Mega quick hits (part I)

Your long overdue quick hits.  My apologies.

1) Given the role of wealthy donors in politics, it should be no surprise that across the political spectrum, all politicians are largely in step with the desires of the wealthy.

2) An 1000 year old Anglo-Saxon recipe for eye infection treatment actually works.

3) If you want to learn what you take notes on, do it by hand, not a laptop.

4) Among the many subtle ways we abuse our prisoners, is gouging them and their families for the costs of keeping in touch via phone call.  It’s just wrong.  Maybe there’s change afoot.

5) Interesting Wired piece on the war over the health risks of vaping.  It’s clearly better to vape than to smoke and clearly better to do neither.  Can’t we leave it at that?

6) It’s died down for the moment, but Chris Kromm on why North Carolina’s proposed RFRA is even worse than Indiana’s.  Will be interesting to see if this comes back here.

7) The simple rule to prevent the next Gerrmanwings disaster– two personnel in the cockpit at all  times.  Period.

8) Men in Quebec who took advantage of a “daddy only” quota for parental leave were doing 23% more housework and child care years after actually taking the leave.  Clearly, we need more of these policies.

9) Multiple servings of red meat per day seems to be not good for you.  But if it’s less than that, it’s probably not harming you at all, so don’t sweat it.

10) Ian Millhiser argues that the Supreme Court is (and continues to be) a “malign force in American history.”

11) Adam Davidson sums up the economic evidence on “job-stealing immigrants.”  Short version: there’s a near-consensus among economists that immigrants are not taking jobs Americans would otherwise be doing.

12) I enjoyed this “personality habit” quiz at the NYT.  Apparently I’m a “questioner.”

Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect, they meet only inner expectations. Once Questioners believe that a particular habit is worthwhile, they’ll stick to it—but only if they’re satisfied about the habit’s soundness and usefulness. They resist anything arbitrary or ineffective; they accept direction only from people they respect. Questioners may exhaust themselves (and other people) with their relentless questioning, and they sometimes find it hard to act without perfect information. If you’re thinking, “Well, right now I question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework,” yep, you’re probably a Questioner!

13) Is there anything that’s fair to poor parents and families?  Not truancy laws, writes Dana Goldstein.

14) Jon Cohn makes not a bad case that Rand Paul’s medical specialty helps to explain his politics:

The split [specialists as Republicans; generalists as Democrats] makes sense if you understand the very different work these doctors perform — and the money they get paid for it. Specialists’ clinical interactions tend to be episodic: A surgeon called in to remove a gall bladder, repair a ligament or install a stent is probably meeting his or her patient for the first time — and may have little contact, or even none at all, with that patient once the procedure and rehabilitation are over. Such encounters may reinforce a

14) What not to worry about in teaching pre-school children how to read?  You mean other than the fact that you are an obsessive parent if you are worried about this?  Just read to your kids.

15) I first learned about Pantones in a Duke magazine article about “Duke blue” years ago and found the concept fascinating.  Loved this NYT story on the subtle difference in pantone between Duke blue and Kentucky blue.

16) The victim of a false rape accusation at UVA tells his story.  Yes, of course the vast majority of rape accusations are truthful; but that doesn’t mean we universities should be denying due process to the accused.

17) Chait on why conservatives hate the Iran deal.  Because they hate all deals.

18) No, tax cuts still don’t pay for themselves.  And, yes, laughably, Arthur Laffer is still an economic guru in the Republican party despite his ideas being completely discredited among serious economists.

19) If you consider our micribiome, you can forget about humans and chimps being 98% similar.

20) Enjoyed this Marketplace story on how German universities control costs.  (No climbing walls, among other things; and no beloved sports teams).

Chart of the day

Loved this Vox article about how the rise of cigarette consumption is basically a technological triumph.  It’s all about the automated cigarette rolling machine.  You can see the impact on how Americans consume tobacco:

Forms of tobacco consumption

Flu vs. Blogger

You can guess who wins that one. It is amazing to me that I can be so tired I don’t even want to use the laptop. That’s how bad it was this weekend. On the bright side, I’m almost all better now. That said, oh man, am I behind on stuff that is, yes, even more important than blogging. Hope to get some new posts going soon, but I figured it was about time I at least have an explanation for the long hiatus. Thanks for your patience.

Oh, and other bright side… Duke won the National Championship on Monday. That helped me feel better. And I was well enough to head over to Durham with the whole family to welcome the team back.

A photo posted by Steve Greene (@hankgreene) on

Psychiatry cannot stop crazy airline pilots (or crazy shooters)

Really liked this piece in the New Yorker about Andreas Lubitz and the limits of psychiatry.  Love this analogy:

Pilots, disaffected adolescents, rapists and murderers, you and I—all of our mental lives may be more like the weather than like billiard balls, determined by innumerable forces that amplify and distort one another in ways that make accurate predictions very difficult. The National Weather Service, despite its supercomputers and satellites, not to mention its thorough understanding of the physics of weather, is often fooled. We clinicians have neither those tools nor that knowledge. To be sure, there are mental disorders in which we know enough of the vectors to say that people who have them should not occupy certain positions. A person prone to delusions should probably not fly an airplane, and a pedophile should not teach children. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. From all we know so far about Lubitz, he was not one of those severe cases but rather someone who was among the millions of people who once contemplated suicide and was being treated for a mood disorder. It seems that he was too normal to have been identified in advance as someone who could do something so extreme.

It’s human nature to think we can identify what we could have done differently to prevent similar future tragedies, but it’s just not that simple:

It is comforting to think that Lubitz was mentally ill. That would mean, among other things, that wise doctors could have figured out what the problem was and have fixed it, or at least they could identify it in other potential Lubitzes. But it is unlikely that even the best psychiatric evaluation would have prevented the Germanwings disaster. The depravity of the human heart cannot be contained in a vessel as flimsy as a psychiatric diagnosis.

Map of the day

Haven’t done an Amazing Maps map in a while.  How can you not love a map of Meth Labs per county:

Embedded image permalink

Quick hits (part II)

1) This nice post from the Economist on how females are out-classing males in education throughout the developed world has been sitting open in my browser deserving it’s own post for too long.  So, here it is.

2) Jamelle Bouie makes a good case that Patty Murray should be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

3) Republicans of late have been suggesting they actually care about inequality. John Cassidy just says follow the money in their latest proposed budget:

As long as a Democrat occupies the White House, there’s practically no chance that G.O.P. spending cuts will be enacted, marking the Price budget as more of a political wish list than an actual funding bill. But wish lists matter, too, especially for a Party that is supposedly trying to change its public image. And in 2015, it seems, the most that the Republicans can hope for is to shower more gifts on the wealthiest households in America, while depriving poor families of health care, food stamps, and college tuition.

4) So apparently “the left” has a problem with Mark Kleiman’s great idea for prison reform.  I’m very much with Kleiman.  It’s good to have people suggesting we need to radically re-think our incarceration nation, but I’m not a big fan of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And Kleiman’s proposals would be a very good improvement.

5) Back to John Cassidy as I enjoyed his take on Ted Cruz.   Also, I have to say that Cruz’s “imagine a world without the IRS” is just preposterous pandering to the most ignorant.  So, is that a world without any federal income tax (how does that work?) or a world where people get to cheat on their taxes with impunity (ask Greece how well that works out)?

6) I was just commenting in class the other day how the NFL is a model of socialism.

7) Philip Gourevetich sure knows how to write about tragedy (he wrote the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide), so he certainly has a thoughtful commentary on the recent horrible air crash tragedy.

8) As if our completely over-reliance on prison isn’t enough, we make life way too hard for former prisoners to get jobs.  Most importantly, we’re pretty stupid about what the statistics actually show:

Consider that over-reliance on background checks inevitably screens out qualified, trustworthy job applicants. More than one in four adults in America has a criminal record, and the vast majority of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future: Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest, and beyond that point, recidivism rates begin to decrease so dramatically that a criminal record no longer indicates that a person is more likely to be arrested than someone without a record. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes—such as the San Francisco Uber driver charged with attacking a passenger with a hammer—have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

9) America’s police kill way too many people. It doesn’t have to be this way.  And a great Vox interview with an enlightened police chief on how we need to change police training and culture so less people needlessly die.

10) With all the focus on the corrupting potential of money in campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the hugely distorting effects of all the money in lobbying.

Whom to give to?

A few years ago I heard Peter Singer’s argument about charitable giving and it definitely made an impact on me.  That, along with several other writers advocating against giving to already wealthy institutions (e.g., my undergraduate alma mater), as well as some really interesting reporting on organizations like Givewell has really influenced my own charitable contributions.  In fact, thanks to Givewell, I spent my New Year’s eve giving to Give Directly, the Fistula Foundation, and Living Goods.  Anyway, in light of that, I was intrigued by Eric Posner’s Slate article suggesting that perhaps I should have given to Duke or some local disadvantaged kids.

First, his summary of the compelling Singer augment:

But the idea that one should contribute one’s excess wealth to the poor is only one prong of effective altruism. Singer elaborates on the other prong in a new book calledThe Most Good You Can Do.

After you resolve to donate your excess wealth to the poor, Singer says, you have an additional ethical obligation to ensure that the money is used in the most effective way possible. This might seem like an obvious idea, but it isn’t. Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

Posner, though, finds some reasons to doubt Singer’s admonitions:

GiveWell does not say that the other charities are worthless but typically declines to recommend them because they do not supply enough information for GiveWell to evaluate their programs. GiveWell declined to recommend Oxfam, for example, because Oxfam does not publish “high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website” and implements many programs that GiveWell does not think are particularly effective. So how do we know that Oxfam does any good? Yet this is a charity that Singer has extolled many times.

Academic research on foreign aid has painted a similarly bleak picture. There is little evidence that the trillions of dollars donated to developing countries has helpedthem develop…

Aid is often lost to corruption, or misused because donors do not understand foreign cultures. Aid can even stoke conflict and damage institutions, as groups compete for access to foreign funds. Well-intentioned aid efforts frequently illustrate the law of unintended consequences. A good illustration is the poster child for aid, the malaria net, which is a cheap and effective way of saving lives. As the New York Timesreported, many net recipients use them as fishing nets, which kill fish, destroy fisheries, and poison water sources, because malaria nets are treated with insecticide. Of course, not everyone misuses malaria nets, but the story illustrates an old finding in the foreign aid literature, which is aid interventions that seem obviously good frequently go awry…

So what’s an effective altruist to do? The utilitarian imperative to search out and help the people with the lowest marginal utility of money around the world is in conflict with our limited knowledge about foreign cultures, which makes it difficult for us to figure out what the worst-off people really need. For this reason, donations to Little League and other local institutions you are familiar with may not be a bad idea. The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much.

That’s a little too easy.  Sure, much of foreign donations may go awry.  But even if 90% of your donation for a charity for starving Haitian orphans goes awry, I would argue that there’s still more benefit to that then getting a poor kid in America a baseball bat.  Not to be holier than thou, as I still give plenty to charities that surely don’t make Givewell or Singer’s cut, but I’m under no illusions as to the relative merit.  For that matter, imagine how much good I could do with poor, staring 3rd world orphans just by giving up HBO and sending them the money (which I actually try not to think about).

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