The low-hanging hemp of legal marijuana

Okay, I don’t even know how hemp grows, but I do like a good “low-hanging fruit” metaphor.  And that’s what legal marijuana is for Democrats and they are totally dropping the ball.  I meant to write this post a few days ago, but in the meantime, twitter was all abuzz for a day (as it will) about Joe Biden’s stark decline in popularity among young people.  And you know what young people really love? Legal marijuana.  A recent poll on the state of the issue in NC:

The poll also found:

  • 75% of Democrats polled felt medical marijuana should be legalized, 15% of Democrats it should remain against the law and 10% weren’t sure.
  • 63% of Democrats felt recreational marijuana should be legalized, 26% felt it should remain against the law and 12% weren’t sure.
  • 64% of Republicans felt medical marijuana should be legalized, 26% felt it should remain against the law and 10% weren’t sure.
  • 45% of Republicans felt recreational marijuana should be legalized, 45% felt it should remain against the law and 10% weren’t sure.

Got that– it’s even a break even proposition among all Republicans.  Here’s a chart with various breakdowns on legal recreational marijuana.


Sure, maybe Democrats might turn off some older voters who were culturally comfortable with Democrats but marijuana was the last straw (honestly, seems like that’s got to be a pretty small group), but I think the gains among young people would be quite meaningful.  And, a lot of young people who favor legal marijuana are otherwise disengaged from politics and just maybe this could help get some of them voting.  

This is a fight worth having because the status quo policy (federal schedule 1 is dumb) and because it is almost assuredly a political winner for Democrats.  I think this is where the party truly is hampered by having so much of their leadership having come of age in the “reefer madness” generation.  

[This is funny, I went to queue this up to post in the morning and I saw that I’m posting on 4/20— that was seriously not even my intent :-)]

Tax cuts > democracy

The Club for Growth– long a force for ill in American politics– is all-in on Ted Budd versus former NC Governor, Pat McCrory, in the NC Republican Senate primary campaign.  Let’s start with what the Club for Growth is supposedly about from it’s own webpage:

Some of the Club’s top policy goals include:

  • Reducing income tax rates and repealing the death tax
  • Replacing the current tax code with a fair/flat tax
  • The full repeal of ObamaCare and the end of abusive lawsuits through medical malpractice/tort reform
  • Reducing the size and scope of the federal government
  • Cutting government spending and passing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the United States Constitution
  • Regulatory reform and deregulation
  • Expanding school choice

Since CFG is running some very negative ads against McCrory (long-known as a business-friendly Republican) surely it’s because he’s tried to raise taxes or create more regulations– right?

No.  McCrory’s biggest sin– not being a Trumpist and not being in on the Big Lie.  I find it so utterly depressing that it is clearly seen as a winning GOP primary strategy to attack someone for saying 2020 was not a fraudulent election.  Here’s the ad in question:

Oh, and why we’re at it, McCrory had the temerity to suggest that Black Lives, do, in fact, Matter.  Apparently praising Mitt Romney (the bastard voted for impeachment!) is also a substantial sin.

Unsurprisingly, the ad is also breathtakingly dishonest in how it uses clips from McCrory’s radio show (explanation in this nice WRAL post). 

So, to return to where I started.  CFG is supposedly all about tax cuts and small government.  But, if they have to jettison basic democratic principles (like free and fair elections) on the way, then so be it, apparently.  And, again, how enormously depressing that this is clearly the strategy to win the heart of Republican primary voters.  

Me, Mark Meadows, voter fraud, and some observations on journalism

It should be no surprise to anybody who follows American politics that former NC Congressman and former Trump chief of staff, Mark Meadows, is a fantastically dishonest person.  It should thus come as no surprise that he used a fake address (real place, but it would be like me using the beach house I rented last summer as my official residence) for voter registration in NC.

The New Yorker broke the case and has a thorough breakdown of how Meadows never lived here and is clearly in violation of the law.

So, this was then also a story worthy of the Washington Post.  What I totally get and is also kind of amusing to me, is that the Post can’t just say, “The New Yorker did fantastic reporting and this is pretty much an open and shut case that Meadows acted dishonestly and violated the law.”  They need an outside “expert” to say that, hence… me.  

My expertise?  Yes, I am a political scientist in NC.  And I read the New Yorker article.  Thus, in the Post:

Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, said that after reading the New Yorker’s reporting, he found it “honestly hard to see how this is not a clear violation of federal law.”

Greene said that a voter needs “to actually spend some time living [in their domicile], including spending a night,” to register it as their address.

“Proof of residency for voter registration typically requires some form of proof of residency along the lines of a utility bill or any government information listing that as your address, e.g., car registration, driver’s license, those same sorts of proof would be expected,” Greene told The Washington Post.

Where did I learn this about NC voter registration?  From the New Yorker’s expert, Gerry Cohen (who I learn a lot from on twitter) in the New Yorker article (though, I did verify myself on NC websites). 

Meanwhile, I even made it into Mother Jones off this:

Upon reading the New Yorker’s reporting, Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, told the Post that, he found it “honestly hard to see how this is not a clear violation of federal law.”

Anyway, almost surely Meadows will get away with this while Black voters who thought they were eligible to vote get multi-year sentences. 

So, journalistic observations aside, let’s end with the WP editorial on the substance, “Mark Meadows shows the hypocrisy of Republicans on voter fraud”

Strict voting rules for thee, but not for me.

How else to summarize the revelations that Mark Meadows, the last White House chief of staff to President Donald Trump, and his wife voted in the 2020 election using the address of a mobile home in North Carolina where they did not reside? Mr. Meadows, who was eager to promote Mr. Trump’s lies that mail-in voting is rife with fraud, never owned the residence. In fact, he might not have ever set foot in it.

Compare this case with that of Crystal Mason, the Texas resident who was sentenced to five years in prison for submitting an illegal provisional ballot in 2016 while on supervised release for a felony conviction. Ms. Mason, who is Black, maintains that she did not know she was unable to vote and that a poll worker handed her the provisional ballot even though she was not on the state’s voter rolls. “It was to make an example out of me,” Ms. Mason told the American Civil Liberties Union of her prosecution.

Would Ms. Mason have faced such punishment if she had Mr. Meadows’s position? Or his skin color? What “example” — beyond its value as evidence of rank hypocrisy — will be made of his absentee ballot?

For the past year, the Republican Party has gone to great lengths to restrict absentee voting in state legislatures, claiming that mail-in ballots allow nefarious actors to influence the elections. This was always misdirection; fraudulent behavior is extremely rare, and election audits have repeatedly shown that the few cases that do occur do not affect elections. Will Republicans now denounce one of their own for engaging in such activity?

Nor is Mr. Meadows the only Republican practitioner of a double standard. Many Trump officials who have decried mail-in voting have voted, well, through the mail. That includes Mr. Trump, members of his family, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William P. Barr. Remember also that Mr. Trump specifically encouraged voters in the crucial swing state of Florida to vote by mail while simultaneously challenging absentee ballot rules in other states. And while plenty of elected Republicans claimed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, none saw the same forces at work in their own elections — which appeared on the same ballot.

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) I love stuff like this, “Why We Have So Many Problems with Our Teeth: Our choppers are crowded, crooked and riddled with cavities. It hasn’t always been this way”

The evolutionary history of our teeth explains not only why they are so strong but also why they fall short today. The basic idea is that structures evolve to operate within a specific range of environmental conditions, which in the case of our teeth include the chemicals and bacteria in the mouth, as well as strain and abrasion. It follows that changes to the oral environment can catch our teeth off guard. Such is the case with our modern diets, which are unlike any in the history of life on our planet. The resulting mismatch between our biology and our behavior explains the dental caries (cavities), impacted wisdom teeth and other orthodontic problems that afflict us.

Dental caries is the most common and pervasive chronic disease in the world. It afflicts more than nine in 10 Americans and billions of people across the globe. Yet over the past 30 years I have studied hundreds of thousands of teeth of fossil species and living animals and seen hardly any tooth decay.

To understand why the teeth of modern-day humans are so prone to decay, we need to consider the natural oral environment. The healthy mouth is teeming with life, populated by billions of microbes representing up to 700 different species of bacteria alone. Most are beneficial. They fight disease, help with digestion and regulate various bodily functions. Other bacteria are harmful to teeth, such as mutans streptococci and Lactobacillus. They attack enamel with lactic acid produced during their metabolism. But concentrations of these bacteria are usually too low to cause permanent damage. Their numbers are kept in check by their commensal cousins, the mitis and sanguinis streptococcal groups. These bacteria produce alkalis (chemicals that raise pH), as well as antimicrobial proteins that inhibit the growth of harmful species. Saliva buffers the teeth against acid attack and bathes them in calcium and phosphate to remineralize their surface. The balance between demineralization and remineralization has held for hundreds of millions of years, and both beneficial and harmful bacteria are found in oral microbiomes across the mammalian order. We evolved to maintain a stable community of microbes, as Kevin Foster of the University of Oxford and his colleagues have put it, to “keep the ecosystem on a leash.”

Caries results when the leash breaks. Diets rich in carbohydrates feed acid-producing bacteria, lowering oral pH. Mutans streptococci and other harmful species thrive in the acidic environment they produce, and they begin to swamp beneficial bacteria, further reducing pH. This chain of events leads to what clinical researchers call dysbiosis, a shift in balance wherein a few harmful species outcompete those that normally dominate the oral microbiome. Saliva cannot remineralize enamel fast enough to keep up, and the equilibrium between loss and repair is shot. Sucrose—common sugar—is especially problematic. Harmful bacteria use it to form a thick, sticky plaque that binds them to teeth and to store energy that feeds them between meals, meaning the teeth suffer longer exposure to acid attack.

Bioarchaeologists have long suggested a link between caries and the transition from foraging to farming within the past 10,000 years or so during the Neolithic period because acid-producing bacteria consume fermentable carbohydrates, which abound in wheat, rice and corn. For example, studies of dental remains led by Clark Larsen of the Ohio State University found a more than sixfold increase in the incidence of caries with the adoption and spread of maize agriculture along the prehistoric Georgia coast. The link between tooth decay and agriculture is not that simple, though. Caries rate varies among early farmers over time and space, and the teeth of some hunter-gatherers, such as those with honey-rich diets, are riddled with cavities.

The biggest jump in the caries rate came with the Industrial Revolution, which led to the widespread availability of sucrose and highly processed foods. In recent years researchers have conducted genetic studies of bacteria entombed in tartar on ancient teeth that document the ensuing transition in microbial communities. Processed foods are also softer and cleaner, setting up a perfect storm for caries: less chewing to cut the organic film and fewer dietary abrasives to wear away the nooks and crannies in teeth where plaque bacteria take refuge.

Unfortunately, we cannot regrow enamel like we can skin and bones because of the way our tooth caps form. This limitation was established back when enamel first evolved in the lobe-finned fishes. Ameloblasts, the cells that make enamel, migrate outward from the inside of the cap toward the eventual surface, leaving trails of enamel—prisms—behind. We cannot make more enamel, because the cells that make it are sloughed off and lost when the crown is complete. Dentin is another story. The odontoblast cells that produce it start back-to-back with the ameloblasts and migrate inward, eventually coming to line the pulp chamber. They continue to produce dentin throughout an individual’s life and can repair or replace worn or wounded tissue. More serious injury calls for fresh cells that form dentin to wall off the pulp chamber and protect the tooth.

As cavities grow, however, caries can overwhelm these natural defenses, infecting the pulp and in the long run killing the tooth. From an evolutionary perspective, a couple of centuries is a flash in the pan—not nearly enough time for our teeth to adapt to the changes in our oral environment wrought by the introduction of table sugar and processed foods.

2) I’m up through season 5 on my re-watch of the Sopranos.  Damn does that show hold up.  Quite enjoyed deBoer’s thoughts on the show and what to make of creators’ intentions:

Entire books have been written about the prominence of antiheroes in the so-called “Golden Era of Television,” and it’s not hard to understand why. Tony Soprano looms as large above the rise of prestige TV as his show does, perhaps the epitome of the charismatic monster, a fuming, stomping bully who has charmed just about everyone who watches The Sopranos despite his violent and predatory nature. Twenty years on from the premiere of that show and we’re still debating how to balance our duty to reject Tony’s violence, sexual aggression, serial dishonesty, and entitlement with the magnetic personal pull he exudes. The question has been particularly prevalent when considering The Sopranos thanks to a widespread distaste for fans who rooted for Tony (among TV critics, at least) and the attendant insistence that the show’s relentlessly bleak portrayal of mob life shouldn’t be romanticized. And indeed we shouldn’t romanticize either Tony or the way of life he represents. Indeed, the show portrayed the crumbling mafia establishment as simply a microcosm of a greater American decay, which the NYT magazine’s Willy Staley referred to as a “depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow.”

I do agree that the show repeatedly defied the “cool mob guys whack each other” vision of mafia narratives, and to its credit. It even seemed to evolve over time to defy fans who attempted to push it into that box. But what always annoys me about the conversation is that it has been so relentlessly fixated on the intentions of David Chase, the show’s creator. In an age in which we have come to communally understand that authorial intention isn’t everything, I’ve found that the discussion of Tony specifically and antiheroes generally too often falls back on demands that the author didn’t intend for the audience to love a given charismatic bastard. But creators aren’t just responsible for their intentions; they’re responsible for achieving those intentions. And while it almost always succeeds, sometimes The Sopranos is guilty of playing to exactly the prurient interests of fans that Chase seemed to disdain.

First consider the following scene, which is the most direct portrayal of the show’s negative judgment of both Tony and his enablers – the latter representing us, the viewers.

This is, in fact, my favorite scene from the show. As it happens, it’s also a perfect example of how the hoary old storytelling cliche “show, don’t tell” can be wrong. This is just straight-up telling; a figure that’s immediately imbued with personal and moral authority is practically looking into the camera and saying “Tony is a bad person, and you should stop making excuses for him.” Every Screenwriting 101 class would tell you that you shouldn’t write scenes like this. But it’s masterful and compelling and much more effective than trying to subtly hint at the intended message, which many screenwriters would muck up terribly. And he’s right. For all of his charisma, Tony is a violent sociopath, someone who’s serially unfaithful to his wife and a casual betrayer of his closest friends and family members. He’s not a good dude, and if the show ever truly lost track of that fact it would find itself in the same strata as all manner of cheap, scuzzy Godfather knockoffs, movies bankrolled on the belief that the mob is cool…

No, you’re not “supposed” to root for Tony in a simplistic way. But it’s also too easy to dismiss fans who did so as just uncultured morons. There’s a reason Tony has charmed so many, and I think The Sopranos walked a thin line – usually very well, but not always. My point here is simply that it’s not sufficient for a creator to not want to lionize a given character. It’s not sufficient for a creator to attempt to judge their protagonist. They have to achieve the artistic feat of judgment in fact. And a lot of people, even some of our greatest creative minds, have a hard time doing that.

3) Excellent stuff from Eric Levitz, “Is America to Blame for Russia’s War in Ukraine?”

To explain a bad actor’s behavior is not to justify it.

In mundane contexts, few people struggle to understand this point. For example, if an alcoholic relative comes over for Thanksgiving dinner and behaves in a charming, avuncular manner until he finishes off his eighth beer — at which point he subjects his prepubescent nephew to a pornographic account of his backpacking trip through Europe circa 1996, says, “I’m thankful for my ex-wife’s heart attack,” and then cries into his mashed potatoes while moaning that he’s incapable of love — most would say that this relative’s inebriation explains his conduct, even as it does not justify it. Had uncle Walter not been drinking, he would not have ruined Thanksgiving. But the fact that Walter was drinking did not make it okay for him to spoil the holiday.

Now, let’s say that this uncle Walter did not bring beer to the festivities himself but merely encountered beer that aunt Rachel had purchased. In that circumstance, we might recognize that Rachel’s decision to bring beer caused Thanksgiving to be ruined, even though aunt Rachel is not morally culpable for that sad outcome. Thus, even though Walter’s family members are not at fault for his conduct, they may nevertheless decide that it would be wise for them to alter their own behavior to preempt such uncomfortable scenes in the future — by, say, establishing a “No alcohol at Thanksgiving” rule.

This mode of reasoning is not terribly controversial when applied to quotidian matters. When one applies it to foreign affairs, however, it tends to raise hackles. In the wake of 9/11, those who argued that Osama bin Laden’s stated motivations for the attacks may have been genuine — and thus that the American military’s interventions in the Middle East had played a causal role in the atrocity — were routinely denounced for justifying bin Laden’s violence and/or blaming America for its own national tragedy.

This tendency to confuse explanation and justification has cropped again up in contemporary debates over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some commentators argue that American foreign policy helped to bring about the present crisis. Their argument goes roughly like this: Vladimir Putin’s destructive actions are a predictable consequence of America’s decisions to expand NATO eastward and encourage Ukraine to align with the European Union instead of Russia. For decades, the Kremlin made it clear to the West that it considered NATO expansion and a westernized Ukraine antithetical to Russia’s core security interests. Nevertheless, the U.S. encouraged Ukraine to integrate with Europe and refused to rule out its admission into NATO’s military alliance. America did this knowing (1) that there was a high risk that Putin would defend his conception of Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily, (2) that the U.S. was not willing to expend American lives or risk nuclear war in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, and (3) that Ukraine would be incapable of militarily defeating a Russian invasion without the aid of a foreign army.

Given this knowledge, the argument continues, America’s support for Ukraine’s assertions of independence from Russia was, in fact, a betrayal. The optimal path for maximizing Ukrainians’ autonomy and welfare, given the constraints imposed by Russia’s strength and the West’s unwillingness to fight, was for Ukraine to forswear NATO membership and pledge neutrality between Russia and Europe. The alternative course was bound to lead Ukraine into a catastrophe. As the “realist” international-relations scholar John Mearsheimer put the point in 2015, “What’s going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”…

That said, slippage between explanation and justification is actually happening on both sides of the debate over Putin’s motives. A small minority of the left in the U.S. is so fixated on its contempt for American imperialism that it suggests that Russia is justifiedin seeing a western-aligned Ukraine as an affront to their security. From this point of view, American support for Ukraine’s integration with Europe was not merely reckless but immoral: Supporting Ukraine’s assertion of independence from Moscow was an imperial act of aggression against Russia, as though Putin were entitled to veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy as a matter of right.

Realists like John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, often speak as though there is no difference between a great power’s predictable actions and its justified ones. Indeed, in Mearsheimer’s telling, a fully independent Ukraine is not just a fundamental threat to Russian security in Putin’s mind but in actual fact. This is despite the fact that Moscow’s vast nuclear weapons arsenal renders a western incursion into Russia unthinkable. After all, as recent events have made clear, the western powers are so (rightly) terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war with Russia that they are not even willing to directly combat the Russian army when it launches a war of aggression.

4) Though, NC can be frustrating at times, we’re sure a damn sight better than our neighbors to the west, “The Fight Over ‘Maus’ Is Part of a Bigger Cultural Battle in Tennessee

ATHENS, Tenn. — After the McMinn County School Board voted in January to remove “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum, the community quickly found itself at the center of a national frenzy over book censorship.

The book soared to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. Its author, Art Spiegelman, compared the board to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and suggested that McMinn officials would rather “teach a nicer Holocaust.” At a recent school board meeting, opponents of the book’s removal spilled into an overflow room.

But the outcry has not persuaded the school board to reconsider. And the board’s objections do not stop at “Maus” or the school district’s Holocaust education materials.

“It looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language,” said Mike Cochran, a school board member. “I think we need to re-look at the entire curriculum.”

Such efforts are being encouraged statewide, putting Tennessee at the forefront of a nationwide conservative effort to reshape what students are learning and reading in public schools.

One proposed Tennessee law prohibits textbooks that “promote L.G.B.T.Q. issues or lifestyles”; one that passed in June would prohibit materials that make someone feel “discomfort” based on their race or sex. Another allows for partisan school board elections, which critics worry will inject cultural grievances into education policy debates. State legislators in Nashville are considering a ban on “obscene materials” in school libraries as well as a measure requiring school boards to establish procedures for reviewing school library collections. Gov. Bill Lee recently announced a partnership with a Christian college to open 50 charter schools designed to educate children to be “informed patriots.”

The combined effect of all this activity has alarmed educators and others in the state who are concerned about academic freedom. “It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mind-set coming from the governor on down to ban conversation and to segment communities and to erase life experiences from classroom discussion,” said Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Kailee Isham, a ninth-grade English teacher in McMinn County, said the environment had changed her teaching. She hesitates to tackle topics like racism and socioeconomic or L.G.B.T.Q. issues in her classroom for fear of being targeted by conservative parents.

Even before the “Maus” vote in McMinn County, Ms. Isham, the English teacher, was rethinking her career. She entered the profession because she wanted to help students work through difficult topics, she said, but with the heightened scrutiny, it feels futile. She plans to quit teaching at the end of this semester, after just one year in the classroom. She does not know what is next.

Ugh.  But, can I also say as much as these conservatives in Tennessee are going crazy, is it really the job of 9th grade English teachers to “help students work through difficult topics.”  Maybe it is– but not a lot of that going on in my sons’ high school, which sure ain’t Tennessee.

5) I’m glad a billionaire is trying to make pork production in America more humane.  But it shouldn’t take the actions of the pet cause of a billionaire to treat animals better (though, I’ll take that over nothing), “The corporate raider taking aim at McDonald’s over the treatment of pigs: Why Carl Icahn launched an animal welfare-focused proxy fight against the fast food giant. 

6) I Love Tim Urban’s “Wait but Why” blog and quite enjoyed this NYT guest essay, “How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back”

I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s start with the bad: a concept I call Depressing Math.

Check this out:

 
 
Image

Credit…Tim Urban

That’s one box for every week of a 90-year life. It often feels like we have countless weeks ahead of us. But actually, it’s just a few thousand — a small-enough number to fit neatly in a single image.

Once you visualize the human life span, it becomes clear that so many parts of life we think of as “countless” are in fact quite countable…

Depressing Math is especially depressing when you’re living through a pandemic. Covid hasn’t taken away our weeks, but it has robbed us of our favorite activities — experiences that are already in short supply.

But perhaps the hardest math to process — and, in turn, the hardest Covid pill to swallow — has to do with our relationships. I grew up spending some time with my parents almost every day. Since turning 19 and moving away for good, I’ve averaged about 10 to 15 days a year with them. If I’m one of the lucky ones, I’ll have quality time with my parents until I’m 60. That means that the day I headed off to college, I had something like 350 remaining parent days total — the amount of time I had with them every year of my childhood.

What it boils down to is this: My life, in the best-case scenario, will consist of around 20 years of in-person parent time. The first 19 happened over the course of my first 19 years. The final year is spread out over the rest of my life. When I left for college, I had many decades left with living parents, but only about one year of time left to spend with them.

Image

Credit…Tim Urban

It’s the same story with childhood friends. I spent high school sitting around with the same four friends, notching somewhere around 1,000 hangouts by the time we scattered off to different cities. Since then, our text thread keeps us in touch, but we’ve only managed to get the whole group together for a weekend every few years — about 10 total days each decade. It feels like we’re smack in the middle of our lives together, but like me and my parents, the high school group is currently enjoying its final 5 percent of in-person time together.

I gotta say, I so love every day with my kids and that part I put in bold kind of terrified me.

7) This is something else, “Is Graduate School Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis: The net financial value of most graduate degrees is modest to negative.”

Key findings

  • The median master’s degree has a net ROI of $83,000. But some master’s degrees are worth over $1 million, while 40 percent have no net financial value at all.
  • Most master’s programs in computer science, engineering, and nursing boast ROI above $500,000. But the median degree in several other fields — including the MBA, America’s most popular graduate degree — has negative ROI.
  • The most lucrative graduate degrees are professional programs in law and medicine; almost half of medical degrees have ROI above $1 million.

Executive Summary

This report presents estimates of return on investment (ROI) for nearly 14,000 graduate degree programs, including 11,600 master’s degrees and 2,300 doctoral and professional degrees.

In financial markets, ROI measures the profitability of an investment relative to its cost. In our study, we define the ROI of a graduate degree as the increase in lifetime earnings a student can expect from that degree, minus the direct and indirect costs of attending graduate school.

I estimate that the median master’s degree increases lifetime earnings by $83,000, after subtracting the costs of graduate school. However, there is enormous variation by program. Master’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and nursing virtually guarantee their graduates a financial return. But programs in the arts and humanities rarely pay off at all. Overall, 40 percent of master’s degrees fail to produce a positive return.

I spent a pretty good amount of time with this and looked through quite a number of degrees.  On the whole, I think there’s some really good stuff here, but I strongly suspect that some of these estimates may be way off because of low N’s and the size of the errors.  I know a lot of people who get the MPA degree (which almost always seems to pay off nicely, from my perspective), and there’s just no rational explanation for why the MPA from Arizona State has an ROI of -$100K whereas Ball state is $77K or Barry University (what??) is $400K.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Don’t expect people to agree with everything in here on women’s rights versus transgender rights, but this part strikes me as so true:

Many of the people demanding these institutional shifts were and are not transgender themselves. They are bullies who set themselves up as moral arbiters, using self-righteous hysteria and factually questionable claims to demand censorship, instilling fear that anyone caught engaging in wrongspeak or even wrongthink will be publicly shamed and professionally destroyed. Bullies who insist they need to reshape women’s rights entirely, and then accuse any woman who even wants to discuss this of being hateful, stupid and dangerous. I have seen some people refer to gender-critical feminists as bullies, but I have never seen a gender-critical feminist call for writers to be no-platformed, words to be banned, books to be pulped, or articles to be deleted from the web. Gender activists do all of that as a matter of routine.

Contrary to what these bullies have claimed, gender-critical feminists do not hate trans people. I certainly feel no anger or animosity towards trans people. The only feeling I have towards them is compassion. Not to the point where I’m willing to give up all of women’s sex-based rights, no. But I do know I can only imagine the trauma and pain they have endured in their lives. I also know that so many of the arguments that are happening in their name are not ones that they wish for at all; they are conducted largely by provocateurs who are just burnishing their online brands…

Do they really think that something called gender identity, which I’m guessing most of them had never even heard of until six years ago, is the most important quality to a person, and any woman who doubts this must be shunned from society? Or do they just wish to be on The Right Side of History?

That’s a phrase I’ve heard often over the past few years. An editor said it to a friend of mine when she wanted to look at the effect of puberty blockers on gender dysphoric children (“I know, I know, but we want to be on the right side of history…”), and a US magazine editor said it to me when I asked if I could interview Martina Navratilova about her views on trans athletes: “I know what you’re saying, and I’m on your side, really I am. But you have to wonder what the right side of history is,” he said. It’s a concern that’s entirely based on vanity, because it’s about wanting to look good, to be seen as the good guy, polishing one’s future legacy. It’s also a way of abdicating responsibility for one’s choices: I’m not making this decision because it’s what I think – it’s what the future thinks! …

And then there’s Twitter. When I wanted to write for a magazine about the vilification of JK Rowling, I was told no, because it would cause “too much of a Twitter storm”. A friend wanted to put together a book of collected gender-critical essays, but an editor told her “the Twitter kickback would be too strong, and it wouldn’t get past the sensitivity readers anyway”. It amazes me how much power some people give to Twitter, because as someone who has been the object of several Twitter storms in my time, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Twitter means nothing, unless you give it the power to mean something. People should really stop giving Twitter so much power, because it’s making them bad at their jobs.

2) Happiness and money from an interview with Laurie Santos:

Is there anything surprising to you that people are just not getting about happiness? For my students, it’s often money. My fast read of the evidence is that money only makes you happier if you live below the poverty line and you can’t put food on your table and then you can afford to. Whether getting superrich actually affects different aspects of your well-being? There’s a lot of evidence it doesn’t affect your positive emotion too much. There was a recent paper by Matt Killingsworth5 where he was trying to make the claim that happiness continues as you get to higher incomes. And yeah, he’s right, but if you plot it, it’s like if you change your income from $100,000 to $600,000 your happiness goes up from, like, a 64 out of 100 to a 65. For the amount of work you have to put in to sextuple your income, you could instead just write in a gratitude journal, you could sleep an extra hour. Yeah, the money thing is one that students fight me on. It hits at a lot of the worldview they’ve grown up with.

5Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human happiness, recently published the paper “Experienced Well-Being Rises With Income, Even Above $75,000 Per Year.”

3) Love this list of 10 breakthrough technologies from MIT Technology Review.  I’m pretty partial to #4 and #10.

4) This is excellent, “When DEI Measures Crush Free Speech: On the farcical censorship of a Chinese artist at George Washington University.” (free PDF here)

At the start of the Winter Olympics earlier this month, a set of posters went up on the George Washington University campus. At first glance, they looked like they could be official advertisements for the Beijing Games. Look closer, though, and you see the snowboarder is perched atop a surveillance camera, the hockey player is body-checking a bloodied Tibetan monk, and the biathlete has their rifle trained on a blindfolded Uyghur man.

The George Washington University Chinese Students and Scholars Association said the posters were “racist,” a “naked attack on the Chinese nation” and called for a “public apology” and “severe punishment” for those responsible.

GW’s interim president, Mark S. Wrighton, who said he was “personally offended by the posters,” directed university staff to take them down and promised to “undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.”

After a flurry of public criticism, including pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Wrighton reversed course, admitting he had erred in having the posters removed and that no university investigation was underway. He had learned, he said, that “the posters were designed by a Chinese-Australian artist” and that “they are a critique of China’s policies.” He continued: “I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech — even when it offends people.”

Before this minor fiasco is swallowed up by the next news cycle, we should pause to consider what it tells us about the inevitable tensions between free expression and the kinds of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives taking root on college and university campuses. After all, as Wrighton wrote, concerns about the posters at GW arrived through “official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community.”

Like hundreds of other colleges and universities, George Washington University has a Bias Incident Response Team, or BIRT. Designed to “support students who are targets or witnesses of hate or bias incidents,” GW’s BIRT reporting form includes more than a dozen options under the “nature of the alleged bias” section, ranging from “age” and “disability” to “personal appearance” and “political affiliation” to “national origin” and “race.”

In a remarkable open letter, the George Washington Chinese Cultural Association exploited the logic of DEI to make their case against the posters. The images “offended” many Chinese students, the association said, and violated the university’s commitment to “equality and inclusion.”Moreover, by potentially inciting “Asian hate,” the posters posed a risk to the safety of Chinese students, including “verbal and physical violence.” “We hope everyone at the university can feel safe on campus.”

In their attempt at suppressing critique of China’s human-rights abuses, the Cultural Association drew quite shamelessly on the rhetoric of social justice. “This egregious act,” the Cultural Association wrote, “took place in early February, during Black History Month, a time when black people in the United States are reminded of their tragic experiences through longstanding oppression and exploitation.” “Underrepresented groups,” they continued, “should join together to fight racism and stand together against prejudice.”

Born in China, now residing in Australia, the artist who goes by the pseudonym Badiucao to avoid unwanted attention from the government of China acknowledges that some people regard his Olympics images as “controversial” and “violent.” “I have to remind the people,” he said, “that what happened in China is a thousand times more terrible and violent, and art is merely showing the tip of the iceberg of all this crime and tragedy.” Responding to the charge that his work promotes “anti-China racism,” he underscores that his work critiques “the state, not the people.”

Beijing 2022 poster
COURTESY BADIUCAO

This distinction is often conveniently overlooked by ideologically motivated students who invoke diversity mantras to try to shut down political speech.

5) Interesting and sad case of what sure looks like “suicide by cop” but where the cop sure did not to shoot additional rounds at somebody who was already shot and only brandishing a knife, “The first shots wounded their 16-year-old. His parents wonder: Did police need to fire the second round?”

6) I think there really are complexities to the issue of legal sports gambling, but damn it, just telling me it’s “evil” is so surely not the way to make public policy.  But, that’s what we get here in NC:

We don’t understand the human spirit that says we should surrender in the face of something evil. Sports betting is inevitable, some say. There’s too much money involved. We can’t stop it, so we should just regulate it and get something out of it.

That’s the way some North Carolina leaders are approaching the prospect of legalizing sports gambling. They know thousands of people will be hurt and families will be destroyed, but they seemingly have have lost any manner of courage and given in without a fight.

Decades of research shows that legalizing sports betting in North Carolina will, over time, seriously increase adverse outcomes such as divorce, bankruptcy, child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, crime and suicide. The gambling industry’s business model is built upon exploitation of the financially desperate and addicted.

7) Really, really good twitter thread on Joe Rogan and expertise:

8) Just maybe the fact that we’re paying more attention to disease means we can do something about this.  Given the amazing technological advancements against a virus in a short time, imagine what we could do against bacterial foes if we really set our minds to it, “The hidden epidemic: Antibiotic resistance is approaching a crisis point, and the world needs to act.”

Two years ago, the CDC made a disturbing prediction: Without radical change to antibiotic use practices, drug-resistant pathogens,which at that point were estimated to cause 700,000 deaths globally every year,couldkill 10 million people per year by 2050.

A recent report published in TheLancet, however, found that the toll from antibiotic resistance is worsening even faster than expected.

Last month’s Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance (GRAM) project report estimates that, in 2019, about 1.27 million people died directly due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which means cases where the patient wouldn’t have died had their infection been treatable with standard antibiotics. The total rises to 4.95 million deaths once fatalities associatedwith a drug-resistant infection, meaning that a patient died while having an identified antibiotic-resistant infection but it wasn’t clearly the immediate cause of death, are also included.

The report includes data on 23 pathogens and 88 pathogen-drug combinations in 204 countries and territories in 2019, with statistical modeling used to produce estimates for regions missing data.

The new numbers means that AMR is now among the leading causes of death worldwide, exceeding the toll of HIV/AIDS and malaria (864,000 and 643,000 deaths in 2019 respectively, according to the Lancet’s Global Burden of Disease study).HIV research attracts close to $50 billion per year in funding, but as Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy noted in a commentary published along with the Lancet study, “global spending on addressing AMR is probably much lower than that.”

In the last century, antibiotics have revolutionized medicine, massively cutting down mortality from common infectious diseases, while drastically improving the safety of major surgery and recovery rates from trauma. By one estimate, antibiotics have extended average human life expectancy by more than 20 years since their discovery over a century ago.

But the overuse of antibiotics, whether in human patients or in livestock, results in bacteria adapting to the drugs, leading them to become less effective over time. If the pace of resistance isn’t halted — whether through more judicious use of the drugs or through the development of new classes of antibiotics — it will likely lead to soaring deaths from common infections and surgical complications, sending us back to a world where a minor cut could potentially once again be lethal.

We can avoid this fate, but it will require coordinating a global response before it’s too late.

9) Recently came across this deBoer post from last year.  Good stuff, “People of Color Have Agency: the incredible condescension towards people of color in contemporary liberal culture”

This is, on the face of it, anti-white ideology – all of the bad stuff in the world happens as a direct result of white actions, white power. Yet I have always felt that there’s something else going on in these debates. I suspect that placing all of the blame for historical crimes on white people is strangely comforting for white leftists: it advances a vision of the world where only white people matter. It says that the sun rises and sets with white people. It suggests that white people wrote history. It assures white people that, no matter what else is true, they are the masters of the world. That all of this is framed in terms of judgment against the abstraction “white people” is incidental. I think if you could strip people down to their most naked self-interest and ask them, “would you be willing to take all the blame, if it meant you got all the power?,” most would say yes. And of course in this narrative people of color are sad little extras, unable even to commit injustice, manipulated across the chessboard by the omnipotent white masters whose interests they can’t even begin to oppose. All of this to score meaningless political points in debates about inequality and injustice.

The leftist conception of history as a series of crimes committed by white people against the virginal and defenseless brown masses is a perfect example of where radical American politics ostensibly castigates establishment power and the white people who wield it, and yet ultimately comforts those who express them, who are themselves white in dominant majorities. And what I’ve witnessed the last several years is that this condition has been generalized to domestic politics too: in the liberal mind of 2021, white people do, people of color are done to. Were I a person of color, I would find this impossibly insulting…

I find this attitude, which I heard from both Black people and white, to be really ugly. Quite racist, in fact. You really have to marvel at where we’ve come in race relations in this country when “Black people are incapable of following rules” is represented as an antiracist position. While exonerating this particular girl and other Black people from their culpability in breaking rules, this attitude posits an entire race of people who are such dysfunctional victims that they can’t possibly undertake the basic steps necessary not only to survive in 21st century America but to navigate any society, which are rule-bound by their very nature. The short-term rhetorical convenience of excusing individual Black people’s behavior in this way comes wrapped in a terrible curse; if this vision of the world is true, Black liberation must be just about impossible, as the hand of white supremacy is so damaging to Black people that it’s hard to imagine a world in which they are able to rise above the bigotry that will inevitably linger into the future. I would argue that, instead, while Black America faces structural disadvantages that are certainly related to historical and ongoing injustice, the right application of policy could dramatically ameliorate their current problems and leave them better able to flourish. Racial inequality is a choice. We could choose to end it. The question is, should progressives view Black people and other people of color as empowered adults with the capacity to make their own decisions, and thus as responsible for the consequences of those decisions, or as noble, permanent victims?

Worth saying, of course, that the large majority of Black people in this country live their lives every day without breaking such rules – including most Black Smith students. But to recognize this is to give the lie to the proffered defense.

10) I thought this was a pretty compelling take from George Will given that Abery’s murderers were already convicted of murder in state court (it would be quite different otherwise), “Ahmaud Arbery’s racist killers are grotesque, but their ‘hate crimes’ prosecution was a show trial”

If fractious Americans can agree on anything nowadays, it should be that the punishment of thought crimes is the odious essence of totalitarianism. So, consider the constitutionally dubious conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s three murderers for having committed “hate crimes.”

The criminal justice system has now correctly concluded that his murderers were racists whose racism manifested itself in their actions. This conclusion, however, does not justify complacency about deciding that because the killers’ gross acts reflected grotesque thinking, the thinking merits its own punishment.

The killers chased Arbery — a Black jogger in a White neighborhood — and killed him with a shotgun. For this violation of Georgia’s law against murder, a state court sentenced them to life imprisonment. Then this week, they were convicted in a federal court of violating a federal law that punishes those who violate a person’s civil rights “because of” their “race, color,” etc. For this they can again be sentenced to life in prison.

This misuse of judicial proceedings was, Sullum says, possible because of two regrettable Supreme Court conclusions: The killers’ “second, symbolic prosecution did not amount to double jeopardy, because the state and federal crimes, defined by two different ‘sovereigns,’ are not ‘the same offense.’” And prosecutions of hate crimes are deemed consistent with the First Amendment, even if they impose added punishment for speech that, however scabrous, is nevertheless constitutionally protected.

So, the government can conduct trials for the purpose of virtue signaling — to announce, however redundantly, that it condemns particular frames of mind. A bigot’s shabby mental furniture is, however, not a crime. Were it, what other mentalities might government decide to stigmatize by imposing special punishments? Arbery’s killers had expressed their racism in speech (texts, social media posts, remarks) that no jurisdiction can proscribe. But their federal punishment will be imposed precisely because their speech demonstrated their bigotry.

11) I’m sure I’ll have more to say about our newest SC Justice to be in the future, but I think the WP Editorial was pretty spot-on:

Judge Jackson by all accounts possesses the qualities essential in a Supreme Court justice: a devotion to the rule of law; a commitment to judicial independence; an ability and willingness to collaborate with colleagues whose views and philosophies differ from her own. She also appears to be a keen and careful legal thinker. A graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, she was an editor of the law review and went on to clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whom Mr. Biden has chosen her to replace. She put in eight years as a trial judge before ascending to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2021. And compellingly, she would bring even more diversity to the court as the first public defender on the modern court — an especially proud legacy for a president who has proclaimed his devotion to criminal justice reform.

Senate Republicans should judge her on the basis of her career and character, and refrain from obstructive maneuvering designed to deprive the nominee of a fair hearing. This may seem like a fantasy considering the poisoned state of the Supreme Court confirmation process. Yet the signs so far are somewhat encouraging. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) rhetoric in advance of her nomination had been conciliatory — with the minority leader refusing to criticize the president’s pledge to pick a Black woman for the job. He should urge members of his caucus to consider her on her merits. Indeed, three of these Republicans — Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have already voted for Judge Jackson once, to confirm her for her current role.

That the Supreme Court could now look a little more like America is worth celebrating, not least for how it might help preserve the public trust in the institution, which has taken a beating in the eyes of the country. The court’s integrity would be further enhanced if senators approached the confirmation process not as a partisan battle but as the constitutional duty it is.

12) I meant to share Eric Levitz’s take on that pre-K study a few weeks back:

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that universal pre-K is undesirable. For one thing, the positive results from specific, intensive pre-K programs suggest that the typical American prekindergarten can be substantially improved. But even if it turns out that such programs cannot be scaled up — either because there isn’t political will for the requisite funding or because of some more fundamental constraint — the typical American pre-K (and/or day-care) program still has clear, proven benefits.

Won’t somebody please think of the parents.

Public pre-K programs may not reliably improve enrollees’ long-term academic performance or social behavior. But they do reliably provide parents with a safe, somewhat stimulating place to put their children while they go earn money. And that’s an important service for parents and children alike.

When Washington, D.C., established free and universal preschool, the labor-force participation rate among women with young children in the city rose by 11.4 percentage points over the course of a decade; during the same period, that rate among all American women with young kids inched up by only two points.

That outcome is typical. In other countries, the implementation of universal child care produced similar increases in female workforce participation. What’s more, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper has noted, household economic stability and parental labor-force participation are heavily associated with positive life outcomes for children, including higher rates of high-school graduation and lower rates of incarceration. Thus, if all universal pre-K did was function as a de facto child-care program, there is reason to think it could ultimately improve disadvantaged children’s life outcomes, even if it proves ineffective at increasing their cognitive ability. Simply by enabling their parents to earn higher incomes, the program could improve children’s well-being in the long run. And in any case, it would serve to enhance mothers’ economic autonomy in the immediate term. Which is pretty important, if we want to live in a society in which low-income women are not coerced into abusive relationships for want of economic resources.

All this said, the mixed evidence for pre-K’s efficacy does suggest that if progressives must prioritize some social-welfare policies over others, then they might be wise to favor a child allowance over pre-K. After all, the former increases parents’ economic security instantly and automatically. Further, given that some kids apparently do better under home care than in the typical pre-K program, it might make sense for a universal pre-K policy to include an alternative cash option, which families could use to compensate a relative for providing pre-K-like services if they wish.

On the other hand, in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter which social-welfare policies progressives wish to prioritize. If the Democratic-controlled Congress does anything to make life easier for parents in America, it will do so at West Virginia senator Joe Manchin’s command. And Manchin, like much of the U.S. electorate, would rather give parents universal pre-K than unconditional cash assistance, owing to the mistaken belief that the latter would enable idleness or drug abuse.

Pre-K may not be the panacea that some of its boosters make it out to be. But it is nevertheless the only de facto public child-care program that has some bipartisan support within the U.S. That makes the young institution worth nurturing in the hope that it eventually outgrows its present flaws.

13) I am all in on Derek Thompson’s “abundance agenda.”  I really like his take on a new book about energy, “Forget ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle‘: A new book suggests that the best way to save the planet is through abundance.”

I recently spoke with Griffith about his plan to electrify the world, his controversial idea to bribe fossil-fuel companies to go green, and why American gloom and NIMBYism are standing in the way of the abundance agenda. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Derek Thompson: What does “electrify everything” mean, and why is it such a crucial part of the fight against climate change?

Saul Griffith: “Electrify everything” quite literally means electrify everything we do. Electrify our vehicles. Electrify our homes, including the kitchen, the laundry, the basement, the attic, and the garage. Electrify our small businesses and commercial buildings. Electrify our industrial processes.

We then have to produce all of that electricity with zero emissions, which means solar, wind, hydroelectricity, geothermal, but also nuclear. We can use biofuels, too, but biomaterials aren’t realistically going to power more than about 5 to 10 percent of the economy.

The reason to boil down climate action to that simple message is to make it concrete, make it simple, and to cut through the various distractions and smoke screens such as hydrogen and negative emissions. Very simply, the great majority of our emissions will be eliminated by electrifying everything. It also makes concrete the important decisions in a person’s or consumer’s or citizen’s life: what you drive or ride, what powers the place that you live, what powers your appliances.

Thompson: Does electrifying everything require lots of brand-new technology? Or is this something we can do by simply deploying technology we’ve already invented?

Griffith: We have invented all of the things that are necessary. More inventions might make it cheaper or easier, but we do have everything we need already. Electric vehicles are widely now seen as equals to or better than internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Electric heat pumps now beat furnaces on cost and performance in nearly any environment. Electric cooking is cleaner, faster, cheaper, and easier than cooking with gas. Wind and solar are cheaper than natural gas and coal at feeding the grid. Batteries are dropping in cost every day. Rooftop solar can be cheaper than the cheapest grid-based electricity…

Thompson: I’ve come to think that what I call the “abundance agenda” needs both an economic argument—that is, “How do these policies help me?”—and a values argument—that is, “What do these policies say about me?” I wonder if the local energy reforms you’re talking about might appeal to people’s values of local control and community.

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

Thompson: I’m concerned that the world is turning away from nuclear power at the very moment we most desperately and obviously need nuclear power to make the clean-energy math work. It’d be one thing if only California was turning away from nuclear with the closure of the Diablo Canyon plant. But so is Germany. So is Japan. Why is this happening around the world, and what is your outlook on nuclear’s future?

Griffith: If you take the six biggest countries by land area—Russia, Canada, the U.S., China, Brazil, Australia—only one of those countries could provide all of its energy with solar and wind using less than 1 percent of its land area. That would be Australia, because it’s giant and has so few people. But if you tried to give everybody in China an American lifestyle, fully electrified with renewables, you’d need 10 percent of the land covered with wind turbines and solar cells. In America, you’d need about 2 percent of the land. My view is that any country that needs more than 1 percent of its land dedicated to renewables has to keep nuclear on the table. People have to realize that they can’t have Western lifestyles without nuclear power in a country as dense as Switzerland.

14) Katelyn Jetelina generally approves of new CDC guidance:

My two cents

As many of you know, I’ve been one of CDC’s biggest critics throughout this pandemic. But… I’m pleasantly surprised with this framework for a few reasons:

Praises

  1. Cases included. The CDC ended up integrating case metrics into their framework and this was 100% the correct call. Before today, rumors suggested that the CDC was only going to use hospitalizations to map behaviors. But this is inherently flawed because once hospitalizations increase, transmission in the community has already been high for about 3-4 weeks. So, I’m glad they decided not to do this.

  2. Hospitalization definition. The CDC is counting hospitalizations “with COVID” and “for COVID19” in their hospital metrics. This is also, absolutely, the right call. First, some jurisdictions just don’t have the capacity to differentiate the two. But, second, because Omicron showed us that there’s actually a third category that isn’t clearly differentiated: “COVID19 exacerbating medical conditions.” For example, if a child has diabetes, COVID19 infection significantly complicates the disease and the child is hospitalized “with COVID” not “for COVID19”. But, this is very different than a child with a broken bone that happens to test positive. So, I’m happy that the CDC is counting everything because everything does impact supply, staff, and hospital capacity.

  3. Layered approach. The CDC did not just map these metrics to masks. They also mapped the metrics to our other tools, like rapid testing (when and how), ventilation of spaces, vaccines, treatment, etc. I was VERY happy to see this. Yes, masks work. But so do all the other tools we have significantly underutilized throughout the pandemic.

  4. Dial up and dial down. Given my proposed framework a few weeks ago, you won’t be surprised to hear how happy I am the CDC provided guidance on how to “ride the waves”. The end of a surge is not the end of a pandemic. We need to be prepared and ready for the next. It may never come. But in the high likelihood that another wave does come, we need clear guidance.

  5. Vaccination rate. This is minor, but I’m glad they didn’t include community-level vaccination rates in their metrics. Vaccinations are already folded into population-level hospitalizations, so they are already accounted for to some degree. Also, I have yet to see any scientific evidence that vaccines reduce Omicron transmission. They did for Delta, but I would want to see this data first before assuming so for Omicron.

  6. Transportation. This guidance is NOT for public transportation, like planes. All of the masking requirements still pertain (at least until mid-March). The CDC said they’re evaluating the situation and will comment in the coming weeks.

15) So does Leana Wen.  I am glad to see more of a focus on hospitalization over just cases:

The CDC finally got masking right. After months of pleading from governors, local officials, educators and health experts, their new recommendations make clear that masks are no longer required in much of the United States — including in most schools.

Previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s sole determining factor for whether a community needed to implement masking was case counts. This made sense in 2020 and early 2021, when surges in infections invariably led to overwhelmed hospitals and deaths. But vaccines have rendered covid-19 far less severe. In areas with high levels of immunity from vaccination or prior infection, cases can be high, but hospitalizations remain low. The risk to society now correlates with severe infection, not positive tests, so it’s reasonable to shift the threshold for government-imposed restrictions.

The CDC’s new metrics are predominantly based on covid-19 hospitalizations as well as hospital capacity. Because severe illness lags infection by one to two weeks, the CDC also takes into account community infection rates. For example, there is a lower threshold of hospitalizations needed to trigger masking if the overall infection rates are more than 200 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.

Importantly, the guidelines leave open the possibility that these metrics might need to change in the future should a new variant arise that escapes vaccine immunity. Instead of viewing masking as an on-off switch, the CDC makes the case that mitigation measures are more like a dial. Depending on changing circumstances, restrictions can be turned up or down.
Beyond the rationale for the revision, the CDC deserves recognition for its newfound clarity of messaging. I appreciated the easily understood orange, yellow and green categorizations: When concern for severe illness is very high (orange), everyone should mask; when they are low (green), everyone could unmask; in between (yellow), people can decide whether to mask depending on their medical circumstances and risk tolerance.
16) And just for fun, in case you missed it, “Cross-country skiing-Finn Remi suffers frozen penis in mass start race”

Why do I care what this crazy crank says? Oh, yeah, he’s my Lt Governor

Just checking out the local headlines in the N&O today and I see this, “Are NC schools unsafe? Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson says student discipline is ‘abysmal.’”

I’ll save you the details (mostly because the N&O, for some reason, has made copying and pasting a mess), but, mostly they don’t matter.  The truth is Robinson is just basically making stuff up because that’s what he does.  Apparently we’ve got “chaos” in the schools.  

Before he was elected Lt Governor, Robinson was basically just a loud right-wing crank who managed to get himself some attention.  He’s not a  remotely serious person.  Here’s the wikipedia summary:

Robinson promoted his persona as a “brash and unfiltered conservative culture warrior.”[16] He opposes abortion,[17] promotes climate change denial,[18] and opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana.[19]

Robinson’s past antisemitic comments have drawn scrutiny and condemnation.[16][20] He claimed that the Marvel movie Black Panther was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic Marxist” that was “only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets” (using a Yiddish word for Black).[21][17] Robinson also appeared at an interview with fringe pastor Sean Moon, who claimed that he planned to become “king of the United States”; in the interview, Moon claimed that the Rothschild family was one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” and promoted the antisemitic conspiracy theory of a cabal of Jewish “international bankers” who rule every country’s central bank. Robinson endorsed Moon’s claim as “exactly right.”[20] Robinson’s statements, as well as his refusal to apologize or retract them, drew much concern from the leaders of North Carolina’s Jewish community.[16]

On his Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 followers, Robinson’s posts, which often impugn transgender people, Muslims, former President Barack Obama, and African-Americans who support Democrats, have drawn criticism.[21] Robinson accused people “who support this mass delusion called transgenderism” of seeking “to glorify Satan”.[21] Robinson called former President Obama “a worthless, anti-American atheist”[21] and posted “birther” memes;[17] accused American Muslims of being “INVADERS” who “refuse to assimilate to our ways while demanding respect they have not earned”; called Michelle Obama a man; and disparaged Joy Behar and Maxine Waters in crude terms.[21] After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, Robinson wrote that “Homosexuality is STILL an abominable sin and I WILL NOT join in ‘celebrating gay pride.'”[17] In 2020, Robinson asserted that the coronavirus was a “globalist” conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump, and dismissed the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, writing, “The looming pandemic I’m most worried about is SOCIALISM.”[17]

The Charlotte Observer editorial board described Robinson’s posts as “cringeworthy” and “an embarrassment”[22] while the state Democratic Party called them “homophobic, anti-Semitic, and downright unhinged.”[20] Robinson’s posts were also criticized by Equality North Carolina[21] and Jewish community leaders in North Carolina.[23] When asked about the posts, Robinson declined to apologize, referring to his posts as “my personal opinions” and saying “I’m not ashamed of anything that I post.”[18][21]

And it goes on.  So, anyway, I though, why should anyone care what this person thinks about schools or anything else?  But oh, yeah, it’s not wrong to care about what the Lt Governor of your state thinks.

And Robinson speaks to our current polarized dynamic in two important ways.  Firstly, this extreme culture war persona, alas, is what gets you victory in a NC Republican primary these days.  Sad!  There were actually even some presumably (semi-)reasonable people running for the office.  But this embodiment of an internet troll got the nomination.

And then, because even statewide elections have become overwhelmingly about partisanship, Republicans all pretty much voted for him, mostly not knowing and also not caring that he’s basically unhinged and that the Democratic candidate was a respected and reasonable state legislator. 

And, so here we are, with a lead story in the N&O being about what amounts to an online crank complaining about school discipline. But he’s our Lt Governor.  

Sports gambling and public policy

I am so not a gambling man.  I understand on an intellectual level that gambling is a huge dopamine hit for a lot of people, but, fortunately, no such impact on me.  Sure, it felt cool to win an NCAA pool once, but mostly because it was cool to win an NCAA pool, not so much the gambling aspect.  Nonetheless, when it comes to matters like legal gambling, this is where I tend to go into full-on “let consenting adults do what they want as long as they are not directly harming other people” libertarian mode.  So, yeah, legalized gambling in NC?  Bring it, mostly because I hate the paternalistic nature of laws against it.  

If Senate Bill 688 becomes law — and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has expressed support for sports betting in the past — North Carolina would join about 20 states that have allowed online sports gambling in the four years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a nationwide ban that included few exceptions, most notably Nevada. North Carolina is one of nine states that currently allows sports gambling in casinos or sportsbooks, but does not permit online betting.

Nearby states Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee allow online or mobile sports betting. New York went live online in January, and operators there took more than $600 million in wagers in the first 10 days…

The professional leagues, North Carolina professional teams and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians came together in late 2019 in Cherokee to hash out their differences in sports wagering legislation, said Ches McDowell, a lobbyist for the Hornets who worked on the agreement. He called it “a monumental and historical deal.”

“It looks exactly like this bill,” he said.

Oh, that lobbyist for the Hornets?  I taught him everything he knows about political science.  

Anyway, I do get that gambling can be a real problem for many, I just don’t think that outweighs the interests of that vast majority of adults who can safely gamble without harming themselves or others.  Much like, yes, some people do develop harmful marijuana dependencies, but pretty much all serious students of policy believe marijuana should be legal.  But, it is an interesting question, recent NYT story: “The Rising Human Cost of Sports Betting: The ends of the college and pro football seasons were already a perilous time for people recovering from a gambling addiction. Then came the onslaught of ads for legal sports betting.”

Delaney battles addiction. His compulsion, which nearly ruined his life: betting on sports. He is hardly alone. About 2 percent of Americans, roughly 6.6 million people, struggle with gambling addiction, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. A growing number bet on sports.

The floodgates opened in 2018 when the Supreme Court cut down a 1992 federal law that limited sports betting primarily to Nevada.

Now, about 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow sports gambling either online or in person. That means about 30 percent of Americans can place a legal wager on the Super Bowl where they live. In November, California residents will vote on whether to open their state to sports betting.

Wagering on sports is “endemic and acceptable and so mainstream that it is now a major pillar of American entertainment,” said Timothy Fong, one of the directors of the gambling studies program at U.C.L.A.

“The question,” he continued, “is what kind of impact is this going to have on our mental health, on our public health?”

Most of us can put some money down, have some fun and walk away unscathed. But not everyone.

When I reached out last week to nearly a dozen people as old as 82 and as young as 17 in recovery for sports gambling addiction, I heard horror stories. They told me about shattered families, lost jobs and foreclosed homes. They spoke of arrests, convictions, jail time and suicide. I heard how dangerous this time of the year is: the end of the college football season, the N.F.L. playoffs, all the money that can be won on the Super Bowl, or, more likely, lost.

To be fair, much like I don’t think we should allow the full genius of capitalism to run amok encouraging marijuana, there may well be some middle ground on gambling where it is legal, but we place some appropriate limits on advertising, etc., (e.g., seen any cigarette ads on TV lately?).  But, it really does raise an interesting question of at what point the harm to these individuals and their families communities outweighs the pleasure/enjoyment for all the “healthy” gamblers.  We should defiintely take some of all these profits from legal gambling to help problem gamblers, but, personally, even though I have no interest whatsoever it seems pretty hard to justify limiting the other 98% over the problem gamblers.  

Small victories– oral contraceptives edition

This was nice to see today:

Beginning Tuesday, North Carolina women will be able to get hormonal birth control without a doctor’s prescription — a change that will give millions of women easier access to some of the most common contraceptives that prevent pregnancy. Under a new law, passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina will join more than a dozen other states in allowing pharmacists to dispense birth control pills and patches without the signature of a patient’s physician. Effective Feb. 1, the new law could help shrink North Carolina’s 44% unplanned pregnancy rate and eliminate some of the barriers — like the cost and time of going to the doctor — that prevent women from seeking health care.

Women should have control of their fertility and they should not need the hoops of a prescription for a medication that has proven safe for decades.  

I found this part encouraging as well:

Sen. Jim Burgin, a Republican from Harnett County who championed the legislation, said until that case is decided, the new law could prevent abortions in North Carolina. “Can we just all agree that an abortion is a bad outcome for everybody?” Burgin said. “What can we do to prevent people from ever having to make that decision? And so the best way to do that is to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.”

Too many Republicans are anti-contraceptive and really seem like they just want to punish women for having sex.  If you really want to limit abortions, you should be massively pro-contraception and want it to be as easy as possible to obtain.  Nice to see some of this going on in NC.

Quick hits (part II)

1) In my never-ending series on techno-optimism… maybe we can make steel in a much more environmentally-friendly way.

Steel production accounts for around seven per cent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. There are two reasons for this startling fact. First, steel is made using metallurgic methods that our Iron Age forebears would find familiar; second, it is part of seemingly everything, including buildings, bridges, fridges, planes, trains, and automobiles. According to some estimates, global demand for steel will nearly double by 2050. Green steel, therefore, is urgently needed if we’re to confront climate change.

To understand steel, you need to think at the level of high-school chemistry—even the chemistry you learned on the first day will suffice. Basically, steel is iron, with a little carbon added in to increase strength: tiny carbon atoms nestle between the larger iron ones, making the steel denser and more ductile. In a sense, iron isn’t so hard to find—it makes up five per cent of the earth’s crust, by weight—but metals in rock are mixed with other elements. You must get them out, in pure form, before you can build that sword or Eiffel Tower. In this respect, iron presents a particular challenge: iron atoms bind tightly with oxygen atoms, like complementary pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Two irons and three oxygens make ferric oxide, or Fe2O3—a complete picture that’s hard to pull apart. Ferric oxide forms easily—so easily that, in the presence of water, naked iron will stick to oxygen in the air, creating rust.

For most of human history, therefore, the problem of iron extraction was unsolvable. Five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians made beads out of iron—but they got their metal from meteorites, in which it had already been split from oxygen by some unknown extraterrestrial process. Another thousand years would elapse before making usable iron became possible, through a process called reduction. Sometime around 2000 B.C.E., it was discovered, possibly by accident, that iron-heavy rock, or ore, became malleable when it was heated over charcoal fires. Today, we can explain why this happens: at high enough temperatures, iron atoms loosen their grip on oxygen atoms. The oxygen binds to the carbon in the charcoal, forming CO2, which flies off into the air. What’s left behind is purified, or “reduced,” iron. The process of reduction allowed the Iron Age to begin.

It’s hard to say exactly when steel was first made. From time to time, it would be created when carbon diffused from the charcoal into the iron, strengthening it. But steel production was hard to control until a few hundred years ago, when the blast furnace was invented. Using bellows, steelworkers increased the temperatures of their coal fires to nearly three thousand degrees—hot enough to melt iron in large quantities. Today, blast furnaces are still the main method used to reduce steel. Current models are about a hundred feet tall, and can produce ten thousand tons of iron in a day. Instead of charcoal, they use coke, a processed form of coal. Coke and ore go in the top of the furnace, and molten iron comes out the bottom, infused with carbon; this iron can be easily processed into steel. The steel industry produces around two billion tons of it each year, in a $2.5-trillion market, while emitting more than three billion tons of CO2 annually, most of it from blast furnaces.

2) Very much agree with Yglesias on “Don’t Look Up.” “The movie is better and more fun if you don’t narrowly read it as about climate change.”  And Eric Levitz, “Don’t Look Up Doesn’t Get the Climate Crisis.”  That said, personally, I just found it flat-out very entertaining. 

3) I was looking up maps of power generation the other day to try and confirm that my own power is nuclear (pretty sure it is, but this should be easier).  (Hooray– you know I love that nuclear energy).  In so doing, I was surprised to discover that NC kind of kicks ass in Solar.  A little googling, and, unsurprisingly, this is all about policy choices:

Through 2019, North Carolina ranked second in the United States in installed solar capacity (meaning, not including rooftop solar), trailing only California. Last year, however, we dropped to third overall – and fifth based on solar added that year.

How did we get to our previous second-place spot? What have other states done to move up? How can we regain our standing?

How North Carolina became #2 in solar

North Carolina’s huge utility scale solar boom came about due to a pioneering law setting standards for renewable energy use, tax incentives and the state’s favorable interpretation of a federal renewable energy law governing utilities. But, over time, some of those standards have aged out or been changed.

In 2007, North Carolina became the first state in the Southeast to pass a renewable energy and energy efficiency portfolio standard (REPS), an important signal for developers that there is a price for and value of solar in the market. North Carolina also had one of the most generous installation tax credits in the country (35 percent), which – when combined with the federal tax credits – made utility-scale solar projects financially attractive. An installation tax credit allows a solar developer to deduct the cost of installing a solar energy system from state or federal taxes. Our state had an 80 percent property tax abatement for any state property taxes associated with installed renewable energy systems.

Finally, North Carolina had generous state terms for a federal statute known as the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) of 1978. PURPA requires utilities to buy power generated from “qualifying renewable energy facilities” at an “avoided cost” rate that is set by each state. The N.C. Utilities Commission required contracts to be offered to qualified solar facilities of 5 megawatts (MW) or less, with 5-, 10-, and 15-year terms. These standard contracts with dependable terms were attractive to investors and helped to grow the utility-scale solar business.

Collectively, these policies allowed North Carolina’s solar market to flourish. So what changed?

Two policies were completely eliminated. The state investment tax credit ended in 2016. The following year, the General Assembly replaced the generous PURPA terms with competitive procurement, which mandated a ceiling on utility-scale solar based on three “tranches” overseen by an independent administrator. Bottom line: It meant North Carolina would only add roughly 2,000 MW of solar projects.

Federal tax credits and state property tax relief are now the only policies for encouraging solar growth. The federal tax credit, though, is ramping down: It was reduced to 26 percent in 2020 and sits at 22 percent this year.

3) Really interesting research on how being cold may be good for you.  If that’s the case, I’ll just consider being warm my vice, much like people consider smoking.  The science is really cool, but on a personal level– not thanks.

4) Super-long profile of current Republican con-man (best known for Hillbilly Elegy) J.D. Vance.  The sub-head asks, “Is his new, fiery, right-wing persona an act?” And, yeah, I think we all know the answer.

5) This is so cool. “Gravity Could Solve Clean Energy’s One Major Drawback: Finding green energy when the winds are calm and the skies are cloudy has been a challenge. Storing it in giant concrete blocks could be the answer.”

IN A SWISS valley, an unusual multi-armed crane lifts two 35-ton concrete blocks high into the air. The blocks delicately inch their way up the blue steel frame of the crane, where they hang suspended from either side of a 66-meter-wide horizontal arm. There are three arms in total, each one housing the cables, winches, and grabbing hooks needed to hoist another pair of blocks into the sky, giving the apparatus the appearance of a giant metallic insect lifting and stacking bricks with steel webs. Although the tower is 75 meters tall, it is easily dwarfed by the forested flanks of southern Switzerland’s Lepontine Alps, which rise from the valley floor in all directions.

Thirty meters. Thirty-five. Forty. The concrete blocks are slowly hoisted upwards by motors powered with electricity from the Swiss power grid. For a few seconds they hang in the warm September air, then the steel cables holding the blocks start to unspool and they begin their slow descent to join the few dozen similar blocks stacked at the foot of the tower. This is the moment that this elaborate dance of steel and concrete has been designed for. As each block descends, the motors that lift the blocks start spinning in reverse, generating electricity that courses through the thick cables running down the side of the crane and onto the power grid. In the 30 seconds during which the blocks are descending, each one generates about one megawatt of electricity: enough to power roughly 1,000 homes.

This tower is a prototype from Switzerland-based Energy Vault, one of a number of startups finding new ways to use gravity to generate electricity. A fully-sized version of the tower might contain 7,000 bricks and provide enough electricity to power several thousand homes for eight hours. Storing energy in this way could help solve the biggest problem facing the transition to renewable electricity: finding a zero-carbon way to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. “The greatest hurdle we have is getting low-cost storage,” says Robert Piconi, CEO and cofounder of Energy Vault.

Without a way to decarbonize the world’s electricity supply, we’ll never hit net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Electricity production and heat add up to a quarter of all global emissions and, since almost every activity you can imagine requires electricity, cleaning up power grids has huge knock-on effects. If our electricity gets greener, so do our homes, industries, and transport systems. This will become even more critical as more parts of our lives become electrified— particularly heating and transport, which will be difficult to decarbonize in any other way. All of this electrification is expected to double electricity production by 2050 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But without an easy way to store large amounts of energy and then release it when we need it, we may never undo our reliance on dirty, polluting, fossil-fuel-fired power stations.

This is where gravity energy storage comes in. Proponents of the technology argue that gravity provides a neat solution to the storage problem. Rather than relying on lithium-ion batteries, which degrade over time and require rare-earth metals that must be dug out of the ground, Piconi and his colleagues say that gravity systems could provide a cheap, plentiful, and long-lasting store of energy that we’re currently overlooking. But to prove it, they’ll need to build an entirely new way of storing electricity, and then convince an industry already going all-in on lithium-ion batteries that the future of storage involves extremely heavy weights falling from great heights.

6) Good stuff from Zeynep:

It’s hard not to worry that officials may be denigrating rapid tests now for the same reason they denigrated the use of masks early in the pandemic — we don’t have enough of them. Fauci essentially acknowledged this about masks, saying that the public health community had feared that they “were in very short supply” — a fair concern, but that’s not what we were told. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials eventually admitted the same about rapid tests.

We’re also hearing the same paternalistic argument about the tests that officials once used to explain why people shouldn’t wear masks — that it would provide them with a false sense of security that would lead them to abandon other necessary precautions.

The threat of a “false sense of security” has been used against everything from seatbelts to teaching young kids how to swim (because that would supposedly encourage parents to stop watching their children in the water!). Research and common sense shows what one would expect: Safety measures make people safer and people who choose to use them are looking to be safer — if anything, they do more of everything. (Parents should watch their young children in the water, but kids who learn to swim are less likely to drown.)

That’s why it was extra disappointing to hear Walensky argue recently that “if you got a rapid test at five days and it was negative, we weren’t convinced that you weren’t still transmissible. We didn’t want to leave a false sense of security. We still wanted you to wear the mask.”

To start with, what if you were to test positive? People who test negative are less likely to transmit the virus — so even if Walensky’s argument were true and these people would then not be using masks, this would be less of a problem than having an infectious person in public when a rapid test could have kept him or her in isolation.

Besides, if health officials told people to wear a mask for five more days even after they tested negative on the fifth day, responsible people would likely still do so. Extra information doesn’t automatically turn responsible people into irresponsible ones.

7) Damn, I had no idea bobsledding was so hard on the human brain!  This is really good.  Free NYT link for this story, “Two Wyoming Bobsledders. Two Horrific Brain Injuries. One Survivor. Travis Bell and Joe Sisson were close friends and rising stars in bobsled before crashes derailed their careers. Two decades later, one of them wonders why he thrived and his friend is gone.”

8) Surprise, surprise.  NC Republicans who claimed they did not rely on any political maps to make their gerrymander, of course did so.  

9) I honestly don’t know how you write this article, “Pushback to Covid-19 vaccines remains stubbornly high among white evangelicals” without a single mention of the fact that this group is overwhelmingly Republican.  As we’ve many times established, among this group, Trump/Republicans>Jesus.

10) I think Emily Oster pushes too hard on the “remote college hurts mental health” when pandemic hurts mental health and makes college remote, but I still agree with her larger points, “Universities Need to Catch Up to the Post-vaccine Reality”

Even before vaccines, most college students were at low risk for serious illness from COVID. The people around them, however, were not necessarily. Few Americans had acquired natural immunity. The specter of a student outbreak spreading to higher-risk staff and into the community was very real.

When vaccines arrived, universities were out in front in mandating them for students, faculty, and staff. Within the past few weeks, many have also mandated booster shots. Beyond campuses, moreover, vaccines and boosters have been freely, widely available for many months. Anyone who has not been vaccinated at this point is making a conscious choice.

The world has changed. Yet the rise of the Omicron variant and the ensuing spike in COVID cases have led many university administrators to articulate the same old concerns: Students could possibly spread the virus to community members, who could in turn end up in hospitals, which could be overwhelmed. Such a chain reaction is of course possible, but the probabilities are not what they used to be, because the great majority of students are now vaccinated and the percentage of people in the surrounding communities who are at risk of landing in the hospital is much, much smaller than it used to be. (The vulnerable population includes those who are unvaccinated by choice and those who are immunocompromised.)

From some corners, this concern for the surrounding community will be met with applause. In my view, however, it ignores the primary group that a university serves: its students. Moving to remote schooling when the conditions on the ground have changed so dramatically is an abdication of universities’ responsibility to educate students and protect all aspects of their health…

I don’t know if universities were right to go largely or fully remote in 2020. The world before vaccines was a different one, and the choices were difficult. I am certain, though, that moving to remote instruction is the wrong choice now. Universities do have a responsibility to the wider community. They can fulfill this responsibility through mandating vaccines and boosters for their students and employees. They can provide other help to the community as well through testing capacity or vaccine clinics, or even by encouraging students to assist with the child-care-staffing crisis or by providing expertise in public-health guidance.

But universities also have a responsibility to their students. And this is not just a minor responsibility; it is their core responsibility. Parents entrust their children to universities. Many professors—myself included—have looked those parents in the eye and told them a version of I will watch out for your child. We have a responsibility to follow through on this now. We can do it very simply: by letting them go to school.

A couple of weeks ago, Brown announced we would be back in January, in person, as planned. This wasn’t a decision the administrators took lightly, I am sure. But it was the right one. I’ll be back in the classroom, with my students, where they belong.

11) When I first read this I was giving Gorsuch too much credit.  He really does seem to be getting his statistics from Fox News. “Justice Neil Gorsuch Slammed After He Suggests Flu Kills ‘Hundreds of Thousands’ Each Year.” (I thought maybe he was referring to global deaths, but, in context, it was clear he was talking about Americans and getting it way wrong).

12) A new book asks, “Does It Make Sense to Categorize People by Generation?”  Seriously– of course not!  But it’s fun and a pretty harmless simplification so it’s not going away.

These are the questions addressed by Bobby Duffy, a British social researcher, in “The Generation Myth.” The title gives the impression that he wants to dynamite the whole idea of dividing people into generations. In fact, he offers a careful dissection of such “generational thinking” that rejects lazy myths and superficial punditry in favor of a more nuanced analysis of the factors that shape long-term changes in attitudes and behavior. “A lot of what you’ve been told is generational,” he writes, “in fact isn’t.”

Three separate mechanisms cause such long-term changes, Duffy argues. “Period effects” are experiences that affect everyone, regardless of age, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the coronavirus pandemic. “Life-cycle effects” are changes that occur as people age, or as a result of major events such as leaving home, getting married or having children. People tend to get heavier as they age, for example, regardless of which generation they belong to. Finally, “cohort effects” are the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors common to people of a particular generation.

13) BB and I had a discussion yesterday about nursing.  And, not long after, I came across this. “Will the Omicron Wave Break Nursing? After two years under siege from COVID, many are reconsidering the profession.”

A lot has changed since the beginning of the pandemic when there were more than 3,000 patients in intensive care units at New York City hospitals and upwards of 750 people were dying a day from COVID. This time, admissions to ICUs have remained comparatively low, with about 600 people were in ICU beds and there have been 33 an average of deaths per day over the past week. What’s also changed since then is a widening shortfall in the city’s nursing corps, part of a nationwide trend. Nurses are also falling sick from COVID, having their isolation times cut short or removed entirely, and their shifts extending past 12 hours. The relentlessness of treating COVID patients over the past two years has led many nurses to question whether a career in the health-care industrywhich promised secure jobs with high pay, is worth it anymore.

“Burnout is coming faster because of increased stress we have right now,” one nurse at Maimonides Medical Center said, who has been in the industry for 20 years. “We’ve seen nurses come into work and they’re turning in their notice that day; when you ask ‘What do you plan to do?’ they say they don’t have plans. I’ve never seen so many people willing to leave without a job in place.”

Private hospitals have struggled to fill the slots that nurses with decades of experience have left behind. Instead, administrators are floating nurses from one wing to another, sometimes out of their specialty, to cover for people who are out sick and begging nurses to stay late or come in early for their next shift. Those who do take sick leave or vacation receive calls from their superiors to come back to work regardless of how they are feeling, nurses said.

“Nurses have to take time off but they are being asked to come back. As recently as before Christmas they were calling people who were sick to see how sick they were and could come anyway,” one nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital said. “I hear people coughing around me and it feels like just a matter of time until I get it. I would be out for a while if I got sick.”

In addition to their roles caring for patients, nurses sometimes have to take on the role of security guards when visitors wander the hallways maskless. Nurses at multiple hospitals recounted telling family members of COVID-positive patients to wear a mask only to be ignored or berated.

“People get mad when you ask them to put their mask up. It’s not just for me and my other nurses, we work with immunocompromised children,” a nurse at Westchester Medical Center said. “Having to police that is another burden to put on nursing staff but once they get past security that job falls on nurses. It’s a whole other role in our job that I’m worn out about.”

Nurses wear N95 masks and other protective equipment at work but the lingering presence of coronavirus in the air means that few areas within the hospital are truly safe. Common areas and cafeterias where staff congregate are now fraught with risk for exposure. Some nurses keep their mask on for their entire 12-hour shift, foregoing lunch. “For the last couple of shifts at work I have had no break. There’s nobody to relieve me. You’re asking the patient, ‘Just call the resident or a patient care manager’ so you can go to the bathroom for five minutes. And that is my break,” one Wyckoff Heights Medical Center nurse said. “I have not gotten sick and I hope to stay this way. I’m wearing an N95 every single shift. It’s gotten so bad when I’m in the bathroom I keep it on.”

14) And even more techno-optimism.  If we can make an amazingly good plant-based hamburger why not a synthetic palm oil? “Can Synthetic Palm Oil Help Save the World’s Tropical Forests?”

Tom Jeffries and Tom Kelleher met at Rutgers University in the 1970s while studying industrially useful microbes. Jeffries went on to run a yeast genomics program at the US Department of Agriculture; Kelleher spent decades in the biomedical industry, working with biologics like insulin, which are produced by genetically modified microbes in giant fermenting vats. In 2007, the two reunited to build a company on the back of a grant from the National Science Foundation. Called Xylome, the Wisconsin-based startup aimed to find better methods to produce low-carbon fuel by feeding agricultural waste to yeast.

Yet it was by accident that Jeffries and Kelleher turned their efforts a few years later to a different global environmental problem: palm oil.

The world’s cheapest and most widely used vegetable oil, palm oil production is a primary driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss in the tropics. These and other problems with the palm oil industry, such as exploitative labor practices, have for years driven interest in more sustainable options. But good alternatives have proven difficult to come by. Other vegetable oils have similar drawbacks to palm oil, and sustainable forestry practices are not always effective in the face of rising demand. Today, the world consumes nearly 70 million metric tons of palm oil each year, used in everything from toothpaste and oat milk to biodiesel and laundry detergent. Demand is expected to more than double by 2050.

But with advances in bioengineering and increasing concerns about sustainability, a number of companies like Xylome have developed microbial oils they say could offer an alternative to palm oil while avoiding its most destructive impacts. They join numerous other synthetic biology companies—from ventures hawking new biofuels and fertilizer to lab-grown meat—that aspire to solve environmental problems but share similar challenges scaling up production and demonstrating that their approach is in fact more sustainable than the products they’re trying to replace.

Last year, a startup called C16 Biosciences opened a gleaming new lab in Manhattan to develop a microbial palm oil alternative, backed by $20 million from Bill Gates’ climate solutions investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures. A California-based startup called Kiverdi is also working to manufacture yeast oil using carbon captured from the atmosphere, and a team of bioengineers at the University of Bath is at work scaling up its own strain of oily yeast. Xylome recently sent the first batches of its palm oil alternative—called “Yoil”—to a number of large palm oil suppliers and the FDA for testing.

15) Watched Seinfeld’s “The Outing” last night.  Damn does that hold up.  They really played it just right for 1993.

16) Back before there was vaccination, there was variolation.  And it helped us win the Revolutionary War.

But immunization in the 1770s was not what it’s like today with a single injection and a low risk of mild symptoms. Edward Jenner didn’t even develop his revolutionary cowpox-based vaccine for smallpox until 1796. The best inoculation technique at Washington’s disposal during the Revolutionary War was a nasty and sometimes fatal method called “variolation.”

“An inoculation doctor would cut an incision in the flesh of the person being inoculated and implant a thread laced with live pustular matter into the wound,” explains Fenn. “The hope and intent was for the person to come down with smallpox. When smallpox was conveyed in that fashion, it was usually a milder case than it was when it was contracted in the natural way.”

Variolization still had a case fatality rate of 5 to 10 percent. And even if all went well, inoculated patients still needed a month to recover. The procedure was not only risky for the individual patient, but for the surrounding population. An inoculee with a mild case might feel well enough to walk around town, infecting countless others with potentially more serious infections…

By the following winter, Washington and his troops were camped in Morristown, New Jersey, where the threat of smallpox was as dire as ever. America’s stoic general waffled back and forth on whether to inoculate or not, even making the mass inoculation order and then rescinding it. Finally, on February 5, 1777, he made the call in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress.

“The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr. Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia.”

Fenn says that inoculating all troops without natural smallpox immunity was a daunting task. First, medical personnel had to examine each individual to determine if they had contracted the disease in the past, then they conducted the risky variolation procedure, followed by a month-long recovery process attended by teams of nurses.

Meanwhile, this entire process—the first of its kind and scale—had to be conducted in total secrecy. If the British caught wind that large numbers of American soldiers were laid up in bed with smallpox, it could be the end.

“I need not mention the necessity of as much secrecy as the nature of the Subject will admit of,” wrote Washington, “it being beyond doubt, that the Enemy will avail themselves of the event as far as they can.”

17) Among other new podcasts I’ve discovered– the Experiment.  Nice episode on Felony Murder which is, honestly, just an abomination.

18) OMG this story is something else. Took me a while to get around to reading it, but, damn glad I did, “A Bestselling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life.”

 

Boxing day Quick hits (part II)

1) This is actually from last month from Noah Smith, but it’s really good. “Try Patriotism

So to really execute a popularist strategy, you have to figure out what people will both agree with you and care about a lot. And that’s not easy. David Shor (the political analyst who’s name is typically associated with popularism) thinks Dems should emphasize bread-and-butter economic issues while downplaying their elite cultural values. That might not be a bad strategy, but I think Americans take social and cultural issues very seriously — as evidence by Glenn Youngkin’s recent win in the Virginia gubernatorial race on a platform of opposing critical race theory. The fact is, this is a very rich country, and though people certainly have their economic problems, we care a lot about the upper rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Who gets acceptance, respect, and status in our society is of great importance to us.

And when it comes to sociocultural issues, one thing that Americans very consistently seem to love is patriotism. That’s something neither of the two main political movements in this country seem to understand.

Americans love America

American pride took a hit during the Trump era. But even in the darkest days of 2020, a solid majority of Americans still said that they felt “very” or “extremely” proud to be an American:

And although American “exceptionalism” isn’t as popular among the younger generations, a 2018 Pew poll found that a whopping 77% of Millennials believed that America is one of the greatest countries in the world…

The anti-patriotism of the Left

Progressives get very touchy if you tell them they’re anti-patriotic. But the reason they get touchy is that they remember (or instinctively realize) how devastating that image was for them in previous eras. Yet although it’s painful to hear, ultimately the progressive movement will be stronger if it realizes how deeply anti-patriotic it has become in the last decade.

Progressives have always been more reluctant than conservatives to express jingoistic sentiments. That remains true to this day. But in the past, progressives have been able to muster a variety of liberal nationalism that acknowledged the country’s shortcomings while believing idealistically in its innate capacity to do better. Bill Clinton expressed this idea best when he declared that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” But patriotism was key to the ideologies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama as well.

Joe Biden still tries to summon some of that old liberal patriotism. But in the age of social media, the progressive movement is defined less by the President and more by the collection of journalists, professors, and lower-level politicians who dominate Twitter and major publications and news networks. And here I’ve seen a remarkable and pervasive vilification of America become not just widespread but de rigeur among progressives since unrest broke out in the mid-2010s.

This vilification generally takes the form of “history”. The general conceit among today’s progressives is that America was founded on racism, that it has never faced up to this fact, and that the most important task for combatting American racism is to force the nation to face up to that “history”…

Every nation has good and bad in its history, and America has plenty of both. But by insisting — or even just accepting — that a cartoon of American evil is the true “history” and the good parts merely puffed-up propaganda, progressives put themselves on the wrong side of patriotism.

One small example of this is when Nikole Hannah-Jones — the architect of the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, which has been practically canonized by progressives despite substantive objections by academic historians — insisted that the U.S. used nuclear weapons in WW2 simply because they wanted to justify the money they had spent on developing the Bomb. Hannah-Jones declared that all other reasons for dropping nukes constituted “propaganda”, while her own represented “history”. This assertion was roundly condemned by progressives and conservatives alike (a good sign!), and people with a better knowledge of the relevant history stepped in to educate the public:

That progressives were willing to push back on Hannah-Jones’ assertions bodes well — it’s a sign that the American left may start to balk at the cartoonish tales of American villainy they’re being urged to proselytize to the young generations. That in turn suggests that progressives may eventually move back toward the liberal nationalism of Obama, Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt. But it’s going to be a long road back…

The anti-patriotism of the Right

If this were the 70s again, the conservative movement could capitalize on the progressive movement’s paroxysm of anti-patriotism by waving the flag and singing the praise of ‘Murica. But this is not the 70s, and the Right has been captured by its own form of anti-Americanism — one that’s actually far more dangerous to the country than anything the Left has planned.

The Trumpist conservatives of 2021 don’t hate the idea of America — they hate the America that actually exists. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote in a review of a documentary by Tucker Carlson, the Trumpists have turned hatred of American institutions into their own sort of post-Christian religion. Rightists hate corporations because they’re “woke”. They hate the U.S. Military because it’s “woke” (and because it wouldn’t support a Trumpist coup). They hate universities. They hate schools. They hate the media, of course. They hate essentially every institution that makes America America, except for possibly churches, but if and when those start praising diversity, they’ll hate those too…

The patriotic silent majority

So here we have a situation where most Americans love their country and have no one to represent that love in the political arena. They’re forced to choose between one movement that vilifies the idea of America, and another that vilifies the America that actually exists. The patriotic silent majority is politically and ideologically homeless right now.

Whichever movement can reverse course and tack back toward patriotism first will, I predict, encounter a deep and eager reservoir of positive energy and support. Obviously, being on the progressive side of things myself, I hope Dems come up with the next JFK before Republicans come up with the next Reagan. But someone needs to try patriotism soon, because to not do so would be madness.

And I am sick and tired of madness.

2) Ugh, those damn Q-Anon nuts.  Here’s a free Washington Post story for you, “A QAnon con: How the viral Wayfair sex trafficking lie hurt real kids: An Internet mob wanted to rescue a 13-year-old girl. Instead, they terrified her, derailed real trafficking investigations and incited ‘save the children’ violence.”

3) Good stuff from deBoer, ‘Covid Panic is a Site of Inter-Elite Competition.”  I think deBoer actually downplays Covid risks to a moderate degree, but as to his larger point as Covid seriousness as a form of left virtue signaling, I do think he’s onto something.

Covid is a serious disease that has killed a lot of people, but it does not kill different people at the same rates. Obviously, one of the greatest risk factors is being unvaccinated. But you’d still rather be a child and unvaccinated than be a 50-year-old and vaccinated if you’re trying to avoid Covid. Nor do different adult populations have the same risk profile. The vast majority of those people who have died of Covid have been elderly, immunocompromised, or ill. Those who have been hospitalized by Covid have also been disproportionately obese, to a startling degree. Covid discriminates, and not just against the unvaccinated. I don’t know why our media has decided that reflecting the plain scientific reality that different people have profoundly different Covid risks should be so taboo, but it’s precisely the sort of thing that causes a loss of trust among the skeptical. In any event, I’m not among the highest risk, or particularly close to it – I’m 40 years old, generally healthy, overweight but not obese, and vaccinated. People like me have died from Covid, but they are a very small minority of the deaths. Most who catch it from my demographic profile experience the disease the way I did in April of 2020: as an unpleasant but entirely manageable fever and mild respiratory illness…

Imagine my confusion, then, at the number of vaccinated people, almost all of them educated, liberal, and upwardly mobile, existing in a state of constant anxiety and dread over Covid, despite the fact that these feelings confer no survival advantage at all. While I have no issue with people feeling what they’re naturally feeling, I would argue that those with large platforms have a responsibility not to contribute to panic. Unfortunately many people with huge followings are being remarkably irresponsible, openly spreading fear and engaging in baseless speculation about mass death. This despite the fact that almost all of them fall in demographic slices with low risk. The immense popularity of overstating one’s personal risk from Covid, and of structuring one’s whole life around that exaggerated risk, can’t be explained in logical terms. It can only be understood with the animal logic of the force that dictates the living conditions of our entire elite class: their competition against each other…

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s book The Sum of Small Thingslays out the essential psychology brilliantly. As she demonstrates, changing norms among bourgie liberals has made conspicuous consumption crass, declassee. But the urge to compete, to win, trumps all. So our striving castes have developed all manner of other signals through which they subtly assert their superior virtue, their superior lives. Covid now fills such a role. With Covid, you never need an excuse to assert your superior seriousness, never need to wait for the right moment to insist that you’re doing it better than all of your peers. You can just openly tell the world “I am more responsible than you,” and the circumstances seem to justify it, even if the behavior is not in fact justified by The Science. (Like, say, by masking outdoors in regular conditions.) Currid-Halkett calls them the aspirational class. The point is not that they strive – we all strive – but that for this class of people striving is a end itself, not a means to an end. And so something like Covid becomes more grist for the mill.

For some people, it seems, being more freaked out about Covid is quite like an I Voted sticker or a BlackLivesMatter sign in their window. It’s another way to let everyone know that they have the greatest wealth of all, the wealth of superior character, of greater moral standing. They’re fond of pointing out those 5.3 million people who have died, in the midst of their self-aggrandizing diatribes. I would perhaps invoke the dead in a different way: even this, even now, even them, you turn into yet another way to let the rest of us know how advanced you are.

The danger is far from over. But when we got the vaccines case rates decoupled from the rate of hospitalization and death. Therefore if you are breathlessly reporting increases in case rates without reference to those other metrics, you are engaged in, yes, misinformation. For you normal people out there? Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Be smart. Then live your life.

4) Honestly a pretty fascinating first-person essay from a trans-man, “My Penis, Myself I didn’t need a penis to be a man. But I needed one to be me.”  And, OMG is phalloplasty some complicated stuff!  And the recovery!  Also, the thought of having the equivalent of an always-erect penis is not enticing. Super inconvenient!

While I’d been sleeping, two microsurgeons, a reconstructive urologist, a surgical fellow, and a surgical resident had, among other things, cut a seven-by-six-inch rectangle out of my right anterior lateral thigh. They’d taken all the skin and fat, plus one big nerve and some veins attached to the muscle, and connected the skin to itself in the shape of a phallus. Then they slipped the whole thing under two of my thigh muscles, pulled up out of the way with a steel retractor, dragged the phallus across my groin under the skin, and pulled it back out into the world through a hole cut in the skin over my pubic bone. They connected the new penis’s nerve to one of the nerve bundles in my native penis, which some people call a clitoris (embryologically, the cells are the same), which they’d cut free of its ligaments, then skinned, then tunneled up under the skin and out to the landing site of the new penis, the base of which they joined to the base of my pelvis, putting me all together with sutures, some finer than a human hair.

“That penis,” Dr. Bauback Safa, one of the microsurgeons, said when he came by after to see me — to see us — “looks perfect.”

He was talking mostly about blood flow. He did not mean that, with its fresh stitches and a round, bloody hole at the top where the skin would eventually close together, it would look like any other penis at the spa. But also, it was a lovely shape. Dr. Safa had correctly estimated that the width — which can be debulked with further surgery but is initially determined by skin and fat thickness — would land on the very but not spectacularly girth-y side. The length I had been able to pick. Each surgeon I’d consulted with had asked what I wanted, then nodded mildly and written it down, breezy as a waiter. My instinctive answer was long, even though I knew it would be that long all the time: While neophalluses can be implanted with erectile devices that change their stiffness, they do not change their size.

5) Good stuff from Katelyn Jetelina, “Why did the Pfizer young kids trial fail?”

With the pediatric trials, the primary outcome was not efficacy. This is because this was an age de-escalation study. We already know this vaccine biotechnology and RNA formula works; we just need to ensure a smaller dose works as well for younger kids as the full dosage does for older kids/adults. So the pediatric primary outcome is “immunobridging”: Does the smaller dosage (3 µg) mount the same immune response among under 5 year olds compared to the full dosage (30 µg) among 16-25 year olds?

Last Friday we got the answer: No. While the smaller dosage worked for the 6- to 24-month-old population, it did not work for 2- to under 5-year-old population.

What went wrong?

So obviously the 3 µg dosage was incorrect for 2- to under 5-year olds. But why wasn’t this detected in Phase I “dosage finding” stage? I don’t know. No one knows, because this data has not been publicly released or published. I have many questions, which include:

  1. Did Pfizer test another dosage in addition to 3 µg in the Phase II/III trial? Why or why not? If they did, what were those results? If they did not, then what were the Phase I results that made them confident a 3 µg dosage would work?

  2. Was the Phase I age distribution skewed? Because the vaccine dosage worked for 6- to 24-month-olds but not for 2 to under 5 year olds, I’d be curious to see if the sampling was skewed younger in Phase I. If so, then I could see how the suboptimal effectiveness was revealed when this dosage was expanded to a broader, more generalizable group.

  3. What variant did they test? The ever-evolving landscape of this virus makes clinical trials very difficult. May 2021 is when Phase I/II started. This was before Delta. So the pediatric dosage was probably based on the original Wuhan strain and it probably did work. When the clinical trial was moved into the Phase II/III, Delta emerged, and we know Delta reduces neutralizing antibodies by 6-fold. In that case, the vaccine dosage may not have worked.

  4. What was the antibody response? From the Pfizer announcement we know the antibody response was not comparable to the 16-25 year olds’ response. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a response at all. So, what was the response? And antibodies aren’t the only story; T cells were likely mounted. Was efficacy also tested in Phase II/III? This may help make the case for their Plan B (see below) and we should start vaccinating the two dose 3 µg series now.

What happens now?

Whatever the reason, though, the clinical trial failed. Our kids under age 5 won’t be getting a vaccine as soon as we had hoped. Because this is an age de-escalation design, they can’t just skip over toddlers and start vaccinating infants either.

So, Pfizer is going to Plan B. The same kids from the Phase II/III trial are going to get a third dose (3 µg) 2 months after the second dose. There are pros and cons to this approach. From Pfizer’s perspective, this is the easiest route— they don’t have to start another Phase III all over again with a different dose. That means they don’t have to recruit more people, it won’t be as expensive, and it won’t take as much time. They will lose money by not having a kids vaccine soon. It’s clear that this 3 µg is the incorrect dosage for toddlers, so I don’t like this messy approach.

A third dose may work, but what if it doesn’t? Starting with another dose would be the most rigorous and scientific path. And I hope they are doing this concurrently so we can compare in the end: How do 2 doses of 10 µg compared to 3 doses of 3 µg for toddlers? But it’s not clear that Pfizer has plans for this. Getting the correct dosage would also prevent kids having to get three shots, which would ease implementation thereafter.

Bottom line

I certainly don’t have answers and was just as surprised as the rest of the country that this clinical trial failed. Needless to say, it’s still going to be awhile until there are vaccines for our little ones. As a mom, I am incredibly frustrated. As a scientist, I am also very frustrated by Pfizer’s lack of transparency. But I weirdly find comfort in the fact that the clinical trials are robust enough to find errors like they should. This is just another example of the realities of science unfolding before our eyes. And sometimes that science is not all good news.

6) Amazing to think that Ovechkin may well surpass Gretzky’s goal total.  That said, I really wanted some more analysis on just what it is about his game that makes Ovechkin (and Gretzky before him), such a prolific goal scorer.  For example, to what degree is he a preternaturally accurate shooter?  To what degree is it his ability to put himself in the right place at the right time (I suspect that is the majority of it for most great players).

7) A little dated, given how fast Omicron moves, but David Wallace-Wells interview with Trevor Bedford last week was really good:

With Omicron, and its initial Rt being three-ish, that same equation should give you something like 90 percent of the population infected. But from what we’ve seen in South Africa, it seems like the wave is crashing well before that. So something is going on.

What do you think it is?
The options that I have been thinking about — there’s five of them. They’re non mutually exclusive. So to go through …

Please.
First, there’s the simple limit to testing capacity. As things increase, our testing capacity doesn’t increase as fast, and so we’re missing more and more cases. That can give you a distorted picture — it could look like a plateau in Gauteng, but you could imagine it’s really a much higher crest.

Like the top of a mountain has been chopped off by bad testing.
I also bet we can expect a lot more underreporting of Omicron, compared to previous wave, because it’s more mild, either through existing immunity or through actual reduction of intrinsic severity. And if, on average, you’ve reduced the severity of cases, there’d be a lot of people that don’t bother to come to the hospital or to get tested. And so as a rough guess, you might go from like one in ten cases reported in South Africa to one in 20 or even one in 30 cases — that wouldn’t seem unreasonable to me. And that makes it so that at the same caseload of Delta versus Omicron you could actually have three times as many infections with Omicron.

We could also have a change in generation interval. If we have Omicron kind of doubling at this very fast two- or three-day rate, you don’t actually have to have Rt be three. You could have actually just made the whole thing faster without having the number of secondary infections being much higher. And we don’t have no way of knowing that at this moment.

The last two are, it might not be that the entire population is susceptible to Omicron. Maybe half the population is susceptible. And then, finally, I think there’s a network effect — that as things kind of percolate through the community, you can imagine those transmission chains circling back on themselves and hitting someone that has already been exposed.

Rather than continue to spread outward from the initial case, in other words, the fact of natural social networks and limited niches means that chains of transmission can’t continue indefinitely.
And so that would make these waves slow as they reach some per-capita size, just a natural epidemiological phenomenon. Take something from each of those five categories, and I think you have the answer.

The first three things you talked about are phenomena that are to some degree particular to Omicron and South Africa. The last two are ones that we can also apply to these earlier waves. When we think about the Delta wave in the U.K., for instance, should we assume that when that wave peaked and crested that something like the full vulnerable population had been reached by Delta?
No. With Rt you can actually calculate what proportion of the susceptible population should get this. The way that I was thinking about Delta was that not the entire population was susceptible, because a lot of the population was previously infected or had two vaccine doses and hadn’t yet waned so much. And so that will give you maybe 50 percent of the population that’s actually susceptible. And then an RT of 1.5, which is what Delta was coming in with, will give you maybe a 30 percent attack rates.

One of the fundamentals of this dynamical modeling field is that epidemics crash not when they’ve infected everyone but when your number of secondary infections is less than one, when Rt falls below one. So even if we have an initial Rt of two, the numbers are quite big, but you don’t infect the whole population. You infect almost 80 percent of the susceptible population. With an Rt of three you may infect 90 percent of the susceptible population. But this is without any of those network effects. It’s just a model of free mixing, where people encounter other people at an even rate.

And then how do we account for our experience with Delta in the U.S.? We had a peak, we had a decline, but it didn’t get anywhere near zero. We’re still going through the Delta wave. It was a similar dynamic in the U.K.: Fast rise, a peak, followed by what is at first a rapid decline, sort of symmetrical to the rise, but then it flattens out and keeps going, rather than disappearing to zero.
For Delta, my best guess is that kind of slowing down and then picking back up again was due to a combination of continued waning — where boosters and third doses weren’t being given that rapidly, and we were getting farther and farther out from the initial vaccination — combined with seasonality. That would be my explanation.

Relatedly, going off things that Imperial College has done, we can expect that the AstraZeneca vaccine in the U.K. to have less protective effect than Pfizer. And that can explain the kind of systematically high levels of Delta circulation in the U.K., compared to perhaps the U.S.

8) Why is nobody talking about Fluvoxamine as a Covid treatment?!  This is nuts.  At least Scott Alexander is:

Here’s my pitch for fluvoxamine (Luvox) for COVID.

In the midst of all the hype about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, scientists put together the giant 4,000-person TOGETHER trial, intended to test all these exciting COVID early treatments. You know what happened next: ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine crashed and burned.

But a different drug, the SSRI antidepressant fluvoxamine, actually did really well! It decreased COVID hospitalizations by about 30% – not the perfect cure rate the rumors attributed to ivermectin, but a substantial decrease. Given the size and professionalism of this study, and another smaller one that also got positive results, I and many others take Luvox pretty seriously. At this point I’d give it 60-40 it works.

Can you prescribe a medication when you’re only 60% confident in it? There’s some thorny philosophical issues around this, but I think in the end you have to compare risks and benefits.

What are the risks? Like every medication, including Tylenol, aspirin, etc, Luvox has some common minor side effects and some rare major ones. But let’s step back a second. Fluvoxamine is a bog-standard SSRI. Its side effects are generic SSRI side effects. We give SSRIs to 30 million people a year, or about 10% of all Americans. As a psychiatrist, I’m not supposed to say flippant things like “we give SSRIs out like candy”. We do careful risk-benefit analysis and when appropriate we screen patients for various risk factors. But after we do all that stuff, we give them to 10% of Americans, compared to 12% of Americans who got candy last Halloween. So you can draw your own conclusion about how severe we think the risks are.

For some reason the same experts who don’t mind prescribing SSRIs when people have mild depression freak out about prescribing them when they’re the only evidence-based oral medication for a deadly global pandemic. “What about SSRI withdrawal?”, they ask. After a ten day course? On 100 mg imipramine-equivalent dose? Minimal. “What about long QT syndrome?” The VA system took 35,000 high-risk older patients off of an unusually-likely-to-cause-QT-syndrome SSRI in 2011, and were unable to find any evidence that this prevented even a single case of the syndrome, let alone any negative outcome!

I conclude that the risk-benefit calculation probably favors using Luvox. And I’m not alone here. Johns Hopkins University’s COVID treatment guidelines recommend fluvoxamine for appropriate COVID patients. Some leading psychiatrists, especially the Washington University psychiatrists who helped discover the new indication, support fluvoxamine for appropriate COVID patients. Many of the epidemiologists and statisticians most instrumental in debunking the hype around ivermectin have spoken out in favor of fluvoxamine, saying this one is the real deal (12). The National Institute of Health hasn’t quite come out in support, but they have taken the unusual step of not disrecommending fluvoxamine the same as they disrecommend every other oral early COVID treatment, saying that the evidence “provides the sort of flexibility for the treating clinician to go either way”.

Unfortunately, none of these bodies alone or combined are powerful enough to make the average doctor prescribe differently. That’s why all eyes are on the FDA.

9) It’s kind of crazy to me that my local school system is having visiting policies for parents determined on school-by-school basis based on whether any given principal is particularly cautious or not and that given principal’s understanding of Covid transmission.  Whatever the case is, should be county-wide damnit.  Fortunately, for me, I got to go into Kingswood Elementary and talk to 5th graders about US Government pretty recently. 

10) Loved this Yglesias post on human history, the impact of agriculture, and all that, so here’s a fair portion of it:

Of course technological progress is something that’s been happening this whole time. Indeed, human technology long predates our species Homo sapiens, with the Oldowan stone tool technology invented by Homo habilis and later inherited by Homo erectus. Erectus eventually advanced to the Acheulian stone technology, but the move from Oldowan technology to Acheulian took about a million years.

Left: Oldowan stone chopper; Right: Acheulian handaxe

What’s so striking about Oldowan technology’s million-year run is not just that it’s a long time — it’s that this is longer than Homo sapiens have been on the planet (roughly 300,000 years). And Acheulian technology, again, lasts longer than the entire duration of our species. Homo sapiens is just incredibly new, not just relative to geological time or the history of the universe, but relative to the basic practice of upright-walking, tool-using apes roaming the earth in hunter-gatherer bands.

We’re evidently much better at inventing stuff than our Homo predecessors were because in our time on Earth, we’ve done a lot better than one or two upgrades of our basic stone tools. But even within the sapiens era, there is an incredible telescoping of technological progress.

For most of time, not much happened

Our species is about 300,000 years old, and farming and towns started about 12,000 years ago. The vast majority of the history of human technology unfolded before the existence of our species, and the vast majority of our species’ existence was prior to permanent settlements.

And per this Luke Muehlhauser chart, it was really only starting 200 or 300 years ago that we see any kind of sustained upward momentum in living standards.

It’s not really that living standards never changed before the industrial revolution. For the sake of legibility, Muelhauser’s chart covers about 3,000 years rather than 300,000.

If you did go all the way back, you’d find that the neolithic revolution — when people turned to agriculture — was also a big deal. The problem is that, as Jared Diamond and now many other scholars seem to agree, agriculture made living standards lower rather than higher. Or if you want to be fussy about it, you can agree with James Scott that the problem was not agriculture per se but grain.

What’s nuts to me, though, is that this whole agricultural era is just so damn short in the context of human history. Holden Karnofsky made a nice chart of life getting worse and then better, but to make it look nice he puts aggregate lives lived to date on the x-axis rather than something more conventional like time.

It’s a fun move and certainly a much nicer chart than if you’d tried to do it to scale by time. That said, I think the extreme paucity of meaningful technical progress during the majority of human history is an important piece of context. As is the fact that one of our key breakthroughs took us backward.

The pernicious logic of agriculture

The world of anti-farming takes has gotten mixed up with paleo bros and weird crank diets, so it’s worth stepping back to take a broader view of things.

In neoclassical economics, we have two factors of production — capital goods and labor. The original classical economists were wiser and had a third factor — land. Hunter-gatherers didn’t have a lot of capital, so for them, land and labor were the key factors. If you were someplace where there’s fruit, you could get yourself some fruit by deploying a little gathering labor. Similarly, if there’s meat, you could get some meat by deploying some hunting labor.

But because you get the non-metaphorical low-hanging fruit first, your gathering labor has sharply diminishing marginal returns. If you hunt, you kill some animals and scare the others off. The land itself is just not very productive, which is why you’re living in nomadic bands. But the non-productivity of the land also means that you only need to work so hard because there’s really no point in putting in more hours. For analog-era journalists, the number of column-inches of copy the editors would print was constrained by the number of ads that were sold — there just wasn’t that much demand for content. On the internet, there’s no objective limit on the number of articles you can afford to run, so there is a lot of pressure to publish at high volume. Nomads work hard — up to a point — but then they stop.

The point of farming is that you can generate radically more calories per acre than by roaming through the wilderness.

But in general, this just results from the factors being complementary — you can make the land much more productive by working really hard. I don’t think this is true on a strictly uniform basis. I once met a family that owns an olive farm, and they described it as a pretty chill situation outside of peak harvest time. But even though olives are delicious, an olive grove is not generating a lot of calories per acre. A rice paddy, by contrast, has incredibly productive land. Today we’re not limited by our local farming capacity, but the long arm of the past is still with us, and population density is incredibly high where the highly productive rice agriculture was.

But there are two problems. One is you need to work insanely hard to maximize the productivity of that field.

The other is precisely in that population density. If some new farmland opens up, you probably start out on easy street — plenty of places for some orchards, pastureland where the animals can just chill until you kill them, plus a little agriculture. You’re doing great, and you’re having more surviving children than your hunter-gatherer ancestors. But that just means the population grows, so you need to replace the orchards with more productive land use that also requires more work. And then you’re scaling back the pasture too, because a field of wheat can produce a lot more calories if it’s directly consumed by humans than if it’s a field of grass that’s consumed by cows who are in turn consumed by humans. But now you’re working crazy hard and eating worse food than a hunter-gatherer.

The good news is that by having a settled lifestyle, you can accumulate possessions. The bad news is all your stuff can be stolen…

The industrial era

Experts disagree somewhat as to when to date the start of the takeoff, but even though we had steady technological improvements during the agricultural era, it’s not until the mid-18th century (at best) that we see sustained improvements in living standards. Before that, whether we’re talking about inventing ironworking or windmills or whatever else, progress is real. But, it is slow enough that population growth catches up and median living standards collapse back to their sub-hunter-gatherer level. All the gains accrue to the extractive, exploitative elites who are able to confiscate more surplus as the bulk of the population is pushed back to subsistence levels.

The sustained increase in agricultural yields and industrial productivity of the past 250 years hasn’t been like that.

The typical English person in 2021 has higher living standards than the typical English person of 1921, who in turn was better off than the typical English person of 1821, who was probably better off than the typical English person of 1721 (though this last one is a little less clear). The 2021 > 1921 fact is even true for the typical resident of the world. But note that on a global scale, there’s no real sign of sustained progress until the second half of the twentieth century.

The dark portrait that Marx and Engels painted of the industrial revolution as immiserating the working class was completely wrong. But it’s easier to understand why you might have made that call given all prior technological improvements had, at best, led to the growth and enrichment of an extractive elite. There’s even an account from Robert Allen holding that British working-class wages didn’t start rising until around 1840, so the immiseration story was even true as a direct observation of the early industrial revolution.

But stepping back, it turns out that the industrial revolution in the North Atlantic world and then the spread of prosperity due to decolonization and globalization after 1960 or so are basically the best things that ever happened.

11) On the new book about the Boeing 737 Max:

When Boeing designed the long-haul 777 in the early 1990s, the company, Robison reports, invested in “$100,000 IBM workstations for every engineer who tested software.” Around the same time, Boeing completed construction of “a $70 million training center near Seattle for pilots, mechanics and flight attendants who would use the 777 and other Boeing planes.” Well into the 1990s, that proud engineering culture was alive and well.

Then, right around the turn of the millennium, Boeing lost its way. Robison accurately traces the beginning of Boeing’s downfall to the 1997 acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, a rival aircraft manufacturer. At the time, McDonnell Douglas was run by Harry Stonecipher, an unpleasant chief executive who relished cost cutting and had little patience for deliberative engineers. It was an attitude Stonecipher developed during his years at General Electric, where he worked with Jack Welch, the most influential C.E.O. of his generation and the pioneer of a new style of cutthroat capitalism that prioritized shareholder value above all else.

 

12) Interesting new poll results in Axios:

Nearly a quarter of college students wouldn’t be friends with someone who voted for the other presidential candidate — with Democrats far more likely to dismiss people than Republicans — according to new Generation Lab/Axios polling.

Why it matters: Partisan divides — as each side inhabits parallel political, cultural and media universes —make a future of discord and distrust in the U.S. all the more likely.

By the numbers: 5% of Republicans said they wouldn’t be friends with someone from the opposite party, compared to 37% of Democrats.

  • 71% of Democrats wouldn’t go on a date with someone with opposing views, versus 31% of Republicans.
  • 30% of Democrats — and 7% of Republicans — wouldn’t work for someone who voted differently from them.

 To be fair, though, you could still have a pretty broad college social network without Republicans in it. For an Republican college student to have a social network without Democrats in it would be very limiting.

13) From last year, but just came across it today– heat (and humidity!) for limiting the spread of Covid:

Abstract

Enveloped viruses such as SAR-CoV-2 are sensitive to heat and are destroyed by temperatures tolerable to humans. All mammals use fever to deal with infections and heat has been used throughout human history in the form of hot springs, saunas, hammams, steam-rooms, sweat-lodges, steam inhalations, hot mud and poultices to prevent and treat respiratory infections and enhance health and wellbeing. This paper reviews the evidence for using heat to treat and prevent viral infections and discusses potential cellular, physiological and psychological mechanisms of action. In the initial phase of infection, heat applied to the upper airways can support the immune system’s first line of defence by supporting muco-ciliary clearance and inhibiting or deactivating virions where they first lodge. This may be further enhanced by the inhalation of steam containing essential oils with anti-viral, mucolytic and anxiolytic properties. Heat applied to the whole body can further support the immune system’s second line of defence by mimicking fever and activating innate and acquired immune defences and building physiological resilience. Heat-based treatments also offer psychological benefits and enhanced mental wellness by focusing attention on positive action, enhancing relaxation and sleep, inducing ‘forced-mindfulness’, and invoking the power of positive thinking and ‘remembered wellness’. Heat is a cheap, convenient and widely accessible therapeutic modality and while no clinical protocols exist for using heat to treat COVID-19, protocols that draw from traditional practices and consider contraindications, adverse effects and infection control measures could be developed and implemented rapidly and inexpensively on a wide scale. While there are significant challenges in implementing heat-based therapies during the current pandemic, these therapies present an opportunity to integrate natural medicine, conventional medicine and traditional wellness practices, and support the wellbeing of both patients and medical staff, while building community resilience and reducing the likelihood and impact of future pandemics.

14) Kind of wild for Trump to now decide he wants to speak forcefully and consistently in favor of vaccines.  What a difference this could have made a year ago!!

15) Speaking of overdue… why in the world are we just now finding out that Remdesivir can dramatically cut down on Covid hospitalizations?!  Shouldn’t that trial have been run ages ago?

Quick hits (part II)

1) Interesting NYT Review of a new book on the top 10%:

In his new book, “The 9.9 Percent,” Matthew Stewart focuses on the wealthiest one-tenth of Americans, a “new aristocracy” whose aggregate wealth is four times greater than that of everyone else. A minimum of $1.2 million in assets is required to enter this exclusive club and Stewart writes that the threshold will almost certainly rise by the time his book is published. It’s a club to which white people are eight times more likely to belong than people of color.

But what ultimately unites its members is less the size of their bank accounts than a mind-set, Stewart contends. At its core lies “the merit myth,” a shared belief that the affluent owe their success not to the color of their skin or the advantages they’ve inherited but to their talent and intelligence. Under the spell of this conviction, Stewart argues, the privileged engage in practices — segregating themselves in upscale neighborhoods, using their money and influence to get their children into elite colleges — that entrench inequality even as they remain blithely unaware of their role in perpetuating it.

2) And sticking with the book theme, from a review of a new book on Neanderthals:

Sykes explains that Neanderthals were sophisticated and competent human beings who adapted to diverse habitats and climates. They ranged from the shores of the Atlantic to the steppes of Central Asia. They thrived in hot climates as well as in ice age tundra. In addition to iconic large game hunts, Neanderthals also fished in rivers, gathered a multitude of plant species and sometimes stole honey from beehives. They manufactured complex tools, made clothing from animal hides, constructed cozy shelters, occasionally buried their dead and maybe, just maybe, even created art…

Yet Sykes’s convincing arguments about the competence and diversity of ancient Neanderthals lead us back to the inevitable Sapiens question. Scholars always noted the suspicious coincidence that Neanderthals made their exit exactly when Sapiens appeared on the scene. But as long as scholars viewed Neanderthals as simple brutes barely scraping by in ice age Europe, it was easy to give Sapiens the benefit of the doubt. Some scholars said that climate change made conditions more suitable for Sapiens while Neanderthals couldn’t cope with it. Other scholars argued that Neanderthals were already on the brink of extinction even before Sapiens left Africa. Another option was that Neanderthals didn’t go extinct at all — they were assimilated into the expanding Sapiens population.

But Sykes’s new synthesis seems to rule out all these options. For over 300,000 years Neanderthals successfully weathered many climatic cycles and adjusted to numerous habitats. They were capable of innovation and adaptation. They disappeared quite abruptly about 40,000 years ago as a result of what looks more like a sudden shock than a protracted process of decline. And while we now have conclusive evidence that some Neanderthals interbred with Sapiens, the evidence indicates that these were isolated incidents, and that the two populations did not merge.

So what happened? If Neanderthals were so good, why did they disappear? Sykes does not provide a definitive answer, but her findings strengthen the suspicion that Sapiens had a hand in it. Apparently, Neanderthals were sophisticated and innovative enough to deal with diverse climates and habitats, but not with their African cousins.

3) Models of Omicron’s potential impact cover quite the range.  Fingers crossed we get the optimistic edition (though, insofar as that depends on better human behavior, I’m not optimistic):

Among the first omicron-related projections to be made public is one from the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. That group has modeled 16 omicron scenarios that cover a range of “how quickly it spreads, how easily it evades immunity and how quickly we’re able to roll out booster shots,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, who directs the consortium.

According to some of those scenarios, the omicron wave might only intensify the delta surge that’s underway. But in the most pessimistic scenario, omicron could trigger a tidal wave of infections that would be worse than last winter’s massive surge.

By around the end of January, more than 500,000 people could catch the virus every day on average, which is more than double the peak reached last winter, according to the most pessimistic scenario.

In the following weeks, an estimated 29,812 people would be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 3,876 would die every day on average, according to this projection.

“The most pessimistic scenarios are scary. And we need to sort of equip ourselves to make changes — change policies, encourage more cautionary behavior — if and when we start to see hospitalizations tick up in this country,” Meyers says.

But Meyers stresses that the most dire scenarios assume the very worst, including that the U.S. takes no additional measures or behavior changes to slow the spread of the virus, such as more masking and social distancing.

The pessimistic scenario also assumes that omicron is extremely adept at evading our immune systems and that omicron makes people sicker than delta does. Omicron is proving to be good at evading immunity and vaccines. But so far, evidence suggests it may cause milder illness, though that remains the biggest and probably most consequential open question.

The more optimistic projections are far less frightening. In the least pessimistic scenario, the omicron wave peaks around the middle of January and cases are only about double what they are now — reaching 189,069 on average every day. In this scenario, omicron would lead to only a few thousand more hospitalizations and a few hundred more deaths each day — 10,538 hospitalizations and 1,412 deaths on average.

In this hopeful scenario, “it’s just sort of a little bump. It’s not a catastrophic surge that overwhelms our hospitals and leads to record number of deaths,” Meyers says.

But that scenario assumes that omicron isn’t quite as good as it is in the pessimistic scenario at sneaking around our immune systems, that it doesn’t make people any sicker than delta and, importantly, that more people get boosted.

4) This interview makes the optimistic case based on South Africa data:

Let’s talk about what we know right now. There’s been relatively encouraging reports out of South Africa, but then there was this Imperial College report today that was striking a quite different tone, giving a quite different picture. How do you see the basic lay of the land right now? And what do you think is ahead for us in the next month or so?
Well, I think we’re starting to have good data from South Africa. And it looks like the proportion of people hospitalized, given infection, is much lower than in previous waves. Some estimates are as optimistic as 90 percent lower. It looks like, given hospitalization, people are less likely to die, or are less likely to die by respective age groups — a two-thirds reduction of death from infection compared to previous waves. There could be all sorts of reasons why, but that is quite spectacular. If you assume that these numbers are correct, it would mean a 30-times reduction in fatality relative to previous waves, which is really something. That brings us down to seasonal flu.

5) This is also an encouraging take on the SA data:

6) To be clear, the “optimistic” take means not the total disaster that some are predicting.  We are definitely going to have a major Omicron wave.  Almost surely it will lead to way more substantial illness and death and disruption.  So, optimistic is about just how bad within that framework. David Wallace-Wells, “Omicron Is About to Overwhelm Us The new COVID variant has all the makings of a massive wave.”

But right now we don’t need models to tell us that the pandemic is taking a bad turn, and we won’t need to wait to see the projections validated, either. The speed of spread with Omicron is so fast that, when it comes to case growth, at least, the warnings are being validated already.

The relative virulence of the new variant is still clouded by enormous amounts of uncertainty. Only one patient has died with Omicron, thus far, and it is not entirely clear if the coronavirus was even the true cause of death. But in part this lack of severe outcomes reflects just how early in the wave we still are, even in South Africa; the variant was first identified there just three weeks ago, which means many of the early cases are still running their clinical course, and we don’t yet know what the outcomes will be. Hospitalization data comes earlier, and the news has been encouraging there, though experts have warned that what we see as milder outcomes may have less to do with the inherent virulence of the variant and more to do with the fact that more people who’ve caught it are carrying with them protection from vaccination or previous infection. The largest study to date on early South African data — somewhat strangely, it was conducted by an insurance company — found that, overall, those with Omicron were experiencing 29 percent less severe disease than those who got sick in the country’s first pandemic wave. Other, independent assessments have yielded lower — which is to say, more encouraging — estimates: Perhaps Omicron’s severity is lower by two-thirds, perhaps even less.

7) And a moment for abortion.  Even though politicians are completely polarized on abortion, not so ordinary voters. Nate Cohn,  “Some Voters Are at Odds With Their Party on Abortion: Despite decades of partisan fighting in Washington, Americans are not as neatly divided on abortion as politicians and activists.”

Despite decades of partisan fighting, Americans are not as neatly divided on abortion as politicians and activists. There are Republicans who support abortion rights, Democrats who oppose abortion and a surprisingly large group of voters who appear to have muddled or conflicted views. Overall, 26 percent of voters hold a different view on abortion than the presidential candidate they supported in 2020, according to data from an AP VoteCast election survey of more than 100,000 voters.

No issue quite compares to abortion, at least not in its emotional and moral stakes. Yet by some measures, more voters hold views on abortion at odds with those of their presidential pick than on other hot-button issues, including gun control, coronavirus mask mandates or a border wall.

The relatively large number of voters who split with their party on abortion may simply be a reflection of how the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade often kept the issue from the center of political debate. But it may also suggest that many voters just don’t feel as strongly about the issue as one might assume.

The findings in the AP VoteCast election survey are a reminder that American politics are not always as polarized as we imagine. The bitterly partisan fight unfolding in statehouses and courthouses, even in the Supreme Court’s split decision on Friday over the Texas abortion law, can obscure how many Americans of all parties struggle with the weighty moral and ethical questions raised by abortion.

As recently as 30 years ago, Democrats and Republicans had very similar views of abortion. In 1991, 42 percent of Democrats thought abortion should be legal whenever a woman sought one, compared with 41 percent of Republicans. Although attitudes about abortion have gradually tracked more sharply along partisan lines since then, there are still many voters who hold a mix of views that diverge from party allegiance or affiliation.

Less engaged and moderate voters are especially likely to hold abortion views at odds with their party. According to the 2018 General Social Survey, 92 percent of college-educated liberal Democrats believe it should be possible for women to obtain a legal abortion if she wanted for any reason, compared with just 55 percent of more moderate Democrats. Similarly, 39 percent of moderate Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research.

8) And more good stuff in the NYT Upshot, “Who Gets Abortions in America?” (Lots of cool charts, too, if you follow the link)

The portrait of abortion in the United States has changed with society. Today, teenagers are having far fewer abortions, and abortion patients are most likely to already be mothers. Although there’s a lot of debate over gestational cutoffs, nearly half of abortions happen in the first six weeks of pregnancy, and nearly all in the first trimester.

The typical patient, in addition to having children, is poor; is unmarried and in her late 20s; has some college education; and is very early in pregnancy. But in the reproductive lives of women (and transgender and nonbinary people who can become pregnant) across America, abortion is not uncommon. The latest estimate, from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights, found that 25 percent of women will have an abortion by the end of their childbearing years…

Six in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers, and half of them have two or more children, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “One of the main reasons people report wanting to have an abortion is so they can be a better parent to the kids they already have,” Professor Upadhyay said….

About half of women who had an abortion in 2014 were below the poverty line, with another quarter very close to poverty. Guttmacher surveys show low-income women have been a growing share of abortion patients in recent decadesSeveral smaller studies of abortion patients have shown similar results. Researchers say this shift reflects improved access to effective contraception among higher-earning women, and a recognition of the growing costs of raising children among poorer women. It may also reflect the growing presence of charities that help poor women pay for abortions in states where public programs don’t.

“It’s people who don’t have access to health care, access to contraception, who, when facing an unintended pregnancy, don’t have the resources to have another child,” said Rachel Jones, a principal research scientist at Guttmacher.

9) Not long ago I remember strongly arguing that the NHL needs to stop nullifying goals for an offsides entry that happened long before the goal.  Love this Athletic discussion of potential NHL rule changes including this very one:

I think there should be some kind of time limit on how far back an offside could occur before it could overturn a goal. It’s kind of adding a proximate cause element to offside reviews.

The rule would say that if the offside happened 30 seconds (give or take a few) or more before the goal, then it couldn’t be used to overturn an otherwise valid goal. The benefit is that you focus the offside review on what it should be about: preventing rush goals from occurring offside, not stopping goals that really didn’t have much to do with the offside. — Greg Y

Gentille: Not a huge fan of this one, because “goals that really didn’t have much to do with the offside” kind of … don’t exist. If you gain the zone unfairly, then score on that trip, guess what? You shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Plus, it’d be too much of a judgment call. That’s kind of the whole problem with NHL officiating, yeah? NO

Mendes: I’m in favour of this rule, largely because I hate video review for the offside rule in the first place. I felt like I spent 35 years watching hockey without fretting about zone entries and now I’m watching them like a hawk. I understand catching the egregious mistakes and ensuring nobody scores a goal as the result of a blatantly offside play. But if you’ve been hemmed into your own zone for 30 seconds and then get scored on, I’m guessing that questionable offside call probably had little to do with the goal itself. So I’m OK with a 30-second limit. YES

McIndoe: Hmm. I want to vote yes, because it’s ridiculous that we go back as far as we do to review zone entries. But I don’t think this proposal goes far enough, because 30 seconds is a long time. I’d say 10 or 15 seconds. Or even better, if we can’t just scrap these dumb reviews in the first place, I’ve suggested that we only go back to the last change of possession. If a team is offside on the entry, but the other team gets the puck at some point after that before coughing it up, you had your chance. No whining to the replay official for a do-over.

If I vote for the 30-second limit as a starting point, am I closing the door on something better down the line? Let’s hope not, because I don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of slightly better. YES

10) I will answer the question in this editorial, “More students are bringing guns to school in NC. How do we keep kids safe?”  Hold parents legally accountable, damnit!!

And studies have shown that more than half of U.S. gun owners do not safely store their guns, making it far too easy for children to get their hands on them…

“I’ve heard kids tell me they can get a gun in 20 minutes if they wanted to get a gun,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings said at a press conference after a student fired a gun outside West Charlotte High School Monday. Of the guns that end up on school grounds, three out of four come from the home of a friend or family member,

11) This “Adam Ruins Everything” on the college loans is just a devastating take on this exploitative industry and damn funny, too.

12) Good stuff on democracy and January 6th, especially Nyhan’s comments:

The problem, of course, is that Democrats have had high hopes that Trump would face a reckoning for his misdeeds before, in the Mueller investigation and in the President’s two sets of impeachment proceedings. Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, praised the work of the January 6th committee, and said that fully uncovering Trump’s role remains vital. But he cautioned that political leaders and journalists should not focus solely on producing a January 6th “smoking gun,” reminiscent of the secret Oval Office recordings that brought down President Richard Nixon. “So much of the media has been obsessed with the idea that a document will emerge that shows everything,” Nyhan said. “I worry that we lose the forest for the trees.”

Nyhan, who is also a co-director of Bright Line Watch, notes that both U.S. politics and the ways in which Americans receive their information have changed radically over the past fifty years, contributing to the current deep polarization. According to opinion polls, seventy-eight per cent of Republicans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected—an increase from seventy per cent in April. Nyhan believes the committee’s findings, like past investigations of Trump, are unlikely to sway his fervent base. Meanwhile, Republican leaders, particularly House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, are standing by as Trump purges the G.O.P. of opponents. “He is doing what politicians do,” Nyhan said, of McCarthy. “He is going along with the energy in his party.” Nyhan feels it is equally important for Democrats to immediately enact reforms that will prevent either party in the future from attempting such radically anti-democratic acts as overturning an election—and that they should start building public support for such measures now, rather than wait for a smoking-gun moment to do so. Historically, Nyhan points out, authoritarian regimes have emerged by gradually subverting the independence of rival centers of power—such as the legislature, the courts, and the media—and concentrating power in their own hands. “The story of democratic erosion in other countries is that it happens invisibly, you don’t have this tanks-in-the-streets moment,” Nyhan added. “There are elected governments who operate with impunity, whose opponents don’t have a level playing field to compete upon.”

Observers, however, say it is unlikely that Republicans will support any Democrat-backed election-reform effort. In October, they filibustered the For the People Act, a sweeping Democratic proposal that would have revamped election systems nationwide. Nyhan said that Democrats should consider eliminating or changing the filibuster in order to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, a watered-down election-reform bill endorsed by Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, which currently has some bipartisan support in the Senate. It includes measures that would make it more difficult for state legislators to dismiss election results certified by nonpartisan state officials—a tactic Trump tried to use in 2020. Nyhan also called for reform of the Electoral Count Act—an obscure and poorly drafted 1887 law that describes how Congress should count the electoral votes—before Democrats potentially lose their control of the Senate and House in next year’s midterm elections. “The Electoral Count Act is terrifying,” Nyhan said, referring to the statute’s vagueness. “It’s Chekhov’s gun.”

13) OMG this deBoer take on elite college admissions is so good and so much fun to read:

Here is what I want to say to you: at the end of this process, no matter how you change it, no matter how many statements the schools put out about diversity, no matter how many thumbs you put on all the scales to select for a certain kind of student, at the end of this process are self-serving institutions of limitless greed and an army of apparatchiks who are employed only to protect their interests. That’s it. You can’t make college admissions fair by getting rid of the SAT because colleges admissions can’t be “fair.” College admissions exist to serve the schools. Period. End of story. They always have, they always will. College admissions departments functioned as one big anti-Semitic conspiracy for decades because that was in the best interest of the institution. Guys who the schools know will never graduate but who run a 4.5 40 jump the line because admissions serves the institution. Absolute fucking dullards whose parents can pay – and listen, guys, it’s cute that you think legacies are somehow the extent of that dynamic, like they won’t let in the idiot son of a wealthy guy who didn’t go there – get in because admissions serves the institution. Some cornfed doofus from Wyoming with a so-so application gets in over a far more qualified kid from Connecticut because the marketing department gets to say they have students from 44 states in the incoming class instead of 43 that way, because admissions serves the institution. How do you people look at this world and conclude that the problem is the SAT?

And what just drives me crazy, what I find so bizarre, is that all these PMC liberals in media and academia think they’re so endlessly disillusioned and over it and jaded, but they imagine that it was the SAT standing in the way of these schools admitting a bunch of poor Black kids. What the fuck do you think has been happening, exactly? They’re standing around, looking at all these brilliant kids from Harlem and saying “oh God, if only we could let in these kids. We need to save them from the streets! But we can’t get past that dastardly SAT.” They decide who to let in, and they always have! They can let in whoever they want! Why on earth would you put the onus on the test instead of the schools? You think, what, they would prefer to admit kids whose parents can’t possibly donate? The whole selection process for elite schools is to skim a band of truly gifted students from the top, then admit a bunch of kids with identical resumes whose parents will collectively buy the crew team a new boathouse, and then you find a kid whose parents moved to the states from Nigeria two years before he was born and whose family owns a mining company and you call that affirmative action. And if you look at all this, and you take to Twitter to complain about the SAT instead of identifying the root corruption at the schools themselves, you’re a fucking mark, a patsy. You’ve been worked, you’ve been took. You’re doing the bidding of some of the wealthiest, most elitist, most despicable institutions on earth. You think Harvard gives a single merciful fuck about poor Black teenagers? Are you out of your goddamned minds?

It was in their best interest to use the SAT before, so they used it. Now it’s in their best interest to have even more leeway to select the bumbling doofus children of the affluent, and you’re applauding them for it in the name of “equity.” Brilliant…

“Equality”?!? Harvard only lets in 2000 kids a year! You really think carving out space for 50 more Black kids among them, if that actually even happens, is going to result in some sort of quantum leap forward for the average Black American? Is it not obvious that the whole scheme of fixing our racial inequalities by starting at the top by selecting some tiny number of Black overachievers and hoping the good times trickle down has failed, over and over again, since the start of desegregation? You can’t make Harvard “fair!” You can’t make it “equal!” Thinking otherwise is absolutely bonkers to me. Harvard exists to make sure our society is not equal. That is Harvard’s function.

You get that they just want to make it easier to turn down the poor but brilliant children of Asian immigrants, right? You understand that what Harvard and its feckless peers would like is to admit fewer students whose Korean parents clear $40,000 a year from their convenience stores, right? And you think, what, they’re going to be walking around Brownsville, handing out admissions letters to kids with holes in their pockets and a dream in their hearts? To the extent that any Black students are added to the mix by these policies, it’s going to be the Jaden and Willow Smiths of the world. If you think Harvard has any actual, genuine desire to fill its campus with more poor American-born descendants of African slaves you are out of your fucking mind. Just absolutely unhinged.

14) Interesting piece from Lawrence Krauss.  At first glance, looks like science funding is sexist, but, it turns out that senior scientists have way more success in getting funding and that women are far less of senior scientists than junior scientists.  Now, the latter is certainly a problem we should work on, but, science funding should be based on the most worthy science.

15) So, this sounds great, “New Eye Drops Offer an Alternative to Reading Glasses: Vuity, a once-a-day treatment that can help users see up close without affecting their long-range vision, went on the market Thursday after being approved by the F.D.A. in October.”  Huge caveat… this works by constricting your pupils so don’t use them any time around when you might want to drive at night.  Hmmm.

16) This was good, “The Unseen Side of “Cancel Culture” The threat to free expression goes well beyond high-profile cancellations.”

Shortly before hearing from Karith, I had been privy to similar instances of narrow-mindedness. I’m currently directing a forthcoming feature documentary based on The Coddling of the American Mind, the bestselling book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In late 2020, our team took a meeting with a major distributor. The executives liked our angle—focusing on the mental health crisis of Generation Z. But one blanched at the controversy it could ignite, noting it would take just one journalist on Twitter to question why this distributor greenlit the project in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. I was shocked. Coddling has nothing to do with the Floyd tragedy. And how could one hypothetical Twitter user enjoy so much influence?

Around the same time, a friend of mine emailed me, smarting from a recent tangle at work. He’s a Latino comedic actor who had been courted by a new media platform. He moved across the country, and for years enjoyed a rarity for comedians—steady work. His comedy is sketch-based and addresses current events: a bit like “Saturday Night Live,” except with more eagerness to lampoon the excesses of identity politics. It’s something his employer encouraged, but that quickly changed in 2020. My friend made no outrageous blunder. His style of comedy stayed the same. And yet he was abruptly fired. His comedy had suddenly become taboo, and the once-prized recruit became a problematic liability.

I then received word from a producer at a top nonpartisan news organization. He was working on a television special about race in America, which would feature black experts. He hoped for some viewpoint diversity, and I provided a shortlist, complete with bios and links to televised interviews. My list included entrepreneur and podcaster Kmele Foster, Columbia professor John McWhorter, and George Mason University economist Walter Williams. My friend responded quickly—his bosses declared them all too extreme…

But none of the people in my examples were canceled in the traditional sense. Though fired, my comedian friend’s reputation hasn’t been smeared by a public trial on Twitter. Kmele Foster, John McWhorter, and Walter Williams weren’t disinvited from the television special—they were simply rejected at an earlier stage. Time will tell what happens to people like Karith Foster.  

Even when cancel culture’s most obvious side doesn’t show itself, those involved still feel its chill. The news producer will think twice before suggesting on-air experts that irritate his bosses. The college administrator who booked Foster will also think twice, as will the Latino comedian. I will recalibrate my already low expectations for the amount of viewpoint diversity entertainment executives will tolerate. Distributors and other gatekeepers will use new guidelines to filter out problematic content before it reaches audiences. Colleagues and friends connected to the examples above will note that the unwritten rules have been revised yet again.

Each impact may be small, but imagine them multiplying. Imagine the news media systematically misrepresenting black viewpoint diversity. Or colleges systematically favoring a “common enemy” approach to diversity training. Or entertainment executives systematically bowing to Twitter’s view of the world.

Doesn’t that seem a little bit like our world?

Tiny impacts from cancel culture can accumulate into big problems. It appears that the type of diversity training common on college campuses and elsewhere not only doesn’t work, but can increase bias, and exacerbate anxiety and depression. I’ve recently been speaking with many current and former college students in their teens and twenties. They often don’t realize that there are other ways to achieve social justice goals. Even if they do know, speaking out poses risks. Perhaps knowing the political diversity among Americans of all colors would embolden them, yet the screens they gaze at reinforce conformity.

17) This is some crazy story, “How Ashley Biden’s Diary Made Its Way to Project Veritas”

In the final two months of the 2020 campaign, President Donald J. Trump, his grip on power slipping because of his handling of the pandemic, desperately tried to change the narrative by attacking the business dealings of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son Hunter, invoking his name publicly over 100 times.

At the same time, another effort was underway in secret to try to expose the contents of a diary kept the previous year by Mr. Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden, as she underwent treatment for addiction.

Now, more than a year later, the Justice Department is deep into an investigation of how the diary found its way into the hands of supporters of Mr. Trump at the height of the campaign.

Federal prosecutors and F.B.I. agents are investigating whether there was a criminal conspiracy among a handful of individuals to steal and publish the diary. Those being scrutinized include current and former operatives for the conservative group Project Veritas; a donor Mr. Trump appointed to a political position in the final days of his administration; a man who once pleaded guilty in a money laundering scheme; and a financially struggling mother of two, according to people familiar with federal grand jury subpoenas and a search warrant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

18) This is really good on not just J&J, but what it takes to be successful in the pharmaceutical marketplace, “The tragedy of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine

But the CDC panel, unswayed, nonetheless recommended the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines first, and suggested J&J’s vaccine for people who can’t take the others or won’t.

In normal times, a preferential recommendation by the CDC of one vaccine can destroy the business of its rival; a preferential recommendation for GlaxoSmithKline’s shingles vaccine, Shingrix, for example, presaged Merck removing its own shingles vaccine from the market entirely.

The threat of TTS would likely have been enough to limit the J&J vaccine’s use in the U.S. no matter what the CDC said. For many months, the public has been less interested in the shot. 

But J&J was also hurt because, unlike Pfizer, it believed that its clinical trials could be geared to the desires of public health experts – particularly those calling for a one-dose vaccine.

Pfizer-BioNTech is dominant because it completed its clinical trials fastest, smoothed out manufacturing problems, and expanded fastest from adults to children and from emergency authorization to full approval. These are all lessons from commercial drug launches.

J&J, by contrast, had disadvantages from the start. It launched its study later, and it may have chosen a one-dose approach at first because doses of its adenovirus-based vaccine couldn’t be given too soon after one another. (Pfizer’s vaccines are given three weeks apart; for its two-dose study, J&J chose a two-month interval.) Stoffels also thought that in a pandemic, a one-dose shot with lower efficacy would be preferred to a two-dose one. But in the end, people preferred the vaccine with the better efficacy. 

This situation is not ideal, because mRNA vaccines by themselves might not be the best solution for fighting Covid over the long haul. Covid-19 isn’t going away, and it might not be wise to rely so heavily for the world to rely on the first vaccine technology that worked. It might be that, as J&J seems to believe, its vaccine or AstraZeneca’s might give broader protection against still unseen variants. Protein-based technologies like Novavax’s might have fewer side effects if people do need annual boosters. Nasally delivered vaccines might provide different types of protection. 

But, for now, it is not really clear how any of those technologies are going to replace the dominant Pfizer and Moderna shots. Running the right trials is just too difficult. It’s what Pfizer, 20 years ago in its defense of the drug cholesterol drug Lipitor, then the best-selling drug in the world, used to call a wall of data.

Instead of a triumph, the J&J vaccine stands as kind of object lesson, as does Merck, which is said to have passed on Moderna’s vaccine and had its own efforts mothballed, as well as AstraZeneca, which licensed its vaccine from the University of Oxford but was beset by clinical trials snafus. All those companies had seemingly great intentions. But in drug development, it doesn’t always pay to be nice. It’s better to be skilled. And it’s best to be lucky.

19) Interesting take from Drum on conservative influence:

Is 2021 the year that conservatives finally went too far?

Liberals have long griped about how the media treats obvious conservative lies. The list is endless: climate change, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, tax cuts paying for themselves, and on and on. But these are fairly ordinary partisan disputes, and for better or worse the press is unlikely to take sides. Politics is politics, after all, and political reporters have seen this kind of stuff on both sides for decades.

But then came 2021, and suddenly conservatives went beyond—way beyond—the bounds of normal partisan fights. There have been two in particular:

  1. The “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen and Donald Trump should have rightfully won the presidency.
  2. The refusal of conservative leaders to be aggressively pro-vaccine.

Even for people jaded by decades of partisan cat fights, these were shocking. The Big Lie was not something that was even colorably debatable. It was just a lie. A big one. And it was adopted by practically everyone in the Republican Party, leading to the insurrection of January 6. To this day, Republicans insist the election was stolen even though everyone knows this is Goebbels-level fabrication.

The Republican attitude toward vaccination is, if anything, even more shocking. For one thing, it’s barely even partisan since it doesn’t really harm Democrats in any way. It’s just flat-out pandering that has cost thousands of lives and will cost thousands more. There’s literally no reason for it aside from either pique (Donald Trump); a desire to promote conspiracy theories because it’s profitable (Tucker et al.); or craven capitulation to the mob (DeSantis and other GOP leaders).

I may be fooling myself, but I’ve noticed at least a small change in the media’s treatment of Republicans this year. Even hardened veterans who pride themselves on being cynical toward all sides are stunned by what’s happened. Lying for partisan advantage? Yawn. Everyone does it. But lying in service of destroying faith in democracy? Refusing to promote vaccines just to get a few cheers from the cheap seats? Those are whole different things.

So far, this hasn’t produced a sea change in coverage of Republicans. But I think it’s produced the start of something that might eventually become a sea change—especially if Democrats can lighten up and take advantage of it. We’ll see.

20) Humans are social animals– vaccine edition, “With nearly 800,000 U.S. covid deaths, what’s keeping people from getting vaccinated? Their own social circles.”

Here’s what we discovered: Yes, individuals tend to operate within networks that are polarized by vaccination status. Unvaccinated individuals talk to unvaccinated folks, and vaccinated individuals are chatting with vaccinated friends and families. Furthermore, attitudes about coronavirus vaccines produce social pressure within these groups that may influence personal decisions to receive the vaccine. The vaccination status of an individual’s closest confidants is a great predictor of whether they decide to get vaccinated against covid-19.

Quick hits (part II)

1) There’s quite the consensus from the public health establishment that travel bans in the face of Omicron are bad.  Thus, interesting for Zeynep to suggest otherwise:

The United States, the European Union and many nations have already announced travel bans on several African countries. Such restrictions can buy time, even if the variant has started to spread, but only if they are implemented in a smart way along with other measures, not as pandemic theatrics.

The travel ban from several southern African countries announced by President Biden on Friday exempts American citizens and permanent residents, other than requiring them to be tested. But containment needs to target the pathogen, not the passports. As a precaution, travel should be restricted for both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens from countries where the variant is known to be spreading more widely until we have more clarity.

We need stricter testing regimens involving several tests over time and even quarantine requirements for all travelers according to the incubation period determined by epidemiological data. We also need more intensive and widespread testing and tracing to cut off the spread of the variant. This means finally getting the sort of mass testing program that the United States has avoided and which has been part of successful responses to Covid in other countries.

If we aren’t willing to do all that, there is little point in a blanket ban on a few nationalities.

The reason we can even discuss such early, vigorous, responsible attacks on Omicron is that South African scientists and medical workers realized it was a danger within three weeks of its detection, and their government acted like a good global citizen by notifying the world. They should not be punished for their honest and impressive actions. The United States and other richer countries should provide them with resources to combat their own outbreak — it’s the least we can do.

The U.S. government should also be clear about when and by which benchmarks these restrictions will be modified. Travel bans can remain in place too long because they become more a matter of political signaling than public health.

2) And a good look at travel bans in this New Yorker article:

In general, Markel said, when testing was available it allowed public-health authorities to follow the medical imperative “Don’t use a bazooka when a BB gun will do.” But, in the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries opted for the bazooka. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand all imposed severe travel restrictions, in many cases pairing them with aggressive contact tracing and testing regimes. The economic, social, and political costs of these policies could be extreme: Australia closed its borders to all non-residents, and some Australians living abroad faced fines or prison time if they tried to return home. New Zealand shut out even those foreign nationals married to New Zealand citizens. As a public-health measure, though, these restrictions appear to have been effective. In Taiwan, fewer than nine hundred people have died of covid-19. Japan’s population is thirty-seven per cent that of the United States, yet it has had 2.3 per cent of the deaths. Australia, a vast country of twenty-six million people, has had just over two thousand deaths from covid. In New Zealand, just forty-four people have died.

This week, as many countries began to impose new travel rules in response to Omicron, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, asked them to refrain from the most restrictive versions. “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” he said on Wednesday. But that is at least somewhat contradicted by the experience of the Pacific Rim countries during the pandemic. Peter Baldwin, a historian at U.C.L.A. who last year published a book on the first wave of global response to the pandemic, said, of the W.H.O.’s position, “I just do not get this logic because the travel bans, it seems to me, have proven that they’re quite effective.” Of course, no travel ban, Baldwin added, was airtight. “It doesn’t hermetically seal a country off—some virus will sneak in for sure—but they still managed to get a grip on the problem in a way that the countries that don’t do it, don’t.” The choice about whether to institute travel bans would be easy if they did not ever work—the humanitarian position of maintaining open borders would also be the prudent one. But in this pandemic, that hasn’t seemed exactly the case. Baldwin said, “It’s a political decision on W.H.O.’s part to not advocate travel restrictions, and you can see that because most countries totally ignore it.”

My take: there’s clearly some very real negatives to travel bans which might well outweigh the positives of just buying a few weeks.  But, I don’t love the whole public health community defaulting to a “travel bans are bad and don’t work” when it’s really not that simple.

3) Good free Yglesias post, “Omicron is a reminder of how little we’re doing on pandemic prevention”

“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics”

I took a class in college called “War” taught by an eccentric right-winger with an old-fashioned affection for pure military history. He liked to say that “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”1

And we’ve seen this again and again during the pandemic.

The creation of the mRNA vaccines on a record timeline was a scientific miracle. But actually manufacturing and distributing these vaccines at a massive scale was an enormous challenge. You hear a lot about patent protection from left-wing types, but I think that’s a case of starting with a general view (patent protections for medications are bad for poor countries) and then strong-arming it to apply to a case where it doesn’t really fit. The signature symptom of an IP-induced deadweight loss is that the product is available, but poor people can’t get it because the market price is too high. That was the situation with AIDS medications in the late-1990s, and it’s a very real issue in the world. But mRNA vaccines are genuinely scarce. It’s not a fake scarcity where if Malawi would just fork over some more cash they’d get more vaccines. Poorer countries ended up at the back of the line because they are poor, but the line exists because there aren’t enough doses.

That’s also the source of the raging controversy in the public health community about booster shots. Because the doses are genuinely scarce, every booster shot that goes into the arms of a non-elderly westerner can be seen as depriving a person in a poor country of their first dose.

We need much more focus on and investment in actually increasing vaccine throughput. Not just to address Covid-19, but to address future illnesses. We want enough infrastructure in place that we can start churning out a billion doses of any new vaccine within a month. There may well be an intellectual property reform component to that, but getting to the good place here involves making the vaccine manufacturing business more profitable rather than less.

We need huge amounts of excess capacity in vaccine manufacturing, and someone has to pay for that. You could do it with explicit subsidy or you could do it with windfall profits when the vaccines are needed. But right now, on both vaccines and antivirals, we just can’t make them quickly enough to unlock the full potential of the underlying science, and it would be worth spending tons of money to be able to do so. For context, Pfizer is anticipating about 36 billion in vaccine revenue in 2021If handing them 10 times that revenue made it possible to triple vaccine production, it would be money well spent…

Build the supervaccine

If you want an even less generous assessment of the CDC, I really recommend Noah Smith’s interview with Dr. Eric Topol in which he puts forward the theory that CDC reluctance to recommend booster shots wasn’t about vaccine equity at all.

Instead, Topol thinks it was just parochialism: the CDC didn’t want to recommend action based on Israeli data, so it waited for American data, which meant waiting for Delta to spread far and wide. I hope he is wrong because that is frankly a very stupid reason.

But in the most important part of the interview, Topol talks about how his lab and several others are working on a candidate vaccine that would offer protection against all coronaviruses. Not just all variants of SARS-Cov-2, but SARS and MERS and HCoV-OC43 and future animal coronaviruses that could make the jump to infect humans. Science did a good overview of this research program back in the spring, including the upsetting fact that the NIAID doomed a 2017 similar grant proposal purely on the grounds that “the significance for developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine may not be high.”

Of course it’s easy to see the significance now, but this ought to be the kind of major research priority that requires congressional legislation, not just smarter NIAID grantmaking. Huge sums of money should be made available through the normal NIAID channel and a whole other DARPA-for-biodefense channel and a third channel that’s just prizes or whatever. It’s a huge deal!

But we ought to be thinking even bigger. While coronaviruses are hot right now, there are only 26 virus families, and we ought to be funding research programs to target the other 25 families as well. We should also claim to believe that over and above the inherent virtues of supervaccines, they are a huge prestige project where success will help us defeat the Chinese. Hopefully, that will inspire the Chinese to invest in their own supervaccine programs. And then maybe Japan and Korea get in the game.

I don’t necessarily want to disparage Build Back Better’s aspiration to spend $150 billion on reducing waiting times for in-home rather than institutional care services for the elderly and disabled. But I’d rather spend $150 billion on supervaccines if I had the choice.

4) Love this from Paul Waldman, “It’s time to say it: The conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all”

They lied.

Yes, I’m talking about the conservative justices on the Supreme Court, and the abortion rights those justices have now made clear they will eviscerate.

They weren’t just evasive, or vague, or deceptive. They lied. They lied to Congress and to the country, claiming they either had no opinions at all about abortion, or that their beliefs were simply irrelevant to how they would rule. They would be wise and pure, unsullied by crass policy preferences, offering impeccably objective readings of the Constitution.

It. Was. A. Lie.

We went through the same routine in the confirmation hearings of every one of those justices. When Democrats tried to get them to state plainly their views on Roe v. Wade, they took two approaches. Some tried to convince everyone that they would leave it untouched. Others, those already on record proclaiming opposition to abortion rights, suggested they had undergone a kind of intellectual factory reset enabling them to assess the question anew with an unspoiled mind, one concerned only with the law.

Unfortunately, that lie was and is still enabled by the news media. Even in the face of what we saw at the court on Wednesday — when at least five of the six conservatives made clear their intention to overturn Roe — press accounts continued offering euphemisms and weasel words, about “inconsistencies” or “contradictions.”

But sometimes the right puts its purposes in the open. There was a particularly striking exchange between Laura Ingraham and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Fox News, where Ingraham grew inexplicably enraged over the mere possibility that Roe might not be overturned.

“If we have six Republican appointees on this court,” she said, “after all the money that’s been raised, the Federalist Society, all these big fat-cat dinners — I’m sorry, I’m pissed about this — if this court with six justices cannot do the right thing here,” then Republicans should “blow it up” and pass some kind of law limiting the court’s authority.

In other words: We bought this court, and we’d better get what we paid for.

5) Bernstein on the electoral implications of overturning Roe:

As far as the 2022 elections are concerned, the conventional wisdom is that those who would be losing in court — abortion-rights supporters — would be more energized, all else equal. How much will that mitigate the energizing effects of policy loss among Republicans after two years of unified Democratic government? My guess is that the plausible answers range from “some” to “just a little.” As far as voting is concerned, most of those who care strongly about abortion are already sorted to the corresponding parties, so I wouldn’t expect much of a short-run shift.

But that doesn’t mean there will be no effects at all. For one thing, abortion is about to become a much more significant policy issue in state and national elections. Yes, candidates have run on the issue up to now, and state legislatures have acted on it. But even though some of the laws that survived court scrutiny did have significant effects, there was always a sense that the campaign talk amounted to shadow-boxing, since there were severe limits on what any politician could actually accomplish. That will change.

There may also be real possibilities for change within each party’s coalition. On the Republican side, it’s possible that we’ll eventually get some demobilization of single-issue party actors — but it’s also possible that continued fighting at the state and national level could energize those voters further. It’s unknown whether overturning other court decisions on social issues, from contraception to marriage and more, will generate the same politics within the party that abortion has.

On the Democratic side, the effects seem easier to predict. Over the past few years, as women have become more central to the party coalition, so have the policy questions they care about. It sure seems like the demise of abortion rights would only accelerate that trend while providing common ground for various different groups of women within the party. (There are plenty of women who strongly oppose abortion rights or are relatively indifferent, but among Democratic party actors there’s a pretty united front, and if anything the court’s decision should solidify that consensus.)

In the long run, we’ll see how decreased access to abortion will shift public views, as people begin to see stories in the media — and examples within their own lives — of the effects of new restrictions. For 50 years, those stories have mostly dropped out of the national conversation. Meanwhile, I don’t see any particular reason to expect an increase in either media stories or personal experiences sympathizing with the other side — we shouldn’t see an increase, for example, in stories about women who regret abortions, but we could see more women harmed from illegal procedures. Over time that might change things significantly, and could have unpredictable effects on voting coalitions and on the parties themselves. But whether that will actually happen? There’s no real way to know.

6) Humidify, baby!! “Indoor humidity levels and associations with reported symptoms in office buildings”

Abstract

Moderate indoor relative humidity (RH) levels (i.e., 40%–60%) may minimize transmission and viability of some viruses, maximize human immune function, and minimize health risks from mold, yet uncertainties exist about typical RH levels in offices globally and about the potential independent impacts of RH levels on workers’ health. To examine this, we leveraged one year of indoor RH measurements (which study participants could view in real time) in 43 office buildings in China, India, Mexico, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and corresponding self-report symptom data from 227 office workers in a subset of 32 buildings. In the buildings in this study, 42% of measurements during 9:00 – 17:00 on weekdays were less than 40% RH and 7% exceeded 60% RH. Indoor RH levels tended to be lower in less tropical regions, in winter months, when outdoor RH or temperature was low, and late in the workday. Furthermore, we also found statistically significant evidence that higher indoor RH levels across the range of 14%-70% RH were associated with lower odds of reporting dryness or irritation of the throat and skin among females and unusual fatigue among males in models adjusted for indoor temperature, country, and day of year.

7) I saw a poll saying half of Americans are feeling hardship over higher prices.  Complete BS, I thought.  Drum not just thought that, but wrote a post:

The Washington Post summarizes the results of a new Gallup poll today:

As prices creep higher for food, gasoline and other necessities, nearly half of U.S. households say they are feeling the financial strain, according to a Gallup survey released Thursday.

Roughly 45 percent of households are being hurt by price increases, according to a survey of nearly 1,600 people conducted Nov. 3 to Nov. 16. About 1 in 10 said that hardship was severe enough to affect their standard of living, while 35 percent described the hardship as “moderate.”

I don’t want to be in the business of telling other people how to feel, but this is crazy. Here are pay and prices since the beginning of the year:

As a God-fearing liberal, I am always unhappy when pay falls behind inflation. I want to see working and middle-class folks making more money, not less. That said, a net decline in spending power of 2% just isn’t enough to cause very much hardship for anyone who wasn’t feeling it already. These poll results make no sense.

Now, obviously this is a bell curve, and some people are feeling inflation worse than others. It all depends on what you buy a lot of. But the number of families facing any noticeable hardship has still got to be tiny.

This is the kind of thing that should make us question the role of the media in all this. Please note: I’m not saying that no one would notice higher prices if the media didn’t report it. The price of both a pound of hamburger and a gallon of gasoline have gone up 50 cents since May, and that’s something people are going to notice. Nevertheless, the media’s job should be to put highly visible price increases like this into context—and in this case the context is that there are some outliers, but on average prices have gone up only slightly more than wages.

But it’s been just the opposite. If anything, reporting has made inflation look worse than even the outliers suggest. This is why you get people vaguely guessing that prices in the supermarket have gone up 100% or so. And it’s why people report serious hardship from inflation even though the vast majority of us are feeling only a tiny effect.

8) Just let your young kids watch screens and chill! Melinda Wenner Moyer,

There’s another good reason for us to stop berating ourselves about screen time, too: The research really does not back up all the alarmist claims we see in the media. Yesterday I spoke with a psychologist and parent I very much respect who had just finished reading my book, and she said that the chapter that made the biggest impact on her was my chapter on screen time — it was quite reassuring, she said.

So because it’s Friday, and Omicron is stressing us all out again, I’m going to share some of my research on screen time so that you have one less thing to worry about this weekend. (And if you want to read more, including tips on how to help kids develop good relationships with technology and social media, read my book!)…

So What Can We Conclude?

On average, the size of possible screen effects on kids appears quite small — perhaps even too small to be meaningful. In a study published in January 2019, Orben and Przybylski analyzed data involving more than 350,000 adolescents. They found that digital technology use is associated with only 0.4 percent of the overall variation known to exist in adolescent well-being — meaning that kids who use screens a lot are, on average, only very slightly different on measures of well-being compared with kids who rarely use screens.

In fact, when Orben and Przybylski compared the association between screen time and well-being with other things, they got amusing results. They found, for instance, that screens are linked with decreases in well-being that are about the same size as the decreases in well-being associated with eating potatoes, and that wearing glasses is linked with even bigger well-being drops.

In other words, when people argue that screens ruin kids’ brains, they should also know that eating potatoes and wearing glasses are potentially just as dangerous — the size of the possible effect is about the same. Now, importantly, we’re talking about average effects — so screens could be particularly harmful or helpful for certain kids, and again, the impact almost certainly depends on the content and the context.

In a way, from what we know about how different kids can be from one another and how broad and heterogeneous the term “screen time”is, parents, not scientists, are probably the best equipped to assess how screens affect their kids — because the impact largely depends on details that parents know best. Parents are also the best equipped to tell if their kids are becoming anxious or depressed, at which point they can investigate whether screen use or social media might be a cause.

All these same limitations, by the way, apply to research investigating the link between violent video games and aggression. Studies do suggest that kids who play more violent video games are more aggressive — but we don’t really know what that means yet.

9) So, so stupid for Biden to have a plan where you can file for a reimbursement with your health insurance for at-home Covid tests.  What a pain in the ass!  Just make them cheap already!

10) A fascinating issue, where I don’t’ think there’s a clearly easy/correct answer, for our increasingly gender fluid world, “Who belongs at a women’s college in 2021? Students want admissions policies to change”

11) Nice to know these are the people running my state, “As a leading UNC epidemiologist reiterates the benefits of vaccination, conservative legislators push for Ivermectin

12) This was pretty fascinating to me, “The Teenagers Getting Six Figures to Leave Their High Schools for Basketball: The new pro league Overtime Elite is luring young phenoms with hefty salaries, viral success and — perhaps — a better path to the N.B.A.” And let’s be honest, in plenty of other elite sports teenagers forgo a normal childhood and high school life to focus completely on becoming a professional in their sport.  Why not basketball?

13) This is cool, “An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins: A team scoured the human proteome for antimicrobial molecules and found thousands, plus a surprise about how animals evolved to fight infections.”

The team tested 55 of those candidates in tiny vials, and a majority of them eliminated bacteria. Then, Torres tested two of them in lab mice and found that they stopped infections from growing. “The results are compelling,” says Daria Van Tyne, an expert in bacterial evolution at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who was not involved in the work. “It’s certainly opening a new class of antimicrobial peptides, and finding them in an unexpected place.”

This is the first time anyone has so thoroughly explored the human body for antibiotic candidates. But in using AI to guide the search, the team stumbled upon a mind-bending discovery of something more basic: Many of our proteins that are seemingly unrelated to immunity may have evolved to live double lives as protection against invaders. “The fact that they found so many of them,” Van Tyne says of the peptides, “suggests very strongly that it’s not just coincidence—that they exist for a purpose.”

14) Apparently you can get married to make college loans way more affordable.  Who knew?  Apparently, some college students.

15) The human brain is pretty awesome, “Your Brain Is an Energy-Efficient ‘Prediction Machine’: Results from neural networks support the idea that brains use predictions to create perceptions—and that they work that way to conserve power.” 

HOW OUR BRAIN, a three-pound mass of tissue encased within a bony skull, creates perceptions from sensations is a long-standing mystery. Abundant evidence and decades of sustained research suggest that the brain cannot simply be assembling sensory information, as though it were putting together a jigsaw puzzle, to perceive its surroundings. This is borne out by the fact that the brain can construct a scene based on the light entering our eyes, even when the incoming information is noisy and ambiguous.

Consequently, many neuroscientists are pivoting to a view of the brain as a “prediction machine.” Through predictive processing, the brain uses its prior knowledge of the world to make inferences or generate hypotheses about the causes of incoming sensory information. Those hypotheses—and not the sensory inputs themselves—give rise to perceptions in our mind’s eye. The more ambiguous the input, the greater the reliance on prior knowledge.

“The beauty of the predictive processing framework [is] that it has a really large—sometimes critics might say too large—capacity to explain a lot of different phenomena in many different systems,” said Floris de Lange, a neuroscientist at the Predictive Brain Lab of Radboud University in the Netherlands.

However, the growing neuroscientific evidence for this idea has been mainly circumstantial and is open to alternative explanations. “If you look into cognitive neuroscience and neuro-imaging in humans, [there’s] a lot of evidence—but super-implicit, indirect evidence,” said Tim Kietzmann of Radboud University, whose research lies in the interdisciplinary area of machine learning and neuroscience.

So researchers are turning to computational models to understand and test the idea of the predictive brain. Computational neuroscientists have built artificial neural networks, with designs inspired by the behavior of biological neurons, that learn to make predictions about incoming information. These models show some uncanny abilities that seem to mimic those of real brains. Some experiments with these models even hint that brains had to evolve as prediction machines to satisfy energy constraints.

And as computational models proliferate, neuroscientists studying live animals are also becoming more convinced that brains learn to infer the causes of sensory inputs. While the exact details of how the brain does this remain hazy, the broad brushstrokes are becoming clearer.

16) I don’t read enough books to weigh in on whether these are the 10 best books of 2021.  But, it sure does look on the surface that the picks may be guided by ideology.  The comments from NYT readers– definitely not a conservative bunch, on average– are also fascinating.  

17) Some parts of this country just really, really suck. Like criminal justice, deep South style. “‘A humanitarian crisis’: Why Alabama could lose control of its dangerous prisons
Alabama sends so many people to prison that the state can no longer safely house its inmates, consequences of a tough-on-crime mentality among politicians and the public that keeps aggressive sentencing laws on the books.”

18) Have I mentioned that civil asset forfeiture is the worst? (Yes, I have).  Here’s a disturbing video of it in action. “Watch Cops Seize Combat Vet’s Life Savings”

19) Freddie deBoer, “Racial Disparities in the SATs Are Exactly What Antiracists Should Predict”

The SAT is officially gone from the University of California because they’re desperate to reduce the Asian student population they want greater racial diversity. Many prominent liberals have celebrated this news, largely because they already went to college and don’t mind pulling up that ladder behind them. (Also a lot of them didn’t get the scores they wanted and never got over it.) Unfortunately for them, essentially all educational metrics show the racial and income stratification that the SAT shows. That includes GPA, which the people who complain about the SAT constantly nominate as an alternative to… the racial and income stratification of the SAT!

Note too that this is before adjustment via the black-box algorithms that elite universities use to adjust for the inherent noise in GPA. (I say again: some big-time publication should absolutely send someone to report that story out for a year. It’s an area of major public interest in which the industry works under remarkable secrecy.) It’s such an audaciously dishonest conversation that we’re having, attacking one quantitative indicator for demonstrating the same dynamics as the quantitative indicator that’s been nominated to replace it. But then, of course GPA and SAT data agree. It would be bizarre and concerning if the SAT did not agree with GPA data, NAEP data, state standardized test data, attendance and behavioral data, data from academic research, and sundry other educational data that shows these racial and income dynamics. The SAT showing racial and income stratification isn’t a mark of the SAT’s weakness but of its strength. That the SAT demonstrates these effects shows that the test is accurately measuring its construct. It can’t assess the broader sociopolitical conditions that created this dynamic, nor their fairness, as it wasn’t designed to do that.

Now, I suppose my saying that the SAT and other metrics show that poorer students and Black and Hispanic students are genuinely less prepared (on average) would inflame the sensibilities of people who identify as antiracists. But I find that strange – such students being held back in the classroom by structural disadvantage would seem to fit perfectly well with the antiracist worldview. Antiracists (an obnoxious term but let’s roll with it) will tell you that many Black students face all manner of disadvantages in life that can depress their academic performance, and they are correct to do so. But then isn’t it profoundly odd that they’re so angry at the SAT for demonstrating the outcome of that disadvantage? If the test shows Black and poor students struggling, it’s only an indicator of precisely the conditions they think are real and meaningful and troubling. Why would they want to silence that indicator? How does it help them? …

And that gets at the essential point that while these disparities are the product of unfairness they are nevertheless real. The average Black student really does struggle more with reading and algebra etc. than the average white student, and the average rich student really does perform better than the average poor student. Again, this is absolutely what you’d expect if you have a progressive outlook on structural disadvantage. But we can’t get anywhere if we pretend that these gaps are the product of measurement error, nor by positing an immense conspiracy among millions of teachers and administrators to pretend that Black and poor students are struggling when they aren’t. In the long run, such denialism hurts precisely the students it ostensibly helps, as it does nothing to fill in the gaps of human capital under which they suffer. I have very few good things to say about old guard education reform types, but they have always been willing to look at such gaps and understand that the gaps themselves, the underlying lack of ability, are the core problem, the core injustice. Disadvantaged students struggling to get into college is a symptom, not the disease. And the SAT are merely a thermometer that diagnoses that disease.

Flogging the SATs for failing to fix disparities that it can’t possibly be blamed for, like insisting that we just need to spend more money when we’ve been trying to spend our way out of our problems for 40 years, says more about the problems we refuse to look at than anything else, our commitment to myopia.

20) When Vox goes full Vox.  And, oh my, the comments on the tweet.

21) And speaking of twitter, your essential Omicron thread of the day.

22) I really enjoyed this ranking of all of R.E.M.’s songs.

23) Yesterday was Beatles documentary part 2 for me.  Enjoyed it much more.  Nothing like some narrative tension. Also, I’m’ pretty obsessed with artists and their creative process lately.  I quite enjoyed the HBO documentary on Alanis and “Jagged Little Pill” and loved listening to Sondheim talking about his songwriting process.  And to round a theme, I’m not even that much of a Foo Fighters fan, but I’m a big Dave Grohl fan and I found his interview with Terry Gross absolutely delightful.

%d bloggers like this: