Quick hits (part II)

1) Honestly surprised I haven’t read more about Metformin and Covid.  This was from around Christmas:

There are no proven therapies that prevent or treat Long COVID. Christmas Eve, however, brought the world a promising gift. On December 24, follow-up results from the COVID-OUT trial were released, which offer the tantalizing possibility that a well-known diabetes drug could prevent the development Long COVID.

The COVID-OUT study was a randomized placebo-controlled trial that tested whether existing therapies could be repurposed as an early treatment for COVID. Three drugs were tested: metformin (a diabetes drug), ivermectin (an anti-parasitic I have previously written about), and fluvoxamine (an anti-depressant). The study enrolled overweight subjects age 30-85, with a median age of 45. The primary goal of the study was to see if any of these drugs could prevent the development of severe COVID when taken early in the course of infection. Previously published results have shown that not to be the case for any of them, although metformin might have benefit in preventing the worst outcomes.

A secondary outcome of the trial was whether patients received a formal diagnosis of Long COVID. Participants were followed for up to 10 months after their infection and asked whether their doctor had given them such a diagnosis. This endpoint was added after the start of the trial but pre-specified before results were available.

Participants who received two weeks of metformin at the start of their infection were about half as likely to later receive a diagnosis of Long COVID, compared to those who had received a placebo. The confidence interval spanned a 12% to 62% reduction in risk. Neither ivermectin nor fluvoxamine offered a benefit.

2) This was good from Yglesias, “The most important 2016 “misinformation” came from the regular news media”

Recently published research by Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua Tucker looked at the influence of Russian social media disinformation operations on the 2016 race and concluded that the impact was minimal, or potentially non-existent. It’s a good paper.

In terms of the discourse, I don’t think anyone credible is still seriously arguing that the pro-Trump Russian meme accounts were a decisive factor in the election, though the relevance of those accounts is sometimes downplayed by those on the right who want to blind themselves to the Russian government’s role in the election. But I think this is a good opportunity to step back and look at the explosion of interest in “misinformation” in the wake of the 2016 election specifically because I think an enormous share of this interest is a kind of displaced guilt.

After all, it wasn’t the GRU that made The New York Times run this front page on the weekend before Election Day.

Reasonable people can, to an extent, disagree about the appropriateness of the coverage of the Clinton email story in The New York Times and on network broadcast news during the 2016 campaign. But what I don’t think can be seriously doubted is that this coverage was:

  • High-profile and seen by more people than any information operation

  • Not “fake news” in the original sense of being willfully made up

  • Damaging to Clinton’s election prospects

But the fact remains that if you want to place blame for Trump’s narrow victory over Clinton on someone or something in the information environment, it’s not the Russians or Facebook or “misinformation” you should be looking to — it’s the most influential mainstream news outlets in America.

2016 campaign coverage was dominated by emails


That one splash from the Times has become emblematic of the obsessive coverage of the Clinton emails story, but the issue was much broader than that. The mainstream American press treated the 2016 campaign as one in which the most important issue was whether or not Hillary Clinton had accidentally mishandled classified information as a result of breaking State Department policy to use her own email server for work.

Consider broadcast television news. The Tyndall Report concluded that there were roughly 32 minutes of coverage of the candidates’ policy positions on network news during the 2016 cycle in contrast to 100 minutes on the emails story. David Rothschild and Duncan Watts looked at the Times’ front page and found, similarly, that “in just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”

I would also note that beyond the emails, there was an inordinately negative inflection to the coverage of Clinton.

The 2016 cycle, for example, saw a lot of scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation and its activities. I am, as I hope people know at this point, pretty interested in the subject of philanthropy. So I’d wondered for years whether the Clinton Foundation was any good. My suspicion was always that a closer look would show that the “real scandal” of the Clinton Foundation was that it spent tons of money on programs that sound nice but don’t do any good. But Dylan Matthews, who had similar suspicions, looked at it, and it turned out that the Clinton Foundation was pretty good! …

Another thing you could say about the coverage (but that I never hear) is that the coverage was really good and that the heavy coverage of the email scandal helped people really understand the stakes in the election. You might think that whatever impact Trump’s presidency had on taxes or abortion rights or whatever else, voters who were concerned about scrupulous adherence to federal document retention and IT policies got their chance to elect a champion.

Except of course that’s absurd. And that’s what I think is so fundamentally damning about the 2016 coverage — not that I necessarily “blame” it for anything, but that it was simply a media failure on its own terms. We’re all of us responsible for our decisions about what to cover, and the decisions made painted a misleading portrait of the race in a way that helped Trump win.

3) I’m so frustrated with America’s self-defeating immigration policy.  Planet Money:

Sergey Brin, co-founder Google; Satya Nadella, head of Microsoft; Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress who, quite incredibly, was also a pioneering inventor behind Wi-Fi and bluetooth; Elon Musk; Chien-Shiung Wu, who helped America build the first atom bomb; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; James Naismith, the inventor of basketball; Nikola Tesla, one of the most important minds behind the creation of electricity and radio. 

What do all these innovators have in common? They were all immigrants to the United States. 

Many studies over the years have suggested that immigrants are vital to our nation’s technological and economic progress. Today, around a quarter of all workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are immigrants.

But while there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that immigrants play an important role in American innovation, a group of economists — Shai Bernstein, Rebecca Diamond, Abhisit Jiranaphawiboon, Timothy McQuade, and Beatriz Pousada — wanted to find a more precise estimate of how much immigrants contribute.

In a fascinating new working paper, the economists link patent records to more than 230 million Social Security numbers. With this incredible dataset, they are able to suss out who among patent-holders are immigrants (by cross-referencing their year of birth and the year they were assigned their Social Security number). 

The economists find that, between 1990 and 2016, 16 percent of all US inventors were immigrants. More than that, they find that the “average immigrant is substantially more productive than the average US-born inventor.” Immigrant inventors produced almost a quarter of all patents during this period. These patents were disproportionately likely to be cited (a sign that they were valuable to their fields) and seem to have more financial value than the typical native-born patent. The economists also find evidence suggesting that immigrant inventors help native-born inventors become more productive. All in all, the economists estimate that immigrants are responsible for roughly 36% of innovation in America. 

As for why immigrant inventors tend to be so productive and innovative, the economists entertain various explanations. Immigrant innovators may be motivated to come — and are able to come — to the United States because there’s something special about their character, intelligence, or motivation. Or maybe it’s because they live, work, and think differently when they come here. The economists find these immigrants tend to move to the most productive areas of the country. They tend to have a greater number of collaborators when they work here. And, as the economists write, they also “appear to facilitate the importation of foreign knowledge into the United States, with immigrant inventors relying more heavily on foreign technologies and collaborating more with foreign inventors.” 

Immigrants, they suggest, help create a melting pot of knowledge and ideas, which has clear benefits when it comes to innovation.

4) Sooo much this, from Eric Levitz, “Conservatives Clarify That They’re Pro-Boss, Not Pro-Market”

Progressives have long held that the right’s economic theories are just elaborate rationalizations for funneling money to the elite. The argument goes like this: In any capitalist society, business owners and senior managers will inevitably have economic interests that run contrary to those of ordinary workers. The less firms have to spend on wages for common laborers, the more they can increase compensation for executives and dividends for investors. Similarly, the less income governments progressively redistribute, the higher the wealthy’s posttax earnings.

Economic elites therefore have a strong incentive to fund political movements that minimize the bargaining power of workers and the fiscal ambitions of governments. And given their outsize share of national income, the rich also have copious financial means to bankroll such political activities.

In a democracy, however, it is untenable for a political movement committed to benefiting the few at the expense of the many to identify as such. Rather, such a movement would need to manufacture theories for why policies that appear to serve the interests of a tiny elite actually serve those of society as a whole.

But these ideas would all just be means to an end. The movement’s ultimate commitment wouldn’t be to maximizing innovation, open competition, or economic liberty but rather to advancing the invidious interests of elite business owners and bosses. Were the movement ever forced to choose between upholding free-market ideals and safeguarding class domination, it would abruptly dispense with the former. The inequality would be the point.

As an account of American conservatism, I think this narrative is a tad unfair (there are some genuine insights in right-wing economic theory and some libertarian intellectuals who genuinely oppose elite rent seeking). But in the wake of the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed ban on noncompete agreements, conservatives have been making a compelling case for the vulgar Marxist point of view.

5) You know I can’t wait for more synthetic meat.  Interesting take from Virginia Postrel in her substack, after writing a WSJ piece:

The reaction to my WSJ article on cultivated meat has been fascinating and disturbing. Some people in the business have lectured me not to use the terms synthetic, as in “synthetic biology,” or lab-grown, lest I scare off customers. (Technically, meat is only lab-grown in the research stage, since scaling up requires something more like a brewery.) They are, in other words, squeamish about acknowledging the artifice involved in their own products—exactly what interests me!

Then there’s the knee-jerk right-wing reaction, represented by the comments on the WSJ site. When the WSJ accepted my article but said they wanted me to write the shopping feature first, I considered sending the synbio essay to another paper. But rereading the piece, which I’d written with the WSJ in mind, I decided it it was implicitly tilted right and would need revising to get into a left-of-center outlet. Since I didn’t have much time for revisions, I left the piece at the Journal.

The core of the article consists of these paragraphs:

A century ago, “a chicken in every pot” was an ambitious political slogan. It has long since become an everyday reality. Americans will consume nearly 100 pounds of chicken per capita this year, according to the National Chicken Council, up from around 67 pounds in 1992, when chicken first surpassed beef.

Behind chicken abundance is the efficient production that critics call factory farming. Bred for maximum meat in minimum time, confined to crowded sheds, and subjected to assembly line slaughter and disassembly, chickens destined for mass consumption endure short, unhappy lives. Cheap chicken also exacts a human toll. Although automation is improving conditions, chicken processing may be the country’s worst job: smelly, noisy, bloody, cold and injury-prone from slippery floors and repetitive motions. Plus the pay is low.

Most Americans aren’t about to give up chicken, but we’d rather not dwell on where it comes from. In the not-too-distant future, however, the trade-off between conscience—or ick factors—and appetite may no longer be relevant. Instead of slaughtering animals, we’ll get our meat from cells grown in brewery-like vats, with no blood and guts….

Synbio executives talk like animal lovers and environmental activists. But synbio is still a form of engineering, a science of the artificial. As such, its ethical appeal represents a significant cultural shift. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, businesses large and small have emerged from the conviction that “natural” foods, fibers, cosmetics, and other products are better for people and the planet. It’s an attitude that harks back to the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics: The natural is safe and pure, authentic and virtuous. The artificial is tainted and deceptive, a dangerous fake. Gory details aside, the “factory” in factory farming makes it sound inherently bad.

Synthetic biology upends those assumptions, raising environmental and ethical standards by making them easier and more enjoyable to achieve. It could help reverse what the writer Brink Lindsey has dubbed “the anti-Promethean backlash” that began in the late 1960s, defined as “the broad-based cultural turn away from those forms of technological progress that extend and amplify human mastery over the physical world.” Synthetic biologists are manipulating atoms, not merely bits.

Anti-Promethean attitudes are still culturally potent, of course, with their own intellectual ecosystem of publications and advocacy groups. “Cell-cultured meats are imitation foods synthesized from animal cells, not meat or poultry that consumers know,” pronounces Jaydee Hanson, the policy director for the Center for Food Safety. The activist group is lobbying the U.S. government to require that lab-grown meat carry off-putting labels like “synthetic protein product made from beef cells.” A neutral term like “cultivated meat” should satisfy most people, however; or the industry could push for the tendentious “cruelty-free” favored by cosmetics makers.

This is a story about market-driven progress! Abundance is good!! The anti-Promethean backlash is bad! “Cruelty-free” is tendentious and the Center for Food Safety is the bad guy. Those are all right-of-center tells.

Or they used to be. I was naively stuck in the 20th century…

Now, everything is personal and I, who write as a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress, am read as a woke propagandist.

6) Some stranger was listening in on me explaining this to a friend in a restaurant today, and felt the need to come across the restaurant and share his many populist right-wing viewpoints.  Anyway, I do love this idea on the debt ceiling as explained by Yglesias:

The Treasury Department could basically flip the terms of the auction. Instead of saying “We want to sell a $100 perpetual bond, how much interest will you demand to give us the money?” they could say “I have this nice juicy $100 bond for sale that pays a 27% interest rate, how much are you willing to pay for it?”

If the current yield on a hypothetical perpetual bond is 3.79%, then we would expect our new bond to sell for a market price that causes convergence with that yield. So we do a little algebra:

0.0379 = ($100 * 0.27) / Market Price
Market Price * .0379 = $27
Market Price = $712

And it turns out the $100 bond sale raises $712 for the government by the magic of fixing the interest rate before the auction rather than at the auction.

The first thing this would do is let the Treasury finance the ongoing operations of the government while dramatically slowing the pace at which the face value of the outstanding debt accumulates. I picked numbers at random, but there’s no reason it has to be a $100 bond with a 27% interest rate. Treasury could just as easily sell a $1 bond with a 2,700% interest rate and raise the $712 that way. This is the magic of the trick. Just as the government can sell high face-value bonds at low interest rates to raise a large sum of money, they can also sell tiny face-value bonds at high interest rates to raise the exact same sum of money.

In addition to the 10-year bond that’s often discussed in policy terms, the government sells a lot of short-term debt — 1-month, 2-month, 3-month, 4-month, and 6-month bonds — so there are always some fresh bonds coming due. By swapping out old bonds with high face values and low interest rates for equivalent-yielding bonds with low face values and high interest rates, the Treasury can not only slow the pace at which the face value of debt accumulates, it can start to reduce the face value of that debt. This should not only get around the debt ceiling issue — it should make it entirely irrelevant over time.

Does this really work?

From the standpoint of the smooth functioning of financial markets, this would not be an ideal situation. Republicans are committed to the debt ceiling fight precisely because they, for a mix of reasons, actively want a huge destructive blowup. So they’re not going to respond to this by just saying “well played Secretary Yellen, you’ve foiled us this time.”

They’re going to scream and yell and posture and complain and sue and possibly do other things.

In practice, confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States will be somewhat diminished if the Treasury resorts to this tactic, and federal borrowing costs will rise.

Yes, far from ideal.  Hell of a lot better than a Republican-caused default.

7) This was really good, “Why the January 6th Mob Wasn’t Stopped in Time: Transcripts reveal where the bottlenecks were.”

8) As was this, “11 Details You May Have Missed in the January 6 Report”

9) Brett Stephens and David Brooks with an interesting discussion of how the Republican Party went wrong and why they had to leave it.  What’s fascinating, though, is in this whole discussion, the issue of race does not come up at all, which strikes me as a very noteworthy omission. 

10) The definitive piece on the scandal of Hamline University firing a professor for showing an image of Muhammad in Art History class.  Gift link so just read it. 

11) The anonymous tweeter/substacker/History professor who guys by HistoryBoomer has a really nice takedown of the Hamline President’s awful response, which is honestly just embarrassing.  

12) Increasingly, it seems to be that psychedelics are near-miracle cures for a number of conditions. No reason eating disorders shouldn’t fit in here. “Could Mushrooms Be the Drug to Finally Cure Eating Disorders? For young patients, lasting treatment can feel elusive. Psychedelics could change that.”

The scientific journal Eating and Weight Disorders — Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity published the first quantitative analysis of the psychological effects of psychedelics in eating-disorder sufferers in September 2020. The data “demonstrated overwhelming evidence for improvements in depression and well-being scores following the psychedelic experience,” researchers wrote.

There is no single cause of eating disorders, and illness profiles vary widely, but certain characteristics are common and help explain the diseases’ resistance to treatment. Eating disorders have significant genetic underpinnings, which intertwine with factors like life experiences, personality traits, and sociocultural influences. Clinical psychologist Dr. Adele Lafrance, who is researching the effects of psychedelics in eating-disorder sufferers, notes that many patients have difficulties expressing and modulating emotions; symptoms like restrictive dieting engender a sense of control that helps them regulate emotional stress, which “can lead to ruminative patterns around weight, body image, and calorie counts,” she explains. “In some ways, the eating disorder is an attempt at self-medication,” adds UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals pediatrician and psychiatrist Dr. Amanda Downey. By tampering with what the brain perceives as “rewards,” eating disorders rewire behaviors that should be aversive as beneficial actions.

So full recovery, researchers postulate, could require not just changing how patients eat or exercise but how they think.

Psychedelic drugs are known to quiet activity in the brain’s default mode network, a group of interconnected structures involved in various cognitive processing related to introspection and self-reflection. In eating-disorder patients, this network often upholds a negative self-image and encourages repeating maladaptive behaviors around eating, exercising, and weight monitoring. “The disorder hijacks neuronal systems in a pathologic way,” Kaplan explains. “No drug that we have now can break those connections. Psychedelics seem to be able to facilitate that.”

A psychedelic experience that disengages neuronal connections dictating patterns of thought can be a powerful respite for individuals who are, say, stuck in a pattern of obsessing over the appearance of their bodies. Moreover, a trip often heightens a sense of mind-body connection and thus helps patients get back in touch with physiological cues like hunger signals, explains Ben Greenberg, a clinical psychologist. But the impact of mushrooms doesn’t end during the trip itself.It’s in the weeks and months that follow when users examine what happened during the psychedelic experience that lasting effects can take hold. Meg Spriggs, a research scientist at the Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, calls this the post-acute phase: “You have this window of opportunity, after the psychedelic, where the brain is kind of more malleable and more plastic,” and perhaps more able to generate new neuronal connections and thinking patterns.

Still, the research is nascent. A team at UCSF is currently getting regulatory approvals for a new study that could be the first to research the impact of psychedelics on young adults with anorexia nervosa.

13) More electric vehicles is a good thing.  But there’s a real downside as more of them are bigger/heavier SUV’s and trucks:

Converting the transportation system from fossil fuels to electricity is essential to addressing climate change. But automakers’ focus on large, battery-powered SUVs and trucks reinforces a destructive American desire to drive something bigger, faster, and heavier than everyone else.

In many ways, EVs reflect long-standing weaknesses in the design and regulation of American automobiles. For decades, the car industry has exploited a loophole in federal fuel-economy rules to replace sedans with more profitable SUVs and trucks, which now account for four in five new cars sold in the United States.

Meanwhile, SUVs and trucks have themselves grown more massive; their weight increased by 7 percent and 32 percent, respectively, from 1990 to 2021. The 2023 Ford F-150 with a conventional engine, for instance, is up to 7 inches taller and 800 pounds heavier than its 1991 counterpart. Each purchase of a big truck or SUV pushes other people to buy one, too, in order to avoid being at a disadvantage in a crash or when trying to see over other cars on the highway.

This shift toward ever-larger trucks and SUVs has endangered everyone not inside of one, especially those unprotected by tons of metal. A recent study linked the growing popularity of SUVs in the United States to the surging number of pedestrian deaths, which reached a 40-year high in 2021. A particular problem is that the height of these vehicles expands their blind spots. In a segment this summer, a Washington, D.C., television news channel sat nine children in a line in front of an SUV; the driver could see none of them, because nothing within 16 feet of the front of the vehicle was visible to her.

Few car shoppers seem to care. For decades, Americans have shown little inclination to consider how their vehicle affects the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, or other motorists. (The federal government seems similarly uninterested; the national crash-test-ratings program evaluates only the risk to a car’s occupants.)

As large as gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks are, their electrified versions are even heftier due to the addition of huge batteries. The forthcoming electric Chevrolet Silverado EV, for example, will weigh about 8,000 pounds3,000 more than the current gas-powered version. And there will be a lot of these behemoths: A recent study from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that carmakers are rapidly shifting their EV lineups away from sedans and toward SUVs and trucks, just as they did earlier with gas-powered cars.

14) Not great:

15) Mike Pesca did a really nice little segment on this the other day because 1) good news gets insufficient attention; 2) gradual, rather than sudden, news gets insufficient attention.  But isn’t this kind of a big deal? “US cancer death rate falls 33% since 1991, partly due to advances in treatment, early detection and less smoking, report says”

16) This was disturbing as hell (including disturbing images, but I’m about out of gift links), “Tranq Dope: Animal Sedative Mixed With Fentanyl Brings Fresh Horror to U.S. Drug Zones: A veterinary tranquilizer called xylazine is infiltrating street drugs, deepening addiction, baffling law enforcement and causing wounds so severe that some result in amputation.”

17) Sure, writing a decent college exam answer or creating a cool original is one thing, but, this sounds truly awesome, “A.I. Turns Its Artistry to Creating New Human Proteins: Inspired by digital art generators like DALL-E, biologists are building artificial intelligences that can fight cancer, flu and Covid.”

But when some scientists consider this technology, they see more than just a way of creating fake photos. They see a path to a new cancer treatment or a new flu vaccine or a new pill that helps you digest gluten.

Using many of the same techniques that underpin DALL-E and other art generators, these scientists are generating blueprints for new proteins — tiny biological mechanisms that can change the way of our bodies behave.

Our bodies naturally produce about 20,000 proteins, which handle everything from digesting food to moving oxygen through the bloodstream. Now, researchers are working to create proteins that are not found in nature, hoping to improve our ability to fight disease and do things that our bodies cannot on their own.

David Baker, the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, has been working to build artisanal proteins for more than 30 years. By 2017, he and his team had shown this was possible. But they did not anticipate how the rise of new A.I. technologies would suddenly accelerate this work, shrinking the time needed to generate new blueprints from years down to weeks.

“What we need are new proteins that can solve modern-day problems, like cancer and viral pandemics,” Dr. Baker said. “We can’t wait for evolution.” He added, “Now, we can design these proteins much faster, and with much higher success rates, and create much more sophisticated molecules that can help solve these problems.” …

“With DALL-E, you can ask for an image of a panda eating a shoot of bamboo,” said Namrata Anand, a former Stanford University researcher who is also an entrepreneur, building a company in this area of research. “Equivalently, protein engineers can ask for a protein that binds to another in a particular way — or some other design constraint — and the generative model can build it.”

The difference is that the human eye can instantly judge the fidelity of a DALL-E image. It cannot do the same with a protein structure. After artificial intelligence technologies produce these protein blueprints, scientists must still take them into a wet lab — where experiments can be done with real chemical compounds — and make sure they do what they are supposed to do.

For this reason, some experts say that the latest artificial intelligence technologies should be taken with a grain of salt. “Making a new structure is just a game,” said Frances Arnold, a Nobel Laureate who is a professor specializing in protein engineering at the California Institute of Technology. “What really matters is: What can that structure actually do?”

But for many researchers, these new techniques are not just accelerating the creation of new protein candidates for the wet lab. They provide a way of exploring new innovations that researchers could not previously explore on their own.

“What’s exciting isn’t just that they are creative and explore unexpected possibilities, but that they are creative while satisfying certain design objectives or constraints,” said Jue Wang, a researcher at the University of Washington. “This saves you from needing to check every possible protein in the universe.”

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