Quick hits (part II)

1) Shark attacks (great whites!) are way up at Cape Cod.  And it’s, kind of, a good thing as its a sign of a restored ecosystem (the sharks are following the seals, which have nicely recovered thanks to federal protection).  Pretty fascinating story.

2) Geoffrey Skelley analyzes Biden’s approval:

Recent polling suggests that Hispanic approval of Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy has fallen sharply. The latest poll from The Economist/YouGov found just 45 percent of Hispanics approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, compared with 65 percent in early June. And Politico/Morning Consult’s new survey found Hispanic approval of Biden’s handling of the economy has dropped to 42 percent, compared with 60 percent back in June. Hispanics are also frustrated with how Biden has dealt with immigration — long one of Biden’s weakest issues in the public’s eyes — and although it isn’t the most important issue for Hispanic voters, it is often a highly salient one. Earlier this month, Quinnipiac University found that only 23 percent of Hispanic Americans approved of Biden’s work on immigration, down from 49 percent in late May. Even if that might be on the low end for Biden, the new Politico/Morning Consult survey also found him performing more poorly on the issue among Hispanic voters, as just 40 percent approved, compared with 51 percent in June.

Biden has lost ground among almost every single demographic group over the past few months, but independents and Hispanics stick out as two key groups where Biden’s standing has especially faltered. For Democrats looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, Biden’s overall approval rating is concerning enough, but if Biden is struggling to win independents and Hispanics, that could snuff out any hope Democrats have of holding either chamber of Congress. After all, independents backed Democrats in the 2018 midterms and Biden last November, and even though Republicans made gains with Hispanics in places like Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Hispanics still largely backed Biden and helped him win in key swing states, like Arizona. But if Republicans can capitalize on Biden’s weakness among these groups, that could be their ticket back to controlling Congress next year.

3) Michele Goldberg on Angela Merkel and refugees:

The climax of Kati Marton’s captivating new biography of Angela Merkel, “The Chancellor,” comes in 2015, when the German leader refused to close her country’s borders to a tide of refugees fleeing civil war and state collapse in the Middle East and Africa.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” Merkel said, calling on the other members of the European Union to take in more people as well. “I don’t want to get into a competition in Europe of who can treat these people the worst.” For the usually stolid and cautious chancellor, it was a great political leap, a sudden act of moral heroism that would define her legacy.

By the end of the year, a million refugees had come. Many observers predicted disaster. According to Marton, Henry Kissinger, ever callous, told Merkel, “To shelter one refugee is a humanitarian act, but to allow one million strangers in is to endanger German civilization.” Marton quotes my colleague Ross Douthat writing that anyone who believes that Germany can “peacefully absorb a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference” is a “fool.” She describes former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s fear that the refugees would be Merkel’s “political undoing.”

For a while, it seemed like some of this pessimism was warranted. Douthat’s column was inspired by a hideous outburst of violence in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, in which a mob of largely Middle Eastern and North African men sexually assaulted scores of women. The refugee influx fueled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, which in 2017 won 94 seats to become the largest opposition party in Parliament. Some blamed Merkel’s policy for spooking Brits into supporting Brexit. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump seized on it. Though Merkel retained the chancellorship after the 2017 elections, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, lost 65 seats.

But six years later, the catastrophes predicted by Merkel’s critics haven’t come to pass.  [Funny how that never happens]

In the recent German election, refugees were barely an issue, and the AfD lost ground. “The sense is that there has been comparatively little Islamic extremism or extremist crime resulting from this immigration, and that on the whole, the largest number of these immigrants have been successfully integrated into the German work force and into German society overall,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution.

“With the passage of time,” Marton told me, Merkel “turned out to have chosen the absolutely right course for not only Germany but for the world.”

4) I’m pretty persuaded the biggest problem with our ports is a huge influx of imported goods.  And this Cato report may well blame unions too much, but a pretty interesting look at long-standing, systematic policy explanations for the mess we’re in now. 

The Long‐​Term Problems at U.S. Ports
At the same time, however, many of the problems at U.S. ports today result from intentional decisions made years ago—decisions that have caused our port system to badly lag much of the world. According to the 2020 World Bank/​IHS Markit “Container Port Performance Index,” for example, not one U.S. port ranked in the top 50 global ports in terms of getting a ship in and out of a port (see flowchart below), using either a “statistical approach” measuring efficiency and finances or an “administrative approach” reflecting expert knowledge and judgment. The highest ranked U.S. port (statistically) was Philadelphia at 83, with Virginia close behind at 85 and NY/NJ at 89. Oakland came in at 332, while LA/LB ranked a dismal 328 and 333, respectively. (Things are even a little worse using the “administrative approach.”)…

Summing It All Up
On the surface, the pandemic is the main cause of the “shipping crisis” and the related pain to the U.S. economy. And given the wild swings in global supply and demand—and players’ inability to snap their fingers and add new ships, warehouses, trains, or maybe even workers—these pressures will continue for the next several months, if not a little longer. But dig a little deeper, and we see that much of the current mess in the United States was decades in the making, reflecting systemic labor and trade policies that decrease the efficiency and flexibility that U.S. ports — and the economy reliant on them—enjoy in the best of times and desperately need in the worst. Sure, these same policies undoubtedly enrich a handful of U.S. workers and companies, but the shipping crisis has revealed some of their much bigger, usually‐​unseen harms—and the necessity of reform.

Broader lessons abound.

5) Science! “Scientists just broke the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in a lab”

Scientists just broke the record for the coldest temperature ever measured in a lab: They achieved the bone-chilling temperature of 38 trillionths of a degree above -273.15 Celsius by dropping magnetized gas 393 feet (120 meters) down a tower. 

The team of German researchers was investigating the quantum properties of a so-called fifth state of matter: Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a derivative of gas that exists only under ultra-cold conditions. While in the BEC phase, matter itself begins to behave like one large atom, making it an especially appealing subject for quantum physicists who are interested in the mechanics of subatomic particles…

Near absolute zero, some weird things start to happen. For example, light becomes a liquid that can literally be poured into a container, according to research published in 2017 in the journal Nature Physics. Supercooled helium stops experiencing friction at very low temperatures, according to a study published in 2017 in the journalNature Communications. And inNASA’s Cold Atom Lab, researchers have even witnessed  atoms existing in two places at once.

In this record-breaking experiment, scientists trapped a cloud of around 100,000 gaseous rubidium atoms in a magnetic field inside a vacuum chamber. Then, they cooled the chamber way down, to around 2 billionths of a degree Celsius above absolute zero, which would have been a world record in itself, according to NewAtlas

But this wasn’t quite frigid enough for the researchers, who wanted to push the limits of physics; to get even colder, they needed to mimic deep-space conditions. So the team took their setup to the European Space Agency’s Bremen drop tower, a microgravity research center at the University of Bremen in Germany. By dropping the vacuum chamber into a free fall while switching the magnetic field on and off rapidly, allowing the BEC to float uninhibited by gravity, they slowed the rubidium atoms’ molecular motion to almost nothing. The resulting BEC stayed at 38 picokelvins – 38 trillionths of a Kelvin – for about 2 seconds, setting “an absolute minus record”, the team reported Aug. 30 in the journal Physical Review Letters. The previous record of 36 millionths of a Kelvin, was achieved by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado with specialized lasers.

6) David Epstein takes a recent reversal on aspirin to revisit the medical statistic we should be more familiar with, Number Needed to Treat:

A whopping 29 million Americans — that’s the entire population of Texas — take aspirin every single day in order to prevent heart disease. Last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued draft guidelines saying that most of those people should probably stop, because the potential harms outweigh the benefits.

That’s a big friggin’ deal. Medical recommendations change all the time, as knowledge is updated. But I think this case is a particularly teachable moment, highlighting the importance of comparing costs and benefits on the same scale. And there’s an important concept in medicine that can help with that — namely: NNT.

NNT is an abbreviation for “number needed to treat.” In other words: How many patients must be treated with the drug in order for a single patient to get the desired benefit?

When you read about drugs in the news — or even in most medical journals — you will almost never be explicitly given the NNT (which I will explain in more detail below). Instead, you’ll get relative risk reduction, a metric that a Michigan State med school dean once told me “is just another way of lying.” Why would he say that?

Relative Risk Reduction

Here’s a fictional example:

You read that a new drug reduces your chance of dying from Ryantastic syndrome by 40 percent. Here’s what that means in practice: if 10 in 100,000 people normally die from Ryantastic syndrome, and everyone takes the new drug, only 6 in 100,000 people will die from Ryantastic syndrome. Now let’s think about it from an NNT perspective.

For 100,000 patients who took the new drug, four deaths by Ryantastic syndrome were avoided, or one per 25,000 patients who took the drug. So the NNT is 25,000; that is, 25,000 patients must take the drug in order for one death-by-Ryantastic to be avoided. Ideally, you also want to know the NNH, or “number needed to harm.”

Let’s say that 1 in 1,000 patients who take the new drug suffer a particular grievous side effect. In that case, the NNH is 1,000, while the NNT is 25,000. Suddenly, the decision seems a lot more complicated than if you’re just told the drug will lower your chance of dying from Ryantastic syndrome by 40 percent.

Now let’s move to the real world: aspirin. Nearly five years ago, the NNT and NNH of aspirin caught my eye, so I included them in an article about medical evidence:

For elderly women who take it daily for a year to prevent a first heart attack, aspirin has an estimated NNT of 872 and an NNH of 436. That means if 1,000 elderly women take aspirin daily for a decade, 11 of them will avoid a heart attack; meanwhile, twice that many will suffer a major gastrointestinal bleeding event that would not have occurred if they hadn’t been taking aspirin.

And so why did the recent task force make the new recommendation? According to the New York times:

The U.S. task force wants to strongly discourage anyone 60 and older from starting a low-dose aspirin regimen, citing concerns about the age-related heightened risk for life-threatening bleeding.

They looked at the same kind of data that I did and saw that the tradeoff between the NNT and the NNH didn’t look so good. As a doctor I once interviewed on this topic told me: when a massive group of people who don’t have symptoms take a drug, the chances of harm will often outweigh the chances of help. That certainly is not to say that this is always the case, but as the old medical adage goes: it’s hard to make asymptomatic patients better.

Once I started looking at NNT and NNH data instead of relative risk, one of my main takeaways was that most drugs don’t do anything significantly good or bad for most people who take them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, it’s just a different — and, I think, important — perspective. Here’s a graphic illustration of what I mean, from my 2017 ProPublica article:

WYSIATI: “What You See Is All There Is”

The larger point I really want to hammer home is that a statistic like relative risk reduction — which is far and away the most common one you’re getting — is not the statistic that you need in order to make an informed decision.

7) Michele Goldberg again, “When a Miscarriage Is Manslaughter”

Brittney Poolaw, then 19 years old, showed up at the Comanche County Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma last year after suffering a miscarriage at home. She had been about 17 weeks pregnant. According to an affidavit from a police detective who interviewed her, she admitted to hospital staff that she had recently used both methamphetamine and marijuana.

A medical examiner cited her drug use as one of several “conditions contributing” to the miscarriage, a list which also included congenital abnormality and placental abruption. Poolaw was arrested on a charge of manslaughter in the first degree, and because she couldn’t afford a $20,000 bond, jailed for a year and a half awaiting trial.

The trial finally took place this month and lasted one day. According to a local television station, an expert witness for the prosecution testified that methamphetamine use may not have been directly responsible for the death of Poolaw’s fetus. Nevertheless, after deliberating for less than three hours, a jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to four years in prison.

From the detective’s affidavit, it seems possible Poolaw’s entire ordeal might have been avoided had she had access to decent reproductive health care. Poolaw, the detective wrote, “stated when she found out she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.”

Poolaw’s case is an injustice, but it is also a warning. This is what happens when the law treats embryos and fetuses as people with rights that supersede the rights of those who carry them. And it offers a glimpse of the sort of prosecutions that could become common in a world in which Roe v. Wade is overturned, one we could be living in as soon as next year.

Abortion opponents often insist they have no intention of imprisoning women who end their pregnancies. When, as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump said that there should be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, he was widely denounced by mainstream anti-abortion activists: Peggy Nance, head of Concerned Women for America, called him “the caricature that the left tries to paint us to be.”

But for years now, the anti-abortion movement has been working to change state laws to define embryos and fetuses as “people” or “children.” This has resulted in women being punished for things they do, or don’t do, while pregnant. Often, these prosecutions target women who take drugs; ProPublica reported on a case in Alabama in which a woman was charged with “chemical endangerment of a child” because she twice took half a Valium when she was pregnant.

8) This “Do you know how to tip? Test your knowledge about tipping while traveling in America ” actually really annoyed me (even though I did really well) because it just took all this tipping as a given, instead of pointing out just how absurd it is on so many levels.  

9) Here’s the thing about this story, “A woman won a million-euro Spanish literary prize. It turned out that ‘she’ was actually three men.”

The work of one woman was, it turned out, the equivalent of the labors of three men.

That was at least the case for Spain’s top writer of crime thrillers, a professor and mother who wrote under the pseudonym Carmen Mola, supposedly to maintain her anonymity.

But on Friday night, at a ceremony to award the 1 million euro (about $1,160,000) Planeta literary prize to Mola for her historical thriller “The Beast,” three men ascended the podium and claimed the award instead.

Mola’s gripping, often-gory novels starring strong female protagonists have been likened to the work of Elena Ferrante, a pseudonym for a widely popular Italian writer.

Mola is best known for a trilogy starring a “peculiar and solitary” female police inspector “who loves grappa, karaoke, classic cars and sex in SUVs,” according to publisher Penguin Random House. That trilogy has been translated into 11 languages and is being adapted for television.

Good art speaks to the human condition and that knows no bounds of race, gender, geography, etc.  So, of course three men can write stories with strong and fully-realized female protagonists.  And women can write amazing male characters.  And white people can write rich, complex black people and vice versa.  So enough with the race and gender essentialism. 

10) I love online shopping.  I hate the massive waste this creates with returns.  Good stuff from Amanda Mull:

We can dispatch now with a common myth of modern shopping: The stuff you return probably isn’t restocked and sent back out to another hopeful owner. Many retailers don’t allow any opened product to be resold as new. Brick-and-mortar stores have sometimes skirted that policy; products that are returned directly to the place where they were sold can be deemed close enough to new and sold again. But even if mailed-in products come back in pristine, unused condition—say, because you ordered two sizes of the same bra and the first one you tried on fit fine—the odds that things returned to a sorting facility will simply be transferred to that business’s inventory aren’t great, and in some cases, they’re virtually zero. Getting an item back into a company’s new-product sales stream, which is sometimes in a whole different state, can be logistically prohibitive. Some things, such as beauty products, underwear, and bathing suits, are destroyed for sanitary reasons, even if they appear to be unopened or unused…

Perfectly good stuff gets thrown away in these facilities all the time, simply because the financial math of doing anything else doesn’t work out; they’re too inexpensive to be worth the effort, or too much time has passed since they were sold. Fast fashion—the extremely low-cost, quick-churn styles you can buy from brands such as Forever 21 and Fashion Nova—tends to tick both boxes, and the industry generates some of the highest return rates in all of consumer sales. Imagine a dress that sold for $25 and was sent back without its plastic packaging at the end of the typical 30-day return window. Add up the labor to pick, pack, and dispatch the item; the freight both coming and going; the labor to receive and sort the now-returned item; the cardboard and plastic for packaging; and the sorting facility’s overhead, and the seller has already lost money. By one estimate, an online return typically costs a retailer $10 to $20 before the cost of shipping. And in the space of a month, the people who might have paid full price for the dress have moved on to newer items on the seller’s website. At that point, one way or another, the dress has got to go…

Now is usually when people start wondering why more returns aren’t just donated. Don’t lots of people in the U.S. need winter coats and smartphones and other crucial tools of everyday life that they can’t afford? Wouldn’t providing those things be good PR for retailers? Wouldn’t it be a tax write-off, at the very least? Donation would be the morally sound move. But companies have little incentive to act morally, and many avoid large-scale domestic donations because of what is politely termed “brand dilution”: If paying customers catch you giving things to poor people for free, the logic goes, they’ll feel like the things you sell are no longer valuable.

Some of the largest retailers, such as Amazon and Target, have begun to quietly acknowledge that it doesn’t even make sense for them to eat the cost of reverse logistics to get back many of the things they sell. They’ll refund you for your itchy leggings or wonky throw pillows and suggest that you give them away, which feels like an act of generosity but, more likely, is really just farming out the task of product disposal.

 

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

2 Responses to Quick hits (part II)

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    #3 Does anyone have any ideas why Germany seems to have integrated refugees into their economy more smoothly than the French? It might be helpful for the U.S. to have that information.

  2. Karsten says:

    Re “relative risk reduction …. “is just another way of lying””…..

    Yes. But it’s much much worse….

    This type of lying, and many other forms of lying and cheating, are actively utilized in the massive Covid Scam and the world at large — study “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective  & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” by Rolf Hefti at https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

    “If you don’t stand up for the unvaxxed now, you wouldn’t have stood up for the Jews then.” — Paul Rosenberg

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