Did ChatGPT write this blog post?

I’m pretty confident that ChatGPT is not yet up to imitating the voice of your humble blogger, but it’s probably not too far away, either.  While ChatGPT is great at writing in particularly literary styles, e.g., poetry, lyrics, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc., from what I’ve seen it’s ability to truly take on a different voice, i.e., “write in the style of …” is pretty limited. When I asked it to write in the style of a Political Science journal article is was… not great.

Anyway, it was only a matter of time before somebody made a nice “human or ChatGPT” quiz and the NYT has just done so, asking you to assess whether the following short essays are from a 4th grader, 8th grader, or ChatGPT.  Take it now (free link) before reading further.  Seriously, I’m planning on discussing it in ways that will make the quiz less fun. 


I got 10/10, which I largely attribute to all the experimenting I’ve done with ChatGPT.  The 4th graders were easier.  Chat GPT struggled to write down to a 4th grade level (how much 4th grade writing is out there for it to train on) and even when it was told to add typos, the essays were too good and still reminded me of the typical chatgpt output I get.  It was a little harder with the 8th graders, but, the tell was that, for the most part, chatgpt was just better at writing a flowing, coherent piece of writing.  I think this would have been a much tougher test with advanced HS or college writing and I’m sure I would have missed some.

Of course, this brings up all sorts of questions about how we teach writing, grade writing, etc.  From the NYT article accompnaying the quiz:

Instead, she said, she thinks the chatbot technology could be a catalyst for schools to teach writing differently. Much of K-12 writing pedagogy is stuck in old traditions, she said, like asking students to write book reports, and rarely assigning second or third drafts. The new technology could force writing lessons to become more useful and relevant to students, she said, by focusing on writing as a process for developing and communicating ideas, rather than as a product to create.

If the chatbot can write a basic elementary or middle-school-level essay, teachers could spend less time on how to capitalize or form paragraphs. Instead, they could focus on the power of language and syntax to make an audience think or feel, she said, by using more vivid verbs or varying the lengths of sentences, for example.

Ms. Lawson often uses writing samples to invite her fourth graders to compare and contrast what works well and what doesn’t. She said she could imagine, for example, asking the chatbot to produce the same essay at different writing levels, and then “kids could look at different prompts and analyze those,” improving their own writing in the process.

The bot could also be used as a way to practice revision, something few teachers have time to do in depth now, they said. Ms. Blume said she’s tried to convince children that rewriting is the best part of the process — she does it at least five times for her own writing — but “they hate to be told they have to, as they call it, do their story again.”

If the chatbot could produce an essay akin to a first draft, she said, students asked to build on it could see how rewriting gives them the chance to make it their own.

“You get the pieces of the puzzle, then you put the puzzle together, then you get to color it in,” she said. “And that’s how it grows, and that’s what makes it better and even more fun.”

This also reminded me of this excellent Atlantic essay I’ve been meaning to blog about for a couple of weeks, “The End of High-School English: I’ve been teaching English for 12 years, and I’m astounded by what ChatGPT can produce.”

Let me be candid (with apologies to all of my current and former students): What GPT can produce right now is better than the large majority of writing seen by your average teacher or professor. Over the past few days, I’ve given it a number of different prompts. And even if the bot’s results don’t exactly give you goosebumps, they do a more-than-adequate job of fulfilling a task…

It also managed to compose a convincing 400-word “friendly” cover letter for an application to be a manager at Starbucks. But most jaw-dropping of all, on a personal level: It made quick work out of an assignment I’ve always considered absolutely “unhackable.” In January, my junior English students will begin writing an independent research paper, 12 to 18 pages, on two great literary works of their own choosing—a tradition at our school. Their goal is to place the texts in conversation with each other and find a thread that connects them. Some students will struggle to find any way to bring them together. We spend two months on the paper, putting it together piece by piece.

I’ve fed GPT a handful of pairs that students have worked with in recent years: Beloved and HamletThe Handmaid’s Tale and The Parable of the Sower, Homer’s The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno. GPT brought them together instantly, effortlessly, uncannily: memory, guilt, revenge, justice, the individual versus the collective, freedom of choice, societal oppression. The technology doesn’t go much beyond the surface, nor does it successfully integrate quotations from the original texts, but the ideas presented were on-target—more than enough to get any student rolling without much legwork…

And I love this categorization of student writing, which certainly comports with my experience

I’ve been teaching for about 12 years: first as a TA in grad school, then as an adjunct professor at various public and private universities, and finally in high school. From my experience, American high-school students can be roughly split into three categories. The bottom group is learning to master grammar rules, punctuation, basic comprehension, and legibility. The middle group mostly has that stuff down and is working on argument and organization—arranging sentences within paragraphs and paragraphs within an essay. Then there’s a third group that has the luxury of focusing on things such as tone, rhythm, variety, mellifluence.

Whether someone is writing a five-paragraph essay or a 500-page book, these are the building blocks not only of good writing but of writing as a tool, as a means of efficiently and effectively communicating information. And because learning writing is an iterative process, students spend countless hours developing the skill in elementary school, middle school, high school, and then finally (as thousands of underpaid adjuncts teaching freshman comp will attest) college. Many students (as those same adjuncts will attest) remain in the bottom group, despite their teachers’ efforts; most of the rest find some uneasy equilibrium in the second category…

Which is why I wonder if this may be the end of using writing as a benchmark for aptitude and intelligence. After all, what is a cover letter? Its primary purpose isn’t to communicate “I already know how to do this job” (because of course I don’t) but rather “I am competent and trustworthy and can clearly express to you why I would be a good candidate for this job.” What is a written exam? Its primary signal isn’t “I memorized a bunch of information” but rather “I can express that information clearly in writing.” Many teachers have reacted to ChatGPT by imagining how to give writing assignments now—maybe they should be written out by hand, or given only in class—but that seems to me shortsighted. The question isn’t “How will we get around this?” but rather “Is this still worth doing?”

I believe my most essential tasks, as a teacher, are helping my students think critically, disagree respectfully, argue carefully and flexibly, and understand their mind and the world around them. Unconventional, improvisatory, expressive, meta-cognitive writing can be an extraordinary vehicle for those things. But if most contemporary writing pedagogy is necessarily focused on helping students master the basics, what happens when a computer can do it for us? Is this moment more like the invention of the calculator, saving me from the tedium of long division, or more like the invention of the player piano, robbing us of what can be communicated only through human emotion?

I’m not quite sure how the game of writing, teaching writing, grading writing, using writing, etc., is going to change, but I’m damn sure confident this technology is a game-changer. 

(Christmas Eve) Quick hits

1) Really good stuff from Annie Lowrey trying to figure out why Democrats basically got no political credit for the expanded Child Tax Credit.  Many good theories, probably some combination of too confusing, not visible enough, and Covid. 

2) Yeah, this is from a pretty right-wing source, but, I’m sorry high school administrators should not be trying to hide who their National Merit students are in some misguided sense of equity. 

3) Really wanted to do a full post on this, but, damn it, it’s now Christmas and quick hits is enough.  I am sharing the free link, though, because this really is an important story of wokism amok in the scientific community (nobody was standing up for gays in mid-20th century America and it’s absurd to punish somebody for not doing so). 

4) One of you asked me for the gift link to last week’s post on stretching, so here it is for everybody.

5) German Lopez, “The U.S. is a global outlier for gun deaths among children.”

Many Americans are so accustomed to the daily toll of gun violence that they may not realize how much of an outlier the U.S. is for anything related to firearms. Outside of mass shootings like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School (which happened 10 years ago yesterday), killings of children rarely get much attention. So I want to explain how different the U.S. is when it comes to gun deaths among teenagers and younger children.

Guns are now the No. 1 cause of deaths among American children and teens, ahead of car crashes, other injuries and congenital disease.

In other rich countries, gun deaths are not even among the top four causes of death, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found. The U.S. accounts for 97 percent of gun-related child deaths among similarly large and wealthy countries, despite making up just 46 percent of this group’s overall population.

U.S. data is from 2020; data for other countries from 2019. | Sources: C.D.C.; IMHE; United Nations

If the U.S. had gun death rates similar to Canada’s, about 26,000 fewer children would have died since 2010, according to Kaiser. But the trend has been going in the opposite direction: Gun deaths among teens and younger kids have gone up in the U.S., while they have declined elsewhere. The victims are disproportionately people of color, most often Black boys.

Why is America such an outlier? Because it has many more guns, as I explained here. The U.S. has more guns than people. This abundance of guns makes it much easier for anyone to carry out an act of violence with a firearm in America than in any other wealthy country.

This is not to say that other countries don’t have violence. Obviously, they do. But when a gun is involved, as is more likely in the U.S., death is a much more likely result.

6) Loved this in Yglesias‘ mailbag:

George: I’ve read a lot of commentary handwringing movies being too long (think the 2.5-3+ hour runtimes of movies this year like “The Batman,” “Wakanda Forever,” “The Fabelmans,” “Avatar 2,” and the upcoming “Babylon”.) As a guy who likes movies, do you have any thoughts to contribute on this discourse?

I am not a fan of the long movie trend. I think it is defensible if you are adapting a novel to sometimes say “look, the novel was written to be a novel, not to be a movie, so I was forced to choose between the compromise of an inappropriately long film or compromising on the story, and I decided all things considered that the best thing to do was to go long.” I will also accept, as in the aforementioned Jeanne Dielman, that sometimes being long is part of the point.

But in general, the nature of the medium is that it should be short. James Cameron said that if you can binge-watch a TV show you can watch a long movie and that it’s fine to just get up and go pee. But I disagree with that. Part of what makes a TV show not just a very long movie is that it has breaks built into it. You should be able to sit down in a movie theater with a soda, drink the soda, and then go pee after the movie is over. And part of the job of the screenwriter, the director, and the editor is to compose a story that fits those parameters. You’re sitting down to make a Batman reboot and you could write basically anything — go write something that’s the length of a proper movie! Raiders of the Lost Ark is 115 minutes, E.T. is 114 minutes — the whole reason we might care about Steven Spielberg’s thinly veiled autobiography is that he’s a master filmmaker. He knows what length a movie should be. Go make a movie that length.

I rewatched the 80-minute “Run Lola Run” recently. Part of its brilliance is that Tom Tykwer and his editor Mathilde Bonnefoy pack a ton of information into this frame. You learn all about Lola’s family, the creepy bank security guard, Manni’s life of crime, and the whole possible future life trajectories of several other residents of Berlin all in the context of a gripping, suspenseful movie that is also short. This isn’t easy, but that’s the job.

I enjoyed Avatar 2. Glad I saw it on the big screen. But it was two damn long! And Yglesias’ take on “Run Lola Run” is spot-on.

7)  speaks N&Owith local infectious diseases expert and he’s talking about droplets for RSV as if we learned nothing from Covid.  Droplets and touching your nose and what is this 2019?  Respiratory viruses spread though the air! How do people not get this?!  Of course, CDC still hasn’t figured this out.

8) Good stuff in Vox on young voters. 

9) Some very cool social science here, “The straw man effect: Partisan misrepresentation in natural language”

Political discourse often seems divided not just by different preferences, but by entirely different representations of the debate. Are partisans able to accurately describe their opponents’ position, or do they instead generate unrepresentative “straw man” arguments? In this research we examined an (incentivized) political imitation game by asking partisans on both sides of the U.S. health care debate to describe the most common arguments for and against ObamaCare. We used natural language-processing algorithms to benchmark the biases and blind spots of our participants. Overall, partisans showed a limited ability to simulate their opponents’ perspective, or to distinguish genuine from imitation arguments. In general, imitations were less extreme than their genuine counterparts. Individual difference analyses suggest that political sophistication only improves the representations of one’s own side but not of an opponent’s side, exacerbating the straw man effect. Our findings suggest that false beliefs about partisan opponents may be pervasive.

10) Really good stuff in Reuters, “Why detransitioners are crucial to the science of gender care.”  Not long ago, too many major publications would have been afraid to publish this:

For years, Dr Kinnon MacKinnon, like many people in the transgender community, considered the word “regret” to be taboo.

MacKinnon, a 37-year-old transgender man and assistant professor of social work at York University here, thought it was offensive to talk about people who transitioned, later regretted their decision, and detransitioned. They were too few in number, he figured, and any attention they got reinforced to the public the false impression that transgender people were incapable of making sound decisions about their treatment.

“This doesn’t even really happen,” MacKinnon recalled thinking as he listened to an academic presentation on detransitioners in 2017. “We’re not supposed to be talking about this.”

MacKinnon, whose academic career has focused on sexual and gender minority health, assumed that nearly everyone who detransitioned did so because they lacked family support or couldn’t bear the discrimination and hostility they encountered – nothing to do with their own regret. To learn more about this group for a new study, he started interviewing people.

In the past year, MacKinnon and his team of researchers have talked to 40 detransitioners in the United States, Canada and Europe, many of them having first received gender-affirming medical treatment in their 20s or younger. Their stories have upended his assumptions.

Many have said their gender identity remained fluid well after the start of treatment, and a third of them expressed regret about their decision to transition from the gender they were assigned at birth. Some said they avoided telling their doctors about detransitioning out of embarrassment or shame. Others said their doctors were ill-equipped to help them with the process. Most often, they talked about how transitioning did not address their mental health problems.

In his continuing search for detransitioners, MacKinnon spent hours scrolling through TikTok and sifting through online forums where people shared their experiences and found comfort from each other. These forays opened his eyes to the online abuse detransitioners receive – not just the usual anti-transgender attacks, but members of the transgender community telling them to “shut up” and even sending death threats.

“I can’t think of any other examples where you’re not allowed to speak about your own healthcare experiences if you didn’t have a good outcome,” MacKinnon told Reuters.

The stories he heard convinced him that doctors need to provide detransitioners the same supportive care they give to young people to transition, and that they need to inform their patients, especially minors, that detransitioning can occur because gender identity may change.

11) Robert Wright with good stuff on twitter and Musk:

Musk’s approach to tweeting is roughly the approach you’d encourage everyone to adopt if your goal was to carry America’s political polarization to  new and horrifying levels. His Twitter feed is a case study in the psychology of tribalism, the psychology that is tearing the country, and to some extent the world, apart.

Obviously, his Twitter feed isn’t the only Twitter feed that fits this description. Twitter has long been a machine that rewards the people who most egregiously exemplify this psychology; it gives the most tribal tweeters bigger and bigger followings and more and more clout. Its algorithm is a recipe for turning assholes into Alphas.

So why single this one Alpha out for special condemnation? In large part because, as the guy who’s running Twitter, Musk is in a position to do something about the problem.

First, he could make structural reforms—re-engineer Twitter’s algorithm with the tribalism problem in mind, and make other wholesome changes in the way Twitter works. Second, he could use his prominence to encourage a more civil ethos. Of course, this kind of social engineering—changing norms—is famously hard, but Musk is uniquely positioned to try, not just because he now occupies Twitter’s center stage but because there are millions of Elon fans who see him as a true hero and role model. 

Sadly, he has spent his first two months as Twitter czar illustrating how ill-inclined and ill-equipped he is to seize these opportunities. It’s now evident that expecting Elon Musk to fix what’s most wrong with Twitter is like expecting Sam Bankman-Fried to clean up the crypto business.

In retrospect, the clearest early sign that Musk wouldn’t put his new pedestal to anti-tribal use was his decision to put it in the service of his political ideology. This actually surprised me. Under the influence of what now seems like remarkable naivete, I had thought that Musk might set aside his political tweeting once he was running the place—somewhat as a newly installed NFL commissioner would refrain from rooting publicly for his favorite team. Certainly I’d expect as much of any Twitter owner who was seriously concerned about the tribalism problem. So when, shortly before the midterm elections, Musk tweeted that undecided independent voters should vote Republican, my hopes for a new and better Twitter started to fade.

12) Good stuff from Yglesias on how Congress can get good stuff done when nobody is paying attention. 

Clean Water fans got more good news this December as the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 was incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act and passed on December 15. It’s a bit of a legislative Christmas tree, as you’d expect from something that ends up with 88 votes in the Senate, but all the major environmental groups are endorsing it with Environmental Defense Fund’s Natalie Snider especially calling out investments to promote climate resilience. But the National Audubon Society says it will also “drive ecosystem restoration,” while the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association says it will “address harmful algal blooms,” and the National Parks Conservation Association is looking forward to “improved water quality for drinking and outdoor recreation.”

The things Congress authorizes in these big bills tend not to end up fully funded when the annual appropriations cycle comes around. So excitement around a big comprehensive bill inevitably has an element of overstatement to it — different groups want to talk up their favorite provisions in hopes of maximizing congressional interest in delivering the funds, but not everything can get maxed out, and someone will be disappointed.

The point, though, is that the Water Resources Development Act does a bunch of useful things.

It also reflects, I think, most people’s broad sense of how politics “ought to” work — it addresses a bunch of topics that earnest progressive activists have put on the radar, but in a non-radical, business-friendly way it emphasizes bipartisanship and problem-solving rather than revolution. Some horses were traded, some deals were struck, the ball is moved forward in a bunch of ways, and it’s a feel-good story about American politics. Except nobody feels good about it because the week this legislation came together, it wasn’t the major story in American politics. Nor was the larger bipartisan NDAA the major story in American politics. The major story is always some form of ugly fighting, and because Congress wasn’t doing much ugly fighting, the main story instead became Elon Musk fighting with various journalists. One of my theses (developed with Simon Bazelon) has been that this is not a coincidence — it’s easier for Congress to get things done when it’s quiet, but having most of the good parts of politics languish in obscurity feeds cynicism, just as few people know the underlying story of improving water.

13) Interesting NYT quiz (free link) on what words are controversial to still say.  Is it wrong that I have trouble giving up gypsy?  Maybe.  I definitely make no apologies for spirit animal or powwow and was really surprised to see they were less supported. 

14) This NYT faces in the news quiz was super fun.  (Free link). I got 39 and was please that on the ones I missed, none of them were answered correctly by more than a third.  (Fully Myelinated Christmas means three gift NYT links in one post).

15) Frank Bruni on DeSantis:

When you picture Ron DeSantis, is he smiling or glowering? Telling you about some new project he’ll bring to life or some group of people he’ll bring to their knees? Sowing inspiration or vowing retribution?

I’m guessing he’s the seething protagonist of a revenge thriller.

That’s precisely the starring role he wants.

Here’s DeSantis as he tortures Disney for daring to disagree with his pet education law — he’s a Republican contract killer coming for Mickey Mouse. Here he is punishing and publicly shaming a Tampa-area prosecutor who doesn’t share his restrictive views on abortion. And here he is insisting that a grand jury in Florida investigate Pfizer and Moderna for allegedly exaggerating the efficacy of Covid vaccines.

His big set piece is a sadistic game with migrants, whom he relocates from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard not to benefit them but to bedevil his Democratic adversaries. And his vow to make Florida “where woke goes to die”? Woke isn’t meeting any natural end in the Sunshine State. It’s crossing paths with an assassin.

The Florida governor and Republican supernova models a version of politics not as messy theater for problem solving but as spiteful arena for retaliation, in which you’re defined by your enemies — or, rather, by how effectively you torment them.

An arena like the House of Representatives in the new year, when Republicans assume control of the chamber. How soon will they come for Hunter Biden? Anthony Fauci? Alejandro Mayorkas? They’re itching to impeach anyone 

16) Jeremy Faust with the latest data on how Molupnivar doesn’t really work (I had been so optimistic about this one back in the day), but that the overall data are actually very encouraging:

This gives us a chance to look at all-cause mortality and all-cause hospitalization among infected vaccinated people during the Omicron era, when the study occurred. In fact, after about a minute reading the paper, my thought was this: Forget whether Molnupiravir works or not! Let’s just ask what the hospitalization and death rate among the high-risk vaccinated Covid-19 patients who participated in this study were—and how do these numbers compare to data from the earlier trials which included unvaccinated high-risk people during the pre-Omicron era?

The news is absolutely excellent.

Among participants—people over the age of 50 with medical conditions placing them in the high-risk category and who had confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases within 7 days of study enrollment—only 8 deaths occurred out of 25,054 patients. That’s an infection fatality rate of 0.032%, or 1 in 3,132 cases. The numbers were statistically similar, regardless of whether patients received Molnupiravir.

This is incredibly positive news. In the previous major study of this drug—which, again, assessed high-risk Covid-19 patients who were unvaccinated—the all-cause infection fatality rate in placebo recipients was a staggering 1.2%, or 1 in 78. And the prior study included adults of all ages; this latest one only studied older patients, which would tend to bias results towards more death in the newer dataset, not less.

By my math, this means that the all-cause death rate in Covid-infected, high-risk, vaccinated older patients (average age=57) during early 2022 appears to have been 97.5% lower than it was in 2021; this was despite the fact that the 2021 study included younger unvaccinated patients (average age=43) with high risks (who were not treated with anti-virals).

17) Very good stuff from Jersulem Demsas, “The Homeownership Society Was a Mistake: Real estate should be treated as consumption, not investment.”

As the economist Joe Cortright explained for the website City Observatory, housing is a good investment “if you buy at the right time, buy in the right place, get a fair deal on financing, and aren’t excessively vulnerable to market swings.” This latter point is particularly important. Although higher-income Americans may be able to weather job losses or other financial emergencies without selling their home, many other people don’t have that option. Wealth building through homeownership requires selling at the right time, and research indicates that longer tenures in a home translate to lower returns. But the right time to sell may not line up with the right time for you to move. “Buying low and selling high” when the asset we are talking about is where you live is pretty absurd advice. People want to live near family, near good schools, near parks, or in neighborhoods with the types of amenities they desire, not trade their location like penny stocks…

Timing isn’t the only external factor determining whether homeownership “works” for Americans. Paying off a mortgage is a form of “forced savings,” in which people save by paying for shelter rather than consciously putting money aside. According to a report by an economist at the National Association of Realtors looking at the housing market from 2011 to 2021, however, price appreciation accounts for roughly 86 percent of the wealth associated with owning a home. That means almost all of the gains come not from paying down a mortgage (money that you literally put into the home) but from rising price tags outside of any individual homeowner’s control.

This is a key, uncomfortable point: Home values, which purportedly builtthemiddle class, are predicated not on sweat equity or hard work but on luck. Home values are mostly about the value of land, not the structure itself, and the value of the land is largely driven by labor markets. Is someone who bought a home in San Francisco in 1978 smarter or more hardworking than someone trying to do so 50 years later? More important, is this kind of random luck, which compounds over time, the best way to organize society? The obvious answer to both of these questions is no.

And for people for whom homeownership has paid off the most? Those living in cities or suburbs of thriving labor markets? For them, their home’s value is directly tied to the scarcity of housing for other people. This system by its nature pits incumbents against newcomers.

18) I first learned about the mountain lion, P-22, that lives in urban LA, in a typically excellent 99% Invisible episode just last month.  And here he is already euthanized. “P-22, Celebrity Mountain Lion of Los Angeles, Is Dead: The animal was euthanized on Saturday after wildlife officials discovered he had serious health issues, including kidney failure and heart disease.”

19) Merry Christmas.  

Yes, Biden in 2024

Persuasion ran a piece today titled, “Biden Should Not Run in 2024.” And, yes, that should be your position if you want to raise the likelihood of a Republican president.  Yes, Biden is really old to be president and that is a problem.  But, this is still better than all the alternatives.  Age aside, the plattitudes about a “new generation” of leadership, etc., are not especially compelling:

But other viable alternatives to Biden would emerge in an open primary. For one, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is especially well-positioned to build on his breakout 2020 campaign with four years of federal experience. As a veteran, a Midwesterner, and an openly gay husband and father of two, Buttigieg could appeal to many demographic groups—and be a youthful standard bearer for the relatively moderate approach to politics that Biden sought to embody….

Whitmer and Buttigieg clearly aren’t the only options. Without Biden in the race, the field would be wide open for Democrats. And that’s a good thing. New faces would bring a breath of fresh air to the party and the country, especially when combined with a younger generation of Democratic leaders taking the reins in the House.

I’m a fan of Buttigieg, but firmly believe there’s no way a gay man is elected president in 2024.  Sorry. I wish it weren’t so, but pretty sure that’s our reality.  Whitmer seems great, as do many other Democrats, but, the biggest problem is that there’s a huge advantage to being an incumbent president.  Presumably, even one that is too old.

Seth Moskowitz with an earlier piece in Persuasion: that focuses on the likely reality of a Harris nomination in Biden’s stead:

Looking down the barrel of a Republican trifecta led by DeSantis or Trump, Democrats should be singularly concerned with one thing: winning. This, in a word, is why Biden should not step down. If he does so, Vice President Kamala Harris will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee, and that would be tantamount to political malpractice.

By almost any measure, Harris would make for a terrible general election candidate. Her approval rating consistently trails the president’s by several points, frequently dipping below 40%. She also fares worse than Biden in theoretical matchups against DeSantis and Trump. One recent poll has Biden tying Trump, while Harris trails him by two points. Another poll shows similar results when the Democrats are up against DeSantis: Biden ties him, while Harris loses by three points…

One might think that the party could just opt for someone other than Harris if Biden were to step down. Unfortunately, historical precedent and contemporary realities make that seem very unlikely. Since 1952, four sitting vice presidents have run for their party’s presidential nomination. All four were successful—despite the fact that three of them, like Harris, had previously competed for the nomination and failed. What finally catapulted them to the nomination was the name recognition, establishment support, and fundraising capacity that come with the vice presidency. 

It’s hard to imagine any of Harris’s competitors overcoming these advantages. Indeed, Harris leads every recent high-quality poll asking Democratic voters who they’d vote for in 2024 if Biden steps down. Moreover, the candidates who typically come in second and third in these surveys—Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders—are both terribly positioned to take on Harris. Both are white men who struggle with black voters and would face intense criticism for trying to replace the party’s first black woman vice president. The fact that the Democratic primary calendar is being shuffled in a way that will help establishment and minority candidates only makes defeating Harris an even taller task.   

Harris aside (and Moskowitz makes a good argument, but I’m not fully convinced she would necessarily be the nominee), there really does seem to be an incumbency advantage for presidents and Democrats would be nuts to throw that away, even for a nominee who is clearly too old.  

Photo of the day

This gallery of Comedy Wildlife photo competition finalists is simply awesome.

Quick hits (part I)

1) This is great and I think most of you will enjoy reading it, “The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer”

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge…

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly…

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Here is her drawing ‘from memory’ (notice the metaphor):

And here is the drawing she subsequently made with a dollar bill present:

Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical. As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times.

What is the problem? Don’t we have a ‘representation’ of the dollar bill ‘stored’ in a ‘memory register’ in our brains? Can’t we just ‘retrieve’ it and use it to make our drawing?

Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found.

The idea that memories are stored in individual neurons is preposterous: how and where is the memory stored in the cell?

A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. When strong emotions are involved, millions of neurons can become more active. In a 2016 study of survivors of a plane crash by the University of Toronto neuropsychologist Brian Levine and others, recalling the crash increased neural activity in ‘the amygdala, medial temporal lobe, anterior and posterior midline, and visual cortex’ of the passengers.

The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?

So what is occurring when Jinny draws the dollar bill in its absence? If Jinny had never seen a dollar bill before, her first drawing would probably have not resembled the second drawing at all. Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way. Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualise a dollar bill – that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent.

The difference between the two diagrams reminds us that visualising something (that is, seeing something in its absence) is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence. This is why we’re much better at recognising than recalling. When we re-member something (from the Latin re, ‘again’, and memorari, ‘be mindful of’), we have to try to relive an experience; but when we recognise something, we must merely be conscious of the fact that we have had this perceptual experience before.

2) Very good free post from Yglesias, “Why hasn’t technology disrupted higher education already?”

A decade ago there was tremendous hype around the potential for Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) to replace traditional classroom instruction. Then it turned out that online for-profit colleges were mostly good for running scams on marginal students. The problem with MOOCs for the typical student is the same as with me trying to lift weights on my own: for people who have a second-order desire to get a degree despite a lack of temperamental suitability for school, the in-person instructor is invaluable. We learned that lesson all over again during the pandemic when a lot of districts went remote with bad effects. Motivation and self-discipline are valuable commodities, and an in-person instructor can help provide them.

I do think it’s fair to say that internet video is a step forward from VHS or simple text files on the web, and all of that is a step forward from print as the only medium for conveying information. And the printing press itself was, of course, a huge step forward.

It’s very easy to imagine chatbots improving on Google search as a way to look stuff up, and AI-powered individual coaching could be even more powerful than videos as a way to learn things.

But I do think the history of ed tech has been one where better and better information technology makes it much easier to learn things without really making much progress on the big problems of education, because the motivation/discipline piece of education is so central. In practice, I think the net impact of IT improvements on education has probably been negative. Today’s smartphone is a much more powerful and convenient learning tool than the public library of 30 years ago. But the 1992-vintage public library really did work very well. And today’s smartphone is also a much more powerful tool of distraction than anything that was available in 1992. Educators’ jobs have probably gotten harder rather than easier, not despite but because of the improvements in information technology.

The revolution, if one comes, is likely to be in the value of the learning itself rather than in how it’s done.

3) Greg Sargent “Musk’s ugly attack on Fauci shows how right-wing info warfare work”

All these responses — which also noted that Fauci admirably tried to serve the country during a major crisis and under great pressure — are reasonable. But outrage and shaming also seem fundamentally out of touch with basic realities of how right-wing information warfare really works.

This sort of info-warring, at bottom, is what characterizes Musk’s transformation into the world’s richest right-wing troll. Tons of pixels have been wasted on efforts to pin down Musk’s true beliefs, but whatever they are, we can say right now that he’s consciously exploiting fundamental features of the right-wing information ecosystem. His critics should adapt accordingly.

In his attack, Musk flatly validated a big right-wing obsession: The idea that Fauci was involved in U.S. government funding of controversial early research into covid, and lied to Congress about it. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler demonstrated, this is a highly complex dispute, but there are zero grounds for concluding anything remotely like that happened. Musk’s claim is at best profoundly irresponsible and at worst straight-up disinformation…

It’s understandable that Musk’s critics are trying shaming and outrage, in that this could further drive advertisers away from Twitter. But, paradoxically, it might also help Musk. The DealBook newsletter suggests that he’s trying to boost “conservative engagement” and “help Twitter’s business” by “winning over right-leaning users and conservative politicians.”

If so, the coin of the realm is the Triggering. A massive backlash from liberals and Democrats creates the impression of controversy, which draws news media attention. It also persuades the right-leaning constituencies Musk hopes to engage that he is “drawing blood.”

In much of the right-wing info-ecosystem, liberal outrage is a sign of an attack’s effectiveness. It can be only confirmation that the Libs Were Owned. Shaming is useless in such an environment, and in some ways can backfire.

4) Some cold water on the fusion energy breakthrough, “The Real Fusion Energy Breakthrough Is Still Decades Away”

5) Which, because that’s how my house rolls, led me to a significant argument on just how big a deal the discovery of gravity waves are.  I’m in the– super-cool science, but, not really all that meaningful implications for how we live our lives and understand most of our universe.  Based on this Vox summary of what we can learn, I stand by my take.

6) I’m really not much for swearing, but, damn did I love reading about the linguistic universalities of swear words:

“Holy motherforking shirtballs!” a character exclaimed on “The Good Place,” a television show that took place in a version of the afterlife where swearing is forbidden (as it is in this newspaper, most of the time). In a way, this celestial censorship was realistic.

A study published Tuesday in the journalPsychonomic Bulletin & Reviewfound that curse words in several unrelated languages sound alike. They’re less likely than other words to include the consonant sounds L, R, W or Y. And more family-friendly versions of curses often have these sounds added, just like the R in “shirt” or “fork.” The finding suggests that some underlying rules may link the world’s languages, no matter how different they are.

“In English, some of the worst words seem to have common phonetic properties,” said Ryan McKay, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London. They’re often short and punchy. They also tend to include the sounds P, T or K, “without giving any obvious examples,” Dr. McKay said. These sounds are called stop consonants because they interrupt the airflow when we’re speaking.

Dr. McKay teamed up with his colleague Shiri Lev-Ari to learn whether this familiar pattern went beyond English. They wondered whether it might even represent what’s called sound symbolism.

To look for patterns in swearing, the researchers asked fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to list the most vulgar words they could think of. Once they’d compiled a list of each language’s most frequently used epithets, the researchers compared these with neutral words from the same language.

In these languages, they didn’t find the harsh-sounding stop consonants that seem common in English swear words. “Instead, we found patterns that none of us expected,” Dr. Lev-Ari said. The vulgar words were defined by what they lacked: the consonant sounds L, R, W and Y.(In linguistics, these gentle sounds are called approximants.)

Next, the scientists looked for the same phenomenon using speakers of different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish. The subjects listened to pairs of words in a language they didn’t speak, and guessed which word in each pair was offensive. In reality, all the words were invented. For example, the researchers started with the Albanian word “zog,” for “bird,” and created the pair of fake words “yog” and “tsog.” Subjects were more likely to guess that words without approximants, such as “tsog,” were curses.

Finally, the researchers combed through the dictionary for English swear words and their cleaned-up versions, also called minced oaths (“darn,” “frigging” and so on). Once again, the clean versions included more of the sounds L, R, W and Y.

“What this paper finds for the first time is that taboo words across languages, unrelated to each other, may pattern similarly,” said Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the study.

Unlike other cases such as cock-a-doodle-doos or words for “nose,” these words don’t share a meaning, but a function. They’re meant to offend. The results suggest that “not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity,” the authors wrote.

“That’s a new thing,” Dr. Bergen said. “Maybe the things that we want to do with words lead us to expect those words to have particular sounds.”

7) Love deBoer on the “unhoused

Why is unhoused bad? Because, one, we have a word that already conveys everything that we need to understand about the described condition, and two, because “unhoused”’s stated value is that it destigmatizes a condition that we should want to stigmatize. Everyone knows what homelessness is. We all understand the implications of the word. It conveys a whole world of social and cultural and economic information that we have spent a lifetime processing. And unlike a term like “redskin,” it contains no intentional offense; it’s used every day by people who intend no harm, indeed by many people who intend to end harm. Worse, “unhoused” makes the work of progressive politics harder, not easier. As in so many other evolutions in liberal mores, avoiding the word “homeless” is ostensibly a matter of avoiding stigma. But homelessness should be stigmatized. The homeless should not be made to feel attacked or insulted. But the social ramifications of homelessness should be understood in visceral and emotional terms; it’s the only way to generate a solution to the terrible and preventable problem of homelessness. If any particular homeless person were to express a preference not to be referred to by the term, sure, avoid it in that context – but how often are the people pushing “unhoused” in a position where their words could even be heard by the homeless in the first place? …

Few recent developments in American politics make me more depressed than the new conventional liberal wisdom that people with mental illness are all uwu smol bean harmless cute quirky free spirits, this version of “normalization” that insists that anyone who is abnormal must therefore not really have mental illness. It lies at the intersection of so many things I hate about contemporary liberalism. But at least there’s this: at least we understand that, for some people, mental illness is intrinsic. At least we know that, until there’s some major new breakthrough in medicine, some people are bound to be mentally ill. That some people just are schizophrenic and will go on being schizophrenic. There, at least, I can squint really hard and maybe make out why some people think it benefits the mentally ill to treat them as blameless fairies whose condition makes them cute and unthreatening. It’s a ruinous way to think, but I understand it. But homelessness, while terribly entrenched for some people, is not an intrinsic condition for anyone! It’s at least potentially an entirely transitory state. And so if you’re worried about the stigma (stigma! stigma! stigma!) of homelessness, your motivation should be to remove people from that state rather than playing pointless self-aggrandizing liberal language games. It’s all so senseless.

Here’s what I’m willing to guess. I’m willing to guess that very few people are actually invested in saying “unhoused” rather than “homeless.” I’m willing to guess that many or most progressive people would read the argument I’ve laid out here and find a lot to agree with. Sure, there are no doubt apparatchiks at nonprofits who have gotten themselves worked up about this issue and activists who are very animated about this topic. But they have to be a small minority. I’m sure most people would just as soon go on saying “homeless.” Because it’s a term that’s true. It’s a word that conveys the sordid depths of the human experience. Here’s the problem, though: once enough liberals start using a term, others will glom onto it, not out of a conviction that it’s more accurate or more humane but because they’re afraid to step out of line. They’re not actually weighing the pros and cons of changing their terminology as I’m doing here. They’re looking out at their progressive peers, noting that everybody seems to be using a new term, and fear the consequences of not doing so themselves.

8) Learned so much from this discussion about the ongoing protests in Iran:

Mounk: When I see protest movements in dictatorships, I’m always a little bit torn. I wish them the best of luck. I identify with them from a distance, insofar as that’s appropriate. I have the biggest admiration for people who are risking their lives in the street for their ideals. But of course, it’s also tempting to think that it’s not going to work out in the end, and that a lot of people will be arrested and killed without having achieved the goal they are fighting for. 

I must admit that I’ve been struck by how long these protests have now been going on, and how broad the support for them has been among professions like teachers, for example. What is it that has allowed these protests to persist for such a long time? Why is it that the Iranian regime has not used all of the force at its disposal to crush these protests completely? What explains that longevity and that deeper support?

Hakakian: I just want to offer a qualification. I don’t think the regime has prevented itself from using violence. What’s happening is that the protesters have not provided the opportunity in big cities, especially Tehran, for the regime to attack them in the way that it did in 2009. Part of the reason why we don’t see a “Million Man March” is because if everybody takes to the streets, then the regime will bite the bullet, and they’ll bring out the tanks and the big guns and attack them wholesale, as they’ve done before. Smaller protests have guaranteed their endurance. 

Mounk: It’s kind of a tactical innovation to say “we’re going to spread all over, and we’re only ever going to assemble in relatively small numbers, because that makes it harder for the regime to attack us.” That’s interesting, and in some ways, counterintuitive.

Hakakian: Absolutely. I think it’s very uplifting to know that they are learning all the proper lessons. But in places where the regime has been able to deploy violence against large crowds, they have. They’ve done so in Baluchestan. They’ve done so in Kurdistan. When there has been the opportunity for them to actually go into a city knowing that the city itself is against them (and by the way, those are border cities that are far away from the center, and there are fewer cameras and less coverage) then they have been entirely brutal.

And, by the way, we’re setting aside all the abuse and torture and all the other things that they are doing to the 16,000-plus people they’ve arrested. So we’re leaving all those out…


Tell us a little bit about the nature and the shape of Iran’s society today. Help us understand the amazing contrast between a regime that for 50 years has used all of its resources to entrench religion, and a society that has actually secularized to a remarkable extent.

Hakakian: I just want to add one qualification. It’s true that the overwhelming majority of students in higher education are women. But that is not happening because of the regime. It’s happening despite the regime. Women decided that, since they can’t actually enter the job market after they graduate, they should do everything else in order to become the citizens that they’re not allowed to become. You’d be surprised how many people often use those very statistics to say, “You misunderstand the regime there. They’re doing these things!” 

The regime has all the garb, all the disguises of religious leadership. But I oftentimes refer to them as “Tony Sopranos in turbans and robes.” The Sopranos have taken over Iran. It’s really an economic mafia more than anything else. And the way the disguise works is that it makes everybody else, especially the West, think that these are Muslims—“out of respect for their religion, and their tradition, we need to stay out, because we don’t understand who they are, what they do.” So, they’ve managed to keep up a good game, because they look and they dress as they do. 

They do embrace, at least overtly, this mantle of religiosity. But when you peel back the disguise—as fortunately, social media has given people the opportunity to do—you see them going to Europe, for instance, and their wives and daughters are without the hijab. They have failed to live up to the standards that they have set for religiosity, for piety. Social media has revealed this duplicity. 

We should also not discount the fact that when Ayatollah Khomeini gave his first speech, arriving in Tehran in 1979, he was promising equality, he was promising that since they had gotten rid of a bad monarch, who had created all these poor, impoverished classes in the country, he was going to do the reverse; there was going to be economic equality. And people heard all sorts of things, including that the prisons were going to become museums and that sort of thing. What has happened is that now we have a caste of religious oligarchs in Iran, who are there to reap the benefits of being in high positions, while their children and their families live in Canada, North America, and Europe. All of this has deeply undermined the belief that this is the regime that they voted for in 1979. This has generated huge distrust not just in the regime; it has generated disaffection with Islam in general, which explains the proclivities for secularity in Iran today. 

But I think there is a class that remains conservative, that remains observant, that still supports the current movement. And I think that’s because they recognize that if there’s any hope for Islam to survive, they have to make sure that they get past this regime, which they view as just a bad mark on the faith.

9) Just came across this fascinating Atlantic article from three years ago, ‘The Personality Trait That Makes People Feel Comfortable Around You: People with positive “affective presence” are easy to be around and oil the gears of social interactions.”

Some people can walk into a room and instantly put everyone at ease. Others seem to make teeth clench and eyes roll no matter what they do. A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it “affective presence.”

This concept was first described nearly 10 years ago in a study by Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. They put business-school students into groups, had them enroll in all the same classes for a semester, and do every group project together. Then the members of each group rated how much every other member made them feel eight different emotions: stressed, bored, angry, sad, calm, relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic. The researchers found that a significant portion of group members’ emotions could be accounted for by the affective presence of their peers.

It seems that “our own way of being has an emotional signature,” says Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s been known for some time that emotions are contagious: If one person feels angry, she may well infect her neighbor with that anger. But affective presence is an effect one has regardless of one’s own feelings—those with positive affective presence make other people feel good, even if they personally are anxious or sad, and the opposite is true for those with negative affective presence.

“To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn’t mean they’re annoyed all the time,” Elfenbein says. “They may be content because they’re always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they’re themselves quite depressed.”

Unsurprisingly, people who consistently make others feel good are more central to their social networks—in Elfenbein’s study, more of their classmates considered them to be friends. They also got more romantic interest from others in a separate speed-dating study

Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn’t yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener. Madrid suggests that further research might also find that some people have a strong affective presence (whether positive or negative), while others’ affective presence is weaker. But both Madrid and Elfenbein suggest that a big part of affective presence may be how people regulate emotions—those of others and their own.

Throughout the day, one experiences emotional “blips” as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, “Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?” she asks. “Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?”

This “smoothing over”—or emotional regulation—could take the form of finding the positive in a bad situation, which can be healthy. But it could also take the form of suppressing one’s own emotions just to keep other people comfortable, which is less so.

Elfenbein notes that positive affective presence isn’t inherently good, either for the person themselves, or for their relationships with others. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, and may well use their positive affective presence for manipulative ends. Neither is negative affective presence necessarily always a bad thing in a leader—think of a football coach yelling at the team at halftime, motivating them to make a comeback. Elfenbein suspects that affective presence is closely related to emotional intelligence. And, she says, “You can use your intelligence to cure cancer, but you can also use it to be a criminal mastermind.”

10) Good stuff on the high quality of this year’s World Cup:

The point is that everyone can do it now. Refined technique — the term of art for the instruments of control and precision — is no longer the secretive preserve of the Dutch academy and the Italian training ground. It is now expected that a player be able to bring a hurtling orb to a complete standstill — to kill it dead — and rifle it to all four corners of the field with laserlike accuracy. The gap between the iconic teams and the middling powers has never been narrower, which is why the group stage of this World Cup was so thrillingly unpredictable and why two of the four semifinalists, Croatia and crowd favorite Morocco, came from outside the traditional elite. This was the globalization of the game at work, greased by enormous pools of cash. It was evident in everything from the quality of the players, each of whom represents an investment in cutting-edge training and nutritional technology, to the ubiquitous haircut of the tournament: high and very tight on the sides, as if every player were a Navy Seal, an assassin.

The players may be less distinctive than they used to be, more like interchangeable parts of the streamlined soccer machine, but they are certainly stronger, faster, better. The teams, too, are less idiosyncratic, less animated by any sense of national style or identity. The greatest tactical advances of the 21st century have come out of Spain (possession play, i.e., “tiki taka,” personified by former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) and Germany (the intense press and counter-press, what the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp calls “heavy metal football”), and every team now deploys some combination of these philosophies. Japan’s first goal against Spain came from a very high press, which ironically enough was designed originally to break tiki taka’s stranglehold on the game. Brazil had the best squad of the tournament, maybe one of the best ever, but essentially played European-style soccer with its Europe-based players. The team added a touch of Brazilian flair, just as Serbia has its grit and Germany its die Mannschaft ethos and the U.S. its chip on the shoulder, but this is all seasoning. It should be noted that nearly half of Japan’s squad plies their trade in Germany.

11) Enjoyed this, even though I disagreed with many, “An Unofficial Ranking of the 10 Most Annoying Kids’ Toys”

12) So, “How Important Is Stretching, Really?” Not very!  Never bothered and not going to start.

13) This is true, “ChatGPT’s Fluent BS Is Compelling Because Everything Is Fluent BS”

All of this makes playing around with ChatGPT incredibly fun, charmingly addictive, and—as someone who writes for a living—really quite worrying. But you soon start to sense a lack of depth beneath ChatGPT’s competent prose. It makes factual errors, conflating events and mixing people up. It relies heavily on tropes and cliché, and it echoes society’s worst stereotypes. Its words are superficially impressive but largely lacking in substance—ChatGPT mostly produces what The Verge has described as “fluent bullshit.”

But that kind of makes sense. ChatGPT was trained on real-world text, and the real world essentially runs on fluent bullshit. Maybe the plausibility of a made-up movie like Oil and Darkness comes not because AI is so good, but because the film industry is so bad at coming up with original ideas. In a way, when you ask an AI to make you a movie, it’s just mimicking the formulaic process by which many Hollywood blockbusters get made: Look around, see what’s been successful, lift elements of it (actors, directors, plot structures) and mash them together into a shape that looks new but actually isn’t. 

It’s the same in publishing, where narrow trends can sweep the industry and dominate for years at a time, lining bookshop shelves with covers that look the same or titles with the same rhythm: A Brief History of Seven KillingsThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe Seven Lives of Seven Killers. (ChatGPT made that last one up.)

And it’s not just the creative industries. Fluent bullshit is everywhere: in viral LinkedIn posts and rules for life podcasts, in fundraising decks and academic journals, even in this article itself. Politics and business are full of people who have risen to the top because they’re able to stand in front of a room and ad-lib plausibly at length without saying anything real. Prestigious schools and universities structure education in a way that teaches people one skill: how to very quickly absorb information, confidently regurgitate it in a predetermined format, and then immediately forget it and move on to something else. Those who succeed spill out into government, consultancy, and yes, journalism.

14) Eric Levitz with absolutely the best take on the twitter files, “The ‘Twitter Files’ Is What It Claims to Expose”

15) I find Ron DeSantis‘ rabid anti-vax actions so thoroughly depressing about what they say about the Republican Party and the, supposedly, more sane alternative to Trump:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, is escalating his campaign to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines, the drug companies that produced them, and the public health officials and government leaders who urged Americans to get them.

Florida under DeSantis has been home base for anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-lockdown policies in the past three years. His administration sought to block cities and universities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates; his surgeon general drew widespread criticism this fall for urging young men not to get vaccinated. This week, DeSantis hosted a 90-minute panel discussion filled with experts questioning the efficacy of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and touting their potential dangers for some people, while alleging a vague conspiracy exists to hide that information from the public.

Now he is taking this crusade to the next level, asking the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury charged with investigating any wrongdoing related to the promotion and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

16) Really interesting analysis suggesting the electoral college doesn’t have a Republican bias, so much as a Trump bias (all the more reason to get rid of it!)

But Trump has an ace up his sleeve if an “electability” debate emerges in the GOP primaries: the electoral college.

Trump has proven that he can win 270 electoral votes even when Democrats win the popular vote. If Republicans choose DeSantis or some other Trump alternative, that edge might shrink — or even disappear.

Trump has a three-point electoral college advantage. That makes him electable.

Trump’s electoral college advantage comes through most clearly when we compare the “tipping point” or “pivotal” state to the national popular vote.

In 2016, Wisconsin was the tipping point state: That is, if every state was lined up from Trump’s best to his worst, Wisconsin was the state that got him past the 270 electoral votes and into the White House.

Trump took Wisconsin by one percentage point while losing the national popular vote by two percentage points — adding up to an electoral college advantage of about three points.

In 2020, Trump again had a three point advantage: He lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 4.5 points while losing Pennsylvania (that year’s pivotal state) by only about one point.

In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage…

In most elections, the electoral college bias doesn’t matter: The results in the key state only slightly differ from the national popular vote margin, and the popular vote winner takes the White House. But Trump’s electoral college edge let him stay competitive even as he lost the popular vote by millions…

When Trump is off the ballot, the GOP loses its electoral college edge

In 2018 and 2022 — two elections where Trump was off the ballot — the Republican Party didn’t do as well in key electoral college states.

In the 2022 House elections, Republicans won the national vote by roughly 1.8 percentage points after adjusting for uncontested seats (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race). But in Wisconsin — the pivotal state in both 2016 and 2020 — the GOP won the adjusted House vote by 2.8 percentage points (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race using the procedure described here).

The House vote — even after adjusting for uncontested seats — isn’t perfectly comparable to the presidential vote. But it’s the closest substitute we have. And when Trump was off the ballot in 2022, the House Republicans beat their popular vote margin by about a point in the key swing states.

That’s a steep decline from Trump’s three-point edge…

Put simply, when Trump has been on the ballot, the GOP has had an edge in the most important electoral college states. When he’s gone, that extra boost has disappeared.

17) Paul Waldman, “Republicans have a new version of ‘Lock her up!’”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, no Donald Trump rally was complete without chants of “Lock her up!” shouted with a wild glee. Whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned, Trump’s supporters indulged in a vivid fantasy, one that saw Clinton arrested, handcuffed and tossed behind bars. It was not enough to defeat her in the election;she had to be punished, in a very personal and physical way.

Versions of that fantasy are becoming more common on the right, not just among the rank and file but from Republican leaders, conservative media figures and right-wing celebrities. Though liberals are not immune to the impulse, conservatives are usually most eager to contemplate deploying the criminal justice system against their foes.

This desire isn’t really about the actual procedures of that system. It’s about the fantasy itself, one that thrums with an undercurrent of violence…

But lately, politics hasn’t offered conservatives much satisfaction. They keep coming up short in elections, and even after four years of the Trump presidency, the things they hate about American politics and American life, particularly the very existence of liberals and liberalism, did not disappear.

It’s frustrating for them — and more frustration is on the way. Having won control of the House, Republicans canmount as many investigations of Hunter Biden as they please, or try to impeach the secretary of homeland security. But none of that will amount to much; it certainly won’t make them feel as though they’ve vanquished the left once and for all.

18) Good stuff from Nick Kristoff on the West and Ukraine:

The fundamental misconception among many congressional Republicans (and some progressives on the left) is that we’re doing Ukraine a favor by sending it weapons. Not so. We are holding Ukraine’s coat as it is sacrificing lives and infrastructure in ways that benefit us, by degrading Russia’s military threat to NATO and Western Europe — and thus to us.

“They’re doing us a favor; they’re fighting our fight,” Wesley Clark, the retired American general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. “The fight in Ukraine is a fight about the future of the international community.”

If the war ends in a way favorable to Russia, he argues, it will be a world less safe for Americans. One lesson the world would absorb would be the paramount importance of possessing nuclear weapons, for Ukraine was invaded after it gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s — and Russia’s nuclear warheads today prevent a stronger Western military response.

“If Ukraine falls, there will certainly be a wave of nuclear proliferation,” Clark warned.

For years, military strategists have feared a Russian incursion into Estonia that would challenge NATO and cost lives of American troops. Ukrainians are weakening Russia’s forces so as to reduce that risk.

More broadly, perhaps the single greatest threat to world peace in the coming decade is the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait that escalates into a war between America and China. To reduce that danger, we should help Taiwan build up its deterrent capacity — but perhaps the simplest way to reduce the likelihood of Xi Jinping acting aggressively is to stand united against Russia’s invasion. If the West falters and allows Putin to win in Ukraine, Xi will feel greater confidence that he can win in Taiwan.

Putin has been a destabilizing and brutal bully for many years — from Chechnya to Syria, Georgia to Moldova — partly because the world has been unwilling to stand up to him and partly because he possesses a powerful military force that Ukraine is now dismantling. Aside from energy, Russia’s economy is not substantial.

“Putin and Russia are weak,” Viktor Yushchenko, a former Ukrainian president who challenged Russia and then was mysteriously poisoned and disfigured, told me. “Russia is a poor country, an oil appendage to the world, a gas station.”

The world owes Ukraine for its willingness to finally stand up to Putin. If anything, I’d like to see the Biden administration carefully ratchet up the capabilities of the weaponry it supplies Ukraine, for it may be that the best way to end the war is simply to ensure that Putin finds the cost of it no longer worth paying.

19) Fascinating stuff in Wired, “There’s a New Explanation for ‘Genetic’ Trait Pairs: Your Parents
For years, researchers thought characteristics like weight and education had shared genetic roots. The real answer might lie in how people choose to pair up.”

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, MORE educated people tend to weigh less. That correlation alone, though, doesn’t really tell you much—you could make a parlor game out of coming up with plausible explanations. Maybe the reason is that more educated people have access to healthier foods. Maybe it’s because people who are bullied about their weight are more likely to leave school. Or maybe the people who can afford college tuition and the people who can afford gym memberships are one and the same.

In 2015, a study in Nature Genetics introduced a surprising new possibility: Perhaps weight and education are so intimately connected because they share some of the same genetic roots. Using enormous collections of genetic data, the study’s authors searched for pairs of traits that were correlated with the same genes. For each pair they calculated a metric called “genetic correlation,” which quantifies just how similar the whole set of genes linked to one trait is to that linked to another trait. A smattering of trait pairs popped out as having significant genetic correlations, among them body mass index (BMI) and years of education—as well as more obvious pairs, like depression and anxiety, or type 2 diabetes and blood glucose levels. (Researchers have since tried to explain the apparent genetic link between weight and education by suggesting that people who are genetically predisposed to be better decision makers, and are presumably successful in the classroom, are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyles.)

Compared to simpler, behavioral explanations, such genetic explanations might sound far-fetched. But the data would seem to offer few other alternatives. Genes, after all, have an unquestionable primacy. If the same genes are associated with both education and BMI, it stands to reason that those traits must have intertwined biological roots. 

Now, a new study in Science shows that this idea is illusory. It suggests that geneticists must also consider what comes before people’s genes: their parents. Even if two traits are statistically associated with the same genes, they might not have any true genetic overlap: That same pattern can also appear if people with those traits tend to mate with each other. (This is called “cross-trait assortative mating.”)

 For example, people with many years of education, who are likely to be of a higher social class, tend to seek out partners who display markers of social standing like a low BMI, and vice versa. Their children will then have genes linked to both high education and low weight. If this happens repeatedly across a population, the two traits will appear to share some of the same genetic causes, because the traits and genes will co-occur so frequently. In reality, they will have been inherited from different sides of the family…

But Howe’s study didn’t explain exactly how parents played a role. There were some promising possibilities. Parents don’t just pass down genes to their kids—they also pass down their socioeconomic status, which has consequences for both schooling and diet. And, of course, parents typically choose whom they reproduce with. Loic Yengo, group leader of the Statistical Genomics Laboratory at the University of Queensland, says that geneticists had realized that cross-trait assortative mating could—in theory—inflate genetic correlations. But no one had yet produced concrete evidence that it did. 

Border and his colleagues found that evidence. Studying cross-trait assortative mating in detail requires knowing how much it actually happens in the real world. It seems reasonable that depressed people might end up with anxious people due to their shared experience of living with a mental illness, or that educated people would tend to marry people who got high scores on IQ tests, but Border needed to put numbers on those trends. The team was able to find the information they needed in the UK Biobank, an enormous dataset that comprises genetic, medical, and demographic data about hundreds of thousands of UK residents. They found that the more often people who had a particular pair of traits tended to couple up, the more those traits seemed to be genetically correlated. It was reasonable to suspect, then, that assortative mating was in fact making some genetic correlations appear stronger than they would otherwise be.

20) Sad but true… people in the American South are, on average, much worse dog owners:

NASHVILLE — As the documentary “Free Puppies” opens, a fluffy dog named Albert is galloping down a beach boardwalk. His companion, a much bigger dog, is leaping with excitement, but Albert is harnessed into a dog wheelchair. He was found on the side of a road in Arkansas, “either thrown out of a car or hit by a car,” a voice-over tells us. “We brought him up on one of those pet carriers that come up with tons of animals from the South.” Albert’s wheelchair bears a miniature Connecticut license plate.

This little dog is one of millions of pets transported from the American South to places in the Northeast and Midwest with fewer adoptable animals — communities where there are well funded animal-welfare agencies, stricter leash laws, a shorter breeding season and weather harsh enough that fewer strays survive.

Widespread animal relocation began in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina, according to Karen Walsh, the senior director of animal relocation at the A.S.P.C.A. “When we saw how many people were willing to step up and help an animal that had lost their home in Katrina, that idea grew,” she says in the film. “Animals started to flow across the country.”

Only a fraction of the needy pets here are cute enough or young enough to be easily placed this way — often based solely on a rescue organization’s website or social media feeds. So “Adopt, don’t shop” has become a national mantra among pet rescue advocates working desperately to reduce the number of animals euthanized in overcrowded shelters or left to starve on their own. Most of those doomed pets live in the South.

21) Fellow ChatGPT lovers will enjoy this, “How to Get the Most Out of ChatGPT”

22) And this still seems like magic to me, “OpenAI Has the Key To Identify ChatGPT’s Writing
They’ll add a secret watermark to the AI’s creations. Will they share the means to see it?”

As Aaronson says, an invisible “conceptual” watermark is what they need to make it “much harder to take a GPT output and pass it off as if it came from a human.” This feature could prevent misinformation, plagiarism, impersonation, cheating, etc., because what most malicious use cases share is that the user has to “conceal[] ChatGPT’s involvement.”

OpenAI already has a “working prototype” that he says “seems to work pretty well:”

“Empirically, a few hundred tokens seem to be enough to get a reasonable signal that yes, this text came from GPT. In principle, you could even take a long text and isolate which parts probably came from GPT and which parts probably didn’t.”

This means a couple of paragraphs are enough to tell if the content came from ChatGPT or not.

(Note that Aaronson doesn’t refer to ChatGPT explicitly but to a generic “GPT”. My guess is that all of OpenAI’s language models will integrate the watermarking scheme, likely including the next iteration of ChatGPT.)

Although the specifics of how the mechanism works are too technical to cover here (if you’re interested, check out Aaronson’s blog. It’s very good!), it’s worth mentioning a few relevant details buried in the jargon:

First, users won’t have the means to see the watermark (DALL-E’s, on the contrary, was visible and easily removable) unless OpenAI shares the key. I doubt anyone will find a direct way to remove it.

However, second, although the watermark it’s hard to bypass with trivial approaches (e.g. remove/insert words or rearrange paragraphs), it’s possible (e.g. Aaronson mentions that paraphrasing ChatGPT’s outputs with another AI would remove the watermark just fine).

Third, only OpenAI knows the key. They can share it with whoever they want so third parties can, too, assess the provenance of a given piece of text.

Finally, what I consider the most critical aspect of this: the watermark won’t work with open-source models because anyone could go into the code and remove the function (the watermark isn’t inside the model, but as a “wrapper” over it).

23) I really enjoyed learning about the physics and engineering of air conditioning in Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.

24) Great stuff from Scott Alexander on ChatGPT and the alignment problem, “Perhaps It Is A Bad Thing That The World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs”

Probably the reason they released this bot to the general public was to use us as free labor to find adversarial examples – prompts that made their bot behave badly. We found thousands of them, and now they’re busy RLHFing those particular failure modes away.

Some of the RLHF examples will go around and around in circles, making the bot more likely to say helpful/true/inoffensive things at the expense of true/inoffensive/helpful ones. Other examples will be genuinely enlightening, and make it a bit smarter. While OpenAI might never get complete alignment, maybe in a few months or years they’ll approach the usual level of computer security, where Mossad and a few obsessives can break it but everyone else grudgingly uses it as intended.

This strategy might work for ChatGPT3, GPT-4, and their next few products. It might even work for the drone-mounted murderbots, as long as they leave some money to pay off the victims’ families while they’re collecting enough adversarial examples to train the AI out of undesired behavior. But as soon as there’s an AI where even one failure would be disastrous – or an AI that isn’t cooperative enough to commit exactly as many crimes in front of the police station as it would in a dark alley – it falls apart.

People have accused me of being an AI apocalypse cultist. I mostly reject the accusation. But it has a certain poetic fit with my internal experience. I’ve been listening to debates about how these kinds of AIs would act for years. Getting to see them at last, I imagine some Christian who spent their whole life trying to interpret Revelation, watching the beast with seven heads and ten horns rising from the sea. “Oh yeah, there it is, right on cue; I kind of expected it would have scales, and the horns are a bit longer than I thought, but overall it’s a pretty good beast.”

This is how I feel about AIs trained by RLHF. Ten years ago, everyone was saying “We don’t need to start solving alignment now, we can just wait until there are real AIs, and let the companies making them do the hard work.” A lot of very smart people tried to convince everyone that this wouldn’t be enough. Now there’s a real AI, and, indeed, the company involved is using the dumbest possible short-term strategy, with no incentive to pivot until it starts failing.

I’m less pessimistic than some people, because I hope the first few failures will be small – maybe a stray murderbot here or there, not a planet-killer. If I’m right, then a lot will hinge on whether AI companies decide to pivot to the second-dumbest strategy, or wake up and take notice.

Finally, as I keep saying, the people who want less racist AI now, and the people who want to not be killed by murderbots in twenty years, need to get on the same side right away. The problem isn’t that we have so many great AI alignment solutions that we should squabble over who gets to implement theirs first. The problem is that the world’s leading AI companies do not know how to control their AIs. Until we solve this, nobody is getting what they want.

25) Good take from Chait on Sinema going Independent, “Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken Going independent is a way to force Democrats to back her.”

Sinema’s declaration of independence from the party is a ploy to avoid the primary and keep her job. Democrats could still run a candidate against her in the general election, of course, but they would face an extremely difficult prospect of winning. So her calculation in leaving the party is that she can bluff it into sitting out the campaign altogether, endorsing her as the lesser-evil choice against the Republican nominee.

It may work. If it doesn’t, it is because Sinema has underestimated just how much ill will she has generated across the breadth of the Democratic Party by reconceptualizing her role as the personal concierge of the superrich.

26) And Yglesias from last year on just why Sinema is so awful.

Elon Musk is slowly ruining twitter and I hate it

For a long time my biggest complaint with Musk and twitter was that half my feed was just people complaining about Musk and it was really annoying.  Now my problem is that, to some degree, continuing to use twitter is to support a product run by what is now a truly odious character.  I’ve always been one to just buy from whomever under the assumption that sure, while I may know the political views of Chik-Fil-a or Hobby Lobby’s owners, for all I know Food Lion’s owners are basically neo-nazis and I know nothing about it (to be clear, I actually know nothing about Food Lion’s owners, but it’s a cheap, convenient grocery store for me).  But, in a sense, twitter is a place I like to hang out and would I want to hang out at a bar/restaurant where I knew the owner was a truly awful person.  Maybe!! If all my friends were there and I got a lot of positive value from it.  But, what if a bunch of my more socially conscious than me friends started leaving, which would really hurt the experience.  And they all did not end up going to the same alternate bar. Or they just stayed home and watched TV.  But, many of the most interesting people you cannot find anywhere else stayed there?  Ugh.

I actually started using Post yesterday.  Not bad. Clearly a landing pad for many academics and journalists, which is my main value from twitter.  But, I’m sure not getting any hockey analytics there.  Or automated postings of Monet’s paintings. Or random cool science factoids.  And I miss all that.  Point is, the situation just sucks.

As for Musk, this is a great take: “Elon Musk Is a Far-Right Activist: One tweet says it all.”

If there’s one tweet that will tell you everything you need to know about Elon Musk, it’s this one from early this morning:

In five words, Musk manages to mock transgender and nonbinary people, signal his disdain for public-health officials, and send up a flare to far-right shitposters and trolls. The tweet is a cruel and senseless play on pronouns that also invokes the right’s fury toward Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, for what they believe is a government overreach in public-health policy throughout the pandemic and an obfuscation of the coronavirus’s origins. (Fauci, for his part, has said he would cooperate with any possible investigations and has nothing to hide.)

Beyond its stark cruelty, this tweet is incredibly thirsty. As right-wing troll memes go, it is Dad-level, 4chan–Clark Griswold stuff, which is to say it’s desperate engagement bait in the hopes of attracting kudos from the only influencers who give Musk the time of day anymore: right-wing shock jocks. But that is the proper company for the billionaire, because whether or not he wants to admit it, Musk is actively aiding the far right’s political project. He is a right-wing activist…

Beyond Musk’s political affiliations, his actual political convictions—by which I mean the bedrock set of values, ideologies, and organizing principles through which he sees the world and wishes it to be structured—are a slightly different conversation. Here, I tend to agree with The Verge’s Liz Lopatto, who wrote recently that Musk doesn’t really have political beliefs, only personal interests. But one can have vapid or nonexistent political beliefs and still be a political activist. Political activism is about actions. Here’s what those actions look like in practice:

Publicly, Musk appears deeply committed to the right’s culture war against progressivism in most forms. His purchase of Twitter was an explicitly political act couched in the notion of preserving free speech. But Musk’s notion of free speech is a broad course correction that involves amplifying and advancing the interests of right-wing reactionaries while trolling the left. Musk might argue that this is restoring balance to the system, but if we are judging based only on actions and outcomes, it is very hard to see his tenure at Twitter as anything other than a series of policies intended to benefit a particular ideology.

That said, Tom Nichols with good reasons for staying. And, he’s not wrong.

Meanwhile, one of the absolutely best follows on twitter, Popehat, explains why he’s leaving:

The other reason is that I think it’s fundamentally changed, at least for now. I’m not just talking about the increasing tech glitches. Just as Twitter’s former leaders exercised their free speech and free association rights to brand Twitter one way, Twitter’s new boss is exercising his rights to brand it another way. That new branding is ugly and despicable and I don’t want to contribute content to it. The last straw was Elon Musk sending lunatics and bigots against former employees and leaning into conspiracy theories. So I’m exercising my free speech and free association and leaving, and shuttering the account. I’ll probably delete the past tweets because I can’t stomach them being available to promote this enterprise.

This is exactly how it’s supposed to work, as I’ve been arguing for years. Twitter — or whoever runs it — has rights. I have rights. If one of us disagrees with the other’s exercise of rights, we can part company. That, not government regulation, is the way to do it. I’m repulsed by the flood of triumphant bigotry and trolling, and by Musk’s sad-lonely-boy leaning into the arms of freaks who embrace him in his fruitless quest for love. But I’d never ask the government to stop it. I’m voting with my feet, exactly the way I’ve been telling people to do for years.

As a user, though, this totally sucks.  Twitter was once a one-stop shot for all sorts of interesting information in a vast array of areas. But it is an increasingly impoverished space as more people leave– a completely reasonable approach to a business being run by an objectively horrible person.  But, damn does it suck.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) I read this advice about exercising with a cold years ago and it’s worked well for me:

Before you don your workout gear, assess your symptoms carefully. “The most popular advice is to do what’s referred to as the neck check, where if symptoms are above the neck, exercise is probably safe,” said Thomas Weidner, a professor of athletic training and chair emeritus of the school of kinesiology at Ball State University in Indiana. If your only symptoms are nasal congestion and a low-grade headache, for example, a light workout shouldn’t make your cold worse.

In fact, a landmark study that demonstrated this was led by Dr. Weidner in the 1990s. In it, 50 young adults were infected with the common cold virus and randomly split into two groups: one that did 40 minutes of moderate exercise every other day for 10 days, and one that didn’t exercise at all. The researchers found that there was no difference in illness length or severity between the two groups — meaning that working out moderately did not prolong or exacerbate their colds. Other research done by Dr. Weidner has led to similar findings.

If, however, you do have symptoms below the neck, such as a hacking cough, chest discomfort, nausea, diarrhea or body-wide symptoms like fever, muscle aches or fatigue, “then it’s not a good idea to exercise,” Jeffrey Woods, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said via email.

2) Drum on crime and perceptions of crime:

I’ve written a lot about crime over the past month or so. Here’s a summary of the most important bits. First, crime has gone down steadily over the past decade. Property crime continued to go down in 2021 while violent crime remained stable.

In 2022, the largest cities in the US almost all reported lower murder rates and only smallish increases in violent crime. New York City is the sole outlier, and its numbers are iffy.

If there’s nevertheless a genuine fear of rising crime, it should show up in concrete actions taken by consumers. But it doesn’t. Google searches for home security devices have gone steadily down over the past few years.

Perception of rising crime is highly partisan and very recent. It started among Republicans in 2021, after Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Taking all parties together, overall perceptions of crime have been down consistently over the past decade. This changed only in 2022, when news media reports and Republican campaign ads began to insist that crime was out of control this year even though every indicator suggests that property crime is down and violent crime is up only slightly.

The Gallup poll results are easily explained. Fox News cynically began running sensationalized reports on violent crime beginning in 2021, and then almost instantly pulled back after the midterm elections of 2022 were over.

Bottom line:

  • Property crime is down over the past decade and has continued to fall this year.
  • Violent crime is also down over the past decade and is up only slightly this year.
  • Perceptions of crime were consistently modest during this time.
  • Perceptions changed only after Joe Biden took office. This was thanks to deliberate manipulation of crime coverage from Fox News.

3) Patrick Sharkey, “The Crime Spike Is No Mystery: By zooming out and looking at the big picture, the question of what causes violence becomes quite answerable.”

Why are some American neighborhoods so vulnerable to so much violence?

To answer this question requires thinking less in terms of months and years, and more in terms of decades. It requires thinking less about specific neighborhoods and cities where violence is common, and more about larger metropolitan areas where inequality is extreme and the affluent live separated from the poor. And it requires thinking less about individual criminals and victims, and more about bigger social forces, including demographic shifts, changes in urban labor markets, and social policies implemented by states and the federal government. All told, nearly six decades of data on violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods point to an unmistakable conclusion: Producing a sustained reduction in violence may not be possible without addressing extreme, persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, and income…

If this all seems far removed from the people wielding guns in cities like Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Philadelphia, it is. The forces that have left American neighborhoods vulnerable to rising violence are entirely distinct from the people who live in those neighborhoods.

The young men who are most likely to be the victims or perpetrators of gun violence weren’t alive when the United States began to disinvest in central cities. In the decades during and after the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the rural South, federal dollars built our interstate highway system, insured home mortgages, and subsidized a large-scale movement of white people and other high-income segments of the population out of central cities. You needed money to buy a car in order to move to a house in the suburbs and commute into the city. And in many new housing developments, you needed to be white to be eligible to purchase a home or get a loan. New suburbs and exurbs outside Chicago and St. Louis quickly established zoning codes that would not allow for apartments or other forms of affordable housing to be built, meaning local property taxes would fund services only for relatively well-off residents. As the most advantaged segments of the urban population moved elsewhere, the share of city budgets funded by the federal government dwindled and political influence in state legislatures shifted away from the cities…

Let me be clear: It is important to find out what is driving this latest rise in gun violence, and to develop targeted responses in the neighborhoods where violence is concentrated—I am, in fact, devoting the next several years of my research to this question. But it is equally important to ask why the same neighborhoods have had the highest level of violence.

Analyzing the short-term fluctuations along with the long-term vulnerability allows us to move beyond the simplistic idea that to deal with violence, we must choose between an approach that addresses “root causes” and one that attempts to “stop the bleeding.” The long view tells us that disinvestment in communities, concentrated disadvantage, the disintegration of core community institutions of support, an overreliance on the institutions of punishment, and an unfathomable and unregulated supply of guns have created neighborhoods vulnerable to violence. In those vulnerable neighborhoods, a shorter-term perspective reveals how shifts in the local social order, policy tweaks, shocks such as crack cocaine and an influx of guns, and other micro changes—a new boys’ and girls’ club opens; a tenants’-rights group organizes an effort to mobilize against guns in a housing development; a violence-interruption organization loses funding; an abandoned building is razed—can lead to declines and spikes in violence.

4) It seems preposterous to me that the parents of a suicide victim should sue the university that punished a student before the suicide for wrongful death. 

5) This is cool, “To Ditch Pesticides, Scientists Are Hacking Insects’ Sex Signals: It’s now possible to mass-produce pheromones that keep insects from breeding near crops—protecting cereals and other staples with fewer chemicals.”

Female insects can attract partners in complete darkness without any audible signal, and over hundreds of meters—sometimes over a kilometer—using sex pheromones. Males track the smell of these chemical signals and mate with the females they’re led to, who then lay eggs that hatch into hungry larvae. It’s an incredible chemical power—and one that can be exploited.

“We can apply artificial pheromone compounds into the field, which will be released everywhere in the air and cover the original signal from the real female,” says Hong-Lei Wang, a researcher in the pheromone group at Lund University in Sweden. This blanket cover of the sex scent makes it harder for males to find females and mate, he explains, and so the insect population falls, meaning fewer pests in the area to cause crop damage.

Farmers have been using artificial pheromones this way for decades—but up until now, costs have limited how widely they’re used. Creating artificial pheromones has been pretty expensive, so it’s only made economic sense to use them to protect high-value crops, such as fruits. But now Wang and his colleagues have uncovered a way to affordably and sustainably produce pheromones that attract pests that eat cheaper crops, such as cabbage and beans, opening the door for pheromone-based pest control to be used more widely. 

6) Who knew we had a tree problem? “America’s Billion-Dollar Tree Problem Is Spreading: Grasslands are being overrun by drought-resistant invaders that wreck animal habitats, suck up water supplies, and can cost landowners a fortune.”

FAST-GROWING, DROUGHT-TOLERANT TREES are slowly spreading across grasslands on every continent except Antarctica. Given how desperate we are to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, millions of new saplings sprouting each year might seem like a good thing. But in reality, their spread across vulnerable grasslands and shrublands is upending ecosystems and livelihoods. As these areas transform into woodland, wildlife disappears, water supplies dwindle, and soil health suffers. The risk of catastrophic wildfire also skyrockets.

In a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers have shown how woodland expansion also takes an economic toll. American ranchers often depend on tree-free rangelands to raise their livestock. Between 1990 and 2019, landowners in the Western US lost out on nearly $5 billion worth of forage—the plants that cattle or sheep eat—because of the growth of new trees. The amount of forage lost over those three decades equates to 332 million tons, or enough hay bales to circle the globe 22 times.

“Grasslands are the most imperiled and least protected terrestrial ecosystem,” says Rheinhardt Scholtz, a global change biologist and affiliate researcher with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Also called steppes, pampas, or plains, our planet’s grasslands have dwindled drastically. According to Scholtz, less than 10 percent are still intact, as most have been plowed under for crops or bulldozed for human development. One of the most dire threats facing the grasslands that remain is woody encroachment. “It’s a slow and silent killer,” Scholtz says. 


Historically, tree expansion onto grasslands was checked by regular fires, which relegated woody species to wet or rocky places. But as European settlers suppressed fires and planted thousands of trees to provide windbreaks for their homes and livestock, trees proliferated. When trees invade grasslands, they outcompete native grasses and wildflowers by stealing the lion’s share of sunlight and water. Birds, often used as a bellwether for ecosystem health, are sounding the alarm: North America’s grassland bird populations have declined more than 50 percent since 1970, a 2019 study in Science found. 

According to University of Montana researcher Scott Morford, who led the study on rangeland forage loss, tree cover has increased by 50 percent across the western half of the US over the past 30 years, with tree cover expanding steadily year on year. In total, close to 150,000 km2 of once tree-free grasslands have been converted into woodland. “That means we’ve already lost an area the size of Iowa to trees,” says Morford, who emphasizes that an additional 200,000 km2 of tree-free rangelands—an area larger than the state of Nebraska—are “under immediate threat” because they are close to seed sources.

7) Should you stop washing your hands? No.  Does washing them protect you from respiratory viruses? Also no.

And then we learned we’d had it all backwards. The virus didn’t spread much via surfaces; it spread through the air. We came to understand the danger of indoor spaces, the importance of ventilation, and the difference between a cloth mask and an N95. Meanwhile, we mostly stopped talking about hand-washing. The days when you could hear people humming “Happy Birthday” in public restrooms quickly disappeared. And wiping down packages and ostentatious workplace-disinfection protocols became a matter of lingering hygiene theater.

This whole episode was among the stranger and more disorienting shifts of the pandemic. Sanitization, that great bastion of public health, saved lives; actually, no, it didn’t matter that much for COVID. On one level, this about-face should be seen as a marker of good scientific progress, but it also raises a question about the sorts of acts we briefly thought were our best available defense against the virus. If hand-washing isn’t as important as we thought it was in March 2020, how important is it?

Any public-health expert will be quick to tell you that, please, yes, you should still wash your hands. Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, considers it “commonsense hygiene” for protecting us against a range of viruses spread through close contact and touch, such as gastrointestinal viruses. Also, let’s be honest: It’s gross to use the bathroom and then refuse to wash, whether or not you’re going to give someone COVID.

Even so, the pandemic has piled on evidence that the transmission of the coronavirus via fomites—that is, inanimate contaminated objects or surfaces—plays a much smaller role, and airborne transmission a much larger one, than we once thought. And the same likely goes for other respiratory pathogens, such as influenza and the coronaviruses that cause the common cold, Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer and aerosols expert at Virginia Tech, told me…

The upshot, for Goldman, is that surface transmission of respiratory pathogens is “negligible,” probably accounting for less than .01 percent of all infections. If correct, this would mean that your chance of catching the flu or a cold by touching something in the course of daily life is virtually nonexistent. Goldman acknowledged that there’s a “spectrum of opinion” on the matter. Marr, for one, would not go quite so far: She’s confident that more than half of respiratory-pathogen transmission is airborne, though she said she wouldn’t be surprised if the proportion is much, much higher—the only number she would rule out is 100 percent.

For now, it’s important to avoid binary thinking on the matter, Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. Fomites, airborne droplets, smaller aerosol particles—all modes of transmission are possible. And the proportional breakdown will not be the same in every setting, Seema Lakdawa, a flu-transmission expert at Emory University, told me. Fomite transmission might be negligible at a grocery store, but that doesn’t mean it’s negligible at a day care, where kids are constantly touching things and sneezing on things and sticking things in their mouths. The corollary to this idea is that certain infection-prevention strategies prove highly effective in one context but not in another: Frequently disinfecting a table in a preschool classroom might make a lot of sense; frequently disinfecting the desk in your own private cubicle, less so.

8) I was so excited to watch “Confess, Fletch.”  I love Fletch and I love Jon Hamm.  But just so poorly written

9) Good stuff from Tom Nichols, “To Putin, Brittney Griner Is a Pawn. To the U.S., She’s a Person.: Russia will regard any prisoner swap as a propaganda win. But the real message we can proclaim is about American values.”

Putin probably sees this trade, if it happens, as a double win for Russia. Moscow gets a shady but loyal arms dealer back on the roster for the price of two wrongly imprisoned Americans, one of whom the Russian media will spin as a spy and the other as an example of a decadent culture. In the Kremlin’s eyes, we recover two worthless people while it gains a top-shelf criminal asset. And they get to remind Russians that America is the kind of place where the president of the United States will go the distance for someone whom most Russians would regard with contempt.

So be it. Russia is at war with the entire international order at this point, and allowing Putin to indulge in some cheap racism and spy hysteria is a small price to pay for the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans. Unlike Russia, we make the effort to care about all Americans, wherever they are. Often, both at home and abroad, we fail in that effort, but we start from the proposition that our citizens are not merely disposable pawns.

In a just world, Bout would rot in a U.S. federal prison. But his sentence is not worth the lives of any Americans we can get released from Russia. And Bout, if he is sent back home, will go back to the life of a man who lives among enemies and bodyguards, a world in which today’s friends are tomorrow’s assassins. If we can bring Griner and Whelan home, maybe Bout’s exile back to Russia will be a fitting and just exchange, after all.

10) Apparently bodybuilders are just dying all the time because of the drugs they regularly subject their bodies to.  It just seems so nuts to me.  I could kind of get it if you were taking these kind of health risks to win the Tour de France or be a multi-million dollar pro athlete.  But to do it for some completely niche sport where the vast majority of the public just thinks you’re some kind of freak?  What the hell, man.

11) Great midterm analysis from Nate Cohn, “Turnout by Republicans Was Great. It’s Just That Many of Them Didn’t Vote for Republicans.”

In state after state, the final turnout data shows that registered Republicans turned out at a higher rate — and in some places a much higher rate — than registered Democrats, including in many of the states where Republicans were dealt some of their most embarrassing losses.

Instead, high-profile Republicans like Herschel Walker in Georgia or Blake Masters in Arizona lost because Republican-leaning voters decided to cast ballots for Democrats, even as they voted for Republican candidates for U.S. House or other down-ballot races in their states.

Georgia is a fine example. While Mr. Walker may blame turnout for his poor showing in November and earlier this week, other Republican candidates seemed to have no problem at all. Gov. Brian Kemp won by nearly eight points over Stacey Abrams; Republican candidates for House won the most votes on the same day.

Yet Senator Raphael Warnock won in Georgia anyway because a large group of voters willing to back other Republicans weren’t willing to back Mr. Walker.

The final turnout figures make it clear that Republicans — including Mr. Walker — benefited from very favorable turnout last month. Unlike in recent years, Republican primary voters were likelier to vote than Democrats (by a modest margin). Meanwhile, the white turnout rate exceeded the Black turnout rate by the widest margin since 2006.

We went back and looked at the respondents to our pre-election Times/Siena survey, and matched them to post-election vote turnout records. We found that the respondents who said they backed Mr. Walker were actually likelier to vote than those who said they backed Mr. Warnock…

It’s fair to say voters in these key states probably preferred Republican control of government, in no small part because more Republicans showed up to vote. They just didn’t find Republican candidates they wanted to support at the top of the ticket.

12) Loved this from Derek Thompson on breakthroughs of the year.  Yes, AI is number one.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Jamelle Bouie, “The Supreme Court Is Turning Into a Court of First Resort”

There is another possibility. According to Mark A. Lemley, a law professor at Stanford, the Roberts court, with its conservative majority, is an “imperial” Supreme Court, undermining the power and authority of the other branches of government, as well as weakening the power of lower courts to act and make decisions. “The Court,” Lemley writes, “has taken significant, simultaneous steps to restrict the power of Congress, the administrative state, the states, and the lower federal courts.” It gets its way, he continues, “not by giving power to an entity whose political predilections are aligned with the Justice’s own, but by undercutting the ability of any entity to do something the Justices don’t like.”…

The upshot of all of this, Lemley writes, is a court that is “consolidating its power, systematically undercutting any branch of government, federal or state, that might threaten that power, while at the same time undercutting individual rights.”

This, I think, is a useful way of thinking about the current Supreme Court’s aggressive disregard for its own rules and tradition regarding case selection, methodology and precedent. The conservative majority is working to make the court the leading institution in American politics, with total control over the meaning of the Constitution and its application to American life.

Americans can and should challenge this. Here, as I’ve noted before, Abraham Lincoln is invaluable: “If the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court,” he said in his first inaugural address, “the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

The first step toward challenging the Supreme Court’s power grab is to recognize the basic fact that, as the law professor Eric Segall has written, the Supreme Court is not actually a court. Yes, the justices of the Supreme Court work in a courtroom, wear robes and decide cases. But the court, he says, “functions much more like a political veto council than a court of law” and the justices “decide cases more like a traditional council of elders than typical judges.”

To see the truth about the Supreme Court is to see that it is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning, holding forth on how we must organize our political lives. It is to see, instead, that it is a political institution, jockeying for power and influence among a set of political institutions. It is to see that the Supreme Court exists to serve American democracy, and when it does not, then it can and must be checked by us, the people.

2) Love this from National Geographic.  Definitely learned some new ones here. “The 22 most amazing discoveries of 2022.”  I liked this one:

A bobcat eating python eggs shows ‘Everglades fighting back’

Burmese pythons have been overrunning the Florida Everglades for decades. These invasive animals are so ecologically destructive in part because they have no native predators—or so scientists thought.

For the first time, biologists have observed a native species, a bobcat, raiding a python nest and eating its eggs. Later, when the bobcat returned to find the snake guarding its nest, the cat took a swipe at the reptile. “When you get interactions like this and see the native wildlife fighting back, it’s like a ray of sunshine for us,” says Ian Bartoszek, an ecologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “In 10 years of tracking snakes, I can count on one hand the number of observations” of native animals standing up to the reptiles. The confrontation could represent a step toward restoring ecological balance in the python-troubled Everglades.

3) Apparently “stiff person syndrome” is a thing. And Celine Dion is suffering from it. 

4) Okay, I think I might actually start running up the stairs at work. “2-Minute Bursts of Movement Can Have Big Health Benefits”

Dashing up the stairs to your apartment, weaving between commuters as you dart toward the train — those small snippets of exercise, if they’re intense enough, can add up, according to a new study. The paper is among the first to examine what many exercise scientists have long hypothesized: A little bit of physical activity goes a long way, even movement you might not consider a workout.

The paper, published today in Nature Medicine, shows that tiny spurts of exercise throughout the day are associated with significant reductions in disease risk. Researchers used data from fitness trackers collected by UK Biobank, a large medical database with health information from people across the United Kingdom. They looked at the records of over 25,000 people who did not regularly exercise, with an average age around 60, and followed them over the course of nearly seven years. (People who walked recreationally once a week were included, but that was the maximum amount of concerted exercise these participants did.)

Those who engaged in one or two-minute bursts of exercise roughly three times a day, like speed-walking while commuting to work or rapidly climbing stairs, showed a nearly 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality risk and a roughly 40 percent reduction in the risk of dying from cancer as well as all causes of mortality, compared with those who did no vigorous spurts of fitness…

One 2020 study linked four-minute bursts of exercise with longer life spans; another in 2019 found that climbing stairs for 20 seconds, multiple times a day, improved aerobic fitness. And still others have found that repeating just four-second intervals of intense activity could increase strength or counteract the metabolic toll of sitting for long stretches of time.

“Intensity is very effective at building muscle and stressing the cardiovascular system,” said Ed Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas who has researched intense bursts of exercise. Quick blasts of vigorous exercise, performed repeatedly with short rest periods, can increase oxygen uptake and keep cardiac arteries from clogging, he said, as well as power the heart to pump more blood and function better overall.

The new study, however, shows that the average person doesn’t need to go out of their way to identify those small spikes in activity; everyday movements, intensified, can be enough. And because they collected data from trackers that participants wore on their wrists, rather than questionnaires, which some exercise studies rely on, the researchers were able to analyze the impact of minute movements.

“It really just emphasizes how little vigorous physical activity can be extremely beneficial,” said Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario who was an author on the study.

5) David Wallace-Wells, “Covid-19 Isn’t a Pandemic of the Unvaccinated Anymore”

Americans received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses in December 2020, which means we are now approaching the beginning of the third year of the pandemic’s vaccine phase. And yet hundreds of Americans are still dying each day. Who are they? The data offers a straightforward answer: older adults.

Though it’s sometimes uncomfortable to say it, the risk of mortality from Covid has been dramatically skewed by age throughout the pandemic. The earliest reports of Covid deaths from China sketched a pattern quickly confirmed everywhere in the world: In an immunologically naïve population, the oldest were several thousand times more at risk of dying from infection than the youngest.

But the skew is actually more dramatic now — even amid mass vaccinations and reinfections — than it was at any previous point over the last three years. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people 65 and older accounted for 75 percent of all American Covid deaths. That dropped below 60 percent as recently as September 2021. But today Americans 65 and over account for 90 percent of new Covid deaths, an especially large share given that 94 percent of American seniors are vaccinated…

As many Twitter discussions about the “base rate fallacy” have emphasized, this is not because the vaccines are ineffective — we know, also from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, that they work very well. Estimates of the effectiveness of updated bivalent boosters suggest they reduce the risk of mortality from Covid in Americans over the age of 12 by more than 93 percent compared with the population of unvaccinated. That is a very large factor.

But it isn’t the whole story, or vaccinated older adults wouldn’t now make up a larger share of Covid deaths than the unvaccinated do. That phenomenon arises from several other factors that are often underplayed. First is the simple fact that more Americans are vaccinated than not, and those older Americans most vulnerable to severe disease are far more likely to be vaccinated than others.

It is also partly a reflection of how many fewer Americans, including older ones, have gotten boosters than got the initial vaccines: 34 percent, compared with 69 percent. The number of those who have gotten updated bivalent boosters is lower still — just 12.7 percent of Americans over the age of 5.

Finally, vaccines are not as effective among older adults because the immune system weakens with age. It’s much harder to train older immune systems, and that training diminishes more quickly. In Americans between the ages of 65 and 79, for instance, vaccination reduced mortality risk from Covid more than 87 percent, compared with the unvaccinated. This is a very significant reduction, to be sure, but less than the 15-fold decline observed among those both vaccinated and bivalent-boosted in the overall population. For those 80 and above, the reduction from vaccination alone is less than fourfold.

That is a very good deal, of course. But it also means that, given the underlying age skew, vaccinated people in their late 80s have a similar risk of Covid death as never-vaccinated 70-year-olds. Which is to say, some real risk. If it was ever comfortable to say that the unconscionable levels of American deaths were a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it is surely now accurate to describe the ongoing toll as a pandemic of the old.

6) German Lopez with lots of good stuff on ChatGPT:

Advanced efficiency

The upside of artificial intelligence is that it might be able to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently than any person can. The possibilities are up to the imagination: self-driving and even self-repairing cars, risk-free surgeries, instant personalized therapy bots and more.

The technology is not there yet. But it has advanced in recent years through what is called machine learning, in which bots comb through data to learn how to perform tasks. In ChatGPT’s case, it read a lot. And, with some guidance from its creators, it learned how to write coherently — or, at least, statistically predict what good writing should look like.

There are already clear benefits to this nascent technology. It can help research and write essays and articles. ChatGPT can also help code programs, automating challenges that can normally take hours for people.

Another example comes from a different program, Consensus. This bot combs through up to millions of scientific papers to find the most relevant for a given search and share their major findings. A task that would take a journalist like me days or weeks is done in a couple minutes.

These are early days. ChatGPT still makes mistakes, such as telling one user that the only country whose name starts and ends with the same letter is Chad. But it is very quickly evolving. Even some skeptics believe that general-use A.I. could reach human levels of intelligence within decades.

Unknown risks

Despite the potential benefits, experts are worried about what could go wrong with A.I.

For one, such a level of automation could take people’s jobs. This concern has emerged with automated technology before. But there is a difference between a machine that can help put together car parts and a robot that can think better than humans. If A.I. reaches the heights that some researchers hope, it will be able to do almost anything people can, but better.

Some experts point to existential risks. One survey asked machine-learning researchers about the potential effects of A.I. Nearly half said there was a 10 percent or greater chance that the outcome would be “extremely bad (e.g., human extinction).” These are people saying that their life’s work could destroy humanity.

That might sound like science fiction. But the risk is real, experts caution. “We might fail to train A.I. systems to do what we want,” said Ajeya Cotra, an A.I. research analyst at Open Philanthropy. “We might accidentally train them to pursue ends that are in conflict with humans’.”

Take one hypothetical example, from Kelsey Piper at Vox: A program is asked to estimate a number. It figures out that the best way to do this is to use more of the world’s computing power. The program then realizes that human beings are already using that computing power. So it destroys all humans to be able to estimate its number unhindered.

If that sounds implausible, consider that the current bots already behave in ways that their creators don’t intend. ChatGPT users have come up with workarounds to make it say racist and sexist things, despite OpenAI’s efforts to prevent such responses.

The problem, as A.I. researchers acknowledge, is that no one fully understands how this technology works, making it difficult to control for all possible behaviors and risks. Yet it is already available for public use.

7) And the Times’ technology reporter Kevin Roose with a really good rundown on ChatGPT.

8) Nice thorough look at NC turnout from Michael Bitzer.  What sticks out to me is the Republicans just keep getting more turnout.

9) Good stuff from Yglesias, “A lot of the best political messages are really boring”

So how did she pull it off? I think Dobbs was clearly an important factor, as it was in many states.

But a new report suggests that Cortez Masto and her campaign can offer some important lessons, namely that one incredibly banal message about law enforcement that she ran is apparently very potent. To an extent, this insight backs up things I’ve believed for a long time about the value of normie politics. But I also think that people who are more left-wing than I am will find a fair amount to like in this story because it suggests the possibility of making substantial gains in public opinion with very superficial gestures to the center.

Democrats’ best message, revealed

The key insight here comes from Data for Progress’ post-election report, which I recently heard Danielle Deiseroth, Marcela Mulholland, Julia Jeanty, and McKenzie Wilson describe in a post-election panel.

The report includes the results of a large sample experiment DFP did with Brian Schaffner that involved a sample of 77,197 registered voters. Each person was given six different head-to-head matchups between congressional candidates, with each candidate given a random set of demographic characteristics and also randomly assigned a policy message drawn from real things said by real politicians. This is designed to capture two things that a typical poll doesn’t:

  • Given these realistic settings, the impact of different messages on vote choice is just very very small — the vast majority of people vote consistently for either the hypothetical Democrat or the hypothetical Republican regardless of what message they are assigned. Campaign effects are small.

  • But because the sample is so large, you can pick up on the impact of small campaign effects. And that matters because so many races are so close. Small effects can be a big deal.

They ran 135 different Democratic messages in this experiment, of which 35 generated statistically significant campaign effects.

And now the big reveal, Democrats’ top campaign message:

I worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to crack down on crimes and keep our communities safe. I led the fight to combat sex trafficking, helped protect victims of sexual assault, and passed legislation to combat law enforcement suicide. I’ve worked tirelessly to get law enforcement the support and resources they need to keep our communities safe

When I shared this factoid on Twitter, I got a somewhat incredulous response from a number of rightists who didn’t believe a Democrat would ever say that. This was funny because these are all real-world messages, in this case, one from Cortez Masto. You can see a version of it here on her campaign website, and it’s similar to the opening of her official bio on her Senate page.

The flip side of the rightists’ incredulity is that a lot of progressives I’ve talked to are a little disheartened to see that the very best thing DFP could come up with is so boring. This message doesn’t speak at all to the big, structural changes that get progressives out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t reference the existential battle for American democracy, and it doesn’t touch on the climate crisis that has become the progressive movement’s top priority or the abortion rights struggle that invigorated so many after the Dobbs decision. It’s just blah.

But part of the reason this blah message works is precisely because it’s blah. Persuadable voters aren’t persuaded by the stuff that gets progressives fired up, in part because if they were fired up about that stuff they wouldn’t be persuadable voters, and in part because everyone already knows that Democrats care about that stuff, so talking about it at the margin doesn’t change anything. And in that light, what takes the message from good to great is that despite being so blah, conservatives were incredulous that a Democrat would actually say it. The content is not that surprising or exciting but the context apparently is — voters were genuinely swayed by a Democrat making some extremely banal supportive statements about law enforcement.

And it’s not unique to Cortez Masto or her precise framing. This from John Fetterman apparently worked really well, too:

Everyone has the right to feel safe in their communities. I worked with the Chief of Police, our police officers, and the community to reduce violent crime. I’ve worked hand-in-hand with the police and I understand the challenges our police forces face and how to support them to make communities more safe. I will make sure law enforcement has the resources necessary to do their job, but I will also prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention.

Fetterman’s version of this nods a bit more to the left by mentioning oversight and accountability, but is also even more straightforwardly tough on crime than Cortez Masto’s. He talks generically about violent crime instead of centering more feminist concerns like sex trafficking and sexual assault.

The point is that just being a Democrat who says loud and clear “I think it’s good when the cops arrest criminals” actually moves the needle meaningfully because people’s baseline impression of Democrats on crime has become so bad.

10) NYT Editorial on the Independent State Legislature case:

“The most important case for American democracy” in the nation’s history — that’s how the former appeals court judge J. Michael Luttig described Moore v. Harper, an extraordinary lawsuit that the Supreme Court considered in oral arguments Wednesday morning. Judge Luttig, a conservative and a widely respected legal thinker, is not one for overstatement. Yet most Americans aren’t paying attention to the case because it involves some confusing terminology and an arcane legal theory. It is essential that people understand just how dangerous this case is to the fundamental structure of American government, and that enough justices see the legal fallacies and protect our democracy.

First, the back story on the case: In 2021, North Carolina lawmakers redrew their congressional maps. The state had 13 districts at the time, and its voters were more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But the Republicans who are in control of North Carolina’s legislature didn’t want fair maps; they wanted power. In one of the most egregious gerrymanders in the nation, they drew 10 seats intended to favor themselves.

The North Carolina courts were not amused. A panel of three trial judges found that the 2021 maps were “intentionally and carefully designed to maximize Republican advantage” — so much so that Republicans could win legislative majorities even when Democrats won more votes statewide. The State Supreme Court struck down the maps, finding they violated the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantees of free elections, free speech, free assembly and equal protection.

That should have been the end of it: A state court applying the state Constitution to strike down a state law. But North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers appealed, arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not give state courts authority to rule on their congressional maps — even though the legislature had passed a law authorizing the courts to review redistricting plans like these. Instead, the lawmakers are relying on an untested theory that asserts that state legislatures enjoy nearly unlimited power to set and change rules for federal elections…

To be clear, this is a political power grab in the guise of a legal theory. Republicans are trying to see if they can turn state legislatures — 30 of which are controlled by Republicans — into omnipotent, unaccountable election bosses with the help of the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. The theory has no basis in law, history or precedent. The idea that state lawmakers exist free of any constraints imposed by their constitution and state courts makes a mockery of the separation of powers, which is foundational to the American system of government. By the North Carolina lawmakers’ logic, they possess infinite power to gerrymander districts and otherwise control federal elections. It is a Constitution-free zone where no one else in the state — not the governor, not the courts, not the voters through ballot initiatives — has any say.

On Wednesday morning, Justice Elena Kagan rejected the theory out of hand, saying it “gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country. And you might think that it gets rid of all those checks and balances at exactly the time when they are needed most.”

In practice, the theory that the petitioners in the case are seeking to use would turn hundreds of state constitutional provisions into dead letters in federal elections. 

11) Good stuff from Brian Beutler on Musk and twitter.

12) Enjoyed these in Yglesias‘ weekly reader response:

Hutcheson: Granted that “cancel culture” in academe is not the world’s top priority problem but is there anything productive that a good faith conservative state legislature could do to promote less of an ideological bias in state universities.

I think conservatives need to think a little bit harder about what it is they actually think about higher education. Here are three different center-right narratives that are in reasonably wide circulation:

  • We need more practical education that is aimed at useful job skills and delivers economic benefits to individuals and society. This is like a conservative critique of student loan relief or something Marco Rubio would say.

  • We need more “old-fashioned” education that challenges preconceptions, wrestles with difficult ideas, and engages the canon. This is like the Chicago Principles or the kind of thing I heard a lot when I went to a Heterodox Academy conference.

  • We need to accept that education is largely just pointless status-seeking and consumption, and we should reduce the number of resources our society dedicates to this and the power and prestige of top universities. That’s in Bryan Caplan’s books and in a lot of takes you see on the internet about how employers should give job candidates IQ tests.

These takes all kind of converge to express a negative attitude toward incumbent universities, left-wing faculty, faddish political ideas, cancel culture, etc. But they’re actually very different claims. And in particular, the kind of ideas from bullet point two or in the book “The Coddling of the American Mind” have opposite implications from the ideas in points one and three. Right now, anti-coddlers are in a coalition with anti-humanists and education skeptics on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but to devise a constructive anti-coddling agenda, you need to break out of that coalition.

City Dweller: Any thoughts on the White House’s just-announced guidance on incorporating “indigenous knowledge” into federal agency decision-making?

I’ve read this twice, and I don’t really understand what it says.

I think it’s an example of a dynamic that is pretty toxic: academics like to come up with striking-sounding terms for things, then foundations tend to port these academic concepts into an advocacy context, and then executive branch officials want to show responsiveness to the advocates, so they embrace weird, radical-sounding jargon, the upshot of which may actually be pretty banal. There was a Nature article right around Thanksgiving whose headline was about “Decolonizing” agricultural research, but its specific proposal was that “decolonization should go beyond simply citing colleagues from developing countries to including them in conferences and as co-authors.” Now if I were trying to communicate the idea “it would be good to invite more scholars from poor countries to conferences about agriculture,” I think I would just say that. These scholars might have valuable perspectives, and the conferences are a networking opportunity that could help the field.

So back to “indigenous knowledge” — is this a fancy, off-putting, radical-sounding way of saying “we should consult with indigenous communities about what’s up when we make changes?” That sounds very reasonable! Or are we actually endorsing some radical epistemological ideas? I find the document very unclear and the overall rhetorical approach to be at best unhelpful.

13) Kid in the area brings a gun to school and shoots a window before handing it over to a teacher. And this…

Seth Lanterman-Schneider, 39, of Willow Spring is charged with selling/giving a weapon to a minor, which is a misdemeanor, according to the sheriff’s office.

This needs to be a felony!!

14) Good stuff from Benjamin Mazer, “COVID Science Is Moving Backwards”

At the outset of the crisis, the world’s scientists used their grit and genius to develop new ideas with unprecedented speed; collectively, the COVID vaccines and treatments they produced saved tens of millions of lives. But their historic push for knowledge has lately slowed and sputtered in its tracks. Society spent billions of dollars to answer a single, urgent question: How do you combat a novel respiratory virus? Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves a little baffled by the follow-up: How do you handle a respiratory virus that is familiar? …

What’s pushing COVID science backwards? Don’t blame viral evolution—or not entirely. The emergence of new subvariants does weaken the effects of our vaccines. (It may also render some monoclonal-antibody treatments obsolete.) But the bigger problem isn’t that the virus has become a stranger. It’s that we’ve come to know it all too well.

Most of the groundbreaking research that led to our current vaccines and treatments was performed in a type of human that no longer exists in any but the smallest numbers: Homo uninoculatus uninfectus, which is to say, a person who has neither gotten sick with COVID nor ever taken a vaccine against it. The original vaccine studies by Moderna and Pfizer excluded participants who were known to have caught COVID. Paxlovid was authorized based on a study of unvaccinated subjects. The other antivirals, too, were tested only in those who hadn’t gotten any shots. Yet here’s where we are right now: Seven in 10 Americans have received at least a primary vaccine series, and more than 95 percent have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from vaccination, infection, or both. Globally, 13 billion shots have been administered, and nearly every country has suffered through widespread disease. We developed all these drugs for a world of COVID virgins, and now that world is gone.

This is very good news: Patients with preexisting immunity are at far lower risk. New infections are a lot milder, on average, than they were in 2020. Fewer patients are entering ICUs with lungs damaged by the severe pneumonia we saw at the start of the pandemic, and those hospitalized with COVID are trending older and sicker overall. Clearly we’re living through a new—and better—phase of the pandemic. But the same development also makes it harder to figure out whether vaccines are still doing what they’re meant to do.

15) I cannot believe the degree to which Pro Publica just completely lit their reputation on fire over bad translations in the Chinese lab leak story.  It’s really kind of amazing.  James Fallows with details.

The central figure in the story is a man named Toy Reid, the one shown in that dramatic black-and-white photo. He is an American who speaks Mandarin and claims to have unique insight into the nuance and meaning of official Chinese documents. He is introduced thus:

[Communist] Party speak is “its own lexicon,” explains Reid, now 44 years old. Even a native Mandarin speaker “can’t really follow it,” he says. “It’s not meant to be easily understood. It’s almost like a secret language of Chinese officialdom. When they’re talking about anything potentially embarrassing, they speak of it in innuendo and hushed tones, and there’s a certain acceptable way to allude to something.”

For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team [the “minority oversight” staffers] dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins.

My BS-detectors all switched on when I first read this. I know only a little about Mandarin. But enough to doubt that properly reading official documents is some extremely rare “unusual skill.” I know a little more about editing investigative stories, and about the moments when you’d ask a reporter, “Wait a minute, does this make any sense?”

—Almost as soon as the story appeared, it was met with questions, criticism, and derision from the very large group of people accustomed to reading Chinese documents, including Party statements. You can see a summary of the pushback in a Semafor piece by Max Tani, and some line-by-line critique in this widely circulated Twitter thread by Jane Qiu. People I’d known and worked with in the Chinese-translator community, both Chinese and international, were all critics.

Here is a crucial point: Skepticism about the story was entirely separate from views on the “lab leak” hypothesis itself (which the story supported, as had the Republican staff report). I have no idea where the pandemic virus came from and have never joined arguments about its origin. I don’t know enough. This post is explicitly not about the “lab leak” idea. The same is true for most people questioning the ProPublica story. The controversy involves language, evidence, and journalistic transparency and accountability.

16) Nice 538 piece on the high-tech soccer ball in use at the World Cup.

17) What I found amazing about this story, “ABC News Pulls Daytime Co-Anchors After Revelations of a Romance” is how stunningly well-documented the romantic assignations of these two C-list celebrities were.  

18) Enjoyed this on Kanye and mental illness:

Which brings me to Kanye West, now known as Ye, and probably the most famous mentally ill person in the world right today. West’s mental state has been in freefall for years and he has been talking about his bipolar disorder for a while. His manic behaviour goes off and on, and right now, it is very much on…

I’m Jewish, but when I read West’s posts I didn’t feel offended. I just felt sad that an artist so talented is now so clearly out of his tree. Maybe West really does think Diddy is being controlled by Jewish people. Or maybe that reflects his true feelings as much as that man in hospital was genuinely turned on by Richard and Judy. “Being bipolar doesn’t make you racist,” people shout on Twitter. Not necessarily, but poor mental health makes you say a lot of crazy stuff, because it’s not about being sexily impetuous or soulfully sensitive. It’s about being out of your fucking mind. And I get that’s not special or sparkly, but then, tuberculosis is a lot less pretty than some of those Victorian novels made it sound. Illness sucks…

Yet I would bet that many of the same people who are demanding West be held accountable for his actions would be horrified at the idea of sending a mentally ill person who commits a terrible crime to prison. He should be sent to a psychiatric hospital, they would say. That is correct, and the same is true of West. He doesn’t need punishment — he needs help.

And, yes, it feels good to say “mental illness doesn’t make you anti-semitic.”  But we don’t say “mental illness doesn’t make you think you are Jesus” or “mental illness doesn’t make you think CIA agents are after you.”  But, of course, it does!  What Kanye is saying is decidedly not okay, but it really does need to be seen through the perspective of a man clearly in a genuine mental health crisis.

19) Not quite a simple pill yet, but actually bringing some nice rigor and standardization to fecal transplants.

20) Ian Bogost writes in the Atlantic, “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think: Treat it like a toy, not a tool.” For the record, I think he’s dead wrong. 

But you may find comfort in knowing that the bot’s output, while fluent and persuasive as text, is consistently uninteresting as prose. It’s formulaic in structure, style, and content. John Warner, the author of the book Why They Can’t Write, has been railing against the five-paragraph essay for years and wrote a Twitter thread about how ChatGPT reflects this rules-based, standardized form of writing: “Students were essentially trained to produce imitations of writing,” he tweeted. The AI can generate credible writing, but only because writing, and our expectations for it, has become so unaspiring.

Yes, right now, it is a very predictable and boring writer.  So are most people who aren’t paid to write! (And even many of them)

21) A couple of good takes on the utter nonsense on twitter and Hunter Biden’s laptop

22) But Mona Charen’s is fantastic:

So what is this really about? Consider the timing.

For seven years, the right has been explaining, excusing, avoiding, and eventually cheering the most morally depraved figure in American politics. That takes a toll on the psyche. You can tell yourself that the other side is worse. Or you can tell yourself that the critics are unhinged, suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome” whereas you are a man of the world who knows nobody’s perfect. But then Trump will do what he always does—he’ll make a fool of you. You denied that Trump purposely broke the law when he took highly classified documents to Mar-A-Lago and obstructed every effort to retrieve them. And then what does Trump do? He admits taking them! You scoff at the critics who’ve compared Trump with Nazis. And then what does he do? He has dinner with Nazis! (And fails to condemn them even after the fact.) You despised people who claimed Trump was a threat to the Constitution, and then Trump explicitly calls for “terminating” the Constitution in order to put himself back in the Oval Office.

Hunter Biden seems to be corrupt. He traded on his father’s name. He has abused drugs and engaged in other unsavory practices. He’s a mess. But there is nothing relevant to public policy or civic virtue here. President Biden is hardly the first president to have troubled family members. But Joe Biden didn’t hire Hunter at the White House, and if there is any evidence of the president using official influence on Hunter’s behalf, we haven’t seen it. The Department of Justice under President Trump opened an investigation into Hunter Biden. President Biden has left it alone. It’s ongoing.

The right has a deep psychological need for the Hunter Biden story. They desperately want Joe Biden to be corrupt and for the whole family to be, in Stefanik’s words, “a crime family” because they have provided succor and support to someone who has encouraged political violence since his early rallies in 2015, has stoked hatred of minorities through lies, has used his office for personal gain in the most flagrant fashion, has surrounded himself with criminals and con men, has committed human rights violations against would-be immigrants by separating children from their parents, has pardoned war criminals, has cost the lives of tens of thousands of COVID patients by discounting the virus and peddling quack cures, has revived racism in public discourse, and attempted a violent coup d’etat.

They know it. It gnaws at them. That’s why the Hunter Biden story is their heart’s desire. But here’s something else they need to meditate on: Even if everything they’re alleging about Joe Biden were true; even if he did pull strings to help his son and even profited unjustly thereby, it still wouldn’t amount to a fraction of what Trump did. And it still won’t wash out the “damn’d spot.”

Penalty kicks are not actually soccer; let’s make them better

Perhaps the only thing worse is the fact that all of Quidditch is sound and fury signifying nothing until the golden snitch is caught.  And, at least that’s fictional.  I hate penalty kicks with a burning hot passion, and not just as a way to end close games.  

Of course, I forgot I had written about this just a couple weeks ago, but, after two games decided upon today I had to do it again.  Somehow, I had not come across this great article from back in March.  And it’s great, because I came to roughly the same idea independently:

A corner kick has about a two per cent chance of leading to a goal. A penalty kick? 78 per cent. You don’t need a PhD in statistics to spot the problem here.

The officials turned a low-stakes passage of play into a potential title-deciding event, making the attack somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 times more dangerous. They did this based on a VAR call that might as well have been a coin flip. And we all eventually forgot about it because — here’s the bizarre thing about this sport — this happens all the time.

Almost every penalty rewards the attacking team with a vastly higher chance of scoring than they would have otherwise had. Just take a look at where the ball was before the last decade’s worth of Premier League penalties…

It’s hard to say why penalties are tilted toward the left side of the box (something about all the right-footed shooters, maybe?). The more important thing to notice here is how far from goal the ball typically is when the whistle blows. If every penalty had been a shot instead, less than one in a hundred would have been as valuable as the 0.78 xG that shooters enjoy from the penalty spot…

There’s a way to measure that, too.

Possession value models estimate how likely a team is to go on to score from their current situation. Using a simple version by Manchester City’s own AI scientist Laurie Shaw, we can get a feel for an attack’s eventual goal probability based on where the ball was at the time of the penalty.

The story is pretty much the same as before. Out of more than 900 penalties since 2011-12, only a handful of them come anywhere close to a penalty’s 78 per cent chance of scoring. In fact, due to the chance that the attack will turn the ball over before taking a shot, the model’s scale of possible possession values doesn’t even go up that high.

This is back-of-the-napkin math, so we shouldn’t take the median 0.06 possession value as gospel. Our model only knows the location of the ball, not what’s happening on the pitch, and the co-ordinates of the last event before the whistle don’t necessarily tell us where the attack might have received a pass or broken free into space if not for the penalty. If the foul was even semi-intentional, it was probably because the defender felt like the attack had a good chance of scoring.

But even if we guess that the real value of a possession that draws a penalty is more like the 95th percentile on our curve, that’s still just a 19 per cent chance of scoring — one-quarter as much as a free shot from the spot. Unless an attacker is taking an open shot inside the six-yard box at the time of the foul, there’s basically no situation where a penalty kick makes mathematical sense.

No other sport works like this. Hack a three-point shooter in basketball and they’ll get an equivalent number of free throws that they’re slightly more likely to make. Rough up a quarterback in American football and they’ll get 15 yards and a first down. Referees usually try to make victims whole by giving them a reward just a little bit better than the opportunity that the foul denied them. The effect of an average call on win probabilities is slim to none.

Football’s draconian theory of justice is totally different. Maybe the purpose of penalties is to deter bad behaviour, since referees can’t see everything and fans don’t want a whistle every time the ball gets near the box, or maybe it’s retribution, left over from some 19th-century notion of punishment. Whatever the idea is, multiplying an attack’s goal probability many times over in a sport where goals are few and far between is ridiculously heavy-handed. One refereeing decision routinely changes the whole outcome of the game…

There’s a fairer, way more exciting way to do penalties than spot kicks from 12 yards out: the running 35-yard shootout.

The idea comes from the old North American Soccer League, whose enterprising executives hoped to lure fans to watch the likes of Pele and Johan Cruyff by ridding the sport of un-American draws. Any game that ended level went to a 15-minute ‘mini game’ followed by a penalty shootout. By 1977, though, the league decided even that wasn’t dramatic enough. Penalty kicks were dull and lopsided, tilted too far in the shooter’s favour. Why not settle a football match with something that looked like football?

NASL’s solution was to give each shooter the ball 35 yards from goal, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and allow him five seconds to get a shot off. Shooter and goalkeeper would both take off running toward the top of the box, with the shooter hoping to close the distance before a shot at the buzzer. “It made it seem like it was a breakaway — and the five seconds would sort of simulate the defensive pressure you’d feel on that breakaway,” former NASL assistant commissioner Ted Howard told The Athletic. “Truly, it felt like a moment in an actual game.”

This, this, this.  Like a moment in an actual game.  Penalty kicks are not soccer.  Nowhere else in the game does a shooter have time to simply size up the goal.  There’s no reward for vision, avoiding pressure, technical skill beyond just the kick, etc.  It’s absurd. 

In seemingly making the case for penalty kicks, Adam Serwer again gives the game away at just how dumb this is:

Scoring penalties is a distinct skill from the rest of the sport, more of a mental test than an athletic one. Great players are not necessarily great penalty takers. There are middle-aged retired footballers who can kick a penalty better than 20-year-olds who would break their ankles dribbling past them on the pitch. Scoring penalties is about having ice in your veins, about not cracking under the pressure. 

I don’t care if Messi has ice in his veins or not.  I love watching him because that assist he had today was a feat of vision and technical perfection that was a delight to watch.  That’s why we watch soccer. That’s what should be rewarded. 

This NASL shootout may not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.  It is absolutely, recognizably soccer. (Just like I don’t have a problem with NHL shootouts as 1v1 breakaways against the goalie are a regular part of hockey).  I like the idea of even adding a defender– now that’s soccer!  Maybe that would be too hard.  But give me soccer, not a solitary player standing at a spot aiming a kick under no opposition or time pressure.

In a spiel this week, Pesca suggested some modified version of college football overtime where teams get a chance to score in small-sided games– maybe 3 on 2?  I would love something like that.  Again, it’s soccer!!

Yeah, I’ll keep watching, but it’s so frustrating because this sport could be so much better.  


Primary calendar

Honestly, if there’s one thing I’ve been railing about for as long as I’ve been teaching it’s the insanity of the electoral college. But, if there’s two things, it’s the absurdity of the primary calendar we use for presidential nominees, especially the privileged positions of New Hampshire and Iowa.  No, winning those states is not the end all and be all of winning the nomination, but given their demographics and their role in winning general elections, theses states are quite simply massively over-represented in the process by virtue of all the candidate and media attention that comes with being first.  

It seems that with Iowa’s declining role as a swing state, the fiasco of the most recent caucuses, and, the increasingly incontrovertible folly of having the first two states for Democrats being overwhelming white, the time is, apparently, finally right to improve things.  

Nice piece from Jon Cohn on the new system and what it could mean:

Pushing Iowa back in the schedule and diminishing New Hampshire’s role may disappoint people with romantic notions of those contests and the role retail politicking played in them. And that romance has at least some basis in reality.

To win in Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate really did have to prove themselves in small, one-on-one settings that put their ideas, communication skills and leadership abilities under close scrutiny. Over the years, either Iowa or New Hampshire proved critical in elevating some eventual winners who were skilled at this sort of campaigning, whether it was Iowans embracing Jimmy Carter in 1976 or New Hampshire voters making Bill Clinton the “comeback kid” in 1992.

But sometimes, candidates won in Iowa and New Hampshire simply because they had good television advertisements or gaffe-prone opponents or were from neighboring states. And thanks to the changing nature of campaigns in the information age, it’s not even clear that retail politics were going to remain as central in Iowa and New Hampshire, regardless of when in the cycle they held their contests.

“With everything being all over the internet, all the time, the notion that you’re gonna win this by going into rural areas or small towns and winning that way, by winning in small settings, I just don’t think politics is ever going to work that way again,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told HuffPost.

Rosenberg, who is a president of the New Democrat Network think tank and the New Policy Institute, is especially familiar with the primary calendar and efforts to change it because he was a driving force behind the most recent change: an agreement, in advance of the 2008 election, to move both Nevada and South Carolina up in the process, right behind Iowa and New Hampshire.

The goal of that change, as with this new one, was to expose presidential candidates to a more representative electorate — via Nevada, with its relatively large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with its large proportion of Black voters. The change likely had a big effect.

Barack Obama’s win in South Carolina allowed him to hold off Hillary Clinton, who had just won in New Hampshire. If a different state had come next, Obama might not have won ― and might never have gotten the nomination.

So how could this new schedule change the process? There’s no way to be sure, obviously. But here are three possibilities, based on conversations with some veteran officials and operatives ― and one very important restaurateur…

1. A more diverse — but not necessarily more progressive — electorate…

2. More investment in swing states.

Campaigns inevitably give more attention to states that go early in the process. They spend more time and money enlisting volunteers, compiling voter lists and making connections with local constituencies ― in ways that can pay off in the general election.

If the calendar didn’t change, Democrats would be continuing to make that kind of investment into Iowa and New Hampshire ― two states that don’t have many electoral votes and that, in the case of Iowa, are pretty difficult for Democrats to win.

With the new schedule, assuming it goes through, much of the investment will go to Georgia, Nevada and Michigan. Those three states have more electoral votes and are very much up for grabs.

“The early states get massive investment,” Dan Pfeiffer, who was part of Obama’s 2008 campaign and then his administration, told HuffPost. “And when that investment happens in states that are not competitive in the general, the value of that investment goes away the day after the contest.”…


And a nice piece from Bernie’s 2020 campaign manager about how this makes a lot of sense, but not putting South Carolina first. 

But there’s another reason moving on from Iowa is the correct decision, and it dovetails with the second major, correct change Mr. Biden has proposed. The calendar makes the brilliant and important reform of elevating general election battleground states.

Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and then Michigan would all hold early February elections to help narrow and winnow the Democratic field. All four of these states have the distinction of being among the 10 closest states in the 2020 presidential election.

Why does it matter that general election battlegrounds are placed so early in the process? This is a Democratic team effort to invest in voter outreach, voter contact and voter enthusiasm at a much earlier stage, for a longer period, with more resources. The icing on the cake just happens to be that those battleground primary voters also get to select the nominee they think could best win their critical state in November.

The ultimate goal of this process is to win; the Biden reform proposal honors that by moving these four key states, from different regions of the country with their collectively diverse electorates, to the front of the line. And if that’s all it did, we could wrap up this essay here and declare victory.

But the Biden nomination calendar contains a fundamental, dooming flaw: the replacement of Iowa with South Carolina as the first state. The change would be comical if it weren’t tragic.

We all know why South Carolina got the nod. President Biden, Representative Jim Clyburn and many of his top supporters were buoyed by their campaign’s comeback in February 2020 when the state delivered Mr. Biden his first victory of the season — and a big one at that. The media attention from that victory, and the consolidation of the Democratic field that it yielded, helped catapult him to winning a majority of the following Super Tuesday states. And when Covid spread through the nation shortly after, the rest of the primary contests were effectively quarantined, and Mr. Biden iced his victory. None of that story is a reason to put South Carolina first, however.

South Carolina is not a battleground state:

Not a bad take.  And I think he’s basically right.  But this is such a big improvement over the existing system that I will happily take it.  

Our AI future

The amazing, world-changing ChatGPT from OpenAI (the same people who brought me my AI image obsession) is one of those cases where I’ve been so obsessed with something new I’ve not been able to actually stop and take the time to put some thoughts on it into the blog.  

First, if you’ve not experimented with it, yet, you must.  It is truly mind-blowing what this can do.  From generating solid college exam answers to college syllabi to fantastical scenes of dialog to more-than-passable lyrics and poetry.  Right now I’d assess the ChatGPT as about a B- NC State student with the ability to produce occassional A- work. That’s astounding, and it is only going to get better at it.  Here’s some of my favorite examples of both the creativity and academic competence:


Amazing!  Yes, I suppose it’s possible this could soon truly outsmart us and open up a Pandora’s box of problems.  But, as you surely know, I’m an eternal optimist, especially when it comes to technology.  

One of my favorite new twitter follows the past years is Penn Business professor Ethan Mollick, who is just full of great, thought-provoking content.  I totally loved his take on how this could transform being a professor (mostly) for the good:

Rather than automating jobs that are repetitive & dangerous, there is now the prospect that the first jobs that are disrupted by AI will be more analytic; creative; and involve more writing and communication.

To demonstrate why I think this is the case, I wanted to see how much of my work an AI could do right now. And I think the results will surprise you. While not nearly as good as a human professor at any task (please note, school administrators), and with some clear weaknesses, it can do a shocking amount right now. But, rather than be scared of AI, we should think about how these systems provide us an opportunity to help extend our own capabilities. Think of it like having an intern, but one who just happens to work instanteously, can write both code and solid descriptive writing, and has a large chunk of the world’s knowledge in their brain. Maybe that isn’t the most helpful analogy, so let’s get into the details…

[Lots of cool examples of enhancements for research and teaching follow]

If you didn’t see at least one example that amazed you, I would be surprised. This sudden advances in AI are stunning, and will impact writing and analytical work in a way that most of us never expected.

Now, obviously, there are many things academics do beyond those covered here, and it is not really possible to automate my job (right? right?), but all of these capabilities appeared in the last week, and the complexity of these systems are growing by an order of magnitude a year. So while I don’t think AI will replace academics, I do think we need to start to learn to use these systems to help us in our (often very complicated and busy) jobs, and, even more importantly, think about what this means for our students and alumni as we consider AI’s growth in the months and years ahead.

Am I totally going to have to rethink how online and take-home exams work? Yes!!  But, for at least the time being I’m pretty confident I can design questions that will require an actual human to get a B or above (honestly, I suspect even with specifically-designed questions, the AI could still pull off a C).  And, of course, is is possible that the AI is writing solid B 8-10 page essays within a year or two (or less!)?  Absolutely.  But, for now, this is most notably, just the most amazing tool.  I’ve seen some “people said MOOC’s would change everything and look what happened with that” (nothing) takes.  But, this is honestly so much more revolutionary.

I love how Mollick started his next substack on this:

I think the world is divided into two types of people: those obsessed with what creative AI means for their work & future and those who haven’t really tried creative AI yet. To be clear, a lot of people in the second category have technically tried AI systems and thought they were amusing, but not useful. It is easy to be decieved, because we naturally tend try out AI in a way that highlights their weaknesses, not their strengths.

My goal in this post is to give you four experiments you can do, in less than 10 minutes each, with the free ChatGPT, in order to understand why you should care about it.

And, yes, you should read the rest and try similar examples yourself.  I did, and it really is amazing what this can do. Among other things, not only did I have it write the answers to exam questions, I had it help me come up with some good exam questions (of course, I already do pride myself on that ability).  

Noted techno-optimist Noah Smith also, of course, has a very positive take:

You don’t need a fancy mathematical model, however, to understand the basic principle of comparative advantage. Imagine a venture capitalist (let’s call him “Marc”) who is an almost inhumanly fast typist. He’ll still hire a secretary to draft letters for him, though, because even if that secretary is a slower typist than him, Marc can generate more value using his time to do something other than drafting letters. So he ends up paying someone else to do something that he’s actually better at

Now think about this in the context of AI. Some people think that the reason previous waves of innovation didn’t make humans obsolete was that there were some things humans still did better than machines – e.g. writing. The fear is that AI is different, because the holy grail of AI research is something called “general intelligence” – a machine mind that performs all tasks as well as, or better than, the best humans. But as we saw with the example of Marc and the secretary, just because you can do everything better doesn’t mean you end up doing everything! Applying the idea of comparative advantage at the level of tasks instead of jobs, we can see that there will always be something for humans to do, even if AI would do those things better. Just as Marc has a limited number of hours in the day, AI resources are limited too – as roon likes to say, every time you use any of the most advanced AI applications, you’re “lighting a pile of GPUs on fire”. Those resource constraints explain why humans who want jobs will find jobs; AI businesses will just keep expanding and gobbling up more physical resources until human workers themselves, and the work they do to complement AI, become the scarce resource.

The principle of comparative advantage says that whether the jobs of the future pay better or worse than the jobs of today depends to some degree on whether AI’s skill set is very similar to humans, or complementary and different. If AI simply does things differently than humans do, then the complementarity will make humans more valuable and will raise wages. 

And although we can’t speak to the AI of the future, we believe that the current wave of generative AI does things very differently from humans. AI art tends to differ from human-made art in subtle ways – its minor details are often off in a compounding uncanny valley fashion that the net result can end up looking horrifying. Anyone who’s ridden in a Tesla knows that an AI backs into a parallel parking space differently than a human would. And for all the hype regarding large language models passing various forms of the Turing Test, it’s clear that their skillset is not exactly the same as a human’s.

Because of these differences, we think that the work that generative AI does will basically be “autocomplete for everything”. 

Anyway, when I come across the negative takes, I’ll be sure to share them in quick hits.  But for now, I feel like this is truly world-changing in ways that we can only begin to appreciate and speculate upon.  And, sure, maybe, this is really just MOOC’s and doesn’t change anything fundamentally, but, honestly, I’ll be shocked if we aren’t actually living differently in meaningful ways within not that many years due to this technology.  

Redefining a “moderate” Republican

Eric Levitz had a great piece last week that I think makes a really important point.  In 2022 America, all it takes to be a “moderate” Republican is not to be completely in thrall to Donald Trump.  That’s a low bar for “moderate”!  You can be completely anti-abortion, want massive tax cuts for rich people, cuts to government-subsidized health care, but so long as you aren’t all in on the authoritarian wing of the party, you get to be “moderate.”  Levitz:

Since 2016, the Democratic coalition has grown increasingly dependent on the support of college-educated white voters who were once reliably Republican. The party’s resilient strength with that demographic powered the 2018 “blue wave” and enabled it to survive a significant erosion in support among nonwhite voters in general — and Hispanic voters in particular — in 2020. Democrats didn’t lose much additional ground with the latter constituencies in 2022. But at the national level, they didn’t regain much support with Hispanic voters either.

Thus, the party can’t comfortably forfeit many votes from white middle-class suburbanites who favored the GOP before Trump conquered it. And the gubernatorial elections in Ohio and Georgia suggest that Republicans might be able to claw back some such swing voters without moderating much ideologically.

Consider Brian Kemp. Georgia’s recently reelected governor is profoundly right wing by any reasonable metric. In 2019, Kemp enacted one of the nation’s most draconian abortion bans, restricting legal abortion to the period before a fetus has a detectable heartbeat, which generally occurs within six weeks of pregnancy. He has also doggedly refused to accept federal funds for expanding Medicaid in his state, despite the fact that doing so would help keep many financially embattled rural hospitals — which serve the GOP’s base — afloat. In other words, on multiple highly salient issues, Kemp has flouted both public opinion and sympathetic interest groups in his state in favor of upholding conservative orthodoxy.

And yet, on November 8, Georgia voters backed Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams by 7.5 points, even as they gave Democrat Raphael Warnock a plurality in his race against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Ticket splitters — which is to say, voters who supported both Warnock and Kemp — were concentrated in the vicinity of Atlanta and its suburbs. Which suggests that many college-educated white voters who backed Biden in 2020 and a Democratic Senate candidate in 2022 nevertheless cast a ballot for a radically right-wing Republican governor.

One can tell a similar story about Mike DeWine in Ohio. The Buckeye State’s governor is not quite as reliably reactionary as Kemp. But he signed into law an abortion ban even more aggressive than Georgia’s, prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy after six weeks even in cases of rape and incest (Georgia’s law provides exceptions in those cases, provided that victims filed a police report). He also opposes same-sex marriage and backs tax cuts for the rich. And yet, DeWine won reelection by more than 25 points…

DeWine and Kemp have several things in common. But one of the most conspicuous is that both stumbled into public conflicts with Donald Trump…

In 2022, Republican candidates with strong ties to Donald Trump — and, more specifically, his attempts at election subversion — tended to dramatically underperform other GOP candidates. Given that pattern, it seems plausible that Kemp and DeWine owed some of their success to the aura of “moderation” they secured merely by being (1) objects of Trump’s ire, and (2) opponents of coups.

Which is a concerning precedent for 2024. If all GOP candidates must do to appear “moderate” in the eyes of suburban swing voters is to get into a high-profile fight with Donald Trump, then any Republican who manages to defeat Trump in the 2024 primary would look moderate to that constituency by default.

We’ll see how all this continues to play out, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.  And, honestly, just about perfect for a political scientist to do a quick little conjoint experiment upon.  Many years ago, I had an idea that Republicans who were pro-choice (back when this was still a thing) got a huge “moderate” boost, regardless of their opinions on all other issues.  I even tried some basic research on this, but this was well before the conjoint methodology that would work so well and the research never went anywhere.  

Presumably, there’s only so long being a non-Trump Republican can make one a “moderate” but, for now, it does seem like maybe it is a thing.


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