Covid, risk assessment, and cognitive load

So, here’s my latest theory on human psychology and Covid.  I won’t say I love the challenge of constantly assessing the risk of a particular situation to myself or my children and doing assessments as to what the appropriate action.  But, in general, I’m pretty good with it.  Almost surely, in part, because I’ve got to be somewhere above 95 percentile in the personality characteristic, need for cognition.  For people low in need for cognition, though, this is a real burden on how they generally approach the world.  Not to mention the fact, that NFC aside, constant risk assessments are cognitively demanding and lots of people– especially those in poverty— just don’t have the spare cognitive bandwidth.  

Anyway, so my hypothesis here is that, given these cognitive demands, there’s a fairly easy solution… default to maximum cautiousness or maximum incautiousness.  If you are like me, you definitely know a decent number of people who fall into both categories (and in my urban liberal bubble, it’s definitely more of the former).  Rather than constantly assess risk and make nuanced decisions, it’s way less demanding to go with “always take the safest course of action” or “just don’t worry about Covid.”  Yes, surely, there’s more to it than that, but I’d love to see some data about risk perceptions and need for cognition.  

And, I was definitely thinking about this a lot in terms of parenthood.  The reality is that there’s a lot more risk assessment to be done when you are also responsible for assessing the risks of another person.  My initial inclination to this headline was… get a grip, “Parenting a child under 12 in the age of delta: ‘It’s like a fire alarm every day’” but the more considered, empathetic version of Steve realizes that, for a lot of people, this is just an overwhelming amount of constant risk assessment.  Likewise, the NYT Parenting Newsletter, “Why Covid Has Broken Parents’ Sense of Risk: Every decision for not-yet-vaccinated kids feels like an unsolvable equation.”  I want to say, “well, actually it’s not… here’s what we know about the baseline risks for younger people, the role of masks in schools, the likelihood that your kid will have a serious illness, etc.,” but, let’s be honest, it’s already hard enough to rationally approach risks about your kids when the downside risk (even when extremely unlikely) is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person.  So, I do have some real sympathy for the parents out there who feel genuinely overwhelmed by the situation.

But, the social scientist here would love to explore the role individual variation in need for cognition, risk predispositions, etc.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) The tale of one journalist who had enough of “both sides!” journalism in the wake of January 6:

Andrew Taylor began his journalism career in the late 1980s, clipping newspaper articles for the politics reporters at Congressional Quarterly.

This spring, more than 30 years later, he quit his longtime job as a Capitol Hill reporter for the Associated Press.

He leaves daily journalism disgusted by what Congress has become and traumatized by the Jan. 6 riot — which he witnessed from inside the Capitol. He also leaves the profession doubtful that traditional, objective-style journalism is up to the job of covering today’s politics and government.

His is not a simple cause-and-effect story: At 59, with a spouse who works fulltime as an editor and the demands of three school-age children, Taylor was thinking of wrapping things up anyway.

But he’s very glad to be out of the Capitol — not just for the unanticipated danger he experienced there but the political and societal culture surrounding it…

The Capitol was Taylor’s second home, the focus of so much of his daily life and conversation. He still speaks of “the sanctity of the place”; it’s clear that on a certain level he became accustomed to its rhythms and routines. “You become invested in a functional ecosystem,” he said.

But that placewas already beginning to change long before Jan. 6, he said. “I was there when the wheels came off,” he told me, during the Obama era, when the tea-party caucus of conservative House members seized increasing influence. From that point on, “a large percentage of congressional activity was being spent posturing for political bases” rather than, say, putting together the budget.

He now sees the dysfunction as irrevocable.

He has particularly harsh words for House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as prominent among those in Congress whose “approach to their jobs is too often bad-faith bull—-.” For similar reasons, he’s tough on Mitch McConnell, too. On his now more freewheeling Twitter account, Taylor quote-tweeted the Senate minority leader’s recent bluster about raising the debt limit and how Republicans “will not facilitate another reckless, partisan taxing and spending spree.”…

“So glad I don’t have to cover this,” Taylor wrote, along with a reminder of some inconvenient facts: “When Republicans controlled the government in 2017-18, Pelosi and Schumer facilitated debt limit increases both before and after enactment of debt-financed tax cuts.” Taylor added: “McConnell is wholly inconsistent here and I am being generous.”

Overall, Taylor fears that Congress is like a coral reef that has sustained so much piece-by-piece deterioration, with the departures of some of those who have integrity and respect for their elected roles in the democracy, that “you can’t put it back together again.”

And while he calls the Associated Press “a wonderful, essential organization” and praises many of his former colleagues in Washington journalism, he has become increasingly worried that traditional reporting can’t — or at least doesn’t — tell the full, disturbing story.

“The rules of objective journalism require you to present facts to tell a true story but the objective-journalism version of events can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on,” he told me.

As he sees it, the typical practices of putting everything that happens in the context of normal behavior, of giving ‘both sides’ an almost-equal say, and describing events in a neutral tone has an overall, damaging effect.

Put simply: “It sanitizes things.”

2) Let’s be honest, this is awfully damn tempting.  Just approve the things already! “Parents Are Lying to Get Their Little Kids Vaccinated: It’s surprisingly easy to get unauthorized COVID-19 vaccines for 10- and 11-year-olds who can “pass” for 12″  I’d think harder about it if my 10-year old could pass for 12, but not even close.

3) “Why At-Home Rapid Covid Tests Cost So Much, Even After Biden’s Push for Lower Prices”

For Americans looking for swift answers,the cheapest over-the-counter covid test is the Abbott Laboratories BinaxNOW two-pack for $23.99. Close behind are Quidel’s QuickVue tests, at $15 a pop. Yet supplies are dwindling. After a surge in demand, CVS is limiting the number of tests people can buy, and Amazon and Walgreen’s website were sold out as of Friday afternoon.

President Joe Biden said Thursday he would invoke the Defense Production Act to make 280 million rapid covid tests available. The administration struck a deal with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger for them to sell tests for “up to 35 percent less” than current retail prices for three months. For those on Medicaid, the at-home tests will be fully covered, Biden said.

An increased supply should help to lower prices. As schools open and much of the country languishes without pandemic-related restrictions, epidemiologists say widespread rapid-test screening — along with vaccination and mask-wearing — is critical to controlling the delta variant’s spread. Yet shortages, little competition and sticky high prices mean routine rapid testing remains out of reach for most Americans, even if prices drop 35%.

Consumers elsewhere have much cheaper — or free — options. In Germany, grocery stores are selling rapid covid tests for under $1 per test. In India, they’re about $3.50. The United Kingdom provides 14 tests per person free of charge. Canada is doling out free rapid tests to businesses…

Billions in taxpayer dollars have been invested in these products. Abbott Laboratories, for instance, cashed in on hundreds of millions in federal contracts and gave its shareholders fat payouts last year, increasing its quarterly dividend by 25%. Even so, according to a New York Times investigation, as demand for rapid tests cratered in early summer, Abbott destroyed its supplies and laid off workers who had been making them.

More than a year ago, Abbott said the company would sell its BinaxNOW in bulk for $5 a test to health care providers, but that option is not available over the counter to the public. Even with the anticipated price decrease, a two-pack will be more than $15. Abbott did not comment further.

Schrier said in spring that test prices were high because “big companies are buying up all the supplies.” Also, “their profit is far higher making 1,000 $30 tests than 30,000 $1 tests” — in other words, they can make the same amount of money for many fewer tests.

4) This is just a super-fun collection of soccer goals.  

5) David Epstein on his failed newsletter launch and Hanlon’s razor.  This is so apt– definitely going to use this term more!

As a very loyal subscriber (with two email addresses!) to my own newsletter (gotta keep numbers up), I was immediately confused by what I had wrought — no offense to this other fellow, who I’m sure is a Ryantastic guy. Then the messages started.

I would say the tenor of messages I received ranged from curious, to querulous, to I’m a hippo and you got between me and my water source. I received a few messages — just a few, but they’re important — suggesting that I had either sold subscriber information or subscribed people to something without their consent.

I immediately jumped on the phone with a member of the Bulletin team to find out what I had done. Reader, until you have tried, you will never know how hard it is to have a stern emergency conversation with tech support while maintaining a straight face and repeating the name/word Ryantastic. A dozen “Ryantastics” later, I learned what happened.

If you can’t wait, you can skip below to the “What Actually Happened” section. But before I tell you, I’d like to do my Range Widely thing and use this as a teachable moment to discuss a critical thinking principle. Namely: “Hanlon’s razor.”

The most common (if not the most polite) formulation of Hanlon’s razor is: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The term “razor” means that the principle helps you “shave off” unnecessary explanations.

(You may be familiar with the more popular “Occam’s razor,” the idea that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. The most implausible part of Contact is that Matthew McConaughey’s character is a philosopher who hasn’t heard of Occam’s razor. What are you doing all day man?!)

The idea of Hanlon’s razor is that we more often make better judgments if we search for common, reasonable explanations of behavior we don’t like, instead of assuming the worst right away. I like this idea; I think Hanlon’s Twitter might be a nice place. I especially like this idea right now, because I’d prefer you treat Ryantastic-gate as a screw-up instead of a nefarious plot. But this wouldn’t be my newsletter if I didn’t try to investigate whether Hanlon’s razor actually is a good principle for thinking. So let’s begin.

Intuitively, I think it is a good principle. I spent a decade as an investigative reporter, generally assuming the worst motivations behind whatever I was investigating; sometimes that bore out, but often I was surprised to find that some organizational screw-up or other was a result of carelessness or poor communication. I found the same for journalism itself. Early in my journalism career, I was a fact-checker, and I usually concluded that writers who reported inaccurate facts were simply making mistakes, or were blind to their own biases, not proactively conspiring to distort the truth.

As the book Super Thinkingnotes, Hanlon’s razor is an attempt to correct what psychologists refer to as “fundamental attribution error.” That is, we all tend to judge the behavior of others as if it represents something fundamental about them, even though we don’t judge ourselves that way. When you see someone run a red light, it’s because they’re a jerk who doesn’t care about anyone else. When you run a red light, it was an accident, or you were really in a rush, or this intersection sucks anyway.

6) The case that we’re actually winning the war on poverty:

7) This is good, “Jurors don’t know what the penalties for a guilty verdict will be. They should.: If juries knew the consequences of their decisions, they’d deliberate more carefully — and could serve as a check on punitive laws”

That’s because most American jurisdictions follow a rule of jury ignorance, meaning that neither judges nor lawyers may tell jurors what punishment a defendant could receive if convicted. There are rare exceptions — state courts in Louisiana and North Carolina, for example — but in most American courtrooms, judges go to great lengths to make sure that jurors don’t know what will happen after a “guilty” verdict.

Keeping juries ignorant, however, exacerbates one of the U.S. criminal justice system’s worst tendencies — its inclination to grow more punitive. Evidence from both history and social scientific experiments suggest that jurors are less likely to convict if they know a defendant’s punishment could be extremely harsh. The rule of jury ignorance eliminates an important check on the system. If politicians thought juries would be less likely to convict when a sentence was severe, for instance, they would be less likely to pass draconian laws.

Replacing ignorant juries with informed ones therefore could be an important criminal justice reform. As a general rule, then, we propose that judges should tell jurors the range of sentences, including the statutory maximum and any mandatory minimums, that a defendant would face upon conviction. (We make the case in a forthcoming article in the Vanderbilt Law Review.)

There are obstacles to this reform — notably a 1994 Supreme Court decision that described jury ignorance as a “well established” principle. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, said there was “a basic division of labor in our legal system between judge and jury”: Juries find guilt, judges sentence. (In that case, Shannon v. the United States, the defendant, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, wanted the jury to be told that he would be confined involuntarily even if the jury concluded he was insane. The jury wasn’t told, and he was found guilty.)

But that opinion was weakly argued, and not well grounded in judicial history. The argument that juries should be informed about sentences should appeal to both liberal and conservative justices of an “originalist” bent — with liberals focusing on how such a reform would democratize the criminal justice system, and originalists focusing on the fact that the ignorant jury lacks a solid historical foundation.

Indeed, juries informed about punishment were quite familiar to the founding generation.

8) I’ve always thought the survey-based estimates of propensity for partisan violence seemed unrealistically high.  Some new PS research on the topic that, says, yes, they are.  Fascinating thread on how disengaged survey respondents are likely leading to large over-estimates.  

9) Gotta love this idea– potty-training cows to reduce emissions:

A herd of “clever cattle” in Germany have successfully been potty-trained and can now relieve themselves in a designated area nicknamed the “MooLoo,” scientists say — a move that they hope will help lower greenhouse gas emissions amid the global warming crisis.

There are an estimated 1.4 billion cows on Earth and they happen to emit a lot of harmful waste products — through burping, urination and defecating — making the animals a major driver of climate change.

Their frequent urination produces 55 to 110 gallons of methane each day and contains nitrogenous components that pollute Earth’s streams and rivers, make the waters dangerous for people to swim in or drink from, and pose a risk to wildlife.

The University of Auckland joined forces with scientists at a research laboratory in Germany for an experiment that would allow the cow’s urine to be collected, treated and neutralized — so it poses less of a risk.

According to researchers, 11 out of 16 calves were taught to use the MooLoo in just 15 training sessions — a result they said compares favorably to the amount of time it takes to toilet-train children ages 3 to 4.

“The common perception is that cows are placid, lovable, but perhaps not as bright as other animals,” said Lindsay Matthews, a New Zealand-based animal behavioral expert and one of the lead authors of the study. “The cute thing here is that the animals are causing a problem, because of [intensive] farming practices. And here, we can have them as part of the solution, by using their underestimated intellect.”

During the training process, the animals were rewarded with a sweet treat when they urinated exactly where they were supposed to go — in a special pen installed in their barn. If they toileted outside of the area they were offered a mild punishment: a short burst of water.

10) You know I love my apples.  Honeycrisps are good, but over-rated.  Good, but not worth the premium price and there’s a lot of other supermarket apples out there with better, more complex flavor.  Now Honeycrisp has an offspring that’s great for late summer when the apples from storage are old and bad.  Raves ripen early so they are fresh in August and September and they’ve got a great flavor.  Pretty excited to find these at my local Harris Teeter.

11) Frum on the NeverTrumpers dilemma:

Many of the conservatives and Republicans appalled by Donald Trump’s presidency clutched a hope through the bewildering years: Someday this would all be over and politics would return to normal.

But normal has not returned. Those elected Republicans who stood for legality when Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election found themselves party pariahs in 2021, on their way to being out of politics altogether in 2022.

And it’s not just a few politicians who have been displaced by the Trump era. Millions of voters have been too. “Never Trump is not a political party. It is a dinner party”: That jibe was heard a lot in 2017 and 2018. It has not been heard much since. In 2018, Democratic candidates won districts that had loyally voted Republican for 30, 40, 50 years, including those once held by Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, and George H. W. Bush.

The anti-Trump Republicans did not return home in 2020. Now, in 2021, their former party seems much more eager to welcome anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers than to win them back.

12) If you love a good subway like I do, you’ll also love this audio interactive, “The Hidden Melodies of Subways Around the World: When train doors close, these jingles warn riders to stand clear.”

13) Local school/air quality news, “NC parents are buying air purifiers for schools. Are they worth the cost to fight COVID?”

Last school year, Wake County school system installed MERV-13 air filters in the HVAC units at each school. But the district is only providing individual air purification units to special-needs classrooms where students are unable to wear face masks.

The reason that Wake County hasn’t provided air purifiers in every classroom is the ABC Science Collaborative, a group formed by Duke University to advise schools on COVID issues.

“Air exchange, purifiers, or filters may help minimally, but have not been shown to help if people are masked.”

I’ve been meaning to write a whole post about this, but, what the hell?!?!  There’s plenty of evidence, just no large trials.  A lack of large RCT trials is not the same things as “no scientific data.”  This is just wrong.  

14) I watched the 2015 movie, Sicario, this week.  It was so damn good.  How the hell did I not hear about this back in 2015?!  We need more movies like this– exciting, thrilling, wonderfully-directed, and about real human beings.

Keeping kids safe in school– masks edition

Kids are getting sick with Covid like never before.  It’s not cause to panic as pediatric infections still very much tend to be mild,  But, as a numbers game, with this many damn cases of Delta, some kids– and far more than should if our society could be better– will get quite sick.  And since the FDA in its infinite folly seems to be in no rush to protect our under 12’s, it’s up to us as school systems and parents.  Obviously, for school systems, that’s got to be mask mandates.  And, that’s what we’re seeing all through the bluer and better educated systems of the country (like my own, fortunately).  

And, just because it’s related, Jeremy Faust on kids’ hospitalization rates.  Yowza.

But, a mask mandate is really just a good start.  What really helps is getting good masks on kids.  Alas, on that score there’s been a complete abdication of guidance and leadership.  Lots and lots of kids will surely be wearing masks of little benefit in protecting them and minimized benefit in protecting others.  So, what’s a parent to do?  Get the best fitting, decent filtering, mask that your kid will wear for a whole school day.  And here’s a great resource on that.  Also, IAQ expert/professor Alex Huffman has a great twitter thread linking to multiple sources of good information on kids’ masks.  

For what it’s worth, I just ordered these cool Korean KF94‘s for my daughter.  

NYT’s Wirecutter had a recent great feature on recommended kids’ masks.  Of course, every last damn recommendation is sold out (tell me if you have any luck).  

An on-line friend who really knows his air quality/mask stuff, recommended these and says his early-teen daughter swears by them.  Alas, I don’t love the 10-15 business days they currently estimate for shipping.  

Anyway, if you’ve got kids in school, especially unvaccinated younger ones, surely worth some time/money to get the best mask you can for them.

Are smartphones making our teenagers lonely?

Some solid social science says… probably yes.  Great summary of their work from Jon Haidt and Jean Twenge:

So what does the PISA survey show? In a paper we just published in The Journal of Adolescence, we report that in 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. We grouped the 37 countries into four geographic and cultural regions, and we found the same pattern in all regions: Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with fewer than 18 percent reporting high levels of loneliness. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America and the English-speaking countries, and rose by about 50 percent in the East Asian countries.

This synchronized global increase in teenage loneliness suggests a global cause, and the timing is right for smartphones and social media to be major contributors. But couldn’t the timing just be coincidental? To test our hypothesis, we sought data on many global trends that might have an impact on teenage loneliness, including declines in family size, changes in G.D.P., rising income inequality and increases in unemployment, as well as more smartphone access and more hours of internet use. The results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated.

These analyses don’t prove that smartphones and social media are major causes of the increase in teenage loneliness, but they do show that several other causes are less plausible. If anyone has another explanation for the global increase in loneliness at school, we’d love to hear it. [emphasis mine]

All young mammals play, especially those that live in groups like dogs, chimpanzees and humans. All such mammals need tens of thousands of social interactions to become socially competent adults. In 2012 it was possible to believe that teens would get those interactions via their smartphones — far more of them, perhaps. But as data accumulates that teenage mental health has changed for the worse since 2012, it now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories. Just imagine what teenagers’ health would be like today if we had taken 50 percent of the most nutritious food out of their diets in 2012 and replaced those calories with sugar.

So what can we do? We can’t turn back time to the pre-smartphone era, nor would we want to, given the many benefits of the technology. But we can take some reasonable steps to help teens get more of what they need.

One important step is to give kids a long period each day when they are not distracted by their devices: the school day. Phones may be useful for getting to and from school, but they should be locked up during the school day so students can practice the lost art of paying full attention to the people around them — including their teachers.

A second important step is to delay entry into social media, ideally keeping it entirely out of elementary and middle schools. At present, many 10- and 11-year-olds simply lie about their age to open accounts, and once that happens, other kids don’t want to be excluded, so they feel pressured to do the same.

I actually like that my 15-year old basically entirely eschews social media.  On the other hand, I’m presumably guilty of letting my 10-year old lie about her age, but’s really so she can mostly post cute photos of our dog, which really does seem to avoid the harms this article is talking about.  Or, even better, an outlet for her creative writing about velociraptors (now featuring stop-motion video!)  

 

Quick hits (part II)

1) This is so good.  Amanda Knox— famous for being wrongfully convicted in Italy– with a great piece on the many, many cognitive biases that led to her awful situation.  

2) I’m an unapologetic Olympics lover.  Matt Grossman has been tweeting links to Olympics research.  Love this regresssion model of gold medals by country:

3) This from Melinda Wenner Moyer sounds right to me, “American Parents Are Way Too Focused on Their Kids’ Self-Esteem: Our over-the-top efforts to ensure that kids feel valued and adored can actually make them feel inept.”  I’ve requested and plan to read her new book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.  But, seriously, she couldn’t give it a title that’s not going to be super awkward when I have it on the coffee table where I leave the books I’m reading?  I’m 95% positive this title will ultimately hurt her sales and readership.  Anyway…

But as I dug into the research, I learned that many American parents have been woefully overvaluing and misunderstanding the concept. Having healthy self-esteem does not ensure that kids will fare well or stay out of trouble. And although self-esteem is a tricky concept to study, research suggests that the steps parents take to foster self-esteem in their kids often have the paradoxical effect of undermining it. Our over-the-top efforts to ensure that kids feel valued and adored can actually make them feel inept—whereas intentionally exposing our kids to disappointment and failure, which so many parents are loath to do, can give children a satisfying sense of self-efficacy.

For decades, Americans have been a little obsessed with the concept of self-esteema measure of how much confidence and value people feel they have. In 1986, the governor of California, George Deukmejian, signed legislation that created the Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, which concluded that boosting Californians’ collective levels of self-esteem would lower rates of crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, welfare dependency, and school underachievement. The task force’s final report referred to self-esteem as a “social vaccine” that is “central to most of the personal and social problems that plague human life in today’s world.”

That’s a bold statement, based on a bold assumption that the U.S. is suffering from an ongoing epidemic of low self-esteem, and that this deficiency is dangerous. You’ve probably heard that teens with low self-esteem are more likely than other kids to be depressed, to be anxious, to drink, to do drugs, and to commit crimes. This is all true. But what might come as a surprise is that the inverse of this statement is not also true. High self-esteem is not a panacea against all things bad, and kids with high self-esteem often make bad choices too.

“It’s unclear, actually, just how important self-esteem may be in terms of predicting healthy outcomes,” says Grace Cho, a developmental psychologist at St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and the co-author of Self-Esteem in Time and Place: How American Families Imagine, Enact, and Personalize a Cultural Ideal. “The literature is actually really kind of messy and mixed.” In an exhaustive review of the research literature, the Florida State University social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues concluded that “raising self-esteem will not by itself make young people perform better in school, obey the law, stay out of trouble, get along better with their fellows, or respect the rights of others.”

4) Monica Gandhi, “We are testing too many vaccinated people who lack covid symptoms”

Early in the pandemic, the United States had an undertesting problem. Now we are overtesting those who are immune and asymptomatic. A person with immunity to the coronavirus will fight off an infection. But during and after the person’s exposure to the virus, it’s common for a low number of virus particles to be detectable in the nose. In medicine, we call this virus a “colonizer” — a pathogen that does not cause illness or spread the illness. It’s an incidental finding. But in today’s world of routine coronavirus testing of vaccinated people, these positive tests are inflating the number of positive cases in a misleading way.

It is true that the delta variant has led to an increase in cases in parts of the country where vaccination rates are low, and these surges need to be taken seriously; these cases correlate with increases in serious illnesses and hospitalizations mainly among the unvaccinated. What we’re concerned about is the overtesting of the fully vaccinated, who now make up roughly 60 percent of U.S. adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially decreed that fully vaccinated people should not be tested for the coronavirus in the absence of symptoms. That’s because immunity works. Mounting evidence has demonstrated an extremely low risk of asymptomatic transmission by vaccinated people.

But despite this guideline, testing vaccinated people with no symptoms is a bandwagon that cannot seem to be stopped. Employers, entertainment venuesschoolsairlines, local governments and even hospitals are adopting universal testing policies regardless of vaccination status. This results in asymptomatic immune people testing positive even though they pose no substantive public health threat. This practice was evident even at the White House’s outdoor Fourth of July party, where each of the more than 1,000 attendees was tested for the coronavirus. We can assume that many of Biden’s staff and friends who attended were vaccinated. So unless they had symptoms (which would preclude them from attending, anyway) this testing was not consistent with CDC guidelines.

Testing people who have been vaccinated and have no symptoms could extend this pandemic forever. That’s because a PCR test, which still remains the gold standard of testing (over antigen-based testing), can detect just a few virus particles — or even just one. Those small amounts of the virus are not enough to cause transmission, according to studies in the Journal of Infectious Diseases and the Lancet. Indeed, such small amounts of exposure can boost immunity in the vaccinated while causing no ill effects.

In this new phase of battling the pandemic, we should change the way we talk about covid-19 infections: Rather than discussing “cases” — meaning instances when a PCR test delivers a positive result — we should describe the viral load a person is carrying. Measuring the load size is done by determining the number of cycles required for the PCR machine to detect the virus. The more cycles used to find a virus, the lower the viral load. A positive test with a high cycle threshold, say, more than 25 cycles) — signaling a noninfectious virus — should be treated as far less worrisome than a positive test with a low-cycle threshold.

5) We don’t hear a lot about the J&J vaccine these days.  This is good, “Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine produced fewer antibodies against Delta compared with other shots in an experiment. Experts say we shouldn’t worry about the results.”

Dr. Ned Landau, who led the experiment, told CNBC that the findings suggested people who got the J&J vaccine “should at least consider” a second dose of the same vaccine or one from Pfizer or Moderna. 

But other experts aren’t convinced about the findings of a small lab study, which hasn’t yet been scrutinized by other experts in a peer review. They say Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine could still work against Delta in real life.

Insider’s Hilary Brueck reported Tuesday that fully vaccinated people could get COVID-19 — but if they do, they usually get mild symptoms, or none at all.

 

8) As someone who discovered oral allergy syndrome and my allergies to apples as an adult, I found this really interesting:

My grandson Tomas first noticed a distressing reaction to hazelnuts at age 8. Whenever he ate Nutella, his mouth and throat felt tingly and swollen, and so this sweet spread was then banned from his diet and the household.

A few years later, Tomas had the same reaction when he ate raw carrots. In researching this column, I learned that hazelnuts and carrots, although botanically unrelated foods, share a protein with birch pollen, to which Tomas is allergic. However, he can eat cooked carrots safely because cooking denatures the allergenic protein.

Now 21, he has not yet reacted to other foods that also contain the birch pollen protein, namely celery, potato, apple and peach, although he could eventually become sensitive to one or more of them. His father said that as an adult he’s developed similar mouth and throat symptoms when he eats apples and peaches, especially during pollen season.

I also learned of another common link between pollen and food sensitivities. People allergic to ragweed may also react to bananas and melons. Again, a shared protein is responsible. This type of allergy is believed to start with sensitization to inhalation of the offending pollen that later results in an allergic reaction when the food protein is consumed.

9) I had the amazing opportunity when I was in 9th grade to spend a week in the Dominican Republic with my high school band so I’ve always tried to pay a little extra attention to the country.  Really interesting piece from Noah Smith examining all the hypotheses for why it has been so much more successful than its island neighbor, Haiti.  Short version– lots of good ideas, but no clear answer.  

10) I love this approach from Drum on how to make American politics so, so much better:

If you’ve been watching Fox News since last November, you believe that:

  1. Democratic voter fraud was rampant in the 2020 presidential election, which Donald Trump probably won.
  2. The 1/6 insurrection was a false flag operation of some kind that was planned and carried out by liberals, the FBI, and other parts of the Deep State who then tried to blame it on Trump supporters.
  3. There is no reason to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
  4. Our nation’s public schools have been taken over by left-wing teachers who tell white kids that they should all be ashamed of being white.

If I were a multi-billionaire, what would I do with my money? Unfortunately, the really big problems—climate change, national healthcare, racism, etc.—are too big even for a billionaire. Only national governments can really address them.

Instead I would dedicate my fortune to destroying Fox News. I would do it any way I could. Marketing. Lawsuits. Boycotts. Talent poaching. Cable access. Making Rupert Murdoch’s life miserable. You name it. Nor would I have any qualms about playing fair. You have a plan for a space-based laser that interferes with Fox News broadcasts and makes them unwatchable? Great! Here’s a hundred million to give it a go.

Fox News may have started out with narrower goals, but today it’s explicitly aimed at undermining American politics and getting us to hate each other. Why? Because it adds to the fortune of an Australian plutocrat who thinks that plundering the American public is a great way of becoming ever richer. Ditto for the on-air “talent,” which has become rich by figuring out ever bigger and better ways of scaring the poor schmoes who trust them.

American politics is unlikely to recover until Fox News is reduced to rubble. Anyone know a billionaire who agrees?

11) What Texas is trying to do with its abortion law may have far-reaching consequences.  Really good stuff here from Laurence Tribe and Stephen Vladeck:

Efforts in red states to pass increasingly restrictive limits on abortions have ramped up in the past few years as the composition of the Supreme Court has made it more likely that those laws will be upheld. But a new law in Texas that’s set to go into effect on Sept. 1 is especially worrisome.

Not only has Texas banned virtually all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, a point at which many women do not even know they’re pregnant, it has also provided for enforcement of that ban by private citizens. If you suspect that a Texan is seeking to obtain an abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, not only will you be able to sue the provider to try to stop it, but if you succeed, you’ll also be entitled to compensation. (And what’s known as the litigation privilege would likely protect you from a defamation claim even if you’re wrong.) The law, known as S.B. 8, effectively enlists the citizenry to act as an anti-abortion Stasi.

All of that would be problematic enough, but enlisting private citizens to enforce the restriction makes it very difficult, procedurally, to challenge the bill’s constitutionality in court. A lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin last week tries to get around those roadblocks. We believe that it should succeed. But if it fails, not only would that leave the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country impervious to constitutional challenge, it would also encourage other states to follow Texas’ lead on abortion, as well as on every other contested question of social policy.

California could shift to private enforcement of its gun control regulations, never mind the Second Amendment implications of such restrictions. Vermont could shift to private enforcement of its environmental regulations, never mind the federal pre-emption implications. And the list goes on.

In the abstract, allowing citizens to help enforce the law is nothing new. Many states have so-called citizen suit or private attorney general provisions that allow people to help enforce a range of laws and rules governing consumer and environmental protection, government transparency and more. The federal government authorizes citizens to help bring certain fraud claims on behalf of the United States — and allows those citizens to share in any damages that the government receives. The critical point in both of those contexts is that citizens are supplementing government enforcement.

The Texas law, by contrast, leaves private enforcement as the only mechanism for enforcing the broad restrictions on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. It specifically precludes the state’s attorney general or any other state official from initiating enforcement. Under this new law, private enforcement supplants government enforcement rather than supplements it. If this seems like a strange move, it is. And it appears to be a deeply cynical one, serving no purpose other than to make the abortion ban difficult to challenge in court.

12) This was really interesting, especially for a Jeopardy fan, “What Ever Happened to IBM’s Watson? IBM’s artificial intelligence was supposed to transform industries and generate riches for the company. Neither has panned out. Now, IBM has settled on a humbler vision for Watson.”

 

Better late than never quick hits

0) Had a terrific vacation at the beach last week.  Read plenty of good stuff, but, more important to sit in the sun than to work on the blog.  And when I got back home, set back due to an AC failure.  Good news is that I had it repaired in less than 24 hours and I’m typing this in pleasant climate-controlled air.  Anyway…

1) Great conversation between Yascha Mounk and Sabrina Tavernise:

Mounk: You’re somebody who has spent much of your career as a foreign correspondent living outside the United States. You spent time in Russia and Turkey, some time in Lebanon and other places. But coming back to the United States, you suddenly felt like your experience of covering deeply divided societies gave you insight into the United States. [The U.S.] suddenly felt similar to both societies in a way that it hadn’t done when you were growing up here. What lessons can we take from these deeply divided societies? And how can we make sure that we have empathy for our fellow citizens who are on the other side of a political divide without excusing the most reprehensible actions?

Tavernise: I moved to Russia when I was 24 years old, and I started in journalism when I was 26. And I didn’t really know very much about the way the world worked at that point. And I feel like I kind of went out into that society speaking very good Russian—my Russian was very fluent—without very much humility, and with a lot of arrogance about who they were and how they were supposed to get their act together. I remember traveling to these little provincial towns, and I’d be writing about an aluminum plant or an oil company or a local election. And I remember thinking and writing in this way, “You know, guys, the widget factory is never coming back. I know everybody wants the widget factory because that was what was comfortable and safe. But that was a communist thing, and communism is over. You really need to get your act together. Why don’t you just go out and kind of invent something? Go out and build a business, go out and rearrange your life and your town in a way that will make you prosperous and more like us.” 

When I first came back to the United States, I’d been gone for the better part of more than a dozen years. And I started talking to Americans, also in provincial places, and I realized they were saying, “Oh, if only the widget factory that was here in the 70s, in the 80s, would come back! If only it would come back, then all of our problems would be gone.” I realized, oh, my God, it was the same thing. It was the same dynamic. And part of that was economic collapse. Part of that was extreme lack of trust in government and in each other. 

Another parallel was the disinformation that started to spread in Russia, quite early and very virulently. [With] every person you would talk to, every cab driver, you would get into it: “Gorbachev is actually being run by MI6.” Everybody had a theory of why life was so messed up, and who was responsible, who was to blame. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is just a bunch of tinfoil-hat stuff. These people were in the Soviet cave for 70 years, and they kind of got a little wacky in there. They didn’t modernize with everybody else.”

[But] more recently, in my own society, people say, “Oh, yeah, the election was stolen? Absolutely. Biden has basically been kidnapped, and there are all these people around him who are actually making the decisions and pulling the strings.” I realized we are absolutely not exceptional in any way. We basically have exactly the same problems and exactly the same group dynamics and exactly the same divides. We were richer and more developed, [but] that didn’t matter. That’s pretty sobering, because now we’re stuck. How do we get out of this situation? No one on the right I’m talking to even thinks that Biden is kind of a sentient, conscious individual. The elections [going forward] are going to be really fraught, because there’s been this poison pill injected into them by Trump, and it’s hard to know where it’s going. 

2) Great stuff on cuttlefish and the implications for the evolution of intelligence:

These studies suggest that cuttlefish are capable of self-control and of remembering their own past experiences. The next step will be tests of whether, like the jays, they are aware of how they will feel in the future, and can plan for it.

“We’re adapting these experiments that have been done in chimpanzees and corvids,” Dr. Schnell said, “to see if these animals that diverged from this lineage 550 million years ago have the same capacity.”

If they do, cuttlefish will have an important role in illuminating how and when intelligence evolves. Corvids and certain primates — including humans — each developed the ability to plan for the future, but they seem to have arrived at it independently, rather than inheriting the capacity from a common ancestor. Both kinds of creatures have complex social lives and lengthy life spans to learn from, commonalities that make it hard for biologists to say what traits or environment make intelligence a good investment for an organism.

The cuttlefish promises to add another dimension to the study of intelligence because they must have developed it in a completely different context.

“They don’t live a long time, unlike the corvids. They’re not highly social, unlike the corvids,” Dr. Clayton said. “It was very unlikely that it was social intelligence that was driving the evolution.”

There are still more tests to come. It’s not clear whether cuttlefish will turn out to have all the same skills as apes and corvids, or just a handful. If what they have is similar, then it’s possible that profound vulnerability, rather than long life or social complexity, is what has forced them to become so canny.

3) Philip Bump, “Want to know how a county voted? Find out how many White Christians live there.”

Here, as the title of the image says, are two maps of the United States. One shows every county in which at least half of the population is made up of non-Hispanic Whites who are Christian, as estimated by PRRI as part of its 2020 Census of American Religion. The other map shows counties that Preside nt Donald Trump won in the 2020 election. The darker the coloration, the greater each percentage.

 

So which is which?

The easiest way to tell is by looking at the Northeast. Much of New England votes reliably Democratic but is also densely White. So you can tell that Map B is the map of White Christians and Map A the map of 2020 election results.

The point, of course, is that it isn’t easy to differentiate between them. Looking at PRRI’s maps of the distribution of religious groups, the superficial similarity of White Christianity and Trump support is immediately obvious. But, of course, national maps of county-level data tend to obscure underlying trends, as anyone who has had a debate over how to depict presidential-vote results can attest.

4) I literally don’t get why paramedics are paid so little.  I’d like to see that addressed in this article.  I mean, like what’s going on economically that you can actually have a sufficient supply of people trained to treat heart attacks, major trauma, etc., on the spot for only $17/hour?

The misconception that emergency medics provide transportation, not medicine, leaves them to cope with all sorts of indignities. “They’re used to being second-class citizens,” says Michael Levy, the president of the National Association of EMS Physicians. In one hour—during which they may respond to several 911 calls—the median paramedic or EMT makes a little more than $17. That’s half the hourly pay of registered nurses and less than one-fifth the pay of doctors—if they’re paid at all. During the pandemic, emergency medics were literally enclosed in rolling boxes with COVID-19 patients. But in some states, they were not prioritized alongside other essential health-care workers for the first round of vaccines. After delivering their precious cargo to a hospital, in many cases they don’t learn the final diagnosis, or whether their patient ever makes it back home.

That medicine treats emergency medics like disposable, low-wage workers instead of the health-care professionals they are isn’t just unfortunate for the workers themselves—it also leads to less than optimal care for the rest of us on the day we may need it most.

5) Good Post editorial, “The U.S. is growing more unequal. That’s harmful — and fixable.”

First, the data: The combined wealth of all households in the United States added up to $129.5 trillion in the first quarter of this year. The wealthiest 1 percent held 32.1 percent of the total, up from 23.4 percent in 1989. The top 10 percent of households owned $70 of every $100 in household wealth, up from $61 in 1989. The bottom half, whose share never exceeded 5 percent, now holds just 2 percent of household wealth in the United States…

Though wealth inequality has grown in other industrialized democracies too, the U.S. figures mark this country as an outlier. A 2018 study of 28 countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, the top 10 percent of households owns 52 percent of wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 12 percent. But in the United States the top 10 percent held 79.5 percent and the bottom 60 percent held 2.4 percent…

The wealth gap did not develop overnight. It neither can, nor should, be entirely eliminated; but the United States could aim for a more equitable distribution similar to that of our peer nations today — and, indeed, that which prevailed in the country during the era of its greatest international prestige. Policy reforms, starting now, could make it happen.

6) This was interesting, “The Secrets of ‘Cognitive Super-Agers’: By studying centenarians, researchers hope to develop strategies to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and slow brain aging for all of us.”

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans reach the age of 100, and new data from the Netherlands indicate that those who achieve that milestone with their mental faculties still intact are likely to remain so for their remaining years, even if their brains are riddled with the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Findings from the Dutch study may eventually pave a path for many more of us to become “cognitive super-agers,” as researchers call people who approach the end of the human life span with brains that function as if they were 30 years younger.

One day everyone who is physically able to reach 100 may also be able to remain mentally healthy. By studying centenarians, researchers hope to identify reliable characteristics and develop treatments that would result in healthy cognitive aging for most of us. Meanwhile, there is much we can do now to keep our brains in tiptop condition, even if reaching 100 is neither a goal nor a possibility.

These hopeful prospects stem from the study of 340 Dutch centenarians living independently who were tested and shown to be cognitively healthy when they enrolled. The 79 participants who neither died nor dropped out of the study returned for repeated cognitive testing, over an average follow-up of 19 months.

The research team, directed by Henne Holstege at Vrije University in Amsterdam, reported in JAMA Network Open in January that these participants experienced no decline in major cognitive measures, except for a slight loss in memory function. Basically, the participants performed as if they were 30 years younger in overall cognition; ability to make decisions and plans and execute them; recreate by drawing a figure they had looked at; list animals or objects that began with a certain letter; and not becoming easily distracted when performing a task or getting lost when they left home.

7) It’s been a while since I’ve adopted a pet, but can we all agree that so many rescue organization are over-the-top nuts?  I didn’t realize how bad it’s gotten. “Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check.: Overlong applications, home inspections and fecal samples from existing pets are all fair game in finding a cat’s or dog’s “forever home.””

Shortly after the pandemic began, I started religiously checking Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet in search of a kitten. Whenever I saw one I wanted, I filled out an application. Unlike the two pages I’d submitted to adopt my dog in 2009, these were long, exhaustive and, in my opinion, a bit invasive.

One rescue organization asked that I fill out a seven-page application, submit five personal references and provide a detailed record of every pet I’ve owned since childhood. Another wanted my driver’s license number, multiple references, a fecal sample from each of my dogs, a personal meeting and a separate home visit.

Others wanted to know whether my yard was fenced; if I’d enroll my pet in a training class; if I had ever been divorced; how much time I spent at home; and what my overall discipline philosophy was.

8) This NYT “How to be happy” guide is really good.  As for me, I am, of course, already on most of it.

9) Damon Linker argues that the anti-anti-CRT people have gone too far, and I think he’s right.  Yes, systemic racism is a thing, but CRT goes way further than that to places that are a lot less defensible:

According to an adage attributed to George Santayana, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But how to explain those who know history quite well and yet nonetheless repeat it?

That question has cropped into my head many times in recent weeks, as conservative activists and Republicans in Congress have actively denounced and in some cases acted to ban the teaching of what they call Critical Race Theory in public schools (both K-12 and universities) — and many of the left’s most intelligent writers have responded almost exclusively by railing against right-wing critics of CRT.

Put in slightly more schematic terms, the left is reacting to the anti-CRT movement by becoming loudly anti-anti-CRT. That is a big mistake, both intellectually and politically. How do we know? In part because we just lived through the folly of Republicans enacting the double negation of becoming anti-anti-Trump in order to avoid calling out the obscenity of the man himself.

 

But there’s an even more pertinent parallel further back in American history. Roughly seventy years ago the left’s forebears made precisely the same move when confronted with an overly zealous, demagogic critic of communism. Rather than single out Sen. Joseph McCarthy for hysterical overreach while also acknowledging that communism was a serious threat that demanded vigilance, they instead became anti-anti-communists, elevating “McCarthyism” into the real danger, perhaps even the only danger, and dismissing concerns about communism as a phantom threat…

Left-leaning critics of the ascendant anti-CRT movement like to point out that Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught in schools. Strictly speaking, this is correct, and I’ve made the point myself. CRT is a diffuse academic specialty animating the work of serious scholars across a range of fields, including law, history, and various disciplines in the social sciences. Much of this work is worthwhile and fruitfully provocative in its emphasis on structural dimensions of racial oppression in the past and present. But the suggestion that this scholarship is regularly being taught in K-12 history classes, or even in survey-level courses to undergraduates, is risible…

Others on the left will quietly concede that the past and present of American life is indeed more complicated than the most simple-minded construals of systematic or structural racism imply. Yet they will point out more loudly that conservatives hardly do better at advocating pluralism and complexity in the classroom. On the contrary, they propose and prefer uncritical patriotic homilies like those contained in the report produced by Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission.”

This is certainly true of some on the right. But that’s precisely why the country needs liberal-minded leftists to ally with liberal centrists in taking a stand against the pious simplicities proffered by illiberal ideologues on both extremes. Public schools should be teaching the story of the past and present in a way that foregrounds the admirable as well as the shameful, that shows students how to hold contrary and complex views in their minds at the same time, that highlights our noblest principles as well as our most egregious faults, in the past as well as in the present.  

But that’s not what we’re getting from the left. Instead, we’re seeing savage critiques of the critics of CRT, but almost nothing about the simple-minded counter-homilies that their own allies are proposing. 

10) That said, indeed, let’s be careful here.  Somehow I never read Jamelle Bouie’s 1619 Project essay, and it’s great.  Students need to learn stuff like this.  “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.”

The Republican rationale for tilting the field in their permanent favor or, failing that, nullifying the results and limiting Democrats’ power as much as possible, has a familiar ring to it. “Citizens from every corner of Wisconsin deserve a strong legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison,” one Wisconsin Republican said following the party’s lame-duck power grab. The speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos, made his point more explicit. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority — we would have all five constitutional officers, and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.” The argument is straightforward: Some voters, their voters, count. Others — the liberals, black people and other people of color who live in cities — don’t.

Senate Republicans played with similar ideas just before the 2016 election, openly announcing their plans to block Hillary Clinton from nominating anyone to the Supreme Court, should she become president. “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” declared Senator John McCain of Arizona just weeks before voting. And President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and falsely denounced Clinton’s popular-vote victory as illegitimate, the product of fraud and illegal voting. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he declared on Twitter weeks after the election, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. The recent attempt to place a citizenship question on the census was an important part of this effort. By asking for this information, the administration would suppress the number of immigrant respondents, worsening their representation in the House and the Electoral College, reweighting power to the white, rural areas that back the president and the Republican Party.

You could make the case that none of this has anything to do with slavery and slaveholder ideology. You could argue that it has nothing to do with race at all, that it’s simply an aggressive effort to secure conservative victories. But the tenor of an argument, the shape and nature of an opposition movement — these things matter. The goals may be colorblind, but the methods of action — the attacks on the legitimacy of nonwhite political actors, the casting of rival political majorities as unrepresentative, the drive to nullify democratically elected governing coalitions — are clearly downstream of a style of extreme political combat that came to fruition in the defense of human bondage.

11) Appreciated reading the details of how the Raleigh Zebra Cobra was captured.  

12) Meanwhile a black bear was camped out in a tree near a local hospital and was lured down with doughnuts.  

13) As the parent of an intellectually disabled adult (here we are at the beach last week), I really appreciated former Obama adviser David Axelrod talking about the challenges for parents of intellectually-disabled adults.

14) Really appreciate BB sharing this article on NHL draft pick values with me.  After the first half of the first round, it’s really just a crapshoot.

15) Katherine Wu on the fact that we should not label all breakthrough Covid infections the same.

The first thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re doing exactly what they were designed and authorized to do. Since the shots first started their rollout late last year, rates of COVID-19 disease have taken an unprecedented plunge among the immunized. We are, as a nation, awash in a glut of spectacularly effective vaccines that can, across populations, geographies, and even SARS-CoV-2 variants, stamp out the most serious symptoms of disease.

The second thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re flame retardants, not impenetrable firewalls, when it comes to the coronavirus. Some vaccinated people are still getting infected, and a small subset of these individuals is still getting sick—and this is completely expected.

We’re really, really bad at communicating that second point, which is all about breakthroughs, a concept that has, not entirely accurately, become synonymous with vaccine failure. It’s a problem that goes far beyond semantics: Bungling the messaging around our shots’ astounding success has made it hard to convey the truly minimal risk that the vaccinated face, and the enormous gamble taken by those who eschew the jabs.

The main problem is this. As the CDC defines it, the word breakthrough can refer to any presumed infection by SARS-CoV-2 (that is, any positive coronavirus test) if it’s detected more than two weeks after someone receives the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But infections can come with or without symptoms, making the term imprecise. That means breakthroughs writ large aren’t the most relevant metric to use when we’re evaluating vaccines meant primarily to curb symptoms, serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. “Breakthrough disease is what the average person needs to be paying attention to,” Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, told me. Silent, asymptomatic breakthroughs—those that are effectively invisible in the absence of a virus-hunting diagnostic—are simply not in the same league.

16) I would’ve missed this if not for SAM sharing with me.  Profound biotechnological advancement, “Tapping Into the Brain to Help a Paralyzed Man Speak
In a once unimagined accomplishment, electrodes implanted in the man’s brain transmit signals to a computer that displays his words.”

Three years ago, when Pancho, now 38, agreed to work with neuroscience researchers, they were unsure if his brain had even retained the mechanisms for speech.

“That part of his brain might have been dormant, and we just didn’t know if it would ever really wake up in order for him to speak again,” said Dr. Edward Chang, chairman of neurological surgery at University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.”

As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.

Pancho (who asked to be identified only by his nickname to protect his privacy) also tried to say the 50 words in 50 distinct sentences like “My nurse is right outside” and “Bring my glasses, please” and in response to questions like “How are you today?”

His answer, displayed onscreen: “I am very good.”

In nearly half of the 9,000 times Pancho tried to say single words, the algorithm got it right. When he tried saying sentences written on the screen, it did even better.

By funneling algorithm results through a kind of autocorrect language-prediction system, the computer correctly recognized individual words in the sentences nearly three-quarters of the time and perfectly decoded entire sentences more than half the time.

17) While on vacation I read Andy Weir’s Hall Mary Project.  Loved, loved, loved it!  And, 2/3 of the way through, my 15-year old definitely feels the same.  I love how seriously Weir takes the science.  But, I had a nagging feeling about him not taking language/communication quite seriously enough.  Thus, I loved this essay on that part of the book.  But don’t read this if you think you will be reading the book.

18) Haven’t read much on gut microbiomes lately, so very much appreciated BB sharing this with me, “Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status”

Summary

Diet modulates the gut microbiome, which in turn can impact the immune system. Here, we determined how two microbiota-targeted dietary interventions, plant-based fiber and fermented foods, influence the human microbiome and immune system in healthy adults. Using a 17-week randomized, prospective study (n = 18/arm) combined with -omics measurements of microbiome and host, including extensive immune profiling, we found diet-specific effects. The high-fiber diet increased microbiome-encoded glycan-degrading carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) despite stable microbial community diversity. Although cytokine response score (primary outcome) was unchanged, three distinct immunological trajectories in high-fiber consumers corresponded to baseline microbiota diversity. Alternatively, the high-fermented-food diet steadily increased microbiota diversity and decreased inflammatory markers. The data highlight how coupling dietary interventions to deep and longitudinal immune and microbiome profiling can provide individualized and population-wide insight. Fermented foods may be valuable in countering the decreased microbiome diversity and increased inflammation pervasive in industrialized society.

19) I found this “How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Be Racist” essay to be interesting just in the idea that, apparently many people have the idea that ignoring the fact that race is a thing will help your kids be less racism.  Ummmm… no.

Even if we don’t want them to, children do notice differences in race and skin color. And that means that attempts to suppress discussions about race and racism are misguided. Those efforts won’t eliminate prejudice. They may, in fact, make it worse.

So-called colorblind parenting — avoiding the topic of race in an effort to raise children who aren’t prejudiced — is not just unhelpful, it actually perpetuates racism.That’s because racism isn’t driven solely by individual prejudice. It’s a system of inequity bolstered by racist laws and policies — the very fact that opponents of teaching critical race theory are trying to erase…

When children aren’t presented with the context required to understand why our society looks the way it does, “they make up reasons, and a lot of kids make up biased, racist reasons,” said Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist who studies the development of prejudice. Children often start to believe that white people are more privileged because they’re smarter or more powerful, Dr. Bigler says.

Parents should explicitly challenge these wrong assumptions and explain the role of centuries of systemic racism in creating these inequities. Brigitte Vittrup, a psychologist at Texas Woman’s University, and George W. Holden, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, found that white children whose parents talked with them about race became less prejudiced over time, compared with children whose parents didn’t have such conversations.

Another study co-written by Dr. Bigler found that white children who had learned about racial discrimination had more positive attitudes toward Black people than children who were not exposed to that curriculum. The same researchers later found that classroom discussions about racial discrimination also had a positive impact on Black children.

20) Important research here, “Who is most likely to develop severe COVID-19 even after a second jab?” Answer: older people with serious health conditions.

21) So, is it wrong of me to still talk about gypsy moths? “This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”

22) As you know, I’m a big fan of Matt Yglesias and a big fan of Noah Smith.  So I really enjoyed the latter interviewing the former.

On good writing, parenthood, and velociraptors

I’ve been hearing from my daughter’s teachers the past couple of years what a good writer she is.  But, she’ll never share her writing with me, no matter how much I beg.  But now, I finally get to see.  Inspired by 1) her brother’s extensive lego collection, and 2) the boredom arising from her two neighbor friends heading off to Morocco for the whole summer, she decided to make a “Velociraptor Sightings” Instagram account (You should check out all the posts and start at the beginning).  At the risk of being a totally biased dad, I’ve got to say, I think it’s hilarious and pretty brilliant.  

What so amazes and impresses me is the style/tone of her writing.  As a college professor, I think a lot about good writing.  And one thins that’s really clear is that a lot of the best writers simply read a lot and naturally assimilate the tone and conventions of the style of writing they are trying to do themselves.  Others can learn this, but, often, it’s an effortful slog.  What I love here is that Sarah has so wonderfully reproduced a tone you would find in a social media account for some kind of wildlife center or in a short, fun, nature video.  Obviously, I take no credit for this and as much as appreciate the teachers at Kingswood Elementary, she did not learn this there.  In short, as a parent, its delightful to see what a naturally gifted writer my daughter is.  [I think I will take a bit of credit for the humor, as that is something we all enjoy together and that is definitely encouraged in the Greene household]

Anyway, so far most of this talent is wasted on just her family, so, if you are on Instagram, please consider giving her a follow.

 

Parenting meets inequality meets culture

Truly fascinating Edsall column last week on research on how parenting style interacts with education and a country’s political culture to impact children’s social mobility.  

Education lifts all boats, but not by equal amounts.

David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., together with the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, tackled this issue in a paper last year, “Extending the Race Between Education and Technology,” asking: “How much of the overall rise in wage inequality since 1980 can be attributed to the large increase in educational wage differentials?”

Their answer:

Returns to a year of K-12 schooling show little change since 1980. But returns to a year of college rose by 6.5 log points, from 0.076 in 1980 to 0.126 in 2000 to 0.141 in 2017. The returns to a year of post-college (graduate and professional) rose by a whopping 10.9 log points, from 0.067 in 1980 to 0.131 in 2000 and to 0.176 in 2017.

I asked Autor to translate that data into language understandable to the layperson, and he wrote back:

There has been almost no increase in the increment to individual earnings for each year of schooling between K and 12 since 1980. It was roughly 6 percentage points per year in 1980, and it still is. The earnings increment for a B.A. has risen from 30.4 percent in 1980 to 50.4 percent in 2000 to 56.4 percent in 2017. The gain to a four-year graduate degree (a Ph.D., for example, but an M.D., J.D., or perhaps even an M.B.A.) relative to high school was approximately 57 percent in 1980, rising to 127 percent in 2017.

These differences result in large part because ever greater levels of skill — critical thinking, problem-solving, originality, strategizing​ — are needed in a knowledge-based society.

“The idea of a race between education and technology goes back to the Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen, who posited that technological change is continually raising skill requirements while education’s job is to supply those rising skill levels,” Autor wrote in explaining the gains for those with higher levels of income. “If technology ‘gets ahead’ of education, the skill premium will tend to rise.”

But something more homely may also be relevant. Several researchers argue that parenting style contributes to where a child ends up in life. [emphases mine]

As the skill premium and the economic cost of failing to ascend the education ladder rise in tandem, scholars find that adults are adopting differing parental styles — a crucial form of investment in the human capital of their children — and these differing styles appear to be further entrenching inequality.

Such key factors as the level of inequality, the degree to which higher education is rewarded and the strength of the welfare state are shaping parental strategies in raising children.

In their paper “The Economics of Parenting,” three economists, Matthias Doepke at Northwestern, Giuseppe Sorrenti at University of Zurich and Fabrizio Zilibotti at Yale, describe three basic forms of child rearing:

The permissive parenting style is the scenario where the parent lets the child have her way and refrains from interfering in the choices. The authoritarian style is one where the parent imposes her will through coercion. In the model above, coercion is captured through the notion of restricting the choice set. An authoritarian parent chooses a small set that leaves little or no leeway to the child. The third parenting style, authoritative parenting, is also one where the parent aims to affect the child’s choice. However, rather than using coercion, an authoritative parent uses persuasion: she shapes the child’s preferences through investments in the first period of life. For example, such a parent may preach the virtues of patience or the dangers of risk during when the child is little, so that the child ends up with more adultlike preferences when the child’s own decisions matter during adolescence.

There is an “interaction between economic conditions and parenting styles,” Doepke and his colleagues write, resulting in the following patterns:

Consider, first, a low inequality society, where the gap between the top and the bottom is small. In such a society, there is limited incentive for children to put effort into education. Parents are also less concerned about children’s effort, and thus there is little scope for disagreement between parents and children. Therefore, most parents adopt a permissive parenting style, namely, they keep young children happy and foster their sense of independence so that they can discover what they are good at in their adult life.

The authors cite the Scandinavian countries as key examples of this approach.

Authoritarian parenting, in turn, is most common in less-developed, traditional societies where there is little social mobility and children have the same jobs as their parents:

Parents have little incentive to be permissive in order to let children discover what they are good at. Nor do they need to spend effort in socializing children into adultlike values (i.e., to be authoritative) since they can achieve the same result by simply monitoring them.

Finally, they continue, consider “a high-inequality society”:

There, the disagreement between parents and children is more salient, because parents would like to see their children work hard in school and choose professions with a high return to human capital. In this society, a larger share of parents will be authoritative, and fewer will be permissive.

This model, the authors write, fits the United States and China.

Lots more really interesting stuff in there.  For now, I’ll just continue along with my authoritative (not authoritarian, mind you!) parenting style.

Quick hits (part II)

1) When I finish Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset, I’l write a whole post (TL;DR– I love it), but she just introduced me to this 2009 post from Paul Graham.  Basically, the way to avoid identity-protective cognition is to not make everything your identity!



Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What’s different about religion is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan…

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

2) I also read in the book, yesterday, that a European version of the 2009 swine flu vaccine caused narcolepsy in some children.  Damn.  Also, some interesting ideas about narcolepsy in here (hope you are reading, Nicole). 

3) Derek Lowe on why it was such a bad idea to approve the latest Alzheimer’s drug:

It should be obvious, given previous posts here, that I think that the FDA approval of Biogen’s aducanumab for Alzheimer’s was a mistake. It is a mistake for a whole list of reasons, and we’re about to see another one of those in action.

Eli Lilly has been attacking Alzheimer’s for decades now, in what can be seen simultaneously as admirable persistence and as a very expensive exercise in futility. Several years ago, the company spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove efficacy with an anti-amyloid antibody, solanezumab, and eventually got nowhere. But that was in the distant, far-off days of 2016. Things are different now: Biogen’s anti-amyloid antibody doesn’t really seem to work, either (which is why they stopped the Phase III for futility), but the FDA approved it anyway, because it lowers amyloid, even though no amyloid-lowering therapy has ever shown efficacy.

Lilly, experienced brick-wall-impacters that they are, has been working on yet another anti-amyloid antibody (donanemab). Phase II results came out on this one in March, and it was really more of the same. There was a new rating scale endpoint, the iARDS, in which the therapy did show a statistically significant improvement at the 76-week mark. But a whole list of other endpoints whiffed, coming out no different than placebo. It was hard to generate much enthusiasm – you’d think that any Alzheimer’s therapy that actually worked, that actually had a chance of making a difference out in the real world, would be able to show more than that.

You see where we’re going here. Back in the solanezumab days (which I never thought I’d end up nostalgic for) the company would be trying to come up with another trial to show efficacy. But the heck with that. They’ve instead asked the FDA for “breakthrough” designation to try to speed regulatory approval, and the agency has granted it. After the aducanumab approval, what choice did they really have? For that matter, Biogen and Eisai applied for breakthrough status for their follow-up antibody, lecanemab, and the agency granted that yesterday. Why not? …

So if you look at the disease landscape not knowing the back story, things look great: the FDA just approved a new Alzheimer’s drug and now there are two more Breakthroughs right behind it! But if you do know what’s going on, it’s downright depressing: the agency approved a drug that shows no solid evidence of helping anyone (and more believable evidence of its ability to cause harm), and this mistake is allowing everyone else to jump on the same damn bandwagon with data that are no better. Put out more flags.

4) The heat-wave coming to the Pacific Northwest is just mind-blowing.  Cities where less than half the dwellings have AC (because they rarely need it) facing a solid week of triple-digit temperatures and temps of 110!!  This is like Arizona weather in Seattle.  I also can’t help but think if this weather was hitting the Northeast it would have roughly 10x the media coverage.  

5) I watched a little Euro action yesterday and hit some 2nd-tier minor league (USL League One) soccer action in Cary.  The ref seemed… not great.  I know at top professional levels there is huge effort in evaluating referees to ensure good officiating.  But, it occurred to me how accurate are we at assessing officials anyway and how accurate can we be at something like minor-league soccer officials?  I find this about how MLS takes it pretty seriously.  But you know there’s not the resources like this for USL–so how do they even figure out who gets to be in the MLS games and how accurate is it?  And I found this cool analysis of amateur referees.

Analysis of part I concluded that call accuracy varies nonlinearly with both fitness and game flow understanding. Part II concluded that the Fitness Test (0.749) had the highest utility followed by Combined Evaluation (0.742), Game Flow Evaluation (0.727), and No Assessment (0.721). Based on a cost benefit analysis, it was determined that the benefit of implementing any program to assess the fitness and/or game flow understanding of junior referees is outweighed by cost. Therefore, it is recommended that No Assessments be conducted for fitness and/or game flow understanding on junior referees within MDCVSRP.

All the sports analytics stuff I’ve read, and pretty much nothing on officiating.  This would seem like an area ripe for serious exploration.

6) Zeynep with the most thorough (honestly, a little too thorough at times for my tastes) and thoughtful take I’ve seen on the origins of Covid-19.  A couple things I’m pretty confident of… there’s a very substantial chance this really did come from a lab; both scientists and journalists made a huge mistake on this because it was also a theory being pushed by science-denying racists; sometimes horrible people are actually onto something (maybe even accidentally, broken clock…) and we need to consider ideas independent of just who is pushing them in a political realm.

7) Lenore Skenazy on how childhood has changed in the dozen years she’s been advocating for “free range” kids.  

8) As you well know, I’ve never been one for all that much reading about international affairs, etc.  But something about the way Noah Smith thinks and approaches problems really grabs me.  I really enjoyed his take on why Pakistan has been dramatically superseded in economic growth by India and Bangladesh.  

In nominal terms — which are a better reflection of international purchasing power — Pakistan fell behind Bangladesh in 2018:

We could talk about why this is happening, and I will talk a bit about it. But the fact is, countries are poor until they get rich. India and Bangladesh have been doing things that have made them grow steadily richer; Pakistan, in general, has not.

I could write a post giving policy suggestions for Pakistan to get richer — perhaps some mix of industrial policy, trade and tax reforms, infrastructure and education, and so on. At this point I probably don’t know enough to make highly detailed policy recommendations; my ideas would be things like trade openness with export disciplineland reform, investment in education, building infrastructure, improving rule of law, streamlining regulation, and so on. Fairly boilerplate stuff.

But I think a more fundamental question — or at least, a preliminary one — is why Pakistan’s leaders would do any of this stuff. If you don’t actually do the stuff, policy recommendations are useless.

To some, the answer might seem obvious: Growth makes your people materially better off. It gives them food to fill their bellies, a roof over their heads, convenient transportation, sanitation and health care, leisure and entertainment, and so on. Surely Pakistan’s leaders care at least somewhat about the welfare of their people, no?

Well, they probably do. But so far they’ve been able to satisfy Pakistanis’ basic consumption needs through means other than economic development. The average Pakistani household consumes as much as the average Indian household, and more than the average Bangladeshi household.

But this comes at a cost; compared to India and Bangladesh, Pakistan invests far less of its GDP in building capital in order to grow its economy.

In other words, Pakistan is eating its proverbial seed corn instead of planting it in the ground. Bangladesh and India, in contrast, are planting their seed corn — foregoing current consumption in order to build productive capital and be richer tomorrow…

OK, but there’s one more reason to pursue economic growth: National power. Pakistan is right next to a neighbor with whom it has fought four wars (and arguably lost all four), and with whom it has an ongoing territorial dispute. India is more than 6 times as big as Pakistan, so only through greater per capita GDP could Pakistan seek to hold its own in a conflict. For many nations throughout history, this has provided a reason to seek rapid economic growth.

But unlike most of those nations, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And that means that it doesn’t really have to get rich in order to guard against India; nukes guarantee its ultimate security. It might not be able to wrest Kashmir away from its neighbor, but it isn’t at risk of having further territory seized, or its capital occupied, etc.

This is interesting, because it suggests one way that nuclear armament might be detrimental to growth. Push-button superweapons greatly reduce the need for a state to be rich and effective — or even particularly stable — in order to maintain security from external threats. Perhaps we can see this with North Korea as well, or possibly even Russia.

In any case, my tentative, provisional answer to the question of “Why hasn’t Pakistan grown?” is that the right political incentives for growth-oriented policy are not in place yet. Perhaps a long period of stable civilian rule, or nationalistic envy of Bangladesh’s success, can change the calculus.

9) So many pointless meetings that could’ve been an email.  Based on my experience of 20+ years of academic meetings it’s pretty straightforward– if there’s the potential for genuine advantage/potential progress through collaboration and discussion, than have a meeting.  Otherwise, don’t.  For example, I cannot imagine discussing a tenure case or a faculty hire without an actual meeting. But most of the meetings I’ve been to probably didn’t need to happen.  

10) This is what monitor lizard nests look like in Australia and people had no idea.  They are also a rare case of reptiles as ecosystem engineers.

A goanna burrow

11) Carl Zimmer on the new “Dragon Man” discovery.  Interesting case where morphological study seems to point one way and DNA another.  Personally, I’m putting my money on the Denisovan hypothesis.

12) I so love that Lee Ross’ death also occasioned Robert Wright to write an appreciation for attribution theory.  

I hope you’re starting to see why I think attribution error is really important—why I think that, if we could dispel its more destructive influences, the world would be a much better place. But to see why I think attribution error is really, really important—why it may have more salvific potential than any other idea in psychology—you need to understand what I consider the most potent tool in the human toolkit for ending or avoiding conflict and nurturing constructive collaboration.

Regular readers of this newsletter can probably guess what I’m referring to: cognitive empathy. And regular readers know that by “cognitive empathy” I don’t mean “feeling their pain.” That’s emotional empathy. I just mean seeing how things look from another person’s point of view: perspective taking.

I believe that one of the most common reasons people and groups of people fail to solve non-zero-sum problems—fail to reach an arrangement that’s good for both parties, and instead get stuck in a lose-lose situation—is that they don’t see how things look from the other side. I also believe that the world is in deep trouble if nations don’t solve the more consequential of the non-zero-sum problems they face, ranging from environmental challenges to arms control challenges to disease control challenges to whole new kinds of technological challenges.

It follows that—as I see the world, at least—big impediments to cognitive empathy are a grave threat to the planet. And attribution error may be the biggest impediment there is. Obviously, if you’re blind to the way circumstance shapes someone’s behavior, it’s going to be hard to really appreciate how the world looks to them.

Could more awareness of attribution error actually make people better at cognitive empathy? Not in an easy, automatic way. Attribution error is a “cognitive bias,” and there’s good reason to think it was engineered by natural selection for that purpose: to bias our view of the world, to distort our perception. And a well-engineered bias can be pretty stubborn in its tendency to fool people into thinking they’re seeing things clearly when they’re not. 

Still, I do think that cognitive empathy can be cultivated. And I do think awareness of attribution error, of our tendency in most situations to downplay the role of circumstance, can help us cultivate it.

In fact, Ross’s own life offers anecdotal evidence to this effect. The Times obit reports that Nisbett considered Ross not just a collaborator but “my therapist and my guru.” Nisbett once asked Ross why he was so good at giving advice, and he replied, “Here’s why, Dick: I don’t take your point of view when you tell me what the problem is. I try to figure out how the other person or persons are viewing it.”

You might ask: If awareness of attribution error helps you exercise cognitive empathy, then why hadn’t Nisbett, who was himself quite aware of attribution error, exercised it in the first place? The answer, I’d guess, is that the people whose perspective Ross was taking were people Nisbett was in some sense at odds with—that’s why there was a problem to solve. And, of course, the problematic behavior of people we’re at odds with is behavior we’re especially likely to attribute to disposition. Since Ross wasn’t at odds with these people, he was less susceptible to that bias and so better able to see their point of view.

This is what I mean when I say that a well-engineered bias can be hard to neutralize. Nisbett’s mere awareness of attribution error doesn’t seem to have done the trick. At the same time, his experience suggests a workaround: When you’re having trouble with someone you dislike, or at least someone you find highly annoying, and you’re dying to tell someone about the problem, don’t tell someone who shares your attitude toward them, even though that’s the most tempting thing to do.

So that’s today’s self-help tip. As for planetary help—solving momentous non-zero-sum problems, and subduing the international and intranational antagonisms that keep us from even trying to solve them—well, that’s kind of a big subject. (That’s why it takes a whole Apocalypse Aversion Project to address it!)

To take just one chunk of the subject: Every day lots of important players—politicians, social media potentates, think tank experts, journalists—reinforce and even intensify attribution error. They describe various groups and people crudely, in ways that make it especially hard to really understand why they do what they do, hard to exercise cognitive empathy.

I’m not saying these politicians, potentates, experts, and journalists are bad people. As Ross would have been the first to point out, they’re just responding to circumstance as humans naturally do. They’re saying things that will get them elected or increase their Twitter follower count or get them on MSNBC or get them clicks, or whatever.

Besides, if we think of them as bad people—as the enemy—that may just cloud our view of their motivation at a time when understanding it is important. So, though I’d like to say something inspirational at this point, I won’t get Churchillian (“We must fight them on the beaches” and so on). I’d rather just quote William James and say that what’s needed here is careful comprehension accompanied by “the moral equivalent of war.” 

13) Also reminded me of this terrific Hidden Brain episode in which attribution theory plays a major role and which I know assign to all my classes.  

14) David Brooks with a damn good point here, “Why Is It OK to Be Mean to the Ugly?”

A manager sits behind a table and decides he’s going to fire a woman because he doesn’t like her skin. If he fires her because her skin is brown, we call that racism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is female, we call that sexism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is pockmarked and he finds her unattractive, well, we don’t talk about that much and, in most places in America, there is no legal recourse.

This is puzzling. We live in a society that abhors discrimination on the basis of many traits. And yet one of the major forms of discrimination is lookism, prejudice against the unattractive. And this gets almost no attention and sparks little outrage. Why?

Lookism starts, like every form of bigotry, with prejudice and stereotypes.

Studies show that most people consider an “attractive” face to have clean, symmetrical features. We find it easier to recognize and categorize these prototypical faces than we do irregular and “unattractive” ones. So we find it easier — from a brain processing perspective — to look at attractive people.

Attractive people thus start off with a slight physical advantage. But then people project all sorts of widely unrelated stereotypes onto them. In survey after survey, beautiful people are described as trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable and intelligent, while ugly people get the opposite labels. This is a version of the halo effect.

Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10 to 15 percent less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. One 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their looks than because of their ethnicity.

15) Devastating photo essay.  Who knew what Strep could do when untreated. “Where a Sore Throat Becomes a Death Sentence: Once a year, doctors travel to Rwanda to perform lifesaving surgery on people with damaged heart valves — a disease caused by untreated strep throat.”

Quick hits (part II)

1) Good stuff from Chait– Democrats need to tax rich people more (I think a big part of the problem is that so many Democratic financial supporters are now rich people who love gay rights, anti-racism, abortion rights, etc., but also low taxes).  Anyway, Chait:

When the Biden administration rolled out proposals to increase taxes on corporations and wealthy stockholders, the targets of the increases laughed them off. “Corporate executives and lobbyists in Washington, New York and around the country say they are confident they can kill almost all of these tax hikes by pressuring moderate Democrats in the House and Senate,” reported Politico last month.

It seems those haughty fat cats, so confident they could easily work their will in Congress … were absolutely correct. The pushback has operated largely behind the scenes, but evidence of its effectiveness has popped up primarily in reports targeted at the inside-Washington audience. Farm-state Democrats in the House are openly protesting Biden’s measure to close a huge capital-gains-tax loophole. Biden’s plan “seems like a rather high rate to me,” said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. The pushback includes Democratic moderates in both houses of Congress — and not only those fighting off strong 2022 challenges.

The front pages have been consumed with Biden’s struggles to keep his party together on infrastructure and democracy protection. But the quiet Congressional revolt against his tax hikes poses the most serious threat to his agenda.

The reason is that Congressional budget rules mandates that any permanent increase in the deficit be fully financed. A temporary outlay — for coronavirus relief, or building infrastructure — does not require any offset. But the most ambitious measures Biden proposes to reshape government — expanding health-care coverage, a more generous child tax credit, universal pre-kindergarten and community college — all need an ongoing source of financing.

Taxing the rich is Biden’s solution. There’s a lot of money in the bank accounts of the affluent, especially after several decades of rising inequality and a big fat Trump-era tax cut for the wealthy. But every dollar Congressional Democrats shave off Biden’s proposal for taxing the rich means one less dollar that can be spent on his social programs.

Why are Democrats so skittish about Biden’s proposal they’re willing to put his domestic legacy at risk? They — or the rich people lobbying them — cite a mix of political and policy reasons. “You are talking about tax hikes that could hit millions of small businesses across the country and taxes that could kill investment,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tells Politico, “From a raw political perspective, it would be a really funky decision for these moderates to say they would be willing to put this much of a wet blanket on an economy that is really poised to take off.” A “senior financial services industry lobbyist” adds that if Democrats pass anything more than a watered-down version of Biden’s plan, “Democrats are just going to get killed over it.”

While both these concerns probably sound serious over a comped steak dinner, neither is remotely supported by the data. 

2) Loved this essay from Freddie de Boer taking down a misleading, revisionist account of Vietnam Veterans’ experiences:

The veterans and servicemen who made these papers were overwhelmingly white. That is not surprising; the US military presence in Vietnam was overwhelmingly white. It is true, as has been pointed out repeatedly in art and journalism, that there were racial inequities at play in the drafting of conscripts in the latter half of the war, and among all draftees Black soldiers exceeded their percentage of their overall population by about 5%. It is also true, though, that despite what you may have heard most of the fighting in Vietnam was conducted by enlisted men, not those conscripted, and they were white in dominant majorities. One might say that all of this is besides the point; many of the soldiers in Vietnam were coerced or conned into going, and they suffered then and suffered when they came home, white or Black. But today I’m afraid we must place demographics above all else. Who am I to blow against the wind? …

The offending piece is a review of a book called How White Men Won the Culture Wars by someone called Joseph Darda, a minor academic who I must congratulate for making such a naked stab for relevance with his book and its title. Its argument, according to Lehmann, is that the anguished fight for recognition, respect, medical treatment, and mental health care waged by veterans coming home from the war in Vietnam was, in fact, simply white male grievance politics. Legless 23 year olds who had been put through a meat grinder by a rapacious and indifferent military machine were, to Lehmann and Darda, no different from the angry white guys who own Ford dealerships that powered Donald Trump’s campaign. Their demands for recognition and access to basic social services can now be safely derided as the special pleading of the privileged; you know, the privilege of being crippled both literally and metaphorically. I urge you to read Lehmann’s piece to see how unbroken and shameless his contempt for these wounded and hopeless victims of empire really is. There is no “to be sure” paragraph here. Lehmann and Darda are committed to the bit…

Darda, it is worth noting, has just so happened to release a book about why white men are bad at precisely the right time, riding the wave of what’s politically fashionable among those who write takes and buy books. Lehmann, too, has had a political evolution recently, suddenly injecting clumsy waves at antiracism into his doddering leftish scribblings for places like The Baffler, that bland stew of vague and toothless post-capitalism. Darda and Lehmann are, of course, both white men themselves, and the product they sell is the reassurance to other white men that all white men are bad, save them, the writer and readers; they tell the white men who are undoubtedly the large majority of their audience that there is, in the sea of evil that their own race and gender connote, a tiny elect who get it. Darda and Lehmann believe that they are the good ones, and they are willing to sell that status to whichever white men will buy.

I call these kinds of opportunistically woke white men “crabs in a bucket.” They jostle and scrape for a little glimpse at sunlight, convinced that one day they will emerge on top, and a beautiful Black angel will descend from above and place on their heads a crown that reads “The Only Good White Man.” To Lehmann these veterans are just white men because that perspective is monetizable. He sees nothing of experience, only of demographics, a stance that might leave you wondering how he himself is deserving of his station as “Editor-at-Large” (lol). These are not opinions that Lehmann developed organically, like a tumor growing on his face. Instead I think that this disdain for all things white and male was a calculation. Greying old white men in this industry have collectively decided that ceaselessly complaining about “white men,” an abstraction that they excuse themselves from with every ham-handed denunciation they write, will keep the old career going until they can enter their shuffleboard-playing years. It’s a living, in the sense that necrotizing fasciitis is alive.

Hard to capture the whole flavor… really worth reading the whole thing.

3) I usually find David von Drehle fairly anodyne, but this was quite perceptive, “The religious freedom bomb may be about to detonate”

The 2015 Supreme Court decision extending the right to marry to same-sex adult couples contained a ticking time bomb. Six years later, the noise is getting loud.

The explosive material has to do with religious freedom. While polls clearly show that a growing majority of Americans support marriage equality, a significant number of religious people continue to believe that same-sex marriage and other evolving understandings of gender and sexuality are transgressions against God’s law.

But how can their dissent be lawfully expressed? The five-vote majority in 2015 papered over this question by insisting that the ruling applied only to civil marriage — and thus posed no burden on the right of religions to choose which marriages to bless. As we’ve learned since, however, sanctifying marriages is not the only way religion enters this picture.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court again dodged the problem of religious freedom vs. discrimination. This time, the question was whether the city of Philadelphia could force Catholic Social Services to include qualified same-sex couples as prospective foster parents. Seizing on the fact that Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination law allows for certain exemptions, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that fairness required an exemption be considered for CSS…

Beneath the unanimity, however, lay a splintered court, with a number of justices saying the bomb must finally detonate. Either religious freedom protects those who treat same-sex couples unequally in public life, or it doesn’t.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, in a concurring opinion, counted the cost of dodging this uncomfortable question: “Individuals and groups across the country will pay the price” of endless litigation over the unsettled question, “in dollars, in time, and in continued uncertainty about their religious liberties.”

Religious liberty or freedom from discrimination: Advocates on both sides insist the question is simple. In fact, it is very difficult. Two bedrock principles of the Constitution are brought into direct conflict. Americans have a right in their public lives to be free from discrimination based on who they are. This right finds expression in laws requiring businesses and agencies that serve the public to do so without discrimination.

Americans also have a protected freedom of belief and expression. They cannot be compelled by the government to express or reject any religious views or political opinions.

No case puts the matter more sharply in relief than the matter of the baker and his cakes, which may well be headed back to the Supreme Court for round two. A transgender individual has asked Phillips to create a celebratory cake. When Phillips refused, a state district judge levied a fine without any of the gratuitous commentary that previously gave the justices their wiggle room.

The fact that these bedrock principles have collided inside a bag of cake frosting does not make them frivolous. Either the baker’s freedom of belief allows him to sell customized cakes only to those people whose identities and conduct comport with his religious beliefs, or the would-be cake buyers of Lakewood have a right to decide what Phillips will write on cakes as long as he operates a public business.

4) Damn I love that Abigail Disney is a super-rich heiress who actually had the courage to look at her life and recognize what was wrong with all her wealth,  This is good, “I Was Taught From a Young Age to Protect My Dynastic Wealth: A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.”

5) And good stuff in Noah Smith’s substack, “America’s scarcity mindset: Is our society turning into a zero-sum competition for survival?”

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. Like all Perlstein books, it’s excellent and you should read it. Anyway, one of the things that really jumps out about the Carter years is the way scarcity and pessimism (which is just anticipation of future scarcity) made the country more selfish. The oil crises of the 70s created absolute chaos, with gunfights at gas stations and violent trucker strikes. It’s not hard to see how that era led to the every-man-for-himself attitude of the conservative 1980s.

But the crazy thing is that America seems to be falling back into this scarcity mindset. Only this time, the shortages are almost entirely of our own creation.

Stephen Covey, the self-help author who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, coined the terms “abundance mindset” and “scarcity mindset”. Basically he means that some people going around thinking of the world as a set of positive-sum, win-win situations, while other people go around thinking of everything as a zero-sum competition where you’re either a winner or a loser.

Meanwhile, the political scientist Ronald Inglehart came up with the related idea of “self-expression values” vs. “survival values”. Survival values, which supposedly come about because of economic scarcity, include ethnocentrism, xenophobia, fear of disease, and a hunger for authoritarianism. Sounds a lot like Trumpism, but I think you can also see echoes of this in various leftist ideologies and spaces.

The World Values Survey keeps track of these values, and it’s interesting to see how the U.S. has evolved over time. Here’s the map of countries from 2008:

You can see that while we were more traditionalist than most other rich countries, we were also very high on the “self-expression” end of the scale — about the same as Australia, New Zealand, or Denmark. This is basically the classic view of the U.S. — a bit religious, but a very open and tolerant society. Now check out the map for 2020:

The difference is striking. It’s not clear what the absolute change has been (it looks like the variables might have had some renormalization between 2008 and 2020), but the relative position tells the story. The U.S. is way to the left of other English-speaking countries, having shifted strongly toward survival values and away from self-expression.

6) This was good stuff from Gallup: “Changing One’s Gender Is Sharply Contentious Moral Issue”America's Views of Moral Acceptability of Issues

7) File under, I had no idea… “Trouble in Los Angeles County: Too Many Peacocks: Some residents admire their beauty. Others complain about the noise, the aggression and the droppings. Now, officials are considering an ordinance to stop people from feeding peafowl.”

8) Dogs are really good at detecting Covid infections by smell and we can potentially use that to our benefit.  But talk about the devil is in the details:

og noses are great Covid-19 detectors, according to numerous laboratory studies, and Covid sniffing dogs have already started working in airports in other countries and at a few events in the United States, like a Miami Heat basketball game.

But some experts in public health and in training scent dogs say that more information and planning are needed to be certain they are accurate in real life situations.

“There are no national standards” for scent dogs, according to Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the authors of a new paper on scent dog use in Covid detection.

And although private groups certify drug-sniffing and bomb and rescue dogs, similar programs for medical detection do not exist, according to the new paper in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Lois Privor-Dumm, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University and the senior author of the paper, said there was no question that dogs have great potential in medical fields. But she wants to explore how they could be deployed on a large scale, such as by the government.

“What are all the ethical considerations? What are the regulatory considerations? How practical is this?” she asked. Not only the quality of detection but logistics and cost would be central to any widespread application, as with any public health intervention.

Quality control is a first step, and a large one. Medical scent detection is more complicated than drug or bomb detection, Dr. Otto said. A dog working an airport for drugs or explosive detection has a consistent context and a fairly straightforward target odor. In Covid detection, researchers know that the dogs can distinguish an infected person’s sweat or urine. But they don’t know what chemicals the dog is identifying.

Because human scents vary, medical detection dogs have to be trained on many different people. “We have all of the ethnicities and ages and diets and all of these things that make human smell,” Dr. Otto said.

9) Always read David Hopkins, “The ACA Survives, in One More Victory for Boring Old Liberalism”

Plain vanilla American liberalism hasn’t been particularly fashionable for a long time, and it certainly isn’t now. Anyone who regularly consumes high-status media like NPR or the Wall Street Journal, or who spends any time at all in the Twitterverse, could well conclude that today’s politics is mostly defined by a battle between a highly intellectualized, social identity-oriented, self-consciously “anti-establishment” left wing on one side and an array of conservative critics, both Trumpist and anti-Trumpist, on the other.

But when we shift our attention to what the government is actually doing, we see a policy-making apparatus that continues to be dominated by a familiar pragmatic liberal tradition representing the historical legacy of the New Deal and Great Society. The Affordable Care Act is one of this tradition’s most important recent achievements, if it’s appropriate to refer to a law passed more than a decade ago as “recent.” And the Supreme Court’s 7–2 decision, announced Thursday, upholding the ACA against what may well be the last in a series of major legal challenges only confirms the resilience of the center-left policy state in the face of dissatisfaction on both ideological sides.

The ACA is complicated. It’s inelegant and kludgy. It was designed to patch up the most urgent perceived flaws in the existing health care system rather than to tear it down completely and construct a more efficient and coherent successor. It is easy for its strongest detractors to hate, but hard for even its strongest defenders to love.

And yet the ACA remains a representative model of policy-making because it had two critically valuable qualities: enough initial support to be enacted in the first place and a big enough constituency to protect it from subsequent retrenchment. For all of the well-argued critiques directed its way by dissenters on the left and right, neither side has demonstrated the ability to transform a purer ideological vision into achievable and sustainable policy. Decades of progressive attempts to replace the current health care system with a universal single-payer alternative have yet to bear fruit. Conservatives’ philosophical opposition to government involvement in health care provision has historically been a politically potent force when working to block liberal reform proposals before they passed, as in 1994, or when mobilizing an electoral backlash immediately after enactment, as in 2010. But after Republicans gained full policy-making power in 2017, general anti-government sentiment turned out to be insufficiently strong to persuade enough politicians within the party to rescind the ACA’s specific benefits once they had actually started flowing to the public…

Traditional pragmatic liberalism is a perennial rhetorical target for people who think of themselves as committed to loftier ideals. On the right, social conservatives like Ross Douthat criticize it for lacking “a clear sense of moral purpose,” suggesting that in our time it has become “somewhat exhausted.” Purist activists on the left echo these themes, speaking of an age marked by the supposedly catastrophic failures of “neoliberalism” and representing the onset of “late capitalism”—implying that a non-capitalist future is surely soon to arrive.

But old-fashioned half-a-loaf liberalism has proven tough to replace. It’s not just that revolutionary change is difficult to achieve in the American political system, though it is. There are also plenty of important constituencies invested in conventional liberal policy-making—classes of credentialed work-within-the-system subject matter experts, institutionalized interest groups that prize partial victories over none at all, and a large number of regular voters who hold moderately left-of-center views on domestic affairs and are wary of socialism and laissez-faire-ism alike. While critics on all sides yawn with impatience for the era of boring old liberalism to end, the boring old liberal ACA has just further entrenched itself, boring old liberals Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer are working to enact more boring old technocratic incrementalist liberal policies, and boring old liberalism just keeps muddling through to prevail once again.

10) I love playing with my kids because I enjoy playing with my kids.  But, I’m also hugely in favor of them having their own, independent, kid lives.  Like everything, it’s a balance.  But, as somebody who still appreciates the old-school parenting of all the kids on my cul-de-sac just running wild and unsupervised in the 1970’s and 80’s, I quite appreciate this perspective, “Don’t Play With Your Kids. Seriously.”

My daughter was born a year after that. She is shy and moody, and she has been content to play on her own since she could crawl. I’ve never met a more self-​possessed child — she used to tell me when she needed a nap. She has never liked the sorts of games her brother prefers, and play between them has always been a negotiation. The games they’ve created combine his love of fantasy and drama with her need for realism; when they set up their pretend yak farm with pillows and stuffed animals, she enjoys an imagined sunset, while her brother worries about predators who have yet to grace this earthly plane.

In the past, if they couldn’t agree on a game’s direction, I would try to help, only to make it worse: I was a reality-TV host, watching helplessly as my contestants swapped insults at a show reunion. When Mom is there to listen, they turn defensive and mean; when I say, “Figure it out,” they do. I know I’m lucky they have each other to play with, and so I’ve taught myself to hold back. I tell myself they’re learning about compromise and boundaries. As am I. I’m distracted by work (and life). I have a bad temper. I can be critical. And I don’t like to play, especially pretend, or anything with dolls or figures, or any games that ask me to hide or wield a Nerf gun. My motto is “Moms don’t play.” (The other context also applies: I do not play.) Our third child joined the family with this system in place, and he is, as most third children are, remarkably independent.

I can’t say that my approach is right for everyone. I know that it resonates for me in part because of how I was raised. I have no memories of my parents playing with me. I can remember reading together and their swimming with me in the ocean, but they weren’t involved in the fashion shows I filmed with my sisters, and they didn’t help me make my magazine, Kid Stuff, either. Not once did they dine at my fictional restaurant.

This isn’t a complaint; it’s gratitude. They may not be a part of these memories, but they weren’t absent either. They were on the edges — there but not there. My parents allowed me private worlds of my own creation, and they respected them. I imagine they felt the same joy I do when I watch my children playing without me; my daughter opens a bakery as her older brother bounces on a giant rubber ball. The baby fills his garbage truck with blocks. Each of us enters his or her own separate sphere. This, I’ve realized, is my favorite part of mothering. My looking away and then observing.

11) Quite the essay from a teacher, “I Taught Online School This Year. It Was a Disgrace.”

12) Really enjoyed this interview with Adam Serwer: “The news is what you have forgotten”

ANAND: You cite two different definitions of what the news is early in the book. One of them is, “The news is what is new,” which is an old saying that you and I and every other journalist hears at some point. But you also quote a contrary saying from an old editor of yours, David Corn: “The news is also what people have forgotten.”

Can you talk about each of those understandings of what the news is, and how your grappling with those two shapes your particular and quite distinct method of journalism?

ADAM: As journalists, we are ideologically predisposed to think that something that is new is important, and that’s the thing that we should be talking about. But the truth is that we sometimes take for granted that our readers have the same information and context that we have to make sense of something. Part of journalism is figuring out what that context is, and what it should be. Because of that bias towards novelty, we sometimes forget the longer historical lens.

David Corn, who was my editor at Mother Jones, used to say, “The news is what people have forgotten,” because he was encouraging us to dig, and not just assume that, because someone had been in the public eye for a long time, the public knew everything about them that they needed to know.

This, for me, evolved into trying to put a historical lens on what was happening, in part because the response to Trump was so historically myopic. It was just like, “We had a Black president. How could this guy be winning?”

The answer is, because he is manipulating forces that have been part of American politics since the founding, for generations, and that we had sort of naively assumed that we had conquered. I’m using “we,” in the sort of collective American sense, because there are obviously plenty of Americans who did not believe that we had conquered those things.

To the extent that that belief was overrepresented in the media, it prevented journalists from putting Trump in his proper historical context as a product of those historical forces, rather than just sort of this goofy reality-show star — like, “How could this ever happen?”

13) Years and years ago I remember a student telling me I’d really enjoy “Adam Ruins Everything” if I watched it.  Many years later and… he was right.  Even when I don’t learn anything (I’m kind of like Adam myself), the show is really well written and very funny.  It is now the standing Saturday morning entertainment for the Greene family (on HBO Max).  I really enjoyed this essay on what makes the show good, “Adam Ruins Everything Shows Us the Right Way to Be Wrong: In every episode, the character whose misconceptions are corrected actually grows from the experience”

Today many people are wrong about important facts, and they need to be corrected. But they need to be corrected in a manner that leads to acceptance, not resistance. This is a hard task we all need help with. Luckily, one show is providing a blueprint for success.

In every episode of the ever-more-popular show Adam Ruins Everything, the titular host, Adam Conover, appears seemingly out of thin air to correct a character who has a misconception on a social, health, tech, historical, business or other topic.

What it is important to glean from this show is that while Adam arrives to correct or “ruin,” what he is really arriving to do is help others learn and grow. And, in every episode, the corrected person grows.

That is an incredibly important point that it is worth repeating: the person who is corrected actually changes. While so many other shows in modern times demonize and make fun of those who are wrong, this show makes those who are wrong the positive protagonists of the story. Because on this show, what is presented as most wrong is the belief that one is always right. And, what is presented as most right is knowing how to recognize when you are wrong and move forward.

So, while each episode of Adam has educational facts about different topics, the show as a whole is a thesis statement on the process of learning. In this way, the show can teach us all how to better correct others, whether we are scientists, activists, or someone just having Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

I’ll admit it… I love being right.  And I think people assume that goes along with hating to be wrong.  But, in my case, certainly not so.  I don’t always like being wrong, but in many cases I do, because that actually means I’m learning.  That’s also, of course, very much the idea in Julia Galef’s “Scout Mindset” I’ve briefly written about.  Anyway, as long as you are learning from being wrong, being wrong is okay.

14) Another family entertainment my family has discovered is Mark Rober videos.  He had a squirrel obstacle course video that went viral last year that you may well have seen, but there’s a lot more really good stuff that’s almost always both fascinating and engaging.  For example, we watched this on “devil’s toothpaste” last night and were super entertained.  

15) This, this, this!!!  The FDA needs to grant full licensure to the vaccines, already!

 

Outdoor masks and youth sports

I was glad that our local rec soccer league encouraged masks for this soccer season back when we started because that turned out to be critical in encouraging my daughter to play this season when we made the decision back in January.  I’m also really glad, that in light of the declining case rates and ever-increasing evidence on the safety of outdoors, they went to voluntary mask use this past weekend.  I did quite enjoy coaching without a mask (mostly because the girls played great and won 3-2).  I think 4 of the 9 players continued to use their mask (will be interesting to see if that’s any different in this week’s practice or next weekend’s games).  I’m not quite sure what my daughter would have chosen to do, as she was actually home sick.  

Anyway, in light of all that, was very intrigued to see this study on kids outdoor sports and masking:

Hoeg also makes the point in a follow-up tweet, that this surely means we should probably eschew masks for recess as well.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) As always enjoyed Hidden Brain podcast, but particularly this one on “when conversations go wrong” with Deborah Tannen about conversation.

2) And I love this interesting bit of social science they shared:

Do conversations end when people want them to? Surprisingly, behavioral science provides no answer to this fundamental question about the most ubiquitous of all human social activities. In two studies of 932 conversations, we asked conversants to report when they had wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner (who was an intimate in Study 1 and a stranger in Study 2) had wanted it to end. Results showed that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conver-sants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to. conversation | social interaction | social judgment

3) In a world where I was not busy with end-of-semester grading, I’d do a post on race vs class messaging and the Democratic Party.  Instead, I’m going to tell you to read Tom Edsall’s great summary of the academic debate.

In the past, English wrote, scholars studied how Republicans used racial frames to “undermine support for redistributive policies, but now Democrats have started doing the same thing — with, according to our data, the same effects.”

Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said the English-Kalla study “comports with a long line of work in political psychology demonstrating a gap between a widely shared principle of racial equity and resistance to policies intended to achieve it.”

From the standpoint of rhetorical strategy, Valentino continued,

there is a trade-off between persuasion and mobilization. Highlighting racial injustice may mobilize nonwhite constituencies and racially progressive whites to engage in politics more forcefully.

That anger could be crucial in motivating voters “to overcome the obstacles to voting being pursued by the G.O.P. in many states,” Valentino noted. “The downside is that policy support for racial redistribution among moderates may decline.”

Martin Gilens, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., praised English and Kalla, but was quick to add caveats:

It’s a very nice paper and solid work. Their findings suggest that even in this time of heightened public concern with racial inequities, Democrats are not likely to boost public support for progressive policies by framing them as advancing racial equality.

That said, Gilens added, “I would consider the English and Kalla results to be sobering but not, in themselves, a strong argument for Democrats to turn away from appeals to racial justice.”

Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist at American University, captured the complexity of the debate.

“English and Kalla’s findings are compelling,” she wrote by email:

Their findings are consonant with a great deal of conventional wisdom in political science. We would expect race-focused messaging to decrease support for a policy not only because of racism in the public, but also because many Americans perceive policies directed at specific population subgroups as unfair.

Suhay also noted: “Don’t forget self-interest. A longstanding definition of politics is that it’s a contest over ‘who gets what, where, when and how.’ ”

Broad public approval is not the only thing politicians care about. From a strategic perspective, they must also be responsive to activists, interest groups, and donors. Given the intense focus on racial justice among some of the most active Democrats — including but not exclusively African Americans — Biden needs to not only deliver on this issue but also to tell people about it.

Suhay went on:

They face intense demands from Democratic activists for both policy and symbolic actions that address racial inequity; however, these actions do threaten to turn off many whites, especially those without a college degree.

Biden, Suhay argues, “seems to have no choice but to find some middle road: focusing communication on how his policies benefit most Americans while also, more infrequently but unmistakably, making clear his commitment to racial equality” and, she added, “he seems to be walking the tightrope well.”

4) OMG this NYT interactive feature on how Pfizer makes their Covid-19 vaccine is amazing.  Not only is the science behind the vaccine amazing, but the engineering, manufacturing, logistics, etc., of pulling off these millions of doses is really pretty mind-blowing.  If you are one of those “I only read a few free NYT articles” people, this should be one of them.  

5) Good Ezra Klein on the problems with bipartisanship:

We are a divided country, but one way we could become less divided is for the consequences of elections to be clearer. When legislation is so hard to pass, politics becomes a battle over identity rather than a battle over policy. Don’t get me wrong: Fights over policy can be angry, even vicious. But they can also lead to changed minds — as in the winning coalition Democrats built atop the successes of the New Deal — or changed parties, as savvy politicians learn to accept the successes of the other side. There is a reason Republicans no longer try to repeal Medicare and Democrats shrink from raising taxes on the middle class.

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

This whole debate is peculiarly American. In parliamentary systems, the job of the majority party, or majority coalition, is to govern, and the job of the opposition party is to oppose. Cooperation can and does occur, but there’s nothing unusual or regrettable when it doesn’t, and government does not grind to a halt in its absence. Not so in America, where the president can be from one party and Congress can be controlled by another. In raising bipartisanship to a high political ideal, we have made a virtue out of a necessity, but that’s left us little recourse, either philosophically or legislatively, when polarization turns bipartisanship into a rarity. That’s where we are now…

It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.

6) I’m so tired of “scariant” reporting.  The vaccines work great against the variants, too.  The worst has been the reporting on India’s “double mutant” while most of what is going on is likely just the same B117 that’s taken over Europe and America.  

India’s worries have focused on a homegrown variant called B.1.617. The public, the popular press and many doctors have concluded that it is responsible for the severity of the second wave.

Researchers outside of India say the limited data so far suggests instead that a better-known variant called B.1.1.7 may be a more considerable factor. That variant walloped Britain late last year, hit much of Europe and is now the most common source of new infection in the United States.

“While it’s almost certainly true B.1.617 is playing a role, it’s unclear how much it’s contributing directly to the surge and how that compares to other circulating variants, especially B.1.1.7,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

7) I think LG is probably bothered that I’m so bothered by NYT headlines like this “Teach Your Kids to Resist Hatred Toward Asians.”  I mean how about I teach my kids to resist stereotyped/prejudiced hatred against anybody?  And pretty sure I do.  I mean, I know that feels a little “All Lives Matter,” but lets just teach our kids not to hate and fall prey to ugly stereotypes, period.

8) I’m not sure this is the case for legalizing heroin that I’d make, but just yesterday I was telling my kids I’m literally for decriminalizing possession and small amounts of selling all drugs (the reality is that many “drug dealers” are just drug addicts supporting their habit and not exactly Stringer Bell).  

In 2013, the Columbia psychologist and drug-addiction researcher Carl Hart published a book that was a specific kind of success: it made him into a public character. The book, “High Price,” is in part a memoir of Hart’s adolescence in a poor Miami neighborhood, documenting the arrival of cocaine there in the eighties. Two cousins, whom as a child he’d looked up to, are exiled from their mother’s house for using cocaine, move into a shed in her back yard, and steal her washer and dryer to pay for drugs. The narrative of Hart’s ascent, to the Air Force, graduate school in neuroscience, and, eventually, Ivy League tenure, is interspersed with evidence from his career as an addiction researcher, in which he spent years paying volunteers to use drugs in a controlled hospital setting and observing the results. Hart argues that the violence and despair that defined the crack epidemic had more to do with the social conditions of Black America than they did with the physical pull of drugs. The book begins with his father beating his mother with a hammer after drinking. Hart’s view is that the attack was not about alcohol. “As we now know from experience with alcohol, drinking itself isn’t a problem for most people who do it,” Hart wrote. “The same is true of illegal drugs, even those we have learned to fear, like heroin and crack cocaine.”

Hart, who was one of the first Black scientists to attain tenure at Columbia, cut a charismatic figure. He had an easy authority in talking about the human and pharmacological experience of drug use, describing it in a way that turned an audience’s expectations on its head. Recounting the Rat Park experiments of the seventies, which allowed rats to press a lever for a drug, Hart explained that rats raised and kept in isolation consumed greater quantities of the drug than those that were held in a stimulating environment. “The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” he said. In the late Obama years, most everyone, but especially most evidence-minded liberals, had lost faith in the war on drugs, and Hart became the scientist who said that pharmacology was a weaker force than we’d been led to think.

To promote the book, and this idea, Hart travelled overseas. During those trips, he said that he favored decriminalization and the regulation of all drugs from a perspective of harm reduction, positions that put him on the far left of the American debate. Still, he was sometimes challenged by audience members who thought these positions condescended to users. At an event in Vancouver, a man in the audience raised his hand and explained that he was a heroin user. “Canadians are more polite than New Yorkers, but essentially he said, ‘Who are you to tell me how to live my life?’ ” Hart recalled. The man was smart and clear, and he knew things about heroin that Hart did not. Hart said the conversation made him feel that he had been “paternalistic, pedantic, all those things. I thought I was, I don’t know, some enlightened scientist, and it just came down to, I had no right.”

In Geneva, he met a physician who invited him to visit a heroin-maintenance clinic with which she was affiliated. Hart spent several months there in 2015, watching heroin users behave as efficiently and functionally as the weighted gears in a watch. Patients checked in twice a day for injections, during one period that began at seven in the morning and another at five in the afternoon. In between, many of them went to work. The patients were each assigned a cubby to stash their respective belongings, and often one would leave a beer there, to drink after injection. Hart noticed that though American doctors worried endlessly over the harms of mixing booze and opioids, it didn’t seem a very big deal to the Swiss users, maybe because they knew the exact dose of heroin they were getting and could trust its purity. When one patient had to attend a wedding in less enlightened England, utterly lacking in injection clinics, she carefully planned out her doses and travel arrangements so she could make the trip. When Hart told me about the Geneva injection clinic, he spoke about it in the way that liberal parents speak about Montessori schools—as a fanatically engineered expression of trust. Of the users, Hart said, “They were always on time.”

Shortly after visiting the clinic, Hart began regularly snorting heroin, as he recounts in a new book, “Drug Use for Grown-Ups.” His description of how he started is deliberately simple, suggesting how many of his boundaries had fallen away: a friend said that she’d never used heroin before but was interested in doing so. “Same here. So one Friday evening we did.” He describes using heroin in carefully managed doses, with product he trusts, in the company of friends, at times when being in an altered state does not interfere with his life, and achieving “a dreamy light sedation, free of stress.” Hart says that he used on “no more than about ten consecutive days at a time,” with a frequency roughly similar to his use of alcohol. He writes, “Like vacation, sex, and the arts, heroin is one of the tools I use to maintain my work-life balance.” There are libertarian strains in Hart’s extreme vision of a responsible individual user—but he also sometimes describes his use in the context of a shared racial identity. “I am frequently in a state of hypervigilance in an effort to prevent or minimize the damage caused by living in my own skin,” he writes. “When heroin binds to mu opioid receptors in my brain, I ‘lay down my burden’ as well as ‘my sword and shield’ just as described in the Negro spiritual ‘Down by the Riverside.’ ”

9) This is a great story, “After years as a meme, ‘Disaster Girl’ takes control of her image — with a hefty payoff”

Zoe Roth couldn’t stop checking her phone. “What’s it at now, what’s it at now?” her co-workers asked as they passed by the hostess stand at the Italian restaurant Il Palio. She gave a live play-by-play, and everyone on staff was invested.

As the clock neared 6 p.m. on April 17, she was shaking. Zoe was in the middle of an online auction for a photo, one that years ago had made her 4-year-old self famous.

In that photo, Zoe’s hair is askew. A close-up of her smirking face is in the foreground of the frame, and in the background, a house fire blazes. In her eyes there is a knowingness, as if she is saying, “Yes, it was me. I did this. Wouldn’t you like to know how.”

Evil girl looking back at the viewer in front of a burning house

10) Where’s that Novavax vaccine, anyway?

11) Noted professor asks, “Should We Stop Grading Class Participation?”  Ummm… no.

12) Oh, please.  “Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ :Companies and programmers are reexamining how technical terms are used amid Black Lives Matter protests. But some worry the changes are empty symbolism.”  Let’s be clear– it is empty symbolism and there’s been masters and slaves long before any white or black people made it to America.  

13) You know what we really need to work on?  The fact that Black men are way more likely to get pulled over and have a gun pulled on them. Drum:

You might be surprised by this. The key thing we’re interested in is contact initiated by the police, which is about 80% traffic stops. As you can see, Black drivers and white drivers are stopped at nearly the same rate: 11.7% and 11.0%. This is based on survey data in which people report their own experience.

Now let’s move on to use of force by police. Black and Hispanic respondents report that police used force on them at more than twice the rate reported by white respondents. But there’s also this:

Black respondents report having a gun pointed at them at eight times the rate of white respondents. (The number for Hispanics is unreliable due to small sample size, so don’t pay too much attention to that.)

If these self-reported statistics are accurate, Black and white drivers (along with street encounters) are stopped by police at roughly the same rate. But Black men (and it’s mostly men) have guns aimed at them eight times more often. This probably explains why we see so many examples of this captured on video. It’s because it happens so often.

14) Or a story like this, “NC ROTC student, who is Black, practiced drills with fake gun. A neighbor called police.”

Until Tuesday, Jathan Walthour practiced his Air Force ROTC drills with a mop, marching around his Raleigh home with a kitchen cleaning tool.

But as the drills grew more complicated, the sophomore at Sanderson High School got his first dummy rifle from Dick’s Sporting Goods — a fake wooden gun for more realistic practice.

He took his rifle to the cul-de-sac Tuesday night, spinning and switching it between his shoulders, until his practice stopped short. Someone called police on Walthour, who is 16 and Black. A patrol car rolled up to investigate.

Walthour knew what to do. He belongs to Police Explorers, a community program for kids interested in criminal justice. So he placed the rifle on the ground and stepped away from it before officers said a word.

His mother, Jasmin Krest, offered this sobering response: “This is every day for us.”

15) Meredith Conroy ,”Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity”

There’s little question that the media is one of the least trusted institutions in Republican circles.

In the past two decades, trust in traditional media has plummeted — especially among Republicans. According to polling from Gallup, since at least the late 1990s, Republicans have been less likely than Democrats (and independents) to say they trust the media. But starting in 2015, trust among Republicans took a nosedive, falling from 32 percent to 10 percent in 2020. (Meanwhile, among Democrats, trust in the media has actually climbed back up, and by quite a bit.)

This distrust, and Republicans’ growing animosity toward the media, is significant because they’re already isolated news consumers. And studies have shown that when news consumers exist in a media bubble, they can be hostile toward news that doesn’t match their political beliefs. (It also means they can be too trusting of their preferred news outlets.) Plus, as Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown University public policy and government professor and the author of “Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters,” points out,Republicans are getting the message from Fox News (and the broader conservative media ecosystem) that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. “This isn’t new,” Ladd said, but he added that the conservative media’s continued criticism of the press has been “kicked into high gear” by the modern Republican Party.

Take what happened in the Trump era. During both his campaign for the presidency and his four years in office, Trump openly attacked the mediacalling journalists or news organizations critical of him or his administration “fake news.” Consequently, his supporters’ existing perceptions of media bias and distrust of news organizations intensified — this was especially true among his white supporters, who are more likely to consume exclusively conservative media. For instance, at many of Trump’s campaign events, his supporters would disparage, attack and threaten the press. And now, when Trump’s supporters disagree with a fact, they can decry it as “fake news” — whether it be crowd size or election results.

Hostility and distrust of the news media, in other words, has become a point of political identity among Republicans. 

16) Meanwhile, all the more reason Biden’s low-key style is successful, “The Biden White House media doctrine: Less can be more”

But as a strategy, it is a return to an era that predated the Obama White House, when the country heard from the president sparingly.

But it’s also a continuation of the campaign strategy — especially during the general election — premised on the idea thattoo much exposure didn’t necessarily work to his benefitThat mindset sparked criticism from the press as well as then-President Trump, who was doing daily press briefings on Covid-19 while his opponent was largely broadcasting from his home in Delaware. But Biden aides believed that simplicity and restraint was the best approach. He won the election.

“I don’t think that we felt like what [Trump’s team] did worked,” a senior communications aide told POLITICO. “What [Trump] was doing as a strategy was not successful.”

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary, says that the current media environment forces a balance for any White House staff. The American people want to see the president working. But overexposure carries risk — and not just in the form of increasing the chances for a notable gaffe.

“I used to have these discussions with President Obama; we were just laying too much of the communications work on top of him,” Gibbs said. “In reality, once you elevate it to the role of the president commenting on it, you can’t really go backwards. Like it’s now fully owned by them.”

17) Aaron Carroll, “When Can We Declare the Pandemic Over?”

Too many people, though, are unwilling to talk about any lowering of our guard — even in the future — because some danger still exists. They want to know that no one is dying of Covid-19 in their community anymore, or they want to know that there are no cases in the area and that there is no chance of their being exposed.

I understand the sentiment, as we have been overwhelmed with messaging about how dangerous Covid-19 is. But the sentiment is not realistic, nor is it reasonable. Such extreme vigilance can also backfire: Each day we wait, more people become impatient and abandon their posts.

Normal has never meant “perfectly safe.” A safer world will likely still have Covid-19 in it.

Ideally, we should reduce restrictions gradually while we closely monitor the situation. First, we might liberalize outdoor gatherings and open schools and maybe even camps more fully. If all goes well, we could allow for denser indoor public events, with masks. We could allow restaurants and bars to increase to full capacity in stages.

While we do all this, we should track cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates. We will still need to test widely, even asymptomatic people, to measure our progress. Should all go well, eventually, we could get rid of masking requirements. If enough people are vaccinated and transmissions slow, we will reach a place where we are much, much safer than we are now.

Americans are generally willing to live with a greater-than-zero level of risk in exchange for what we used to consider a normal life. The roads are full of cars, even though accidents are the No. 1 killer of children. We don’t seem that eager as a country to restrict access to guns, even though they cause injuries or deaths every day. Bottom line: We can sometimes collectively act to reduce risk, but we almost never eliminate it.

18) Especially since I’m working on PSA’s to encourage vaccination (hopefully coming soon to a social media feed near you), I was especially intrigued by Noah Smith’s take on anti-vaccination:

But in fact, I think there’s another angle to the new antivax movement besides the partisan angle — a widespread need for a feeling of personal control.

I got this idea when I noticed that talk show host Joe Rogan declared that healthy 21-year-olds shouldn’t get vaccinated. Rogan is no partisan Republican. But he is someone who seems to place great stock in independence of personal thought and action. And this made me realize that refusing to get vaccinated — or simply harboring reservations about the public health experts’ advice that everyone get vaccinated — might feel like a way of exercising personal independence.

And personal independence really just means exercising control over your own life. This pandemic year has seen Americans lose a lot of the control over their lives that they felt they had previously. Mask mandates and distancing requirements created new rules for everyone to follow. And the virus itself represented the greatest loss of control — a silent, insensate, ever-hungry terror that could lay low the strongest man and send the freest spirits cowering to the safety of their homes.

The plague year infantilized us, made us impotent in the face of forces beyond our control. I think that in some people, that produced a strong desire to strike back and reassert a measure of personal autonomy, even if that meant not wearing a mask or not taking a vaccine. Unable to control the virus or their own fear, people instead took the only independent action they felt they could take — they broke society’s rules.

If this is a big part of vaccine refusal, I doubt that paying people to get shots — one commonly suggested remedy — will be very effective, since to the refusers that would feel like selling their personal autonomy for money.

So I think we need to find some way to convince people that getting vaccinated increases your control over your own life, rather than decreasing it. Especially in low-vaccination red states, we have to get refusers to see it as a tool to be wielded, rather than a rule to be followed. Just like a car or a hammer or a gun, a vaccine shot allows you to escape the fear of the virus, while denying COVID simply shoves that fear back into the deep recesses of your psyche. Vaccines are liberating.

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