Small victories– oral contraceptives edition

This was nice to see today:

Beginning Tuesday, North Carolina women will be able to get hormonal birth control without a doctor’s prescription — a change that will give millions of women easier access to some of the most common contraceptives that prevent pregnancy. Under a new law, passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina will join more than a dozen other states in allowing pharmacists to dispense birth control pills and patches without the signature of a patient’s physician. Effective Feb. 1, the new law could help shrink North Carolina’s 44% unplanned pregnancy rate and eliminate some of the barriers — like the cost and time of going to the doctor — that prevent women from seeking health care.

Women should have control of their fertility and they should not need the hoops of a prescription for a medication that has proven safe for decades.  

I found this part encouraging as well:

Sen. Jim Burgin, a Republican from Harnett County who championed the legislation, said until that case is decided, the new law could prevent abortions in North Carolina. “Can we just all agree that an abortion is a bad outcome for everybody?” Burgin said. “What can we do to prevent people from ever having to make that decision? And so the best way to do that is to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.”

Too many Republicans are anti-contraceptive and really seem like they just want to punish women for having sex.  If you really want to limit abortions, you should be massively pro-contraception and want it to be as easy as possible to obtain.  Nice to see some of this going on in NC.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really, really enjoyed this take on the Donner Party.  A lot of interesting details I did not know.  Somebody really needs to make a good movie about this, by the way.  

2) Tom Nichols argues it’s time to “retire Jeopardy!”  Ummm, no, but he does make a lot of good points:

This leads to an even more important point. If knowledge isn’t the edge, what makes the difference? The thing that makes champions so hard to beat is not brainpower; it’s the buzzer.

Mastering that little clicker is everything.You can’t see it at home, but the board has lights that go on just off-screen that let you know when the host is done speaking. (This is why you never hear anyone ring in over the host: You can’t.)

When the light goes on, your buzzer goes hot, and each player tries to buzz in a millisecond before the other guys. Buzzing in early will lock you out for a split second; two of you buzzing in at the same time locks out both of you. Usually, all three of you know the answer, and it’s just a matter of getting there first. (“Triple stumpers,” where all three players stand there dumbfounded until the timer beeps, are pretty rare.)

Why does this matter? Because the more times you use the buzzer, the better you get at it. It really is a learned reflex. It takes a little getting used to, and then you develop a rhythm. And as my friend Jonathan Last pointed out to me recently, veteran players who master this ability have a greater chance of finding the Daily Doubles (where contestants can make big wagers beyond the value of the clue) because they can control the board for longer stretches. The Daily Double used to be a shot at changing the game’s momentum, sometimes with a dramatic bet. (I won some and lost some.) Now it’s mostly a way for the returning champs to invest in padding out a lead.

Another factor here is that the more times you win, the more comfortable you are in the studio. To play the game well, you have to get over the shock of realizing: Holy cats, I’m in the Jeopardy studio and that really is Alex freakin’ Trebek standing right there addressing me by name and wishing me luck.

Believe me, getting past that distraction is worth a lot of money.

Watch the veterans play after they’ve won a few games. They have cracked the code, which, as paradoxical as it seems, includes completely ignoring the host. The losers—again, you can watch this happen—are very focused on looking at the host, but the winners are looking at the board. They’re reading ahead, forming an answer, and waiting for the light to go on. In my best moments on the show, it was me and the board, that little light, the buzzer, and nothing else.

If you’ve done all this even two or three times, new players are at an instant disadvantage. No one wants to play against a returning champ. The day I played—I did five straight games in one day—there was wonderful camaraderie among us all in that sequestered contestant room, but there was just a little hesitance to sit with me at lunch after I’d turfed a bunch of other players. During the intro to one of the games, Alex said he’d overheard one of the other players saying “Someone’s gotta get this guy”—hey, thanks, Alex!—but that’s kind of normal, since I’d won a few already.

Now imagine going up against someone who’s won a half-dozen games. Or a dozen. Or 15 or 20.

It’s inherently unfair. What makes it worse is that players like James Holzhauer basically turned the game into a full-time job before they even got there. As I said at the time, it was about as interesting as going to the Sportsbook room at Caesars Palace and watching guys handicap the ponies or figuring out the spread in a college-basketball game.

3) And he linked to this Ringer piece on Jeopardy that I loved even more that was far more thoughtful about Jeopardy’s winning streaks this year than was a recent NYT piece.

Explaining this season’s radical inverse of the trend is trickier. The most obvious factor is that Jeopardy! has seen an explosion of applicants during the past two years, meaning that there are many more buzzer hopefuls—and big, beautiful brains—from which to choose. On February 12, 2020, Jeopardy! introduced the online Anytime Test, which allows aspiring contestants to take the required online contestant exam whenever they want instead of under the annual proctoring of old. Before the Anytime Test, approximately 70,000 people applied to be on Jeopardy! each year. As of Wednesday evening, the test had been taken a whopping 239,089 times, a Jeopardy! spokesperson confirmed to The Ringer. While some of those tests might reflect multiple attempts by the same person, that still comes out to an average of roughly 125,000 applicants per year in the Anytime Test era.

The pandemic might have had a hand in that growth as well. Before the past two years, would-be players who passed the 50-question online test were invited to a regional audition, often held in the closest major city. While the Jeopardy! contestant department rotated the locations of these auditions in most years—Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans in one year might be followed by Seattle, Orlando, and Boston in the next—this system still posed logistical and financial hurdles to quiz-show hopefuls. When the pandemic hit, in-person auditions were scratched in favor of ones conducted over Zoom.

The pandemic also affected the pool of prospective contestants in another way. Jeopardy! was among the first wave of shows to cautiously resume production in the summer of 2020. Some of the safety adjustments, like the newly separated contestant lecterns, were visible to the naked eye. Others were subtler. Careful viewers noticed that Season 37 took to announcing contestants not by their places of residence, but rather by their hometowns. Suddenly, “Claire McNear, a writer from Washington, D.C.,” became “Claire McNear, a writer originally from San Anselmo, California.” This change resulted from Jeopardy! dramatically restricting its contestant pool last season to only those residing within driving distance of the show’s Culver City studio. That meant that the overwhelming majority of players were from California; the show introduced them by their hometowns to give the illusion of geographic diversity when the real thing was deemed infeasible, either by show protocols or by contestants wary of cross-country travel.

Jeopardy! gradually relaxed its restrictions, and by last April filmed a much-delayed Tournament of Champions with 15 players from across the country. But by holding back so much of the talent pool, the show created a backlog of elite players from beyond the West Coast.

The quirks of filming in the midst of a pandemic might also be subtly affecting the results. Buzzy Cohen, who won nine games in 2016 and hosted last year’s Tournament of Champions, says the circumstances in which games are now taped could put new contestants at a disadvantage. Tape days are radically different than in the pre-COVID era, with a closed audience and constant reminders to space out and disinfect surfaces. “It’s much less warm and fuzzy now,” Cohen says. “I wonder if it’s harder for people to relax. Your family isn’t there with you. Having my wife looking up at me and giving me a little, ‘You can do this!’—that was a big help for me, especially when I was in a tough spot.”

4) More from Drum on schools and books:

I’m not in favor of bluenoses haunting school libraries and demanding the removal of anything they find offensive. Honest!

Still, for the folks yelling about “book burners” and whatnot, a quick note: you realize, don’t you, that every school library has a school librarian who makes judgments about which books to buy? And those judgments depend a lot on the community the school is in. This has been true forever.

In other words, local decisions about which books to buy and which books to get rid of are baked into the cake and always have been. In rural communities, it’s more likely that sexually explicit books will never be purchased or will be the eventual target of removal. In urban communities, it’s more likely that old books which treat race or sex or gender in ways no longer considered acceptable will be tossed out.

It’s fine to fight over this. That’s the American way. But please understand that it’s way, way less important than you probably think. Deciding which books are and aren’t suitable for children happens in millions of households and thousands of libraries every single day. Maybe in yours, in fact.

Along these lines, I think the Maus thing was somewhat overblown.  That said, it is very much occurring in a context where Republicans are doing their damndest to suppress ideas that make them uncomfortable.

5) Ron Brownstein:

Proposals to limit how public K–12 schools—and even public colleges and universities—talk about race are exploding. They represent the latest battlefield between what I’ve called the Republican “coalition of restoration,” centered on the places and people most uneasy about the way America is changing, and the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation,” revolving around those most comfortable with these changes.

The bills are usually promoted as a response to “critical race theory,” but generally impose much broader prohibitions by barring educators from teaching that racism either has been or remains endemic in America. A law approved last year in Texas, for instance, prohibits schools from teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

In 2021, nine Republican-controlled states approved laws limiting the discussion of racism (and in many cases gender inequity), and four others imposed restrictions through the state’s board of education. This year, the pace “has clearly accelerated,” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, told me. Of the 122 state bills that Sachs has tracked for PEN America, a free-speech organization, since January 2021, more than half have been introduced just in the past three weeks as state legislatures have reconvened for this year’s session. So many proposals are surfacing so fast that Sachs said his “gut instinct” is that all 23 states where Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature eventually “will see a [censorship] bill passed.”

Like the restrictions on voting, these moves to limit the discussion of race in public educational institutions are being promoted by influential conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America. And like their companion laws, these measures are advancing through red states on a virtually complete party-line basis. Of the bills Sachs has cataloged, “every single one is exclusively sponsored by Republicans,” he said.

Experts agree that many schools are discussing issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation more explicitly than in the past, a trend that genuinely raises questions for some parents without a strong ideological agenda. But Ruthanne Buck, a senior adviser to the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonprofit group recently formed to fight the state restrictions, told me that conservatives pushing these bills have effectively performed a kind of bait and switch. With parents across the ideological and racial spectrum uniformly frustrated by the uncertainty and strains of schooling during the pandemic, she said, Republicans have successfully marketed their proposals as a way of amplifying parents’ voices. Yet the bills’ practical impact is very different. “You have a disconnect between what is being messaged by politicians as parental voice and what is being put into policy, which is actually just stripping schools of meaningful content and good practice,” she said.

Also, that Texas law is insane!!

6) Lee Drutman making his case for a multi-party system to depolarize America in an interview with Zack Beauchamp:

Zack Beauchamp

Your proposal for enabling the rise of a multi-party system is a much more radical reform than what the Senate just rejected. The model that you like the best is basically patterned off of Ireland, with two notable features: ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts.

Can you talk about how those would work and why you think they’re desirable in the American context?

Lee Drutman

The Irish system involves multi-member districts: Rather than having a single member represent a single distinct geographical region, you have a much larger geographical region, and then you have [multiple] people represent that region and they’re elected proportionally. In a five-person district, the top five candidates would, after an election, go to Congress.

The Irish use ranked-choice voting as part of that. When you go into the [voting] booth, you rank candidates in order of preference and then candidates are eliminated from the bottom up. That means that you can vote for candidates that you might not think will have a chance, but your vote is not wasted: You get a backup vote. And in practice, that encourages candidates to be a little nicer to each other and work together and build coalitions.

I would note that it’s also the system that Northern Ireland adopted when it finally ended the Troubles and had a peace agreement, because it’s a system that encourages cross-cutting coalitions in tense times. If you look around the world and you look at what constitutional scholars and comparative political scientists say about how to build democracy in a diverse society, the thing that they would absolutely say is the worst, most dangerous thing to do is to have a heavily majoritarian binary system.

Zack Beauchamp

But It’s hard to get Congress to agree on anything, let alone to imagine the two parties coming together and agreeing to vote on for a new electoral system that would make them fracture or even, potentially, collapse.

So even if you’re right that the two-party system is at the root of our problems, and some kind of wholesale reform of how elections work could fix things, how could we plausibly imagine getting from point A to point B?

Lee Drutman

The first thing is that we have to think in terms of individual lawmakers and not in terms of parties. But the parties are really coalitions of groups [and] individual members of Congress. And there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party right now who are pretty unhappy with the direction of the leadership, and there are at least a few people in the Republican Party who are unhappy with the leadership.

So would AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and many of the progressive Democrats rather have their own party, and maybe form a coalition with the moderate Democrats but get to stand on their own? I think so. Might some centrist Republicans wish to run on their own party? I think absolutely.

So if you think in terms of individual members and factions and groups, there’s a potential [for] a lot of folks who are in Congress to say, “Look, this system isn’t working for us. We hate it. And I can get elected under a different system, and I actually might enjoy being a member of Congress more under that other system.”

Zack Beauchamp

In theory, yes. In practice, the problem is that in a hyperpolarized environment, whenever something gets proposed by one party or a member of one party, the people in the other party tend to take a reflexive stand against it.

So let’s take your hypothetical. You start with an AOC-sponsored bill that would change us to an Irish-style system. You can imagine every Republican in Congress running against it on grounds of it’s the far-left radical socialist takeover plan for American democracy. And you can see the reverse happening if Republicans proposed something like this.

It seems like the structure of a two-party system makes it very, very difficult to imagine a world in which individual legislators start thinking as individuals, in the way that you describe, given the partisan identities that get activated in any debate over a legislative proposal to change things.

Lee Drutman

Yes, that is certainly true. I hope that AOC does not introduce this legislation, or at least gets a surprising Republican co-sponsor, for precisely the reason that you suggest.

I think the challenge is really building that broad coalition at the start, in a way that it becomes harder to characterize this as a Democratic or a Republican bill. We’re clearly not there, but maybe we will be, and maybe it means that some states start experimenting with this.

7) Back in grad school we had a few purely elective classes where you could take anything.  I had a great class on “The Psychology of Monkeys and Apes” with a professor who’s research was about teaching chimps to count.  Thus, I quite enjoyed this, “Why Some Animals Can Tell More From Less:
Researchers find that densely packed neurons play an outsize role in quantitative skill—calling into question old assumptions about evolution.”

IT HAS NOT been long since researchers discovered that animals can compare quantities of things. “Thirty or 40 years ago, people were curious: Could animals do it at all?” Cantlon says.

Since then, evidence has poured in from every corner of the animal kingdom. Desert ants navigate by tracking the steps they take. Spotted hyenas estimate the number of their opponents before interacting to suss out any numerical advantage. Lions do, too. Crows grasp the concept of “zero.” Baboon troops travel democratically—opting for whichever direction most of them are heading. (There’s a key caveat to all these experiments, Cantlon points out: As far as we know, animals aren’t counting, the way a person would tally numbers, since that requires a symbolic language for math. They’re estimating differences.)

Much of researchers’ interest originates from questions about human development, in what could have catalyzed our more sophisticated sense of numbers. “We look in the domain of mathematics a lot, because that’s an area where humans seem unique,” says Cantlon. “How different are we? And how different are human children from other species when they’re 4 and 5 years old?”

But it’s hard to compare skills across animal species. Study methodologies vary, so they are not always scientifically compatible, especially the more elaborate ones. For their own analysis, Cantlon’s team needed to find a task common enough to have been repeated in experiments among a diverse set of species. They settled on a simple task in which researchers offer animals two piles of treats. One pile contains more than the other, like the olive baboon’s peanuts. This type of task has appeared in 49 different studies from around the world, involving 672 individual animals across 33 species. If a parrot, dolphin, horse, or whatever statistically favors piles with more items, then researchers conclude that they likely are able to estimate those quantities. The average sensitivity across species seems to be around 2:1 ratios—they will choose 10 over five, but seven versus five gets fuzzier.

Scientists have historically argued that behavior—learning and development—turned mathless brains into biological calculators. But those arguments undervalue the effects of evolution, Cantlon says, which can influence how brains are organized. So Margaret Bryer and Sarah Koopman, a postdoc and grad student in Cantlon’s lab, both lead authors on the paper, spoke to the scientists behind some of the 49 studies they assembled for their review, and wrote code designed to investigate any patterns in their data that would relate to evolution. Their scripts compared data from the animal experiments to the species’ phylogeny, a web describing their evolutionary relatedness.

Slowly, a picture began to emerge: Animals who were closer together on the phylogenetic tree tended to perform similarly well in the experiments. Chimps were among the top performers, for example. Their close relatives, bonobos, were too. Lemurs, which are more distantly related to them, performed about average.

But non-primate species clustered on other branches of the phylogenetic tree did well too. Grey parrots and rock doves performed about as well as the chimps, and better than many primates. Overall, the study showed, a key predictor of quantitative skills is being closely related to other animals with those skills—not being a primate or even a mammal. “It means that you can pluck any individual animal out of the world and predict something about how sensitive it is to quantity, just by knowing what species it belongs to.” Cantlon says, “That’s new.”

Phylogeny can only tell scientists so much, though. The team wondered if differences might come down to the animals’ neurophysiology. But they weren’t sure which aspect of the brain to measure.

In the past, researchers often used an animal’s total brain volume as a proxy for cognitive power. Basically, the bigger the better. But when Bryer and Koopman pulled the data, they found a weak correlation between brain size and quantitative sensitivity. They turned to a relatively new metric—cortical neuron density—which tells scientists how many neurons a brain has in its cortex. (The cortex is the outer layer of tissue in mammalian brains and is associated with complex cognition.)

8) Fortunately neither myself nor any of my loved ones have had to deal with chronic pain.  I had a very good friend, though, who basically died from it (the massive amount of painkillers he took almost surely led to his heart attack in his early 50’s). This was fascinating, “Is the Pain All in My Head? A new treatment called pain-reprocessing therapy promises to cure chronic pain. But maybe not for everyone.”

So when I heard Alan Gordon’s controversial claim that he has found a cure for chronic pain, I was intrigued. The 40-something psychotherapist’s signature technique, pain-reprocessing therapy, is deceptively simple: Help a person reframe the source of their suffering, and it will go away. “Pain is an opinion,” Gordon, whose recent book promises The Way Out, recently told me. “It’s your brain’s opinion of what’s going on in your body.” All you have to do is get rid of the old idea that your pain stems from nerve or tissue damage and replace it with a new one — in this case, that the pain is in your brain.

Receiving a physical diagnosis helped me, like many pain patients, put my pain into perspective. When a doctor first suggested that a single disorder could account for all my many symptoms, I felt the rush of expert reassurance. That’s what makes Gordon’s confidence that chronic-pain patients could throw out their hard-won self-knowledge and start over with pain-reprocessing therapy so unsettling even if a fix awaits us on the other side.

Still, the possibility is tantalizing. Pain patients have a long and complicated history with psychotherapy stretching back more than a century. Today, many end up in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which often feels like nothing more than a Band-Aid on the bigger issue. Pain-reprocessing therapy, by contrast, is one of the only psychological treatments known to cure pain — at least in some patients with nociplastic pain, or pain that occurs in the absence of obvious physical damage. “That’s one of the unique things about the people that respond to this therapy,” says Daniel Clauw, a professor of anesthesiology, rheumatology, and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, “which is why I think it should be offered to anyone for whom this might work.”

In pain-reprocessing therapy, therapists start with reeducating patients about the source of pain, usually with personalized evidence from their medical history. Gordon believes that most physical findings, from CT scans of degenerated disks to symptoms of hypermobility, are incidental. If they really caused pain, he asks, why do most people show some signs of wear and tear but only some of us suffer from it? If the patient accepts this premise, the therapist works to help their client reframe pain sensations as harmless and refocus their attention on more positive feelings. In a recent trial, 66 percent of research participants with chronic low-back pain were almost or completely pain free after eight sessions with Gordon, an almost unheard-of success rate in a field still mired in mystery. Clauw thinks it’s an overestimate.

In most studies of emotional-awareness and expression therapy, another psychological treatment for pain that researchers began testing in the early aughts, a much smaller fraction of patients — around 20 percent in one trial of people with fibromyalgia — reported a significant reduction in their pain. That’s on par with just about every pain-management tool including opioids, antidepressant and anti-seizure medications, meditation and mindfulness therapies, massage and physical therapy, and more. A fraction of people find significant relief with any given treatment, while others soldier on. Gordon’s pain-reprocessing therapy may really be an outlier, helping more patients than any other method, but only further research will prove it.

The allure of a psychotherapeutic solution for pain remains strong, especially in an anti-opioid culture and a post-Sackler world. While Gordon’s results make a strong case for his methods, pain-reprocessing therapy won’t cure every patient — and his suggestion that it could might hurt those it leaves behind. “You don’t conflate the fact that a subset of people will respond really well to this type of therapy” with the idea that “it works for everyone,” Clauw says.

9) Carl Zimmer, “Omicron’s Radical Evolution: Thirteen of Omicron’s mutations should have hurt the variant’s chances of survival. Instead, they worked together to make it thrive.”

And then came Omicron, with over twice as many mutations. As soon as Omicron came to light, Dr. Martin and his colleagues set about reconstructing the variant’s radical evolution by comparing its 53 mutations with those of other coronaviruses. Some mutations were shared by Omicron, Delta and other variants, suggesting that they had arisen several times, and that natural selection had favored them over and over again.

But the scientists found a very different pattern when they looked at the “spike” protein that studs Omicron’s surface and allows it to latch on to cells.

Omicron’s spike gene has 30 mutations. The researchers found that 13 of them were extraordinarily rare in other coronaviruses — even their distant viral cousins found in bats. Some of the 13 had never been seen before in the millions of coronavirus genomes scientists have sequenced over the course of the pandemic.

If a mutation were beneficial to the virus, or even neutral, scientists would expect it to show up more often in the samples. But if it is rare or missing altogether, that’s typically a sign that it is harmful to the virus, preventing it from multiplying.

And yet Omicron was flouting that logic. “Omicron wasn’t exactly dying out,” Dr. Martin said. “It was just taking off like nothing we’d ever seen before.”

What makes these 13 mutations all the more intriguing is that they’re not randomly sprinkled across Omicron’s spike. They form three clusters, each altering a small portion of the protein. And each of those three areas play a big part of what makes Omicron unique.

10) Noah Smith, “Some thoughts and evidence on racial preferences in admissions: They’re probably effective, but Americans really don’t like them, and they might be illegal. So what do we do?”

Well, it looks like America’s national conversation about race is about to get another topic of discussion: The Supreme Court has decided to hear challenges to racial preferences in college admissions, starting in October. The last time SCOTUS adjudicated this topic was in 2003, when it declared that racial preferences could stay, but only if colleges used them as one of many factors, and with an eye toward ensuring a diverse student body. Now, with a more conservative set of justices on the bench, many experts expect the court to overturn that ruling and just ban racial preferences outright.

It’s worth noting that unlike with abortion, where SCOTUS’ recent moves to weaken Roe v. Wade go against the general lean of public opinion, this would probably be a popular move. A strong majority of Americans of all races and political parties opposes the use of race as a factor in college admissions:

This is not because Americans are against using policy to increase the number of Black and minority students on campus. In fact, they are strongly in favor of that idea:

It’s only explicitly using race as a factor in admissions that Americans oppose. Gallup surveys confirm this dichotomy — people are in favor of “affirmative action”, but oppose explicit racial preferences:

Americans’ top-of-mind reactions to the term affirmative action are generally positive. Gallup asks a straightforward question about affirmative action without a definition or explanation — “Do you generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?” — and as of Gallup’s last asking in 2018, 61% of Americans were in favor, while 30% were opposed. Support has increased from the range of 47% to 50% who were in favor in 2001, 2003 and 2005…

Americans are also solidly behind the broad concept of equal opportunity and improving the position of racial minorities in society — the underlying rationale for affirmative action…

Despite this majority consensus for the general concept of affirmative action and the need for more action on reducing racial inequities, public support appears significantly lower when questions ask about policies that explicitly take race into account to achieve these objectives…72% of U.S. adults oppose giving preference to Black Americans in hiring and promotion, including 43% who say they oppose strongly…[T]hese results highlight the complexities of public opinion when considerations of affirmative action get down to specifics.

A cynic might interpret this disparity as a form of hypocrisy — people wanting to think they’re in favor of racial equality but shying away when the rubber hits the road. But I think the fact that Black Americans also display this divergence in poll responses suggests that something subtler — and more reasonable — is at work here. I’ll speculate more about this later on, and suggest some ideas for how to square the circle.

11) Scott Alexander with plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of that infant EEG study that’s been getting all the headlines.  Yes, it’s almost surely good for babies if their parents extreme poverty is alleviated, but, some EEG waves are not getting us there.  Lots of really good discussions of social science and statistics, too, for those who are thus inclined.

12) Interesting… “Is Old Music Killing New Music? Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market. Even worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking.” Maybe it’s because new music sucks?!  Kidding, maybe I’m just a cranky old man. Actually, I’ve found lots of great new-ish music on Spotify and Pandora, but its from artists who basically get no airplay.

13) There’s been a double diamond intersection added between my house and NC State.  I really do appreciate it’s coolness and efficiency, but somehow I spend notably more time at traffic lights now. 

14) I haven’t watched Frasier in ages, but this was my wife’s favorite show back when we were in graduate school.  I would like to watch again and see how it holds up.  Fun discussion of it here.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Really appreciated this take on Ukraine from Fareed Zakaria:

Last week, I outlined Russia’s interests and strengths in this crisis. It is vital to understand its weaknesses as well. “When Putin took Crimea in 2014, he lost Ukraine,” as Owen Matthews writes in a thought-provoking essay. After it declared independence in 1991, Ukraine was divided between an unabashedly pro-Russia segment of its population and a more nationalistic one. But by annexing Crimea and plunging eastern Ukraine into open conflict, Matthews writes, Putin has energized Ukrainian nationalism and fed a growing anti-Russia sentiment. And the math does not help. Putin took millions of pro-Russia Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbas out of the country’s political calculus. (Those in Donbas don’t vote in Ukrainian elections because the area is too unstable.) As a result, a Ukrainian politician estimated to me that the pro-Russia seats in Ukraine’s parliament have shrunk from a plurality to barely 15 percent of the total.

In retrospect, if Putin’s aim were to keep Ukraine unstable and weak, it would have made far more sense to leave those parts of Ukraine within the country, supporting the pro-Russia forces and politicians in various ways so that they could act as a fifth column within the country, always urging Kyiv to forge closer ties with Moscow. Instead, Ukraine is now composed mainly of a population that is proudly nationalist and that has become much more anti-Russia.

2) Here’s a great idea: “Buying masks should be as easy as buying sunscreen”

Imagine trying to buy sunscreen without knowing how much the product will protect you from the sun. Thankfully, your decision is made easy. All you need to look for is one number on the package — the sun protection factor, or SPF.

Buying masks to protect you from covid-19 can — and should — be just as easy. That’s why we propose a government-backed program that would evaluate and label masks for consumers like the Food and Drug Administration does for sunscreens.

Not all masks are equal, and with so many options available online and in stores it’s easy for consumers to be confused about which to select. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently attempted to provide clarity, recommending high-quality face coverings, such as N95s or KN95s, to help fight the very transmissible omicron coronavirus variant…

These challenges in identifying high-quality protective face coverings underscore the urgent need for a federal consumer mask certification and labeling program, as we have previously written. The science is clear: The wearing of masks is essential for stopping the spread of the virus that causes covid-19. Any mask is better than no mask, but such a federal certification and labeling program would allow Americans to make informed choices about their mask’s protection level with ease and confidence.

Our proposed program would create benchmarks for each mask’s level of particle filtration, leakage amounts, comfort, fit and breathability, among other criteria. Establishing these standards would provide consumers with an easy-to-use rating system for comparing masks and the ability to choose products based on an evaluation of their performance.

Manufacturers would need to clearly display these rankings on their masks and respirators. Additionally, product packaging should include guidance about how to properly wear the mask, whether it can be reused and how to clean it. Without such a system in place, the public will remain unaware and possibly unprotected. The mask they have purchased might provide 95 percent protection against virus particles, or only 10 percent.

The U.S. government should also prioritize an initiative to design next-generation N95 masks. They should be comfortable to wear, have more than a 95 percent particle filtration rate, low leakage levels and made of advanced, lightweight materials. These masks must be designed in different sizes and styles for women, men and children.

3) Not great, “Bird Flu Is Back in the US. No One Knows What Comes Next: The fast-moving pathogen, which has already invaded Europe, was found in East Coast ducks. The last outbreak that tore through the US killed 50 million birds.”

Three birds out of the millions that American hunters shoot each year might seem like nothing—but the findings have sent a ripple of disquiet through the community of scientists who monitor animal diseases. In 2015, that same strain of flu landed in the Midwest’s turkey industry and caused the largest animal-disease outbreak ever seen in the US, killing or causing the destruction of more than 50 million birds and costing the US economy more than $3 billion. Human-health experts are uneasy as well. Since 2003, that flu has sickened at least 863 people across the world and killed more than half of them. Other avian flu strains have made hundreds more people ill. Before Covid arrived, avian flu was considered the disease most likely to cause a transnational outbreak.

It is far too soon to say whether the arrival of this virus in the US is a blip, an imminent danger to agriculture, or a zoonotic pathogen probing for a path to attack humanity. But it is a reminder that Covid is not the only disease with pandemic potential, and of how easy it is to lose focus when it comes to other possible threats. The possibility of a human- or animal-origin strain of flu swamping the world once seemed so imminent that back in 2005 the White House wrote a national strategy for it. But researchers say the surveillance schemes that would pick up its movement have since been allowed to drift.

4) I really love Chloé Valdary’s approach to anti-racism training.

She has done away with unconscious bias training, segregating co-workers by race, and placing blame on abstract “systems.” Instead, she promotes stoicism and a self-love that leads to community love.

“Enchantment . . . is a state of being where you’re in a healthy relationship with yourself, which allows you to have a healthy relationship with others,” Valdary told me. “If we want to teach people how to love, we have to ask what people are already in love with. That’s why I use pop-culture references to reinforce my teachings.”

Her trainings promote three core principles: Treat people like human beings instead of political abstractions; criticize to uplift and empower rather than tear down or destroy; and, root everything you do in love and compassion — harking back to the Christian principles of Martin Luther King, Jr.

5) Loved this from deBoer, “Human Capital is Real, and Some People Are Smarter Than Other People until we acknowledge that, there can be no coherent discussion of education”

When I set out to write my book, I knew the idea of intrinsic or inherent academic talent, an innate predisposition to succeed or fail, would be controversial, and was prepared for that controversy. The repeated reassurances that the book rejected race science, which annoyed some readers so deeply, were in part an attempt to ward off deliberate misunderstandings of what I was saying. (That is, that individual talents can vary thanks to genetics without that implying that group differences are genetic.) What I was consistently surprised by, though, was the number of people who responded to my book by insisting that there is no such thing as a summative difference in intelligence or academic ability – that is, that not only are there no inherent predispositions towards being good or bad at school, no one even becomes better or worse, no one is smarter than another. There are no measurable differences in what we know or can do intellectually. Or, in some tellings, no one knows what smart is, it’s some sort of ineffable quality we can’t pin down, or the very idea of “smart” is a racist Western imperialist hegemonic heteronormative con.

I find this all unhelpful. Narrow down as specifically as you can and no one can persist in denying that there are differences in summative ability. Can anyone really claim that I can do calculus as well as a math professor who teaches it? Because I can’t do calculus at all! Of course people have different things they know she understand and can do intellectually. I’m not naturally talented at math. I don’t like it but it’s true. And easily quantifiable. If there were no such distinctions school would not exist.

But the will to obscure this fact is strong. In many fields, the academics at the top are busily abstracting and mystifying success, the better to insist that no one is bad at what you study. (My old field, writing studies, is filled with academics who believe there is no such thing as being better or worse at writing, which makes you wonder why anyone is paying their salaries.) Every day academics declare that grade are a capitalist plot, tests evil, and the very idea of assessment offensive. But there really are things that you can know and not know in life, and some of them, such as reading, are really important. And in fact we are very good indeed at creating instruments that measure whether you can read or write or do algebra. It’s just that their results are socially inconvenient.

If the concern is saying that there are attributes and abilities in life that matter that are not academic or connected to intelligence, and that they should be taken seriously and rewarded, the news is good, as this is perhaps the core argument of my book. If the concern is saying that being smart is an unhealthy obsession in our society and too essential to having material security, the news is good, as that is perhaps the other way to state the core argument of my book. But I don’t understand why we would pretend that academic or intellectual ability doesn’t exist, and act as though that attitude is a prerequisite to be a progressive person who desires equality of rights, dignity, and human value. As I never get tired of pointing out, traditional left thinkers like Marx never pretended that all of us are equal in our abilities. (“From each according to his abilities” implies the opposite!) What the left pushes for is equality of human value, including across – perhaps especially across – differences in talent. Equal value, equal dignity, and equal right to demand the minimum conditions needed for human flourishing.

We can lawyer about the concept of intrinsic ability as much as we want. (For the record, acknowledging that genes and environment both play important roles in education, and that there are complex interactions between them, does not imply that outcomes are therefore mutable.) We live in a world where some people can do things, intellectually, that are monetarily rewarded and socially valuable, and some people can’t. Our attempts to spread these abilities universally have been an abject failure. Because each of us has a nature, and while we’re all good at something, we’re not all good at the same things, and capitalism most certainly does not reward all gifts equally, and so much the worse for us. (Indeed, this is the very reason redistribution is necessary.) Yes, intelligence is multivariate and complex and exists in many dimensions. But so is love, and no one pretends that love therefore does not exist. We are already asking the impossible of our education system, expecting it to reward excellence and create equality at the same time. Let’s not burden it even further by pretending we don’t know some people are better and some at worse at school.

6a) The discourse around Maus is just ridiculous.  Is it super-dumb to remove an outstanding book from the curriculum because it has a naked humanoid mouse and uses some bad language?! Yes.  But that’s not book banning! But, liberals can be just as tribal and credulous so my social media feed was filled with “book banning” posts and Nazi comparisons.  Sorry, but dumb does not equal fascism.  Perhaps even worse is to see this making its way into journalism.  Here’s the first two sentences from an AP story with my emphases:

A Tennessee school district has voted to ban a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting.

The McMinn County School Board decided Jan. 10 to remove “Maus” from its curriculum, news outlets reported.

6b) Drum on Maus:

Our story so far: East Bumfuck County¹ in Tennessee—about 20 miles away from the site of the Scopes monkey trial—has banned Maus, a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. Outrage is universal.

But rural, conservative school districts have been doing this kind of stuff forever. They don’t like sexual themes. They don’t like nudity. They don’t like swearing. Maus is an adult novel that features all of these things. But there are lots of other novels and nonfiction books about the Holocaust. If Maus is too raw for them, how about recommending something else instead of getting dragged into the usual pointless culture war squabble. Wouldn’t that be a better use of time?

What the hell?!  In what actual use of the English language is “remove from curriculum” the same as “ban.”  Words have meaning, damnit!  They are not just there to make liberals feel good about backwards conservatives.

7) Loved this point from Brian Beutler:

As Republicans escalate their efforts to discourage vaccine uptake, keep in mind: GOP officials turned against vaccines only after Trump lost; Murdoch media in countries with conservative governments are pro-vaccine; Rupert Murdoch himself took a convoy to become one of the world’s first vaccinated people, and Fox has an internal vaccination requirement the talent doesn’t talk about. In other words: It couldn’t be more clear that the purpose is to harm U.S. society (by spreading disease and killing their own supporters) to make the country ungovernable while a Democrat is president.  

8) I missed this before, but it’s really pretty stunning and eye-opening, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes: 315 years. 20,528 voyages. Millions of lives.”

Usually, when we say “American slavery” or the “American slave trade,” we mean the American colonies or, later, the United States. But as we discussed in Episode 2 of Slate’s History of American Slavery Academy, relative to the entire slave trade, North America was a bit player. From the trade’s beginning in the 16th century to its conclusion in the 19th, slave merchants brought the vast majority of enslaved Africans to two places: the Caribbean and Brazil. Of the more than 10 million enslaved Africans to eventually reach the Western Hemisphere, just 388,747—less than 4 percent of the total—came to North America. This was dwarfed by the 1.3 million brought to Spanish Central America, the 4 million brought to British, French, Dutch, and Danish holdings in the Caribbean, and the 4.8 million brought to Brazil.

Wow!  I need to know more about this history of Brazil.

9) This Scott Alexander post was terrific, but also hard to get just the right excerpt.  Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.  Seriously.

There were some historians who praised the Marx article and said nice things about it. But they were all explicitly socialist historians, and they were all studying time periods other than the one containing Lincoln and Marx. So this probably doesn’t completely discredit all expertise. Meanwhile, actual statisticians and election security experts said pretty clearly they thought the election was fair, even when this was in their domain of expertise.

Finally, the Marx thing was intended as a cutesy human interest story (albeit one with an obvious political motive) and everybody knows cutesy human interest stories are always false.

All of this is a lot more complicated than “of course you can trust the news” or “how dare you entertain deranged conspiracy theories!” There are lots of cases where you can’t trust the news! It sucks! It’s completely understandable that large swathes of people can’t differentiate the many many cases where the news lies to them from the other set of cases where the news is not, at this moment, actively lying. But that differentiation is possible, most people learn how to do it, and it’s the main way we know anything at all.

10) Maybe meat-eating was not central to human evolution:

For decades, paleontologists have theorized that the evolution of humanlike features and meat eating are strongly connected.

“The explanation has been that meat-eating allowed this: We got a lot more nutrition, and these concentrated sources facilitated these changes,” Pobiner says. Large brains are phenomenal energy hogs—even at rest, a human brain consumes about 20 percent of the body’s energy. But a switch to a diet full of calorie-rich meat meant an excess of energy that could be directed to supporting larger, more complex brains. And if prehumans hunted their food, that would explain a shift toward longer limbs that were more efficient for stalking prey over great distances. Meat made us human, the conventional wisdom said. And Pobiner agreed.

But in April 2020, Pobiner got a call that made her rethink that hypothesis. The call was from Andrew Barr, a paleontologist at George Washington University in Washington, DC, who wasn’t totally convinced about the link between Homo erectus and meat-eating. He wanted to use the fossil record to check whether there really was evidence that human ancestors were eating more meat around the time Homo erectus evolved, or whether it simply appeared that way because we hadn’t been looking hard enough. Pobiner thought this sounded like an intriguing project: “I love the idea of questioning conventional wisdom, even if it’s conventional wisdom that I buy into.”

The researchers were unable to travel to Kenya for fieldwork because of the pandemic, so instead they analyzed data from nine major research areas in eastern Africa that cover millions of years of human evolution. They used different metrics to assess how well-researched each time period was, and how many bones with butchery marks were found in each site. In a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Barr and Pobiner now argue that the link between meat-eating and human evolution might be less certain than previously thought. The apparent increase in butchered bones after the appearance of Homo erectus, they conclude, is actually a sampling bias. More paleontologists went looking for bones at dig sites from this era—and as a result, they found more of them.

This doesn’t rule out a link between meat-eating and evolutionary change, but it does suggest that the story might be a little more complicated. “If we want to say how common a behavior was, then we need some way to control for the fact that at some points in time and at some places we’ve looked harder for that behavior than we have at other points,” says Barr. Because sites with well-preserved animal bones are relatively rare, paleontologists often sample them over and over again. But Barr and Pobiner’s study found that other sites that date from between 1.9 and 2.6 million years ago—the era during which Homo Erectus evolved—have been relatively under-studied. “We are drawn to places that preserve fossils because they’re the raw material of our science. So we keep going back to these same places,” Barr says.

For Barr, the new study’s results point to a gap in the paleontological record that needs to be filled in. It might be that other factors were responsible for the evolution of humanlike traits, or it might be that there was a big increase in meat-eating in an earlier period that we just haven’t been able to see yet. “At some point there is no evidence for butchery, and at some point there’s a lot of evidence. And something had to happen in between,” says Jessica Thompson, an anthropologist at Yale University.

11) This is from 2010 (Yglesias just linked to it), but lots of cool charts, “Verbal vs. mathematical aptitude in academics”

Some observations:

– Social work people have more EQ than IQ (this is not a major achievement because of the scale obviously).

– Accountants never made it into the “blue bird” reading group.

– Philosophers are the smartest humanists, physicists the smartest scientists, economists the smartest social scientists.

12) I think Michele Goldberg is right about this, “Let Kids Take Their Masks Off After the Omicron Surge”

Elissa Perkins, the director of infectious disease management in the emergency department of the Boston Medical Center, told me she spent most of 2020 “imploring everybody I could in every forum that I could to mask.” In the beginning, she said, this was to flatten the curve, and later to protect the vulnerable. But masking, she said, “was intended to be a short-term intervention,” and she believes we haven’t talked enough about the drawbacks of mandating it for kids long-term.

“If we accept that we don’t want masks to be required in our schools forever, we have to decide when is the right time to remove them,” she said. “And that’s a conversation that we’re not really having.”

At least, people in deep blue areas weren’t having it until recently. But as the Omicron wave begins to ebb, that conversation — sometimes tentatively and sometimes acrimoniously — has begun. This week Perkins co-wrote a Washington Post essay calling for schools to make masking optional. The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Case Against Masks at School.”

“Coming off the Omicron surge, I think there’s going to be a tipping point with more and more people questioning does this need to continue in schools,” said Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Bromage worked with the governor of Rhode Island to reopen schools there, and later helped schools in southern Massachusetts reopen. He believes in the importance of Covid mitigations, but his views on school masking have evolved in recent months. There comes a point, he said, “at which the reduction in risk that comes from the mask is balanced or begins to be outweighed by the detrimental side of things that come with masking.”

The debate about masks in schools can quickly turn vicious because it pits legitimate interests against one another. Many people who are immunocompromised, or live with those who are, understandably fear that getting rid of mandates will make them more vulnerable. But keeping kids in masks month after month also inflicts harm, even if it’s not always easy to measure.

“I think it would be naïve to not acknowledge that there are downsides of masks,” said Perkins. “I know some of that data is harder to come by because those outcomes are not as discrete as Covid or not-Covid. But from speaking with pediatricians, from speaking with learning specialists, and also from speaking with parents of younger children especially, there are significant issues related to language acquisition, pronunciation, things like that. And there are very clear social and emotional side effects in the older kids.”

That’s why I believe that mandatory school masking should end when coronavirus rates return to pre-Omicron levels. I fully accept that, in future surges, masks might have to go back on, but that’s all the more reason to get them off as soon as possible, to give students some reprieve.

13) As my twitter followers know, I’ve joined the Wordle crowd.  I’m generally not a word game person at all.  But I love the simplicity and the minimal time commitment and the fact that I’m usually pretty decent despite generally being bad at word games.  This was interesting, “Twitter boots a bot that revealed Wordle’s upcoming words to the game’s players”

14) I just ordered a squeeze nasal irrigator, rather than a neti pot, but next time I’m congested, saline irrigation here I come:

To the uninitiated, the neti pot may seem like yet another wellness trend. After all, the teapot-like vessel was popularized in the United States by the celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, who called it a “nose bidet” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and has been criticized for promoting unproven supplements and health products.

Rinsing warm saltwater through your nose — in one nostril and out the other — as an antidote for a variety of woes like sinus inflammation, congestion and allergies may seem strange and possibly scary; especially if you’ve heard about its links to rare but deadly brain-eating amoeba infections.

But according to ear, nose and throat doctors, nasal rinsing, which traces back thousands of years to the Ayurvedic medical traditions of India, is an unusual example of a practice that is at once ancient, trendy and evidence-based. And, it’s safe and inexpensive to boot.

It has a “very, very high level of evidence, randomized controlled trial evidence, that shows that it does work and it does help,” said Dr. Zara Patel, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Here’s what we know.

15) Among the other impacts of having a young child… less voter turnout:

Despite evidence that infants affect families’ economic and social behaviors, little is known about how young children influence their parents’ political engagement. I show that U.S. women with an infant during an election year are 3.5 percentage points less likely to vote than women without children; men with an infant are 2.2 percentage points less likely to vote. Suggesting that this effect may be causal, I find no significant decreases in turnout the year before parents have an infant. Using a triple-difference approach, I then show that universal vote-by-mail systems mitigate the negative association between infants and mothers’ turnout.

16) I honestly had no idea 50-50 shared custody was not already the legal default in custody cases.

17) I have no idea why the New Yorker would be running this extensive appreciation of Led Zeppelin right now, but I loved it.  I also did not realize I’m not supposed to love both Zeppelin and the Who?  But, I emphatically do.  I found this part about Zeppelin’s musical borrowings, or plargiarism, depending on your perspective, quite interesting:

Nowadays, skeptics are likely to judge Page’s project of “narrowing the distance between genres” as entitled cultural appropriation, or even plagiarism. Extending its traditional hostility, Rolling Stone has accused the band of having a “catalog full of blatant musical swipes.” Words like “plunder” and “stolen” are thrown about online. Spitz prefers the gentler phrase “suspiciously close.” Through the years, the band has been sued or petitioned by Willie Dixon (“Whole Lotta Love” took words from Dixon’s “You Need Love”), Howlin’ Wolf (“The Lemon Song” borrowed its opening riff and some lyrics from his “Killing Floor”), Anne Bredon (who wrote the original song that Joan Baez, and then Led Zeppelin, made famous as “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”), and the band Spirit, whose “Taurus” contains a passage that indeed sounds “suspiciously close” to the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” (though Spirit lost a lawsuit it brought in 2016).

Page has certainly been parsimonious with credit-sharing, and, in at least one case, shabbily slow to do the right thing—he should have credited the American performer Jake Holmes, who created the musical basis for “Dazed and Confused,” on “Led Zeppelin I.” (Holmes sued and won a settlement in 2011.) But the blues evolved as an ecosystem of borrowing and recycling. The musical form cleaves to the twelve-bar template of I-IV-I-V-IV-I. Musically, you need some or all of this chord progression to cook up anything that feels bluesy, as a roux demands flour and fat, or a whodunnit a murder; originality in this regard would be something of a category error. In the Delta-blues or country-blues tradition that flourished before the Second World War, words tended to drift Homerically free of their makers. Performers might write a couple of their own verses and then finish with lines of a borrowed formula—so-called floating verses, or, the scholar Elijah Wald writes, “rhymed couplets that could be inserted more or less at random.” In fact, the postwar Chicago blues musicians who excited a generation of English performers—Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf—were themselves nostalgically repurposing, partly for a white crossover market, the Delta sound of lost prewar giants like Robert Johnson, who died in 1938. As early as 1949, the music industry cannily decided to baptize this modernized, electrified blues sound as “rhythm and blues.” In this sense, you could say that English players like Clapton and Page were double nostalgics, copiers of copiers.

Robert Plant’s tendency to lift words and formulas from old songs should be seen in this light. Plagiarism is private subterfuge made haplessly public. But to take Willie Dixon’s “You’ve got yearnin’ and I got burnin’ ” and put the words into “Whole Lotta Love” as “You need cooling / Baby, I’m not fooling”; to reverse the opening lines of Moby Grape’s 1968 song “Never,” from “Working from eleven / To seven every night / Ought to make life a drag,” and put them into “Since I’ve Been Loving You” as “Workin’ from seven to eleven every night / Really makes life a drag”; to punctuate “The Lemon Song,” which is obviously indebted to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” with the repeated allusion “down on this killing floor,” while guilelessly referring to Roosevelt Sykes’s “She Squeezed My Lemon” (1937)—to make these moves, in a musical community that was utterly familiar with all the source material, testifies not to the anxiety of plagiarism but to the relaxedness of homage.

Plagiarists do what they do out of weakness, because they need stolen assistance. Does that sound like Led Zeppelin? The genius of “Whole Lotta Love” lies in its opening five-note riff, which has no obvious musical connection to Dixon’s song. “The Lemon Song” makes of “Killing Floor” something entirely new. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a better and richer song than Moby Grape’s “Never.” “When the Levee Breaks” is astonishingly different from Memphis Minnie’s. (It isn’t a blues song, for starters.) And, yes, “Stairway to Heaven” has more spirit, along with a few other dynamics, than Spirit’s “Taurus.” Besides, Led Zeppelin did credit many of its sources. The first album names Willie Dixon as the composer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Generally, on the matter of homage and appropriation, I agree with Jean-Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin, who, in “Led Zeppelin: All the Songs,” call the band’s version of the latter song “one of the most beautiful and moving tributes ever paid by a British group to its African American elders.”

18) Radiolab just did a podcast on this which led me to, “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive'”

Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.

The mask advice we’ve been waiting for

I wrote a few weeks ago about some really bad mask re-use messaging from an “expert.”  So nice to see in the latest NYT Well newsletter the N95 re-use advice we’ve been waiting for.  I’ve seen good advice from smart non-experts and bad advice from “experts” who weren’t actually experts, but finally someone who totally knows what she is talking about and giving the science-based and common-sense based advice.  It’s from Linsey Marr who has been simply awesome since the start of the pandemic and is still a very valuable source of useful information and thoughtful perspectives:

I asked Dr. Marr for additional tips on how to take care of a respirator mask to maximize its use. Here’s her advice.

Q: How can we make sure our masks keep filtering particles?

Dr. Marr: This ability can be compromised if any part of the mask is physically damaged in such a way to create leaks. This could be a tear or hole in the mask, a crease that means it doesn’t seal to the face, or straps that are too loose to pull the respirator closely to the face.

Q: Can a mask get saturated with particles?

Dr. Marr: People might be concerned about the respirator “filling up” with particles, such that the filter material doesn’t work anymore, but respirators are designed to handle a large amount of particles and still maintain their filtration ability. Aaron Collins (@masknerd on Twitter) points out that an N95 is designed to handle 200 milligrams of particles, which would be equivalent to wearing it nonstop for 200 days in very polluted air such as in Shanghai. The straps or nose bridge will break, the respirator will lose its shape, or the respirator will become visibly dirty before this happens.

Q: If I’m exposed to an infected person, will my mask be contaminated?

Dr. Marr: It is possible that virus could be on the surface of the respirator, and you could touch it and transfer it to your eyes, nose or mouth. To minimize this risk, you should handle the respirator by the edges and straps and avoid touching the area in front of the nose and mouth. Over time — several hours — the virus will die off, so we probably don’t need to worry about accumulating more than one day’s worth of infectious virus on the material. There is a scary-sounding study that reports that the virus survives for 14 days on an N95, but the researchers dripped a huge amount of virus onto the material — like if you intentionally spit on the mask — and removed it by soaking it in liquid, which will transfer more than just touching.

Q: So how long do viral particles really survive on a mask?

Dr. Marr: We are studying this question using a more realistic way of getting aerosolized virus onto an N95, and the virus decays to nearly undetectable levels in 30 minutes.

Q: What do you think about the “40 hours of use” rule?

Dr. Marr: Forty hours of total use, whether over five eight-hour periods or a bunch of shorter periods, should be fine. The straps may become too loose or break, the respirator may lose its shape, or it may become visibly dirty before the 40 hours are up, in which case you should replace it. I have an N95 that I have worn for two round-trip plane trips totaling 25 plus hours and for attending church a few times, going to the store a few times, and attending a gymnastics meet, and it’s finally getting dirty enough — mainly from rubbing against my face — and losing its shape, such that I’m planning to toss it.

Q: I’ve seen advice to air your masks out in multiple paper bags, labeled with the day of the week, and to rotate masks every five days. But most people just toss their masks in a drawer or purse, or hang them on hooks. Does it really matter?

Dr. Marr: I don’t think this is necessary. I do like the idea of airing it out. I leave mine lying around or hanging on a hook. If I’m transporting it in my backpack or purse, I keep it in a plastic bag to protect it from damage.

Q: What if your mask goes through the wash? Can you wear it in the rain?

Dr. Marr: Consider it ruined if it has gone through the wash or otherwise gotten soaked.

I’m only teaching one in-person class this semester and I’ve used the same N95 the first three weeks now and I’m going to keep using it, no apologies.  

A few thoughts on Breyer/Supreme Court

1) No real expertise here, but I don’t think Manchin and Sinema are going to be a problem on the replacement.  Have you heard any complaints from them on judges so far?  For whatever reason– and fortunately– they seem to be very much with the program here.  And, honestly, worse case scenario, one of them throws some kind of stupid fit and instead of one highly-qualified black woman liberal nominee we get a different one.  There’s really pretty much no doubt Democrats will have the votes to replace Breyer with a solidly liberal justice.

2) I don’t necessarily love announcing in advance that a nominee will fit a particular demographic category, but, it’s not at all like this hasn’t been done before.  And, honestly, there’s thousands of people who can do this job and when you consider the issues the SC faces, having a person who brings the lived experiences of a black woman truly is a valuable thing.  

3) On that point, I was arguing just as much to my class today, took a break to check twitter (while they were writing) and saw this from Paul Campos:

One of the really absurd arguments that used to arise all the time about SCOTUS nominations was over whether the candidate was the “most qualified” person for the position. This was always a ridiculous argument, because the idea that there’s one person out there who is “most qualified” to be a SCOTUS justice is silly: there are enormous numbers of people who are perfectly well qualified to do this particular job, and picking among them inevitably has essentially nothing to do with their qualifications per se.

How many such people are there?

Keep in mind the following: Being a Supreme Court justice is a really easy job. For one thing, it’s one of the easiest jobs a lawyer, or even a judge, can have. You probably suspect I’m being facetious, but I’m not…

OK, so how many people are we talking then? A good candidate needs to be familiar with the kinds of arguments that take place in appellate courts in the United States, but that’s around 1.5 million people in the USA, if we count all the people with law degrees, and all the people in associated lines of work who are familiar with those arguments even though they didn’t go to law school.

I mean how absurd would it be to claim that somebody like Scott Lemieux isn’t “qualified” to be a Supreme Court justice? Very absurd in case you’re wondering. Scott wouldn’t be qualified to be a trial judge or a personal injury lawyer, but again those are hard jobs in comparison to being an appellate court judge, since they require various kinds of specialized technical and practical knowledge etc. Being an appellate court judge is, comparatively speaking, real real easy. You just have to know that if they say X you say Y.

Now obviously there are a lot of pretty dim people with law degrees, so let’s just say arbitrarily that you have to be in the top 10% of law talkers to be “qualified” to do this super easy job, where all the hard parts are done for you by other people. Let’s see, take away a zero, what is that — hey 150,000 “qualified” candidates to be on the SCOTUS!

In all seriousness, I think this is probably a big underestimate. The most prestigious jobs are always the easiest to do, because somebody else always does all the real work, while you just have to show up and act like you’re “brilliant,” which of course you are, because being “brilliant” enough to be a competent appellate court judge is about as hard falling off a turnip truck.

You can do this same exercise for pretty much any really high status job, with some obvious but fairly rare exceptions — brain surgeon etc. But the easiest jobs in any institution are generally the highest paying and most prestigious, and this certainly holds true in the legal system. Hence the real answer to the question of how many qualified candidates are there to fill Stephen Breyer’s soon to be open seat is: more than you can possibly imagine.

There is absolutely no “best qualified.”  There’s a lot of people who are highly qualified and plenty of them are black women.

And I took a break to check twitter in the middle of writing this post and…

4) Thank goodness Breyer did the right thing and stepped aside while it’s clear Biden can still replace him (is there any doubt that McConnell would hold a Supreme Court seat open for two years or longer?).  Jennifer Rubin makes the point that it’s sad that the SC has come to this.  But it has come to this and it would have been stupid for Breyer to pretend otherwise:

The announcement that Justice Stephen G. Breyer will retire from the Supreme Court came as a relief to Democrats and defenders of democracy. The reaction is certainly not because Breyer has been a negligent jurist or because he failed to defend our democratic institutions. To the contrary, he has been a model member of the court — conscientious, thoughtful, decorous.

So why are those who admire Breyer the most cheering the loudest? Because President Biden, with his bare majority in the Senate, will be able to name a replacement who might prevent the further diminution of the court’s stature.

Think how bizarre that is. We take for granted in our cynical political environment that Democrats will react to news of Breyer’s retirement with relief — or even joy. But this actually highlights the degree to which the Supreme Court has lost credibility and has ceased to function as an impartial interpreter of the law.

We know a Republican-controlled Senate would not confirm a Biden pick. We know Breyer could have stayed on the court longer if not for his concern that he would be replaced by a radical partisan, or that his seat would be left open until a GOP president and Senate could replace him.

It is also clear thata Biden pick is needed to defend fundamental constitutional rights, as the court’s six-member majority has a different agenda: imposition of an ideological (if not theological) agenda from the bench. And that the right-wing majority is impervious to reason and appeals to precedent. Instead, it has pre-decided every case of political import and will reach a conclusion pleasing to their political patrons.

More things we can be sure of: During the Senate confirmation hearings for Biden’s nominee, Republicans will speechify about critical race theory, hypocritically denounce judicial activism and insist the nominee’s failure to agree with their ideological position on guns or abortion or whatever is grounds for opposing their confirmation. Republicans, after confirming GOP presidents’ nominees who refused to give a straight answer to scores of questions, will also complain the nominee has been evasive and, therefore, should be disqualified. Maybe the nominee will get a few Republican votes. Maybe.

This is no longer about picking jurists immune from partisanship to conscientiously decide cases; we have turned justices into political pawns. This stems from a determination by Republicans to deny Democratic presidents their choice of Supreme Court nominees while selectingandconfirming justices who will be reliable partisans unmoored to precedent. In other words, partisan hacks…

So by all means, Democrats should breathe a sigh of relief that Breyer did the “right” thing. But they do so because they understand all too well that the court — like our politics — is fundamentally broken.

5) There will be a reasonable sized political fight over all this, because… of course.  But, in the end, with a 6-3 court staying 6-3, the stakes really aren’t all that high and a lot of the fighting will be just for show.  

6) Also, the court really should be fixed 18-year terms so that we don’t have the composition depend upon unexpected deaths and politically strategic retirements.  Really. 

Woke is bad but racism is so much worse

On this morning’s run, I listened to this excellent podcast interview with Mike Pesca about the details of his parting of ways with Slate.  And, damn, does Slate come off looking bad.  (There’s a reason I removed them from my bookmarks and only link to them for Dahlia Lithwick and Rick Hasen).  There’s also a substack here that provides all the details.  And to be clear, if one accepts every accusation against Pesca as true, it is Slate, who looks ridiculous, not Pesca.  For the record, he was basically fired for simply saying it is worth a discussion as to whether there are times it is appropriate to use the actual word (not in a perjorative sense or conveying animus, but simply to accurately report what people have said) rather than “n word” or “racial slur” formulation.  Anyway, this just got me so annoyed at the woke, because… racism is bad, and this is not helping!

Very next podcast I listened to was This American Life, which was a very compelling and depressing account of ongoing racism in America, and in America’s policing.  And as much as the woke people who fired Pesca annoyed me, they actually abhor racism.  They are just going about it horribly wrong.  Yeah, it sucks that Pesca lost his job and it sucks that the woke have an extremely over-developed sense of self-righteousness and narrow vision of morality and empathy.  But, living with the impact of racism (and it was so systemic racism in this TAL story) is so much worse and we still have so much work to do.  The real problem is that people like Pesca and me really, really wish we were focusing our efforts on actual efforts to mitigate racism and help reduce lived racial inequality and debating about the appropriateness of “n-word” or “racial slur” or whatever (again, when there’s clearly no animus behind it) is not what gets us there.  

Abortion policy here there and everywhere

Nice piece in the Upshot about how abortion policy in the US compares with other nations around the world.  There’s some problematic coding of some European nations where the letter of the law makes it look harder to get an abortion than lived reality, but, nonetheless an interesting exercise.  

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said last month that the United States was an international outlier in allowing abortion more than halfway through pregnancy. That later cutoff, he said, places the United States in the company of North Korea and China.

It’s true in some ways, but not all. Few countries allow abortion without restriction until fetal viability, the cutoff set by Roe v. Wade, which was decided 49 years ago today. Because of medical advances, that is now around 23 weeks. And only around a dozen other countries allow abortions for any reason beyond 15 weeks of pregnancy, the threshold in the Mississippi law the Supreme Court is considering, which could overturn Roe.

But in many countries, women can get an abortion after the gestational cutoff — for a wide variety of reasons, like health or economic ones. In some, it can be easier to obtain an abortion than in many parts of the U.S. Also, peer countries tend to have more abortion providers, and cover the costs of abortions…

Sixty-three countries, representing 35 percent of women of reproductive age, allow abortion for various reasons, including protection of a woman’s physical or mental health or consideration of her social or economic circumstances.

Some countries in this group are more permissive than others. In Britain, women must have two doctors approve their abortion, but requests are routinely granted up to 24 weeks — and beyond that for severe health reasons. (The National Health Service website says: “The decision to have an abortion is yours alone.”) In Bolivia, however, a woman must show a grave health risk from her pregnancy, or show it was a result of rape or incest.

Seventy-four countries, home to 38 percent of women, allow abortion for any reason for a certain number of weeks. The most common threshold is 12 weeks. A dozen or so countries besides the United States allow abortion without any restrictions or conditions after 15 weeks, the cutoff in question in the Mississippi case. They include North Korea, China, Iceland, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and Vietnam.

“Through the lens of comparative national law, Mississippi’s abortion regime is more permissive than in most countries,” wrote 141 international legal scholars in a brief to the Supreme Court in support of Mississippi.

Some of these countries, however, allow abortion after the cutoff if the woman has a valid reason, and law scholars say that in some of them, abortion until fetal viability is as accessible as it is in the United States.

In Germany, for example, abortion is permitted on request until 12 weeks, and until 22 weeks if, in the woman’s view, it is necessary for her physical or mental health or for present or future living conditions. In Denmark, which also has a 12-week cutoff, abortion is allowed after that time for factors including health; the person’s age, income or housing; or her interests or occupation…

In other rich democracies, abortion is covered by public health insurance. So are other forms of reproductive health care, including contraception. In Ireland, for example, the cost of an abortion is fully covered, the procedure can be performed by a general practitioner, and there is a government help line on how to get an abortion or reach a nurse during recovery.

The United States prohibits federal funding of abortions in most cases. Also, abortions tend to be provided only in special clinics, often far from where women live. In peer nations, they are more likely to be offered at ordinary hospitals and medical clinics.

Most European countries have arrived at their abortion laws through legislation involving political compromise. In the U.S., the viability threshold originated in the Supreme Court. Michael New, a research associate at the Catholic University of America who supports more U.S. restrictions on abortion, said this process difference may explain why the gestational limit in U.S. law is later than in most of its peer nations.

“A legal debate, built upon precedent, can be very different from a democratic debate or moral debate,” he said in an email.

The United States is also unusual in having such a wide range of laws by state, a feature that will be magnified if Roe is overturned. “In California, abortion access is fairly similar to abortion access in the United Kingdom, whereas in Texas right now, abortion access is really among the most restrictive in the world,” said Caitlin Gerdts, a vice president at Ibis Reproductive Health, a research group.

If we lose the viability standard and abortion was limited to the first 12 or 15 weeks– honestly, fairly in keeping with much of the world– that actually would not make that large a substantive difference for the vast majority of pregnant women.  But, do you really think red states will really be content with a 15 week cut-off instead of viability.  After Roe is either struck down or functionally gutted this summer, just what happens with the proposed laws and the politics of all this is going to be really interesting.

James Madison and the filibuster

One of the most frustrating things about the filibuster is just how amazingly, historically wrong most of the filibusters most ardent defenders are.  Joe Manchin, of course, is one of those most ardent defenders.  Great column from Jamelle Bouie which eviscerates Manchin’s arguments and quite nicely lays out what James Madison really thought about super-majority requirements, etc., in the legislature.  Love that Bouie also gets into the history of political parties (they did not exist anywhere at the time the Constitution was created)

Manchin, as he has in the past, cited James Madison — by way of his predecessor, Senator Robert Byrd — to make his point.

“Madison said that the purpose of the Senate was ‘first, to protect the people against their rulers, secondly, to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves may be led,’ and that the Senate serves as a ‘necessary fence against such danger.’ Senator Byrd testified that ‘the right to filibuster anchors this necessary fence.’”…

It is then that he says, “These were first to protect the people against their rulers, secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”

At no point in this discussion was there any talk of a filibuster (a word not yet in common use) or any principle of unlimited debate. Madison’s point was that the structure of the Senate itself — its long terms of office, indirect method of election and staggered times for choosing members — would do the work in question. “A necessary fence against this danger would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels.”

Here’s where things get a little complicated. When Manchin and other filibuster defenders speak of protecting the “minority” in Congress, they mean a partisan minority. “Democrat or Republican,” as he said. But no one in Philadelphia had any idea of political parties, much less a partisan minority. They didn’t exist and none of the framers thought they would…

When Madison speaks of a “minority” in the context of the Senate, he means an economic interest, not an organized political faction. “In all civilized Countries,” he says, “the people fall into different classes having a real or supposed difference of interests. There will be creditors & debtors, farmers, merchants & manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor.”…

The question of how to balance power between two partisan factions within a legislature never came up, which should make it difficult to use Madison in defense of something like the filibuster. The most we can say is that Madison expected the Senate to be an elitist body and within that body, it would operate on the principle of majority rule except for when the Constitution stated otherwise.

You could make the argument that by blocking most egalitarian legislation, the filibuster does fit within the design and intent of the Senate. Then again, Madison was worried that the legislature would be carried away by the passions of the moment. It is unclear what he would think about a system that required deliberation over time to pass legislation. To carry out its agenda, a party has to win at least two consecutive election cycles. During that time, party elites and affiliate groups debate and deliberate among themselves over their priorities should they win power. And then, once in power, they have to negotiate the specifics of the bills in question.

Put another way, the debate over majority rule in the Senate isn’t about whether the chamber will have the power to stop any irrational exuberance in its tracks. It’s about whether, after an extended period of time, internal deliberation and public debate, a partisan majority in the Senate can pass its agenda into law using a simple majority.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what Bouie or me think or what James Madison thought.  Manchin and Sinema quite clearly like it, whatever ahistorical and non-logical explanations they give, so we’re stuck with it.  Until, of course, it actually gets in the way of something future Republicans really want and could otherwise accomplish.  Then it’s so gone.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) Great stuff on where the left and right mean on censorship– and the greater threat from the right:

Censors don’t seek rights; they seek power over their ideological opponents. On the left, progressives and woke identitarians have successfully seized power on campuses. In public colleges and universities, bound by the First Amendment, their power is primarily cultural and political. On private campuses it is often regulatory as well. On the right, activists are seizing legal power in public schools, under the cover of opposing critical race theory. As campaigner Christopher Rufo boasted, critical race theory is being ‘recodified’ as a brand name for ‘cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans’ – as if all 330million of us were of one mind.

For Virginia’s Governor Youngkin (among other Republican politicians), opposing critical race theory means opposing the teaching of ‘divisive concepts’, which might make you wonder what he regards as the purpose of education. His new executive order requires the superintendent of education to ‘review all policies within the Department of Education to identify those that promote inherently divisive concepts. Such policies shall be ended.’…

Give Youngkin and his cohort of right-wing Republicans credit for being anti-woke, but don’t imagine they care about liberty. They simply seek to replace the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the woke left with the authoritarianism and dogmatism of the Trumpist right. The strongest threat to First Amendment freedoms in public schools now emanates from the right, which holds power in a majority of states and is weaponising book bans and ersatz crusades against critical race theory (or ‘divisive concepts’), in preparation for the midterms and 2024 presidential election.

This isn’t a freedom fight. It’s a power grab.

2) So good from Dana Milbank, “How Fox News and Republican officials devised one Biden smear”

But let’s pause to dissect this particular smear, because the Biden-says-parents-are-terrorists fiction fits with a narrative sometimes described on Fox as Biden’s “war on parents.” It also sanitizes violence.

For three months, Republican officeholders and Fox News personalities have been shouting it from the rooftops.

“The attorney general announced the FBI would investigate moms who dared to complain at school board meetings as potential terrorists,” Fox’s leading prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, announced last week.

“Biden and his cronies are calling the parents domestic terrorists,” contributed Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, on Fox News last Sunday.

“I’m glad that the Biden administration labeled us domestic terrorists, because that was a wake-up moment for a lot of parents,” commentator Matt Walsh said on the channel last week.

“Parents who are complaining about the schools are being branded as extremists, or even domestic terrorists,” host Laura Ingraham inveighed. “Merrick Garland gets involved, Justice Department gets involved.”

“The Biden administration … has said that they are considering parents who speak out regarding education issues for their children to be domestic terrorists,” proclaimed Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House GOP leader, on Fox News.

There’s just one wee problem with the whole Biden-says-parents-are-terrorists claim, reported dozens of times on Fox News airwaves and echoed at each link down the Republican media food chain: It’s horse excrement. Biden never said it. Attorney General Merrick Garland never said it. No senior (nor even junior) official in the Biden administration has ever been shown to have said it. Yet Fox News presents it as unchallenged fact, week after week. (In response to my request, a Fox News spokeswoman provided me no instance of a Biden official calling parents domestic terrorists.)

It would be easy to overlook this one drizzle of disinformation in the torrent of falsehood the GOP-Fox axis produces. The network, which “informs” the majority of Republican voters, has painstakingly constructed a parallel universe in which vaccines kill you, Biden stole the election, Biden is senile, grade schoolers are being force-fed critical race theory, the FBI orchestrated the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the country is in an apocalyptic spiral of open borders, rampant crime and runaway inflation…

The basis for the smear is Garland’s Oct. 4 memo saying that, because of a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff,” the FBI would develop “strategies for addressing threats” with state and local authorities. It said nothing about parents being labeled domestic terrorists.

Fox News has reported that the administration “requested” a Sept. 29 “letter from the National School Boards Association calling parents domestic terrorists.” The administration denied this allegation (which was based on a third-hand remark in an NSBA email released under the Freedom of Information Act) and, in any event, the NSBA-written letter (it has since apologized for the language) also didn’t call parents domestic terrorists. It said that certain “heinous actions” of violence and threats against school officials “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) claimed an FBI email provided by a “whistleblower” showed “troubling attempts” by DOJ and the White House “to use the heavy hand of federal law enforcement to target concerned parents.” This email also didn’t mention parents; it was about tracking “threats” against educators.

In reality, DOJ is doing what you’d expect: targeting people who threaten or commit violence, whether at school board meetings or at Capitol insurrections — not angry parents. “The Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish,” Garland testified to Congress.

But the smear goes on.

Kellyanne Conway tells Fox that Americans “see the Democrats calling parents domestic terrorists.”

3) And back to Chait’s newsletter for his take on the absurdity of racial essentialism:

4) Love this from Derek Thompson, “A Simple Plan to Solve All of America’s Problems: The U.S. doesn’t have enough COVID tests—or houses, immigrants, physicians, or solar panels. We need an abundance agenda.”

Zoom out, and you can see that scarcity has been the story of the whole pandemic response. In early 2020, Americans were told to not wear masks, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Last year, Americans were told to not get booster shots, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Today, we’re worried about people using too many COVID tests as cases scream past 700,000 per day, because we apparently don’t have enough to go around.

Zoom out more, and you’ll see that scarcity is also the story of the U.S. economy. After years of failing to invest in technology at our ports, we have a shipping-delay crisis. After years of a deliberate policy to reduce visa issuance for immigrants, we suddenly can’t find enough workers for our schools, factories, restaurants, or hotels. After decades of letting semiconductor-manufacturing power move to Asia, we have a shortage of chips, which is causing price increases for cars and electronics.

Zoom out yet more, and the truly big picture comes into focus. Manufactured scarcity isn’t just the story of COVID tests, or the pandemic, or the economy: It’s the story of America today. The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems that they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.

Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.

In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth

This is the abundance agenda.

5) Really fascinating conversation on the history and contemporary state of India’s democracy.  I learned so much.  (And I was really embarrassed to learn that Indira Ghandi had no relation to Mohandas.)

6) This new Covid vaccine, Corbevax, to supposedly save the world, sounds really great in this write-up.  But it totally elides the issue of variants and it talks extensively on how wonderfully scalable protein subunit vaccines are. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for Novavax (which uses this technology) to successfully scale.

7) I thought this was kind of interesting, “I Had Breakthrough Covid. Can I Start Living Like It’s 2019?
As Omicron cases skyrocket, more vaccinated people may get “hybrid” immunity after a breakthrough infection. But experts still encourage precautions.”

While some doctors and immunologists agree that hybrid immunity offers an additional layer of defense against the virus, they urge caution, noting that the strength of that protection can vary by individual and may wane over time.

“It’s the best immunity you can get,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology. “But I wouldn’t think of hybrid immunity as being a force field that can completely stop it no matter what.” …

But here’s the bad news: Exactly how much extra protection you get and how long it lasts will vary by individual, said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. And a person who is immunocompromised or older or otherwise at higher risk for severe disease likely will generate fewer antibodies than a young, healthy person, and their antibody levels may also drop more quickly.

It’s also not clear whether the severity of the illness affects the level of hybrid protection. A person with severe symptoms may have been exposed to a greater amount of the virus, which would trigger more antibodies and thus more protection, Dr. Iwasaki said. A person who was asymptomatic may not have as robust of an immune response to the virus and may be more susceptible to reinfection.

“Going back to 2019 behavior is a little premature,” Dr. Iwasaki said. “It’s really just playing the lottery, because you don’t know how many antibodies you’ve generated.”

Come on.  No immunity is ever perfect or super-immunity.  But for a person triple-vaccinated and with an Omicron breakthrough, they are incredibly well-protected while Omicron is the dominant variant.  And realistically, for them to live like it’s 2019 is just fine.

8) I really enjoyed this Frank Bruni newsletter for its appreciation of Aimee Mann:

But today I want to showcase a prodigiously talented songwriter who may be unfamiliar to many of you: Aimee Mann.
I’ve long been smitten with her lyrics, which reflect serious thought, teem with surprising rhymes and sometimes tell unusually nuanced and complete stories. The terrific song “I’ve Had It,” from her 1993 album “Whatever,” is a perfect example, and it made the cut of “31 Songs” that the hugely popular British writer Nick Hornby praised and parsed in a charming book of his with that title.
“A true poet” is what Marios Koufaris, of Brooklyn, N.Y, said of Mann in his email to me. He drew special attention to the song “Little Bombs,” from the album “The Forgotten Arm” (2005). Its lonely narrator gazes out from a high floor of an Atlanta hotel and, in a classic Mann couplet, muses:

Life just kind of empties out

Less a deluge than a drought

Ah, Mann’s couplets. From “I’ve Had It,” not exactly a couplet but not far off:

They don’t give you any hope

But they’ll leave you plenty of rope

Calling It Quits,” a contagious trifle from the “Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo” album (2000), seems to exist largely for the sake of wordplay and rhymes (and near-rhymes) that you don’t see coming: “ruby” and “booby”; “handicap” and “booby trap”; “Ritz” and “quits”; “masterminds” and “valentines” and “story lines” and “gold mines.” It’s a hoot.
But I’ll always be partial to the songs on “Whatever,” including “4th of July,” which begins, ever so sadly:

Today’s the Fourth of July

Another June has gone by

And when they light up our town I just think

What a waste of gunpowder and sky

I don’t listen to them as often as I used to (and I should probably expand my Mann discography) but I love Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space.

9) Interesting Gallup poll on abortion in that it goes beyond the usual questions to ask whether one’s own state laws are too strict or not strict enough:

10) Fecal transplants are amazing, but, of course disgusting.  The fecal bacteria holy grail has been to get the beneficial bacteria without the feces in a pill and it looks like we’re there.  Cool!

The new pill, called SER-109 and made by Seres Therapeutics, is derived from human feces purified to winnow down the resident microbes. Stool from prescreened donors is treated with ethanol, which kills many viruses, fungi, and “vegetative” bacteria—those in a state of growth and reproduction. Left behind are bacteria that can form hearty, thick-walled structures called spores, many of them from the common phylum FirmicutesBacteria in this group are valuable because they can compete with C. difficile in the gut, “taking its space and its food and its carbon sources,” says Seres Chief Medical Officer Lisa von Moltke; the Firmicutes also change the composition of bile acids in the intestines, making the environment less hospitable for C. difficile, she notes.

In 2016, Seres announced its treatment had failed to show greater benefits than a placebo in a phase 2 trial. Company researchers later concluded that the prescribed dose had been too low, and the C. difficile test used to screen participants may have selected for some who didn’t really have recurrent infections.

The phase 3 trial, which used a higher dose and a more precise screening test, included 182 participants infected with C. difficile who were randomized to get either SER-109 or a placebo, following a standard course of antibiotics. Of those, 149 completed the study’s 8-week follow-up. C. difficile infection recurred in 40% of the placebo group, but just 12% of the treatment group, researchers report today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Those results are comparable to results seen with FMT, Kelly says.

11) This is really good from Tim Noah, “The Only Place Biden’s Floundering Is in a Sea of Journalism Clichés: There are five headlines about presidencies. Welcome to number three.”

“New President Faces Headwinds” The problem with this cliché is not that it’s never true, but that it’s always true. Nearly every policy worth noting is going to face resistance somewhere. Even President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan, submitted to Congress after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,400 people and wiped out most of the Pacific fleet, passed Congress without the vote of Representative Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican.

Google “Biden” and “headwinds” and you get back 1.3 million results. Reporters saw headwinds against even the infrastructure bill, whose passage was never seriously in doubt. But the headwinds began in earnest last fall, as it became increasingly clear that the Build Back Better bill was not going to pass.

The headwinds in question were two conservative Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, whose support was always going to be a problem. Sinema’s objections to the bill were arguably more unreasonable—she opposed any straightforward raising of tax rates—but Manchin’s were more unpredictable, and therefore did not lend themselves to appeasement. Biden can be faulted for being slow to grasp that Manchin was never really negotiating, but rather positioning himself for reelection in 2024, when Donald Trump may head the GOP ticket. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Manchin himself was slow to figure out that negotiating in good faith wouldn’t serve his electoral interest. (I certainly was.)

“Amateur night at the White House” The “amateur night” insult is my favorite White House coverage cliché, because it so perfectly combines fury with a complete lack of specificity. It’s very early days seeing this precise phrase used against Biden, so perhaps I’m jumping the gun in situating Biden at this stage. Lexi McMenamin of Teen Vogue referred January 14 to “public officials who are acting like it’s amateur night at the Apollo on live television” by way of describing recent Biden administration comments about Covid-19. But the “amateur night” trope hasn’t yet penetrated the major dailies. Perhaps they maxed out on it during the Trump presidency, which was (among other things) an unending sequence of luridly bad decisions made by people who had little to no understanding of their public responsibilities.

Still, the “amateur night” spirit is alive and well in the press’s Biden coverage. Biden has “not done a good job managing expectations” around Covid, says Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, per The Guardian. Biden said things were getting better, then things got worse with the delta and omicron variants. What an amateur! Everybody knows that the president is supposed to … er … what? Anticipate which mutations will spread, which won’t, and what the health consequences will be?

Granted, Biden can be faulted for moving slowly on sending out free at-home Covid tests. In an interview on December 23, he said he wished he’d done it two months earlier, but as of January 18 they were available to order. Biden should have moved earlier on Covid mandates, too, even though the Supreme Court, rather surprisingly, eliminated one of these last week. But Biden did eventually impose these mandates, and at the very least, announcement of the never-enforced OSHA mandate on businesses employing more than 100 workers prompted many such businesses to impose vaccine mandates on their own. Today the omicron wave appears to have peaked in several of the places where it first hit, including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. We may be in the earliest stages of seeing Covid-19 shift from being primarily a public health problem to primarily an economic problem.

The economy, for the record, is in pretty good shape. Unemployment is down to 3.9 percent, just a whisker higher than the 3.5 percent before the pandemic. The “quits rate” remains historically high at 3 percent, which is good news, not bad, because it shows workers feel confident. New hires are also robust, so it looks like workers are trading up.

The bad news is that inflation is up 7 percent over last year. Biden’s let inflation spin out of control! What an amateur! But that’s driven by Covid-19 and supply chains, and if Biden’s blundered here, it’s only through suggesting he has any control over inflation, when in truth he has none; that’s up to the Federal Reserve. (As I’ve written elsewhere, Biden’s moves on antitrust, while worthy in themselves, won’t ease inflation.) And anyway, inflation is hardly the problem we anticipated in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic pushed unemployment up to 14.7 percent. Too much money chasing too few goods beats the deflationary alternative of too little money chasing too many goods.

12) Honestly the photos along with this story are pretty shocking, “Sifting Through the Train Thefts of Los Angeles”

13) Noah Smith speculates on artificial womb technology and the human future.  I really love how Smith consistently makes me think about different things than I usually do and things I usually think about in different ways, “I can only promise you that it’s going to get weirder”

We don’t talk much about this “violence”; it’s one of our last remaining taboos. Instead, we relegate the gory details to the realm of parenting classes and raunchy comedy. But it’s absolutely real. We’ve eliminated many of our burdens through the magic of technology — carrying water all day, washing laundry by hand in the river, chopping firewood to heat our homes — but pregnancy remains.

Unless you’re rich, of course. My wealthy friend, whose first pregnancy required a hysterectomy due to placenta accreta, will have her second child via a surrogate, using pre-frozen embryos. This costs upwards of $100,000, which is approximately equal to the entire median wealth of an American household.

Who would begrudge my friend this? And even if she were able to bear a second child herself, who would begrudge her the opportunity to outsource it? Artificial wombs are simply a way to take a privilege for the upper class, and make it possible for other classes of society to enjoy it as well.

And this is how it’ll almost certainly be received. Angry Twitter people always seem to envision new technologies as something that government imposes on the populace, possibly at the behest of mad billionaires. In the real world, what usually happens is that people simply adopt a new technology because they realize it makes life easier for them. Roon has a good thread about how this is likely to proceed:

Maybe in China the government will try to force womb tanks on people to try to raise the birth rate; in America, it’ll start out as a luxury purchased by the rich and the infertile, and then in a few years we’ll have online socialists angrily demanding that the tech be provided free of charge to all via a program of universal health care. Eventually we’ll wonder how we ever did things any other way.

And there’s a chance we may see this change within our lifetimes. People are already working on similar technologies from animals. And some friends of mine have already started to think concretely and hold discussions about the technical, practical, and philosophical issues involved in creating and marketing human womb tank technology. (Update: Here is a good article about artificial womb technology by Aria Babu.)

14) This Covid risk calculator is pretty cool

15) As social scientists we measure racial attitudes all the time.  And some scales we use to do this are not all that great.  This is really interesting, “Evaluating Validity Properties of 25 Race-Related Scales

16) The fact that we expect massively sleep-deprived medical residents to take good care of patients is an ongoing scandal.  The fact that it’s better than it used to be is not good enough.  Great post from Jeremy Faust:

A recent study published in the Annals of Surgery found that automobile accidents were far more common among general surgery residents who routinely worked very long hours. Automobile accidents were reported by around 14% of residents who either routinely worked shifts lasting longer than 28 hours or who had less than 8 hours off between hospital shifts on 3 or more occasions in a month. And that was just during the 6 months prior to the survey.

Residents in the middle of their training (2nd-through-4th years) were far more likely than 1st year residents (i.e. “interns”) or 5th year “senior” residents to report crashes or near-misses. That’s scary because the 2nd-4th years of training are key in developing technical skills.

If surgical residents are too tired to operate heavy machinery—a car or a motorcycle—do we really want them operating on us? I sure don’t…

Time was that recent medical school graduates who were apprenticed to master physicians literally lived in the hospital where they worked. Indeed, that is why they came to be known as “residents.” During the 20th century, hospitals grew addicted to extracting labor from young powerless physicians (even after they stopped living there). When the public wised up to the reality that patients were dying as a result of the mistakes of exhausted overworked young doctors, fancy commissions were convened. As a result, some rules were changed, and some laws were passed.

At first, hospitals complained that they would not be able to stay in business if resident “duty hour limits” were enforced. When states threw hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem, that did little to shut them up. Flush with money (and convenient exemptions that assured surgical residents in particular did not even benefit from the new reforms), apologists for the old way simply moved on to another justification, this one prettier than the last. How could doctors learn about medicine, they bellyached, if they didn’t “see the patient all the way through?” The notion that “continuity of care” mattered above all else was advanced as the next pretext for perpetuating the system of mistreatment. Hospitals and senior physicians dressed extracted labor up as valor.


Some sub-fields of medicine followed the new rules. Others, like the surgical specialties frequently either were exempt from the reforms, or were found to be in violation. Surprisingly to some, research completed shortly after the reforms were enacted found that patient death rates did not improve. Nor had things improved by the time a more recent New England Journal of Medicinestudy was completed late last decade (albeit the studies looked at non-surgical specialties in which manual dexterity and quick thinking are not routinely responsible for “saving the day”).

But, honestly, why were the reforms expected to make any difference in keeping patients alive? A closer look reveals that the reforms were almost predestined to fail, if patient safety was the real goal. Under the reformed system, residents were still asked to work up to 80 hours per week, and they only had to work 24-hour shifts (plus 6 more hours for “education and transfer of care”) every third night. It’s not as if residents working under the reformed system were suddenly adequately rested each day. The reformed schedules were hardly humane. They were just less inhumane than the previous ones.


Something that has long bothered me is how some researchers have buried key findings that don’t fit the narrative that sleep deprivation is not a big deal…

Can we abandon the current system? Can residents learn to be independent physicians without marathon shifts that lead them to drive off the road into a ditch? (If they do, at least they’ll be rescued by ambulance drivers who do not work 24 hour shifts). To my knowledge, nobody in the United States has seriously studied what happens when duty hours are actually reduced meaningfully (i.e. to levels that reflect other professions). Commercial pilots, including first and second officers, are not permitted to fly if they are tired; flights are routinely cancelled for this exact reason. Do we really believe researchers would learn very much by comparing the performances of pilots who worked 13 versus 15 hours per day, 6 days per week? Of course not. We wouldn’t even think it safe to perform such a study.

Indeed, what if residents were suddenly treated like other apprentices in high-stress, high-stakes jobs? Would the world fall apart? Would patient care suffer?

I sincerely doubt it. I find the tradition of excessively long and relentless duty hours to be one of the great shared delusions in medicine. Do we really think that 75 years ago, our predecessors somehow stumbled upon the one and only way to prepare trainees adequately, and that was to defy the human body clock? So much for understanding human physiology. Indeed, the work of a modern physician bears little resemblance to the duties of our 1965 counterparts. Technology means we work faster and accomplish much more. We should stop pretending otherwise.


Why do we cling to this tired system? I propose two reasons. First, we’re “paying it backward.” The logic is that “I had to do it, so they should too.” In fairness, I do not think the inner monologue is so nefarious. It’s more likely a defense mechanism. If we were forced to confront the fact that our own torture was without meaning, the trauma might be too painful to bear. This is classic cycle of abuse stuff.

Second, I think having endured inhumane conditions makes us doctors feel special and important. During my training, I survived several months in the medical and cardiac intensive care units where I was subjected to ludicrously long call schedules. The sickening part is that, yes, I confess looking back on those times with pride. I survived. What the hell is wrong with me? Do I have some variant of Stockholm Syndrome?

17) Freddie deBoer goes all in on human technology, rather than human behavior, to save us, “Sneer if You’d Like, But Engineered Solutions Are a Lot More Plausible Than Behavioral Change in 2022”

I have become, against my will, quite fatalistic about solutions to social problems that require any kind of widespread public buy-in. And though I’m somewhat antagonistic to the cultures that tend to advocate for engineering solutions, such as those of Silicon Valley or the finance industry, I feel drawn to such solutions because social change seems so impossible. We’re riven by partisanship and internet-fueled culture war, we don’t trust institutions or each other, and in my anecdotal experience the rise of casual nihilism – the bitter, I’m-joking-but-not-really insistence that everything is broken and can’t be fixed – is rising fast. All of that in a winner-take-all socioeconomic system that incentivizes being selfish. It’s not a combination that lends itself to a lot of hope. So I dream of moonshots…

OK. But what are the actual effects of a lack of social trust, partisanship, and immense pessimism? Among other things, I think we simply can’t trust that a solution to a social problem that requires behavioral changes among Americans is actually a solution. Because when the citizenry doesn’t trust the government, the major institutions of civic life, or each other, hate the half of the country on the other side of the partisan divide, and think life is getting worse despite economic and technological growth, what force is going to compel them to sacrifice for the greater good?

The obvious place to start here is Covid precautions. They’re an interesting litmus test because, though they certainly have a component of shared responsibility, they’re also clearly a matter of selfish interest. Though I recognize that Covid panic often springs from socially competitive interests and am frustrated by Covid safetyism, I also firmly believe that vaccines, boosters, and masking are essential precautions in a pandemic. But even when it comes to survival, to literal life and death, culture war and polarization are strong enough to keep people from changing their ways, and I have to imagine that the vast majority of the unvaccinated will never change that status. I also have no faith that vaccine mandates would work, even setting aside civil liberties concerns – there are too many legal, procedural, and pragmatic hurdles. I still post charts and graphs to stress the importance of vaccination on my Facebook, but it’s all vestigial at this point. Because we can’t get people to change their behavior. Not in America, not in 2022.

The vaccine issue demonstrates that even successful technocratic solutions can be caught in behavioral choke points. I suppose it’s too early to tell if the initial optimism about Pfizer’s Paxlovid was justified, but I’m pinning a lot of hope on that and other therapeutics because for some bizarre reason some of the unvaccinated will take those drugs despite their fear of vaccines and Big Pharma – half of them, at least. Either way, the only faith I have in combatting Covid-19 lies in medical science. We develop the drugs and vaccines (or, I don’t know, virus-hunting nanites) that solve the problem or we don’t. And in the meantime we should invest massively in overhauling existing ventilation systems, for the next airborne pathogen if not for this one. I have far more faith in our ability to build physical infrastructure, even as unconscionably expensive as that has become, than I do to prompt behavioral change…

Look at another issue Barr raises, mitigating the effects of climate change. Let’s broaden out from the question of New York’s specific storm surge issues: I don’t believe in any responses to climate change that aren’t fundamentally engineered solutions, because first-world people aren’t going to change their energy use behaviors and the third world can’t afford to. Ideally this would come from swiftly changing to renewables and a reinvestment in nuclear power. Pragmatically it may have to involve some sort of major carbon capture program, technology that somehow sucks carbon directly out of the atmosphere. It’s hard to get people to agree to consume less energy, whether at home or in their cars, and I have never observed a particularly strong correlation between political concern for climate change and taking personal action to reduce one’s carbon footprint. And the kneejerk recitation of the argument that only reining in corporations can slow climate change, however true it may be, does not change the fact that we’re almost certainly not going to do that, either. So carbon capture seems essential.

Yet as someone who’s pretty plugged in to environmental circles, there’s a ton of skepticism and antagonism towards carbon capture and similar engineering approaches. There’s legitimate arguments about their potential efficacy, I’m sure; this brief paper from the Center for International Environmental Law lays out some compelling points. The problem is that a lot of the resistance to carbon capture within the left seems powered more by resentment than technical criticisms. For many, it seems, carbon capture is “cheating” – we got into this problem through excess and bad behavior, and we should have to get out of it with discipline and selflessness. For the record, I find this strain of climate moralism deeply unhelpful for confronting the actual problem, and arguments about it too often become vague complaints about corporations. (Yes, corporations are bad actors who contribute a great deal to the problem, but we need to be specific and pragmatic to solve climate change.) Besides, it does not strike me as remotely plausible that enough Americans would be moved by the appeals to the greater good to solve a problem where blame is diffuse, the effects are slow-building, and the required behavior involves self-sacrifice.

18) I thought the Last Duel was a really good movie.  And the fact that it was a complete flop at the box office does not bode well, “The Tragedy of The Last Duel Flopping at the Box Office: Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is the rarest of things in modern Hollywood: an epic for adults. And it just sank like a stone at the box office.”

The Last Duel did not have a good weekend at the box office. As a medieval epic from director Ridley Scott for the post-#MeToo era, the 20th Century Studios release posted a meager $4.8 million over its first three days in release. And that is on a reported budget of $100 million—a figure which does not include marketing and publicity costs.

There are many aspects that likely contributed to The Last Duel’s box office failure. The pandemic, for one, has left the movie industry on uncertain footing for nearly two years, a period of time where Scott’s pricy melodrama had already been greenlit and filming before the ground fell out beneath the feet of theatrical releases. While recent franchise spectacles like Venom: Let There Be CarnageNo Time to Die, and Shang-Chi are doing big business, audiences appear still recalcitrant about venturing to cinemas for adult-skewing dramatic work. Indeed, older audiences are particularly shy about moviegoing with the spread of the Delta variant this fall, and more than half of The Last Duel’s audience skewed age 35 or older. When the subject matter is also as uncomfortable as that of The Last Duel’s—with the film centering on a legally sanctioned duel in 14th century France after one knight is accused of raping another’s wife—getting younger audiences to show up is all the more difficult…

The Last Duel, which was written by Matt DamonBen Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, was surprisingly refreshing when I saw it several weeks ago in a theater. With the typically lavish production designs you’d expect from a Scott period piece, it felt like the type of Hollywood epic that rarely gets made anymore. Similarly, the screenwriters’ Rashomon-inspired storytelling structure, where we witness the events leading up to the duel from the vantage of the film’s quarreling knights (Damon and Adam Driver), and then the actual woman at the center of this horrible melodrama (Comer), was a striking way of drawing parallels between the barbaric patriarchal double standards of the Middles Ages and those in our own still often tragically flawed cultures.

Made with the pomp and grandeur of films that were once clear blockbusters, such as Scott’s own Gladiator (2000) or Master and Commander (2003), and with an uncomfortable yet proactive subject matter that used to still be the stuff of popular adult dramas like The Accused (1988) or Scott’s own Thelma & Louise (1991), The Last Duel feels in some ways like a relic of the past: a splashy period piece marketed on the appeal of its movie star cast and harrowing subject. On paper, Damon and Affleck are still A-list movie stars, with the latter fresh off being a relatively popular Batman. The film also marks the pair’s first screenplay together since their Oscar winning script for Good Will Hunting (1997), and Driver just did a three-film stint as Kylo Ren in the $4.3 billion-grossing Star Wars Sequel Trilogy.

But all that prestige and box office success in franchise entertainment can’t even translate to a $5 million opening weekend for something that’s adult-skewing and divorced from intellectual property…

There are a myriad of reasons for why this particular movie might’ve flopped, including some audiences being fairly turned off by its subject matter. But whether one considers The Last Duel an artistic success in how it handles this material, or a middle brow attempt by a male director at telling a sensitive story about a woman’s suffering, the film’s failure sends a strong and far simpler message to Hollywood: Expensive, ambitious movies made for adults lose money. Pandemic or not, audiences will show up in droves for familiar franchises and/or superheroes—hence Venom 2 nearly breaking the October opening weekend record earlier this month, and Shang-Chi shattering September’s last month. But a movie dealing with adult themes and challenging ideas, even with the gruesome sword-on-shield carnage that made Scott’s Gladiator a box office and Oscar champ 20 years ago? That’s dead on arrival for audiences who’d rather play in fantasy’s PG-13 sandbox, or with Venom’s big ball of CGI goo.

On social media, I’ve already seen some suggesting that The Last Duel should have been a streaming release. And there’s some cold, despairing logic to that. Older audiences who might be attracted to a movie like The Last Duel are more inclined to stay home and watch whatever’s on Netflix, especially after the pandemic. However, save for the rare instances when Netflix wants to invest in its own prestige, Oscar-courting showcases, finding a streaming service willing to spend this type of money that can produce such an old school spectacle with the type of craft that goes into The Last Duel is rare.

19) It is kind of crazy just how many long Jeopardy! streaks there’ve been recently, “‘Jeopardy!’ Keeps Seeing Winning Streaks. Champions Ponder Why. Amy Schneider isn’t the only one on a roll. Just a dozen players have won 10 or more games, half of those in the past five years, and a quarter in this season alone.”

Quick hits (part I)

1) This is really good, “When My Mom Got Covid, I Went Searching for Pfizer’s Pills: The experience showed how hard it is for many people to get potentially lifesaving treatments.

Just after 1 p.m. on Tuesday last week, my phone buzzed with a text message from my mother: “Well, came down with cold, aches, cough etc over wknd.” She had taken an at-home coronavirus test. It was positive.

Having spent the past year writing about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments for The New York Times, I knew a lot about the options available to people like my mother. Yet I was about to go on a seven-hour odyssey that would show me there was a lot I didn’t grasp.

My mother, Mary Ann Neilsen, is fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, which sharply reduced the odds that she would become seriously ill from the virus. But she has several risk factors that worried me. She’s 73. She has twice beaten breast cancer.

Her age and cancer history made her eligible to receive the latest treatments that have been shown to stave off the worst outcomes from Covid. The trouble, as I knew from my reporting, was that these treatments — including monoclonal antibody infusions and antiviral pills — are hard to come by…

By some measures, my search was successful. My mother started taking the pills only two and a half days after her symptoms began and within eight hours of testing positive.

Within a few days, she started feeling better. She finished the regimen this past weekend.

But the fact that the process was so hard for a journalist whose job it is to understand how Paxlovid gets delivered is not encouraging. I worry that many patients or their family would give up when told “no” as many times as I was.

The federal government has bought enough Paxlovid for 20 million Americans, at a cost of about $530 per person, to be distributed free of charge. But I spent $256.54 getting the pills for my mother. I paid $39 for the telemedicine visit with the provider who told my mother that she would need to visit in person. The rest was the Uber fare and tip. Many patients and their families can’t afford that.

President Biden recently called the Pfizer pills a “game changer.” My experience suggests it won’t be quite so simple.

I don’t know if they are doing everything in their power to scale up production of these pills or not.  But what I can say is they damn well should be doing everything in their power.

2) Really good deBoer rant on the left calling everything “eugenics.”

One of the things I discovered early, in my little political niche, was the obsession with magic words. Leftists were forever throwing emotionally loaded terms around, like when the coffeehouse didn’t have raw sugar and they called it fascism. It’s not really hard to understand why: when you have no power, you resort to mysticism. You instill words with powers they can’t really have because you’re desperate to feel in control of something, anything. That’s what “eugenics” has become online; it’s not much different from your average depressed wine mom talking about Mercury being in retrograde. They all just want to feel a little bit of power.

Eugenic beliefs go back a very long time, but are often associated with the early 20th century. Eugenics entails belief in a program for orchestrated, top-down, and directed change of the human genome with the intent of creating a population with more “desirable” traits, such as intelligence or physical fitness, typically through sterilization of those believed to have “undesirable” trains and forced breeding of those whose traits the eugenicists want to spread. Eugenicists, famously the Nazis but more prototypically the early 1900s American Progressive movement, thought that society would be improved by eliminating undesirable traits from the collective genome and attempted to orchestrate that as policy. Unsurprisingly, these beliefs are all tied up with pseudoscientific racism and justifications for imperialism. It should go without saying that eugenics is bad.

However, not everything is eugenics. Some things that are not eugenics include

  • The observation that differences in our genomes have consequences for our personalities, our tendencies, our strengths, and our weaknesses
  • Attempts to quantify those relationships
  • Discussions of what policies and philosophies are correct in light of those relationships
  • The empirical observation that a given strain of a virus hospitalizes and kills at different rates than other strains
  • The empirical observation that people with different traits, such as preexisting conditions, suffer or die from a given disease at different rates
  • The empirical observation that a strain of a disease may be so transmissible as to overwhelm any of our attempts to stop its spread
  • People making good-faith calculations about what the appropriate level of restriction on behavior may be to contain such a disease, taking in light the unclear benefits of certain restrictions and the social, cultural, and economic costs of restrictions
  • The recognition that society constantly makes choices that increase likelihood of death in some domains, given complicated cost-benefit math, such as in permitting the use of automobiles, licensing the practice of cosmetic surgery, allowing the sale of alcohol, or not forcibly restricting people with infectious diseases into strict quarantines
  • Choosing to eat certain foods out of a concern for your health or appearance

3) Really enjoyed this.  “Why Making Friends in Midlife Is So Hard.” If I’m allowed to have a favorite thing about the pandemic is that it actually led me to making some new adult friends (some of whom may even be reading this).

According to “The Friendship Report,” a global study commissioned by Snapchat in 2019, the average age at which we meet our best friends is 21—a stage when we’re not only bonding over formative new experiences such as first love and first heartbreak, but also growing more discerning about whom we befriend. Even more important, young adulthood is a time when many of us have time. The average American spends just 41 minutes a day socializing, but Jeffrey A. Hall, a communication-studies professor at the University of Kansas, estimates that it typically takes more than 200 hours, ideally over six weeks, for a stranger to grow into a close friend. As we get older, the space we used to fill with laughter, gossip, and staying up until the sky grew light can get consumed by more “adult” concerns, such as marriage, procreation, and fully developed careers—and we tend to end up with less of ourselves to give…

If our 30s are “the decade where friendship goes to die,” as the science journalist Lydia Denworth notes in her book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, then it’s no wonder that making friends at 40 is more akin to dating than I had anticipated: It’s dependent not only on chemistry and common interests, but also on a shared vision of what your new relationship could provide. Half the struggle is finding someone who wants the same thing you do, and at the exact same time. Here I’m reminded of Miranda on Sex and the City: “Men are like cabs,” she says. “They wake up one day, and they decide they’re ready to settle down, have babies, whatever. And they turn their light on.” In Montana, I’d need to find people who were not just delightful and committed to friendship generally, but also willing to expand beyond those best friends they made at 21—people who, for whatever reason, still had their light on.

4) This is one of the weirdest music videos ever and several members of my family (including me), but most definitely not my wife, are kind of obsessed with it.

5) Never been a huge Joss Whedon fan.  I did quite enjoy Firefly, but that’s about it.  Never understood the total obsession with him.  I did find this New York profile really interesting, though.  What I really, really loved, though, was this, “Joss Whedon shows what happens when a fandom attaches to an artist over art”

But if a work only mattered to you because the author of that work hung out on message boards and shared some of your precepts, the work is worthless anyway. And if your response to the work changes because you discover something untoward about the person who created it, you were never a true fan of the creation. You were searching for community, not artistry.

A work of art exists separately from the artist who created it. Sometimes that simply means interpretations of the work can differ from what the author intended. But it means more than that: An author’s personal life or political convictions really shouldn’t have an impact on your ability to admire, or detest, their work. Harry Potter is good or bad regardless of your feelings on J.K. Rowling. The twist ending of “The Usual Suspects” works or doesn’t no matter what Kevin Spacey has done.

And “Buffy” inspires or it doesn’t despite, not because of, Joss Whedon’s actions, fair or foul. Fandoms that exist only to reinforce the dogma of the fans are destined for disappointment; artists are messy people. Lining up your aesthetic preferences within an ideological framework is a sad enough way to go through life, but lining up those preferences in a framework that demands consistency from everyone involved in making it?

That way lies madness — and an impoverished library.

Yes!!!  So, so, so much all of that.  I’ve got a friend who loves the whole Harry Potter world and has now largely given up on it because he does not like JK Rowling’s gender politics.  That’s insane!  The idea that people would intentionally choose to not enjoy great art because of whatever failures of the artist just baffles me.

6) OMG does Alexdra Petri just totally nail it so good on the new woke M&M’s: “9 questions I have about the new, more ‘inclusive’ M&M mascots”

1. Am I still allowed to eat them? So Mars has decided to rebrand the M&M candy mascots to create a “sense of belonging and community.” The green lady M&M will be less defined by her sexuality (a phrase I can’t believe I just typed). The orange M&M will embrace his anxiety; he will also tie his shoelaces now. And the red M&M will bully less. They will also, generally, be defined by “personalities, rather than their gender.” (I’m sorry, I just noticed myself writing the phrase “the mascots for M&Ms, lentil-shaped chocolate candies, will be less defined by their gender” and it is all I can do not to jump into the sea.) But they are still for eating, though? They are more accepting of one another and their own issues, but at the end of the day, they are still for eating, right? I can still eat them?

2. Who wanted this? Who, looking at the troubles that beset us in the Year of Our Lord 2022, said, “What needs to be fixed is that the M&M candy mascots are not well-rounded enough, except in the strictest, most literal sense. I demand that someone fix this, or I will never … eat them again?” What life is this person leading? Can I have this person’s life?

3. Are they still cannibals, though? I thought one of the traits of the M&Ms was that they ate other M&Ms. Is this still a trait, or now that they are “throwing shine” rather than “shade,” is that gone, too? On the one hand, cannibalism doesn’t seem like a very “throwing shine” thing to do, but on the other hand, I don’t understand any of this…

7. Do these personalities still apply when they have peanuts inside them?

8. How is designing M&Ms that better reflect the world before I eat them supposed to be a sign of progress? Isn’t there something kind of quietly devastating about the fact that the anthropomorphic chocolate I just devoured had a rich inner life and feelings and was the sort of entity a corporation thought might relate to Gen Z? Is it good that, before I devoured them, I knew that they had made huge strides toward self-acceptance? Does it improve the flavor?

9. But they are still for eating, though?

7) This was really interesting.  Honestly, it’s sometimes hard to have the sympathy, but nobody deserves to die from Covid. “People Are Hiding That Their Unvaccinated Loved Ones Died of COVID: With the arrival of vaccines, compassion for COVID deaths began to dry up, sometimes replaced by scorn.”

In 2020, dying of COVID-19 was widely seen as an unqualified tragedy. It was the beginning of the pandemic, when it felt as if the entire world was in a state of collective grief. There was a palpable, shared mourning for all the lives gone too soon: the smiling mothers and jokester grandfathers and so-and-so from church who always lent a helping hand. All victims of a virus, unfurling and cruel.

But that was before the vaccines. Before COVID deaths got caught up in a culture war.

Now the majority of COVID deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated, and many deaths are likely preventable. The compassion extended to the virus’s victims is no longer universal. Sometimes, in place of condolences, loved ones receive scorn.

Vitriol doesn’t come just from familiar names, but also from strangers. Websites, message boards, and social-media accounts have cropped up as forums to insult the unvaccinated dead. They scour social-media pages for “covidiots” and screenshot their photos and posts, turning them into memes. One Reddit page even gives out “awards” to those who refused the vaccine and then died.

“A few months after the vaccine became available, that was really the turning point for when we began to see an acceleration in the lack of empathy for those who passed away due to COVID,” says Kristin Urquiza, who co-founded Marked by COVID, a grassroots group that advocates for those affected by the pandemic, after her dad died of COVID in June 2020. She told me that even in forums dedicated specifically to grief, when someone posts about a COVID death, often the first thing people ask is whether the person was vaccinated.

That interrogation, and the judgment that may follow if the answer is no, has made opening up, especially online, hard for those who lost an unvaccinated loved one to COVID-19. “I have people reaching out to me confiding on a more one-on-one level that they’re struggling and they want to talk about their loss, but they don’t feel safe. They’re afraid they will be attacked or they’re afraid of their loved one being attacked,” said Urquiza, whose organization works with thousands of people across the country.

Instead, many obituaries and memorial posts on social media don’t tell the full story, referencing pneumonia or other complications that stemmed from COVID-19 without invoking the coronavirus itself. Sometimes, no cause of death is given.

8) This really frustrated me, “Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones.” (free link for this one) How is this a debate?!  The idea that before irrevocably changing their bodies and quite potentially, their future fertility, we should not take a comprehensive counseling/mental health approach to really ensure that these very-unformed minds do this is insane!  Of course we should be kind to and support Trans teenagers (and adults), but to think we would let a teenager permanently alter their body without even requiring any counseling is just extremist gender ideology leading to negative consequences for actual humans.  Heck, you can’t legally alter your skin with a tattoo till you’re 18.  I find the advocates for the “just do what the teens want” approach horribly irresponsible and completely unconvincing.

On the other side of the debate are clinicians who say the guidelines are calling for unnecessary barriers to urgently needed care. Transgender teens have a high risk of attempting suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And preliminary studies have suggested that adolescents who receive drug treatments to affirm their gender identity have improved mental health and well-being. Considering those data, some clinicians are opposed to any mental health requirements.

“I’m really not a believer in requiring that for people,” said Dr. Alex Keuroghlian, a clinical psychiatrist at Fenway Health in Boston and the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatry Gender Identity Program. “Being trans isn’t a mental health problem,” he later added…

“Children are not short adults — but they have autonomy as well, and they can know their gender,” said Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at the University of California, San Francisco Child and Adolescent Gender Center. Dr. Ehrensaft is one of the key early proponents of thegender-affirming model and helped write a new chapter on prepubescent children in the draft guidelines.

Also, it’s just ridiculously manipulative to go to this “you just better affirm their identity with drugs and surgery or else they’ll probably kill themselves” approach.

9) Good stuff from Drum, “We still need to figure out how to make voters angry at Republican”

Paul Waldman unintentionally illustrates the confusion gripping liberals right now. He’s talking here about vulnerable Democrats in swing districts:

Here’s the political dilemma they find themselves in: Although tackling difficult problems and passing legislation won’t ever guarantee victory for a party, not doing so almost certainly guarantees defeat. Delivering for the voters is the necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

….There’s no real mystery about what could help Democrats now. Only two times in recent decades has the president’s party avoided a major defeat in a midterm election — and it wasn’t because the party delivered well-designed legislation that brought tangible benefits to the electorate, who then flocked to the polls in a show of gratitude.

Both times it was because that electorate got angry at the opposition party. The first time was in 1998, when voters were angry at Republicans over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and the second was in 2002, when a Republican scorched-earth campaign convinced them that Democrats were on the side of terrorists.

So which is it? Are Democrats doomed if they don’t pass great legislation? Or does it not really matter because voters mostly vote against a party, not for it?

IHNRAC,¹ but I’ll take door number two. It’s hard for me to think of any good examples where legislation played a key role in a national election. Reagan’s tax cuts, maybe, though even that’s iffy.² Or possibly Bush’s Medicare prescription bill among elderly voters, though there’s not much evidence for that.

I have to remind myself all the time that no matter how oblivious we think most voters are, they are even more oblivious than we think. They simply don’t pay attention to politics and haven’t got the slightest idea of what legislation is pending or whether Joe Manchin is being a dick. Hell, even the stuff they think they know is usually wrong.

So from an electoral point of view, nobody should be worrying about the failure of voting rights or BBB. It’s far more important to make swing voters afraid of Republicans. You’d think that would be pretty easy these days, but so far Democrats haven’t found the magic key. A strong economy will keep us in the game, but we still need a killer app against the party of the Big Lie.

¹I Have Never Run A Campaign.

²Reagan’s reelection landslide was primarily due to a booming economy. His tax cuts helped seal the deal, but didn’t really play a huge role.

10) Amazon’s delivery fleet is, unsurprisingly, the perfect place to have electric vans at scale.  Alas, they are having trouble getting their hands on nearly enough of them.  This really seems like some we should be able to do better on.

11) This is really cool from YouGov

A new YouGov study looks at exactly how positive and negative various descriptions are seen as being

Go shopping online and just about everything you look at will have a star rating based on reviews by previous customers. Alas, it is less easy to quantify things in such a way in day-to-day life – if, for instance, your friend was verbally describing something to you, how might you translate their description to work out a score on the star scale?

(Such knowledge might also be useful to, say, an opinion pollster that was looking to discover the best pairings of words for sentiment scales…)

Well Americans need be left in the dark no longer! A new YouGov study reveals exactly how positively and negatively the population perceives various descriptions to be.

YouGov showed respondents a selection of adjectives from a list of 24 and asked them to score each on a scale from 0-10, with 0 being “very negative” and 10 being “very positive”.

Very bad as worse than terrible and dreadful?!  What is wrong with Americans?  At least the Brits seems to have a better sense of awful words:

Honestly, the UK ratings are pretty much what I’d do myself on the negative end.

12) The James Webb space telescope is so cool.  Can’t wait for the images.  I knew that it had some really cool orbit, but I had never heard of a Lagrange point.  There’s really cool moving images to illustrate, so this is a gift article anyone can open.

13) David French, “Georgia Has a Very Strong Case Against Trump: To see the most compelling evidence of the former president’s criminality, look to the Peach State.”

But the question remains: Were Trump’s attempts to reverse the outcome in Georgia (and nationally) criminal? There is compelling evidence that they were, under both Georgia state law and federal criminal statutes.

Perhaps the best guide to why is a Brookings Institution report, published in October, that assessed Trump’s actions in light of Georgia criminal law. Among the seven lawyers and scholars who wrote the report was Gwen Keyes Fleming, an experienced former Georgia prosecutor and the former DeKalb County district attorney. The report concluded that “Trump’s post-election conduct in Georgia leaves him at substantial risk of possible state charges predicated on multiple crimes.” The crimes include “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud” and “conspiracy to commit election fraud,” among others.

I highlight those two statutes because they most plainly apply on their face. Georgia’s conspiracy-to-commit-election-fraud statute makes it a crime when one “conspires or agrees with another” to violate Georgia’s election laws and, crucially, states that “the crime shall be complete when the conspiracy or agreement is effected and an overt act in furtherance thereof has been committed, regardless of whether the violation of this chapter is consummated.” In other words, the scheme does not have to succeed to be criminal.

Georgia’s relevant criminal-solicitation statute is also both straightforward and deeply problematic for Trump. Its first provision states:

A person commits the offense of criminal solicitation to commit election fraud in the first degree when, with intent that another person engage in conduct constituting a felony under this article, he or she solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or otherwise attempts to cause the other person to engage in such conduct.

And what is the precise violation of Georgia election law that Trump was conspiring to commit and soliciting others to commit? His demands implicate a number of laws, but among the most applicable is Georgia Code Section 21-2-566, which prohibits willfully tampering “with any electors list, voter’s certificate, numbered list of voters, ballot box, voting machine, direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment, electronic ballot marker, or tabulating machine.”

14) Nice National Geographic article on efforts for a universal coronavirus vaccine:

The goal of such vaccines is to generate a broad immune response against multiple coronaviruses and its variants.

The effort that is farthest along is a vaccine developed by researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which has been tested in humans as part of a Phase I trial. The vaccine, which borrows technology developed for making universal flu vaccines, entails a soccer ball-shaped nanoparticle with 24 faces decorated with multiple copies of the original SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Peer reviewed research conducted in monkeys showed the vaccine’s ability to generate antibodies that neutralize and block the entry of SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 and its major variants (excluding Omicron, which was not tested) into animal cells. “The repetitive and ordered display of the coronavirus spike protein on a multi-faceted nanoparticle may stimulate immunity in such a way as to translate into significantly broader protection,” Kayvon Modjarrad, co-inventor of the vaccine, stated in a press release. His team is currently analyzing the Phase I data. National Geographic reached out to Walter Reed multiple times for more details, but they declined to comment until the results of the Phase I trials are published.

Other universal coronavirus vaccine efforts involve targeting a slow evolving, genetic and structurally similar region on the viruses—where antibodies bind as part of a body’s immune response to a foreign invader—or additionally engaging the body’s immune cells called T cells.

Zeichner, for instance, is focusing on the fusion peptide region, which is part of the coronavirus spike protein that aids the entry of the virus into host cells, to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine. “It is extremely conserved among all coronaviruses,” he says. “It doesn’t mutate very much.” Along with colleagues, he tested a proof-of-concept vaccine using a SARS-CoV-2 fusion peptide and early results indicated that in pigs the vaccine provided some protection against a different coronavirus, called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, that doesn’t infect humans. His team is now collaborating with researchers at Virginia Tech and the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul to further develop and continue testing the vaccine against different SARS-CoV-2 variants and other coronaviruses.

Björkman and her colleagues, on the other hand, are focusing on a more specific target: the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain (RBD). It’s the region of the spike to which most antibodies bind to prevent SARS-CoV-2 from entering the host cell; it is also the region within which mutations occur, giving rise to variants. For the vaccine, they used RBD proteins from up to eight viruses—including the original SARS-CoV-2 and other SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from bats—that were fused onto a nanoparticle with 60 faces. By injecting this vaccine into mice, Björkman and her colleagues found the animals produced diverse antibodies, which in follow-up experiments blocked infections caused by several SARS-like viruses, including coronavirus strains not used to create the vaccines.

To Björkman, this suggests that the animal’s immune system might be learning to recognize common features between the coronaviruses and that her mosaic vaccine, with pieces selected from multiple viruses, might be useful when new SARS-like viruses or new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge. Her team is currently gearing up to test the vaccine in humans.

Vaccine researcher Kevin Saunders at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute is also focusing on the RBD, but a very specific part of it, to make a pan-SARS-like virus vaccine. When the pandemic began in early 2020, Saunders and his colleagues began hunting for antibodies that would inactivate SARS-like viruses. They examined antibodies present in frozen stored cells of an individual who recovered from SARS-CoV infection and another individual previously infected with COVID-19.

They identified a potent antibody dubbed DH1047 occurring in cells from both patients that could block infections in which mice that had been injected with several bat and human coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 variants. A closer look revealed the antibody bound to the same small section of the spike protein’s RBD in different coronaviruses, which became the vaccine target.

By injecting monkeys with multiple copies of this SARS-CoV-2 RBD piece fused to a nanoparticle, Saunders and his colleagues demonstrated the vaccine’s ability to protect against not just SARS-CoV-2 but several other coronavirus infections. The team is now testing different iterations of this nanoparticle vaccine by introducing RDB sections from other coronaviruses to broaden the host’s immune response.

“Sometimes you make hundreds of versions of these [vaccines] and test them in animals before deciding on a version to study in humans,” says Julie Ledgerwood, deputy director and chief medical officer at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. It’s not simple, she says.

Meanwhile, scientists are also trying to figure out how these vaccines could cover not just SARS-like viruses but MERS and other more distantly-related coronaviruses too.

15) Who knew you could get such a good Covid article in Buzzfeed, “Omicron Changed The Pandemic. What Happens Next?”

16) There are some crazy parasites out there, and unsurprisingly, many play a key role in ecosystems, “Parasites are going extinct. Here’s why we need to save them.”

17) But, damn, how did I not know about the parasite that eats a fishes tongue and then basically becomes the tongue?!

18) Our laws around selling cars are archaic and a real impediment to selling more electric cars, “The Simplest Way to Sell More Electric Cars in America
Decades-old laws that protect car dealers are keeping the U.S. stuck in the gas-powered past.”

You can’t understand the Rivian R1T until you test-drive it, in other words. But that is a rare and, in a sense, illicit experience, because test-driving the R1T is illegal in more than half of the United States. For perhaps as many as 200 million Americans, local antitrust laws meant to protect car dealers from unfair competition forbid automakers such as Rivian from selling directly to customers.

For decades, this system worked well enough to ignore. But now, when selling more electric vehicles is essential for avoiding the worst disasters of climate change, these dealer-protection laws have become a major impediment to decarbonizing the American economy. And Rivian has teamed up with Tesla and Lucid, another up-and-coming electric-car maker, to fight a state-by-state battle to take them down.

When you want to buy pants, you have a choice. You can go to Macy’s, where they sell many different pant brands, or you can go to, say, J. Crew, where they sell only the pants that J.Crew makes. Virtually every consumer product is sold through one or both of these methods. If you want to buy a chair, you can go to Wayfair, but if you want to buy an IKEA chair, you have to go to IKEA. This is all so normal, so accepted, that it’s strange to describe.

But this is, weirdly, not how it works for cars. Most Americans cannot buy a car directly from the automaker. In 17 states, including Texas, Wisconsin, and Connecticut, laws forbid any automaker from opening a store and selling its vehicles directly to customers. Another 11 states, including New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, allow only one automaker, Tesla, to open stores and sell directly to state residents. If you want to buy a Ford truck, you have to go to a Ford dealership owned by a third-party company.

You may know about these dealer-protection laws—perhaps you heard, a few years ago, when Tesla began fighting them. What you may not know, and what I had not realized, is just how much they shape markets for electric vehicles, or EVs. I didn’t know that until I compared New York and Florida.

19) Chait joined the newsletter crowd and his first effort is excellent:

20) Lots of fun speculation and statistical discussion from Derek Thompson, “The Most Amazing Statistical Achievement in U.S. Sports History” I’m sold on either Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky.

21) Good stuff from Katherine Wu on why the under-testing 3-dose regimen for kids under 5 was probably the least bad option:

In some ways, vaccines are vaccines are vaccines. But tailoring them to individual populations—which each harbor different needs, risks, and vulnerabilities—is essential to doling them out right. Dosing is a balancing act: The more vaccine in each shot, the likelier that shot is to rile up the immune system—and the likelier it is to make the experience of getting the injection pretty uncomfortable. That means “we’re after the smallest dose possible that will still be as effective as possible,” says Buddy Creech, a pediatric-infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who’s leading a study of Moderna’s pediatric COVID vaccine. Pfizer already intentionally shrank the dose: Adults have been getting 30 micrograms of mRNA in each injection; in the under-5s, the company is trying three micrograms apiece. But the hope is still to, roughly, get “the response to the childhood vaccine to match what we see in adults,” typically measured by antibody counts, Creech told me. So if a pair of injections weren’t quite enough to get 2-to-4-year-olds there, a bonus third shot could be expected to push them over the top. “I’m hopeful,” Sallie Permar, a pediatrician, immunologist, and vaccinologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center, told me. “The only way to go, really, is up.”

It helps to first consider what Pfizer’s other choices might have been. Subpar antibody levels in the blood might suggest that the vaccines couldn’t quite convince little bodies to take them seriously. One option could have involved sticking with two doses, but spacing them further apart—essentially giving the immune system more time to mull what it means to fight SARS-CoV-2. That strategy has been shown, at least in adults, to buoy the quantity, quality, and longevity of immune responses, and parts of Canada have been pursuing it for months in 5-to-11-year-old kids. Another alternative could have been to simply increase the dose, while keeping all else the same; each would deliver a sharper, and perhaps more memorable, scolding to defensive cells. Kids could then stay on the speediest possible track to sufficient protection: three weeks between doses, then another two of immunological cook time. “In a pandemic, you want to do that as fast as humanly possible,” Hoshino said. If Pfizer’s three-dose strategy pans out, the five-week timeline balloons to three months.

But revamping the two-dose strategy would have also restarted the clock on trials and meant recruiting and enrolling a new cohort of participants. A series of injections, potential side effects, and weeks of blood draws and other follow-ups are a cumbersome commitment for a person of any age, and “the hardest trials to get done are these young ones,” Permar said. “It’s never easy to ask a parent to consider more procedures, especially for toddlers, who are going to cry.” Even vaccine trials for older kids struggled to reach capacity. Tacking on a third dose, then, ends up being the most time-efficient option—not necessarily to get each individual child to the end of a vaccine series, but to obtain regulatory authorization, and to roll out first shots to the public.

A two-big-dose option could also be unsavory for another reason—an increased chance of side effects, including fever, fatigue, and headaches, or perhaps something much rarer but more severe. In teenage boys and young men, mRNA vaccines like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s have been linked to cases of heart inflammation, though new results from the 5-to-11-year-old crowd suggest that younger kids may be spared. In any case, dose definitely matters: When it comes to vaccinating super-young kids, whose risk of contracting serious cases of COVID-19 remains relatively low, the shots “have to be supersafe, remarkably safe,” Permar said. “These are healthy, young children who might not be able to say, ‘I feel crummy.’” Perhaps the three-microgram dose was already producing some discomfort. (Do we know? No—again, there’s no data.)

It might have been unwise, then, to go up to the next dose in size, the one for 5-to-11-year-olds—which, at 10 micrograms, is a more-than-threefold increase. Creech agrees: Any worries about shot tolerability could end up subjecting study participants to a bevy of irksome tests, and causing distress for the entire family. These concerns and more were part of the logic that motivated Pfizer to choose the three-microgram dose for the under-5s in the first place: In an early-phase study, that was the tiniest dose tested that still coaxed out decent numbers of antibodies in children as young as six months. It’s not clear why those results didn’t carry over perfectly into the company’s more recent trials. But Creech told me that if he’s going to hear deflating news from a kids’ vaccine trial, he’d rather it be about lackluster antibody levels than troubling side effects. With kids this young, “we’re going to put a little more weight on our safety foot than our effectiveness foot.”

The voting reform we absolutely need and maybe can get

As I’ve mentioned (probably here) and in a number of non-blog discussions about voting rights, I am admittedly not into the weeds on the details of all this legislation.  Having an interest in so many different areas of politics and policy (and Covid and lots of other stuff, too!) means that a key strategy for taking in information and forming opinions is knowing who to rely upon.  And when it comes to voting laws and policy issues, I’ll go with Rick Hasen (he also has the distinction of having been a guest speaker sponsored by my department) every single time (a big reason I have been staunchly behind prioritizing election security measures).  

Anyway, very good piece from Hasen in Slate about what to do know on federal voting legislation:

The debate over whether Democrats should pursue their large voting rights package or a narrower law aimed against election subversion became moot on Wednesday when Democrats could not muster up enough votes to tweak the filibuster rule to pass their larger package. Some Republicans are now making noise that they would support narrower anti-election subversion legislation centered on fixing an 1887 law known as the “Electoral Count Act.” Democrats should pursue this goal but think more broadly about other anti-subversion provisions that could attract bipartisan support. Bipartisan, pinpointed legislation is the best chance we have of avoiding a potential stolen presidential election in 2024 or beyond.

The wide-or-narrow voting bill debate was weird because it was never an either/or proposition. As I wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “reaching bipartisan compromise against election subversion will not stop Democrats from fixing voting rights or partisan gerrymanders on their own—the fate of those bills depend not on Republicans but on Democrats convincing Senators [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema to modify the filibuster rules. Republicans should not try to hold anti-election subversion hostage to Democrats giving up their voting agenda.” …

Fixing the Electoral Count Act is a no-brainer. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern recently wrote, former President Donald Trump’s attempt to reverse his loss to Joe Biden in the electoral college depended upon exploiting holes and ambiguities in the poorly-drafted set of rules for Congress to certify Electoral College results from the states. Stern says Democrats should “seize the moment to get this done.”

If Republicans are really prepared to come to the table (and that remains a big if), Democrats should not limit themselves to small tweaks to the Electoral Count Act such as ones that would simply limit the vice president’s discretion in presenting state electoral college votes to Congress. Of course Republicans would be inclined to support such a change when the next counting of electoral college votes will be presided over by Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.

Other potential ECA changes should include raising the threshold for objecting to state electoral college votes; right now it takes only one senator and one representative to raise an objection. There are other creative ideas out there as well, such as involving federal courts in resolving certain disputes when there are competing electoral college slates submitted by officials from a state. It is in the interest of both Republicans and Democrats to prevent manipulation of the process and ensure that the winner of the election is actually declared the winner. The more that can be clarified in advance behind the veil of ignorance, the better all who believe in democratic elections are going to be.

But ECA reform should not be the only thing on the agenda in any bipartisan talks to prevent subversion. I’ve proposed a long list of reforms that don’t have a partisan valence…

Many are disappointed that Democrats could not pass their larger voting package. I was (and remain) a strong supporter of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was part of that package. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We will know soon enough if Republicans are serious about anti-subversion legislation. If they are, as Stern says, it is time to seize the moment for the good of American democracy.

The latest on partisanship and Covid

Enjoyed this recent Gallup daily report focusing on pandemic pessimism.  Of course, Omicron gives plenty of reason for pandemic pessimism.  The most interesting parts of the analysis– as, sadly, seems to be the case with so much around Covid– was the stark partisan differences.

Check out that difference in worry about Covid this month!  Also, you kind of got to love that vaccinated people are way more worried about getting Covid.

And, damn, are Republicans so done with masks.  And, honestly, I bet 94% of Democrats aren’t actually wearing masks in the past 7 days, but actually feel like they need to say so on a poll to be a good Democrat.  So unfortunate that this simple and effective public health behavior has become so partisan.  


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