Quick hits (part II)

Better late than never edition.

1) Jennifer Rubin on the cowardly, underminer of the rule of law, Mitch McConnell:

Let’s cut through all this: Republicans are petrified of provoking Trump (“the bear”), whom they treat as their supervisor and not as an equal branch of government. The notion that Congress should not take out an insurance policy to head off a potential constitutional crisis when the president has repeatedly considered firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein defies logic. By speaking up in such fashion, McConnell is effectively tempting Trump to fire one or both of them. That will set off a firestorm and bring calls for the president’s impeachment.

“There is evidently no limit on the complicity [McConnell] is willing to shoulder,” argued Norman Eisen, a former White House ethics counsel during the Obama administration. “Even as bipartisan support for the legislation is emerging in both houses of Congress — or perhaps because it is emerging — he stands in the way.” He added: “It is a betrayal of the rule of law for McConnell to take this position when the president has reportedly tried twice to fire Mueller, and discussed it frequently, and is now agitated over the Michael Cohen developments. McConnell will be fully as responsible as Trump if the special counsel is fired.”

2) Good for NC taxpayers that 600 people who don’t actually qualify are no longer getting taxpayer subsidized NC Employee health insurance.  What the article totally fails to address, though, is the costs involved– not at all inconsiderable based on my experiences– of auditing every single policy.

3) Someone sharing this “Chick-Fil-A invades NYC with it’s blatant Christianity” take referred to this– tongue half in cheek, I think– as “why Trump won.”  Not all that far off.  I eat at Chick-Fil-A all the time.  Great fast food and the best service by far in fast food.  And Jesus never comes up at all.

4) How can you not love a story of escaped baboons.

5) Amazingly this headline is not an exaggeration, “Homework assignment asks students to list positive aspects of slavery.”  Un-amazingly, it’s in Texas.

6) NYT re-emphasizing the point that conservative political parties the whole world over except climate change.  Except our very own Republican Party.

7) How Trump lied to get in the Forbes 400.

8) Yglesias with an interesting case for Comey:

The greatest safeguard we have against the dangers of Trump’s highly personalized style of leadership and frequently expressed desire to reshape all institutions to serve his personal goal is that officials and bureaucrats have the power to say no. Comey, whatever else he did, said no to his boss and was fired for his trouble. America needs more government officials who are willing to take that stand. In many ways, Comey is not the hero the United States deserves. But in a critical moment, he may be the hero we need. [emphasis mine]

9) Trey Gowdy is a dishonest partisan hack who is pretty good at convincing journalists he’s not.  The truth will out, though.  To wit, the GOP statement on the Comey memos.

10) And Brian Beutler on Comey:

NPR’s Carrie Johnson pressed Comey on this point, asking “[W]as that your job? Was it your job to worry about those things?”

“I think so,” Comey responded. “As the director of the FBI I think my job is to worry about how—despite what your mother told you about not caring what other people think—as the director of the FBI, the public trust is all you have in that institution. And so yes, worrying about that had to be part of the job description of the Department of Justice—I mean, of the leader of the FBI.”

This would be a powerful argument in a political climate where both major ideological factions felt equally committed to a kind of factual politics. That Comey describes the conspiracy theories Republicans propounded about the email investigation as “politics [as] there always have been,” suggests he suffers from a continued blindness to asymmetries in American political life that allowed him to be bamboozled.

Comey reveals here, as the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent noted, that he left the institutions of justice vulnerable to bad faith actors angling to manipulate him. Like many journalists, Comey succumbed to a false assumption of balance—that all politics is just politics. He couldn’t and can’t grapple with the idea that one party is less beholden to empiricism and truth than the other, and uses that leeway to undermine neutral institutions unless those institutions do the bidding of the GOP. [emphasis mine]

Honestly, I’m increasingly seeing the bad faith of the Republican Party as the key defining political feature of our time.  And while Democrats have their own occasional foibles, this is so not a “both sides!” issue.

11) Oh man you’ve gotta love NC social conservatives:

The N.C. Values Coalition is urging North Carolina parents to keep their children home on Monday to protest what it calls “graphic, gender-bending, promiscuity-promoting sex education” being taught in public schools.

Conservative activists are upset about what’s taught both in sex education and in programs meant to build acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender students. They want parents to respond by keeping children home from school as part of Monday’s nationwide “Sex Ed Sit Out” campaign and to vote for candidates who support their views.

In North Carolina, the N.C. Values Coalition wants parents to both keep their children home Monday and to write a letter to their principal explaining their decision.

“This is a national movement to encourage schools to stop using taxpayer dollars to teach programs which are intended to encourage early sexualization of children, causing them to question their own gender and to normalize sexual behaviors that most parents don’t agree with,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition.

Suffice it to say my kids will be in school tomorrow ;-).

12) Teaching a big Intro to American Government class is a very different experience than teaching my upper-level classes.  But I really do value doing it.  Nice piece in Chronicle of Higher Ed on the value of having high-quality, tenure-track professor teaching intro courses:

To a student who has never encountered a discipline before, the professor teaching the introductory course is the discipline, Chambliss said. “If the physics professor is cool, then physics is cool.” If the professor is dull, the student will think the same of the discipline. If the professor is so dull that the student never takes another physics course, well, that impression could hold for the rest of her life.

That’s one reason Chambliss advocates that colleges put their very best professors in front of as many students as possible, as early as possible. That doesn’t mean every senior professor needs to teach introductory courses, he said — it’s a matter of departments moving a few people around, and rewarding them for their efforts.

Professors and administrators often see a major as a coherent whole, he said. But to students, what matters is the particular course they’re taking this term. If they have a bad first experience, they’re unlikely to stick around for a second one.

13) There’s been a huge row about race and IQ of late involving Ezra Klein and Sam Harris.  That said, easily the best thing I’ve read to come out of this has been Yglesias‘ terrific piece about how Charles Murray (author of the infamous The Bell Curve, and the genesis of the current contretemps) is really all about very conservative public policy, not science at all:

The actual conclusion of The Bell Curve is that America should stop trying to improve poor kids’ material living standards because doing so encourages poor, low-IQ women to have more children — you read that correctly. It also concludes that the United States should substantially curtail immigration from Latin America and Africa. These are controversial policy recommendations, not banal observations about psychometrics…

These claims about the baleful impact of social assistance spending are not uncontroversial claims about science. Indeed, they are not claims about science at all. And since they constitute what Murray himself views as the upshot of his book, and because Murray is a policy writer rather than a scientist, it is correct and proper for fair-minded people to read the book for what it actually is: a tract proposing the comprehensive revision of the American welfare state along eugenicist lines.

 

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The pharmaceutical companies are evil. And so are anonymous members of Congress

Was alerted to this via Drum (emphasis in original):

In order to earn FDA approval for generic drugs, manufacturers need samples of the name-brand drug to test against. Frequently, however, the name-brand folks refuse to sell their pills for testing. Congress is on the case:

Legislation to ensure access to drug samples for generic drug manufacturers has broad support in Congress, from Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, on the left to Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, on the right. A similar bill in the House also has diverse backers, including Representatives Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, and Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, who is the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Under the bill, a generic drug developer could file a lawsuit, and a federal court could require a brand-name drug maker to provide samples of its product to a generic company “on commercially reasonable, market-based terms.” The court could also award damages if it found that a drug maker had refused to sell samples “without a legitimate business justification.”

….Lawmakers of both parties pushed for the legislation to be included in a far-reaching budget bill signed by Mr. Trump in February, but it was dropped at the last minute.

So this has broad, bipartisan support and would be an indisputably good thing, but somehow—note the passive voice here—“it was dropped” at the last minute. Apparently somebody’s lobbying budget paid off.

Ugh.  Also, the original article really makes the case for what a policy win this legislation would be:

The F.D.A. says it has received more than 150 inquiries from generic drug companies unable to obtain the samples needed to show that a generic product works the same as a brand-name medicine. Some of the disputes over samples involve drugs that are costly to patients and to the Medicare program and that have experienced sharp price increases in recent years.

“Without generic competition, there is no pressure to drive down the costs of these medications,” the food and drug agency said. Under current law, it said, it cannot compel a brand-name drug manufacturer to sell samples to a generic company.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the legislation would save the federal government $3.8 billion over 10 years, mainly because Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs would spend less on prescription drugs. Savings for consumers and private health insurance plans could be much greater.

Well, damn, who is responsible for this last minute “drop”?  Obviously, the lobbyists, but that doesn’t happen without compliant legislators who make this happen.  I’m teaching Interest Groups and I work hard to dispel the notion that interest groups are basically buying the policy they want.  But in some cases, i.e., this one, it is damn hard to argue otherwise.  Of course, this is a buried in the virtual paper story that virtually nobody has paid any attention to, but that, of course, is where lobbying and interest groups can have their most sway, not on highly public, contentious issues like guns, tax policy, etc.  And it’s just damn depressing.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Science-based advice on how to up your selfie game.

2) Really enjoyed this account of Sweden’s gender-neutral pre-schools from some American friends who are over there for the year.

3) I love window seats on planes because… you’re flying!  Turns out, it also minimized your likelihood of getting sick from a fellow passenger.

3) Chait on replacing McMaster with Bolton:

The foreign policy apparatus really has been engaged in an unprecedented campaign of leaking, the only possible motivation for which is its white-knuckled terror of a president who clearly lacks the mental capacity to handle the awesome power he has gained.

Every account of Trump’s decision to replace H.R. McMaster with John Bolton reinforces this narrative. Trump’s main problem with McMaster was that his briefings were not dumbed-down to a low enough level. McMaster “is an intensely focused intellectual whose detailed briefings, by all accounts, drove the president crazy,” reports Politico. “Trump took to mocking him openly in the Oval Office, asking other White House aides why McMaster was so serious.”

The Post has previously reported that Trump had registered a somewhat similar complaint with his now-fired secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. (“The president has long clashed with Tillerson, who he believes is too ‘establishment’ in his thinking.”) One might think “establishment” would be a positive association for a job like secretary of State. It makes sense to want somebody who’s lax and easygoing to handle jobs like, say, arranging hotel-room dates with porn stars you meet on the golf course, but “establishment” would convey the proper set of attributes for a job involving complex international diplomacy.

But Trump seems to find normal foreign policy boring, and craves the kind of narrative drama found in the manufactured cartoon moralism found on Fox News, where evil abounds, and the only question is whether it will be faced down by tough guys or by sniveling wimps.

Bolton was constantly appearing on Trump’s television screen delivering thrilling vows to take on evildoers. Meanwhile, McMaster was in his office every day giving boring lectures.

4) The hardest course in the Humanities?  Damn, and I thought my undergrad classes at Duke were demanding.

5) Michele Goldberg’s take on the conservative columnist controversy.

6) Ralph Peters’ first-person take on why he left Fox:

My error was waiting so long to walk away. The chance to speak to millions of Americans is seductive, and, with the infinite human capacity for self-delusion, I rationalized that I could make a difference by remaining at Fox and speaking honestly.

I was wrong.

As early as the fall of 2016, and especially as doubts mounted about the new Trump administration’s national security vulnerabilities, I increasingly was blocked from speaking on the issues about which I could offer real expertise: Russian affairs and our intelligence community. I did not hide my views at Fox and, as word spread that I would not unswervingly support President Trump and, worse, that I believed an investigation into Russian interference was essential to our national security, I was excluded from segments that touched on Vladimir Putin’s possible influence on an American president, his campaign or his administration.

I was the one person on the Fox payroll who, trained in Russian studies and the Russian language, had been face to face with Russian intelligence officers in the Kremlin and in far-flung provinces. I have traveled widely in and written extensively about the region. Yet I could only rarely and briefly comment on the paramount security question of our time: whether Putin and his security services ensnared the man who would become our president. Trump’s behavior patterns and evident weaknesses (financial entanglements, lack of self-control and sense of sexual entitlement) would have made him an ideal blackmail target — and the Russian security apparatus plays a long game.

7) Could science really make infertility a thing of the past?  Maybe and here’s how.

8) Spent some time in Duplin County, NC recently learning about responses to the opioid epidemic.  I learned that it is a huge hog-producing area.  I had no idea.  Pretty disturbing Rolling Stone story on how China is basically treating NC as the developing world:

Today, Smithfield sends more than a quarter of its pork abroad, especially to China, which received nearly 300,000 tons in 2016. Part of what made the company such an attractive target is that it’s about 50 percent cheaper to raise hogs in North Carolina than in China. This is due to less-expensive pig-feed prices and larger farms, but it’s also because of loose business and environmental regulations, especially in red states, which have made the U.S. an increasingly attractive place for foreign companies to offshore costly and harmful business practices. [emphases mine]

America’s top hog-producing county is Duplin County, North Carolina, where future hams outnumber humans about 30 to 1. In this rural expanse of sandy fields and loblolly pines, about 2 million pigs are warehoused in hundreds of football-field-size metal barns – about 2,450 pigs per square mile. All those pigs produce a tremendous amount of waste. A mature hog, whose only activity is to eat, excretes about 14 pounds of manure a day, which means Duplin’s hogs generate about 15,700 tons of waste daily – twice as much poop as the human population of the city of New York, according to Food and Water Watch.

Behind each barn, millions of gallons of liquid hog waste are kept in colossal open-air lagoons – essentially pits dug into the clay, many without a concrete or plastic liner. To prevent overflowing, farms spray it out as fertilizer on crops, which can create a mist that drifts onto nearby homes and into their inhabitants’ lungs, causing all manner of respiratory and health problems. The waste can also leak through the clay pits into the water table, or flood the whole region, as happened in 1996 and 1998 when hurricanes inundated the area. Eastern North Carolina is packed with more than 9 million pigs; the state’s top five hog-producing counties alone produce 15.5 million tons of manure annually. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that 160,000 people living in the region may be harmed by pig waste. And those victims are disproportionately minorities, according to studies conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. As Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, says, “What’s happening in eastern North Carolina is that poor people are literally getting shit on.”

Globalization has allowed rich countries like America to outsource polluting industrial processes to poorer nations. But as China becomes increasingly wealthy and assertive, says Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, “it is outsourcing a dirty industry to the United States so they don’t have to bear its pollution and they can just send the finished product back home.” More than just America’s environment and human health is at stake. “Low-paying jobs, like hog slaughtering and breeding, will remain in places like Duplin County, but the higher-paid executive and marketing jobs will be lost,” says Usha Haley, a professor at West Virginia University who has studied the Chinese takeover of American agricultural assets for a decade. “China will not care about the health of people living beside the hog farms. China will act in its own self-interest to leave the pollution here, but take the valuable clean pork back to China.”

9) Great Christopher Frederico thread on the conservative columnist issue:

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this from  Parkland student who tried to be nice to the Nikolas Cruz:

This deeply dangerous sentiment, expressed under the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag, implies that acts of school violence can be prevented if students befriend disturbed and potentially dangerous classmates. The idea that we are to blame, even implicitly, for the murders of our friends and teachers is a slap in the face to all Stoneman Douglas victims and survivors…

This is not to say that children should reject their more socially awkward or isolated peers — not at all. As a former peer counselor and current teacher’s assistant, I strongly believe in and have seen the benefits of reaching out to those who need kindness most.

But students should not be expected to cure the ills of our genuinely troubled classmates, or even our friends, because we first and foremost go to school to learn. The implication that Mr. Cruz’s mental health problems could have been solved if only he had been loved more by his fellow students is both a gross misunderstanding of how these diseases work and a dangerous suggestion that puts children on the front line.

It is not the obligation of children to befriend classmates who have demonstrated aggressive, unpredictable or violent tendencies. It is the responsibility of the school administration and guidance department to seek out those students and get them the help that they need, even if it is extremely specialized attention that canno4) t be provided at the same institution.

2) Apparently, human ability to metabolize caffeine comes in three genetic variants.  Pretty sure I’m a fast metabolizer.

3) Excellent Wired story on modern technology and the ever-changing boundaries of when a preemie can survive and what the implications may be.

4) Of course, Trump’s talk of executing drug dealers is Trump at his worst.

5) Speaking of the worst.  It’s pretty clear that there aren’t many worse humans than new National Security Adviser, John Bolton.  No wonder Trump likes him.  This NYT article nicely lays out what a pathetic human being he is.

6) When I first saw this NYT headline, I thought it was a metaphor, “A People in Limbo: Many Living Entirely on the Water.” It’s not (okay, it is, but also reality).  A totally amazing must-read/must-see visual essay.

7) The University of Virginia women’s basketball coach has had to give up her job so that she can actually adopt her Senagalese-born adoptive daughter.  And the hold-up is not Senegal, but US immigration authorities.  Shame on them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it could not discuss Boyle’s case because of privacy laws, but officials said the agency aims to process cases efficiently and “considers the welfare of the child to be paramount.”

“We are committed to acting in the best interests of the children and families while upholding the integrity of our country’s immigration system,” spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira said in an email.

Apparently, they decided the “paramount” welfare of the child in this case involves leaving the home she knows in America to live in Senegal indefinitely?  Or somehow adopting African children will undermine the “integrity” of our immigration system?  Ugh.

8) And, hey, speaking of the U.S. Government doing wrong… how about telling teachers they get grants for paying for their education if they work in high-need areas, but then turning those grants into multi-thousand dollar loans due to inconsequential paperwork issues.  What is wrong with people?!

9) The whole NFL cheerleader thing annoys me as it is just clearly the idea that there should be female “eye-candy” at football games.   And then these ridiculous rules they place on the cheerleaders like they are some model of 19th century Victorian virtue.  Like the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleader who was fired for posting a photo of herself in a one-piece swimsuit on a friends-only Instagram account.  Please!  (The photos are so tame).

10) I was quite intrigued with this latest finding on education, marriage, and turnout.  This is something I’ll be sharing with my classes for some time to come:

A large literature finds a positive relationship between marriage and turnout. However, previous research has ignored the characteristics of the partner. This paper contributes by studying how a partner’s education level is associated with individual turnout. The data cover the US for a time period of more than 40 years, as well as 24 European countries over a time period of 12 years. Including the partner’s education level in a model of who votes shows that the partner effect on voting may have been misinterpreted in the previous literature. The relationship between having a partner and turnout is not as general as it is often assumed. Instead of a small positive effect for a large proportion of the population (married people), there is a substantively larger association between turnout and a small proportion of the population, namely, the less-educated individuals who have a highly educated partner. [emphasis mine]

11) Good argument on how we need to re-think tenure decisions in academia.  And, yeah, more good evidence that we really shouldn’t be using student evaluations as currently constituted.  I do really like the idea of re-thinking these based on some of the more innovative student survey approaches in K-12.

12) Ezra Klein’s lengthy take on the history of “the science” of race and IQ was really, really good.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Great Wired article on the inherent difficulties in self-driving cars and testing the technology:

Dozens of companies are developing autonomous driving technology in the United States. They all rely on human safety drivers as backups. The odd thing about that reliance is that it belies one of the key reasons so many people are working on this technology. We are good drivers when we’re vigilant. But we’re terrible at being vigilant. We get distracted and tired. We drink and do drugs. We kill 40,000 people on US roads every year and more than a million worldwide. Self-driving cars are supposed to fix that. But if we can’t be trusted to watch the road when we’re actually driving, how did anyone think we’d be good at it when the robot’s doing nearly all the work?

2) I’ve become quasi-obsessed with what seems to be the great new intellectual charlatan of our age, Jordan Peterson.  Loved this NY Review of Books take:

Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.

Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations…

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics.

3) As I was hearing about many lives being saved by Narcan (nalaxone) this weekend, I couldn’t help think about this study (that suggested it actually led to increased opioid use through moral hazard) that was a pretty much classic example of how to lie with statistics.

4) Chait on all the “but liberals should be attacking important problems rather than giving right-wingers ammunition on the illiberalism on campus issue”

Many columns have made the case that too many columns have made the case against political correctness on campus. That is not necessarily a bad thing. If people have intense feelings about the number of columns devoted to discussing free speech on campus, they should express them. The heart wants what the heart wants.

But complaints about the quantity of a discussion tend to devolve into non sequiturs. Many of the anti-anti-PC-niks, while conceding that it’s wrong to shout down speakers or close down newspapers, use the moral power of some other issue to make their case. Because we have too many anti-PC columns, they insist, we have too few columns on some worthier subject. “This is not to say that counter-protests and free speech debates aren’t important and don’t deserve our attention,” argues McClennen. “But it is stunning to note the public apathy toward the systematic defunding of higher ed — a move that affects all families regardless of political beliefs.” Uyehara complains bitterly that “The Free Speech Grifters” — her term for critics of illiberalism on campus — “were silent when Maya Wiley, the Social Justice SVP at the New School, made news for the humanity she showed toward Sam Nunberg during his six-hour media meltdown over an FBI subpoena.”

As a matter of fact, I was not silent about Maya Wiley’s extraordinary gesture toward Sam Nunberg. But imagine that Uyehara was factually correct, and I had failed to discuss that episode. What does one have to do with the other? If the real problem with anti-PC columns is that they ignore more important issues off campus, then doesn’t that criticism apply with equal force to anti-anti-PC columns?

The anti-anti-PC columns propose numerous psychological theories to explain the perverse motivation of the moderate liberals and (generally) anti-Trump conservatives who talk too much about the campus left. We have supposedly given aid and comfort to the far right, which has deftly exploited the excesses of the campus left.

My response is that the right is attempting to discredit liberalism by attaching it to the illiberal left, and the proper response, both morally and politically, is to separate the two. It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that. [emphasis mine]

5) Dave Leonhardt on how education should be an easy winning political issue.

6) The evidence for gender bias in student evaluations of college teaching is ever more clear.  Good case that we should therefore not use them in employment/tenure decisions.  Given the alternative of an entirely non-empirical way to assess teaching (still susceptible to gender bias), I suggest we put a lot more thought into finding the right way to do this.

7) The funding for K-12 education in Oklahoma is just a joke (many systems have moved to 4-day weeks to make the budgetary ends meet).  Yet, how many frustrated Oklahomans will actually reject the Republican party that has brought them this low-taxes-at-all costs educational disgrace?

8) Looks like human culture as we know it may have began well earlier than we thought:

When Rick Potts started digging at Olorgesailie, the now-dry basin of an ancient Kenyan lake, he figured that it would take three years to find everything there was to find. That was in 1985, and Potts is now leading his fourth decade of excavation. It’s a good thing he stayed. In recent years, his team has uncovered a series of unexpected finds, which suggest that human behavior and culture became incredibly sophisticated well before anyone suspected—almost at the very dawn of our species, Homo sapiens.

The team found obsidian tools that came from sources dozens of miles away—a sign of long-distance trade networks. They found lumps of black and red rock that had been processed to create pigments—a sign of symbolic thought and representation. They found carefully crafted stone tools that are indicative of the period known as the Middle Stone Age; that period was thought to have started around 280,000 years ago, but the Olorgesailie tools are between 305,000 and 320,000 years old.

Collectively, these finds speak to one of the most important questions in human evolution: When did anatomically modern people, with big brains and bipedal stances, become behaviorally modern, with symbolic art, advanced tools, and a culture that built on itself? Scientists used to believe that the latter milestone arrived well after the former, when our species migrated into Europe between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, and went through a “creative explosion” that produced the evocative cave art of Lascaux and Chauvet. But this conspicuously Eurocentric idea has been overturned by a wealth of evidence showing a much earlier origin for modern human behavior—in Africa, the continent of our birth.

The new discoveries at Olorgesailie push things back even further. They suggest that many of our most important qualities—long-term planning, long-distance exploration, large social networks, symbolic representation, and innovative technology—were already in place 20,000 to 40,000 years earlier than believed. That coincides with the age of the earliest known human fossils, recently found elsewhere in Africa. “What we’re seeing in Olorgesailie is right at the root of Homo sapiens,” Potts says. “It seems that this package of cognitive and social behaviors were there from the outset.”

ACA eight years later

I don’t usually post my blog to Facebook, but looks like I did 8 years ago today in honor of ACA passing.  Was pretty interested to see how my thoughts then held up:

1) Hooray!!!  This is a very big deal. This is hugely important legislation and it is damn good legislation.  Sure, it’s not perfect– what is– but it sets down a structure that can be improved upon.  Want a public option to compete with private insurers in the exchange– it can be done.  Want to open up the exchanges to all employers to start moving us away from an employer-based system– it can be done.  Want to implement more Medicare-based priced controls to drive the market– it will be done.  And, there’s a good chance these things will happen in the medium-term.  [emphasis now] This bill extends health coverage to millions of Americans who otherwise would not have it– that saves lives and makes many, many lives a hell of a lot better.  It also makes a very important start on cost controls.  This part needs some work, but the CBO estimates on cost control are pessimistic, if anything, and very importantly, we’ve got basic structures in place that make getting costs down further much more technically and politically feasible.

Well, I pretty much stand by that.  What I obviously completely failed to anticipate was ability of the Republican Party to completely hinder any improvements and even just needed technical adjustments.  Still, I’d say we’re way better off than if this bill had failed in 2010.

2) The Republican party has absolutely embarrassed themselves on this issue.  They’ve completed foregone any shred of intellectual dignity they have had.  From “death panels” to arguing about a “socialist government takeover” of medicine, their rhetoric has been absolutely absurd and intellectually incoherent.  We could have actually had a better plan, e.g., a more effective excise tax, more movement away from an employer-based system, if the Republicans did not demagogue the issue so.  Of course, in many ways, given the stunning ignorance of so many Republicans in Congress, I’m not sure it could’ve been any other way.  In his recent visit to NCSU, David Frum suggested that their might be only a dozen or so Republicans in the House who truly understand policy.  I won’t even waste but a sentence on the tea-baggers.  Talk about embarrassing– what complete and total ignorant buffoons they are (oh, and racist, too).

Uhhh, yeah, that holds up.  And they’ve only gotten worse.

4) It was an interesting development the way in which abortion, which really has nothing to do with this bill, almost brought it crashing down.  In the end, Obama’s executive order was nothing but a face-saving move for Stupak and friends to walk back from their intellectually untenable position. What I’ll take away from this aspect…the US Conference of Catholic Bishops behaved in a shockingly ignorant and immoral (yes, immoral, damnit) manner.  They were willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands already-born Americans for legislation, which, in all likelihood would diminish, rather than increase abortions.  Also, the institutional right-to-life movement showed themselves to be nothing more than an arm of the Republican party.  A recent NRLC committee claimed this to be the “most pro-abortion legislation” in history.  Talk about a lack of intellectual credibility.  I actually used to be somewhat sympathetic to the pro-life movement, but they have shown repeatedly that their interests in life end at birth and that they have decided whatever is good for the Republican party is good for them.

Kind of amazing to realize that abortion politics almost sunk this bill when it is such a tiny, tiny thing of what that ACA is all about.

5) The Democrats are going to lose a lot of seats in 2010.  But not because of the health care vote.  The economy is still very weak and the Democrats are overextended after two very strong Congressional elections.  It’s inevitable to lose a lot of seats.  They would be so much worse off if health care reform had failed.  That would’ve have allowed Republicans to completely define the issue and why it failed; and showed the Democrats to be completely ineffectual.  I think I heard EJ Dionne on the radio say today something to the effect of, the only thing worse than a socialist is an ineffectual socialist.  The press and the country for the longest time has been totally focused on the process.  We’re done with the sausage metaphors!  Except this: sausage is awfully tasty.  Of course, a lot of the taste doesn’t kick in till 2014, but we’ve got some good nibbles to take effect soon (e.g., closing the Medicare donut hole; allowing young adults to stay on parents’ insurance until 26).  The Democrats can now actually defend a good solid bill, not just mythical abstractions and lies (not that the Republicans won’t keep lying, but at this point the media can be much more straightforward in rebutting lies).

Well, the Democrats did lose a lot of seats and certain political scientists to remain nameless ended up arguing that the health care vote did directly cost seats:

We investigate the relationship between controversial roll call votes and support for Democratic incumbents in the 2010 midterm elections. Consistent with previous analyses, we find that supporters of health care reform paid a significant price at the polls. We go beyond these analyses by identifying a mechanism for this apparent effect: constituents perceived incumbents who supported health care reform as more ideologically distant (in this case, more liberal), which in turn was associated with lower support for those incumbents. Our analyses show that this perceived ideological difference mediates most of the apparent impact of support for health care reform on both individual-level vote choice and aggregate-level vote share. We conclude by simulating counterfactuals that suggest health care reform may have cost Democrats their House majority.

Of course, most of those seats would have been lost for the reasons stated above, but health care does seem to have made the problem worse and perhaps worse enough to be the difference in majority control.

Anyway, obviously I’ve missed some stuff, I’d say most of what I wrote held up.  I should probably check back on myself more often.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Thanks to EMG for this NatGeo story on fraternal twins where one appears white and the other black (because, honestly, race is entirely a social-cultural construct of which skin tone is just one of many factors):

Historically, when humans have drawn lines of identity—separating Us from Them—they’ve often relied on skin color as a proxy for race. But the 21st-century understanding of human genetics tells us that the whole idea of race is a human invention.

Modern science confirms “that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history”—the result of mutations, migrations, natural selection, the isolation of some populations, and interbreeding among others, writes science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. They are not racial differences because the very concept of race—to quote DNA-sequencing pioneer Craig Venter—“has no genetic or scientific basis.”

2) Found this New Yorker article on facial feminization surgery for trans-women pretty fascinating.  Obviously, pretty curious for Nicole’s thoughts on the topic.

3) Why “white Evangelicals abandoned their principles for Trump?”  I’d say because they were only pretending these were there principles when convenient and because PID> religion.

4) Presidential historian Robert Dallek on Trump’s White House:

It’s deadly to a presidency to be surrounded by sycophants who are going to be emphasizing the need to stroke the president’s ego, to make him feel as if he’s always right and ingenious. There are no easy decisions to be made in the White House; everything is difficult and complex and consequential. If ever there was a need for honesty and hard truths, it’s in the White House.

Someone once said that history is argument without end, but so is politics and policymaking. But Trump is someone who is so thin-skinned and who thrives on the need for approval and adulation that it’s got to be hard to maintain an intellectually honest climate around him…

I think you have to go all the way back to Warren G. Harding in 1921 to find a president as unqualified to hold the office as Trump is. Harding was not a very bright guy, and even though he had been lieutenant governor of Ohio and became a senator, he was terribly shallow and unimpressive. He got elected, in part, because he looked like a president and because there was a lot of discontent at the time. But he had no idea what he was doing, and yet he was convinced that he did.

Trump is a reasonable heir to someone like Harding because Trump is uninformed, doesn’t read, doesn’t seem to have much intellectual curiosity, and seems to trust his instincts more than anything else. Like Harding, he thinks he can solve everything by himself, and that’s not a good way to keep the best and smartest team around him.

It also means we’re likely to get people in high-level positions who are insufficiently qualified and who don’t have much experience, but because they make Trump happy or comfortable, they’re able to survive and thrive. That, unfortunately, is where we are today.

5) Love the UMBC coach’s openness about his family’s struggles with his son’s mental illness (OCD).  We need to do so much more as a society to destigmatize mental illness.

6) Peter Beinart on the rise of right-wing foreign policy:

It’s useful to see Pompeo as part of a cadre of influential, foreign policy-oriented, Republican politicians that includes Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. All four were elected to Congress with support from the Tea Party, a movement that depicted moderate Republicans —as Goldwater once depicted Eisenhower and Nixon—as complicit with the welfare state. Pompeo has particularly close ties to the Tea Party’s most important funders, the Koch Brothers.
On foreign policy, the American right has historically oscillated between isolationism and crusading interventionism. The Koch Brothers and Rand Paul lean toward isolationism. Rubio and Cotton lean toward crusading interventionism. What they all share is self-righteousness. The United States is pure; its adversaries are wicked. Thus, America must either shun other nations or dominate them. What it cannot do is recognize that even its adversaries have reasonable fears and legitimate interests, which America should try to accommodate.Because America is pure and its enemies are evil, accommodating them is immoral. Like Goldwater and William F. Buckley, who saw compromise with communist regimes as appeasement, Pompeo has called the Iran deal “surrender” and insisted that the United States make “no concessions” in any talks with North Korea.

7) It’s still somewhat of a mystery of what causes canker sores.  I used to suffer from them quite often until about 15 or so years ago when I started using Listerine twice a day and they became a rarity for me ever since.8) How our collective use of mapping apps could make traffic worse:

In the pre-mobile-app days, drivers’ selfishness was limited by their knowledge of the road network. In those conditions, both simulation and real-world experience showed that most people stuck to the freeways and arterial roads. Sure, there were always people who knew the crazy, back-road route, but the bulk of people just stuck to the routes that transportation planners had designated as the preferred way to get from A to B.Now, however, a new information layer is destroying the nudging infrastructure that traffic planners built into cities. Commuters armed with mobile mapping apps, route-following Lyft and Uber drivers, and software-optimized truckers can all act with a more perfect selfishness.

In some happy universe, this would lead to socially optimal outcomes, too. But a new body of research at the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies suggests that the reality is far more complicated. In some scenarios, traffic-beating apps might work for an individual, but make congestion worse overall. And autonomous vehicles, touted as an answer to traffic-y streets, could deepen the problem.“This problem has been vastly overlooked,” Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, told me. “It is just the beginning of something that is gonna be much worse.”

9) Honestly, this summary of social science research on gun owners comes across a little too much like crack for liberals to me, e.g.,

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

I don’t doubt some of the very real correlations, but I think there’s a little much cultural judgment being read into this.  I also found, “Why Gun Culture Is So Strong in Rural America” pretty interesting, but problematic in it’s own ways.

To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns; it runs even deeper than the Second Amendment. At a 2015 campaign event during the Iowa caucuses, J. C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.

The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference. Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.

To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility. Even after a horrific event like the school shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, more gun control would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be even more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting. What my conservative friends see is not gun control, but rather control, period.

Yeah, I get it, understand the rural gun owners.  But, I also understand that they are in complete denial of the overwhelming evidence of the relationship between our lax gun policies and our homicide and mass shooting rates.

10) I’ve been pretty curious of the research about Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly after reading Endurance.  This is a nice piece on DNA changes and how it is a lot more complicated than typically reported.

MARK AND SCOTT ARE NOT IDENTICAL

Another somewhat alarming-sounding finding is that Scott Kelly’s DNA “no longer matches that of his identical twin.”

For anyone familiar with genetics, this is possibly the most obvious statement one could make. We humans accumulate random mutations throughout our genomes as we age, and the chances that Mark and Scott’s genetic sequences were randomly modified in exactly the same way are astronomically small. In reality, their DNA hasn’t been identical for most of their lives.

That’s just at the most basic sequence level. All sorts of chemical modifications to DNA can dramatically affect where and how genes are expressed, and those markings—termed epigenetic—are malleable. Genomes add and erase those markings all the time, and they’re not the same between identical twins, either.

Throw in a heaping pile of spaceflight, where exposure to higher levels of radiation necessarily mutates DNA more quickly, and the truly surprising result would be seeing no difference between Mark’s and Scott’s genetic sequences. The fact that they differ, and that Scott’s mutation rate is apparently a bit higher than Mark’s, is totally expected.

“No twin pairs are ever completely identical, and we all do accrue random mutations all the time,” Bailey says. “No doubt, Scott did or does have different or more mutations than Mark—and anyone else not being in space for a year—due to radiation exposure alone.”

11) Love this, “Want to stop climate change?  Educate girls and give them birth control.”

12) Only a Humanities professor would write an impassioned defense of the Humanities titled, “There is no case for the Humanities.”

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