Merry Christmas Quick hits (part I)

1a) From Pro Publica, “This Scientist Created a Rapid Test Just Weeks Into the Pandemic. Here’s Why You Still Can’t Get It.: Irene Bosch developed a quick, inexpensive COVID-19 test in early 2020. The Harvard-trained scientist already had a factory set up. But she was stymied by an FDA process experts say made no sense.”

On March 21 — when the U.S. had recorded only a few hundred COVID-19 deaths  Bosch submitted the test for emergency authorization, a process the Food and Drug Administration uses to expedite tests and treatments.

A green light from the FDA could have made a big difference for the many Americans who were then frantically trying to find doctors to swab their noses, with results, if they were lucky, coming back only days later.

But the go-ahead never came.

In the months that followed, Bosch responded to repeated requests from FDA reviewers for data and studies. When the agency finally put out guidance that summer about the performance over-the-counter home tests needed to meet, officials required that such tests be nearly as sensitive as the lab tests used to definitively determine whether a patient has COVID-19.

That standard proved difficult to meet. Rapid tests are usually sensitive enough to detect viral antigens when someone has enough of them to be able to spread the disease. Such tests are not as good at picking up cases in either earlier or later stages of infection, when viral loads are lower.

Bosch’s tests missed the FDA’s high bar. It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that much larger companies were able to design similar tests — relatively inexpensive, over-the-counter rapid tests — that the agency found acceptable.

“You could have antigen tests saving lives since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Bosch, sitting in her lab at MIT. “That’s the sad story.”

As ProPublica recently detailed, many companies with at-home tests have been stymied by an FDA review process that has flummoxed experts and even caused one agency reviewer to quit in frustration.

While E25Bio’s test didn’t catch quite as many cases as those now on the market, it could have been used to catch superspreaders, with warnings that a negative result wouldn’t rule out infection. Experts told us that the test could have been a vital public health tool had it been produced in the millions in 2020 just as COVID-19 was racing across the country undetected.

“Since we didn’t have other options, it would have been a very good test,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist who followed E25Bio’s early progress. “If we were going to war, and somebody was invading us, and we had a bunch of revolver pistols, and we didn’t yet have the shipment of machine guns, hell yeah, you’re going to pick up the revolver pistol. You do what you can when you need to in an emergency.”

Three other experts reviewed Bosch’s submissions at ProPublica’s request and agreed that her test approached what is now considered acceptable for over-the-counter tests.

1b) Michael Mina

2) Chait, “Biden Should Take Manchin’s Deal Right Now”

Sunday morning, Joe Manchin threw a giant twist into the plot of the Biden presidency by announcing his opposition to the administration’s signature domestic agenda. But the new plot had a gaping hole: Biden noted that, a few days before walking away, Manchin had made a counteroffer to Biden at the White House.

What was the counteroffer? And why did Biden reject it?

The Washington Post fills in the answer. Manchin’s proposal included universal pre-kindergarten, an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and hundreds of billions of dollars in green energy spending, all totaling the promised $1.8 trillion.

The main conceptual difference between Manchin’s bid and Biden’s ask is that Biden is trying to fund more programs with the same amount of money and does it by phasing several of them out after a few years. Manchin opposes this from the right as a fiscally irresponsible scheme to start up programs that will get extended but lack any funding source. The more important argument against it is that these plans won’t be permanent, because a future Republican Congress will happily let them expire, which would mean the hard-won spending Biden negotiated will be for naught.

5) I can’t imagine too many people want to move to Mississippi, but this was quite interesting in the Planet Money newsletter, “Where To Live To Get The Most Bang For Your Buck”

Natchez, Mississippi, is a town of about 15,000 people nestled on the Mississippi River. It’s pretty, pretty enough to be a popular wedding destination. It’s racially diverse. It’s got a college campus, multiple art galleries, good steakhouses and southern eateries, a brewery, and a decent nightlife. Natchez’s tourism agency says the town offers “a taste of true southern hospitality” and “a visit to Natchez feels like coming home.”

But Natchez may hold even more appeal for the roughly 60 percent of American adults who have not graduated from college. A fascinating new study by Stanford University economist Rebecca Diamond and UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti finds that Natchez and its surrounding area offers one of the highest standards of living in America for workers without college degrees…

“The big, overall takeaway for college graduates is that expensive cities like New York and San Francisco remain a pretty good deal,” Moretti says. Sure, they’re obnoxiously expensive. But, educated workers have jobs that are so good that their incomes are more than enough to offset higher expenses. “San Francisco, for example, is in the top 20 percent in terms of standard of living across all locations.” New York is not far behind. 

Overall, Diamond and Moretti find that the standard of living for college graduates across America varies much less than it does for other workers. The jobs they get basically offer a cushy cost of living adjustment, so, on average, college graduates are able to afford a relatively similar lifestyle no matter where they live in America.

That said, there are still some significant differences in standard of living. The five places — technically, “commuting zones,” so these places and the area around them — with the highest standard of living for college graduates:

  • McAllen, Texas
  • Houston, Texas
  • Huntington, West Virginia
  • Beamont, Texas
  • Charleston, South Carolina…
Workers With Only A High School Diploma

“For the less educated households, the picture is quite different,” Moretti says. While they still do get paid more in places with a higher cost of living, their incomes do not adjust as strongly as they do for college-educated folks. So living in these areas, if they are not getting outside help from family or the government, makes them financially worse off.  “Expensive cities offer a significantly lower standard of living compared to more affordable communities,” Moretti says.

The five places with the highest standard of living for those with only a high school diploma:

  • Gallup, New Mexico
  • Summersville, West Virginia
  • Natchez, Mississippi 
  • Graham, Texas
  • Marquette, Michigan 

The five places with the lowest standard of living for those with only a high school diploma:

  • Asheville, North Carolina
  • San Diego, California
  • Manhattan, Kansas
  • Medford, Oregon
  • Jacksonville, North Carolina…
The Bigger Picture

It’s worth highlighting that some of the most expensive places in the country, like San Francisco and New York, are not at the bottom of any of these lists for having a low standard of living, even for those without a high school diploma. We asked Moretti about this, and he said the reason is simple: they may be more expensive, but they also offer higher salaries than any of the places that fare worse in their data. 

That said, Moretti says that expensive cities like New York and San Francisco are still low on the list for those who didn’t finish college and those who didn’t finish high school. They offer a pretty low standard of living for these classes of people relative to most of the country. 

As a result of this project, Moretti says, he’s come to believe that big, expensive cities offer significantly lower standards of living than he previously believed. Yes, they remain beacons of opportunity for brainiacs as well as those with fancy pedigrees or good connections. “But my thinking has evolved on less educated workers,” he says. “For them, expensive cities seem to be much less of a good deal than it looks like when you look simply at the higher incomes they earn there.” 

6) So much this, “The Anti-Abortion Movement Could Reduce Abortions if It Wanted To”

Often an abortion happens because a woman is pregnant when she didn’t intend to be. It is true that some women terminate wanted but doomed pregnancies and others face serious health complications. But if abortion opponents are serious about decreasing the need for abortion instead of simply punishing women and doctors, they should be rallying around contraception access. Instead, they’re largely standing in the way.

As of 2019, researchers found that 45 percent of all pregnancies in the United States were unintended and roughly 40 percent of unintended pregnancies were terminated. This makes for very simple math: Decrease unintended pregnancies and you decrease abortions.

The best way to do that is with easy access to modern methods of contraception, particularly long-acting ones (IUDs, for example), coupled with comprehensive sex education. The U.S. abortion rate is at a record low because of a significant decrease in unintended pregnancies, which Guttmacher Institute researchers say “is most plausibly explained by more and better contraceptive use.” Though a large majority of Americans, including those who might identify as pro-life, believe contraception is morally acceptable, many of the powerful anti-abortion lobbyists who shape Republican Party priorities and lead the legal attacks on reproductive health are at best silent about, and at worst hostile to, modern contraception.

Most anti-abortion groups do not publicly favor full and free access to some of the most effective contraceptives, and many adamantly oppose them. Some even claim (contrary to the scientific consensus) that some of the most common methods, including the pill, are “abortifacients.”

On its face, this makes very little sense. Why would groups that want to end abortion not support the most efficient way to make abortions less common? The answer is that their mission extends beyond abortion and into the regulation of sex, gender roles and the family. Contraception and abortion are tied together because both offer women the freedom to have sex for pleasure in or outside of marriage, and both allow women greater control over their lives and futures. The “pro-life” goal isn’t an end to abortion. It’s to establish another means of controlling women.

7) Eric Levitz with a nice reminder on how nuts the Authoritarian Right in America is, “The Authoritarian Right’s 1877 Project”

In a recent column for The American Conservative, Helen Andrews argues that Reconstruction — that brief slice of the 19th century during which Black Southerners enjoyed extensive political rights under the aegis of Northern Republicans — was “objectively bad.” Further, she insists that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode,” as today’s mainstream historians do, “would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.” She proceeds to suggest that the conception of Reconstruction as “a noble experiment in interracial democracy” is crypto-communist agitprop.

In support of this argument, Andrews marshals two basic contentions:

• Reconstruction governments were uniquely corrupt. In Andrews’s words, Southern corruption during the period was “not just a matter of a little graft here and there,” but rather constituted “the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few.”

Andrews’s condemnation of contemporary U.S. historiography is almost refreshing for its forthrightness. Unlike some of her ideological bedfellows, Andrews is not trying to veil her wildly reactionary understanding of American racial history behind more respectable concerns; no ill-defined abstractions like “critical race theory” shroud her apologia for white Southern redemption. Yet Andrews is only candid in relative terms. In truth, her column is unrelenting in its refusal to baldly state its most incendiary implications…

In any case, the political dispute that shadows contemporary debates over Reconstruction doesn’t concern the desirability of Bolshevism so much as that of popular democracy. I can’t speak to Andrews’s personal motivations. So it may well be a coincidence that she is reviving rationalizations for Black disenfranchisement at a time when the Republican Party is subverting election administration and working to entrench racial inequality in political representation. But there is certainly an affinity between conservative arguments against Reconstruction and the movement’s contemporary justifications for gerrymandering and election subversion. In both instances, the right invokes the irresponsibility of Black voters and corruption of Black officials to legitimate anti-majoritarian forms of governance. When Donald Trump sought to discredit the integrity of the 2020 election’s results, he concentrated his allegations of impropriety on heavily Black urban centers such Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta — even though Republicans lost far more ground in affluent white suburbs. In 2018, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin state Assembly justified his party’s decision to transfer various authorities away from the incoming Democratic governor on the grounds that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have [won] a clear majority.”

In recent years, conservatives have accused liberals of embracing a moralistic revisionist history that privileges ideological dogma and political expediency above nuance and historical accuracy. In arguing that Reconstruction was “objectively bad,” Andrews ably demonstrates that on this matter, as on so many others, the right practices what it preaches against.

Her column is everything that Republicans have denounced “The 1619 Project” for being. And while the latter was a mere magazine issue, the right’s burgeoning “1877 Project” threatens to become something farmore sinister.

8) How had I not heard about this?! “Maryland’s Wayward Zebras Have Been Captured After Nearly Four Months”

For almost four months, two escaped zebras had built a life for themselves in the suburban terrain of Maryland.

They made surprise backyard appearances, much to the delight of residents, and crossed the streets like every other law-abiding citizen. They grazed on fields and pastures and drank from streams.

They also evaded numerous attempts to corral them. But they were finally captured last week, the Maryland Department of the Environment said in a statement on Tuesday.

The two zebras had been among the most wanted residents of Prince George’s County since they escaped with a third zebra from a farm in August.

The third zebra was found dead in a snare trap a month after the escape, the Maryland Natural Resources Police said in October. All three animals had been living on a farm owned by Jerry Lee Holly, 76, in Upper Marlboro, Md., according to the authorities.

The details of the capture and the circumstances of their initial escape were still unclear. But the zebras have now been “returned to the herd,” the Department of the Environment said in the statement. The department did not respond to questions on Tuesday.

9) Just came across this from almost two years ago, but still highly relevant, “Math scores stink in America. Other countries teach it differently – and see higher achievement.”

American students struggle in math. 

The latest results of an international exam given to teenagers ranked the USA ninth in reading and 31st in math literacy out of 79 countries and economies. America has a smaller-than-average share of top-performing math students, and scores have essentially been flat for two decades.

One likely reason: U.S. high schools teach math differently than other countries. 

Classes here often focus on formulas and procedures rather than teaching students to think creatively about solving complex problems involving all sorts of mathematics, experts said. That makes it harder for students to compete globally, be it on an international exam or in colleges and careers that value sophisticated thinking and data science. 

There is a growing chorus of math experts who recommend ways to bring America’s math curriculum into the 21st century to make it more reflective of what children in higher-performing countries learn. Some schools experiment with ways to make math more exciting, practical and inclusive. 

“There’s a lot of research that shows when you teach math in a different way, kids do better, including on test scores,” said Jo Boaler, a mathematics professor at Stanford University who is behind a major push to remake America’s math curriculum.

Here are some ideas for improving it:

Stop teaching the ‘geometry sandwich’

Most American high schools teach algebra I in ninth grade, geometry in 10th grade and algebra II in 11th grade – something Boaler calls “the geometry sandwich.”

Other countries teach three straight years of integrated math – I, II and III — in which concepts of algebra, geometry, probability, statistics and data science are taught together, allowing students to take deep dives into complex problems.

In higher-performing countries, statistics or data science – the computer-based analysis of data, often coupled with coding – is a larger part of the math curriculum, Boaler said. Most American classes focus on teaching rote procedures, she said. 

Next year, Boaler and a research team plan to recommend that California phase out the algebra-geometry pathway in favor of integrated math for all students – something she pitched to education leaders across the state. 

Some states, such as Utah, have made the switch. The Common Core academic standards, a version of which most states adopted, say high school math can be taught in either format.

I was intrigued to learn the “geometry sandwich” was still prevalent, as my college senior son actually took integrated math in high school here in Wake County.  Anyway, other interesting ideas there, too.

10) Fascinating story about the case of the man falsely convicted of raping the author of the mega-bestseller, The Lovely Bones. “He Was Convicted of Raping Alice Sebold. Then the Case Unraveled.: Anthony Broadwater was exonerated in the 1981 rape of Ms. Sebold, now a best-selling author. When his lawyers saw the trial transcript, they could only wonder what took so long.” (The month is almost out and I’ve done too few free-for-all NYT links, so this one is– read it!)

11) Good stuff from Vox on why movie theaters aren’t actually dead yet.

12) Just read this New Yorker story yesterday and it’s brilliant and devastating and oh-so-sad, “The secretive prisons that keep migrants out of Europe: Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the E.U. has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias.”

13) Two really depressing pieces of evidence on Omicron:

14) So, let’s finish it off with a great Noah Smith post that rounds up all the more encouraging Omicron evidence or recent days.



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