “cognitive super-agers,” as researchers call people who approach the end of the human life span with brains that function as if they were 30 years younger.

One day everyone who is physically able to reach 100 may also be able to remain mentally healthy. By studying centenarians, researchers hope to identify reliable characteristics and develop treatments that would result in healthy cognitive aging for most of us. Meanwhile, there is much we can do now to keep our brains in tiptop condition, even if reaching 100 is neither a goal nor a possibility.

These hopeful prospects stem from the study of 340 Dutch centenarians living independently who were tested and shown to be cognitively healthy when they enrolled. The 79 participants who neither died nor dropped out of the study returned for repeated cognitive testing, over an average follow-up of 19 months.

The research team, directed by Henne Holstege at Vrije University in Amsterdam, reported in JAMA Network Open in January that these participants experienced no decline in major cognitive measures, except for a slight loss in memory function. Basically, the participants performed as if they were 30 years younger in overall cognition; ability to make decisions and plans and execute them; recreate by drawing a figure they had looked at; list animals or objects that began with a certain letter; and not becoming easily distracted when performing a task or getting lost when they left home.

7) It’s been a while since I’ve adopted a pet, but can we all agree that so many rescue organization are over-the-top nuts?  I didn’t realize how bad it’s gotten. “Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check.: Overlong applications, home inspections and fecal samples from existing pets are all fair game in finding a cat’s or dog’s “forever home.””

Shortly after the pandemic began, I started religiously checking Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet in search of a kitten. Whenever I saw one I wanted, I filled out an application. Unlike the two pages I’d submitted to adopt my dog in 2009, these were long, exhaustive and, in my opinion, a bit invasive.

One rescue organization asked that I fill out a seven-page application, submit five personal references and provide a detailed record of every pet I’ve owned since childhood. Another wanted my driver’s license number, multiple references, a fecal sample from each of my dogs, a personal meeting and a separate home visit.

Others wanted to know whether my yard was fenced; if I’d enroll my pet in a training class; if I had ever been divorced; how much time I spent at home; and what my overall discipline philosophy was.

8) This NYT “How to be happy” guide is really good.  As for me, I am, of course, already on most of it.

9) Damon Linker argues that the anti-anti-CRT people have gone too far, and I think he’s right.  Yes, systemic racism is a thing, but CRT goes way further than that to places that are a lot less defensible:

According to an adage attributed to George Santayana, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But how to explain those who know history quite well and yet nonetheless repeat it?

That question has cropped into my head many times in recent weeks, as conservative activists and Republicans in Congress have actively denounced and in some cases acted to ban the teaching of what they call Critical Race Theory in public schools (both K-12 and universities) — and many of the left’s most intelligent writers have responded almost exclusively by railing against right-wing critics of CRT.

Put in slightly more schematic terms, the left is reacting to the anti-CRT movement by becoming loudly anti-anti-CRT. That is a big mistake, both intellectually and politically. How do we know? In part because we just lived through the folly of Republicans enacting the double negation of becoming anti-anti-Trump in order to avoid calling out the obscenity of the man himself.

 

But there’s an even more pertinent parallel further back in American history. Roughly seventy years ago the left’s forebears made precisely the same move when confronted with an overly zealous, demagogic critic of communism. Rather than single out Sen. Joseph McCarthy for hysterical overreach while also acknowledging that communism was a serious threat that demanded vigilance, they instead became anti-anti-communists, elevating “McCarthyism” into the real danger, perhaps even the only danger, and dismissing concerns about communism as a phantom threat…

Left-leaning critics of the ascendant anti-CRT movement like to point out that Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught in schools. Strictly speaking, this is correct, and I’ve made the point myself. CRT is a diffuse academic specialty animating the work of serious scholars across a range of fields, including law, history, and various disciplines in the social sciences. Much of this work is worthwhile and fruitfully provocative in its emphasis on structural dimensions of racial oppression in the past and present. But the suggestion that this scholarship is regularly being taught in K-12 history classes, or even in survey-level courses to undergraduates, is risible…

Others on the left will quietly concede that the past and present of American life is indeed more complicated than the most simple-minded construals of systematic or structural racism imply. Yet they will point out more loudly that conservatives hardly do better at advocating pluralism and complexity in the classroom. On the contrary, they propose and prefer uncritical patriotic homilies like those contained in the report produced by Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission.”

This is certainly true of some on the right. But that’s precisely why the country needs liberal-minded leftists to ally with liberal centrists in taking a stand against the pious simplicities proffered by illiberal ideologues on both extremes. Public schools should be teaching the story of the past and present in a way that foregrounds the admirable as well as the shameful, that shows students how to hold contrary and complex views in their minds at the same time, that highlights our noblest principles as well as our most egregious faults, in the past as well as in the present.  

But that’s not what we’re getting from the left. Instead, we’re seeing savage critiques of the critics of CRT, but almost nothing about the simple-minded counter-homilies that their own allies are proposing. 

10) That said, indeed, let’s be careful here.  Somehow I never read Jamelle Bouie’s 1619 Project essay, and it’s great.  Students need to learn stuff like this.  “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.”

The Republican rationale for tilting the field in their permanent favor or, failing that, nullifying the results and limiting Democrats’ power as much as possible, has a familiar ring to it. “Citizens from every corner of Wisconsin deserve a strong legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison,” one Wisconsin Republican said following the party’s lame-duck power grab. The speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos, made his point more explicit. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority — we would have all five constitutional officers, and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.” The argument is straightforward: Some voters, their voters, count. Others — the liberals, black people and other people of color who live in cities — don’t.

Senate Republicans played with similar ideas just before the 2016 election, openly announcing their plans to block Hillary Clinton from nominating anyone to the Supreme Court, should she become president. “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” declared Senator John McCain of Arizona just weeks before voting. And President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and falsely denounced Clinton’s popular-vote victory as illegitimate, the product of fraud and illegal voting. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he declared on Twitter weeks after the election, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. The recent attempt to place a citizenship question on the census was an important part of this effort. By asking for this information, the administration would suppress the number of immigrant respondents, worsening their representation in the House and the Electoral College, reweighting power to the white, rural areas that back the president and the Republican Party.

You could make the case that none of this has anything to do with slavery and slaveholder ideology. You could argue that it has nothing to do with race at all, that it’s simply an aggressive effort to secure conservative victories. But the tenor of an argument, the shape and nature of an opposition movement — these things matter. The goals may be colorblind, but the methods of action — the attacks on the legitimacy of nonwhite political actors, the casting of rival political majorities as unrepresentative, the drive to nullify democratically elected governing coalitions — are clearly downstream of a style of extreme political combat that came to fruition in the defense of human bondage.

11) Appreciated reading the details of how the Raleigh Zebra Cobra was captured.  

12) Meanwhile a black bear was camped out in a tree near a local hospital and was lured down with doughnuts.  

13) As the parent of an intellectually disabled adult (here we are at the beach last week), I really appreciated former Obama adviser David Axelrod talking about the challenges for parents of intellectually-disabled adults.

14) Really appreciate BB sharing this article on NHL draft pick values with me.  After the first half of the first round, it’s really just a crapshoot.

15) Katherine Wu on the fact that we should not label all breakthrough Covid infections the same.

The first thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re doing exactly what they were designed and authorized to do. Since the shots first started their rollout late last year, rates of COVID-19 disease have taken an unprecedented plunge among the immunized. We are, as a nation, awash in a glut of spectacularly effective vaccines that can, across populations, geographies, and even SARS-CoV-2 variants, stamp out the most serious symptoms of disease.

The second thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re flame retardants, not impenetrable firewalls, when it comes to the coronavirus. Some vaccinated people are still getting infected, and a small subset of these individuals is still getting sick—and this is completely expected.

We’re really, really bad at communicating that second point, which is all about breakthroughs, a concept that has, not entirely accurately, become synonymous with vaccine failure. It’s a problem that goes far beyond semantics: Bungling the messaging around our shots’ astounding success has made it hard to convey the truly minimal risk that the vaccinated face, and the enormous gamble taken by those who eschew the jabs.

The main problem is this. As the CDC defines it, the word breakthrough can refer to any presumed infection by SARS-CoV-2 (that is, any positive coronavirus test) if it’s detected more than two weeks after someone receives the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But infections can come with or without symptoms, making the term imprecise. That means breakthroughs writ large aren’t the most relevant metric to use when we’re evaluating vaccines meant primarily to curb symptoms, serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. “Breakthrough disease is what the average person needs to be paying attention to,” Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, told me. Silent, asymptomatic breakthroughs—those that are effectively invisible in the absence of a virus-hunting diagnostic—are simply not in the same league.

16) I would’ve missed this if not for SAM sharing with me.  Profound biotechnological advancement, “Tapping Into the Brain to Help a Paralyzed Man Speak
In a once unimagined accomplishment, electrodes implanted in the man’s brain transmit signals to a computer that displays his words.”

Three years ago, when Pancho, now 38, agreed to work with neuroscience researchers, they were unsure if his brain had even retained the mechanisms for speech.

“That part of his brain might have been dormant, and we just didn’t know if it would ever really wake up in order for him to speak again,” said Dr. Edward Chang, chairman of neurological surgery at University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.”

As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.

Pancho (who asked to be identified only by his nickname to protect his privacy) also tried to say the 50 words in 50 distinct sentences like “My nurse is right outside” and “Bring my glasses, please” and in response to questions like “How are you today?”

His answer, displayed onscreen: “I am very good.”

In nearly half of the 9,000 times Pancho tried to say single words, the algorithm got it right. When he tried saying sentences written on the screen, it did even better.

By funneling algorithm results through a kind of autocorrect language-prediction system, the computer correctly recognized individual words in the sentences nearly three-quarters of the time and perfectly decoded entire sentences more than half the time.

17) While on vacation I read Andy Weir’s Hall Mary Project.  Loved, loved, loved it!  And, 2/3 of the way through, my 15-year old definitely feels the same.  I love how seriously Weir takes the science.  But, I had a nagging feeling about him not taking language/communication quite seriously enough.  Thus, I loved this essay on that part of the book.  But don’t read this if you think you will be reading the book.

18) Haven’t read much on gut microbiomes lately, so very much appreciated BB sharing this with me, “Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status”

Summary

Diet modulates the gut microbiome, which in turn can impact the immune system. Here, we determined how two microbiota-targeted dietary interventions, plant-based fiber and fermented foods, influence the human microbiome and immune system in healthy adults. Using a 17-week randomized, prospective study (n = 18/arm) combined with -omics measurements of microbiome and host, including extensive immune profiling, we found diet-specific effects. The high-fiber diet increased microbiome-encoded glycan-degrading carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) despite stable microbial community diversity. Although cytokine response score (primary outcome) was unchanged, three distinct immunological trajectories in high-fiber consumers corresponded to baseline microbiota diversity. Alternatively, the high-fermented-food diet steadily increased microbiota diversity and decreased inflammatory markers. The data highlight how coupling dietary interventions to deep and longitudinal immune and microbiome profiling can provide individualized and population-wide insight. Fermented foods may be valuable in countering the decreased microbiome diversity and increased inflammation pervasive in industrialized society.

19) I found this “How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Be Racist” essay to be interesting just in the idea that, apparently many people have the idea that ignoring the fact that race is a thing will help your kids be less racism.  Ummmm… no.

Even if we don’t want them to, children do notice differences in race and skin color. And that means that attempts to suppress discussions about race and racism are misguided. Those efforts won’t eliminate prejudice. They may, in fact, make it worse.

So-called colorblind parenting — avoiding the topic of race in an effort to raise children who aren’t prejudiced — is not just unhelpful, it actually perpetuates racism.That’s because racism isn’t driven solely by individual prejudice. It’s a system of inequity bolstered by racist laws and policies — the very fact that opponents of teaching critical race theory are trying to erase…

When children aren’t presented with the context required to understand why our society looks the way it does, “they make up reasons, and a lot of kids make up biased, racist reasons,” said Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist who studies the development of prejudice. Children often start to believe that white people are more privileged because they’re smarter or more powerful, Dr. Bigler says.

Parents should explicitly challenge these wrong assumptions and explain the role of centuries of systemic racism in creating these inequities. Brigitte Vittrup, a psychologist at Texas Woman’s University, and George W. Holden, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, found that white children whose parents talked with them about race became less prejudiced over time, compared with children whose parents didn’t have such conversations.

Another study co-written by Dr. Bigler found that white children who had learned about racial discrimination had more positive attitudes toward Black people than children who were not exposed to that curriculum. The same researchers later found that classroom discussions about racial discrimination also had a positive impact on Black children.

20) Important research here, “Who is most likely to develop severe COVID-19 even after a second jab?” Answer: older people with serious health conditions.

21) So, is it wrong of me to still talk about gypsy moths? “This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”

22) As you know, I’m a big fan of Matt Yglesias and a big fan of Noah Smith.  So I really enjoyed the latter interviewing the former.

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

3 Responses to Better late than never quick hits

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    #7 People often think they are doing an animal a big favor when they want to buy or adopt one, Most of such people either feel certain that they can give the pet a good home or else haven’t thought much about it. But the people who run animal welfare agencies and ethical breeders don’t look at it that way. The welfare agencies invest time, effort and money in saving animals from deplorable and dangerous environments. Why wouldn’t they want to be sure that their animal was going to be adopted by sensible, patient people? Why bother to rescue if you’re going to send them in more of the same? Ethical breeders feel the same way. They rarely make money on what to them is essentially a love of a breed with a goal of improving physical health especially now with DNA testing that involves big bucks.
    I’m confident that animal welfare people and ethical breeders agree that no animal should go to someone who doesn’t appreciate their efforts to make life good for their animals. And to someone who can’t or won’t fill out a searching application for such a pet, maybe you just don’t have the patience to give an animal that good and forever home.

    • Steve Greene says:

      My guess is that anybody who is coming to a rescue organization in the first place is *far* more likely to be a responsible pet owner than somebody who goes to a pet store or a classified ad or whatever. Of course they should do due diligence, but so many of them go far, far beyond that. And, honestly, any wannabe pet owner they turn down probably just ends up owning a pet from another source.

      • R. Jenrette says:

        The breeder or rescue group that turns a person down can’t be thought to bear the responsibility of what happens to a pet that person goes on to acquire. Of course we don’t want any animal to suffer.

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