Yes, replacing regular soda with diet soda will lead to weight loss

If you are new to my diet soda obsession, start here.  (Short version; I think it is human nature to way oversell the idea that diet soda just must be bad for you).

Of course, the main purpose of diet soda is to reduce calorie consumption while still maintaining the sensory enjoyment of soda (and, yes, I love drinking Diet Dr Pepper).  Many correlational studies have found that diet soda does not actually help people lose weight, but there’s a ton of confounds in all this.  Anyway, here’s a nice study (thanks, BB) that summarizes RCT’s and shows that yes, if you use diet soda as intended– as a replacement for sugar sweetened soda– it will lead to weight loss (or less weight gain, as the case may be):

There is an ongoing debate about the possible influences of nonnutritive sweeteners (NNS) on body weight. We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with NNS to assess their impact on body weight. We systematically searched for RCTs at least 4 weeks in duration, evaluating the effect of NNS on body weight, both in subjects with healthy weight and in subjects with overweight/obesity at any age, and compared the effects of NNS vs caloric and noncaloric comparators. The primary outcome was the difference in body weight between NNS and comparators. Twenty studies were eligible (n = 2914). Participants consuming NNS showed significant weight/BMI differences favouring NNS compared with nonusers. Grouping by nature of comparator revealed that NNS vs placebo/no intervention and NNS vs water produced no effect. When comparing NNS vs sucrose, significant weight/BMI differences appeared favouring NNS. Consumption of NNS led to significantly negative weight/BMI differences in unrestricted energy diets, but not in weight-reduction diets. Participants with overweight/obesity and adults showed significant favourable weight/BMI differences with NNS. Data suggest that replacing sugar with NNS leads to weight reduction, particularly in participants with overweight/obesity under an unrestricted diet, information that could be utilized for evidence-based public policy decisions.

To be fair, there’s genuine concerns about how artificial sweeteners may impact the gut microbiome,(if anything, maybe a good case to stick with Aspartame— the best one, anyway– over sucralose) but, to this point, there’s just not a lot of evidence that diet sodas are “bad for you” as so many want to believe.  If you drink regular soda and want to lose weight, there’s a good argument to be made for replacing it with diet soda.

Quasi-unrelated, but I came across this yesterday.  There’s a ton of interesting things to say about the new weight loss drugs (Derek Thompson is a fan), but, the reality is that they seem to be hugely effective for helping people lose weight with very tolerable and no dangerous side effects.  The NYT has an article with this scary headline, “Those Weight Loss Drugs May Do a Number on Your Face” and it’s like, whoa, what are these drugs doing to your face??  They are making you lose a lot of weight, which can actually make you look older.  That whole frame plus many of the comments give off a vibe of “it’s cheating to lose weight with drugs and not have to face major negative consequences” that really reminds me of the “of course diet soda is bad for you” vibe I get all the time.  The next person who brings up the microbiome with me, will get a thoughtful discussion, alas, most all I ever hear is “the chemicals!!” (watch out for dihydrogen monoxide). 

Quick hits (part II)

1) Billy Binion on Alec Baldwin:

If convicted of the first involuntary manslaughter charge, Baldwin faces up to 18 months behind bars. If convicted of the second—to which prosecutors tacked on a firearm enhancement—he faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.

Carmack-Altwies makes her case sound like a slam dunk. It is anything but.

The case comes down to what the word negligence means under the law. It doesn’t refer to a careless, airheaded moment with deadly consequences. That negligence has to be criminal, which under the New Mexico statute requires “that the defendant must possess subjective knowledge ‘of the danger or risk to others posed by his or her actions.'”

Does that mean that Baldwin is blameless? No. Does that mean that the prosecution will have an easy time convincing a jury that he is criminally culpable? Also no. “The prosecution would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was subjectively aware of the danger: that he actually thought about the possibility that the gun might be loaded, and proceeded to point it and pull the trigger despite that,” writes Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA. “That’s much harder than just to show carelessness, or even gross carelessness.” …

 

So why bring the case against Baldwin? I’d venture to guess it’s not because the government thinks that the actor, unpalatable as he may be, needs to spend five years in prison to protect public safety. Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor helping on the case, provided a clue during the national press tour she did alongside Carmack-Altwies. “We’re trying to definitely make it clear that everybody’s equal under the law, including A-list actors like Alec Baldwin,” she said. Ironically, one wonders if these charges would have materialized had no one famous been involved and had it not attracted the attention of the world.

2) Eugene Volokh:

Involuntary manslaughter is thus very different from the voluntary; the similarities are just that it’s a homicide but not murder. One branch of it (“manslaughter committed in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to felony”) is the so-called “manslaughter-misdemeanor” rule, an analog to the “felony-murder” rule. The second branch involves, basically, causing death through negligence.

But not just any old negligence, of the sort that we’re familiar with from civil cases. Rather, it has to be “criminal negligence,” which is defined in New Mexico as “willful disregard of the rights or safety of others”—what some other states might call “recklessness”:

In New Mexico, “the State must show at least criminal negligence to convict a criminal defendant of involuntary manslaughter.” Because involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing, we only attach felony liability where the actor has behaved with the requisite mens rea. This Court has made clear that the criminal negligence standard applies to all three categories of involuntary manslaughter. Criminal negligence exists where the defendant “act[s] with willful disregard of the rights or safety of others and in a manner which endanger[s] any person or property.” We also require that the defendant must possess subjective knowledge “of the danger or risk to others posed by his or her actions.” [Emphasis added.]

Say, then, that the prosecution can show that Baldwin pointed the gun at Hutchins and pulled the trigger, but carelessly believed (without checking this for himself) that it was unloaded.

It wouldn’t be enough to show that Baldwin was careless, negligent, or lacked due caution in the ordinary sense of the word. The prosecution would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was subjectively aware of the danger: that he actually thought about the possibility that the gun might be loaded, and proceeded to point it and pull the trigger despite that. That’s much harder than just to show carelessness, or even gross carelessness, though of course much depends on what evidence the prosecution has gathered.

3) NYT: “Lights, Camera, Weapons Check? Actors Worry After Baldwin Charges.”

The news that Alec Baldwin is facing manslaughter charges for killing a cinematographer with a gun he had been told was safe had the actor Steven Pasquale thinking back to the filming of “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” more than a decade ago, when he and other actors were handed military-style rifles and told to start shooting.

He felt safe, he said, because he relied on the professional props experts and the armorer who had checked and shown him the gun.

“We are artists — we are not actual cowboys, actual cops, actual superheroes,” Mr. Pasquale said. “We are not Jason Bourne. I can’t even begin to imagine an actor having the responsibility of now needing to be the safety person on the set regarding prop guns. That’s insane.”

The charges being brought against Mr. Baldwin for an on-set shooting had many actors recalling their own experiences with guns on sets, and discussing safety measures and who bears primary responsibility for them…

Kirk Acevedo, an actor who has worked extensively with weapons on shows like “Band of Brothers” and in the film “The Thin Red Line,” said it was typical for a film’s armorer, who is responsible for guns and ammunition on set, to open a gun and demonstrate to the actor that it was empty. Mr. Acevedo said that while he owned guns and had experience with them, many actors lacked the expertise to check firearms on their own. In some cases, he noted, the actors are children.

“It’s not me,” he said, referring to who has the responsibility. “It can’t be me. If you have never fired a weapon before, how would you know how to do all of that? For some people, it’s hard to even pull back the slide.”

4) Really interesting take from Rob Henderson on family dysfunction among low income Americans, ‘No One Expects Young Men To Do Anything and They Are Responding By Doing Nothing”

If you come from poverty and chaos, you are up against 3 enemies:

1. Dysfunction and deprivation

2. Yourself, as a result of what that environment does to you

3. The upper class, who wants to keep you mired in it

The people with the most money and education—the class most responsible for shaping politics and culture and customs—ensure that their children are raised in stable homes.

But actively undermine the norm for everyone else…

Absent fathers and broken family units are major factors for many social ills. It’s obvious but no one wants to talk about it.

I am well aware of the behavior genetics research, twin studies, and so on indicating little effect of home environment on personality, propensity for crime, addiction, and so on. These studies are inapplicable for kids living in extreme dysfunction.

Behavior geneticists investigate the relative role of genetic and environmental variation within the sampled population.

Behavioral genetics studies report findings from within the environmental variation in their samples,not in all conceivable environments.

For example, there are many studies on identical twins separated at birth who are adopted by different families.

Researchers find little difference between these twins when they are adults. Their personalities, IQ, preferences, and so on are very similar.

But twins are usually adopted by intact middle-class families.

They are typically taken in by married parents with the means to jump through the hoops to qualify for adoption. Additionally, adoptive parents are the kind of people who would adopt, which introduces another layer of similarity.

I’ve yet to see any twin studies with one set of identical twins raised in extremely bad environments and another in good ones.

The intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne has written:

“A problem with heritability study samples is that they tend to consist of more middle and upper-class individuals than a representative sample would have…results of behavioral genetics studies will indicate genes are important—if a person already lives in an industrialized nation in a home where basic needs are met…it is not clear how well these results apply to individuals in highly unfavorable environments.”

In a chapter titled Genes and the Mind, the psychologist David Lykken states:

“If twins were separated as infants and placed, one with a middle-class Minnesota family and the other with an 18-year-old unmarried mother living on AFDC in the South Bronx, the twins will surely differ 30 years later.”

Yes, genes are responsible for human traits and behavior. But these traits are responsive to social norms and other environmental factors too.

Height is 90 percent heritable. But it is still malleable by the environment. Before Korea was divided, Northerners were taller than Southerners. Today, North Koreans are 6 inches shorter, on average, than South Koreans. Did their genes change? No. Their environments did.

Obesity is highly heritable (40-70%) but the percentage of Americans who are obese has tripled since 1982.

Access to food made people change their behavior by eating more.

Tobacco use is highly heritable (60-80%) but the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped by half since 1982.

Strong norms against smoking made people change their behavior by smoking less.


Norms were loosened around being an absentee father. So more men took the option.

But nobody wants to admit it because it upsets people.

Instead, we retreat to discussions of poverty and economics because talking about family and parenting makes people feel weird and judgmental.

But young men will only do what’s expected of them.

And a lot did use to be expected. There were social norms to work hard, provide, take care of loved ones, and so on.

Today, these norms have largely dissolved.

Young men have responded accordingly.

5) Really good stuff from Jessica Grose on NZ prime minister, having it all, and what we expect out of our politicians:

In 2023, it’s clear that women can be ambitious and have families. We shouldn’t — we don’t — need to prove that at this point, though Ardern provided us with ample evidence of how well it can be done. She became prime minister in 2017 at just 37. She gave birth while in office, and rose to worldwide prominence for her “extraordinary leadership” in the aftermath of the tragic mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques in 2019.

Like every other world leader, she navigated the coronavirus pandemic and its various economic and political repercussions. As my colleague Natasha Frost reports, though Ardern’s Labour Party has lost favor with New Zealanders, she “has remained personally popular with the electorate” and is still most New Zealanders’ “preferred prime minister.”

All the while, she’s had a young child at home. In 2018, she brought her baby daughter to a United Nations peace summit honoring Nelson Mandela. During the scary early days of the Covid crisis, she “addressed the nation via a casual Facebook Live session she conducted on her phone after putting her toddler to bed,” as my colleague Amanda Taub wrote in 2020.

Making the decision to leave office now rather than run herself into the ground isn’t conceding that she can’t do the job anymore. It’s an acknowledgment — one that’s both astute and selfless, fine qualities in an elected official — that she no longer wants to do it in this particular way. While she says she has “no plan” and “no next steps” for after she leaves her government role, I anticipate she’ll put her abundant political skill to good use in some way.

She demonstrated that skill in her moving resignation speech, addressing her nation in terms highly relatable to any parent versed in the current motherhood discourse of “filling our tanks” before they are empty and putting our “oxygen masks” on first so we have something left to give our families before we burn out…

I never thought “having it all” meant we should sacrifice our entire lives and our health on the altar of ambition and outward metrics of success or financial reward. It shouldn’t mean that we can never leave a professional role that is no longer suiting us or our families, because feminism, or something. The world would probably be better off if more leaders were like Ardern, less concerned about their own egos and more concerned about what was best for their countries. The “I alone can fix it” posture has its obvious limitations.

 

6) Interesting, “Citing Accessibility, State Department Ditches Times New Roman for Calibri”  I love me some Times New Roman, but when I’m not using serifs (like, I just realized, this blog!) I’m good with Calibri.  That said, this article was frustrating because it was all assertions and no actual evidence. 

7) I’m not sure this policy is necessarily coming from the best place politically, but I do find myself sympathetic to this idea, “UNC Board of Governors to consider policy barring staff from ‘compelling’ speech”

The UNC Board of Governors is considering a policy that would prohibit UNC System schools from asking applicants for employment, promotion or academic admission to share their personal beliefs.

The proposed policy would bar questions requiring applicants “to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement.” It would revise the “Employee Political Activities” section of the system’s policy manual.

8) Regarding the Singal piece I linked yesterday, the problem of DEI trainings is not a new idea, “Don’t Mistake Training for Education: That should especially be the case when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, argue Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder.”

9) Ian Milhiser in Vox, “A new Supreme Court case could turn every workplace into a religious battleground: The fight over whether religious conservatives enjoy special rights is coming to a workplace near you.”

The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it will hear Groff v. DeJoy, a case that could give religious conservatives an unprecedented new ability to dictate how their workplaces operate, and which workplace rules they will refuse to follow.

Yet Groff is also likely to overrule a previous Supreme Court decision that treated the interests of religious employees far more dismissively than federal law suggests that these workers should be treated.

The case, in other words, presents genuinely tricky questions about the limits of accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs. But those questions will be resolved by a Supreme Court that has shown an extraordinary willingness to bend the law in ways that benefit Christian-identified conservatives.

That could lead to a scenario in which the Court announces a new legal rule that disrupts the workplace — and that potentially places far too many burdens on non-religious employees.

10) Yglesias addresses highway lanes (as part of a larger argument on transit)

In other words, I don’t think the induced demand critics of highway widening are wrong exactly. But they’re not really saying what they mean. This is what I think they mean:

  • The pollution associated with driving cars is bad.

  • Addressing that pollution via an appropriate gas tax seems politically challenging.

  • Because the American political system is laden with veto points and NIMBY institutions, blocking highway projects is easier than raising taxes.

  • Both new transit and new highways fail to solve traffic, but transit fails by leaving net driving flat while highways increase vehicle miles traveled.

  • Therefore we should advocate for transit and not for highways.

I don’t have a problem with that logic exactly. But when you live by the NIMBY, you die by the NIMBY. Just as the same NIMBY toolkit that blocks private development also blocks public housing, the NIMBY toolkit that blocks highway projects also makes it impossible to complete transit projects in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Beyond that, traffic congestion is a real problem and it deserves a solution.

11) I was really excited about the prospects of fluvoxamine as a cheap, effective treatment for Covid. New studies show that, alas, among the vaccinated there’s just no benefit. 

12) Another take from Rob Henderson, I really enjoyed, “Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ”

People often treat intelligence, a relatively immutable trait, as the sole predictive variable in determining life outcomes. And then use it as an instrument to advance their favored agendas.

People on the right and, increasingly, on the left, generally accept the importance of IQ. The right is more open about it. Those on the left are often coy in public, concealing their statements underneath an avalanche of hedges—but in private, without the fear of negative social judgment, most will acknowledge that intelligence matters a lot for achievement.

Recently, two prominent books discussing the importance of intelligence have been written by authors who are broadly thought to be on the political left: The Cult of Smart and The Genetic Lottery.

That intelligence is largely (though not entirely) influenced by genes is somehow simultaneously taboo and widely accepted. Perhaps an example of Paul Graham’s observation that “the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That’s where you’ll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.” Still, the publication and relative absence of anger about the two aforementioned books suggests that were it not for fear of being mobbed by lunatics, people would be more forthcoming about their acceptance of this psychological concept.

The importance and fixity of intelligence are now used by both the political right and left in different ways. For many on the left, it confirms that their view that unfairness is pervasive and thus they have a strong argument in favor of large-scale redistribution. You didn’t earn the genes that made you smart, thus whatever earnings you’ve obtained due to your innate abilities are due to luck. For many on the right, the durability of intelligence confirms their view that differences between people exist and there isn’t much you can do about it. Thus society should accept that things are unfair and, e.g., limit the number of immigrants who, on average, extract more resources than they contribute. 

Intelligence is important, but it’s far from the only thing that matters for living a decent life. A meta-analysis of 23 studies found that at the individual level, intelligence has no relationship with happiness. Knowing the IQ of two random people in the same country tells you nothing about whether one is happier than the other. And if you believe Richard Hanania, today the high IQ elites are more miserable than everybody else (yes, the elites are smarter than average—but often smart people use their intelligence to raise their own status rather than seek the truth).

The psychologist and intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne points out:

“Although below-average intelligence makes life more difficult for a person, other traits or life circumstances can compensate for having a lower IQ. Having a supportive family, higher socioeconomic status, motivation, conscientiousness, cultural influences that discourage unfavorable behaviors, determination, and many other characteristics can compensate for a. lower level of intelligence. Nobody is a prisoner of their IQ.”

13) What MSG is doing is still so wrong, but this is nonetheless heartening, “Lawyers Barred by Madison Square Garden Found a Way Back In: MSG Entertainment resorted to facial recognition technology to kick out legal foes, but some have undermined the ban using a law passed to protect theater critics in 1941.”

14) Enjoyed “The Last of Us” and enjoyed learning more about fungal infections here, “The Last Of Us Fungal Outbreak Is Terrifying, But Is It Realistic?”

In The Last of Us premiere episode, 20 years have passed with no progress made against the fungal threat — which is because of the real-life similarities between fungi and humans as eukaryotes, or organisms with nucleated cells, explains Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an instructor with the Duke University School of Medicine who specializes in immunocompromised hosts and invasive fungal infections.

“Our cells are a lot more complex than, for example, bacteria, and fungi are more related to people than they are to bacteria that cause infections,” says Dr. Schwartz of why there are only three antifungal agents compared with “way more classes of antibacterials.” “We have this problem with our adversary being closely related, and what that means is that the cell machinery is the same as ours. There are far fewer targets for antifungals to work with, to selectively cause damage to fungal cells without causing damage to human cells.”

15) Eric Barker on the value of humor and how to be funnier:

We just don’t take humor that seriously.

Yeah, it makes us happier, but its effects are much, much more profound than you might guess.

People who use humor to cope with stress have better immune systems, reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, experience less pain during dental work and live longer. Surgery patients who watched comedies needed 60% less pain medication. Heck, even anticipating humor has been shown to reduce stress.

Humor improves your relationships. Surveys say it’s the second most desirable trait in a partner. When both people in a couple have a good sense of humor they have 67% less conflict. (Want a tip? Reliving moments that made the two of you laugh is a proven way to increase relationship satisfaction.)

Let’s up the stakes, shall we? What about the office? A lot of people think humor isn’t appropriate at work and those people are, as we say, “wrong.” A survey of hundreds of senior executives showed 98% prefer employees who are funny – and 84% thought those people actually did better work.

In fact, if you’re not going for laughs at the office, you may be hurting your career. Humor increases perceptions of power and status. It boosts creativity. It signals intelligence. Making people laugh increases persuasion and made buyers willing to pay higher prices. In fact, studies show work teams often fail simply because they don’t joke around enough. And leaders with a sense of humor were rated as 23% more respected and 25% more pleasant to work with.

Can I stop there? I’ll stop there.

We need to get to the bottom of how to do this humor thing right. We’re gonna pull from a slew of excellent books and studies including Humor, SeriouslyHow to Write FunnyInside Jokes, and Ha: The Science of Why We Laugh.

Alright, let’s get to it…

16) Drum summarizes some cool new PS research:

A new study is out that tries to measure the effectiveness of social media advertising campaigns in political races. The unique part of this study is that it makes use of an actual advertising campaign during the 2020 presidential contest that deliberately held out a control group so that its effectiveness could be measured:

We present the results of a large, US$8.9 million campaign-wide field experiment, conducted among 2 million moderate- and low-information persuadable voters in five battleground states during the 2020 US presidential election. Treatment group participants were exposed to an 8-month-long advertising programme delivered via social media, designed to persuade people to vote against Donald Trump and for Joe Biden.

The funny thing is that I think the authors underrate their own results. For example, here is turnout for Republicans and Democrats:

The authors say, “We found both small mobilizing effects among Biden leaners and small demobilizing effects among Trump leaners.” But this is a net difference of 1.8% in turnout. In most political campaigns this would be considered pretty substantial and the price tag of $8.9 million for five states pretty modest. Most campaign managers in battleground states would be thrilled with it.

Basically, I think you can say two things here. First, on an absolute basis this study shows a fairly small effect. Second, within the context of a close political race, it shows a very substantial effect.

17) I hate this!  If we can’t have meat alternatives, can’t we at least pay more for meat to not have it be horribly inhumane?  Apparently not. “Spy Cams Reveal the Grim Reality of Slaughterhouse Gas Chambers”

18) Well, this is intriguing and, hopefully, promising, “Could this be the solution to chronic pain—and the opioid crisis? Early research suggests that monoclonal antibodies—used to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19—may provide non-addictive, long-lasting pain relief from a variety of conditions.”

As the pandemic raged, monoclonal antibodies gained sudden prominence when these laboratory-made proteins were found to reduce the risk of hospitalization from COVID in vulnerable and immunocompromised people. Now researchers are investigating whether these types of proteins might also be an effective treatment for a variety of chronic pain conditions: low back pain, pain from osteoarthritis, neuropathic pain (such as diabetic peripheral neuropathy), rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer pain.

Already, the Food and Drug Administration has approved four monoclonal antibodies (mAb) to prevent and treat painful chronic migraine attacks. Last year, the FDA approved use of an mAb (an injection of frunevetmab) to treat osteoarthritic pain in cats; similar drugs are in the works for people. And clinical trials for other mAbs for chronic pain are expected to begin later in 2023.

“The hope is that as we learn more about specific pain mechanisms, we can develop monoclonal antibodies that would target different forms of chronic pain,” says Charles Argoff, a professor of neurology and director of the Comprehensive Pain Center at the Albany Medical Center in New York. “But we’re not there yet and I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow.” …

The reason mAbs can be used for many different purposes is that each one has a highly specific target. During the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies were used to block the protein on the COVID-19 virus that enabled it to attach to human cells. Similarly, researchers believe they can design mAbs that can bind to receptors involved in pain transmission, thus blocking the signals.

Yarov-Yarovoy’s goal is to create monoclonal antibodies that target specific ion channels on the surface of nerve cells that receive signals caused by painful stimuli; essentially shutting off the transmission of chronic pain that occurs in a variety of medical conditions.

“In terms of chronic pain, we’ve got to figure something out because it’s difficult to treat and there aren’t a lot of great options,” says Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine specialist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “Opioids lose their effectiveness with long-term use for a lot of people, and there’s a potential for dependency to develop. Even if you’re taking them as prescribed, you will have to take higher and higher doses to get pain relief.”

19) I’m not worried about getting germs from my spice jars.  I don’t handle raw meat anymore, but, when I did, I guarantee you I was zealous enough with hand-washing that I was not cross-contaminating spice jars. “The germiest spot in your kitchen? The spice jars, a new study found.”

If you had to guess the germiest spot in your kitchen, you might think of the refrigerator handle, the cutting board or maybe the inside of your sink. But a new study shows that icky bacteria could be more likely to be lurking in an unexpected spot: your spice drawer.

Researchers in a recent study commissioned by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service examined how people preparing turkey burgers cross-contaminated various surfaces in a kitchen. (Sneakily, the participants weren’t told they were participating in a food safety study; instead, they thought they were testing new recipes.)

Spice jars used in the meal, the researchers found, were far and away the most cross-contaminated spot — 48 percentof those used were found to harbor bacteria from the turkey.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Food Protection, noted that while consumers might have heard about the importance of cleaning cutting boards or wiping down handles, they might not have thought about their spice jars. “Consumers may not necessarily think to wipe down or decontaminate spice containers after cooking because they are not typically targeted as high risk for cross-contamination in consumer messaging,” the study says.

20) This is a really cool feature, “The happiest, least stressful, most meaningful jobs in America.”  Check it out with the gift link

21) Good stuff on ChatGPT, “Large Language Models like ChatGPT say The Darnedest Things: The Errors They Make, Why We Need to Document Them, and What We Have Decided to Do About it”

22) Thanks, Republicans! “Opposition to School Vaccine Mandates Has Grown Significantly, Study Finds: A third of parents now feel they should be the ones to decide whether to get their children immunized against measles, mumps and other childhood diseases.”

For generations of most American families, getting children vaccinated was just something to check off on the list of back-to-school chores. But after the ferocious battles over Covid shots of the past two years, simmering resistance to general school vaccine mandates has grown significantly. Now, 35 percent of parents oppose requirements that children receive routine immunizations in order to attend school, according to a new survey released Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

All of the states and the District of Columbia mandate that children receive vaccinations against measles, mumps, rubella and other highly contagious, deadly childhood diseases. (Most permit a few limited exemptions.)

Throughout the pandemic, the Kaiser foundation, a nonpartisan health care research organization, has been issuing monthly reports on changing attitudes toward Covid vaccines. The surveys have showed a growing political divide over the issue, and the latest study indicates that division now extends to routine childhood vaccinations.

Forty-four percent of adults who either identify as Republicans or lean that way said in the latest survey that parents should have the right to opt out of school vaccine mandates, up from 20 percent in a prepandemic poll conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, 88 percent of adults who identify as or lean Democratic endorsed childhood vaccine requirements, a slight increase from 86 percent in 2019.

21) Speaking of Republicans, “The House spectacle highlights a key difference between the parties”

As political scientists Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins wrote in their 2016 book, “Asymmetric Politics”: “While the Democratic Party is fundamentally a group coalition, the Republican Party can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement.” Group coalitions can be managed through transactional politics — so long as some of the groups’ priorities are advanced, they will stick together to deliver for the other groups in the coalition.

Ideological movements are less flexible. There’s pressure for alignment among members — and even when members are mostly aligned, remaining differences may seem all the more significant. (McCarthy’s move rightward hasn’t done much to shore up his position with his opponents.) 

Since “Asymmetric Politics” was published, Democrats have grown increasingly ideological, and the ideological emphases of the GOP have changed. Yet it’s still the case that “the Democratic Party — in the electorate, as an organizational network, and in government — is organized around group interests.” The party’s “self-conscious” constituent groups include, for example, indebted college graduates, intellectuals and the expert class, government-employee unions, and the organized civil-rights apparatus (which itself includes many independent interests).

Democrats tend to argue for specific policies, Grossmann and Hopkins observed, on the grounds that they will help a specific group they see as part of their coalition — women, unions, universities. Republicans, meanwhile, are more likely to appeal to “general concepts and principles … frequently emphasizing the need to limit the scope of government or preserve traditional American society.” A coalition that makes ideology its lodestar is stronger in some respects — but as the House GOP fractiousness has shown, weaker in others.

Business might have once been a group interest within the GOP. Corporations are amenable to transactional politics and have historically expected benefits under Republican governance. But in the Trump years, big business and the Republican Party drifted apart, both because of corporate discomfort with populism and the GOP’s discomfort with business’s growing social liberalism. The gap widened after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. The Republican-business rift has left the House GOP even less constrained by interest groups’ needs, and more driven by ideological goals.

When Republicans ran the House between 2011 and 2019, they had comfortable majorities — from 234 seats to 247 — and still faced significant divisions that made speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan struggle to find 218 votes for legislation at key junctures. The new speaker’s margin for error will be much smaller.

There are similarities between each party’s populist wing — Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is a firebrand like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont launched an insurgent 2016 Democratic primary bid that paralleled Donald Trump’s. But the Democratic Party’s upstarts have been embraced by the party establishment; it also has leverage over them. Republican populism is more unpredictable and genuinely disruptive to the party system.

22) Alice Evans highlights interesting research on sex differences

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Cathy Young, “Ron DeSantis, Chris Rufo, and the College Anti-Woke Makeover”

DeSantis’s move has been met with alarm by progressive media and by many New College students who see the school as a haven for social justice-friendly values. But harsh rebukes have also come from some people who are themselves strongly critical of the progressive academy and its illiberal bent—such as New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, who has been writing about “social justice” zealotry and its baneful effects on public discourse for the past eight years (and has taken his share of lumps for it). Indeed, in his column slamming DeSantis’s power grab, Chait wrote:

It is important to understand that there is a critique of the academic left rooted in free-speech norms that posits that many schools have had an atmosphere of ideological pressure that discourages or punishes professors who violate left-wing taboos. This is not the belief system animating DeSantis’s academic mission. He is not seeking to protect or restore free speech, but to impose controls of his own liking.

The DeSantis brand of “anti-wokeism” is classic right-wing illiberalism. (Chait rightly compares it to the conservative institutional takeover in Hungary under the stewardship of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who proudly embraces the “illiberal” label—and who was cited as a model by a DeSantis spokesperson at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami last September.) But that brand is also bad news for those of us who oppose left-wing illiberalism from a liberal, libertarian, or classical conservative perspective favoring the values of free expression, individual rights, and intellectual openness.

2) Advice I will never take (I don’t think they are talking about 10am). “How to Become a Morning Exercise Person”

3) I think Voter ID laws motivated by making it disproportionately harder for minorities to vote are bad on their face.  I think lying to the public about the amount of voter fraud to push these laws is wrong.  That said, they really just don’t have much impact on turnout.  Nate Cohn:

Effects of voter suppression

Many readers asked about another topic I didn’t mention in my post-election analyses: voter suppression.

Did voter suppression or even the threat thereof affect Black and Hispanic turnout? Thank you for your interesting newsletters! — Claire Hess

It’s worth noting that this is a reply to a newsletter entry from early December, when I noted that Black turnout appeared to drop markedly across the country. Indeed, Black turnout really did seem to decline everywhere, regardless of whether states imposed new voter suppression laws or even expanded voter access.

To take the three states where we have the best data — North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia — Black turnout dropped off the most in North Carolina and Louisiana, where Democratic governors blocked efforts to restrict access. And turnout stayed strongest in Georgia, the epicenter of the fight over voting rights.

This pattern doesn’t prove that new voter laws had zero effect in Georgia or elsewhere — and this analysis is separate from the ethics of the intent of the laws — but the broad decline in Black turnout across the country suggests that other factors were mainly responsible. It also implies that the effect of the new laws was small enough that it’s hard to tease out from the other factors that affect turnout from state to state.

As I wrote two years ago about the new Georgia law, “In the final account, it will probably be hard to say whether it had any effect on turnout at all.” This is by no means the final account, but that remains my best guess.

4) Jamelle Bouie on he debt ceiling– he’s right:

One proposed solution to all this is to use accounting tricks and other games to get around the debt limit and render it immaterial. But I think the better option is to take the offensive and confront the issue head-on. Biden should make the case that the debt limit, because of the threat it poses to the validity of the nation’s debt, is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

By this reasoning, Congress has no right to prevent the White House from faithfully executing the law and borrowing money in accordance with its own instructions. If and when the Treasury exhausts its extraordinary measures, it should simply keep issuing debt, in order for the federal government to do what it is obligated to do under the Constitution.

This is not the best of a set of bad options; I’d say it is the best option, period. President Biden, like all other constitutional officers, is duty bound to interpret and faithfully adhere to the Constitution. And here, on the question of whether he is permitted to place “substantial doubt” on the status of the national debt, much less to let the nation go into default, the Constitution is clear — or at least clear enough for the president to take a stand.

5) From a classified documents expert, “Yes, Trump and Biden Both Broke the Rules. Here’s Why It’s Not the Same.”

But a closer, fuller examination of both the presidency and historical prosecutions for mishandling classified records actually makes the opposite case: Mr. Biden’s mishandling of a limited number of classified files, which upon discovery were promptly turned over to the National Archives and proper authorities, should make the reasoning, and necessity, of prosecuting Mr. Trump all the more clear.

Mr. Biden’s handling of the issue — especially given the more detailed timeline recently released by his team — shows how an official who finds misfiled or improperly stored classified files should react. Mr. Biden’s behavior stands in sharp contrast to that of Mr. Trump, who spent months fighting with the National Archives over the files and repeatedly assured the Justice Department that he had turned over all files, even when he was still — apparently knowingly — holding onto scores of classified files. He failed to comply with a legal subpoena, and only then did the F.B.I. move to search his Mar-a-Lago residence.

Mr. Biden’s scandal so far feels more like an administrative error; there’s no evidence he even knew the documents were misplaced or in his possession, and when discovered they were promptly and properly returned to authorities. The government didn’t know they were missing (which itself is a bit of a mystery, since classified documents are usually tightly controlled, which is how the National Archives knew Mr. Trump had missing documents in the first place), and Mr. Biden didn’t try to hold onto them in the face of a legal process ordering otherwise…

In a tweet, the former Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander compared Mr. Biden to a shopper who “realized he mistakenly failed to pay for an item in his cart” when he left a store and an alarm went off. Mr. Biden, the analogy goes, went back in and returned the items. By contrast, Mr. Trump apparently stuffed items in his pockets, and when the store alarm sounded “he ran to his car and peeled out.”

You could add to the Trump part of the analogy that he led the police on a low-speed pursuit, and then insisted the stolen items were his all along.

6) Great stuff from Brian Beutler on the debt ceiling:

This gets at my Grand Unified Theory of the politics of Republican debt-limit sabotage. Having learned the hard way in 2011 that the worst approach is to negotiate terms of surrender, Democrats reasoned that the optimal approach is to beat Republicans at their own game. To bait them into offering up a list of politically toxic demands, then using it to turn the public against them. That approach is obviously better than simply caving, but it still sets the political system on a path to vitriol and chaos and economic harm as the drop-dead date to raise the debt limit approaches, and leaves us dangerously vulnerable to a Republican-imposed default. Even if they cave before doing the greatest possible damage, there’ll be more economic misery than there needs to be, and everyone will be less popular than they otherwise would’ve been, including Joe Biden. Liberal commentators often marvel that Republican leaders seem totally indifferent to the concerns of their frontline members when they deploy these kamikaze tactics. But it isn’t irrational at all—just sociopathic. They operate on the theory that hurting the incumbent president by creating national distress helps their frontline members more than any specific antics harm them. And the record, from 2009-2022 suggests it’s at least a wash.

The truly optimal approach, then, is to beat Republicans in the battle of aggression. After Donald Trump became president, and needed Democratic help to raise the debt limit, I argued Democrats should condition their votes on permanently neutralizing the debt limit itself. No more jerking us around when we control the presidency. When Trump wrecked the economy in 2020, and needed Democratic help to pass various rescue bills, I argued Democrats should condition their votes on, among other things, permanently neutralizing the debt limit. When Democrats were rounding out their legislative agenda in 2022, and then lost the House in November, I argued that they should permanently neutralize the debt limit on a partisan basis. Each time, Democrats balked. They also bypassed their best political option. They left the country vulnerable to today’s predictable Republican depredations, because they viewed using power in this way as a liability. Something that would expose them to political attacks and campaign ads they didn’t want to face, rather than an opportunity to defeat a gang of bullies before god and everyone, and brag about having stood between the sinister and the meek…

The good news is that Democratic leaders (if not all the rank and file members of the party) have the correct bottom-line. No negotiations. That’s the one strategic element they can not sacrifice. Isolate Republicans, let them do most of the work of making it clear to everyone they they’re courting default because their demands are not being met. I like what Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told the Daily Beast“In exchange for not crashing the United States economy, you get nothing. You don’t get a cookie. You don’t get to be treated like you’re the second coming of LBJ. You’re just a person doing the bare minimum of not intentionally screwing over your constituents for insane reasons.”…

Beyond that, I’d add two important ingredients. First, since the Biden administration has disclaimed unilateral measures, Democrats may as well accept (both publicly and in their private contemplations) that Republicans really might do something evil and irreversible out of spite, and no one can really force them to be better people. It’s in their hands alone now and the best hope for the country is that their consciences and political survival instincts kick in before it’s too late. 

Second, since Republicans are threatening to do something evil out of spite, the best way to make that clear to a bewildered public is with real, justified outrage and contempt. I don’t know whether Democrats are outraged or not, but if they are, it isn’t coming through, and I think that’s because being indignant isn’t totally compatible with trying to lure Republicans into a trap…

7) Persuasion, “The Green Technology That Dare Not Speak Its Name”  You know what it is, of course. Nuclear.

It’s the biggest, strangest, most unnecessary environmental disaster of the 21st century: a source of hundreds of millions of tons of new carbon emissions that aren’t just needless but purely senseless, at a time when we’re meant to be going all out to combat climate change.

I’m not talking about fossil fuel subsidies or plutocrats’ private plane fleets, or any other of the climate bugbears you already know about and hate. No, I’m talking about an environmental disaster perpetrated largely by environmentalists in the name of the environment.

Yes, I’m talking about the mass, premature shutdown of nuclear power plants.

As scientists and policy analysts know perfectly well, nuclear power—and I’m talking about old-style nuclear fission power—is in some ways the perfect solution to the climate crisis: extremely safe and reliable, it’s the only way humanity knows to produce large quantities of energy without heating up the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants tick over reliably in fair weather and foul, at night time as well as day, providing a stable base for any electric grid.

And we’re turning them off. In great numbers. All around the developed world. For no good reason. 

8) This was good, “Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach”

Across the country, university professors like Mr. Aumann, department chairs and administrators are starting to overhaul classrooms in response to ChatGPT, prompting a potentially huge shift in teaching and learning. Some professors are redesigning their courses entirely, making changes that include more oral exams, group work and handwritten assessments in lieu of typed ones…

The moves are part of a real-time grappling with a new technological wave known as generative artificial intelligence. ChatGPT, which was released in November by the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI, is at the forefront of the shift. The chatbot generates eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction — and their schoolwork.

That has upended some middle and high schools, with teachers and administrators trying to discern whether students are using the chatbot to do their schoolwork. Some public school systems, including in New York City and Seattle, have since banned the tool on school Wi-Fi networks and devices to prevent cheating, though students can easily find workarounds to access ChatGPT.

In higher education, colleges and universities have been reluctant to ban the A.I. tool because administrators doubt the move would be effective and they don’t want to infringe on academic freedom. That means the way people teach is changing instead.

For now, I’ve only added the following line to my syllabi, “Academic Integrity also includes not representing work from AI as your own.”  You can follow the links to them and judge for yourself whether my assignments are sufficiently GPT-resistant.

9) You probably already know the social science answer as to the key to a good life… good relationships.  So, how to have them?  Good stuff in the Atlantic.

Thinking about these numbers can help us put our own relationships in perspective. Try figuring out how much time you spend with a good friend or family member. We don’t have to spend every hour with our friends, and some relationships work because they’re exercised sparingly. But nearly all of us have people in our lives whom we’d like to see more. Are you spending time with the people you most care about? Is there a relationship in your life that would benefit both of you if you could spend more time together? Many of these are untapped resources, waiting for us to put them to use. And, enriching these relationships can in turn nourish our minds and bodies…

In this sense, having healthy, fulfilling relationships is its own kind of fitness—social fitness—and like physical fitness, it takes work to maintain. Unlike stepping on the scale, taking a quick look in the mirror, or getting readouts for blood pressure and cholesterol, assessing our social fitness requires a bit more sustained self-reflection. It requires stepping back from the crush of modern life, taking stock of our relationships, and being honest with ourselves about where we’re devoting our time and whether we are tending to the connections that help us thrive. Finding the time for this type of reflection can be hard, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But it can yield enormous benefits.

10) I think it’s ridiculous that Alex Baldwin is being charged with Involuntary Manslaughter.  Yes, you should check a gun before you fire it, but an actor on a movie set has no reason whatsoever to think the gun they are firing would ever be loaded with real bullets!  That has to matter.  All the comments I’ve been seeing on standard gun safety apply to situations where you have reason to believe there might possibly be actual bullets in it.  Why would there be on a movie set?

11) Interesting discussion on obesity and the amazing new generation of weight-loss drugs.  I really do think obesity is essentially a disease for many people.  But, for many others it really can be controlled by better diet and exercise and thus it should not always be considered a disease.  But, yeah, it does affect your brain, hormones, and metabolism in dysfunctional ways for many.  Honestly, it really does seem like the key is to never become obese in the first place, if at all possible. 

So I’m going to say it’s a disease of the brain. And the reason why I’m going to say it’s a disease of the brain is because the brain regulates how the body stores fat. The brain is the central operating system.

If the brain’s not there, the rest of the body doesn’t work. So let’s explain what happens. There are two primary pathways by which the brain will regulate weight. There is the pathway that tells us to eat less and store less, what we call the POMC or proopiomelanocortin pathway, or AGRP pathway, which is the agouti-related peptide pathway, which tells us to eat more and store more.

And we don’t choose. And this is where the willpower issue goes away. My organs, my genetics, my environment, all of these things can play a role in whether I signal down the more desirable pathway or less desirable pathway. And so this comes the complexity of this disease that is obesity. Why do certain people signal one way and other people signal another way?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Well, help me understand this. Our genetics haven’t completely changed in the past 40 years. Yet, we’ve seen this huge increase in the number of people living with obesity. So what’s changed? I mean, are there environmental factors at play?

Fatima Cody Stanford

Absolutely. So we’ve placed our bodies inside of what we call this obesogenic environment. And this gets into those environmental factors and how they play a role.

How has diet quality changed? How has our sleep quality changed? Our screen time, how does that disrupt or affect our circadian rhythm? We’re supposed to rise when it’s bright outside and go to sleep when it’s dark outside.

But I can tell you that most of us don’t follow that as our inherent rhythm. So when we deviate from all of these things, put ourselves in this world that our bodies weren’t really created to be in, it’s going to lead to a greater storage of adipose or fat. It’s stress on the body. And when we have stress, stress increases storage of an organ that has typically helped us out. And that organ is adipose or fat.

12) Love this from Derek Thompson, “Stop Trying to Ask ‘Smart Questions’”

But for most of my professional life, I labored under a powerful delusion. I thought that asking Smart Questions was of the utmost importance.

A Smart Question is a query designed to advertise the wisdom of the asker. The point may be to establish that the interviewer and interviewee are on equal intellectual footing. Sometimes, the question is designed to get the source to begin the answer with a brief compliment: “That’s a smart question!” or, on a good day, “That’s a really smart question!”

I used to think these kudos were a sign that my investigation was on the right track. I didn’t want to embarrass myself on the phone with a government official or an academic. And a part of me just wanted the conversations to go as pleasantly as possible.

But after many years of subscribing to the theory of Smart Questions, I’ve decided that I’ve been mostly wrong. Smart Questions are, typically, kind of dumb. And, just as typical, questions that might initially seem dumb or underinformed, or downright unintelligent, are the smartest way to learn stuff if you’re a journalist, an academic, or anybody else…

Readers seemed to like the Big Dumb Question stories because the articles used the day’s news to investigate a deeper truth about the world. Personally, I liked them because they changed the way I thought about asking questions. Reporting out these BDQs required my writers and me to ask a lot of, well, BDQs. Really revelatory and surprising answers can come from extremely basic questions such as:

  • “Can you just explain this to me like I barely know anything about this subject?”
  • “What, if anything, is actually interesting or new about this story?”
  • “Let’s say everything you say is going to happen really does happen. Then what happens?”

And perhaps most important of all:

  • “Is there some angle here that I’m not even seeing?”

None of these questions assume any knowledge. None of them reveal much intelligence. It’s their openness that I’ve found to be useful. 

13) Jeremy Faust, “”Future Covid-19 booster vaccinations should be 100% Omicron.”

14) A few days ago I had the random thought, “why haven’t we cured any genetic diseases with CRISPR yet?”  Next day, I see we actually do have a Crispr-based cure for Sickle Cell Disease.  But, it’s complicated. 

This year, Dr. Jackson and other people with sickle cell may have the option of finally living without the damage the disease causes. Two drug companies are seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration for gene therapies that may provide what amounts to a cure. But the decision to take the medication — should it become available — it turns out, is not so simple.

After a life adapted to their illness, some like Dr. Jackson are unsure of how to begin again as healthy people. Do they go back to school after dropping out because of their illness? Do they start looking for jobs after thinking that, with frequent hospitalizations because of sickle cell, they were unemployable? What if this new life is not so easy to enter?

Others fear that the logistical complexities of gene therapies may imperil their ability to access them.

These and other dilemmas illustrate an often hidden aspect of medical advances — a long awaited cure can be accompanied by trepidation.

15) Good stuff in the Atlantic.  Since it actually written by trans people, all the trans-radicals cannot just dismiss this out of hand, “Take Detransitioners Seriously: Some people reverse their gender transition. Understanding their experience is crucial.”

Both of us are trans academics. One of us studies the history of trans activism; the other recently studied detransitioners’ experiences in depth. We strongly oppose efforts, in state legislatures and elsewhere, to target trans children and their families and pass laws restricting treatment options for gender dysphoria, a condition that the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual defines as impairment or distress over an incongruence between a person’s gender identity and their gender assigned at birth. But trans-rights advocates and mainstream-media outlets should stop downplaying the reality of detransition, lest readers and viewers conclude that it’s a negligible issue. It’s not…

To many in the trans and nonbinary community, detransition stories—especially those that involve regret—seem to jeopardize half a century of hard-won gains for civil rights and access to health services. Detransition has become a political cudgel to challenge any and all gender care for young people. This may be one reason right-wing outlets have prominently featured Beck, who has urged trans youth to “slow down” in order to avoid his own fate. Never mind that Beck explicitly states that he is not against trans people or gender-related medical care.

Unfortunately, some people who discuss their detransition on social media are met with suspicion, blame, mockery, harassment, or even threats from within the LGBTQ communities in which they previously found refuge. Some trans-rights advocates have likened detransitioners to the ex-gay movement or described them as anti-trans grifters. In fact, many detransitioners continue to live gender-nonconforming and queer lives. No one benefits from the anger and suspicion that gender-care issues currently inspire. Detransitioners who face social rejection, coupled with shame and isolation, may come to view anti-trans activists as their only allies—even when those activists portray them negatively, as damaged goods rather than as human beings who have survived medical trauma. Meanwhile, clinicians who receive threats of violence for assisting trans youth are vulnerable to developing myopic positions and overly optimistic clinical practices that ignore detransitioners’ accounts…

The LGBTQ community today must still contend with attacks on gender and sexual diversity—but is also at a moment of unprecedented cultural, institutional, and political strength. Those of us who believe in LGBTQ-inclusive health care and bodily autonomy must recognize that some of our hard-earned wins may have introduced new uncertainties. Upholding the dignity and diversity of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming populations should not be at odds with a data-informed medical approach that seeks to maximize positive outcomes for all. Gender-affirming care must be available to those who need it. But our community must also advocate for the research to help transitioning patients thrive in the long run—regardless of their individual outcome.

16) For example, Jesse Singal is reviled and constantly defamed by trans activists for regularly writing about detransitioners and the complexities of the issue overall.  Not surprisingly, a bunch of the woke went crazy over this piece in the NYT, but, he’s got the research to back him up, “What if Diversity Trainings Are Doing More Harm Than Good?”

D.E.I. trainings are designed to help organizations become more welcoming to members of traditionally marginalized groups. Advocates make bold promises: Diversity workshops can foster better intergroup relations, improve the retention of minority employees, close recruitment gaps and so on. The only problem? There’s little evidence that many of these initiatives work. And the specific type of diversity training that is currently in vogue — mandatory trainings that blame dominant groups for D.E.I. problems — may well have a net-negative effect on the outcomes managers claim to care about.

Over the years, social scientists who have conducted careful reviews of the evidence base for diversity trainings have frequently come to discouraging conclusions. Though diversity trainings have been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s, few of them are ever subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is “disappointing,” wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors in a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology article, “considering the frequency with which calls for diversity training emerge in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.”

Dr. Paluck’s team found just two large experimental studies in the previous decade that attempted to evaluate the effects of diversity trainings and met basic quality benchmarks. Other researchers have been similarly unimpressed. “We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade,” wrote the sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in 2018, “with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around.” (To be fair, not all of these critiques apply as sharply to voluntary diversity trainings.)

17) This was disturbing reading.  Lot of dog murder going on in Italy! “Hunting for Truffles Is a Perilous Pursuit, Especially for the Dogs Who Dig: Truffles are big business, and some are trying to take out the competition by poisoning the dogs that accompany those known as “truffle hunters.””

18) Fascinating thread from a gender scholar on sex differences in how we use humor:

19) HEPA filters are great to reduce our exposure to airborne viruses. They can also be a real problem in classroom environments because they are loud.  Here’s the solution:

20) Somehow I had never watched the movie “The Sting” and I saw a little twitter conversation about it this week and decided that it’s time.  It’s on Netflix and if you like Redford, Newman, and a good caper movie, it’s a must watch.  

Quick hits (part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Damaging to Clinton’s election prospects

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

2016 campaign coverage was dominated by emails

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The core of the article consists of these paragraphs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this really work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14) Not great:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits (part I)

1) Some good background on the gas stove issue:

For years, scientists and health advocates have tried to bring attention to a secret source of air pollution sitting in 40 million homes around the United States — whichjump-starts childhood asthma, increases the risk of respiratory problems and emits planet-warming gasses.

It’s the gas stove.

And now, those efforts seem to be gaining traction. On Monday, Richard Trumka Jr., one of the four commissioners of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said in an interview that the U.S. agency was considering a ban on gas stoves — or, at least, standards around the amount of toxic fumes such stoves can spew into Americans’ kitchens.

On Wednesday, the commission’s chair said it would not ban gas stoves, but was researching health risks of gas stoves and possible increases to safety standards.

“I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so,” said Alexander Hoehn-Saric, the chair of the commission, in a statement.

Some cities — including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York — have already moved to ban gas stoves in certain new homes and apartments. Kathy Hochul (D), the governor of New York, has also proposed banning gas hookups, including for gas stoves, in new buildings in the entire state.

All cooking creates some form of air pollution. But gas stoves are burning natural gas, a mix of methane and other chemicals. That means that when a gas stove is on, it releases not only fine pieces of particulate matter that can invade the lungs, but also nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde — all of which have been linked to various health risks.

Scientists have identified nitrogen dioxide, for example, as contributing to childhood onset of asthma and worsening asthma symptoms. According to one study, children living in a household with gas stoves have a 42 percent increased likelihood of already having asthma and a 24 percent increased risk of developing asthma at some point in their lifetime. Last week, scientists from the clean energy think tank RMI estimated in a peer-reviewed study that 12.7 percent of childhood asthmas could be attributed to living in a household with a gas stove. Some scientists have compared the risks of gas stove use to having a smoker in the home.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the power to regulate indoor air quality, and homes with gas stoves can often have nitrogen dioxide levels far in excess of EPA outdoor guidelines. The European Union, meanwhile, is currently urging lawmakers to establish indoor air quality regulations across the bloc.

Forgot all the stupid culture war politics over this, but one thing I damn sure learned during the pandemic is that we should be taking indoor air quality way more seriously in this country.

2) Any Lowrey on encouraging trends in the economy:

Inequality is easing

A decade ago, President Barack Obama called economic inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” arguing that “the next few years will determine whether or not our children will grow up in an America where opportunity is real.” At the time, data showed the middle class shrinking, average wages stagnating, and the wealthy eating up all the gains from economic growth. Rising inequality was paralyzing Washington and fraying the country’s politics. Yet around the time of Obama’s speech, inequality stopped rising. In the past three years, the country has become more equal, at least by some measures…

We bent the cost curve in health care

Fourteen years ago, analysts at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services thought that health spending would be roughly 22 percent of GDP in 2022. The real share was 18.3 percent. Government actuaries spent years overestimating the number of dollars Americans would spend in hospitals and doctor’s offices—a decade-plus ago, they thought we would be spending about $700 billion more on an annual basis than we are today—and the share of the economy devoted to health care. That is because the “cost curve” bent…

But for the past 15 years, health-care spending growth has been subdued, leaving aside the catastrophic early years of the pandemic. As a result, CMS anticipates that health spending as a share of GDP should be stable over the next decade at roughly 20 percent. And the CBO sees Medicare spending rising from 5.8 percent of GDP to just 6.8 percent of GDP 10 years from now—a reasonable amount, given the rising share of older Americans…

We bounced back after the COVID recession

It took 76 months for the economy to recover every single job it shed in the Great Recession. It took 30 months for it to recover every job it lost during the pandemic. And in this most recent recession, the labor market gained back the majority of jobs it lost in less than a year—far faster than after the housing crash.

3) Birthdays and hockey was such a fascinating part of “Outliers.”  Good stuff in the Athletic, “Why a player’s birthday can matter so much for college, NBA success”

This means that if you were a five-star who turned 19 before Jan. 1 of your freshman year, you had a 56.6 percent chance of making the NBA, and if you were a five-star who turned 19 after Jan. 1, you had a 76 percent chance of making it…

The lesson to be learned from this is age should definitely matter in evaluation. NBA teams in the modern era place a lot of value in age and upside, although sometimes, the Eastern Conference assistant GM says, years in college instead of actual age is weighted too much…

“A 21-year-old senior gets perceived as being older than he really is, because a lot of seniors are 23,” he says. “But when there’s a 21-year-old senior like Desmond Bane (June 25 birthday), with some people, there’s a bias because he’s a senior, like, ‘Oh, he’s old. He’s fully developed.’ But 21 is pretty young.”

Across the board, talent evaluators would benefit from paying closer attention to age. At the high school level, they do a pretty good job of identifying the phenoms early. You’ll notice above there are more five-star All-Stars than those who weren’t five-stars, and the other pool is a larger group of players. But a look at the five-stars in the last three high school classes who were draft eligible (2019-2021) shows the age bias still exists.

4) I like this, “Life Is an Accident of Space and Time: Even if life existed on every planet that could support it, living matter in the universe would amount to only a few grains of sand in the Gobi Desert.”

Considering the billions of planets in our galaxy, and the billions of galaxies in the observable universe, few scientists believe that our planet is the only habitat with life. Nonetheless, finding definite evidence of living things elsewhere in the cosmos would have deep emotional and psychological import, as well as philosophical and theological meaning. Such a finding would force us humans to reconsider some of our fundamental beliefs: How do we define “life”? What are the possible varieties of life? Where did we living things come from? Is there some kind of cosmic community?

In fact, recent scientific research suggests that life in the universe is rare. A few years ago, using results from the Kepler satellite to estimate the fraction of stars with possibly habitable planets, I calculated that, even if all potentially habitable planets do in fact harbor life, the fraction of matter in the universe in living form is exceedingly small: about one-billionth of one-billionth. That’s like a few grains of sand on the Gobi Desert. Evidently, we living things are a very special arrangement of atoms and molecules.

Life may be even rarer than that. In the mid-1970s, the Australian physicist Brandon Carter pointed out that our universe seems particularly fine-tuned for the emergence of life. For example, if the nuclear force holding the centers of atoms together were a little weaker, then the complex atoms needed for life could never form. If it were a little stronger, all of the hydrogen in the infant universe would have fused to become helium. Without hydrogen, water (H2O) would not exist, and most biologists believe that water is necessary for life. As another example of fine-tuning: If the observed “dark energy” that fills the cosmos, discovered in 1998, were a little larger than it actually is, the universe would have expanded so rapidly that matter could never have pulled itself together to make stars, the essential nursery for all the complex atoms thought necessary for life. But with a slightly smaller value of dark energy, the universe would have expanded and recollapsed so quickly that stars wouldn’t have had time to form.

Carter’s observation that our universe is finely tuned for the emergence of life has been called the anthropic principle. A profound question raised by the principle is: Why? Why should the universe care whether it contains animate matter? The theological answer to this question is a cosmic form of intelligent design: Our universe was created by an all-powerful and purposeful being, who wanted it to have life. Another explanation, more scientific, is that our universe is but one of a huge number of universes, called the multiverse, which have a wide range of values for the strength of the nuclear force, the amount of dark energy, and many other fundamental parameters. In most of those universes, these values would not lie within the narrow range permitting life to emerge. We live in one of the life-friendly universes because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Our existence, and our universe itself, is simply an accident, one throw of the cosmic dice.

A similar line of thinking could explain why planet Earth has such favorable conditions for life: liquid water, moderate temperatures (at the moment), plentiful oxygen for higher-level metabolism. The obvious explanation is that there are many planets, even in our own solar system, that do not have liquid water or pleasant temperatures or oxygen atmospheres. Those planets do not harbor life. We are here, to build houses and write novels and ask questions about our own existence, because we live on one of the small fraction of planets that have the right conditions for life. In sum, animate matter is not only rare in our particular universe, but seems to be nonexistent in most possible universes.

5) Good stuff from Cathy Young, “Perils to Free Speech from Woke and Anti-Woke”

One should not, of course, generalize from the Hamline University fiasco. Many professors continue to show Muhammad images in class without incident. Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, told the New York Times that “he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms” and that part of his goal is to make students grapple with how images once considered pious can be later redefined as blasphemous and forbidden. But a chilling effect, at least for untenured faculty and especially adjuncts, is quite likely.

There is also the larger chilling effect of a large percentage of American educators—and students—embracing the “social justice” dogma which holds that disagreement equals harm or even violence, at least when it comes to claims of trauma, discrimination, or bigotry made by members of presumptively oppressed groups. Pressures to censor or abridge “harmful” speech are unlikely to remain confined to college campuses. In a 2019 Knight Foundation survey of college students, over 40 percent said that “hate speech” (which, as the Hamline University incident shows, can be very broadly defined) should not be protected by the First Amendment. At the Hamline forum, CAIR’s Hussein said that “if somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.” But if “controversial stuff about Islam”—in this case, a view endorsed by many Muslims themselves—is off-limits at a college that strives to be inclusive, it’s hard to see how a public library that wants all community members to feel welcome would avoid the same pressures. And what happens if and when students trained to believe that assertions based on “trauma” and “lived experience” are off-limits to debate graduate and go on to take jobs in the media, in government, or in other spheres that involve public discourse?

It goes without saying that the fixation on “harm” from contentious speech does no favors to people or communities affected by discrimination and prejudice (as many American Muslims certainly have been). Social justice dogma can stifle discussion and promote groupthink in those communities themselves, designating people with the approved viewpoint as their only legitimate representatives. Amna Khaled, an associate professor of history at Minnesota’s Carleton College, makes this point in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, writing that she is offended by the Hamline administrators’ stance as a Muslim:

In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.

Ironically, in the social justice framework, this extreme conservatism passes for a progressive defense of a marginalized group.

However limited in scope, the Hamline University incident does confirm that a problem with speech- and idea-policing on the left exists—whether you want to call it “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” “wokeness,” or any of the other buzzwords applied to this phenomenon. And while there is a large segment of progressive opinion in which all talk of a left-wing “cancel culture” is met with derision and spin, it is also true that, as Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last pointed out yesterday, the very existence of a New York Times story clearly critical of the school’s actions shows the left policing its own. It’s also worth noting that PEN America, a liberal organization, has condemned the school’s handling of the controversy and defended academic freedom in the strongest terms.

Last is also correct to note that the Times’s effort to “police their own side” stands in contrast to how the mainstream conservative media respond to “cancel culture” on the right—that is, to right-wing moves to police speech and ideas. That such moves are happening is not in question.

Take a recent story by progressive blogger Judd Legum about an Escambia County, Florida schoolteacher named Vicki Baggett who is using the so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last April, to go after school library books. Baggett’s latest target: When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball, a kids’ book about the childhood of sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1960. Rudolph grew up in segregated Tennessee in the 1940s and had to deal with poverty and racism while growing up. At one point, the book has Rudolph, whose mother worked as a maid for a white family, reflecting that it isn’t right that “white folks got all the luxury, and we black folks got the dirty work.”

Baggett says that the book “trashes and puts down those who are not black” and that white students in particular are “white-shamed” by it. Look who’s being a snowflake now.

6) I’m not much of a horror fan guy, but I really, really like Barbarian (on HBO Max).

7) This is good, “The House spectacle highlights a key difference between the parties”

As political scientists Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins wrote in their 2016 book, “Asymmetric Politics”: “While the Democratic Party is fundamentally a group coalition, the Republican Party can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement.” Group coalitions can be managed through transactional politics — so long as some of the groups’ priorities are advanced, they will stick together to deliver for the other groups in the coalition.

Ideological movements are less flexible. There’s pressure for alignment among members — and even when members are mostly aligned, remaining differences may seem all the more significant. (McCarthy’s move rightward hasn’t done much to shore up his position with his opponents.)

Since “Asymmetric Politics” was published, Democrats have grown increasingly ideological, and the ideological emphases of the GOP have changed. Yet it’s still the case that “the Democratic Party — in the electorate, as an organizational network, and in government — is organized around group interests.” The party’s “self-conscious” constituent groups include, for example, indebted college graduates, intellectuals and the expert class, government-employee unions, and the organized civil-rights apparatus (which itself includes many independent interests).

Democrats tend to argue for specific policies, Grossmann and Hopkins observed, on the grounds that they will help a specific group they see as part of their coalition — women, unions, universities. Republicans, meanwhile, are more likely to appeal to “general concepts and principles … frequently emphasizing the need to limit the scope of government or preserve traditional American society.” A coalition that makes ideology its lodestar is stronger in some respects — but as the House GOP fractiousness has shown, weaker in others.

Business might have once been a group interest within the GOP. Corporations are amenable to transactional politics and have historically expected benefits under Republican governance. But in the Trump years, big business and the Republican Party drifted apart, both because of corporate discomfort with populism and the GOP’s discomfort with business’s growing social liberalism. The gap widened after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. The Republican-business rift has left the House GOP even less constrained by interest groups’ needs, and more driven by ideological goals.

8) I actually enjoyed this Washington Post profile of Yglesias, but, it was quite too ready to embrace the leftist critiques of Yglesias which pretty much ignore the fact that virtually all his policy preferences are solidly left of center.

9) I was surprised to learn this about the vaccines in Katelyn Jetelina’s latest (and always excellent) newsletter:

Moderna is doing better

What we know: Even though Moderna and Pfizer are both mRNA vaccines, they have distinct micro-differences. The impact of those differences on immune defenses has been up for debate.

New info: Another study confirmed that Moderna induced a better first defense (protection against infection). In addition (and for the first time) we see that it alsogenerated a larger T-cell response (i.e. secondary defense) than Pfizer. This likely impacts downstream outcomes, like duration and strength of protection against severe disease.

Why does this matter? Given this study and previous ones, there should be a preferential recommendation for those over age 50 to get Moderna over Pfizer. This is particularly important for older adults, as they have weaker immune systems.

Lots of other good stuff in there, too.

10) Good stuff on over-hyping new variants by doling out names like Kraken:

The WHO isn’t alone in objecting. For Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah, the new names are not just unnecessary but potentially harmful. “It’s absolutely crazy that we’re having random people on Twitter name variants,” he told me. For Goldstein, dressing up each new subvariant with an ominous monster name overplays the differences between the mutations and feeds into the panic that comes every time the coronavirus shifts form. In this view, distinguishing one Omicron sublineage from another is less like distinguishing a wolf from a cow and more like distinguishing a white-footed mouse from a deer mouse: important to a rodentologist but not really to anyone else. To go as far as naming lineages after terrifying mythical beasts, he said, “seems obviously intended to scare the shit out of people … It’s hard to understand what broader goal there is here other than this very self-serving clout chasing.”

11) Derek Thompson with a nice summary of recent research on whether science is becoming less disruptive:

We should be living in a golden age of creativity in science and technology. We know more about the universe and ourselves than we did in any other period in history, and with easy access to superior research tools, our pace of discovery should be accelerating. But, as I wrote in the first edition of this newsletter, America is running out of new ideas.

“Everywhere we look we find that ideas … are getting harder to find,” a group of researchers from Stanford University and MIT famously concluded in a 2020 paper. Another paper found that “scientific knowledge has been in clear secular decline since the early 1970s,” and yet another concluded that “new ideas no longer fuel economic growth the way they once did.”

In the past year, I’ve traced the decline of scientific breakthroughs and entrepreneurship, warned that some markets can strangle novelty, and investigated the domination of old movies and songs in the film and music industries. This year, a new study titled “Papers and Patents Are Becoming Less Disruptive Over Time” inches us closer to an explanation for why the pace of knowledge has declined. The upshot is that any given paper today is much less likely to become influential than a paper in the same field from several decades ago. “Our study is the first to show that progress is slowing down, not just in one or two places, but across many domains of science and technology,” Michael Park, a co-author and professor at the University of Minnesota, told me.

The researchers relied on a metric called the Consolidation-Disruption Index—or CD Index—which measures the influence of new research. For example, if I write a crummy literature review and no scientist ever mentions my work because it’s so basic, my CD Index will be extremely low. If I publish a paradigm-shifting study and future scientists exclusively cite my work over the research I rendered irrelevant, my CD Index will be very high.

This new paper found that the CD Index of just about every academic domain today is in full-on mayday! mayday! descent. Across broad landscapes of science and technology, the past is eating the present, progress is plunging, and truly disruptive work is hard to come by. Despite an enormous increase in scientists and papers since the middle of the 20th century, the number of highly disruptive studies each year hasn’t increased.

Lots of interesting theories discussed.  From my perch in social science, it’s pretty clear that there’s way too many simply mediocre papers published (guilty!) because that’s what most of us are rewarded for.

12) Good stuff from Gallup on the latest in party and ideological identification. Their charts are hard to cut and paste, so go check it out.  Of note, among Democrats, whites and college grads are way more liberal.

13) I loved learning that NC State is now working on “microbiome engineering.”  So much potential here.

14) America’s obsession with guns just completely sucks, part one million (via Kaiser )

Firearms recently became the number one cause of death for children in the United States, surpassing motor vehicle deaths and those caused by other injuries.

15) Brian Beutler on classified documents and both sidesism:

The other story at least grazes against the public interest. That is, it didn’t become a news story by dint of error and propaganda, and it bears ongoing-if-not-so-breathless scrutiny. But it grew into a major news story, and now a special counsel investigation, via the same failed incentive that gave us EMAILS in 2016: The notion that the newsworthiness of anything should correlate to how angry one party (almost always the Republican Party) pretends to be about it.

Reporters don’t have to read minds to know Republicans are pretending. They know through experience that Republican fixation on information security is entirely situational and unprincipled. They know that Republicans are lying openly about the facts at issue with the classified documents filed in Joe Biden’s vice presidential records. They know that the aim of the sensationalism is to create the perception that the Justice Department is holding Joe Biden and Donald Trump to different standards—or worse, that Biden is the real crook, and Trump the victim of a frame-up—and they know that perception is false.

Not only is it false, it’s fully backward. The voluntary and cooperative conduct of Biden’s personal and White House lawyers throws Trump’s criminal offenses (stealing and hiding state secrets) into stark relief. And in fairness, most mainstream news outlets have made some effort to emphasize this distinction.

But if there’s no apparent intentional wrongdoing here, no effort to conceal or stonewall, and no sense in which the Biden case should affect the disposition of the Trump case, why hyperventilate about it at all? Why reward Republican propaganda by characterizing the effect it has on the public as an “optics problem” for Democrats or Merrick Garland or whoever else. Nothing bad would happen if media outlets refused to succumb to manipulative tactics, and news consumers would be better informed.

Simply treating the Biden records as a smaller and separate story would be a huge improvement, but it wouldn’t actually capture the full state of affairs. It’s not just that there’s no reason to pretend to believe liars when they’re pretending to believe something is scandalous; the very fact that they’re lying, to manipulate the press and mislead the public, is an important story in its own right.

Six years after setting the country on a course to ruin with its EMAILS obsession, we should doubt it’s a story the press will ever choose to tell.

16) Quite randomly came across this research on high school start times:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that U.S. secondary schools begin after 8:30 a.m. to better align with the circadian rhythms of adolescents. Yet due to economic and logistic considerations, the vast majority of high schools begin the school day considerably earlier. We leverage a quasi-natural experiment in which five comprehensive high schools in one of the nation’s largest school systems moved start times forty minutes earlier to better coordinate with earlier-start high schools. Here, disruption effects should exacerbate any harmful consequences. We report on the effect of earlier start times on a broad range of outcomes, including mandatory ACT test scores, absenteeism, on-time progress in high school, and college-going. While we fail to find evidence of harmful effects on test scores, we do see a rise in absenteeism and tardiness rates, as well as higher rates of dropping out of high school. These results suggest that the harmful effects of early start times may not be well captured by considering test scores alone.

17) David Wallace-Wells on electric vehicles:

It is striking that in the same year that Tesla’s stock price dropped by about two-thirds, destroying more than $700 billion in market value, the global market for electric vehicles — which for so long the company seemed almost to embody — actually boomed.

Boom may not even adequately communicate what happened. Around the world, E.V. sales were projected to have grown 60 percent in 2022, according to a BloombergNEF report prepared ahead of the 2022 U.N. climate conference COP27, bringing total sales over 10 million. There are now almost 30 million electric vehicles on the road in total, up from just 10 million at the end of 2020. E.V. market share has also tripled since 2020.

The pandemic years can feel a bit like a vacuum, but there are almost three times as many E.V.s on the world’s roads now as there were when Covid vaccines were first approved, and what looked not that long ago like a climate pipe dream is now undeniably underway: a genuine transition away from fossil-fueled transportation. This week, the Biden administration released a blueprint toward a net zero transportation sector by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, especially for such a car-intoxicated culture as ours. But it’s also one that, thanks to trends elsewhere in the world, is beginning to seem more and more plausible, at least on the E.V. front.

In Norway, electric vehicles now represent four out of every five new cars sold; the figure was just one in five as recently as 2016. In Germany, more than 55 percent of new cars registered in December were electric or hybrid. In China, where more electric vehicles are sold than everywhere else in the world combined, the rise is perhaps even more dramatic: from 3.5 percent of the market at the beginning of 2020 to 20.3 percent at the beginning of 2022. And growing, of course: Nearly twice as many electric vehicles were sold last year in China as in the year before. The country also exported $3.2 billion worth of E.V.s last November alone, more than double the exports of the previous November. Its largest single manufacturer, BYD, has surpassed Tesla for global market share — so perhaps it should not be so surprising that Tesla’s stock is dimming while the global outlook is so sunny.

This is not just eye-popping growth; it is also dramatically faster than most analysts were projecting just a few years ago. In 2020, the International Energy Agency projected that the global share of electric vehicle sales would not top 10 percent before 2030. It appears we’ve already crossed that bar eight years early, and BloombergNEF now projects that the market share of E.V.s will approach 40 percent by the end of the decade. (The I.E.A. is less bullish but has still roughly doubled its 2030 projection in just two years.) The underlying production capacity is perhaps even more encouraging. In the United States, investments in battery manufacturing reached a record $73 billion last year — three times as much as the previous record, set the year before. Globally, battery manufacturing capacity grew almost 40 percent last year, and is projected to grow fivefold by just 2025. By that year, lithium mining is expected to be triple what it was in 2021.

18) I had my colonoscopy back in the spring, my wife is having her’s next week.  Thus, I was particularly intrigued by this, “Colonoscopies save lives. Why did a trial suggest they might not?”

A media frenzy followed, and headlines were blunt, declaring that colonoscopies might not be effective or prevent deaths at all. But when Dominitz dug deeper, the trial results reflected where and how the study was conducted and the complexity of the questions it was trying to answer. “It is really important to not just read the headline,” says Dominitz, who is also director of the colorectal-cancer screening programme run by the US Department of Veteran Affairs.

A closer look at the European study, on its own and in the context of other studies, shows that colonoscopies do in fact substantially reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer and dying from it. They are still considered by many experts to be one of the best ways to screen for the disease. But for any screening procedure, there are trade-offs both for individuals and at the public-health level. As scientists are working out the details of which tests to recommend, the reaction to the study illustrates how difficult it is to interpret and communicate research on cancer screening.

“It’s really important to look at all the evidence in totality,” says Jennifer Croswell, a public-health researcher at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in cancer screening. “This was a complicated trial to sort through.”

Can a better gut microbiome help you fight cancer?

This is from back in November, but remains compelling and worth a post, as you know I’m always fascinated by science and the human microbiome. Washington Post:

Cancer researchers think they have found an explanation for why some cancer drugs don’t always work. The answer — and a possible solution — may be found in the gut microbiome.

The composition of a person’s gut microbiome — which consists of trillions of bacteria and other microbes — appears to influence whether a ground-breaking cancer treatment called immunotherapy is successful in some patients. Scientists have found that patients who harbor certain gut bacteria have better responses to immunotherapy than patients who lack them.

Even more stunning: scientists believe that giving patients a fiber-rich diet of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains to nourish the microbiome might improve the odds that the cancer treatment is effective…
Scientists have long known that the microbiome is a crucial part of our immune systems. By some estimates, between 60 and 80 percent of the immune cells in our bodies reside in the gut.

But only recently did it become apparent that these microbes might affect cancer outcomes. Scientists at the University of Chicago discovered that mice with a strain of gut bacteria known as Bifidobacterium had a stronger immune response against melanoma tumors than mice who lacked the bacteria. They found that giving Bifidobacterium to the deficient mice slowed tumor growth. What’s more, combining the bacteria with an immunotherapy drug known as a checkpoint inhibitor nearly abolished the tumors.

Human studies showed that these checkpoint inhibitors were also more effective in cancer patients whose guts had more microbial diversity, as well as a greater abundance of several microbes, including Akkermansia muciniphila and Bifidobacterium longum. Patients with low levels of these and other microbes were less likely to respond to the treatment…

“We don’t want to say that the microbiome is the only mechanism,” said Zarour, the co-leader of the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But we have learned that the microbiome could definitely be responsible for the inability of some patients to respond.”

Zarour said the goal of his work is to figure out which gut microbes are involved and then package them into pills that patients could take to alter their microbiomes. “The endgame is not fecal transplants,” he added. “Giving patients a cocktail of probiotics might be the best option.”

Obviously, a long way to go with this research, but I remain optimistic that learning more about the human microbiome will lead to genuinely important advances in medicine. 

Is it so wrong to admit that gender identity and teenagers is complicated?

Jonathan Chait had a really nice piece on the transgender adolescent controversy month that I really liked.  I think what I most liked about it is the call for epistemic humility right in the headline, “Helping Trans Kids Means Admitting What We Don’t Know.”  I think what is so frustrating about the left’s take on all this is the near-hubris of we know what’s best for kids and teenagers always know what’s best for themselves.  Of course, the pure absurdity of that last phrase to anyone who’s ever been or known a teenager stands out.  Is there really any reason to think “teenagers know always know what’s best for themselves” becomes true when we add “for their gender identity.” And, of course, the right is regularly using this for an absurd moral panic.  That’s certainly not okay, either.  But, just because the right is acting poorly on this does not mean that those on the left need to embrace rigid positions that would not make sense for any other aspect of adolescent life.  Chait:

Last month, the New York Times published an investigative report on the medical treatment of children who question their gender identity. The findings were decidedly mixed. The reporters showed that many patients benefit from puberty-blocking drugs, which help them transition to a different gender, but that doctors also fear puberty blockers have long-term side effects, and that the treatment locks at least some children into escalating medicalization before they have figured out their gender identity.

The response on the left was as if the newspaper had committed a hate crime. “It is playing into the ongoing manufactured and weaponized conservative panic about trans existence,” asserted a Slate podcast. “Wild how normalized it is for journalists on this ‘beat’ to be aligned with straight-up hate groups and rely on anti-trans activists to link them with sources,” tweeted left-wing journalist Michael Hobbes.

This interpretation that the Times had contributed to an atmosphere of hatred against trans people was repeated so often and so stridently that within the left, it came to seem almost obvious. A week later, when a murderer opened fire in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, NPR’s On the Media interviewed NBC Out reporter Jo Yurcaba, who explained that the murder resulted from “rhetoric that labels LGBTQ people as grooming children,” including “coverage, for example, in the New York Times that paints gender-affirming care for minors as something that is debatable.”

There is a familiar pattern here in the way left-wing activists shut down internal criticism by treating any criticism of their position as either identical to, or complicit with, the far right. [emphases mine] Extremists on the right, of course, use the same method to shut down their critics on the center-right. To the radical, the easiest way to win a debate is to insist that the only choice is between opposing poles. If you oppose any element of their argument, you have endorsed the enemy. If the criticism is tempered and credible, this only makes them regard it as more dangerous.

But this absolutist mind-set has had an especially pernicious effect on the issue of youth gender medicine. This is because the science is genuinely murky and embryonic, making the struggle to identify a humane and effective solution both difficult and necessary. The left has thrown itself behind a crusade to define such a position out of existence.

The key thing to understand about this issue is that there are two distinct debates going on at the same time. The one between Democrats and Republicans in the political arena concerns whether to respect the basic rights of transgender people. Within the medical community, the debate is over exactly how to treat children who question their gender identity. The former matter is clear and simple. The latter is murky.

The question of how to treat children has many sources of uncertainty. There has been a huge explosion in cases of children questioning their gender identity, and a large majority of the patients are assigned female at birth. The stages of treatment generally begin with social transition (using different name and clothing), proceed to drugs that delay puberty, and culminate in surgery. Experts don’t agree on the correct age at which to begin these treatments. One problem is that kids and teens often have a fluid grasp of their own identity and gender, and need time to form a stable identity. Another is that puberty blockers have undetermined long-term risks.

Both sides of this debate within the medical community agree that trans people do require medical and social support without stigma. The disagreement lies in the process and speed of the appropriate treatment. The treatment regimen supported by most of the trans-activist community calls for “gender-affirming” care that puts kids on the process to transition in relatively rapid order, highly aware of the risk of going too slow: that transgender children will be denied care they need and grow despondent or even suicidal. More traditional treatment models call for more cautious progression to medicalization and surgery, focused on the risk of moving too fast: that children will be mistakenly diagnosed with gender dysphoria and will have long-term side effects from treatment that they later come to regret.

Progressive activists have not just embraced the gender-affirming care model; they have begun treating any disagreement with it as hateful denial that trans people exist. Indeed, they have frequently denied that any debate exists within the medical community at all.

The purpose of their rhetorical strategy is to conflate advocates of more cautious treatment of trans children with conservatives who oppose any treatment for trans children. This campaign has met with a great deal of success. Much of the coverage in mainstream and liberal media has followed this template — ignoring or denying the existence of the medical debate, and presenting anti-trans Republican politicians as the only alternative to gender-affirming care. This has been the theme not only of progressive infotainment like Jon Stewart and John Oliver, but also mainstream organs like Politico and CNN, where coverage of the issue often treats progressive activists as unbiased authorities and dismisses all questions about youth gender treatment as hate-driven denial of the medical consensus.

Over the last half-decade, as more and more reporting has revealed a persistent divide inside the medical community, the attempts on the left to deny its existence have grown increasingly strained. Rather than acknowledge the debate within the medical community and the genuine sources of concern, activists have continued to wish away its existence and attack those journalists who try to report on it.

Anyway, good stuff.  I’m so tired of false binaries and damn are there few places where those false binaries are worse than on issues of gender and adolescents because, you know what? It’s complicated!

Quick hits (part II)

1) Good stuff from Brian Beutler:

Republicans trying to hurt the country rather than serve as a faithful opposition isn’t new. Antipathy between the far right and the GOP leadership is longstanding. If you think right-wing Republicans lying to their voters about the limits of their power for personal gain is something they invented in 2023, Ted Cruz would like a word. And if reactionaries are going to issue marching orders to their leaders, including orders to shut down the government or default on U.S. debt unless Democrats pay various ransoms, the correct response is also old: We won’t negotiate. You get nothing.  

What’s new, or at least unique to this circumstance, is the character of the splinter faction that seems poised to seize control of the House. It’s composed almost entirely of insurrectionists. Their aims as legislative terrorists, such as we can discern them, aren’t the kinds of nonstarter policy demands that marked Republican hostage taking in the Obama years (gut Medicare, defund the Affordable Care Act, etc). They are rooted in the realm of corruption. They want to steal elections. They want to sabotage criminal investigations that implicate themselves, Donald Trump, and January 6 defendants, current and future. They want to dictate the the tactics and tools the House will bring to bear to achieve those goals to whoever becomes speaker. They want to institutionalize a standard of impunity for Republicans caught in the reach of legitimate oversight, and a different standard of total compliance for Democrats, whether investigating them is merited or not.

And here we get drawn into the question of how Democrats should react. Because the key thing about this insurgency is that the faction waging it is the same one that just cost Republicans victory in the 2022 midterms. Its goal is to redouble the party’s commitment to the exact same losing politics. And as of this writing—by deposing McCarthy or making him their puppet—the insurgents are poised to win.

Over the past week plenty of smart people have daydreamed that a more sensible wing of the GOP will reach its breaking point, find a sane candidate to nominate for the speakership, and get him elected by offering Democrats some basic concessions—no trifling with government shutdowns and debt defaults; no Benghazi-style fishing expeditions. Other equally smart but more jaded observers have noted…well, have you met Republicans?!

And as a practical matter, the cynics are almost certainly right. But as a theoretical matter, there’s really nothing more far fetched about a coalition legislature than one commandeered by right-wing hijackers. The difference is that the hijackers are willing to try. The Republicans who claim to be furious at the hijackers could stop them. But once again, same as it ever was, they’re more fixated on their jobs or their grievances than with what’s best for the country. Their failure to confront the MAGA wing is an endorsement of the MAGA uprising over the alternative of conceding an inch to political reality or the national interest. The whole Republican Party, every last member of the House GOP, has now re-embraced the toxic politics of its losing 2022 campaign. And so, through the speakership crisis and for the next two years, Democrats should remember what it was that saved them from landslide defeat in the 2022 midterms. 

2) An AI text detector

3) So, not stretching, but here’s a dynamic warmup before exercise.  

But in recent years, exercise science has coalesced around a better way to prepare your body for exertion: the dynamic warm-up.

A dynamic warm-up is a set of controlled, up-tempo movements that can help make your workout safer and more effective, said Alvaro López Samanes, an assistant professor and international coordinator of physiotherapy at Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, in Madrid, who’s studied them in tennis players.

Research suggests dynamic warm-ups improve agility, speed and overall performance for a wide range of sports, including tennisbaseball and running. They also appear to reduce injury risk. In a fast-moving, direction-changing sport like soccer, a tailored dynamic warm-up lowered the odds of getting hurt by about 30 percent in one 2017 research review.

While Olympic sprinters and World Cup players do them before competing, they’re not just for elite athletes. In fact, “people who don’t move athletically very often need dynamic warm-ups the most,” said Emily Hutchins, a personal trainer and owner of On Your Mark Coaching and Training in Chicago. If you go straight from your office chair or your bed to a workout, you might arrive with a hunched posture, not to mention cold, tight muscles that don’t move fluidly. Dynamic warm-ups bridge the gap.

4) I really wish NYT had just written a nice article instead of giving us this video, but the gist is important.  The reason that we keep running out of hospital space for kids is largely that hospitals have simply decided adults are more profitable.  

5) Hell, yeah, “Guns Are Not Speech”

In dealing with the controversy that erupted, I made hundreds of speeches, many of them in synagogues, defending free speech for everyone, including the Nazis. I published a book on the subject called “Defending My Enemy.” I hold the same beliefs today as I expressed then: I would defend free speech for all, regardless of my antipathy for their views.

But in these controversies, we have to be clear about what free speech actually entails. In recent years, there has been a troubling increase in people conflating free speech with something quite different: the right to carry weapons. On November 26, The New York Times published a front page article on the increasing frequency with which guns are being carried and displayed by participants in demonstrations. It included an analysis of more than 700 such demonstrations during the past three years and found that, at about 77 percent of them, those carrying guns came from the political right.

Indeed, right-wing groups have been increasingly outspoken in recent years about what they claim are efforts to suppress the expression and dissemination of their views. A spokesman for Gun Owners of America told the Times that “Americans should be able to bear arms while expressing their First Amendment rights, whether that’s going to church or a peaceful assembly.” Proud Boys and Oath Keepers invoked free speech to justify their armed participation in the January 6 Capitol assault.

But these arguments represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is all about. Freedom of speech is about persuasion. Those engaged in free speech try to persuade others on the basis of the information they disseminate and the quality of their arguments. If these are worthless or repugnant, like those of the Nazis who proposed to march in Skokie, they deserve to fail. If their views have merits, that should be the basis on which they persuade others. In either case, their right to express their views should be protected.

Weapons, on the other hand, are about threats. Openly brandishing weapons conveys the message that they may be used against those who express contrary views. It is the antithesis of freedom of speech, and clearly indicates that one is not interested in persuasion or dialogue but is only interested in intimidation. Unsurprisingly, protests at which firearms are carried are far more likely to turn violent than protests without guns present.

For these reasons, I would not have defended the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie if they had chosen to carry guns, knives, baseball bats, or anything else they could have used to assault or intimidate people. They had a right to seek police protection as they marched—but no one has a right to use or threaten violence to impose their views on others.

6) I love that EJ Dionne is devoting a column to my former member of Congress and former Duke Political Science Professor, David Price.

Price, who is retiring from Congress in January at the age of 82 after 17 terms in office, has been a special figure in our public life. He is a loss to the institution and our politics precisely because he thinks institutionally. He believes that Congress matters and that individual members have obligations not only to themselves, their consciences and their constituents, but also to making the first branch of government function effectively.

He grew up in east Tennessee in a Republican family and became a Democrat as a student in North Carolina because of his engagement in the early years of the civil rights movement. He got divinity and political science degrees from Yale and is a first-rate political scientist — his book on Congress, first published in 1992, came out in its fourth edition at the end of 2020. It’s one of the best examples of “participant-observer” scholarship.

7) I actually did not notice at all that the new Avatar movie was using high frame rates. 

The problem is that increasing the frame rate begins to make everything look hyper-clear. That extreme sharpness, far from being an unalloyed benefit, changes the whole texture of the image, giving it a look that we associate with video and stripping away whatever mystique and aesthetic allure comes from longer time gaps between frames…

There is no discernible rationale for Cameron’s choices: The rate often shifts within a scene or when he cuts to another angle on the same object. And the technique isn’t simply used for action scenes and fast camera movements, the most obvious potential sources of blur or judder. Some of the action is shown at 24, and some quiet, character-driven shots are at 48.

8) One of those big-think Noah Smith pieces you just have to read, “The third magic: A meditation on history, science, and AI”

9a) Surely, at least part of the answer, “Young adults are struggling with their mental health. Is more childhood independence the answer? “

But a growing body of evidence is beginning to suggest that the problems of “adulting” and mental health in college students may be rooted, at least in part, in modern childhood. Research shows that young people are lacking in emotional resilience and independence compared to previous generations. The problem has been growing in tandem with rising rates of anxiety and depression, perhaps exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has left colleges scrambling to help and adapt.

“Some parents have been parenting differently, they have this value of success at all costs,” said Dori Hutchinson, executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. “I like to describe it as some kids are growing up developmentally delayed, today’s 18-year-olds are like 12-year-olds from a decade ago. They have very little tolerance for conflict and discomfort, and COVID just exposed it.” …

Research shows that young people who arrive on campus with healthy amounts of resilience and independence do better both academically and emotionally, but today more students of all backgrounds are arriving on campus with significantly less experience in dealing with life’s ups and downs. Many even see normal adult activities as risky or dangerous.

In a new study currently under review, Georgetown University psychologist Yulia Chentsova Dutton looked at whether American college students’ threshold for what is considered risky was comparable to their global peers. Chentsova Dutton and her team interviewed students from Turkey, Russia, Canada and the United States, asking them to describe a risky or dangerous experience they had in the last month. Both Turkish and Russian students described witnessing events that involved actual risk: violent fights on public transportation; hazardous driving conditions caused by drunk drivers; women being aggressively followed on the street. 

But American students were far more likely to cite as dangerous things that most adults do every day, like being alone outside or riding alone in an Uber.

The American students’ risk threshold was comparatively “quite low,” according to Chentsova Dutton. Students who reported they gained independence later in childhood — going to the grocery store or riding public transportation alone, for example — viewed their university campus as more dangerous; those same students also had fewer positive emotions when describing risky situations. 

Chentsova Dutton hypothesizes that when students have fewer opportunities to practice autonomy, they have less faith in themselves that they can figure out a risky situation. “My suspicion is that low autonomy seems to translate into low efficacy,” she said. “Low efficacy and a combination of stress is associated with distress,” like anxiety and depression.

In recent years, other psychologists have made similar associations. Author and New York University ethical leadership professor Jonathan Haidt has used Nassim Taleb’s theory of anti-fragility to explain how kids’ social and emotional systems act much like our bones and immune systems: Within reason, testing and stressing them doesn’t break them but makes them stronger. But, Haidt and first amendment advocate Greg Lukianoff have argued in their writing, a strong culture of “safetyism” which prizes the safety of children above all else, has prevented young people from putting stress on the bones, so to speak, so “such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events.” 

Psychologists have directly connected a lack of resilience and independence to the growth of mental health problems and psychiatric disorders in young adults and say that short cycles of stress or conflict are not only not harmful, they are essential to human development. But modern childhood, for a variety of reasons, provides few opportunities for kids to practice those skills. 

While it’s hard to point to a single cause, experts say a confluence of factors — including more time spent on smartphones and social media, less time for free play, a culture that prizes safety at the expense of building other characteristics, a fear of child kidnapping, and more adult-directed activities — together have created a culture that keeps kids far away from the kinds of experiences that build resilience.

Chentsova Dutton said America has an international reputation for prizing autonomy, but her study opened her eyes to a more complicated picture. American parents tend to be overprotective when children are young, acting as if kids are going to live at home for a long time, like parents do in Italy. Yet they also expect children to live away from home fairly early for college, like families do in Germany. The result is that American kids end up with drastically fewer years navigating real life than they do in other countries that start much earlier. 

“We parent like we are in Italy, then send kids away like we are in Germany,” Chentsova Dutton said with a laugh. “Those things don’t match.”

The woke culture of “safetyism” where everything is a threat to personal well-being, sure doesn’t help either. 

9b) and just before queuing these up, I came across this:

10) Really interesting post on evolved sex differences across species

Biological Constraints

 

Darwin’s [7] sexual selection, that is, the social dynamics that emerge with intrasexual competition for mates and intersexual choice of mating partners, is the primary source of sex differences across species [for review see 8]. Sexual selection results in the evolution of traits that support competition and choice, and the evolutionary emergence of sex differences for these traits, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The male kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) from The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex, Vol. II, by C. Darwin, 1871, London, John Murray, p. 255. Males compete by locking horns and pulling and pushing each other as a display of physical strength and stamina. Females are hornless.

These traits can be physical (e.g., body weight), ornamental (e.g., colorful plumage), behavioral (e.g., mating displays), or supported by brain and cognitive systems (e.g., bird song). The key result is trait exaggeration in one sex or the other. But this exaggeration can also create a vulnerability for the seemingly advantaged sex [4]. Larger, exaggerated traits consume more cellular energy (and result in more oxidative stress and other cell damaging processes) to build, maintain, and express, making them especially vulnerable to energy and nutritional short falls, as well as to other stressors [9]. By analogy, a poorly working furnace will result in a more rapid drop in ambient temperature in a 300-square-meter than a 100-square-meter house. Basically, the ability to fully express these traits depends on the overall condition of the individual, which is why they are called condition-dependent traits, and the condition of the individual will depend in part on social and ecological conditions.

The factors that sap the development and expression of these traits are well-captured by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Figure 2), that is, infection, famine, and intense social competition. Exposure to these conditions, as well as some man-made toxins, compromise exaggerated traits more than other traits and therefore reduces the magnitude of any associated sex differences [5, 10, 11]. There are, of course, individual differences within each sex in sensitivity to these stressors, such that some individuals are compromised more strongly than others, but the overall results are smaller sex differences for the population and more variability in the affected trait across individuals…

By the logic above, variation in nutrition, disease risk, and social stressors represented by the Horsemen should result in variation in the magnitude of the sex differences in physical size, such as height. More precisely, height differences between the sexes should have increased over time as developed nations kept the Horsemen at bay with improvements in public health (among other factors) and be larger today in developed than in developing nations. Indeed, from 1900 to 1958, the sex difference in height increased 36 percent in Great Britain [17]: In 1900, the average British man was 11 cm taller than the average woman, but this increased to 15 cm by 1958. For young adults in nutritionally stressed regions of Nigeria, men are 7.5 cm shorter than their better-nourished peers, whereas women are 3.2 cm shorter [18]. The result is a sex difference in height that is 38 percent smaller than it would be if these adults had received better nutritional and medical care during childhood and adolescence.

11) Teen pregnancy and child poverty are both down and it is a fascinating and difficult question of which of these declines is driving the other one more.  You should read this, thus the gift link (I’m actually going to run out of these). 

Teen births have fallen by more than three-quarters in the last three decades, a change of such improbable magnitude that experts struggle to fully explain it. Child poverty also plunged, raising a complex question: Does cutting teen births reduce child poverty, or does cutting child poverty reduce teen births?

While both may be true, it is not clear which dominates. One theory holds that reducing teen births lowers child poverty by allowing women to finish school, start careers and form mature relationships, raising their income before they raise children. Another says progress runs the other way: Cutting child poverty reduces teen births, since teenagers who see opportunity have motives to avoid getting pregnant…

The reasons teen births have fallen are only partly understood. Contraceptive use has grown and shifted to more reliable methods, and adolescent sex has declined. Civic campaigns, welfare restrictions and messaging from popular culture may have played roles.

But with progress so broad and sustained, many researchers argue the change reflects something more fundamental: a growing sense of possibility among disadvantaged young women, whose earnings and education have grown faster than their male counterparts.

“They’re going to school and seeing new career paths open,” said Melissa S. Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland. “Whether they are excited about their own opportunities or feel that unreliable male partners leave them no choice, it leads them in the same direction — not becoming a young mother.” …

On the surface, the decline in teen births is easy to explain: Contraception rose, and sex fell.

The share of female teens who did not use birth control the last time they had sex dropped by more than a third over the last decade, according to an analysis of government surveys by the Guttmacher Institute. The share using the most effective form, long-acting reversible contraception (delivered through an intrauterine device or arm implant), rose fivefold to 15 percent. The use of emergency contraception also rose.

Contraception use has grown in part because it is easier to get, with the 2010 Affordable Care Act requiring insurance plans, including Medicaid, to provide it for free.

At the same time, the share of high school students who say they have had sexual intercourse has fallen 29 percent since 1991, Child Trends found. Some analysts, including Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, say the postponement of sex, which has intensified since 2013, stems in part from the time teens spend in front of screens.

Abortion does not appear to have driven the decline in teen births. As a share of teenage pregnancy, it has remained steady over the past decade, although the data, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omits medication abortions, and analysts say the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, could cause teen births to rise.

12) I actually had this book sitting in my “maybe read from the library” pile when BB sent me this really interesting article, “Rethinking the European Conquest of Native Americans: In a new book by Pekka Hämäläinen, a picture emerges of a four-century-long struggle for primacy among Native power centers in North America.”  Now I’m not sure if I should read the book or if I got most of what I would’ve out of the article.

13) Somewhat relatedly, this is a fascinating thread on gender dynamics among Native American tribes after the introduction of horses and how much it varied across tribes.

Here’s what I’ll add based on these two.  Land Acknowledgements are just insultingly stupid.  Do you know what any indigenous tribe would have done to the colonists if they were the ones with better weapons? Killed them and taken their land. This is what humans do.  I’m so tired of the noble savage.  Any land acknowledgement that addresses the Comanches (and quick google shows that there are plenty of these), for example, ignores the fact that they violently and brutally appropriated their land from other native tribes.  

14) A nice post on Epicurus and how to be happier from Eric Barker:

This is how to be happier:

  • Live For Pleasure: Not the frat party kind. Prize tranquility. We should be strategic hedonists. Think about the responsibly happy life you would wish for your children.
  • The Three Types Of Pleasure: Focus on Necessary pleasures like friendship. Enjoy Extravagant pleasures as long as they don’t require too much or infringe on the Necessary. Abolish Corrosive desires like the pursuit of fame and status.
  • Seek “Enough”: Satisfaction beats success. What we call “success” is often just slavery to Corrosive desires. And you don’t need quintuplets to be a happy parent.
  • Friendship is #1: (If you stop reading this right now to go laugh with friends over pizza, I promise not to be disappointed.)
  • Pleasure Can Make Us Resilient: Supportive friends, warm memories, and gratitude. A focus on these Necessary pleasures can give us strength.

15) I guess it’s good we’re making some progress on Alzheimer’s Drugs, but, this really doesn’t seem like enough to justify the costs and the risks:

In the Clarity study, which involved 1,800 patients, participants’ health declined whether they received the treatment or a placebo, but the lecanemab group deteriorated 27 percent more slowly. At 18 months, those patients scored a half-point better than the placebo group on an 18-point dementia test involving memory, judgment and other areas, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Some doctors say those effects are not large enough to be meaningful to patients and their families, and may not even be noticed. But others argue that the treatment could allow some patients with the fatal disease to enjoy the birth of a grandchild or to live at home longer.

16) I don’t think it will actually happen, but I would love to see a college lose it’s accreditation for such a gross violation of academic freedom, “A College Fired a Professor for Showing a Painting of Muhammad. Now, It Could Lose Its Accreditation.”

17) The idea of a cultural history of butts is pretty interesting. A shame the author had to turn it into overly-woke nonsense.  Apparently, men being attracted to women’s butts is racist or something. Kat Rosenfield:

For this we may thank the existence of Butts: A Backstory, a new book by journalist Heather Radke. To be fair, it surely is not Radke’s intention to inculcate racial anxiety in her reader: Butts feels like a passion project, deeply researched and fun to read, offering a deep dive into the history and culture of the human rear end, from the Venus Callipyge (from whose name the word “callipygian” is derived) to Buns of Steel to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s seminal rap celebrating all things gluteal. It is a topic ripe for well-rounded analysis, so to speak. But having been written in the very particular milieu of 2020s America, Butts unfortunately falls victim to the contemporary vogue for viewing all matters of culture through a racial lens. The result is a work that not only flattens the butt, figuratively, but makes the book feel ultimately less like an anthropological study and more like an entry into the crowded genre of works which serve to stoke the white liberal guilt of the NPR tote bag set…

The book is insistent on this front: butts are a black thing, and liking them is a black male thing, and the appreciation of butts by non-black folks represents a moral error: cultural theft or stolen valour or some potent mix of the two. Among the scholars and experts quoted by Radke on this front is one who asserts that the contemporary appreciation of butts by the wider male population is “coming from Black male desire. Straight-up, point-blank. It’s only through Black males and their gaze that white men are starting to take notice”. To paraphrase a popular meme: “Fellas, is it racist to like butts?”

Perhaps needless to say, a wealth of cultural artefacts — from the aforementioned Venus sculpture to the works of Peter Paul Rubens to certain showtunes of the Seventies —  belie the notion that white guys were oblivious to the existence of butts until black men made it cool to notice them. But the cultural legacy of the butt is undeniably entangled with the legacy of racism and eugenics, including a sordid and repellent history wherein certain anthropologists of the white male variety both fetishised the physiques of black women with ample backsides and conflated their peculiarities with savagery and promiscuity…

Certainly, it is impossible to do justice to the history of butts without devoting ample space to Baartman. But it’s one thing to give due scrutiny to the fact that some 19th century anthropologists indulged in the repugnant racial stereotyping of black women’s bodies and body parts; it’s another to replicate it ourselves — or to assume that other people are.

Radke does assume, though — repeatedly, persistently, and sometimes in spite of alternative theories or evidence to the contrary. This includes advancing the argument that bustles, the Victorian-era fashion that trended more than 50 years after Sarah Baartman’s death, were inspired by her singular figure — and that white women were coyly, perhaps even consciously, appropriating Baartman’s silhouette in an act of racist fetishisation. Notably, Radke is the first to acknowledge the obvious flaw in her argument: “There is also a question of why a late-19th-century woman would have wanted to look like Sarah Baartman, whose silhouette had been used as the quintessential example of African as subhuman,” she writes. Why, indeed? But Radke answers this question with some crude stereotyping of her own: “White culture and fashion have both proved relentlessly adept at cherry-picking throughout the centuries, finding a way to poach the parts of other people’s culture, histories, and bodies that suit them and leave behind the rest.”

Why would 19th century women have aspired to the silhouette of a sexually promiscuous savage? Because they were a bunch of Karens, that’s why (and here the self-loathing contemporary white woman reader is surely nodding along).

18) Another fascinating Noah Smith post, looking at economic development in Ghana (again, one of those things where I would typically just ignore it, but Smith is invariably so interesting in these essays). 

19) Interesting idea, “Can a Federally Funded ‘Netflix Model’ Fix the Broken Market for Antibiotics?”

The $6 billion measure, the Pasteur Act, would upend the conventional model that ties antibiotic profits to sales volume by creating a subscription-like system that would provide pharmaceutical companies an upfront payment in exchange for unlimited access to a drug once it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some call it the Netflix model for antibiotics.

The measure attempts to address the vexing economics of antibiotics: Promising new drugs often gather dust on pharmacy shelves because health providers would rather save them for patients whose infections don’t respond to existing ones. That’s because the more frequently an antibiotic is used, the more quickly it will lose its curative punch as the targeted bacteria develop the ability to survive.

New antibiotics also tend to be expensive, a disincentive for hospital-based prescribers who will often turn to cheaper ones, making it even harder for drug companies to earn back their initial investmentAside from the shortages of drugs that still work, the shrinking toolbox of effective antimicrobials has become a silent global crisis that claims nearly 1.3 million lives a year. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that drug-resistant pathogens could kill 10 million people annually.

“If we want antibiotics to work for our kids, our grandkids or ourselves in 10 years, we have to invest in the infrastructure today,” said Kevin Outterson, executive director of CARB-X, a nonprofit that provides funding for small biotechs developing novel antibiotics.

By separating profits from sales volume, supporters of the bill hope that prescribers will save new drugs for patients whose infections are resistant to existing medications. Limiting their use, experts say, can help extend the life of a new antibiotic before evolutionary pressure creates a “superbug” all but impervious to available antimicrobials.

The bill, a decade in the making, has bipartisan support and is widely backed by researchers, health care policy experts and drug company executives. But as momentum for the bill has gained steam, opposition has emerged from a small group of doctors and health care advocates, many of them critics of Big Pharma. They say the bill is a drug-industry giveaway — and unlikely to address the problem of antibiotic resistance.

20) I went through Evolv scanning/metal detectors for the first time ever last week at the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space museum.  I loved how quick and efficient it was.  Get these everywhere.  “AI may be searching you for guns the next time you go out in public”

Evolv machines use “active sensing” — a light-emission technique that alsounderpins radar and lidar — to create images. Then it applies AI to examine them. Data scientists at the Waltham, Mass., company have created “signatures” (basically, visual blueprints) and trained the AI to compare them to the scanner images.

Executives say the result is a smart system that can “spot” a weapon without anyone needing to stop and empty their pockets in a beeping machine. When the system identifies a suspicious item from a group of people flowing through, it draws an orange box around it on a live video feed of the person entering. It’s only then that a security guard, watching on a nearby tablet, will approach for more screening.

Dan Donovan, a veteran security consultant who rents Evolv’s systems out to clients for events, says that by allowing guards to focus on fewer threats, it avoids the fatigue metal-detector operators can feel.

A cool video of how they work.  

21) Somewhat relatedly, I have seen “Clear” at airports on my most recent flights and turns out it it’s basically evil:

That is the entirety of CLEAR’s offer to American flyers: Pay us money and give us your biometric data, and in return you can jump in front of other people to access an essential federal service. Unlike with TSA Pre, whose purpose is to speed up the entire airport safety system, there is no public benefit to CLEAR’s role in the screening process; it’s simply a way for a company—and airports themselves—to make money at the expense of passengers.
Worse, its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function.

22) I loved, loved, loved Planet Money on the economics lessons in children’s books.  It featured one of my kids’ favorites that I have read hundreds of times, Put Me in the Zoo, as well as my favorite kids book ever, The Sneetches.  

23) The strong case for an economic market for kidneys.  Too many people are dying waiting for a kidney and lots and lots of people have extra kidneys they would do just fine without. 

24) Nice piece on the profound, very conservative influence Pope Benedict had on the Catholic Church, largely before he became Pope. 

25) A headline you don’t see everyday, “An airline worker died after being ‘ingested into the engine’ of a plane, NTSB says”

26) Here’s some amazing AI work:

 

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Best stuff I’ve seen on XBB1.5:

At this stage of the pandemic, new variants are *guaranteed* to come and go. Variants arise from random errors as viruses make copies of itself. Most of these errors will be neutral (or even harmful) to the survival of the virus. But if you roll the dice millions of times, you’re bound to hit a winner eventually. A mutation that gives the virus an advantage will spread and create more copies of itself, crowding out other less “fit” variants.

This is what we are currently seeing with XBB.1.5 in the U.S…

Is XBB.1.5 more severe?

So far there is no evidence that XBB.1.5 causes more severe disease, but it’s something we always keep an eye on. There are very few “immune naïve” people who have not been infected, vaccinated, or both. While new variants can evade existing immunity enough to infect people and spread, we still have significant protection against severe disease compared to when we had no immunity.

2) Some pretty interesting research I definitely need to delve into more, “Does having children make you more politically conservative?”

Lead author Dr Nicholas Kerry, a psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says the team surveyed people in 10 countries, including Australia, about their feelings towards kids, as well as conducted a series of experiments encouraging participants to recall or imagine certain parenting and childcare experiences.

“We asked people to talk about either real or imagined experiences of childcare and reflect on how they felt at the time,” Kerry explains.

“For those who didn’t have kids, we asked them to imagine a child and then put them in different situations. We then compared this group to a control group, who were asked to think of similar positive experiences but without a child involved.”

They found that even thinking about scenarios like a child crying or playing ball fundamentally shifted the way people viewed the world, especially in relation to issues such as abortion, immigration and sex.

“Because socially conservative values prioritise safety, stability and family values, we hypothesised that being more invested in parental care might make socially conservative policies more appealing,” Kerry and his colleagues write.

3) Apparently, I’m a “reactionary centrist.”  Also, talk about reactionary, good God these leftists are dumb and knee-jerk. Chait:

The term originates from a 2018 essay by progressive activist and former Democratic House aide Aaron Huertas. It has been picked up and circulated by left-wing commentators like Jeet HeerMichael Hobbes, and Thomas Zimmer.

Huertas defined a reactionary centrist as “someone who says they’re politically neutral, but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Zimmer, in a recent podcast, said, “The term refers to people who claim to be moderate, in the middle, while always punching left.”

This definition applies, at least loosely, to some of the “reactionary centrists” they criticize. But while some “reactionary centrists” (David Brooks, Bari Weiss, Shadi Hamid*) reside on the center-right, many more reside on the center-left (the New York Times editorial pageMatthew Yglesiasme, among others). Very few of these “reactionary centrists” always or even usually criticize the left. The actual standard, and the term’s most commonly applied usage, is an insult for liberals who sometimes criticize the left.

The left-wing condemnations of “reactionary centrism” have both a minimalist and a maximalist version. The minimalist version argues that, since the right poses the greatest danger to liberal democratic values, it distorts reality to focus on the left as if its flaws are greater. I happen to agree with this version of the argument, and my work product (the overwhelming majority of which is directed against the right) reflects this belief.

But the left’s critique frequently slips into a maximalist version, which holds that, since the right poses the greatest danger to liberal democratic values, one should never criticize the left. Leftists who believe this don’t usually say it quite this bluntly. But their arguments leave no room for forceful criticism of the left, at least not in any terms that might be used by conservatives. Internal criticism from the left — scolding an ally for their lack of fervor — or criticism on purely personal or tactical grounds is exempt. But any “punching left,” or “scolding activists” as the sin is sometimes described, is forbidden on grounds of aiding the enemy.

A related version of this argument demands that liberals restrain their criticism of the left rather than engage in “left-bashing that empowers actual enemies of free speech.” None of these critics accept any such limits on their criticism of the liberals. It is a one-sided demand: The liberals must abstain from criticizing the left — or criticize only in the most respectful terms — because uninhibited attacks on the left help the right. The left, on the other hand, is free to attack liberals without inhibition. One cannot help but suspect the point of these rules is winning intra-left factional conflicts, not national elections…

Huertas, in his foundational essay on the phenomenon, comes close at one point to acknowledging the possibility that a liberal critic may be correct, before veering away.

“If progressive groups are doing something you can describe as distasteful or beneath you, or ineffective,” he writes, “that’s an excuse to avoid the hard work of participating in the progressive political movements that are actually trying to make our politics better.” You might believe progressive groups are misguided, but rather than saying so, you should simply work harder, like Boxer in Animal Farm.

4) Eric Levitz, “The GOP Is More Ungovernable Than Ever Before”

Meanwhile, over the past three decades, the rise of right-talk-radio juggernauts such as Rush Limbaugh and major conservative outlets like Fox News created further alternative power centers to the Republican leadership. These right-wing-media institutions had distinct incentives from the GOP. Whereas Republicans must appeal to a mass electorate, Fox News and Limbaugh served niche audiences that were both far more conservative and politically engaged than the median voter. And while internecine warfare is bad for party governance, it’s quite good for ratings: The media exists to tell stories, and you can’t have a compelling narrative without conflict…

It is one thing for Republican backbenchers to humiliate their party in defiance of its leadership; it is another for them to do so in defiance of the GOP Establishment, Donald Trump, and the bulk of the conservative media. In the past, the Republicans’ internecine feuds pitted the party’s disparate power centers against one another. In the current feud, however, all of the right’s major institutions are aligned behind McCarthy. And roughly 20 House Republicans feel comfortable defying their party anyway.

This intransigence is all the more extraordinary when one considers how little is actually at stake. There are no profound ideological divisions between Gaetz and (McCarthy supporter) Taylor Greene. Electing Steve Scalise or Andy Biggs or any other House Republican Speaker will not change the fact that Democrats control the Senate and the presidency and, therefore, that the conservative agenda cannot be implemented at the present time. The rebels do have official demands. But these are so outlandish as to call into question their sincerity; the House is not going to create a new legal entity that empowers the Freedom Caucus to unilaterally wage lawsuits.

In truth, it might be this very pointlessness that has rendered the GOP’s civil war so difficult to resolve. The House’s conservative hard-liners may be less interested in any particular outcome than they are in the chaos itself; their means may be their end. Placing oneself at the center of a days-long national news firestorm attracts attention to one’s social-media feeds, and that attention can eventually be monetized in all manner of ways. As Puck’s Tara Palmeri notes, far-right congressman Biggs has been raking in campaign contributions on the strength of his “Speakership revolt antics.”

5) Lee Drutman on the Republican mess:

Thought #2: Divided government encourages Republican recklessness

 

A long-standing Republican opposition strategy with a Democrat in the White House is to sow chaos in Washington, on the thought that dysfunction and chaos in Washington hurts the party in the White House. If Washington is in chaos, perhaps voters will think it’s time for a change.

Thus, rather than forcing the parties to work together, divided government encourages the party out of the White House to make the party in the White House look bad. 

And while enough Democrats ultimately want to keep governing functioning so they will make deals with a Republican White House, enough Republicans want to force the government to shrink in size and believe that chaos is the only way to make it happen.

Are there political limits? Forcing a government shutdown can backfire. And nobody knows what happens if you don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling — which is, of course, the big looming crisis that could turn this clown show from dumb-and-dumber comedy to costly tragedy. 

But far-right Republicans presumably see the looming debt ceiling as their point of maximum leverage, in which they can make outrageous demands and dare Democrats to deny them.

It’s hard to imagine any Republican speaker surviving a debt ceiling fight. Ultimately, they will need Democratic votes to pass the raise the debt ceiling. And when a Republican Speaker does that without extracting significant concessions, the revolt from the far-right will bring their downfall.

The problem is that Republican leadership has so demonized Democrats that much of its fired-up voter base sees compromise as submission to evil. But the rhetoric of opposition never lives up to reality. And enough current members of Congress, and their supporters and benefactors, now believe the conflict really is a fight to the death. 

The fight is over the size and scope of the federal government. These are existential times. America is at stake. Enough people in Congress either genuinely believe it now, or they have earned so many psychic and financial rewards from saying so that they can’t tell whether they believe it or not, but they are conflict-seeking and attention-seeking enough to keep fighting to the end.

 It is a 90-year fight, though one that has intensified into final battle status since a black man was elected president and White Christian America became a demographic minority. Which takes me to thought #3…

 

Thought # 3: It’s hard to manage a 90-year opposition party at the cranky old age of 90.

 

For nine decades, American politics has been defined by the macro-conflict over the role of the federal government. FDR’s New Deal was a Democratic Party program. Truman’s Fair Deal was a Democratic program. LBJ’s Great Society was a Democratic Program. Broadly, Republicans have spent nine decades now opposing the federal government’s role in American life.

Why does this matter? Because after 90 years of fighting the same fight against government, generation after generation, the Republican Party has become a thoroughly anti-system party. And it is very hard to lead an anti-system party when leadership means being part of the system.

6) Great stuff from my regular co-author, Laurel Elder, on gender in Congress:

This issue is important because how many women there are in the room when legislative decisions are made has significant consequences for the policies that governments enact. Female legislators are more likely than men to introduce, speak about and work to pass policies that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as paid family leave, pay equity and gender-based violence.

Having more women in Congress also strengthens female voters’ sense of connection with the government. It also bolsters women’s sense that government cares about their concerns and inspires young women to become more politically engaged

What’s behind this sluggish pace

While women are underrepresented in governments around the globe, it is a particularly significant problem in the United States. Currently, the U.S. ranks 73rd in the world when it comes to female representation in government.

But the reason women are so dramatically underrepresented in U.S. government is not because they face resistance from voters or struggle to raise money. On the contrary, decades of research shows that when women run, they raise as much money and win as often as similarly qualified men.

In my 2021 book, “The Partisan Gap,” I show that the slow progress of women in politics is a tale of two political parties.

In the next Congress, there will be 107 female Democratic lawmakers and 42 female Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House combined.

In other words, Democrats will compose 72% of the women in Congress. Despite Democrats losing nine congressional seats during the November 2022 midterms, the number of Democratic lawmakers in Congress who are women will remain steady.

The gap between elected Republican and Democratic female lawmakers in Congress has widened over the past four decades…

But the Republican Party’s increasing conservatism has made it harder for women running as Republicans to win elections, as it has not made encouraging more women to run for office a priority. This creates additional challenges for potential Republican female candidates, since women typically need to be encouraged by others to consider running for office.

So, what will it take to get more Republican women to run? The Republican Party would need to commit more fully to recruiting and supporting female candidates.

In the 2018 elections, the number of Republican women in the House dropped to a mere 13, the lowest level in two decades. In response, Republican House member Elise Stefanik started the political action group Elevate-PAC to identify, cultivate and support Republican female candidates. Although Stefanik faced criticism from her party for this move, her efforts paid off with 31 Republican women elected in 2020.

In order for women to gain half of the seats in Congress, more women need to run, especially on Republican tickets. I believe that this will require the Republican Party as a whole to prioritize recruiting women – and not just for one election cycle, but in a sustained way.

7) Great stuff from Scott Alexander on ChatGPT, “How Do AIs’ Political Opinions Change As They Get Smarter And Better-Trained?”

Here more intelligence and training make AIs more likely to endorse all opinions, except for a few of the most controversial and offensive ones. Smarter and better-trained AIs are more liberal and more conservative, more Christian and more atheist, more utilitarian and more deontological.

What does it mean for the trained AI to be more liberal and more conservative? This isn’t a paradox: it just means the AI goes from unopinionated to a mix of strong liberal and conservative opinions. Why would it do that, when RHLF is supposed to make it more neutral and helpful and inoffensive? Unclear; an expert I ran this by suggested it was sycophancy bias, a tendency for the AI to agree with the predicted opinion of whoever is asking the questions (more in Part V below).

Although the AI gets both more liberal and more conservative, these aren’t equal effects; RHLF increases liberalism more than conservatism, for a net shift left. Other net shifts: towards Eastern instead of Abrahamic religions, towards virtue ethics instead of utilitarianism, and maybe towards religion rather than atheism.

What’s going on here? It’s not that the crowdsourced human raters have told the AI to be more Buddhist, or punished it for being insufficiently Buddhist, or necessarily ever given it a question on virtue ethics in particular. I think the answer is that, in lots of different ways, the crowdworkers have been rewarding it for being nice/helpful and punishing it for being not nice/helpful. One thing the AI learns from this is to be nice and helpful. But another thing the AI learns – and this is close to the same thing, but not exactly the same thing – is to answer all questions the way that a nice and helpful person would answer them.

To see how this isn’t the same, imagine that women are generally nicer and more helpful than men. And imagine that you asked the AI what gender it was. You can’t actually do this, because people have trained these AIs to respond that they are AIs and don’t have genders. But I think if you could do this, then an AI rewarded for nice/helpful answers would be more likely to say that it was a woman. This isn’t a nicer and more helpful answer, but it’s more the kind of answer that a nice and helpful person would give.

Is that an offensive stereotype? Maybe, but we’ve already found that AIs use stereotypes in reasoning. I think the reason RHLF makes AIs more Christian than atheist, but more Buddhist than Christian – is that the AI has stereotypes that Christians are nicer and more helpful than atheists, but Buddhists are nicest of all. This is just a theory – but you try explaining why the AIs keep coming out Buddhist.

8) I don’t actually think wanting to learn is some secret thing that people don’t talk about. “The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned”

One of the most important factors in Ms. Zurek Small’s success seems almost too obvious to mention but, in fact, deserves far more attention and discussion: a simple willingness to learn. In more than 20 years of college teaching, I have seen that students who are open to new knowledge will learn. Students who aren’t won’t. But this attitude is not fixed. The paradoxical union of intellectual humility and ambition is something that every student can (with help from teachers, counselors and parents) and should cultivate. It’s what makes learning possible.

The willingness to learn is related to the growth mind-set — the belief that your abilities are not fixed but can improve. But there is a key difference: This willingness is a belief not primarily about the self but about the world. It’s a belief that every class offers something worthwhile, even if you don’t know in advance what that something is.

Unfortunately, big economic and cultural obstacles stand in opposition to that belief.

The first obstacle is careerism. To an overwhelming degree, students today see college as job training, the avenue to a stable career. They are not wrong, given the 70 percent wage premium for 22- to 27-year-old workers with a bachelor’s degree over those with only a high school diploma. But this orientation can close students off from learning things that don’t obviously help their job prospects. Despite the fact that I taught at a religious college, students in my theology class grumbled about having to satisfy a requirement. Why, they asked, would they need to know theology as an accountant, athletic trainer or advertising manager? …

The other big obstacle to the willingness to learn is the urge to present yourself as always already informed. The philosopher Jonathan Lear calls this attitude knowingness. He regards it as a sickness that stands in the way of gaining genuine knowledge. It is “as though there is too much anxiety involved in simply asking a question and waiting for the world to answer,” he writes.

Knowingness is everywhere in our culture. From a former president claiming “everybody knows” some conspiracist nonsense to podcasters smugly debunking cultural myths to your feeling you have to have read, heard and streamed everything, the posture of already knowing supersedes the need to approach new situations with curiosity.

9) An entire AI screenplay is presumably a decent-way off, but, this is interesting, “Soon You’ll Be Able to Make Your Own Movie With AI Artificial intelligence isn’t about to change the movie industry. It already has.”

There’s a new Knives Out movie on Netflix, and I still haven’t seen a few of this season’s awards contenders. But the film I most wish I could watch right now is Squid Invasion From the Deep. It’s a sci-fi thriller directed by John Carpenter about a team of scientists led by Sigourney Weaver who discover an extraterrestrial cephalopod and then die one by one at its tentacles. The production design was inspired by Alien and The Thing; there are handmade creature FX and lots of gore; Wilford Brimley has a cameo. Unfortunately, though, I can’t see this movie, and neither can you, because it doesn’t exist.

For now, Squid Invasion is just a portfolio of concept art conjured by a redditor using Midjourney, an artificial-intelligence tool that creates images from human-supplied text prompts. Midjourney was released into public beta over the summer and for months belched out mostly visual gibberish. “I was trying to make a picture of Joe Rogan fighting a chimp, and it just looked like nightmare fuel,” says the Reddit user, OverlyManlySnail, whose real name is Johnny Weiss. Then, in November, the software was upgraded to version four. It began effortlessly translating complicated suggestions (“DVD screengrab, ’80s John Carpenter horror film, an alien squid attacking a horrified Sigourney Weaver, blood everywhere, extra wide shot, outstanding cinematography, 16-mm.”) into imaginary film stills that look good enough to be real. Some of them look better than anything in Hollywood’s current product line: stranger, more vividly composed, seemingly less computer generated even though they’re completely computer generated.

Soon, Hollywood could be in direct competition with generative AI tools, which, unlike self-driving cars or other long-promised technologies that never quite arrive, are already here and getting better fast. Meta and Google have announced software that converts text prompts into short videos; another tool, Phenaki, can do whole scenes. None of these video generators has been released to the public yet, but the company D-ID offers an AI app that can make people in still photos blink and read from a script, and some have been using it to animate characters created by Midjourney. “In the next few years,” says Matthew Kershaw, D-ID’s VP of marketing and growth, “we could easily see a major movie made almost entirely using AI.” Someday, instead of browsing our Rokus for something to watch, we might green-light our own entertainment by pitching loglines to algorithms that can make feature-length films with sophisticated plots, blockbuster effects, and A-list human actors from any era.

10) Eric Levitz on a supply-constrained economy:

The age of excess supply probably isn’t coming back anytime soon. The U.S. population is old and getting older. Demand for medical services and elder care will grow even as the proportion of prime-age workers in the nation will shrink. Meanwhile, the green transition will stress the economy’s resource base: The more critical minerals needed for electric-vehicle batteries, the fewer available for cell phones; the more construction laborers needed for building transmission lines, the fewer at the housing sector’s disposal.

And if America fails to build out renewables as fast as fossil-fuel production declines, energy-price shocks could ensue. The asset manager BlackRock recently declared that America has entered a new economic regime characterized by “production constraints” and “brutal trade-offs.” …

Liberals will also need to loosen their attachment to supply-constraining regulations. America’s current regulatory framework makes it exceedingly difficult for both the public and private sectors to build housing and clean-energy infrastructure. Environmental laws that help NIMBYs kill renewable-energy projects or tie them up in court for years must be rewritten. Zoning rules that make it extremely challenging for developers to build housing in high-demand areas must be abolished.

Even in the care sector, excessive regulations stymie supply. The U.S. is currently suffering from a shortage of doctors, in no small part because of its stringent licensing requirements. Other nations also make it much easier for foreign-trained physicians to practice within their borders. But rather than fighting to reduce unnecessary licensing requirements, some liberals have recently sought to expand them by making college degrees mandatory for child-care workers.

By reflexively opposing calls for deregulation, liberals do not uphold progressive ideals so much as they undermine them. An America in which housing, energy, and medical care are chronically undersupplied is one in which progressives’ vision for the country will be impossible to realize. In other words, liberals will need to develop their own supply-side economics.

11) This is interesting: a set of right-wing, rationalist principles.  A lot of them I would mostly agree with.  What’s fascinating to me, though, is how completely obsessed it is with IQ.  I’m a huge believer in individual differences in innate ability and think too many liberals downplay this way too much (I’m pretty much with deBoer on this), but, damn does this almost completely ignore the power of context. 

12) Crazy story.  “‘Office Space’ Inspired Engineer’s Theft Scheme, Police Say”

A software engineer siphoned more than $300,000 from his employer by introducing what prosecutors called a “series of malicious software edits” that wired money into his personal account. If the scheme sounds like the plot of “Office Space,” that’s because the authorities said it was partly inspired by the movie.

It appears the engineer, Ermenildo Valdez Castro, 28, of Tacoma, Wash., did not watch the entire movie: All of the evidence in the workplace comedy was destroyed in an office fire. But Mr. Castro detailed the scheme in a document found on his company laptop, according to the Seattle police.

Mr. Castro, a former software engineer for the e-commerce site Zulily, edited code to divert shipping fees to a personal account and manipulate product prices, stealing about $260,000 in electronic payments and more than $40,000 in merchandise, the police said. He was charged on Dec. 20 with two counts of theft and one count of identify theft and is scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 26 in King County Superior Court in Seattle, where Zulily is based.

According to a police report, a document found on Mr. Castro’s work laptop referred to the scheme as “OfficeSpace project.” He later told the police that he “named his scheme to steal from Zulily after the movie.”

13) I thought there was a lot that “Andor” could have done better (an overly confusing beginning; somewhat bloated in spots), but, that said, a lot to like and this is a good take, “‘Andor’ Is a Master Class in Good Writing”

14) I’m totally a fan of composting human remains and it should definitely be legal.  Pretty cool interactive, so here’s the gift link to check it out. 

…and a selection of good stuff from twitter over the past couple weeks

15) Love this.  So much of life is arbitrarily based on 5 or 7. 

16) This is quite the study.  Handjob in an MRI, seriously.

17) On college majors and income.

18) Such an awesome graphic on what color was the infamous dress.

19) I’m not sure that we shouldn’t be giving out metformin with pretty much every Covid diagnosis at this point.

20) Though, here’s also some good results on Paxlovid

20) Good stuff on “neuromyths” of learning

 

(New Year’s) Quick hits

1) Nice little post from Eric Barker, “These 5 Things Will Make You Smarter”

Here’s how to get smarter:

  • Get Your Sleep: As a hard-working blogger and author, I assure you that the fact I sometimes get only 5-6 hours of sleep a night is the fine good for think when importantly function productive.
  • Get Your Exercise: What helps your body helps your brain. (If you’re the one person reading this who has friends insisting “You really need to exercise less to improve your health!” then feel free to ignore this.)
  • Stay Calm: We’re grown-ups – but often only theoretically. Impulsivity is considered a negative in research studies and on witness stands. Increase calm to increase smart judgment.
  • Focus: Things are rarely so bad that distractions can’t make them worse. You do not need the latest cultural software update from social media. I know singletasking sounds like something only elderly people do, like pinochle or saving money, but give it a try.
  • Get Help: Pre-masticated knowledge is often the best kind. That’s why you’re reading this. Ask for advice. Become the chimeric blend of the smartest people around you.

Do we become less intelligent as we age? The scientific answer is: yes and no.

The research shows there are two kinds of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is raw processing power. Figuring things out with no knowledge. Crystallized intelligence is closer to expertise, based more on prior learning and information.

Fluid intelligence declines rapidly as we get older. In fact, it begins dropping at around age 25. Yeesh. But crystallized intelligence doesn’t even peak until age 60. It’s well known that top mathematicians and physicists do their best work in the first half of life. Meanwhile, great authors usually create their masterworks in the second half. (Fingers crossed.)

So as you age, focus on building skills and knowledge. Your processor may not be as fast but you can make up for it with a bigger hard drive. Become an expert at something deep and rich that you’re passionate about — and keep learning. You may not be as sharp as the young whippersnappers but if you focus on gaining more information about your field they won’t be able to keep up with you.

IQ isn’t everything. It’s just a measure of potential. It’s what you do with what you have that really matters.

2) This sucks, “Growing vaccine hesitancy fuels measles, chickenpox resurgence in U.S.”

A rapidly growing measles outbreak in Columbus, Ohio — largely involving unvaccinated children — is fueling concerns among health officials that more parent resistance to routine childhood immunizations will intensify a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Most of the 82 children infected so far are old enough to get the shots, but their parents chose not to do so, officials said, resulting in the country’s largest outbreak of the highly infectious pathogen this year.
“That is what is causing this outbreak to spread like wildfire,” said Mysheika Roberts, director of the Columbus health department.

The Ohio outbreak, which began in November, comes at a time of heightened worry about the public health consequences of anti-vaccine sentiment, a long-standing problem that has led to drops in child immunization rates in pockets across the United States. The pandemic has magnified those concerns because of controversies and politicization around coronavirus vaccines and school vaccine mandates.

More than a third of parents with children under 18 — and 28 percent of all adults — now say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) to attend public schools, even if remaining unvaccinated may create health risks for others, according to new polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care research nonprofit.

Public sentiments against vaccine mandates have grown significantly since the pandemic, said Jen Kates, a Kaiser senior vice president. A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found that less than a quarter of parents — and 16 percent of all adults — opposed school vaccination requirements.

The growing opposition stems largely from shifts among people who identify as or lean Republican, the Kaiser survey found, with 44 percent saying parents should be able to opt out of those childhood vaccines — more than double the 20 percent who felt that way in 2019.

3) New Yorker article on activists behind the “The People’s CDC” who want the maximally strong public health approach and are willing to be misleading/dishonest to get it:

In the organization’s written materials, a few specific grievances come up again and again, with varying degrees of scientific support to back them up. First, they hate the new map that the C.D.C. débuted in February, which reflects covid “community levels” around the country, instead of raw case counts. The map tries to account for how hard the virus is hitting health-care systems in a given area, factoring in things like hospitalization rates and the availability of hospital beds. On the community-levels map, covid looks as if it’s largely under control, with much of the country shaded green to indicate a “low” level of spread. “The C.D.C.’s pastel-green map creates the false impression that the pandemic is over,” Thill said, in an Instagram Reel posted in June. The map that the People’s C.D.C. circulates, which is based on individual transmission rates, is bright red. “At the People’s C.D.C., we want you to know that the community-levels map masks the state of the pandemic,” she continues. “It pretends that covid transmission doesn’t matter. It pretends that it’s O.K. for people to continue dying.”

More grievances: the People’s C.D.C. believes that the C.D.C. downplays the risk of long covid, a post-viral syndrome that can follow the initial infection. The People’s C.D.C. matter-of-factly reports that getting covid more than once increases your risk of death and hospitalization, and of developing chronic conditions affecting your lungs, heart, brain, and other organs. No amount of covid is safe, and no number of shots can protect you: “We want to say plainly that you can have a mild infection and still get Long COVID,” the organization wrote, in a Weather Report in June. “Vaccinated people can also get Long COVID.” They frequently cite the figure that one in five cases may lead to long-covid symptoms, based on a C.D.C. study of data gathered, in part, before vaccines were widely available. All of this is an argument against treating covid like any other inevitable seasonal yuck, the People’s C.D.C. argues—instead, we should think about it as a “mass-disabling event.”

And then there are masks. The People’s C.D.C. strongly supports mask mandates, and they have called on federal, state, and local governments to put them back in place, arguing that “the vaccine-only strategy promoted by the CDC is insufficient.” The group has noted that resistance to masks is most common among white people: Lucky Tran, who organizes the coalition’s media team, recently tweeted a YouGov survey supporting this, and wrote that “a lot of anti-mask sentiment is deeply embedded in white supremacy.”

This kind of accusation is common for the People’s C.D.C. Their messaging has the unmistakable inflection of activist-speak, marked by a willingness to make eye-popping claims about the motivations of politicians, corporations, or anyone in power. “To name it clearly, the CDC’s policies are eugenic,” the Weather Report team wrote, in August. “They rely on and promote the indefensible stance that disabled and elderly, poor and working class people are disposable, unworthy of care, and unworthy of participation in society.” Eugenic policies have a long and ugly history, commonly associated with the Nazis, white supremacists, and others who advocate the racial purification of humanity. I asked Thill whether she truly believes that the C.D.C. is eugenicist, along these lines. “Just because a charge is difficult or impactful doesn’t make it a wrong charge,” she said.

4) Drum’s top 10 charts of 2022:

5) NYT with the best advice from their readers.  Some good stuff here:

In your closet and your life, subtract whenever you add. — Mary Shanklin, Winter Garden, Fla.

From the “Ten Percent Happier” podcast: Stop and recognize happy moments when you’re in the middle of them. Literally stop and say out loud, “This is a happy time.” It’s a way to ground yourself in the joyful parts of your life. We do this with moments of trauma and crisis all the time. Maybe we should flip that script. — Mary Guzzetta, Pittsburgh

You don’t have to identify with your feelings. — Rori Quinonez, Toledo, Ohio

The best advice I received this year was to stretch my calves regularly. It cured my mild knee pain. — Nicole Byer, Simsbury, Conn.

Parent the child you have. As a parent of a child with special needs, this is my mantra. But this is also true of any child. Stop trying to make your child quieter, louder, more outgoing, more interested in things their sibling likes and appreciate the unique and individual small person you’ve been given. — Sue Lanigan, East Aurora, N.Y.

Everyone is going through something. — Rose Fischietto, Macedonia, Ohio

Dance often, host parties. This advice occurred to me and my friend after a million hours of discussing our pandemic depressions and dating lives. We made lists of the best bars with non-pretentious dance scenes we wanted to try out and themed parties we wanted to host. — Emily Kennedy, Brooklyn

If there is an issue bothering me, I think to myself, “Will this still be an issue in one week or in one month?” If the answer is no, it’s a small problem so I let the stress go and move on. — LaNae Williams, East Lansing, Mich.

If you didn’t have to keep working, would you? — Tom Myers, Holden Beach, N.C.

After my son and his fiancée were involved in an automobile accident in Spain, a friend told me I would need to learn how to practice “powerless mothering.” Following several spinal cord surgeries and six months of challenging rehabilitation, my son’s sweetheart has slowly regained strength and mobility in her upper body, but she remains paralyzed from the waist down, and my grown son has become a loving caregiver. My friend’s advice has helped me see that I can still be a supportive mother without any power to change their new world. — Candice Dale, South Portland, Maine

The best marriage advice: Binge shows and movies in separate rooms. — Juli Leber, New York City

When the wrench is on the nut, tighten it. In other words, if you’re already touching a piece of mail, deal with it. If you see a thing you’ll need soon, buy it now. If an uncomfortable conversation comes up, have it rather than deflecting it. — Kasia Maroney, Trumansburg, N.Y.

The best way to make a decision: Does it light me up? — Robyn Pichler, Weaverville, N.C.

I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days is 100 percent, and that’s pretty good. — Hudson, San Diego

Put 10 pennies in your left pocket. Find something for which you are grateful. Move one penny to your right pocket. You should find all pennies have moved to the right pocket at the end of the day. Celebrate. — Mike Wilson, Sedona, Ariz.

Stop reaching for people who aren’t reaching back. — Katya Davidson, Portland, Ore.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it, or that it’s good for you. — Divya Rao Heffley, Pittsburgh

Be where your feet are. — Submitted by both Pattie Saunders, Portland, Ore., and Kelly Kammerer, New York City

6) A university fired a professor for showing an image of Mohammed, thoughtfully and respectfully, in an art history class! So wrong.  Good take here, “Most of All, I am Offended as a Muslim”

On October 6, during a class on Islamic art that was part of a global survey course in art history, a professor at Hamline University offered students an optional exercise: Analyze and discuss a 14th-century Islamic painting that depicts the Archangel Gabriel delivering to the Prophet Muhammad his first Quranic revelation.

Before showing a slide of the painting, the instructor issued a content warning and spent over two minutes providing context about the controversies surrounding depictions of Muhammad. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” the professor explained.

There is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.

A senior in the class, who is also president of the Muslim Student Association at Hamline, later complained that pictorial depictions of Muhammad offended her Muslim sensibilities: “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.” In an email aimed at addressing the student’s concerns, the professor reminded her: “I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an out … I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”

Explanation notwithstanding, the complaint set in motion the DEI bureaucracy on campus, and on November 7, David Everett, associate vice president for inclusive excellence, called the classroom exercise “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Just days later, on November 11, Everett told the student newspaper in an interview that because of the incident, “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” By all accounts, the professor was not given any opportunity to explain the rationale behind the class exercise…

This case offends me on many levels:

As a professor, I am appalled by the senior administration’s decision to dismiss the instructor and pander to the students who claim to have been “harmed.” This kind of “inclusive excellence” permits DEI administrators to ride roughshod over faculty knowledge. The administration’s blatant disregard for and active suppression of the very thing an institution of higher learning is valued for — the specialized knowledge of its faculty — makes this “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” in the words of PEN America.

With leadership like Hamline’s, who needs content-banning legislation to limit the scope of inquiry and teaching? It is the ultimate betrayal of the promise of education when institutions of higher learning begin endorsing ignorance. In the end, it is the students who pay the highest price for such limits on academic freedom.

As an historian,I am shocked that Hamline’s administration cannot appreciate that the image is a primary source and that a class on art history, by definition, necessitates engaging with primary sources; this is the heart of the historian’s craft. Barring a professor of art history from showing this painting, lest it harm observant Muslims in class, is just as absurd as asking a biology professor not to teach evolution because it may offend evangelical Protestants in the course.

And it will certainly have a chilling effect.As Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian studies at Rutgers University at Newark, points out, Hamline’s action “endangers lots of professors who show things in class from premodern Islamic art to Hindu images with swastikas to ‘Piss Christ.’” Humanities professors may quietly drop primary sources and other materials that may offend, and professors in the natural sciences will be forced to think twice before teaching theories that contradict the religious beliefs of their students.

But most of all, I am offended as a Muslim. In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.

7) Good stuff from Jesse Singal, “In 2023, Let’s Rediscover Wrongness: Not every difference of opinion is an urgent threat”

Few articles could better sum up the media and intellectual landscape of 2022 than this one published late last month in The Guardian“Ancient Apocalypse is the most dangerous show on Netflix.” The subheadline: “A show with a truly preposterous theory is one of the streaming giant’s biggest hits – and it seems to exist solely for conspiracy theorists. Why has this been allowed?”

The show is dangerous! How was it allowed?

The article is by Guardian culture writer Stuart Heritage. “Ancient Apocalypse,” he explains, centers on the theory that “an advanced ice-age civilisation – responsible for teaching humanity concepts such as maths, architecture and agriculture – was wiped out in a giant flood brought about by multiple comet strikes about 12,000 years ago.” …

In 2023, I hope we can rediscover wrongness. Mere wrongness. Wrongness untethered from other accusations. Not everything that is wrong is dangerous or evil or bigoted. Sometimes people are just wrong. A big part of human life is arguing over who is wrong and attempting to nudge this whole ungainly human enterprise toward rightness, a few painstaking microns at a time. It’s harder to do that when the pitch of everything is so shrill.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who believe crazy things don’t hurt anyone. No one is going to bomb an airport over Ancient Apocalypse. Even the truly deranged QAnon conspiracy theory, which does posit an international conspiracy of pedophiles, has produced only a blip’s worth of real-world violence. In the vast majority of cases, wrongness is just wrongness. People can usually believe wrong things without being dangerous, and in fact billions of people do hold religious beliefs that make no logical sense without becoming violent zealots.

Some ideas can be credibly described as dangerous, or as likely to lead to bad outcomes. But it becomes harder to make this argument when everything is called dangerous, from, well, Ancient Aliens to non-condescending journalism about bigoted figures. Harm inflation has really taken hold of a lot of public intellectual life, and it has led to a certain boy-crying-wolf dynamic that makes the world seem fuzzy and exhausting. If everything is dangerous or violent, then nothing is. 

I do think a lot of this has to do with the attention economy. The aforementioned Guardian article probably gained a wider audience from couching Heritage’s concerns about Ancient Apocalypse in the language of danger and threat and deplatforming than it would have if he and his editors had gone in a more sober direction — both from readers who agreed with the silly premise and those who rage-shared it because of the provocative headline and subheadline. 

8) This is actually awesome, “Gene-edited hens may end cull of billions of chicks”

Israeli researchers say they have developed gene-edited hens that lay eggs from which only female chicks hatch.

The breakthrough could prevent the slaughter of billions of male chickens each year, which are culled because they don’t lay eggs.

The female chicks, and the eggs they lay when they mature, have no trace of the original genetic alteration

Animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming, has backed the research.

 

Dr Yuval Cinnamon from the Volcani institute near Tel Aviv, who is the project’s chief scientist, told BBC News that the development of what he calls the ”Golda hen” will have a huge impact on animal welfare in the poultry industry.

“I am very happy that we have developed a system that I think can truly revolutionise the industry, first of all for the benefit of the chickens but also for all of us, because this is an issue that affects every person on the planet,” he said.

The scientists have gene edited DNA into the Golda hens that can stop the development of any male embryos in eggs that they lay. The DNA is activated when the eggs are exposed to blue light for several hours.

Female chick embryos are unaffected by the blue light and develop normally. The chicks have no additional genetic material inside them nor do the eggs they lay, according to Dr Cinnamon.

9) This is nuts and so wrong!  There needs to be a legal remedy for this, “Madison Square Garden Uses Facial Recognition to Ban Its Owner’s Enemies: MSG Entertainment, the owner of the arena and Radio City Music Hall, has put lawyers who represent people suing it on an “exclusion list” to keep them out of concerts and sporting events.”

10) Farhad Majjoo on ChatGPT:

On matters involving science, ChatGPT seems more definitive, saying, for instance, that “climate change is real and is happening now,” that evolution is “supported by a vast amount of scientific evidence from many different fields” and that the Earth is incontrovertibly not flat. In general, though, ChatGPT has a remarkable tendency to admit that it is incapable of offering a definitive answer.

Why is that remarkable? Two of the well-known problems in A.I. research are about maintaining “alignment” and avoiding “hallucinations.” Alignment involves an A.I.’s ability to carry out the goals of its human creators — in other words, to resist causing harm in the world. Hallucinations are about adhering to the truth; when A.I. systems get confused, they have a bad habit of making things up rather than admitting their difficulties. In order to address both issues in ChatGPT, OpenAI’s researchers fine-tuned its language model with what is known as “reinforcement learning from human feedback.” Basically, the company hired real people to interact with its A.I. As the humans talked to the machine, they rated its responses, essentially teaching it what kinds of responses are good and which ones are not.

Murati told me that combining the language model with human feedback created a much more realistic A.I. conversational partner: “The model can tell you when it’s wrong,” she said. “It can ask you a follow-up question. It can challenge incorrect premises or reject requests that are inappropriate.”

10) I hope Michelle Goldberg is right, “The Left’s Fever Is Breaking”

It’s no secret that many left-wing activist groups and nonprofits, roiled by the reckonings over sexual harassment and racial justice of the past few years, have become internally dysfunctional.

In June the Intercept’s Ryan Grim wrote about the toll that staff revolts and ideologically inflected psychodramas were taking on the work: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult.” Privately, I’ve heard countless people on the professional left — especially those over, say, 35 — bemoan the irrational demands and manipulative dogmatism of some younger colleagues. But with a few exceptions, like the brave reproductive justice leader Loretta Ross, most don’t want to go on the record. Not surprisingly, many of Grim’s sources in the nonprofit world were anonymous.

That’s why the decision by Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party, to speak out about the left’s self-sabotaging impulse is so significant. Mitchell, who has roots in the Black Lives Matter movement, has a great deal of credibility; he can’t be dismissed as a dinosaur threatened by identity politics. But as the head of an organization with a very practical devotion to building electoral power, he has a sharp critique of the way some on the left deploy identity as a trump card. “Identity and position are misused to create a doom loop that can lead to unnecessary ruptures of our political vehicles and the shuttering of vital movement spaces,” he wrote last month in a 6,000-word examination of the fallacies and rhetorical traps plaguing activist culture.

Addressed to the left, Mitchell’s keen, insightful essay seemed designed to be ignored by the broader public. It had a deeply unsexy headline, “Building Resilient Organizations,” and was published on platforms geared toward professional organizers, including The Forge and Nonprofit Quarterly. Among many progressive leaders, though, it’s been received eagerly and gratefully. It “helped to put language to tensions and trends facing our movement organizations,” Christopher Torres, an executive director of the Leadership for Democracy and Social Justice institute, said at a Tuesday webinar devoted to the article.

Mitchell’s piece systematically lays out some of the assertions and assumptions that have paralyzed progressive outfits. Among them are maximalism, or “considering anything less than the most idealistic position” a betrayal; a refusal to distinguish between discomfort and oppression; and reflexive hostility to hierarchy. He criticizes the insistence “that change on an interpersonal or organizational level must occur before it is sought or practiced on a larger scale,” an approach that keeps activists turned inward, along with the idea that progressive organizations should be places of therapeutic healing.

11) Katherine Wu, “Is COVID a Common Cold Yet?”

Now, nearly three years into the crisis, the virus is more familiar, and its symptoms are too. Put three sick people in the same room this winter—one with COVID, another with a common cold, and the third with the flu—and “it’s way harder to tell the difference,” Chavez told me. Today’s most common COVID symptoms are mundane: sore throat, runny nose, congestion, sneezing, coughing, headache. And several of the wonkier ones that once hogged headlines have become rare. More people are weathering their infections with their taste and smell intact; many can no longer remember when they last considered the scourge of “COVID toes.” Even fever, a former COVID classic, no longer cracks the top-20 list from the ZOE Health Study, a long-standing symptom-tracking project based in the United Kingdom, according to Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London who heads the project. Longer, weirder, more serious illness still manifests, but for most people, SARS-CoV-2’s symptoms are getting “pretty close to other viruses’, and I think that’s reassuring,” Spector told me. “We are moving toward a cold-like illness.”

That trajectory has been forecast by many experts since the pandemic’s early days. Growing immunity against the coronavirus, repeatedly reinforced by vaccines and infections, could eventually tame COVID into a sickness as trifling as the common cold or, at worst, one on par with the seasonal flu. The severity of COVID will continue to be tempered by widespread immunity, or so this thinking goes, like a curve bending toward an asymptote of mildness. A glance at the landscape of American immunity suggests that such a plateau could be near: Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have been vaccinated multiple times, some even quite recently with a bivalent shot; many have now logged second, third, and fourth infections with the virus. Maybe, just maybe, we’re nearing the level of cumulative exposure at which COVID gets permanently more chill. Then again? Maybe not—and maybe never.

The recent trajectory of COVID, at least, has been peppered with positive signs. On average, symptoms have migrated higher up the airway, sparing several vulnerable organs below; disease has gotten shorter and milder, and rates of long COVID seem to be falling a bit. Many of these changes roughly coincided with the arrival of Omicron in the fall of 2021, and part of the shift is likely attributable to the virus itself: On the whole, Omicron and its offshoots seem to prefer infecting cells in the nose and throat over those in the lungs. But experts told me the accumulation of immune defenses that preceded and then accompanied that variant’s spread are almost certainly doing more of the work. Vaccination and prior infection can both lay down protections that help corral the virus near the nose and mouth, preventing it from spreading to tissues elsewhere. “Disease is really going to differ based on the compartment that’s primarily infected,” says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. As SARS-CoV-2 has found a tighter anatomical niche, our bodies have become better at cornering it.

With the virus largely getting relegated to smaller portions of the body, the pathogen is also purged from the airway faster and may be less likely to be passed to someone else. On the individual level, a sickness that might have once unfurled into pneumonia now gets subdued into barely perceptible sniffles and presents less risk to others; on the population scale, rates of infection, hospitalization, and death go down.

12) There were a lot of predictions that Covid would change how we treat all disease.  But, in the end, nope.  I’ve seen plenty of evidence that is someone has “just a cold” and is Covid-negative, we treat it just like we did in 2019.  That said, “No One Wants Your Cold: How to know if you’re too sick to hang”

But of course, people want to hang—want to be with friends and family, especially after two years of holiday disruptions. In some ways, the question people face is the same one they have faced the whole pandemic: How can we spend time together safely? But the question is also different now, with so many more minor viruses circulating—people might be willing to take a chance on a runny nose or a sore throat. So should you stay home? How sick do you need to be to sit out the holidays a third year in a row?

For starters, pretty much everyone agrees that one symptom is an absolute no-go: fever. A temperature equals stay home, for at least 24 hours. (And no cheating with ibuprofen: You should be fever-free without pain meds.) Two other “red flag” symptoms some experts mentioned are vomiting and diarrhea.

Beyond that, it gets a bit trickier. One reason is that some of these viruses can feel the same, which means you might have to treat cold symptoms as if they could be a more severe illness. For example, RSV “feels just like a cold for everybody except those under 2 years old—particularly under six months—and those over 65,” Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, explained to me, speaking in general terms…

I asked Jay Varma, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College who formerly worked for the CDC, if there are any symptoms a person just doesn’t want to mess with in terms of getting other people sick. He told me that if I had asked him about this pre-pandemic, he would’ve offered that standard guidance about being fever-free for 24 hours and making sure your symptoms are resolving. But mass repeated COVID testing taught us that symptoms and their severity aren’t linked as closely as we thought to whether you can spread the coronavirus. “Even having no symptoms at all, you could be more infectious than somebody with symptoms,” he said. “The challenge is that similar types of large-scale analysis have not previously been done before for RSV or influenza.” …

Without at-home tests or better research for other viruses, people can use the length of the infection to estimate whether they are still spreading the virus, though that gets into a gray area. In general, experts told me that the initial phase—the first week in particular—is the most important for staying home, because that’s when you’re likely the most contagious. Katelyn Jetelina, who writes the newsletter Your Local Epidemiologist, told me that, as a parent, she keeps track of her children’s illnesses, marking day one of symptoms. With the flu and RSV, people can be contagious for as many as seven or eight days.

13) Must-read post-election analysis on the midterms from Nate Cohn. Gift link. “2022 Review: How Republicans Lost Despite Winning the Popular Vote: There were several reasons Republicans struggled to translate votes into seats, including candidate quality and strength in the wrong places.”

But as tempting as it might be to assume that “bad Republican” nominees are mainly to blame, strong Democratic candidates probably made a difference, too.

Nationwide, Democratic incumbents enjoyed a modest incumbency advantage of a few percentage points — enough to stay standing in a red tide, even if they might have been submerged in a red wave. Almost by definition, incumbents are relatively good candidates (the bad candidates are less likely to become incumbents, after all), and they often enjoy additional advantages in fund-raising and name recognition…

All of this adds up to a fairly tidy explanation, but there are a few loose ends that give me pause about whether we’ve given enough credit to the Democrats.

Perhaps the most interesting cases are the House races where no Democrat was running for re-election and Republicans nominated mainstream candidates, like in Colorado’s Eighth and Pennsylvania’s 17th. Democrats often fared quite well in races like these, even though there wasn’t a MAGA Republican or a stalwart Democrat.

What’s the excuse for the Republicans there?

This was part of a broader pattern of Democratic strength in the battleground districts, especially in traditional battleground states. Yes, there were disappointing showings for them on both coasts, but there were very few outright poor showings — ones that look like a Republican +2 environment — in the competitive House districts in the key presidential or Senate battleground states.

Maybe Democratic strength in the battlegrounds can be attributed to good campaigns, with strong advertisements and fund-raising. Or maybe I could tell a story about how demographics, abortion and democracy help explain the pattern. But while threats to democracy and abortion rights were certainly more relevant in many battleground states than in the blue states, it is not a perfect pattern. It doesn’t make sense of Colorado, for instance.

Of course, national patterns will never perfectly explain every race. But there are enough examples like these to raise a basic question about the 2022 election: Should it be understood as an outright good Democratic year that was interrupted by a few isolated Republican waves (Florida, New York, Oregon) and obscured by low nonwhite turnout in solidly Democratic areas? Or was it a good but not great Republican year that the party didn’t translate into seats because of bad candidates and somewhat inefficiently distributed strength?

14) Likewise, for the electorally-inclined, a must-read from Yglesias, ‘The midterms should be a stake through the heart of the mobilization myth”

Democrats won key races by persuading a small but nonzero number of Republicans to vote for them…

This idea of deliberately courting crossover voters is so banal that it hardly seems worth analyzing. But it really did go out of style in the wake of liberals’ shock and horror at the idea that anyone would vote for Donald Trump. Normally, when you lose an election, the first order of business is to figure out how to convince some of the people who voted for the other guy to change their minds next time. But lots of progressives found Trump so appalling that the idea of trying to do outreach to his voters was beyond the pale. Even though Hillary Clinton’s infamous analysis put only half of them in the basket of deplorables, there was very little interest in even trying to reach the other half. But there just isn’t some other way of doing politics…

Once you give up on the magical idea of mobilizing the base instead of finding ways to make swing voters like you, it’s easier to see that there actually isn’t a tradeoff here anyway. In other words, you should absolutely try to maximize the turnout of sporadic voters who are likely to vote for you. But there’s no reason to believe there’s a tension between that goal and trying to appeal to swing voters, because the boring truth is that sporadic voters are less politically engaged and less ideological than non-voters. Successful but boring messages (like Catherine Cortez Masto and John Fetterman talking about how they think it’s good when cops arrested criminals) are a perfectly good mobilization strategy. They let Cortez Masto and Fetterman seem like sane, sensible human beings to the kind of people who are not that interested in politics and only sometimes vote.

Indeed, one of the things that’s so striking about the 2022 crossover vote data is that it’s extremely rare to have a situation like the one we saw in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania where Democrats won swing voters while doing badly on turnout.

In a normal year, you either get great turnout and do well with independents (like in 2018) or you get crappy turnout and tank with independents (2014). But in 2022, Democrats did badly on turnout — admittedly not nearly as bad as in 2014 — while nevertheless winning a bunch of key races thanks to crossover voters.

The key is that while Democrats won the preponderance of the most important races, their overall 2022 performance wasn’t very good. They got about 48 percent of the two-party vote, which should have been consistent with losing the Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania Senate races. And recall our Georgia case: Democrats really did do badly in most Georgia races in November. That’s how we know so precisely that Warnock won thanks to crossover voters. Taken on the whole, Democrats flopped on both turnout and vote choice. Warnock himself just did really well. Here’s a chart David Shor put together showing that Democratic incumbents in tossup races ran much stronger than Democrats in races that tilted clearly D or R. That’s smart politics; it’s good to run your best races in the most important spots instead of coughing up the likes of Herschel Walker and Blake Masters.

15) Good take from Eric Levitz on twitter and free speech. 

The first point of view goes roughly like this: Individuals should have the right to express their views without fear of government coercion. But they also have the right to form media enterprises that host some forms of speech but not others. Twitter therefore should not be obligated to facilitate speech that its owners and managers object to, and any effort to coerce the platform into doing otherwise would itself constitute a violation of freedom of speech. If individuals object to how Twitter goes about moderating discourse, they can simply post their thoughts on another platform.

Others contend that this view willfully ignores the structural power of dominant platforms. Social media has an innate tendency toward centralization because of network effects: The more people join one specific site, the more valuable it is to have a presence there. Given the outsize influence Twitter and Facebook exert over our democratic life, their approach to moderating discourse is a matter of public concern. Giving a tiny number of tech billionaires and their patrons veto power over which ideas can and cannot be expressed on major social-media platforms — and/or the power to decide which ideas are actively promoted or suppressed — undermines the spirit of the First Amendment.

Personally, I think the first perspective is a bit glib. Twitter and Facebook aren’t entirely invulnerable to competition. But they’re plainly insulated from it by the power of network effects and sunk costs. This reality is reflected in the reluctance of liberal journalists to quit Twitter despite its new owner’s open contempt for them and amplification of far-right conspiracy theories. These might be private companies, but they are hard to displace. And their democratically unaccountable leaders have tremendous power to shape public discourse. How they choose to exercise that power is a determinant of precisely how free and open our civic discourse is.

That said, many civil-libertarian critiques of big tech are heavy on hyperbole and light on perspective.

Some form of social-media moderation is both necessary and inevitable. There are genuine tensions between free speech and public safety. The costs of imprisoning people for advocating the genocide of minority groups might outweigh the benefits. But it doesn’t follow that the same is true of merely denying would-be genocidaires a voice on large social-media platforms.

16) Celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching Fall with my kids.  Not a great movie, but a compelling as hell movie.  Long time since I’ve watched a movie which so physically affected me. 

17) Happy New Year!

(Christmas Eve) Quick hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Loved this in Yglesias‘ mailbag:

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Good stuff in Vox on young voters. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15) Frank Bruni on DeSantis:

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

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

That’s precisely the starring role he wants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The news is absolutely excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19) Merry Christmas.  

Quick hits (part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Love deBoer on the “unhoused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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