Quick hits (part I)

1) The total disrespect for science out of the Trump administration is so depressing.  USDA version (one of many there):

One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lewis Ziska, a 62-year-old plant physiologist who’s worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades, told POLITICO he was alarmed when department officials not only questioned the findings of the study — which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories — but also tried to minimize media coverage of the paper, which was published in the journal Science Advances last year.

“You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Ziska said in a wide-ranging interview. “That’s so sad. I can’t even begin to tell you how sad that is.”

2) So, apparently that walking around with a water bottle all day to hydrate may not be so great.   Some interesting research suggests hydrating is much more effective with meals.  Hooray for me and my 60 ounces of Diet Dr Pepper with pizza lunches:

“If you’re drinking water and then, within two hours, your urine output is really high and [your urine] is clear, that means the water is not staying in well,” says David Nieman, a professor of public health at Appalachian State University and director of the Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus. Nieman says plain water has a tendency to slip right through the human digestive system when not accompanied by food or nutrients. This is especially true when people drink large volumes of water on an empty stomach. “There’s no virtue to that kind of consumption,” he says…

“People who are drinking bottles and bottles of water in between meals and with no food, they’re probably just peeing most of that out,” Nieman says. Also, the popular idea that constant and heavy water consumption “flushes” the body of toxins or unwanted material is a half-truth. While urine does transport chemical byproducts and waste out of the body, drinking lots of water on an empty stomach doesn’t improve this cleansing process, he says.

3) This is cool. “Everything you thought you knew about gravity is wrong.”

Consider the assumptions underlying that common answer:

“Gravity is the force of attraction that makes things fall straight down.”

Well, yes — depending on what we mean by “force.” We can say gravitation is one of the four fundamental forces, but it’s such an outlier that the word “force” becomes nearly meaningless. The strong nuclear force (which keeps atomic nuclei intact) is about 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force (which creates the light spectrum), which in turn is up to 10,000 times stronger than the weak nuclear force (which facilitates the subatomic interactions responsible for radioactive decay). Three forces, all within six orders of magnitude of one another. Then comes gravitation. It’s about a million billion billion billion times weaker than the weak nuclear.

To put that discrepancy into perspective, you can try this experiment at home. Place a paper clip on a tabletop. There it remains, unmoving, anchored to its spot by its gravitational interaction with the entire planet beneath it. The Earth’s mass is 6,583,003,100,000,000,000,000 tons. A paper clip’s mass is 4/100 of an ounce. Now take a refrigerator magnet and wand it over the paper clip. Presto! You have counteracted the gravitational “force” of the entire Earth with a wave of your hand…

So: “Gravity is.”

Well, yes — depending on what we mean by “is.” We know what gravity does, in the sense that we can mathematically measure and predict its effects. We might anticipate what happens when two black holes collide or when we let go of a rock. But we don’t know how it does what it does. We know what its effects are, and we can give the name “gravity” to the cause of those effects, but we don’t know the cause of that cause.

Not that cosmologists particularly care. In science, knowing what you don’t know is a good start. In this case, it has led scientists to believe that finding a quantum solution to gravity is a key — perhaps the key — to understanding the universe on the most fundamental level. Until then, they will work with what they do know, no matter what every bone in their bodies tells them:

Gravity is not the force of attraction that makes things fall straight down.

4) I find it astounding and depressing that we still have headlines like this in 2019.  How clueless of a school administrator do you need to be to not get this.  “Georgia school faces backlash over display of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ black hairstyles.”

5) Don’t quite understand what the Fed does and feel like you should?  Just take 5 minutes with this from Planet Money.

6) Michelle Goldberg asks, “Why Not Cory Booker? He’s winning the debates and he’s great on paper. When will he catch on?”  I’m not about to put money on him, but Booker is good stuff and I think there’s still a non-trivial chance he’ll catch on.  I would be a very enthusiastic supporter.

7) Our criminal justice system is so disgustingly screwed up in systematically unfair ways.  This Radley Balko headline kind of says it all, “A young black football player was arrested after claiming ‘cocaine’ on his car was bird poop. It was bird poop.”

This is ridiculous. These field tests are notoriously unreliable. That hasn’t stopped police departments from using them, of course. And it also doesn’t mean we should just shrug it off when someone is falsely arrested, portrayed in the media as a drug user, and subjected to national ridicule because the police relied on tests known to have a high rate of false positives.

Even putting aside the reliability issue, I have questions.

  • Do the officers who pulled Werts over really believe that cocaine would remain on the hood of a car after that car was driven at 80 miles per hour? What manner of consuming cocaine would cause the cocaine to stick to the hood? I’m having a difficult time imagine any interaction with the drug that would result in portions of it being stuck to the hood of a car in a manner that could withstand wind at 80 miles per hour.
  • Given all of that, why would these deputies see a white substance on the hood, and immediately assume it was cocaine, rather than the dozen or so other more likely explanations? Have they ever mistaken bird poop for cocaine before? Why would they decide that this was a substance that needed to be tested at all?
  • Is it possible that they were influenced by — and I’m just spit-balling here — the fact that Werts was a young black guy driving a sports car?
  • 4) Even if it was cocaine, how did they plan to tie it to Werts? It would be one thing if that powder was inside the car. But were they prepared to hold the man liable for a substance on the outside of his car — and could have come from anywhere? …

Finally, if you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know that I’ve been keeping a list of substances that have resulted in false positives from these tests. Here’s the list: Sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaptortilla doughdeodorantbilliards chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mintsloose-leaf teaJolly RanchersvitaminsKrispy Kreme doughnut glazeairTylenoljust about every brand of chocolate at your local convenience storedry wallBC powdercotton candypowdered sugar, and now . . . bird poop.

8) Dahlia Lithwick with the best take of the photo of the Trump’s with the orphaned baby in El Paso:

Trump is really only good at one thing: being on television. Any event that can be engineered to look like a scene from The Apprentice can be fudged to his advantage. Stadium rallies, press availability from inside the Oval Office, even canned speeches read from a teleprompter can be salvaged; so long as he is essentially only producing a simulacrum of presidenting, he can shift along. But reality confounds him. Take him out from behind the oceans of fawning MAGA hats and put him next to a real survivor of sexual violence, and all the grinning and preening tricks fail him. Put him next to actual heads of state discussing actual international policy, and he sulks and mopes. Oh, he can pull off the photo-op; this is a man made of photo-ops. But time and time again, when he is called on to deal with real people—not glassy superfans but genuine human beings whom he allegedly serves as president—he fails to meet the occasion. The consummate reality-TV president is unerringly confounded by reality.

It’s not simply that an injured baby had to be returned to a hospital so that a grinning president could throw a Fonzie-style thumbs-up for the Twitter fans—that’s gross, yes, but it misses the point. The point is that this president, who understands only ratings and adulation and crowd size and “getting credit,” is seemingly incapable of subordinating all that to the moment. This was a moment in which grieving Americans wanted nothing more than for him to show up and be with them. The “catastrophe,” with all due respect to the unparalleled wisdom of Scaramucci, is not that he failed to show the requisite “compassion” or “empathy” for the cameras. Neither Donald Trump, nor his wife, nor his handlers and enablers, will ever understand that the real catastrophe isn’t how he appeared on television or Twitter. The real catastrophe is that Americans are dead and dying and their president is mass-producing a television show about his presidency, with their personal tragedy as a set choice.

Trump cannot function in reality. He lives in a hall of mirrors with his made-for-TV family, as the national security apparatus, the national intelligence apparatus, the foreign service, and foreign policy detonate all around him. And on the rare occasion on which he is called to step out from behind the glass panopticon that he has built, he fails, spectacularly, because that which really matters can’t be tweeted or reduced to a campaign video.

9) Another only-in-America health care story (at least among industrialized nations), “He lost his insurance and turned to a cheaper form of insulin. It was a fatal decision.”

10) Love what David Morse is doing with his students, “I teach my college students to lie. Honestly. Whoppers. It’s good for them.”

To begin, each student adopted the persona of a real-world politician, journalist or so-called expert, then used a Twitter-style platform to advance their arguments, criticize their opponents and introduce new “evidence.” With gusto, the Liars took advantage of the tools in the deceivers’ playbook, larding their lies with facts (e.g., government experiments on vulnerable populations), asking leading questions, posing worst-case scenarios. Meanwhile, the Truthers, beholden to the facts, could not provide an accurate answer to the liars’ demands as to the location of the missing prisoners. Instead they feebly attempted to shift the debate to the jobs that NASA creates, or criminal justice reform.

11) As much as I love Vox on policy, articles like this always end up with me rolling my eyes in dismay, “Orange Is the New Black celebrated diverse women. It also exploited their stories.”  One of the few shows that tells stories of diverse women to a mainstream audience, apparently, because the writing is sometimes cliche and mediocre, they are actually “exploiting” these women.

12) David Graham on presidential appointments:

Ideally the goals of serving the president and serving the people and the Constitution do not conflict, but the important moments are the ones when they do. Friday afternoon, President Trump announced the withdrawal of Representative John Ratcliffe, the Texas Republican he’d tapped to replace Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. That abortive nomination lays bare how acute this tension has become in the Trump administration.

13) I watch Jurassic Park movies pretty much every time they are on basic cable TV (I still love having cable and just flipping through the guide on weekends to see what’s on).  Anyway, was utterly fascinated to learn this about amber fossils:

That amber fossils exist at all is a bit of a miracle—a succession of miracles, even. First, a tree has to be oozing sap (in the Dominican Republic, amber forms from the sap of the Hymenaea tree). Healthy trees don’t dribble goo—trees do so only when they are stressed by damage, insects, fires, or disease. The resin acts like a translucent bandage, protecting the tree from further injury.

Then, an insect or other creature has to be trapped in the resin. The most common victims are flies (about half of biological inclusions are flies), but social insects such as ants, bees, and termites are also often found in stalactites of resin. The creature either drowns as the sticky goo fills its mouth and spiracles (bug lungs) or starves as it struggles to escape the resin. Most insects or arthropods fossilized in amber are less than seven-eighths of an inch long, since larger creatures can usually pull themselves out of the resin’s deadly grasp.

The resin must then land on wet, swampy soil and, eventually, end up in a freshwater current—if the resin lands on a dry forest floor, it will disintegrate into powder or crack into pieces. Once in freshwater, the resin must flow to an ocean or marsh, where it can be covered by sediment in an oxygenless environment. In this prehistoric kitchen, with millions of years of time plus pressure, the resin hardens into a polymer, in the same way plastic is made from petroleum. The resin has then become amber—nonreactive, stable, and a perfect preserver for the life caught inside.

When plate tectonics or erosion brings the amber to the surface, human hands can pick it up or chisel it out of the surrounding gray layers of lignite.

14) Good stuff in Wired on the difficulty of human spaceflight all the way to Mars.  Maybe a good pillow would help.

15) Misunderstanding of the nature of opioid addition are so common.  Great stuff from Sally Satel:

In tightening controls on doctors who prescribe pain relievers, state and federal agencies were focusing on the aspect of the problem most subject to regulatory intervention.

To some degree, the strategy worked. According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths declined by around 5 percent in 2018—a dip attributable almost exclusively to fewer deaths from oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other prescription opioids. (Fentanyl deaths are still climbing.) Now that the fever of the opioid crisis may be breaking, Americans can revisit some of the stories we have told ourselves about the role of prescription medication in the crisis.

Did policymakers and public health experts correctly assess who was at risk of becoming addicted to opioid medications? Were their views on the addictive potential of such drugs realistic? Did they anticipate the consequences of policies devised to constrain doctors from over-prescribing? In retrospect, policymakers seriously misjudged the answers to these questions, overestimating the risk that these drugs posed to the average patient while simultaneously doing too little to urge clinicians to identify those most vulnerable to addiction. The best time to correct course is now—while the opioid problem still commands public attention, and before the restrictions imposed at the height of the crisis harden into permanent practice…

In fact, only 22 to 35 percent of “misusers” of pain medication report receiving the drugs from their doctor, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (Misuse is a term that includes anything from taking an extra pill beyond the quantity prescribed by a doctor to full-blown addiction.) About half obtained pain relievers from a friend or relative, while others either stole or bought pills from someone they knew, bought from a dealer, or went out looking for a doctor willing to write prescriptions.

People who abuse pills are rarely new to drugs. The federal government’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, for example, revealed that more than three-fourths of misusers had used non-prescribed benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, or inhalants. A study of OxyContin users in treatment found that they “were not naive individuals with accidental addictions who were introduced to painkillers by their physicians as reported by the media…[instead they had] extensive drug use histories.”

Among people who are prescribed opioids, addiction is relatively uncommon. The percentage of patients who become addicted after taking opioids for chronic pain is measured in single digits; studies show an incidence from under 1 percent to 8 percent. Most of the estimates are skewed towards the low end of this range, when those at risk (due to a history of substance abuse or, to a lesser but meaningful extent, concurrent mental illness) are removed from the sample. In Feldman’s case, the nature of the risk was constant anguish. When she was 4 years old, her heroin-addicted mother left the family and died of an overdose before she was 12. “For so much of my childhood, I felt abandoned, worthless, unlovable, and confused,” she told me. Her first Percocet came from a girlfriend. “Being numb helped,” she said. Before Percocet, though, she had achieved “escape” with marijuana, alcohol, PCP, benzodiazepines, and cocaine.

16) Jonathan Bernstein: “The Long, Slow Destruction of the U.S. Government: The Trump administration continues its attacks on foreign policy, innovation and economic management.”

Item: Sue Gordon announced her plans to retire as principal deputy director of national intelligence, taking decades of experience with her, in a less-than-appreciative letter — what Dan Drezner called “Mattis Letter II.

Item: A Foreign Service officer resigned in an op-ed, saying “ I can no longer justify … my complicity in the actions of this administration.”

Item: The Donald Trump administration is finding creative ways to destroy the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, which Catherine Rampell describes as “arguably the world’s premier agricultural economics agency.”

That’s all from Thursday. They are hardly the only examples of how the administration is, to put it bluntly, destroying the U.S. government.

We’ve seen this from the start of Trump’s presidency, and it continues. I don’t think there’s any full accounting of all the damage that’s being done, whether it’s attacks on government statistics or the capacity to do science or the well-publicized war against an accurate census.

Some of this, like the attacks on the intelligence community, seem to be a combination of Trump’s personal preferences and conspiracy-minded thinking in Republican-aligned media. Some of it is mindless budget-cutting from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney that Trump likely neither knows or cares about. Some of it is what happens when the government is turned over to the short-term interests of major corporations.

But in the long term, the U.S economy will likely pay dearly for it. Economic management will suffer without reliable statistics. Productivity will suffer without government assistance in innovation (regardless of what ideologues on one side or the other will claim, innovation in the U.S. has always been a product of both public and private initiatives).

And the same thing for U.S. foreign policy, and really everything else.

This is of course not to say that everything the federal government does is worthwhile or running at maximum efficiency. Or that every federal bureaucrat is delivering for the nation. But there’s nothing systematic about any of what’s happening here. No plan. No strategy. No effort to separate the worthwhile from the worthless. It’s just basically random attacks on random pieces of the government. It will take years to recover from. In some ways, perhaps the nation will never recover.

17) This is really good from Peter Beinart, “What the Measles Epidemic Really Says About America:
The return of a vanquished disease reflects historical amnesia, declining faith in institutions, and a troubling lack of concern for the public good.”

Declining vaccination rates not only reflect a great forgetting; they also reveal a population that suffers from overconfidence in its own amateur knowledge. In her book Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines, the University of Colorado at Denver’s Jennifer Reich notes that starting in the 1970s, alternative-health movements “repositioned expertise as residing within the individual.” This ethos has grown dramatically in the internet age, so much so that “in arenas as diverse as medicine, mental health, law, education, business, and food, self-help or do-it-yourself movements encourage individuals to reject expert advice or follow it selectively.” Autodidacticism can be valuable. But it’s one thing to Google a food to see whether it’s healthy. It’s quite another to dismiss decades of studies on the benefits of vaccines because you’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos. In an interview, Reich told me that some anti-vaccine activists describe themselves as “researchers,” thus equating their scouring of the internet on behalf of their families with the work of scientists who publish in peer-reviewed journals.

In many ways, the post-1960s emphasis on autonomy and personal choice has been liberating. But it can threaten public health. Considered solely in terms of the benefits to one’s own child, the case for vaccinating against measles may not be obvious. Yes, the vaccine poses little risk to healthy children, but measles isn’t necessarily that dangerous to them either. The problem is that for others in society—such as children with a compromised immune system—measles may be deadly. By vaccinating their own children, and thus ensuring that they don’t spread the disease, parents contribute to the “herd immunity” that protects the vulnerable. But this requires thinking more about the collective and less about one’s own child. And this mentality is growing rarer in an era of what Reich calls “individualist parenting,” in which well-off parents spend “immense time and energy strategizing how to keep their children healthy while often ignoring the larger, harder-to-solve questions around them.”

18) Definitely the summer of Fornite for the Greene kids (and the neighbor kids who are over here playing it with them every day).  And, oh my, is my poor wife tired of it.

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Quick hits

1) Just rediscovered this great NYT Magazine feature from last year about the catastrophe (and a brilliant example of unintended consequences) of America’s policy of encouraging vegetable oil fuel:

Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.

2) I gotta admit, I love helium balloons, but this was a really interesting and informative take,

There’s a natural resource found beneath Earth’s surface that’s been building up for hundreds of millions of years. It plays a pivotal role in some of society’s most important scientific and medical applications, from MRI machines to superconductivity to particle accelerators to the creation of the strongest magnetic fields on Earth. There is no known substitute for this unique resource; it’s truly irreplaceable.

There is no good way to synthesize this essential ingredient in any sort of substantial quantity, either. We have only what has naturally built up over our planet’s natural geologic history. The resource in question? The lightest inert gas found in nature: helium. Instead of mining, storing, and distributing it for these much-needed medical and scientific uses, we’re squandering it on balloons and squeaky voices. Here’s why that wastefulness must end.

3) And more fascinating stuff, “How a 6000 year old dog cancer spread around the world.”

4) Lost amidst the firehose of awfulness from Trump-related news these days was the pretty awful Supreme Court decision allowing Trump’s end-run around Congress on the border wall:

Like his travel ban, Trump’s desire for a wall along the southern border represents an early campaign promise on immigration that was later whipped into public policy. But, unlike the travel ban, which arguably rested, as Chief Justice John Roberts insisted, on a “comprehensive delegation” of legislative authority to the President, Congress has delegated no such authority to the nation’s chief executive to build a wall. Neither has it appropriated the necessary funds to build it. Instead, legislators turned down his many requests for border-wall funding…

But, without much explanation or grappling with the lower courts’ reservations, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court let the Trump Administration proceed with its plans this past Friday, as the litigation advances in the Ninth Circuit. The Administration’s application to the Court was filed, and granted, on an expedited basis, and the Justices like to say that such preliminary and swiftly issued orders do not represent their views on the merits of a given case. But, in the Trump era, the Supreme Court has bent over backward to give the government much of what it’s asked for, by considering an unprecedented number of requests for emergency or extraordinary relief, and granting many of them. The results, though often procedural, have had a substantive effect—from allowing the enforcement of a transgender ban in the military to stopping the deposition of a Cabinet secretary in the census litigation. The single sentence of reasoning the Court did muster in siding with Trump in the border dispute—stating that the opponents to the wall’s construction “have no cause of action” to question the basis for the Pentagon’s reprogramming of funds—tells us that a conservative majority would rather see this case go away quickly than confront hard questions about executive power and Congress’s role.

5) This Dana Milbank, “Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset” column was awesome.  And probably helped contribute to McConnell’s Senate floor freak-out:

Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset.

This doesn’t mean he’s a spy, but neither is it a flip accusation. Russia attacked our country in 2016. It is attacking us today. Its attacks will intensify in 2020. Yet each time we try to raise our defenses to repel the attack, McConnell, the Senate majority leader, blocks us from defending ourselves.

Let’s call this what it is: unpatriotic. The Kentucky Republican is, arguably more than any other American, doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bidding…

Pleaded Schumer: “I would suggest to my friend the majority leader: If he doesn’t like this bill, let’s put another bill on the floor and debate it.”

But McConnell has blocked all such attempts, including:

bipartisan bill requiring Facebook, Google and other Internet companies to disclose purchasers of political ads, to identify foreign influence.

bipartisan bill to ease cooperation between state election officials and federal intelligence agencies.

bipartisan bill imposing sanctions on any entity that attacks a U.S. election.

A bipartisan bill with severe new sanctions on Russia for its cybercrimes.

McConnell has prevented them all from being considered — over and over again. This is the same McConnell who, in the summer of 2016, when briefed by the CIA along with other congressional leaders on Russia’s electoral attacks, questioned the validity of the intelligence and forced a watering down of a warning letter to state officials about the threat, omitting any mention of Russia.

6) This is such a great take on climate change from Henry Farrell.  So going to use it going forward, “Don’t ask how to pay for climate change.  Ask who.”

In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”

Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?”

People are already paying for climate change with their lives. Rising temperatures are killing more than 150,000 people every year. This death toll is estimated to increase to 1.5 million people annually by the turn of the century. Some are confronting the likelihood of failed crops; others have been forced to flee floodplains.

Those currently paying for the effects of climate change are the most vulnerable—people in the developing world, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the very young. As the world changes, more people are going to suffer the cost of heat waves, rising water, damaged or dying ecosystems, and flooded coastal cities. This will create what political science and public policy experts describe as “existential politics,” in which different groups fight to preserve their entire way of life.

7) I had no idea there were two different approaches to order of operations in math.  Had a lot of fun reading this.  Also… it’s 1.  “This math equation is dividing the internet, and no one can agree on an answer”

 

8) Josephine Wolff in Slate, “You Have a Moral Obligation to Claim Your $125 From Equifax
Help make sure that companies pay the consequences for data breaches.”   Done.

9) The brain-eating amoeba that thrives in hot summer lakes and rivers and is super rare but super likely to kill you if it gets you.  I remember when somebody dies of this in Jordan Lake, not far from us, about 15 years ago.

10) Wow– loved learning the history behind “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Especially because we used to listen to a sanitized for kids version of “John Brown’s Body” on car trips many years ago.  Had no idea of the original lyrics– wow:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave

11) In more modern music, I’ve been frustrated in my attempts to find contemporary rock that I really like.  The Pandora alternative station served up Meg Myers’ “Tear me to Pieces.”  Good stuff!  In discovering more Meg Myers, I quickly came across this pretty amazing video for “Desire.”  Oh my.  So good and the comments on it are hilarious and so worth reading.  And the Meg Myers spotify playlist brought be Chløë Black’s “Spaceman” which I also really liked.  I’m also taking your recommendations :-).

12) Much needed post from Drum, “No, Joe Biden Didn’t Cause Mass Incarceration.” (And shame on Vox’s editors for letting one of their less-informed writers suggest otherwise):

Incarceration rates approximately quadrupled between 1970 and 1994, and flattened almost immediately thereafter. The 1994 crime bill simply didn’t have anything to do with it.

I realize this is politically impossible, but sometimes I wish Joe Biden would just flat out defend the 1994 bill. “You know what happened after that bill passed?” he should ask. “Crime went down, that’s what.” This would be pretty misleading since we all know what really caused the crime decline,¹ and it’s unlikely the 1994 bill had much impact on its own. Still, it’s at least a true statement.

¹The phaseout of leaded gasoline. But you already knew that, right?

13) David Graham on one of the dirty secrets of political fundraising:

Broadly speaking, U.S. campaign-finance laws have been written to prevent nefarious influence by donors over politicians. To that end, the government limits (for now, at least) how much an individual can give to a candidate. It prevents “straw donations,” in which an individual routes donations through other people, since that would give a single individual undue influence. It prevents donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns. It requires that campaigns and some other bodies disclose who has given to them. The unifying principle is the presumption that the public needs to worry about who might influence a politician. Scam PACs bypass that principle. Here, it’s not the donors who are taking advantage—it’s the donors who are being taken advantage of, by operators who have spotted a shadow in the law in which they can operate.

Quick hits

1) This is kind of too perfect.  The NC Republican party’s “expert” witness has had his testimony thrown out in a big gerrymandering case because he used totally made up figures about the gerrymandered districts.

2) NC State’s Class of 2022 Park Scholars (and me!) are going to DC in October for a “learning lab” on mass incarceration.  I helped them put together this great list of pre-trip reading and viewing.  Want to understand mass incarceration in America?  You could do a lot worse than this list.

3) Sometime longform journalism is just too long.  That said, I did enjoy skimming this feature in The Cut, “The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he?”

4) Good chance you saw this headline, “Emmett Till Sign Photo Leads Ole Miss Fraternity to Suspend Members.”  I will say this little bit pulled me up short:

But the Ole Miss chapter of Kappa Alpha, which the three students are members of, said in a statement on Thursday that it took swift action after it learned of the photo on Tuesday.

“The photo is inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable,” the fraternity chapter said. “It does not represent our chapter.”

Of course they said that, but, the reality is KA is a fraternity that celebrates the confederacy and this is the U of Mississippi chapter, so…

5) I’ve long known the “felony murder” rule is abominable.  I guess I should’ve not been surprised that we’re about the only country systematically unjust enough to regularly use it:

The origins of the felony murder rule are murky. Generations of law students have been taught that it is a relic of British common law.

But Guyora Binder, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law and a leading expert on felony murder, said he had found otherwise. He traced modern felony murder doctrine to the 1820s, when state legislatures in the United States codified criminal offenses.

England abolished its version of felony murder in 1957, followed by India, Canada and other common law countries, and the United States remains the only country where the felony murder doctrine still exists. A Michigan Supreme Court ruling that did away with it in that state nearly four decades ago called it “a historic survivor for which there is no logical or practical basis for existence in modern law.”

6) This is titled, “Barr’s talking points on the death penalty are misleading.”  To be fair, what does Barr say that’s not misleading.  Still, good stuff:

The worst. It’s a tired talking point – frequently amplified to “worst of the worst” – employed by death penalty proponents who know they can’t argue the merits of the system and instead must rely on fear-mongering and vague stereotypes to rally what little public support is still available to them on this issue.

The reality is that the “worst of the worst” is a subjective classification to begin with – what line one draws in the sand for throwing away the sanctity of human life will vary from the lines of others. But even if we could come to a consensus on what crimes constitute this indistinct classification, a quick look at the facts shows clearly that the severity of the crime rarely determines who gets a death sentence.

In actuality, the leading determinates for who receives the death penalty and who does not have little to do with the nature of the crime at all. In both state and federal systems, it is the location where the crime is committed that is the leading factor in a capital sentence. Just 2 percent of counties bring the majority of death penalty cases. All executions since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s have come from a mere 16 percent of the nation’s counties. At the federal level, three states – Texas, Missouri, and Virginia – are responsible for the majority of the cases, and all of the cases have come from 31 of the nation’s 94 federal judicial districts.

7) If you’ve read this blog for a while, or been in my Public Policy or Criminal Justice Policy classes, you know I’ve been a huge fan of criminology scholar, Mark Kleiman.  He has done as much to influence my own thinking on criminal justice as any scholar has influenced me on any subject.  I will still be assigning When Brute Force Fails for many years to come. Alas, he passed away this week.  I’ll link Kevin Drum’s remembrance, as I’m pretty sure its Drum who introduced me to his scholarship.  Also a nice appreciation from German Lopez.

8) I unapologetically use plastic straws, but I actually quite like paper straws, too, and would happily transition if that’s all that were available.  They last plenty long enough for me to finish a drink and refills.  But, now that Trump is against them, all the more reason.

9) RIP Rutger Hauer.  Bet you didn’t know he was the one to come up with the indelible, “tears in the rain” line.

10) I’ve got David Epstein’s Range sitting on the table 10 feet from me (thanks, DJC), but think I’m going to finish my Chernobyl book first.  Here’s Epstein, “Chances are, you’re not as open-minded as you think.”  But, what if I actually am? 🙂

Do you think of yourself as open-minded? For a 2017 study, scientists asked 2,400 well-educated adults to consider arguments on politically controversial issues — same-sex marriage, gun control, marijuana legalization — that ran counter to their beliefs. Both liberals and conservatives, they found, were similarly adamant about avoiding contrary opinions.

When it came to same-sex marriage, for example, two-thirds of those surveyed passed on a chance to pocket money if, in exchange, they took some time to just look at counterarguments, never mind seriously entertain them.

The lesson is clear enough: Most of us are probably not as open-minded as we think. That is unfortunate and something we can change. A hallmark of teams that make good predictions about the world around them is something psychologists call “active open mindedness.” People who exhibit this trait do something, alone or together, as a matter of routine that rarely occurs to most of us: They imagine their own views as hypotheses in need of testing.

11) In a related vein, nice Vox piece from Robert Peal, “The science of regrettable decisions: A doctor explains how our brains can trick us into making bad choices — and how to fight back.”

In the scientific literature, George and I noticed an interesting pattern: Under the right circumstances, a subconscious neurobiological sequence in our brains causes us to perceive the world around us in ways that contradict objective reality, distorting what we see and hear. This powerful shift in perception is unrelated to our intelligence, morals, or past behaviors. In fact, we don’t even know it’s happening, nor can we control it.

George and I named this phenomenon “brainshift” and found that it happens in two distinct situations: those involving high anxiety and those associated with major reward.

Under these conditions, all of us would do something just as regrettable as the headline-grabbing stories above, contrary to what we tell ourselves. Phrased differently, we don’t consciously decide to act a fool. Rather, once our perception is distorted, we act in ways that seem reasonable to us but foolish to observers.

12) “Fast track” deportation is just so wrong:

The Trump administration’s expansion of the use of fast-track deportations through “expedited removal” will create a “show me your papers” regime nationwide in which people — including citizens — may be forced to quickly prove they should not be deported. This policy allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to quickly deport someone without going before an immigration judge, undermining American principles of fundamental fairness and putting United States citizens, permanent residents and asylum-seekers at risk of wrongful deportation.

For 15 years, the government has been applying expedited removal in a limited way to those within 100 miles of the Canadian or Mexican border who have been in the United States for less than two weeks. The entire process consists of an interview with an immigration officer during which the burden is on the individual to prove a legal right to remain in the United States. One could be questioned, detained and deported very swiftly with little time to consult a lawyer or to gather evidence to prevent deportation. The extremely short timeline of the expedited-removal process increases the chances that a person who is legally entitled to stay in the United States can end up being removed anyway. The government now says it will apply it across the country for many people who cannot prove they have been present in the United States for two years or more. The expansion could affect thousands of people nationwide.

13) Tamar Haspel on why ultra-processed food makes us fat:

“There are several potential hypotheses,” Hall told me. Top of his list? Calorie density. “There were about two calories per gram in the processed food,” excluding drinks, “and in the unprocessed it was closer to one.” People also ate the ultra-processed meals a lot faster. “It might be softer, easier to chew and swallow,” Hall said. And that could mean that satiety signals, which take time, don’t get to your brain until after you’ve overeaten.

This is not a new idea. Penn State nutrition professor Barbara Rolls has been studying it for a couple of decades and wrote the “Volumetrics” series of diet books based on the idea of calorie-density. According to her, diets based on decreasing calorie density — which comes down to eating foods that have more water and less fat — are more effective than any of the diets that manipulate macronutrients.

They have a different mechanism, she explains. “It’s behavioral. It’s visual.” You’re responding to cues about the amount of food you’re eating. So, for example, if you give research subjects the same cereal in two different forms — flaky (higher volume) and crushed (lower volume) — they eat a third more of the crushed version. On average, people tend to decide how much to eat by gauging the amount of food; the more there is available, the more they eat, and volume and weight both play a role, Rolls says. Visual cues matter…

In a nutshell: The root of obesity is palatability and calorie density, combined with ubiquity and convenience. Satiety hormones and other metabolic machinations have much less to do with it. We’re responding to cues from without, not from within. One new study doesn’t prove it, of course, but it’s the hypothesis that best fits the preponderance of the evidence. [emphasis mine]

14) An argument that I should strongly consider not grading my students because it hinders learning.  Hmmm.

That is the kind of growth Blum wants students to experience in her courses. But her research and personal experience have persuaded her that it’s difficult to achieve when students are graded. Blum has come to the conclusion that grades are meaningless, even harmful. Grades, Blum is now convinced, are a barrier: between students and professors, between students and learning.

So Blum has stopped grading. She has joined the ranks of college professors and schoolteachers experimenting with “ungrading,” a set of practices meant to redirect time and attention to more important things. Like most professors, Blum can’t discard grades completely — she still has to hand them in at the end of the term. But that leaves the rest of the semester to help students question the premise of those grades and encourage them to focus instead on their learning.

 

The suburban juror

With apologies to 30 Rock.

I’ve received several summons for jury duty (or jury service as they really like to call it), but never actually went in before after explaining that I had classes only I could teach.  I always volunteered to come at another date after the semester, but all I ever got in response was “excused.”  Well, with a July 15 summons, I finally had no excuse.

I’ve always told people that if I ever got questioned to serve on a jury (voir dire), I might survive if I was just a random political science professor.  But if it got into the fact that I teach Criminal Justice Policy, I would very likely be out.  Well, I was not queried as to what classes I teach, but we were all asked about our personal interactions with law enforcement.  “Well, I’ve had the chief of police of [the law enforcement organization engaged this case] as a guest speaker in my class on several occasions” pretty much opened that Pandora’s Box.  I briefly thought I might survive as my admitted overall skepticism of law enforcement [DA: “do you teach with a slant against law enforcement in your class?”  Me: “No.  I teach about the many problems and failures of our criminal justice system– including law enforcement– and how best to address them.”] was mitigated by my admitted respect for the law enforcement organization in question.  Apparently not.  So, I was struck.  Not bad, getting my jury service done in four hours.  Still, would have been pretty cool to be on a jury for a criminal trial.

So, what else did I take away from this process?  Ummm, the jury pool is not exactly a “jury of your peers” for many Wake county defendants.  I walked into the jury assembly room and thought “oh my, this room is white.”  And, jury the voir dire when everybody gave their residence and occupation, I thought, “oh my, this is not just white, but a bunch of white professionals.”  Software engineers, biostatisticans, college professors, real estate brokers, etc.  Anyway, not quite sure why the jury pool turns out this way– or how much it might have just randomly been disproportionate today– but, wow, not exactly a jury of one’s peers for many Wake County defendants.

Image result for rural juror

Quick hits (part I)

1) Really interesting Atlantic piece on automotive safety. I was particularly intrigued to learn about speed limits:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor-vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating-speed method, actually encourages faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating-speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law—speeding motorists—to rewrite it: Speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal. Other legislation amplifies the harm from this method. In California, for example, cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons. This occurs against a backdrop of radical under-enforcement of the speed limit nationally, and the widespread banning of proven but unpopular lifesaving technologies such as automated speed cameras.

Just as telling as what activities the law regulates is whose interests it seeks to protect. Dozens of our peer nations require carmakers to mitigate harm to pedestrians caused by their products. U.S. design regulations, however, require only measures that enhance the safety of car occupants. Just as SUVs are becoming taller, heavier, and more prevalent—and pedestrian fatalities are surging—U.S. regulators have not required carmakers to embrace those more comprehensive design standards. Instead, they’ve launched campaigns baselessly blaming pedestrians for their own deaths.

2) Crazy story about how a metal straw actually killed somebody.  If this was in a movie you’d say– no way.  I still love my plastic straws and enjoy the metal straws I recently received (as an NPR contributor gift).

3) The sycophancy that surrounds Trump really is amazing (and, oh my, how does William Barr even live with himself):

Still, sycophancy is an effective path to favor with any President, especially this one. Trump retains a Manichean view of the world, bracing in its Trump-centric simplicity. This informs foreign policy, domestic policy, and key decisions about hiring and firing—basically, everything he does. On his mystifying affinity for Vladimir Putin, for example, the Mueller report’s inconclusive findings suggest that there may be no more accurate explanation than one that Trump himself gave, in public, in 2016: “He says very nice things about me.” It’s a line Trump often uses in the accounts that have emerged of his private conversations in the White House, and his subordinates have clearly received the message. Consider Attorney General William Barr’s performance in the Rose Garden on Thursday afternoon, when he and Trump were announcing that the Administration would back off on Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census. Bowing to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against it, Barr claimed that the choice to forgo putting the question on the census was essentially a “logistical” obstacle, about timing. He applauded Trump for courageously agreeing to abide by the Court’s decision, declaring, “Congratulations again, Mr. President.”

4) Never actually bought a Kidz Bop CD, but damn did I used to see the ads all the time.  Alas, it’s tough times for compilations of sanitized version of pop songs.

5) Thought-provoking interview, “What if life did not originate on earth.”

So the four-billion-year and the ten-billion-year estimates—there is no scientific basis for either estimate? Is that what you are saying?

No, no, no. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. And the universe, at least based on estimates from the Big Bang, is something like fourteen billion years. So, if life evolved somewhere else, that buys you about ten billion years of time. But I’d rather it bought you a hundred billion years of time or a thousand billion years of time. That would be more satisfying.

Why would it be more satisfying?

Well, because it allows more time. See, the thing is, if you look in the fossil record, where’s the first evidence of life? Well, you can see evidence of bacterial life, things that look like bacteria, the things that are called stromatolites, which are a kind of blue-green algae bacteria that live in colonies. Those things form good fossils, and you can see those about three and a half billion years ago. So, life had already evolved to the point of there being pretty complicated bacteria very quickly, after the Earth cooled.

And, you know, most lay people would say, “Well, yeah, duh, bacteria are pretty simple.” But bacteria are not simple. Bacteria are incredibly complicated. Bacteria are the self-replicating robots that electrical engineers dream of. These guys can make a copy of themselves in twenty minutes, with four thousand parts.

So, O.K., what’s the upshot of what you’re saying about the bacteria?

They were super highly evolved, and I think they got here as soon as the Earth cooled, and they just started growing. And they’ve been spreading across the Milky Way and maybe the whole universe. For example, you’ve heard about seti, right? The people who are looking for intelligent life?

Also reminded me of ideas in one of my favorite science fiction novels, Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God.

6) This is cool.  Not only can I continue to think that trigger warnings are overly-woke overkill now there’s social science that shows as much.

7) Speaking of overly-woke.  I really like Farhad Manjoo on technology, and I get the argument for having non-gendered personal pronouns, but we already having a meaning for they and it’s third person plural.  And it’s confusing as hell to pretty much any native English speaker to pretend otherwise.

8) I have no interest in poker but really enjoyed learning about the AI poker-playing bot and how it got so good so fast.

9) Some good political science, “Politicians Don’t Actually Care What Voters Want: Does that statement sound too cynical? Unfortunately, the evidence supports it.”

How much do legislators really care about the views of their constituents?

Over the past two years, we conducted a study to find out. We provided state legislators in the United States with access to highly detailed public opinion survey data — more detailed than almost all available opinion polls — about their constituents’ attitudes on gun control, infrastructure spending, abortion and many other policy issues. Afterward, we gauged the willingness of representatives to look at the data as well as how the data affected their perceptions of their constituents’ opinions.

What we found should alarm all Americans. An overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views. Perhaps more worrisome, however, was that when the legislators who did view the data were surveyed afterward, they were no better at understanding what their constituents wanted than legislators who had not looked at the data. For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant.

10) Really nice Wired article on the physics of producing ever-faster tennis serves (I’m counting on you to put this to use, JDW).

11) Not at all surprised to learn that listening to up-tempo music can enhance a high-intensity workout. I pretty much just listen to podcasts during all my exercise, but when I really want to run, I go with this.

12) NYT with 10 findings that contradict medical wisdom.  I did know most of these.  And even though I’ve seen it, this one still surprises me:

  • To treat emergency room patients in acute pain, a single dose of oral opioids is no better than drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.

Yes, opioids are powerful drugs. But a clinical trial showed that much safer alternatives relieve pain just as well among emergency room patients.

13) This is great from Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent, “How incompetence torpedoed Trump’s rigging of the census.”

In a presidency full of pratfalls and screwups, there have been few efforts characterized by quite the combination of boundless bad faith, obvious dishonesty and sheer incompetence as this one.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of what a sorry mess this has been, from the beginning.

The Trump administration came into office determined to add the citizenship question to enhance the political power of Republicans and whites, as files from the hard drive of a dead Republican gerrymandering guru who had been advising the administration revealed.

The question would discourage responses from households that include noncitizens, leading to undercounts that would dilute representation and the awarding of federal dollars in those areas — which was the whole point.

Trump himself recently gave up the game when he blurted out that “you need it for Congress for districting.”

In fact, congressional districts are apportioned to states by total population, not by the number of citizens, and then district lines are also drawn using total population. But Republicans have long harbored a desire to use only numbers of citizens for redistricting, because it would allow them to supercharge their gerrymandering efforts and pull power away from urban areas where there are generally lots of Democrats.

Officials couldn’t reveal their real aims, of course, so the administration concocted a cover story that the Justice Department wanted the citizenship question as a way to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act, something about which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied under oath. The administration invoked executive privilege to keep documents about their decision-making under wraps…

Could the administration possibly have handled this affair in a more buffoonish way? It’s difficult to imagine how. Perhaps we should be thankful that they were so incompetent, because otherwise they might have gotten away with it. [emphasis mine]

13) It really is amazing the way our government is systematically, purposefully traumatizing children.  Ashley Fetters, “The Exceptional Cruelty of a No-Hugging Policy: When kids separated from their families on the U.S.-Mexico border can’t get hugs or physical comfort from the caretakers at their shelters—or even from one another—their experience becomes even more traumatic.”

14) A huge part of our mass incarceration policies is literally just a war on poor people.  Good NYT/ Pro Publica, “Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt: Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail. But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars.”

15) Finally got around to reading Yglesias‘ good piece (with lots of data and political science) that argues that Democrats learned the wrong lessons of Trump’s election:

Activists are pressing candidates to take aggressively progressive stands on broad issues like Medicare-for-all but also narrower ones like including undocumented immigrants in health care plans and providing relief from graduate school debt.

This is, however, precisely the wrong lesson to learn from the Trump era.

It’s true that Trump is president, but it’s not true that Trump ran and won as an ideological extremist. He paired extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues with positioning on key economic policy topics that led him to be perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations. His campaign was almost paint-by-numbers pragmatic moderation. He ditched a couple of unpopular GOP positions that were much cherished by party elites, like cutting Medicare benefits, delivered victory, and is beloved by the rank and file for it…

When I was a young blogger in the mid-aughts, the big issues in national politics were Social Security privatization, marriage equality, and the war in Iraq.

Trump ran as an Iraq War proponent who vowed to avoid new Middle Eastern military adventures, as an opponent of cutting Social Security and Medicare (and Medicaid), and as the first-ever Republican candidate to try to position himself as an ally to the LGBTQ community — going so far as to actually speak the words “LGBTQ.”

And during the 2016 campaign, it showed. Even though people who paid close attention to the obsessive sniping of Bernie Twitter have an impression of Hillary Clinton as the ultimate centrist Dem, voters saw her as largely liberal on the issues. Trump was perceived as conservative, to be sure, but also as less uniformly conservative than Clinton was liberal.

16) This was a really interesting legal analysis of the Mueller report from Jed Shugerman that I was quite surprised that I hadn’t seen anything like this before:

Ever since the release of the Mueller Report, countless commentators have implored everyone to just #ReadtheReport. The problem is not who is reading it—the problem is the report itself, and its many errors.

Robert Mueller made a significant legal error and, based on the facts he found, he should have identified Trump campaign felonies. Mueller’s errors meant that, first, he failed to conclude that the Trump campaign criminally coordinated with Russia; second, he failed to indict campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates for felony campaign coordination (see in a concise timeline below); third, the 10 acts of felony obstruction in Volume II fell flat among the general public because it lacked compelling context of these underlying crimes between the campaign and Russia. On top of these errors, the former special counsel said he deliberately wrote the report to be unclear because it would be unfair to make clear criminal accusations against a president.

The bottom line is that the Mueller Report is a failure not because of Congress or because of public apathy, but because it failed to get the law, the facts, or even the basics of writing right. When Mueller testifies before Congress on July 17, he should be pressed on all of this.

The DOJ’s initial appointment explicitly tasked Mueller with investigating campaign “coordination,” and it is not too much to ask that he get the law of “coordination” right. The report stated that “‘coordination’ does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement—tacit or express.”

However, Congress purposely sought to prevent such narrow interpretations: in 2002, it passed a statute directing that campaign finance regulations “shall not require agreement or formal collaboration to establish coordination.” The Federal Election Commission established the regulations for the implementation of the statute:  “Coordinated means made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate,” with no need to show any kind of agreement.

17) I read Blake Crouch’s Recursion at the beach last week.  So good.

Quick hits

1) From a couple weeks ago, but I still really like it.  Doris Burke is a great basketball analyst but doesn’t get her due because she’s a woman.  I love when I hear her call games.

2)Jesse Singal suggests the “coward’s like” could save twitter.

One of the reasons Twitter is so terrible and shrieky has to do with the skewed nature of the feedback users receive — the platform is basically a giant preference falsification machine. Back in January I put into paragraph form a really good tweetstorm from the philosopher and psychology researcher Brian Earp laying out the general issue (if you click on that link, scroll down a bit to get to this part):

I have a hypothesis about what might contribute to *moral outrage* being such a big thing on social media. Imagine I’m sitting in a room of 30 people and I make a dramatic statement about how outraged I am about X. And, say, five people cheer in response (analogous to liking or retweeting). But suppose the other 25 people kind of stare at the table, or give me a weird look or roll their eyes, or in some other way (relatively) passively express that they think I’m kind of overdoing it or maybe not being as nuanced or charitable or whatever as I should be.

In real life we get this kind of “passive negative” feedback when we act morally outraged about certain things, at least sometimes. Now, a few people in the room might clear their throat and actively say, “Hey, maybe it’s more complicated than that,” and on Twitter there is a mechanism for that: replies. But it’s pretty costly to leave a reply pushing back against someone’s seemingly excessive or inadequately grounded moral outrage, and so most people probably just read the tweet and silently move on with their day. And there is no icon on Twitter that registers passive disapproval.

So it seems like we’re missing one of the major in-real-life pieces of social information that perhaps our outrage needs to be in some way tempered, or not everyone is on board, or maybe we should consider a different perspective. If Twitter collected data of people who read or clicked on a tweet, but did NOT like it or retweet it (nor go so far as write a contrary reply), and converted this into an emoji of a neutral (or some kind of mildly disapproving?) face, this might majorly tamp down on viral moral outrage that is fueled by likes and retweets from a small subset of the “people in the room”… Thoughts?

3) Did you know that there’s really a non-crazy-conspiracy chance that Russia messed with North Carolina’s voting in the 2016 election?

4) Single-family zoning is really bad.  Great upshot feature including maps of cities all over the country.

Single-family zoning is practically gospel in America, embraced by homeowners and local governments to protect neighborhoods of tidy houses from denser development nearby.

But a number of officials across the country are starting to make seemingly heretical moves. The Oregon legislature this month will consider a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family homes in most of the state. California lawmakers have drafted a bill that would effectively do the same. In December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide. The Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Julián Castro have taken up the cause, too.

A reckoning with single-family zoning is necessary, they say, amid mounting crises over housing affordability, racial inequality and climate change. But take these laws away, many homeowners fear, and their property values and quality of life will suffer. The changes, opponents in Minneapolis have warned, amount to nothing less than an effort to “bulldoze” their neighborhoods.

Today the effect of single-family zoning is far-reaching: It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.

And let’s be clear, residents, including many “liberals” who rail against changing the zoning are mostly motivated by the desire not to live around more people of a lower socio-economic strata.  Which are, of course, quite often racial minorities.  And, yes, for the record, there’s a bunch of duplexes and triplexes right around the corner from my house.

5) Recently learned about this approach to bring people together and help overcome the partisan divide.  The workshop featured in this Atlantic article was in my hometown of Cary, NC!  I’m a skeptic because of the selection bias:

The bigger problem is that the kind of people who are willing to spend a morning or a day on such an exercise are the kind of people who are already convinced that dialogue is important, and are more willing to hear the other side out. As participants went around, many had strong political views, but many had also participated in other efforts at cross-partisan dialogue. Reducing affective polarization will require getting more of the affectively polarized to show up at events like this. Still, even this group found the exercises useful, if largely as self-abnegation.

6) One of my favorite podcast episodes ever was 99% Invisible presenting an episode of John Green’s “Anthropocene Reviewed” and an utterly delightful interview of John Green by Roman Mars.  Five stars.  I’m now a huge fan of Green’s podcast, with which I was heretofore unfamiliar.  And John Green’s paean to Diet Dr Pepper was perfect.

7) Still really annoyed that we’re hardly talking about Oregon.  At least Brian Beutler is:

Oregon Republicans have successfully nullified a Democratic climate change bill by literally leaving town (making it impossible under the Oregon Senate’s quorum rules for the chamber to vote) and then threatening violent retaliation against state police officers dispatched to retrieve them. This is bullshit, and if Democrats don’t figure out how to get this bill through, it’s a template Republicans will replicate across the country wherever they can, whenever they’re out of power.

8) This report on America’s changing demographics and the predicted effect on partisan patterns is pretty interesting stuff.  Lots of data.

Our investigation turns up a number of key findings that illuminate how significantly the compositions of the Democratic and Republican parties have changed over the years and are likely to change in the future. We show that the 2016 election was the most demographically divisive election in the past 36 years. The parties were more divided by age, race, and education than in any prior election in modern political history.

Reflecting these intensifying divisions, the parties were more compositionally different in 2016 than at any point in the prior 36 years. This election was the first presidential election white noncollege voters did not make up a plurality of both parties’ coalitions, with white college voters exceeding the share of white noncollege voters in the Democratic coalition.

Nonwhites will continue to grow as a share of both parties’ coalitions, especially Hispanics. We find that, by 2032, Hispanic voters will surpass black voters as the largest overall nonwhite voting group. And, by 2036, black voters will make up a larger share of the Democratic coalition than white noncollege voters.

9) Really looking forward to seeing the new movie, “Yesterday.”  Really enjoyed this Vox interview with screenwriter Richard Curtis.

10) Loved this from Drum, “Tough on Crime” Makes No Sense — Unless You Understand the History of Crime.”  Yes, our criminal justice policies are absurd now.  But there really was a huge crime wave in America and it’s historical amnesia to ignore that context:

I sometimes feel like the current discussion surrounding crime and incarceration is a lot like wondering why the United States invaded Europe in 1944. Unless you know that Hitler had conquered most of the continent, it doesn’t make any sense. Once you do know that, it makes no sense to suggest that FDR did anything wrong.

It’s the same with crime. All of the tough-on-crime sentiment of the ’70s through the ’90s makes no sense unless you know that violent crime had more than doubled since the mid-’60s:

That said, nothing about this era makes sense unless you understand that crime really was rising and it really was scary. The absolute number of violent crimes tripled from 1970 to 1990 and people—black and white alike—were afraid to walk the streets at night. They demanded action, and they got it. There were tons of mistakes along the way, but the fundamental motivation for the tough-on-crime movement was the fact that there was a lot of crime.

10) This was a really cool NYT feature interviewing a variety of Hollywood big shots on how movies may survive and evolve over the next decade.

11) It’s quite well-documented that student evaluations of professors’ teaching are biased and flawed instruments.  But that doesn’t mean that peer evaluations are a panacea.  It’s not like most college professors are trained, reliable, assessors of college teaching.  James Lang:

Much of the work that we put into our teaching cannot be evaluated, or even accessed, via the two most common strategies that institutions use to evaluate our teaching effectiveness of their faculty: student evaluations and peer observations…

But even at teaching-intensive colleges like mine, just piling on lots of documentation to the process doesn’t resolve all of the challenges raised by the attempt to evaluate teaching effectiveness. Evidence doesn’t speak for itself, after all — it needs informed experts who can analyze and understand what the data means. What story does the evidence tell about the teacher’s work? What does it show about how much students have learned?

Understanding how to gather and evaluate evidence of good teaching strikes me as a fundamental and ongoing challenge for all of higher education. Very few academic administrators or tenure-committee members will bring to those roles professional training or scholarly backgrounds in the evaluation of teaching — or in the practice of teaching, for that matter.

12) Great essay from Lara Bazelon, “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids: I love them beyond all reason. But sometimes my clients need me more.”

13) Great NYT Op-Ed, “The Travel Ban Shows What Happens When the Supreme Court Trusts Trump.”

A year ago, the Supreme Court upheld, by a 5-4 vote, President Trump’s imposition of a ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. The court’s decision was gravely disappointing the day it was handed down. A year later, it looks even worse — particularly because it rested on three premises pushed by Trump Administration lawyers that have proven thoroughly unfounded…

In the travel ban case, first, the more conservative justices emphasized its temporary nature. The decision acknowledged that the provision of federal immigration law relied on by President Trump refers to a president’s authority to “suspend the entry” of foreigners to the United States; it further acknowledged that the word “suspend” means something temporary rather than permanent. Moreover, the majority opinion emphasized that, according to the same federal law, the president could maintain the ban only “for such period as he shall deem necessary.” The ban was thus upheld as something merely temporary — as required by law.

Yet here we are, a year since the court upheld Mr. Trump’s third version of the ban, almost two years since that version took effect and nearly 29 months since Mr. Trump issued the ban in its original form. The ban upheld by the court remains in full effect, and there’s not a whisper from the White House that it will be repealed. What the court’s majority accepted as temporary looks increasingly permanent…

Third, the court’s decision noted that, even while the ban remained in place and even for countries still subject to it, “case-by-case waivers” were available for individuals to allow them to travel to the United States if they could show “undue hardship.” The chief justice’s majority opinion emphasized that the availability of waivers made Mr. Trump’s travel ban more similar to actions of earlier presidents. It also underscored the direction given to consular officers to assess waiver applications while addressing any public safety concerns and broader implications for the national interest.

The waiver program looked like a sham a year ago, as a consular officer made clear in a sworn affidavit in another matter and as Justice Stephen Breyer emphasized in his powerful dissent. It looks like even more of a sham now.

The Travel Ban showed that 5 of the Court’s conservatives were entirely willing to let the federal government brazenly lie to it.  The Census case this week showed that Roberts has a limit to the brazenness (especially when there’s a good paper trail).  The others, sadly, will accept anything.

14) Love this from one of my favorite political scientists, Larry Bartels, “A Lot of Candidates May Make It Seem Like Democracy Is Working, But It Isn’t: The two major parties have made choosing among contenders far too hard, with dire consequences.”

Cognitive psychologists tell us that human information-processing capacity is limited to seven objects, plus or minus two. But when the objects are as complex and unfamiliar as the current crop of presidential candidates, that rule of thumb is much too optimistic.

Research on primary voting demonstrates that voters make better-informed and more coherent choices when the race involves just two or three major contenders. That’s why political elites and political institutions have a crucial role to play in shaping the options presented to primary voters.

Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has created a complex set of standards for candidates to qualify for inclusion in televised debates. Senator Michael Bennet, a latecomer to the race who could be barred from the next round of debates by Mr. Perez’s rules, has said, “It’s all just completely arbitrary, and I wish it weren’t.”

Unfortunately, there is no non-arbitrary way to do what needs to be done. Relying on polls gives an unfair advantage to candidates who are already well known. (The current poll standings mostly reflect name recognition.) Using fund-raising as a standard risks making affluent donors even more influential than they already are.

What is largely missing from this process is the professional judgment of people who actually know the candidates — officeholders and party officials. But the Democratic Party’s attempt to insert the judgment of “superdelegates” at the end of the nominating process, after primary voters have already had their say, has generated bitter complaints about “undemocratic” elites overriding the will of the party rank and file.

The time for political professionals to play a constructive role is before the primaries, not after. Their job should be to commend the party’s most promising potential candidates to the attention of the public, not to make the final choice themselves.

Short version: total failure of Democratic “leadership.”  And having so many people with zero chance of being elected President in 2020 on the debate stage this week very much makes this point.

Smokable hemp = legal marijuana?

So, this is kind of interesting, allowing smokable hemp in North Carolina may open up a Pandora’s Box that kind-of legalizes marijuana through a loophole.  Of course, presumably NC would turn into an unlivable hellhole like… Washington or Colorado, if that happened.  Here’s the story:

North Carolina agriculture officials envision hemp as a major cash crop for the state, but law enforcement officials told lawmakers Thursday that the push to boost the industry could essentially legalize marijuana because of the difficulty in telling the two cannabis plants apart.

Much of the annual farm bill under consideration in the General Assembly is dedicated to setting up the necessary state infrastructure to regulate hemp production now that the federal government has loosened its restrictions on hemp.

When North Carolina first legalized growing hemp as a pilot project in 2015, the market for the crop was primarily textiles and rope. Since then, however, the fastest growth in the market – and the highest profits – are in smokable hemp products.

Smokable hemp flowers, or so-called pre-rolls, contain CBD but almost no THC, the active compound in marijuana. But they look and smell just like marijuana.

The State Bureau of Investigation and other groups want the state to ban farmers from growing them.

“Law enforcement cannot discern the difference between smokable hemp and marijuana, and our State Crime Lab cannot discern the difference because they can’t discern the level of the THC that it contains,” Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, told members of the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources committee on Thursday. [emphasws mine]

The farm bill would create a presumption in state law that licensed hemp farmers aren’t growing marijuana, but Dorer said that creates a loophole that would basically legalize marijuana in the state.

“Law enforcement will not be able to seize or arrest for marijuana because they can’t tell, and prosecutors will have a very difficult time and will not be able to prosecute any violations of marijuana laws,” she said.

Hemp industry advocates said technology that can tell smokable hemp from marijuana is commercially available to law enforcement, and hemp farmers already growing smokable products said eliminating that market could cripple their businesses.

Oh no, law enforcement not being able to use any of its limited resources seizing marijuana.  They might have to… I don’t know… worry about actual problems to protect society.

 

 

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