Quick hits (part II)

1) The tale of one journalist who had enough of “both sides!” journalism in the wake of January 6:

Andrew Taylor began his journalism career in the late 1980s, clipping newspaper articles for the politics reporters at Congressional Quarterly.

This spring, more than 30 years later, he quit his longtime job as a Capitol Hill reporter for the Associated Press.

He leaves daily journalism disgusted by what Congress has become and traumatized by the Jan. 6 riot — which he witnessed from inside the Capitol. He also leaves the profession doubtful that traditional, objective-style journalism is up to the job of covering today’s politics and government.

His is not a simple cause-and-effect story: At 59, with a spouse who works fulltime as an editor and the demands of three school-age children, Taylor was thinking of wrapping things up anyway.

But he’s very glad to be out of the Capitol — not just for the unanticipated danger he experienced there but the political and societal culture surrounding it…

The Capitol was Taylor’s second home, the focus of so much of his daily life and conversation. He still speaks of “the sanctity of the place”; it’s clear that on a certain level he became accustomed to its rhythms and routines. “You become invested in a functional ecosystem,” he said.

But that placewas already beginning to change long before Jan. 6, he said. “I was there when the wheels came off,” he told me, during the Obama era, when the tea-party caucus of conservative House members seized increasing influence. From that point on, “a large percentage of congressional activity was being spent posturing for political bases” rather than, say, putting together the budget.

He now sees the dysfunction as irrevocable.

He has particularly harsh words for House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as prominent among those in Congress whose “approach to their jobs is too often bad-faith bull—-.” For similar reasons, he’s tough on Mitch McConnell, too. On his now more freewheeling Twitter account, Taylor quote-tweeted the Senate minority leader’s recent bluster about raising the debt limit and how Republicans “will not facilitate another reckless, partisan taxing and spending spree.”…

“So glad I don’t have to cover this,” Taylor wrote, along with a reminder of some inconvenient facts: “When Republicans controlled the government in 2017-18, Pelosi and Schumer facilitated debt limit increases both before and after enactment of debt-financed tax cuts.” Taylor added: “McConnell is wholly inconsistent here and I am being generous.”

Overall, Taylor fears that Congress is like a coral reef that has sustained so much piece-by-piece deterioration, with the departures of some of those who have integrity and respect for their elected roles in the democracy, that “you can’t put it back together again.”

And while he calls the Associated Press “a wonderful, essential organization” and praises many of his former colleagues in Washington journalism, he has become increasingly worried that traditional reporting can’t — or at least doesn’t — tell the full, disturbing story.

“The rules of objective journalism require you to present facts to tell a true story but the objective-journalism version of events can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on,” he told me.

As he sees it, the typical practices of putting everything that happens in the context of normal behavior, of giving ‘both sides’ an almost-equal say, and describing events in a neutral tone has an overall, damaging effect.

Put simply: “It sanitizes things.”

2) Let’s be honest, this is awfully damn tempting.  Just approve the things already! “Parents Are Lying to Get Their Little Kids Vaccinated: It’s surprisingly easy to get unauthorized COVID-19 vaccines for 10- and 11-year-olds who can “pass” for 12″  I’d think harder about it if my 10-year old could pass for 12, but not even close.

3) “Why At-Home Rapid Covid Tests Cost So Much, Even After Biden’s Push for Lower Prices”

For Americans looking for swift answers,the cheapest over-the-counter covid test is the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNOW two-pack for $23.99. Close behind are Quidel’s QuickVue tests, at $15 a pop. Yet supplies are dwindling. After a surge in demand, CVS is limiting the number of tests people can buy, and Amazon and Walgreen’s website were sold out as of Friday afternoon.

President Joe Biden said Thursday he would invoke the Defense Production Act to make 280 million rapid covid tests available. The administration struck a deal with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger for them to sell tests for “up to 35 percent less” than current retail prices for three months. For those on Medicaid, the at-home tests will be fully covered, Biden said.

An increased supply should help to lower prices. As schools open and much of the country languishes without pandemic-related restrictions, epidemiologists say widespread rapid-test screening — along with vaccination and mask-wearing — is critical to controlling the delta variant’s spread. Yet shortages, little competition and sticky high prices mean routine rapid testing remains out of reach for most Americans, even if prices drop 35%.

Consumers elsewhere have much cheaper — or free — options. In Germany, grocery stores are selling rapid covid tests for under $1 per test. In India, they’re about $3.50. The United Kingdom provides 14 tests per person free of charge. Canada is doling out free rapid tests to businesses…

Billions in taxpayer dollars have been invested in these products. Abbott Laboratories, for instance, cashed in on hundreds of millions in federal contracts and gave its shareholders fat payouts last year, increasing its quarterly dividend by 25%. Even so, according to a New York Times investigation, as demand for rapid tests cratered in early summer, Abbott destroyed its supplies and laid off workers who had been making them.

More than a year ago, Abbott said the company would sell its BinaxNOW in bulk for $5 a test to health care providers, but that option is not available over the counter to the public. Even with the anticipated price decrease, a two-pack will be more than $15. Abbott did not comment further.

Schrier said in spring that test prices were high because “big companies are buying up all the supplies.” Also, “their profit is far higher making 1,000 $30 tests than 30,000 $1 tests” — in other words, they can make the same amount of money for many fewer tests.

4) This is just a super-fun collection of soccer goals.  

5) David Epstein on his failed newsletter launch and Hanlon’s razor.  This is so apt– definitely going to use this term more!

As a very loyal subscriber (with two email addresses!) to my own newsletter (gotta keep numbers up), I was immediately confused by what I had wrought — no offense to this other fellow, who I’m sure is a Ryantastic guy. Then the messages started.

I would say the tenor of messages I received ranged from curious, to querulous, to I’m a hippo and you got between me and my water source. I received a few messages — just a few, but they’re important — suggesting that I had either sold subscriber information or subscribed people to something without their consent.

I immediately jumped on the phone with a member of the Bulletin team to find out what I had done. Reader, until you have tried, you will never know how hard it is to have a stern emergency conversation with tech support while maintaining a straight face and repeating the name/word Ryantastic. A dozen “Ryantastics” later, I learned what happened.

If you can’t wait, you can skip below to the “What Actually Happened” section. But before I tell you, I’d like to do my Range Widely thing and use this as a teachable moment to discuss a critical thinking principle. Namely: “Hanlon’s razor.”

The most common (if not the most polite) formulation of Hanlon’s razor is: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The term “razor” means that the principle helps you “shave off” unnecessary explanations.

(You may be familiar with the more popular “Occam’s razor,” the idea that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. The most implausible part of Contact is that Matthew McConaughey’s character is a philosopher who hasn’t heard of Occam’s razor. What are you doing all day man?!)

The idea of Hanlon’s razor is that we more often make better judgments if we search for common, reasonable explanations of behavior we don’t like, instead of assuming the worst right away. I like this idea; I think Hanlon’s Twitter might be a nice place. I especially like this idea right now, because I’d prefer you treat Ryantastic-gate as a screw-up instead of a nefarious plot. But this wouldn’t be my newsletter if I didn’t try to investigate whether Hanlon’s razor actually is a good principle for thinking. So let’s begin.

Intuitively, I think it is a good principle. I spent a decade as an investigative reporter, generally assuming the worst motivations behind whatever I was investigating; sometimes that bore out, but often I was surprised to find that some organizational screw-up or other was a result of carelessness or poor communication. I found the same for journalism itself. Early in my journalism career, I was a fact-checker, and I usually concluded that writers who reported inaccurate facts were simply making mistakes, or were blind to their own biases, not proactively conspiring to distort the truth.

As the book Super Thinkingnotes, Hanlon’s razor is an attempt to correct what psychologists refer to as “fundamental attribution error.” That is, we all tend to judge the behavior of others as if it represents something fundamental about them, even though we don’t judge ourselves that way. When you see someone run a red light, it’s because they’re a jerk who doesn’t care about anyone else. When you run a red light, it was an accident, or you were really in a rush, or this intersection sucks anyway.

6) The case that we’re actually winning the war on poverty:

7) This is good, “Jurors don’t know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be. They should.: If juries knew the consequences of their decisions, they’d deliberate more carefully — and could serve as a check on punitive laws”

That’s because most American jurisdictions follow a rule of jury ignorance, meaning that neither judges nor lawyers may tell jurors what punishment a defendant could receive if convicted. There are rare exceptions — state courts in Louisiana and North Carolina, for example — but in most American courtrooms, judges go to great lengths to make sure that jurors don’t know what will happen after a “guilty” verdict.

Keeping juries ignorant, however, exacerbates one of the U.S. criminal justice system’s worst tendencies — its inclination to grow more punitive. Evidence from both history and social scientific experiments suggest that jurors are less likely to convict if they know a defendant’s punishment could be extremely harsh. The rule of jury ignorance eliminates an important check on the system. If politicians thought juries would be less likely to convict when a sentence was severe, for instance, they would be less likely to pass draconian laws.

Replacing ignorant juries with informed ones therefore could be an important criminal justice reform. As a general rule, then, we propose that judges should tell jurors the range of sentences, including the statutory maximum and any mandatory minimums, that a defendant would face upon conviction. (We make the case in a forthcoming article in the Vanderbilt Law Review.)

There are obstacles to this reform — notably a 1994 Supreme Court decision that described jury ignorance as a “well established” principle. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, said there was “a basic division of labor in our legal system between judge and jury”: Juries find guilt, judges sentence. (In that case, Shannon v. the United States, the defendant, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, wanted the jury to be told that he would be confined involuntarily even if the jury concluded he was insane. The jury wasn’t told, and he was found guilty.)

But that opinion was weakly argued, and not well grounded in judicial history. The argument that juries should be informed about sentences should appeal to both liberal and conservative justices of an “originalist” bent — with liberals focusing on how such a reform would democratize the criminal justice system, and originalists focusing on the fact that the ignorant jury lacks a solid historical foundation.

Indeed, juries informed about punishment were quite familiar to the founding generation.

8) I’ve always thought the survey-based estimates of propensity for partisan violence seemed unrealistically high.  Some new PS research on the topic that, says, yes, they are.  Fascinating thread on how disengaged survey respondents are likely leading to large over-estimates.  

9) Gotta love this idea– potty-training cows to reduce emissions:

A herd of “clever cattle” in Germany have successfully been potty-trained and can now relieve themselves in a designated area nicknamed the “MooLoo,” scientists say — a move that they hope will help lower greenhouse gas emissions amid the global warming crisis.

There are an estimated 1.4 billion cows on Earth and they happen to emit a lot of harmful waste products — through burping, urination and defecating — making the animals a major driver of climate change.

Their frequent urination produces 55 to 110 gallons of methane each day and contains nitrogenous components that pollute Earth’s streams and rivers, make the waters dangerous for people to swim in or drink from, and pose a risk to wildlife.

The University of Auckland joined forces with scientists at a research laboratory in Germany for an experiment that would allow the cow’s urine to be collected, treated and neutralized — so it poses less of a risk.

According to researchers, 11 out of 16 calves were taught to use the MooLoo in just 15 training sessions — a result they said compares favorably to the amount of time it takes to toilet-train children ages 3 to 4.

“The common perception is that cows are placid, lovable, but perhaps not as bright as other animals,” said Lindsay Matthews, a New Zealand-based animal behavioral expert and one of the lead authors of the study. “The cute thing here is that the animals are causing a problem, because of [intensive] farming practices. And here, we can have them as part of the solution, by using their underestimated intellect.”

During the training process, the animals were rewarded with a sweet treat when they urinated exactly where they were supposed to go — in a special pen installed in their barn. If they toileted outside of the area they were offered a mild punishment: a short burst of water.

10) You know I love my apples.  Honeycrisps are good, but over-rated.  Good, but not worth the premium price and there’s a lot of other supermarket apples out there with better, more complex flavor.  Now Honeycrisp has an offspring that’s great for late summer when the apples from storage are old and bad.  Raves ripen early so they are fresh in August and September and they’ve got a great flavor.  Pretty excited to find these at my local Harris Teeter.

11) Frum on the NeverTrumpers dilemma:

Many of the conservatives and Republicans appalled by Donald Trump’s presidency clutched a hope through the bewildering years: Someday this would all be over and politics would return to normal.

But normal has not returned. Those elected Republicans who stood for legality when Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election found themselves party pariahs in 2021, on their way to being out of politics altogether in 2022.

And it’s not just a few politicians who have been displaced by the Trump era. Millions of voters have been too. “Never Trump is not a political party. It is a dinner party”: That jibe was heard a lot in 2017 and 2018. It has not been heard much since. In 2018, Democratic candidates won districts that had loyally voted Republican for 30, 40, 50 years, including those once held by Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, and George H. W. Bush.

The anti-Trump Republicans did not return home in 2020. Now, in 2021, their former party seems much more eager to welcome anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers than to win them back.

12) If you love a good subway like I do, you’ll also love this audio interactive, “The Hidden Melodies of Subways Around the World: When train doors close, these jingles warn riders to stand clear.”

13) Local school/air quality news, “NC parents are buying air purifiers for schools. Are they worth the cost to fight COVID?”

Last school year, Wake County school system installed MERV-13 air filters in the HVAC units at each school. But the district is only providing individual air purification units to special-needs classrooms where students are unable to wear face masks.

The reason that Wake County hasn’t provided air purifiers in every classroom is the ABC Science Collaborative, a group formed by Duke University to advise schools on COVID issues.

“Air exchange, purifiers, or filters may help minimally, but have not been shown to help if people are masked.”

I’ve been meaning to write a whole post about this, but, what the hell?!?!  There’s plenty of evidence, just no large trials.  A lack of large RCT trials is not the same things as “no scientific data.”  This is just wrong.  

14) I watched the 2015 movie, Sicario, this week.  It was so damn good.  How the hell did I not hear about this back in 2015?!  We need more movies like this– exciting, thrilling, wonderfully-directed, and about real human beings.

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

One Response to Quick hits (part II)

  1. Nicole K says:

    #5: “Hanlon’s razor” sounds a lot like the principle of charity to me. We never do ourselves or anyone else any favors by jumping to the worst possible motivation or intentions to explain why someone did or said something we really don’t like. Most of the time people aren’t trying to be assholes, and jumping to the worst possible interpretation of events is usually not a productive way to resolve any situation.

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