Quick hits (part II)

1) The gender norms in Mauritania are just bizarre.  In most ways, still a deeply patriarchal culture.  Except women can seemingly get divorced all the time with almost no stigma.  So weird.  Worth a gift link

Divorce in many cultures is seen as shameful and carries a deep stigma. But in Mauritania, it is not just normal, but even seen as a reason to celebrate and spread the word that the woman is available once more for marriage. For centuries, women have been coming together to eat, sing and dance at each others’ divorce parties. Now, the custom is being updated for the selfie generation, with inscribed cakes and social media montages, as well as the traditional food and music.

In this almost 100 percent Muslim country, divorce is frequent; many people have been through five to 10 marriages, and some as many as 20.

Some scholars say the country has the highest divorce rate in the world, though there is little reliable data from Mauritania, partly because divorce agreements there are often verbal, not documented…

Many women find that divorce affords them freedoms they never dreamed of before or during marriage, especially a first marriage. Mauritanians’ openness to divorce — which seems so modern — coexists with very traditional practices around first marriages. It is common for parents to choose the groom themselves and marry daughters off when they are still young — more than a third of girls are married by the time they are 18 — allowing the women little choice in their partners.

2) Yes, please, “How to Make Flying Less Terrible: Tech has changed the airline industry. It can also help fix it.”

This is all compelling evidence that it’s time for an overhaul of our aviation system. Today’s airline industry is the smallest and most concentrated since 1914, with just four airlines—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—controlling 80 percent of the market. But a comprehensive overhaul that would ensure that airlines provide better and more consistent customer service, across their networks and throughout the year, will take time, resources, and political will that would be hard to rally. Luckily, there are more incremental steps that can still make a difference, especially when it comes to protecting consumer rights. Biden’s proposed rules are one example, as is a customer service dashboard recently launched by the Department of Transportation. Ensuring that airline networks, staffing plans, and technology are ready for different types of disruptions through occasional stress tests (as is commonly done for banks) should be the next step.

The need for reform will likely become even more apparent in the coming months, because things are only about to get more frustrating. Flight delays and cancellations always increase during the peak summer travel months—June through August are consistently the months with the worst on-time performance. But this summer, airlines are also battling with staff and tech issues, and weather disruptions could make things worse…

But this summer, consumers will also have a new tool to navigate travel chaos. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its Airline Customer Service Dashboard in hopes of enhancing transparency and ensuring compliance with refunds related to delays and cancellations. As of now, the dashboard is nothing revolutionary, per se—just some charts with green checks and red marks that indicate airlines’ service commitments or lack thereof. But this dashboard is part of a larger aviation consumer protection initiative, and is used to signal to consumers which airlines are invested in improving their on-time performance. If an airline is willing to incur significant costs when delays and cancellations occur, it follows that it will do what it can to avoid those delays and cancellations.

It’s still early to know what the dashboard’s impact might be, but consumer rights education and regulation do have a good basis in research. When Hinnerk Gnutzmann and Piotr Spiewanowski studied European regulations that require airlines to provide assistance and cash compensation in the case of delays, they found that regulated fights experienced significantly shorter delays. Similarly, research shows that if we increase the amount of competition in the marketplace, consumers might receive better service. For example, when my former colleague Mike Mazzeo analyzed U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2000, he found that both the prevalence and duration of flight delays are significantly greater on routes where only one airline provides direct services. Additional competition is correlated with better on-time performance.

3) This is fantastic.  I think I’m pretty good at this, but far from perfect, “How to discipline kids effectively”

  • When we think of discipline, we often think of punishment, and it sounds cold and scary. But discipline is actually a larger system for teaching kids acceptable behavior through warmth, structure, and appropriate consequences.

  • Warmth means showing our kids we care, structure means setting clear rules and expectations, and consequences are the ways we respond to kids’ behaviors.

  • Operant Conditioning is a psychology theory that explains how we can use consequences to increase “okay” behaviors and decrease “not okay” behaviors…

4) Just came across this for research I’m doing.  It makes me wonder how much they really care, though. “Vast majority of Republicans support abortion exceptions for rape, incest and mother’s health”

Nine in 10 Americans think a pregnant woman should be able to legally have an abortion if her health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy. An even larger majority of Republicans support that exception, with 86% agreeing that abortion should be legal in that circumstance, joining 95% of Democrats and 93% of independents.

This level of bipartisan support holds up even among respondents who live in states that have enacted restrictions on abortion. Aggregating the states where abortion is legal, 88 % of Americans think abortion should be legal in the case of rape or incest. Among the states where abortion is banned, restricted or legislation is pending, a similar 85 percent said abortion should be legal in the case of rape or incest.

Likewise, 92 % of those who live in states where abortion remains legal and 90 % of those who live in states restricting the procedure say abortion should be legal if the mother’s health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy.

5) I’m glad that the officer who shot this boy was Black, because there’s so much wrong with policing that transcend race, which we need to focus on.  For example, poorly qualified officers who are way too trigger happy, “An 11-Year-Old Boy Called 911. Police Then Shot Him.”

A family has demanded that a Mississippi police officer be fired after shooting an 11-year-old boy who was trying to follow the officer’s orders after calling 911 for help, a lawyer for the boy’s family said.

The officer shot the boy, Aderrien Murry, in the chest, resulting in numerous injuries, including a collapsed lung, lacerated liver and fractured ribs, on May 20, said Carlos Moore, a lawyer representing the Murry family.

After spending several days in the hospital and intensive care, Aderrien is home and “doing as well as he can be after being shot in the chest,” Mr. Moore said.

“Little Mr. Murry came within an inch of losing his life in the wee hours of Saturday morning because of the actions of a cop,” Mr. Moore said at a news conference this week. “He was an unarmed, young Black man who was simply following his mother’s directions.”

Aderrien’s mother, Nakala Murry, said her ex-boyfriend, the father to one of her other children, knocked on her window around 4 a.m. last Saturday and asked to be let in the home.

Once inside, he became “irate,” so Ms. Murry said she went to Aderrien’s bedroom and instructed him to call his grandmother and 911.

Officers from the Indianola Police Department responded and tried to kick down the front door before Ms. Murry let them in, she said. The officers asked if anyone was armed, and then yelled for everyone in the house to come out with their hands up.

When Aderrien rounded a corner to follow their commands, he was shot, Ms. Murry said. Mr. Moore identified the officer who fired as Greg Capers.

6) How can epidemiological studies possibly show that ice cream is good for you?  Interesting stuff:

Back in 2018, a Harvard doctoral student named Andres Ardisson Korat was presenting his research on the relationship between dairy foods and chronic disease to his thesis committee. One of his studies had led him to an unusual conclusion: Among diabetics, eating half a cup of ice cream a day was associated with a lower risk of heart problems. Needless to say, the idea that a dessert loaded with saturated fat and sugar might actually be good for you raised some eyebrows at the nation’s most influential department of nutrition.

Earlier, the department chair, Frank Hu, had instructed Ardisson Korat to do some further digging: Could his research have been led astray by an artifact of chance, or a hidden source of bias, or a computational error? As Ardisson Korat spelled out on the day of his defense, his debunking efforts had been largely futile. The ice-cream signal was robust.

It was robust, and kind of hilarious. “I do sort of remember the vibe being like, Hahaha, this ice-cream thing won’t go away; that’s pretty funny,” recalled my tipster, who’d attended the presentation. This was obviously not what a budding nutrition expert or his super-credentialed committee members were hoping to discover. “He and his committee had done, like, every type of analysis—they had thrown every possible test at this finding to try to make it go away. And there was nothing they could do to make it go away.”

Spurious effects pop up all the time in science, especially in fields like nutritional epidemiology, where the health concerns and dietary habits of hundreds of thousands of people are tracked over years and years. Still, the abject silliness of “healthy ice cream” intrigued me. As a public-health historian, I’ve studied how teams of researchers process data, mingle them with theory, and then package the results as “what the science says.” I wanted to know what happens when consensus makers are confronted with a finding that seems to contradict everything they’ve ever said before. (Harvard’s Nutrition Source website calls ice cream an “indulgent” dairy food that is considered an “every-so-often” treat.)

“There are few plausible biological explanations for these results,” Ardisson Korat wrote in the brief discussion of his “unexpected” finding in his thesis. Something else grabbed my attention, though: The dissertation explained that he’d hardly been the first to observe the shimmer of a health halo around ice cream. Several prior studies, he suggested, had come across a similar effect. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Ardisson Korat for an interview—I emailed him four times—but never heard back. When I contacted Tufts University, where he now works as a scientist, a press aide told me he was “not available for this.” Inevitably, my curiosity took on a different shade: Why wouldn’t a young scientist want to talk with me about his research? Just how much deeper could this bizarre ice-cream thing go?

“I still to this day don’t have an answer for it,” Mark A. Pereira, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me, speaking of the association he’d stumbled upon more than 20 years earlier. “We analyzed the hell out of the data.”

7) As a notoriously fast eater, I quite enjoyed this.  I’m among the fastest eaters I know.  My sophmore college roommate was among the slowest.  After a while, we just stopped eating together because it was too annoying.  Anyway, “Eating Fast Is Bad for You—Right? The widespread advice to go slow is neither definitive nor universal.” 

But the widespread mantra of go slower probably isn’t as definitive or universal as it at first seems. Fast eaters like me aren’t necessarily doomed to metabolic misfortune; many of us can probably safely and happily keep hoovering our meals. Most studies examining eating speed rely on population-level observations taken at single points in time, rather than extended clinical trials that track people assigned to eat fast or slow; they can speak to associations between pace and certain aspects of health, but not to cause and effect. And not all of them actually agree on whether protracted eating boosts satisfaction or leads people to eat less. Even among experts, “there is no consensus about the benefits of eating slow,” says Tany E. Garcidueñas-Fimbres, a nutrition researcher at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, in Spain, who has studied eating rates

The idea that eating too fast could raise certain health risks absolutely does make sense. The key, experts told me, is the potential mismatch between the rate at which we consume nutrients and the rate at which we perceive and process them. Our brain doesn’t register fullness until it’s received a series of cues from the digestive tract: chewing in the mouth, swallowing down the throat; distension in the stomach, transit into the small intestine. Flood the gastrointestinal tract with a ton of food at once, and those signals might struggle to keep pace—making it easier to wolf down more food than the gut is asking for. Fast eating may also inundate the blood with sugar, risking insulin resistance—a common precursor to diabetes, says Michio Shimabukuro, a metabolism researcher at Fukushima Medical University, in Japan.

The big asterisk here is that a lot of these ideas are still theoretical, says Janine Higgins, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, who’s studied eating pace. Research that merely demonstrates an association between fast eating and higher food intake cannot prove which observation led to the other, if there’s a causal link at all. Some other factor—stress, an underlying medical condition, even diet composition—could be driving both. “The good science is just completely lacking,” says Susan Roberts, a nutrition researcher at Tufts University.

8) I haven’t read the big Atlantic article on CNN’s Chris Licht yet, but this Dan Drezner take was nonetheless excellent:

The deeper story, however, is to divine what the big takeaway should be from Licht’s tenure to date. Because as much as Licht fucked up CNN’s morning show and Trump’s town hall, it is worth remembering that the network was not exactly in a great place before he came on board. There was the CNN+ fiasco, there was Zucker’s inappropriate work relationship, and there was prime time anchor Christopher Cuomo pretending that ethics were not a big deal across a wide variety of behaviors. Just as Twitter was not in great shape when Elon Musk bought it, CNN was not in the pink of health when Licht came on board.

However, like Musk, it appears that Licht inherited an unwell patient and then prescribed leeches as a remedy. To me, at least, this paragraph gets at the core of CNN’s problem:

Licht was no fascist. But he was trying to steal viewers from Fox News—and from MSNBC, for that matter. To succeed, Licht said, CNN would need to produce more than just great journalism. Reporting the news in an aggressive, nonpartisan manner would be central to the network’s attempt to win back audiences. But television is, at its essence, entertainment. Viewers would always turn on CNN in times of crisis, Licht told me. What he needed to find out was how many would turn on CNN for fun.

And here’s the problem for Licht and CNN: no one under the age of 75 will turn on CNN — or any cable news network for that mater — for fun. Younger generations will rely on social media to capture the lurid highlights of any cable news segment. Short of a real-time breaking news story, watching CNN is not on anyone’s to-do list. Licht’s ham-handed effort to cater to Fox News viewers has alienated the MSNBC demographic. And his attempt to woo those Fox watchers is bound to fail because those viewers do not want to watch the news, they want to hear reassuring conservative platitudes.

9) Really interesting insight from Ethan Mollick on another consequence of AI: “Setting time on fire and the temptation of The Button: We used to consider writing an indication of time and effort spent on a task. That isn’t true anymore.”

A lot of work is time consuming by design. Take, for example, the letter of recommendation. Professors are asked to write letters for students all the time, and a good letter takes a long time to write. You have to understand the student and the reason for the letter, decide how to phrase the letter to align with the job requirements and the student’s strengths, and more. The fact that it is time consuming is somewhat the point. The fact that a professor takes the time to write a good letter is a sign that they support the student’s application. We are setting our time on fire to signal to others that this letter is worth reading.

Or we can push The Button…

This is a good letter of recommendation, responding point-by-point to the details of the job, and suggesting a real knowledge of “Sally” (who is entirely fake). You will also notice that it makes stuff up, but in a way that is pretty plausible. It would be easy to make the letter more correct, either by providing more material in the prompt or by interacting with the AI: Incorporate the following real examples: ____. Replace the story about her extracurriculars with praise for how she did on this assignment: _____. And so on. Someone experienced with ChatGPT and Sally could make this letter factually correct in a few minutes, rather than spending ten times as much time writing a letter from scratch.

And the terrible, horrible thing about it is THIS IS A GOOD LETTER. It is better than most letters of recommendation that I receive. This means that not only is the quality of the letter no longer a signal of the professor’s interest, but also that you may actually be hurting people by not writing a letter of recommendation by AI, especially if you are not a particularly strong writer. So people now have to consider that the goal of the letter (getting a student a job) is in contrast with the morally-correct method of accomplishing the goal (the professor spending a lot of time writing the letter). I am still doing all my letters the old-fashioned way, but I wonder whether that will ultimately do my student’s a disservice.

Now consider all the other tasks where the final written output is important because it is a signal of the time spent on the task, and the thoughtfulness that went into it. Performance reviews. Strategic memos. College essays. Grant applications. Speeches. Comments on papers. And so much more.

10) This is fantastic, “Undergraduate excuses, used in other contexts:

Owing to the death of my grandfather—whom I loved dearly—I will not be able to land the plane. Thank you for your understanding.”

“Because I am literally stuck in traffic at this very moment, I will not be able to perform your heart surgery this morning. Would it be possible to get an extension? Let me know.”

“I went to the wrong building, and I totally just did someone else’s taxes. So sorry—my bad!”

“Owing to the death of my boyfriend’s grandfather—whom I loved dearly—I will not be able to finish filling your cavity. Thank you so much for your compassion.”

“Given my anxiety about public speaking, I am hoping that you’ll be open to me proclaiming the ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ via e-mail. If that’s an issue for you, then perhaps I could prerecord something and you could show the video in the town square? You could just set up a projector and a screen and a P.A. system? Should be fairly straightforward.”

11) David Wallace-Wells with some real doom and gloom about the health of our oceans. This was tough to read, “The Ocean Is Looking More Menacing”

There are a lot of unsettling signals coming from the world’s oceans right now.

Even for those of us who watch things like temperature anomalies and extreme weather events as likely portents of the climate to come, the off-the-charts rise of global sea surface temperature this spring has been eye-popping. As is much of the language recently used to describe it: “record breaking,” “huge,” “alarming,” “unprecedented,” “uncharted,” “an extreme event at a global scale.” Perhaps most simply: “trouble.”..

But some news from ocean science may prove more surprising still — perhaps genuinely paradigm-shifting. In a paper published in March, researchers suggested that under a high-emissions scenario, rapid melting of Antarctic ice could slow deepwater formation in the Southern Ocean by more than 40 percent by 2050, disrupting the “conveyor belt” that regulates and stabilizes not just the temperature of the oceans but much of the world’s weather systems. And after 2050? This key part of the circulation of the Southern Ocean “looks headed towards collapse this century,” study coordinator Matthew England told Yale Environment 360. “And once collapsed, it would most likely stay collapsed until Antarctic melting stopped. At current projections that could be centuries away.”


Then, last week, some of the same researchers confirmed that the process was already unfolding — in fact, that the Southern Ocean overturning circulation had already slowed by as much as 30 percent since the 1990s. “The model projections of rapid change in the deep ocean circulation in response to melting of Antarctic ice might, if anything, have been conservative,” said Steve Rintoul, a co-author on the new paper and one of the researchers who’d published the previous paper back in March. “Changes have already happened in the ocean that were not projected to happen until a few decades from now.”

The oceans have lately produced a number of other curiosities to chew over, as well: record low levels of Antarctic sea ice, with the “mind boggling fast reduction” scientists have called “gobsmacking” also potentially signaling a “regime shift” in the oceans; some perplexing trends in the El Niño-La Niña cycle, suggesting that warming may be making La Niñas more frequent and thereby scrambling some expectations for future extreme weather; and questions about the role large icebergs may be playing in the warming patterns of the world’s water.

12) I think the “everyone should learn to code” advice has been completely undone by AI. Farhad Manjoo:

Though I did find it fascinating to learn to think the way computers do, there seemed to be something fundamentally backward about programming a computer that I just couldn’t get over: Wasn’t it odd that the machines needed us humans to learn their maddeningly precise secret languages to get the most out of them? If they’re so smart, shouldn’t they try to understand what we’re saying, rather than us learning how to talk to them?

Now that may finally be happening. In a kind of poetic irony, software engineering is looking like one of the fields that could be most thoroughly altered by the rise of artificial intelligence. Over the next few years, A.I. could transform computer programming from a rarefied, highly compensated occupation into a widely accessible skill that people can easily pick up and use as part of their jobs across a wide variety of fields. This won’t necessarily be terrible for computer programmers — the world will still need people with advanced coding skills — but it will be great for the rest of us. Computers that we can all “program,” computers that don’t require specialized training to adjust and improve their functionality and that don’t speak in code: That future is rapidly becoming the present.


A.I. tools based on large language models — like OpenAI Codex, from the company that brought you ChatGPT, or AlphaCode, from Google’s DeepMind division — have already begun to change the way many professional coders do their jobs. At the moment, these tools work mainly as assistants — they can find bugs, write explanations for snippets of poorly documented code and offer suggestions for code to perform routine tasks (not unlike how Gmail offers ideas for email replies — “Sounds good”; “Got it”).

But A.I. coders are quickly getting smart enough to rival human coders. Last year, DeepMind reported in the journal Science that when AlphaCode’s programs were evaluated against answers submitted by human participants in coding competitions, its performance “approximately corresponds to a novice programmer with a few months to a year of training.”

“Programming will be obsolete,” Matt Welsh, a former engineer at Google and Apple, predicted recently. Welsh now runs an A.I. start-up, but his prediction, while perhaps self-serving, doesn’t sound implausible:

I believe the conventional idea of “writing a program” is headed for extinction, and indeed, for all but very specialized applications, most software, as we know it, will be replaced by A.I. systems that are trained rather than programmed. In situations where one needs a “simple” program … those programs will, themselves, be generated by an A.I. rather than coded by hand.

13) I love this finding and it totally reflects my experience, “Minimal Social Interactions with Strangers Predict Greater Subjective Well-Being”

Past empirical work has repeatedly revealed that positive social interactions including expressing gratitude and socializing are associated with greater happiness. However, this work predominantly focused on prolonged interactions with close relationship partners. Only a few studies demonstrated hedonic benefits of forming social connections with strangers. The present research investigated whether minimal social interactions with strangers—just taking a moment to greet, thank, and express good wishes to strangers—contribute to happiness of individuals who initiate these interactions. Study 1 (N = 856) provided correlational evidence that commuters who reported engaging in minimal positive social interactions with shuttle drivers experienced greater subjective well-being (life satisfaction and positive affect). Moreover, hedonic benefits of positive social interactions went beyond relatively more neutral social interactions, Big-Five personality factors, and age, speaking to the robustness of the effect. Study 2 (N = 265) provided experimental evidence that commuters who greeted, thanked, or expressed good wishes to shuttle drivers experienced greater momentary positive affect than those who did not speak with drivers. These findings add to the burgeoning literature on hedonic benefits of interacting with strangers by showing that even very minimal social interactions with strangers contribute to subjective well-being in everyday life.

The night I saw this tweet I had spent a few hours scanning tickets at a soccer tournament.  The scanners were awful and frustrating, but I loved having nice little 5-10 second interactions with lots of nice folks.

14) I really, really hate the, “be nice to trans teens or else they will all kill themselves” theme that underlies so much of the political messaging on this from the left.  Thus, I really liked this, “Don’t Try to Stop Me or I’ll Kill Myself” from a frustrated parent (all emphases in original)

At the initial meeting the gender therapist sized us up as doubtful and talked a good game: she claimed to be very careful and open minded and wouldn’t jump to conclusions; she wanted to extensively explore all the relevant issues.  Still, it struck me as odd that she already seemed to be testing our receptivity to the idea of going along with hormones and surgery.  Towards the end of the meeting she hit us with the hammer.  Maybe we had not shown sufficient faith in the wisdom of the affirmative approach.  She leaned over, pinched her face into an expression of deep concern, lowered her voice and dramatically uttered, “One thing we do know is that these kids attempt suicide at incredibly high rates.”  The implied message was as clear as it was shocking:  Listen to us experts.  If you don’t accept your daughter as a boy and allow her to proceed with medical interventions, there’s a good chance she will kill herself.

Every parent with a gender-confused child has heard some version of this threat from multiple sources.  It’s part of what Everybody Knows because Experts Say So.  It’s also a big part of how the radical Affirmation Only approach has steamrolled over all resistance to become the de facto policy of nearly every relevant major institution in North America. 

The basic argument for Affirmation Only is roughly this: 

  • Untreated gender dysphoria leads to an extreme suicide risk.  
  • Medical transition (in conjunction with social acceptance) is the only effective treatment for gender dysphoria.  
  • Therefore: The benefits of offering medical transition on demand outweigh the expected likelihood of medical risks (like damaged health or regret). 

Both premises of this argument are false but the first one has been particularly effective in persuading people who should know better to look the other way, to forgo due diligence, and to accept surprising new policies on only the skimpiest evidence.   Questioning the actual evidence that is supposed to justify Affirmation Only policies is rarely met by good faith discussion of the nature and strength of that evidence.  Instead the person raising such questions is much more likely to be accused of being motivated by bigotry and of perpetuating immoral beliefs directly responsible for many suicides (and even murders), deaths that would not occur if society would only universally affirm gender identity and offer medical transition on demand.

This is the suicide myth I want to examine.  The vague but ubiquitous presumption that the risk of suicide by trans-identified people, especially youth, is so extreme that it justifies bypassing established standards of decision making whenever those standards pose a barrier to immediately gratifying the trans-person’s desire for medical intervention or social accommodation…

In the context of gender affirmation, the bailey is the expansive belief that extreme suicide risk justifies Affirmation Only policy across all of society, including medicine.  It posits that lack of social and medical accommodation causes persons with gender dysphoria to commit suicide at extremely high rates (i.e. these factors independently and significantly increase the real suicide rate).  Additionally, it implicitly holds that the aggregate harm of suicide that can be reduced by social and medical accommodation is greater than the aggregate harm (health damage and normal life opportunity lost) that may be increased by on-demand medical transition.   In contrast, the motte consists of much more modest claims such as people who self identify as transgender also self report suicidal ideation or unsuccessful attempts at higher than normal rates, and blame it on lack of acceptance.  The large gap between the bailey and the motte begs that we address these questions: How predictive of completed suicides are self-reports of suicidal ideation or attempts?  How reliably can we attribute suicidality of trans identified people just to lack of social acceptance and medical transition?

To be clear, gender-questioning teens should be treated with kindness and empathy and not used as political pawns. But that does not mean suicide scaremongering is supported by research, or, appropriate.

15) Really good stuff from Katherine Wu on the upcoming Covid vaccines and the science of monovalent vs bivalent:

The switch in strategy—from two variants to one, from original SARS-CoV-2 plus Omicron to XBB.1 alone—would be momentous but wise, experts told me, reflecting the world’s updated understanding of the virus’s evolution and the immune system’s quirks. “It just makes a lot of sense,” said Melanie Ott, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology, in San Francisco. XBB.1 is the main coronavirus group circulating today; neither the original variant nor BA.5, the two coronavirus flavors in the bivalent shot, is meaningfully around anymore. And an XBB.1-focused vaccine may give the global population a particularly good shot at broadening immunity.


At the same time, COVID vaccines are still in a sort of beta-testing stage. In the past three-plus years, the virus has spawned countless iterations, many of which have been extremely good at outsmarting us; we humans, meanwhile, are only on our third-ish attempt at designing a vaccine that can keep pace with the pathogen’s evolutionary sprints. And we’re very much still learning about the coronavirus’s capacity for flexibility and change, says Rafi Ahmed, an immunologist at Emory University. By now, it’s long been clear that vaccines are essential for preventing severe disease and death, and that some cadence of boosting is probably necessary to keep the shots’ effectiveness high. But when the virus alters its evolutionary tactics, our vaccination strategy must follow—and experts are still puzzling out how to account for those changes as they select the shots for each year.

In the spring and summer of 2022, the last time the U.S. was mulling on a new vaccine formula, Omicron was still relatively new, and the coronavirus’s evolution seemed very much in flux. The pathogen had spent more than two years erratically slingshotting out Greek-letter variants without an obvious succession plan. Instead of accumulating genetic changes within a single lineage—a more iterative form of evolution, roughly akin to what flu strains do—the coronavirus produced a bunch of distantly related variants that jockeyed for control. Delta was not a direct descendant of Alpha; Omicron was not a Delta offshoot; no one could say with any certainty what would arise next, or when. “We didn’t understand the trajectory,” says Kanta Subbarao, the head of the WHO advisory group convened to make recommendations on COVID vaccines.

And so the experts played it safe. Including an Omicron variant in the shot felt essential, because of how much the virus had changed. But going all in on Omicron seemed too risky—some experts worried that “the virus would flip back,” Subbarao told me, to a variant more similar to Alpha or Delta or something else. As a compromise, several countries, including the United States, went with a combination: half original, half Omicron, in an attempt to reinvigorate OG immunity while laying down new defenses against the circulating strains du jour.

16) Save the world, eat more beans! “Eat more beans. Please.: Beans are protein-rich, sustainable, and delicious. Why doesn’t the US eat more of them?”

17) This is an amazing story and you should read it.  Gift link. “A catatonic woman awakened after 20 years. Her story may change psychiatry.”

Newborns are hard and parenting is awesome

Tim Urban is out with a post on his thoughts on the first few months of parenting and it’s awesome.  So much of this resonated with me.  

This very much captured my experience with our firstborn:

Once again, nothing like I pictured. I thought there would be a big team of doctors and nurses doing a whole big hectic thing and I’d be standing somewhere on the side. Instead, it was me and this nurse, each holding a leg.

The game went like this: When a contraction starts, we each grab a leg and she pushes really hard for 10 seconds three times in a row. Then everyone chills and hangs out for a few minutes until the next contraction. And repeat.

After a few rounds of this, it was clear this was not gonna work. Nothing was coming out. But we kept trying anyway.

And then I saw it.

The edge of an upsetting slimy pancake.

When I asked what the upsetting slimy pancake edge was, the nurse told me it was my daughter.

Uh huh.

This then went on for a while. We’d do a round of pushing, the upsetting pancake thing would come out a centimeter and then go back in, and each round it would come out a few more millimeters. It was increasingly feeling like we really weren’t getting anywhere with this strategy when the nurse suddenly says “okay let’s deliver a baby!”

She makes a call and a few minutes later a group of people come in, including the first doctor we had seen that day. The next contraction came along, I leg-held, my wife pushed, and then in the most surreal moment of my life, I was staring at a tiny screaming alien.

And OMG do I love the idea of a newborn as “a fetus that everyone can see”

1) A newborn is not a baby

I thought it was gonna be like this:

But it’s actually like this:

A newborn is not a baby. Babies are cute and roly-poly and can see and are conscious and are normal and a newborn is not any of these things. It is a bizarre human larva that acts super weird and would still be in the womb if it could be. The problem is, when humans went bipedal, our pelvises got smaller, and as humans got smarter, our heads got bigger. So evolution had to get creative. Its solution: all human babies would be premies, born when they were still small enough to pass through a human pelvis. The last couple months as a fetus would happen outside the womb, and everyone would just have to deal with that. This became incredibly obvious during the first month with my daughter. She was a raw human id not remotely ready for primetime. Thankfully, since then, a baby has grown around the id and now she has the figure of a miniature 390-pound 84-year-old woman.

And this, so much this:

4) Babies are incredibly overdramatic

When a normal person is hungry, or tired, or needs to burp, they’re a little annoyed. Babies are in Shakespearean agony. And then comes the burp and one second later they’re like “sup.” It’s insane behavior.

For a while, the range of baby emotion runs from Shakespearean agony to neutral, never entering the positive realm. Neutral is a newborn’s best-case scenario.

After six weeks or so, positive emotion begins to make an appearance, but then they still go apoplectic at the slightest inconvenience.

The whole post is, of course, terrific.

It also reminded me of an open tab I’ve had for a while, “Actually, Most People Love Being Parents

The Pew Research Center recently published a new survey on parenting that has been getting a lot of attention. The survey breaks down an array of attitudes about parenting by race, gender, and income levels. It’s fascinating stuff. But for all the deep granular data, there was one thing that surprised me more than anything else but which is largely getting glossed over in the ensuing conversation: The vast majority of parents actually enjoy parenting, find it rewarding, and see it as a key part of their identities. 

Specifically, 36% of Pew’s respondents said that being a parent is enjoyable all the time. Another 44% said it’s enjoyable most of the time. That’s a total of 80% of respondents who described parenting as enjoyable. Similarly, 25% described parenting as rewarding all the time, and 58% described it as rewarding most of the time, for a total of 82%. 

Those are overwhelming majorities. 

Surely some social desirability bias going on here.  But, still.  And if your parenting is enjoyable “all of the time” you are raising some kind of alien, are completely delusional, or, more likely… social desirability bias. But, what’s notable is what the headline gets at with “actually”

These findings shocked me. 

Recent research notwithstanding, when I comb social media, read articles on parenting, or even just talk to fellow parents, overwhelmingly the impression I get is that parenting is a slog. The latest viral example in the genre was published earlier this week in The Cut; it described moms whose families make multiple six figures, but who still feel burned out and routed by their more successful neighbors. They sounded miserable.

Closer to home, I was recently talking to someone (without kids) who said my wife and I are the only parents she knows who don’t make the experience sound crushingly difficult. And when I was writing this post, I opened up TikTok to see if any parenting content would pop up. Within seconds, I was watching videos with people saying that the most difficult part of parenting is “the kids.” It was a joke, but still captures the way parenting is typically framed as a trial to be endured

Even the framing around the Pew research reinforces this idea. Pew’s own subhead focused on parental worry and how parenting is harder than people expected. The New York Times went with the headline “How Parenting Today Is Different, and Harder.”

Of course, those who know me know that I’m a parenting proselytizer.  Of course it’s hard and frustrating, but so is almost everything worth doing.  And damn is it worth it. Still, it would’ve been nice if human females evolved larger pelvises and newborns weren’t such a pain.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Yes, of course way more people are co-sleeping than like to admit it.  Since it’s long in my past, I’ll admit it. 

2) Ron Brownstein, “Red States Need Blue Cities”

In red and blue states, Democrats are consolidating their hold on the most economically productive places.

Metropolitan areas won by President Joe Biden in 2020 generated more of the total economic output than metros won by Donald Trump in 35 of the 50 states, according to new research by Brookings Metro provided exclusively to The Atlantic. Biden-won metros contributed the most to the GDP not only in all 25 states that he carried but also in 10 states won by Trump, including Texas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Utah, Ohio, and even Florida, Brookings found. Almost all of the states in which Trump-won metros accounted for the most economic output rank in the bottom half of all states for the total amount of national GDP produced within their borders.

Biden’s dominance was pronounced in the highest-output metro areas. Biden won 43 of the 50 metros, regardless of what state they were in, that generated the absolute most economic output; remarkably, he won every metro area that ranked No. 1 through 24 on that list of the most-productive places.

The Democrats’ ascendance in the most-prosperous metropolitan regions underscores how geographic and economic dynamics now reinforce the fundamental fault line in American politics between the people and places most comfortable with how the U.S. is changing and those who feel alienated or marginalized by those changes.

Just as Democrats now perform best among the voters most accepting of the demographic and cultural currents remaking 21st-century America, they have established a decisive advantage in diverse, well-educated metropolitan areas. Those places have become the locus of the emerging information economy in industries such as computing, communications, and advanced biotechnology.

And just as Republicans have relied primarily on the voters who feel most alienated and threatened by cultural and demographic change, their party has grown stronger in preponderantly white, blue-collar, midsize and smaller metro areas, as well as rural communities. Those are all places that generally have shared little in the transition to the information economy and remain much more reliant on the powerhouse industries of the 20th century: agriculture, fossil-fuel extraction, and manufacturing…

The trajectory is toward greater conflict between the diverse, big places that have transitioned the furthest toward the information-age economy and the usually less diverse and smaller places that have not. Across GOP-controlled states, Republicans are using statewide power rooted in their dominance of nonmetropolitan areas to pass an aggressive agenda preempting authority from their largest cities across a wide range of issues and imposing cultural values largely rejected in those big cities; several are also now targeting public universities with laws banning diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and proposals to eliminate tenure for professors.

This sweeping offensive is especially striking because, as the Brookings data show, even many red states now rely on blue-leaning metro areas as their principal drivers of economic growth. Texas, for instance, is one of the places where Republicans are pursuing the most aggressive preemption agenda, but the metros won by Biden there in 2020 account for nearly three-fourths of the state’s total economic output.

“State antagonism toward cities is not sustainable,” says Amy Liu, the interim president of the Brookings Institution. “By handicapping local problem solving or attacking local institutions and employers, state lawmakers are undermining the very actors they need to build a thriving regional economy.”…

The analysis showed that the metros Biden carried generated 50 percent or more of state economic output in 28 states, and a plurality of state output in seven others. States where Biden-won metros accounted for the highest share of economic output included reliably blue states: His metros generated at least 90 percent of state economic output in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland. But the Biden-won metros also generated at least 80 percent of the total economic output in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, as well as two-thirds in Michigan and almost exactly half in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—all key swing states. And the metros he carried generated at least half of total output in several Republican states, including Texas, Iowa, and Missouri.

3) Aaron Blake, “5 striking findings about what the GOP wants in 2024”

1. The party wants election deniers, full stop

Election deniers cost the GOP dearly in the 2022 election; the evidence for that is unmistakable. Yet this poll reinforces not just that a large majority of Republican-leaning voters continue to believe the election was stolen, but also that they want candidates who say that.

That last one is particularly startling. It’s one thing to falsely believe the election was stolen, as most Republicans do; it’s another to want someone who continues to re-litigate that. (Indeed, there are other issues Republicans are less interested in re-litigating, which we’ll get to.)

Candidates who keyed on that stolen-election message fared extremely poorly in swing areas in 2022, winning just 10 of 47 competitive races and being nearly swept in competitive races for Senate, governor and secretary of state. It’s a big reason some in the party have gently tried to usher Trump away from this message.

2. Electability is a nonissue (for now)

Rather than call the election stolen, DeSantis tried to use the fact of Trump’s loss against him — in the service of an electability argument. DeSantis has even gestured at the idea that Trump’s voter-fraud claims are bogus and that he’s dishonest.

The poll reinforces that this electability argument isn’t as effective as DeSantis might hope, though it does point to some potential.

Not only do 75 percent of Republican-leaners say Trump’s supposed victory in 2020 is a reason to vote for him again, 84 percent say that “He would beat Joe Biden” is a reason to vote for him. By contrast, just 38 percent say “He could lose to Joe Biden” is a reason to vote against him.

4) This is from November, but just came across it.  A lot of colleges are in for a lot of hurt. Kevin Carey, “The incredible shrinking future of college: The population of college-age Americans is about to crash. It will change higher education forever.”

In four years, the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period. But even as we climbed out of the recession, the birth rate kept dropping,and we are now starting to see the consequences on campuses everywhere. Classes will shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades. People in the higher education industry call it “the enrollment cliff.”

Among the small number of elite colleges and research universities — think the Princetons and the Penn States — the cliff will be no big deal. These institutions have their pick of applicants and can easily keep classes full.

For everyone else, the consequences could be dire. In some places, the crisis has already begun. College enrollment began slowly receding after the millennial enrollment wave peaked in 2010, particularly in regions that were already experiencing below-average birth rates while simultaneously losing population to out-migration. Starved of students and the tuition revenue they bring, small private colleges in New England have begun to blink off the map. Regional public universities like Ship are enduring painful layoffs and consolidation…

The problem now is that colleges have likely hit a ceiling in terms of how many 18-year-olds they can coax onto campus. The percentage of young adults with a high school diploma has reached 94 percent. And the immediate college enrollment rate of high school graduates was flat, right around 70 percent, from 2010 to 2018, before dipping in 2019 and 2020 as the job market heated up for less-skilled, lower-wage jobs.

Some parts of the country are already experiencing an enrollment bust, mainly because of internal migration. According to the census, 327,000 people moved to the Northeast (which includes Pennsylvania) from elsewhere in the United States in 2018-19, while 565,000 moved out, for a net loss of 238,000 people.

By contrast, the South (which includes Texas and Florida) saw a net increaseof 263,000 internal migrants, and another 447,000 people arrived from abroad, more than twice the number for the Northeast. Fertility rates are also lower, and falling faster, for white people, and the Northeast and Midwest have proportionally more white people. This was true before the Great Recession, too.

5) Derek Thompson, “America Fails the Civilization Test”

The true test of a civilization may be the answer to a basic question: Can it keep its children alive?

For most of recorded history, the answer everywhere was plainly no. Roughly half of all people—tens of billions of us—died before finishing puberty until about the 1700s, when breakthroughs in medicine and hygiene led to tremendous advances in longevity. In Central Europe, for example, the mortality rate for children fell from roughly 50 percent in 1750 to 0.3 percent in 2020. You will not find more unambiguous evidence of human progress.

How’s the U.S. doing on the civilization test? When graded on a curve against its peer nations, it is failing. The U.S. mortality rate is much higher, at almost every age, than that of most of Europe, Japan, and Australia. That is, compared with the citizens of these nations, American infants are less likely to turn 5, American teenagers are less likely to turn 30, and American 30-somethings are less likely to survive to retirement.

Last year, I called the U.S. the rich death trap of the modern world. The “rich” part is important to observe and hard to overstate. The typical American spends almost 50 percent more each year than the typical Brit, and a trucker in Oklahoma earns more than a doctor in Portugal.

This extra cash ought to buy us more years of living. For most countries, higher incomes translate automatically into longer lives. But not for today’s Americans. A new analysis by John Burn-Murdoch, a data journalist at the Financial Times, shows that the typical American is 100 percent more likely to die than the typical Western European at almost every age from birth until retirement.

Imagine I offered you a pill and told you that taking this mystery medication would have two effects. First, it would increase your disposable income by almost half. Second, it would double your odds of dying in the next 365 days. To be an average American is to fill a lifetime prescription of that medication and take the pill nightly.

According to data collected by Burn-Murdoch, a typical American baby is about 1.8 times more likely to die in her first year than the average infant from a group of similarly rich countries: Australia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, the U.K., Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Let’s think of this 1.8 figure as “the U.S. death ratio”—the annual mortality rate in the U.S., as a multiple of similarly rich countries.

6) I loved this, because it’s so me.  One of the reasons I’m such a happy person is that I pretty much never beat myself up over what I feel, “Lean Into Negative Emotions. It’s the Healthy Thing to Do.”

We’re nervous about an upcoming work presentation, then lament our lack of confidence. We get angry at our partner, then feel guilty about our impatience. Our emotions undoubtedly influence our well-being — but recent research suggests that how we judge and react to those emotions may affect us even more.

In a study published last month in the journal Emotion, researchers found that people who habitually judge negative feelings — such as sadness, fear and anger — as bad or inappropriate have more anxiety and depression symptoms and feel less satisfied with their lives than people who generally perceive their negative emotions in a positive or neutral light.

The findings add to a growing body of research that indicates people fare better when they accept their unpleasant emotions as appropriate and healthy, rather than try to fight or suppress them.

“Many of us have this implicit belief that emotions themselves are bad, they’re going to do something bad to us,” said Iris Mauss, a social psychologist who studies emotions at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the new study. But most of the time, she said, “emotions don’t do harmful things.”

“It’s actually the judgment that causes, ultimately, the suffering.”

7) Just a great Brian Beutler on Democrats and the politics of the debt ceiling:

If Democrats were like Republicans, they would’ve treated turnabout as fair play, and held the debt limit hostage for ideological policy concessions after Trump took office. Of course, the parties aren’t similar, and Democrats never considered this, nor should they have: Extortion is extortion, and every bit as anti-democratic as stealing court seats, or elected offices. 

But I did think, and argued at the time, that when Republicans came to Democrats for help increasing the debt limit, Democrats should have made one demand: that in exchange for their votes, Republicans would have to relinquish the debt limit as a tool of extortion forever. This could have taken many forms: Outright debt-limit abolition, indefinite debt-limit suspension, a debt-limit increase of effectively infinite size, or the permanent delegation of authority to increase the debt limit to the executive branch. Either way, the idea was that Democrats should have had enough dignity to insist the parties be bound by a single set of rules, and make it the price of bailing Republicans out of a jam. 

Democrats instead gave their votes away for free. 

Later, when Trump’s scandalous maladministration of the coronavirus pandemic forced the government to layout trillions of dollars, I argued that Democrats should condition their support for stimulus on measures that would guarantee reciprocity, so that if a Democratic president inherited a damaged nation from Trump, Republicans couldn’t simply turn around and sabotage it further. This would have included tying economic support to material conditions like the unemployment rate (what economists call “automatic stabilizers”), compliance with congressional oversight, and (again) the permanent neutralization of the debt limit. 

Democrats demanded none of these things. 

By the end of the last Congress, with Republicans poised once again to control the House under a Democratic president, the idea that Democrats should use their narrow, lame-duck majorities to moot the debt limit grew into something like a clamor, rather than the musings of one random political columnist. Democrats thus had to respond to it, and their response was: sorry, no. This time, they seemingly just didn’t have the votes. But Democratic leaders expended almost no public effort trying to whip them up. Instead they and their loyalists treated supporters to excuses ranging from ‘we don’t have enough time’ to ‘we are leaving the doomsday device armed and ticking on purpose!’ How better to force Republicans to produce a budget, which will contain unpopular policies, the better to run against?

Well, Republicans did produce a budget, it has made almost no difference in the short term, they remain committed to engineering a recession while lying about the contents of their budget legislation, and the White House is left whining that industry trade groups and corporate-funded advocacy shops have not ridden to the rescue

8) NYT on taxing alcohol more (I’ve long been all-in on this because criminologist extraordinaire Mark Kleiman was a big advocate– also, I don’t drink much)

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. It’s a national crisis and deserves our attention.

Also killing tens of thousands of Americans every year is alcohol. By the count of the Centers for Disease Control, about 140,000 deaths per year in the United States are the result of injuries or disease caused by alcohol.

Only one of these two tragedies has the nation’s attention. The other has been normalized to the point where we seemingly don’t consider more than 100,000 lives lost to a preventable cause a crisis.

While winning the war on drugs is now far out of reach, we do actually know how to reduce American fatalities from excessive drinking.

The answer is taxes. More of them. On alcohol. That’s the solution we explore in an Opinion Video today.

About a half-century worth of research has shown that raising taxes on alcohol reduces alcohol-related deaths. According to researchers, a rough rule of thumb holds that a 10 percent increase in the price of alcohol reduces drinking by 5 percent or more.

In some ways, my comparison to fentanyl is unfair and unneeded. The insidious nature of drug syndicates lacing pills to increase America’s habit is incomparable.

But America’s failed war on drugs has led many experts to believe we should be focusing on harm reduction — strategies to reduce deaths and suffering — instead of on ineffective prohibition and enforcement measures.

Why shouldn’t that same philosophy carry over to a legal and widely used drug like alcohol?

Yes, we know taxes aren’t fun. But even an increase of pennies per drink could lead to fewer car crashes, lower rates of liver disease, a dip in crime — even fewer cases of sexually transmitted diseases.

Would you be willing to pay such a tax if you knew it could save lives?

9) David Frum on how Britain is really suffering economically from Brexit but, politically, unwilling to undo it.

10) Really, really like this research from Tim Ryan (my a few times co-author) and others on what it really means to measure “racial resentment”

When individuals’ racial attitudes are associated with their judgments related to race — for example, when people with more negative attitudes toward Blacks are less likely to vote for a Black political candidate — existing studies routinely interpret it as evidence of prejudice against minorities. But theoretically, such associations can represent favoring minorities, disfavoring them, or a combination of both. We provide a conceptual framework to distinguish patterns of favoring and disfavoring against a standard of racial indifference, and test it with a preregistered conjoint experiment. In our results, one widely used measure — the Racial Resentment Scale — captures favoring of Blacks substantially more than disfavoring. This finding calls for greater care in characterizing white Americans’ racial attitudes and illustrates ways to improve future research designs. We also describe several extensions that integrate the distinction between favoring and disfavoring into the broader study of racial attitudes.

11) They are not wrong, which means we need to think about other financial incentives for cures. Prizes? “Goldman Sachs asks in biotech research report: ‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?’”

Richter cited Gilead Sciences’ treatments for hepatitis C, which achieved cure rates of more than 90 percent. The company’s U.S. sales for these hepatitis C treatments peaked at $12.5 billion in 2015, but have been falling ever since. Goldman estimates the U.S. sales for these treatments will be less than $4 billion this year, according to a table in the report.

“GILD is a case in point, where the success of its hepatitis C franchise has gradually exhausted the available pool of treatable patients,” the analyst wrote. “In the case of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, curing existing patients also decreases the number of carriers able to transmit the virus to new patients, thus the incident pool also declines … Where an incident pool remains stable (eg, in cancer) the potential for a cure poses less risk to the sustainability of a franchise.”

12) Really terrific look at nasal vaccines (and why it’s so hard, but worth doing) from Katelyn Jetelina:

The vast majority of research is still in the animal phase, which shows promise, but we do not have any guarantee that the result will be the same in people. 

We have done hard things

Anything that reduces the incidence of infections and curbs the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has the potential for massive public health benefit. If that can be translated to other infectious diseases, that would be superb. 

Furthermore, a vaccine that can be administered without the need for a skilled medical professional is especially valuable in regions where such expertise may be sparse, as has been observed with polio eradication campaigns. 

Bottom line

While a mucosal vaccine may help, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We shouldn’t oversell the potential but recognize the real challenges and cheer on the scientists who are trying to figure them out. Operation Next Gen should help move mountains, but time will tell.

13) I was actually relating this to somebody in-person the other day, so need to share it here, via Drum:

Health care pros prefer AI to human doctors

I’m not sure why this amuses me so much, but it does:

This is from a study comparing human doctors to GPT 3.5. The methodology was sort of fascinating: the authors collected 195 questions and responses from real doctors on Reddit and then fed the exact same questions into the chatbot. Then they jumbled up all the responses and had them evaluated by health care professionals.

As the chart shows, the pros concluded that the chatbot’s answers were more accurate and more empathetic. So what was up with the doctors? Were they telling people to suck it up and just accept the pain? Or what? Here’s an example:

(Sorry this is so small. As always, click to embiggen.)

In this case, I empathize with the human doctor. My response probably would be along the lines of “ffs, it’s just a toothpick,” so I think the doctor was heroically patient here.

Still, the chatbot answer is demonstrably better. One reason is that it’s not time restricted. Most human doctors just don’t have the patience or time to write long answers with lots of little verbal curlicues. The chatbot has no such problem. It used three times as many words as the doctor and could have used ten times more with no trouble. It simply doesn’t require any effort for the chatbot to be empathetic and provide lots of information that might be of only minor importance.

14) Loved this interview with James Marsden and I’ve loved the first two episodes of “Jury Duty.” 

Quick hits (part II)

1) An early take on the 2024 NC Governor’s race.  Honestly, I find all the other experts cited here either pulling their punches on likely GOP nominee Robinson or surprisingly positive. No punches pulled from me:

Steven Greene, a professor of political science at N.C. State University, called Stein the “800-pound gorilla in the race on the Democratic side.” Stein is in his 15th year in Raleigh, having won a state Senate seat in 2008 and the attorney general post in 2016.

Greene thinks Robinson will win the Republican primary but called him an “awful” general election candidate, likening a head-to-head matchup between Robinson and Stein to North Carolina’s 2020 gubernatorial contest.

Though purplish North Carolina went red for Donald Trump that year, Republican gubernatorial candidate and then-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest lost to incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper. Greene says Forest, like Trump, was a “right-wing culture warrior” while Cooper is “Joe Bidenesque” in that he’s seen as a reliably Democratic politician.

Steven Greene, a professor of political science at N.C. State University, called Stein the “800-pound gorilla in the race on the Democratic side.” Stein is in his 15th year in Raleigh, having won a state Senate seat in 2008 and the attorney general post in 2016.

Greene thinks Robinson will win the Republican primary but called him an “awful” general election candidate, likening a head-to-head matchup between Robinson and Stein to North Carolina’s 2020 gubernatorial contest.

Though purplish North Carolina went red for Donald Trump that year, Republican gubernatorial candidate and then-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest lost to incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper. Greene says Forest, like Trump, was a “right-wing culture warrior” while Cooper is “Joe Bidenesque” in that he’s seen as a reliably Democratic politician.

2) As long as we’re in North Carolina, this Washington Post feature on the retreating beach in Rodanthe is fantastic with amazing visuals, so gift link it is. 

3) Somehow, I barely noticed that Pew released a big report on American parenting back in January.  I can guarantee you that once this data becomes publicly available, there will be a future publication from me and my usual co-authors on this. None of the current report gets into politics (though, I know they have the political data), but here’s some interesting charts:

Chart shows dads tend to be less worried than moms about their
children facing certain hardships

Chart shows about half of moms say it’s extremely
important their children be accepting of
people different from them as adults

4) And a little disappointed the author of this didn’t talk to Laurel Elder or me before publishing (though now she’s talking to Laurel next week), “Democratic Dads Think It’s Gotten Easier To Raise Kids. Democratic Moms Disagree.”

Mothers — particularly Democratic moms — were also substantially likelier than dads to say that families today have it harder than families in the 1970s, and Democratic moms were substantially likelier than any other group to say that all families should be eligible for a full child benefit, regardless of work status.

Democratic dads and moms aren’t on the same page

Share of mothers and fathers by party affiliation who agreed and disagreed with the following answers to each question.

Agree 62% 46% 63% 55%
Disagree 39% 54% 37% 44%
All families should be eligible for a full child benefit, regardless of their work status 44% 67% 50% 46%
Only families with a worker present should be eligible for a child benefit 33% 18% 24% 43%
Only parents that owe federal income taxes at the end of the year should receive a child benefit 23% 15% 26% 11%
Harder 32% 59% 52% 53%
Easier 48% 31% 35% 33%
About the same 21% 10% 14% 14%

Based on a survey conducted Oct. 20-Nov. 3, 2022, among 2,557 American adults, including an oversample of parents with children under age 18.


Some of the differences between Democratic dads and moms are shockingly large — particularly considering that there aren’t similar divides between Republican mothers and fathers. Less than half of Democratic dads think that all families should be eligible for a child benefit — rather than limiting a child benefit to families with at least one working parent — compared to more than two-thirds of Democratic moms. And Democratic dads are slightly more likely than Republican dads to say that families have it easier today than they did in the 1970s — while majorities of GOP dads, GOP moms, and Democratic moms say families today have it harder.

5) Just your every day disturbing world with the modern Republican party, “The MAGA-fication of North Idaho College
G.O.P. activists set out to root out the “deep state” at home. An Idaho community college may never be the same.”

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The February meeting of the North Idaho College board of trustees was, by recent standards, civilized.

There were no shoving matches or speeches from far-right podcasters. Nobody pulled the fire alarm. The parade of community members who, under the wary eye of campus security officers, took turns at the microphone mostly kept their voices below shouting volume, until an hour or so before midnight, when a woman cried “Shame on you!” and stormed out of the room.

Mostly, people seemed stunned that it had actually come to this.

For most of the past two years, the college’s governing board has been a volatile experiment in turning grievances into governance. Trustees backed by the county Republican Party hold a majority on the board. They have denounced liberal “indoctrination” by the college faculty and vowed to bring the school administration’s “deep state” to heel and “Make N.I.C. Great Again.”

The injection of such sweeping political aims into the routine administration of a community college that had 4,600 students enrolled last year, one better known locally for its technical training programs than the politics of its faculty, has devolved into a full-blown crisis. The school has faced lawsuits from two of the five presidents it has had since the start of the previous school year. A district court judge ordered one of those presidents reinstated on Friday in a ruling that castigated the trustees for “steering N.I.C. toward an iceberg.” The college has lost professors and staff and had its debt downgraded by Moody’s, which cited the school’s “significant governance and management dysfunction.”

The troubles culminated last month in a letter from the regional higher education commission, which warned that the 90-year-old college could be stripped of its accreditation if changes were not made in a matter of weeks — an effective threat of closure and a potential catastrophe for Coeur d’Alene, a town of 56,000 in the Idaho Panhandle. The college is the sixth-largest employer in Kootenai County and a source of skilled labor for much of the local economy.

“As a businessperson here, it’s heartbreaking to me to be standing on the brink of the loss of this institution,” said Eve Knudtsen, the owner of a Chevrolet dealership in the neighboring town of Post Falls. Ms. Knudtsen, a Republican, attended N.I.C., as have both of her daughters, and she said a third of the technicians hired by her dealership came out of the school.

“It’s pretty much a dystopian farce,” said Kathleen Miller Green, an assistant professor of child development who attended the nearly six-hour, capacity-crowd meeting at the school’s student union building on Feb. 22. “It’s laughable if you don’t have to live it.”

6) Drum is right to regularly point out that the what happened with Flint water is not nearly as bad as you think:

I’ve written many times about the Flint water crisis, and after all the data was in my conclusion was pretty simple:

  • The screw-up with Flint’s water was a terrible tragedy that never should have happened.
  • However, in the end there was little damage done. Lead levels never got all that high and the problem was fixed fairly quickly. There were probably no more than a handful of children who were seriously affected.

To this day, conventional wisdom is just the opposite: namely that lead levels in children skyrocketed and produced a huge spike in special education. One of the scientists who was among the first to sound the alarm over Flint was transformed from hero to villain in a heartbeat when he declined to go along with this.

He’s back now with some co-authors to take a retrospective look at what happened. Here’s the key chart:

Even at the height of the crisis, testing in children showed blood lead levels that were essentially the same as the Michigan average and far lower than Detroit, which had a safe water supply the entire time. During the whole of the crisis (which encompassed 18 months in 2014-15), the number of Flint children with elevated lead levels was 3.9%. In Detroit it was 8.1%.

Why does this matter? It’s simple: continual panic over a nonexistent crisis is bad for residents, who have lived for years with elevated outrage and stress, and bad for their children, who internalize the idea that they’re going to grow up stupid.

7) Myers-Briggs is fun (I’m an ESTJ!), but it’s not social science and people really need to stop using it. Good stuff from Adam Grant:

Dear Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,

Do you remember the day we met? I was a wide-eyed high school senior, and you were an exotic beauty. It was love at first sight. Our first date was magical: I opened up to you like I had never done with anyone before. In return, you opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world.

We had so much in common back then. Sadly, as the months passed, we started to grow apart. It began when I met your family.

Your mother and grandmother were obsessed with Carl Jung, who made up his three “types” based on his personal experiences rather than science (with the help of your mother, who made up the fourth). You had years of those experiences, and I was young and naïve, so why would I doubt you?

But when I studied for a doctorate of my own, I learned that this was Mesearch, not Research. And a new girl caught my eye. Her name was Big Five, and she was raised by an entire extended family with PhDs in psychology, over multiple generations. They gave birth to her through a very different process. Instead of relying on their own limited experiences, they went out and polled thousands of people in different parts of the world, to find out how they viewed personality.

Instead of inventing categories, Big Five’s ancestors realized that the major dimensions of personality could be found in natural language. If we look across the world’s cultures, we should find words to describe the most important psychological characteristics of people. One study included 1,710 adjectives in English, which ultimately made up five major categories of personality, not four. She was multicultural: the same basic categories replicated in many languages, from Chinese to Filipino, German to Italian, Dutch to Polish, and Hebrew to Russian. They called her Big Five.

Of course, Big Five’s parents realized that language is only one of many ways to see personality. To make sure that their categories were meaningful, they collected genetic evidence and fMRI data. They also found that there was really no such thing as a type — every personality trait was on a continuum, and it was very rare to be on one extreme or another.

Type wasn’t the only one of Jung’s original ideas that didn’t pan out. You said extraverts focused on the outer world and introverts on the inner world, but Big Five’s ancestors discovered that this was really about sensitivity to rewardsstimulation, and social attention. You said extraversion is about where you get your energy, but that’s false; both introverts and extraverts get energy from interacting with other people. You taught me that most people had a dominant preference for thinking or feeling, but research demonstrates that whether you prefer to use logic when making decisions has nothing to do with whether you’re concerned about how those decisions affect others. Giving me a thinking-feeling score is not like assessing whether I’m right-handed or left-handed. It’s more like evaluating whether I prefer soccer or Swiss cheese.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was still believing the misunderstanding of extraversion. 

8) For a few days there, everybody was talking about this Nathan Heller piece on “The End of the English Major.” It’s too long, but it is really good and thought-provoking. 

9) And a couple from the twitter… John Calipari says he is a fan of the Mellow Mushroom that DJC and I regularly have lunch at (at the very end of the clip). 

10) Great thread from Paul Poast on what caused the Iraq War:

11) Is there actually an anti-viral nasal spray that’s effective against Covid and not available in America, because…?

Enovid, an innovative anti-viral spray developed in Canada by an Israeli researcher and manufactured in Israel, has been proven effective in preventing viruses – including COVID-19 – from entering the body through the nasal cavity.


While public awareness of the coronavirus has lessened, prevention and treatment remain crucial, especially for members of high-risk groups, such as adults over 60, people with weakened immune systems, and individuals who work in closed spaces. Air travelers, who mingle with hundreds of people in overcrowded airports and jam-packed planes, few of whom are wearing masks, are another high-risk group. For all of the above, Enovid is the ideal solution.


According to SaNOtize, the Vancouver-based developer of the spray, nitric oxide released by nasal spray reduced SARS-CoV-2 log viral RNA load by more than 95% in infected participants within 24 hours of treatment, and by more than 99% in 48 to72 hours in two randomized, double-blinded controlled studies.

Credit - Tradis GatCredit – Tradis Gat

Enovid creates a mechanical obstruction in the nasal cavity that slows the entry of viruses and lowers the PH, which creates an acidic environment that slows down the rate of viral reproduction. The release of nitric oxide causes structural changes in the virus dose, reducing its attachment to the cell, slows down the penetration of the virus into the cell, and through protein restructuring, leads to a reduction in virus replication.


Nitric oxide has traditionally been used in hospitals as a gas to treat newborn babies with respiratory failure caused by pulmonary hypertension. SaNOtize developed proprietary technology that delivers nitric oxide at an effective dose across multiple therapeutic applications, including sprays, baths, lavages, gels, and creams. 

12) Wellesley College (traditionally, a “women’s college”) was already admitting trans-women.  Now the students want to admit trans-men, too.  Hmmm.  Basically, anybody but cis-gender men. 

13) This is really good, “Are Standardized Tests Racist, or Are They Anti-racist? Yes.”

These two perspectives—that standardized tests are a driver of inequality, and that they are a great tool to ameliorate it—are often pitted against each other in contemporary discourse. But in my view, they are not oppositional positions. Both of these things can be true at the same time: Tests can be biased against marginalized students and they can be used to help those students succeed. We often forget an important lesson about standardized tests: They, or at least their outputs, take the form of data; and data can be interpreted—and acted upon—in multiple ways. That might sound like an obvious statement, but it’s crucial to resolving this debate.

I teach a Ph.D. seminar on quantitative research methods that dives into the intricacies of data generation, interpretation, and application. One of the readings I assign —Andrea Jones-Rooy’s article “I’m a Data Scientist Who Is Skeptical About Data”—contains a passage that is relevant to our thinking about standardized tests and their use in admissions:

Data can’t say anything about an issue any more than a hammer can build a house or almond meal can make a macaron. Data is a necessary ingredient in discovery, but you need a human to select it, shape it, and then turn it into an insight.

When reviewing applications, admissions officials have to turn test scores into insights about each applicant’s potential for success at the university. But their ability to generate those insights depends on what they know about the broader data-generating process that led students to get those scores, and how the officials interpret what they know about that process. In other words, what they do with test scores—and whether they end up perpetuating or reducing inequality—depends on how they think about bias in a larger system.

First, who takes these tests is not random. Obtaining a score can be so costly—in terms of both time and money—that it’s out of reach for many students. This source of bias can be addressed, at least in part, by public policy. For example, research has found that when states implement universal testing policies in high schools, and make testing part of the regular curriculum rather than an add-on that students and parents must provide for themselves, more disadvantaged students enter college and the income gap narrows. Even if we solve that problem, though, another—admittedly harder—issue would still need to be addressed.

The second issue relates to what the tests are actually measuring. Researchers have argued about this question for decades, and continue to debate it in academic journals. To understand the tension, recall what I said earlier: Universities are trying to figure out applicants’ potential for success. Students’ ability to realize their potential depends both on what they know before they arrive on campus and on being in a supportive academic environment. The tests are supposed to measure prior knowledge, but the nature of how learning works in American society means they end up measuring some other things, too.

In the United States, we have a primary and secondary education system that is unequal because of historic and contemporary laws and policies. American schools continue to be highly segregated by race, ethnicity, and social class, and that segregation affects what students have the opportunity to learn. Well-resourced schools can afford to provide more enriching educational experiences to their students than underfunded schools can. When students take standardized tests, they answer questions based on what they’ve learned, but what they’ve learned depends on the kind of schools they were lucky (or unlucky) enough to attend.

This creates a challenge for test-makers and the universities that rely on their data. They are attempting to assess student aptitude, but the unequal nature of the learning environments in which students have been raised means that tests are also capturing the underlying disparities; that is one of the reasons test scores tend to reflect larger patterns of inequality. When admissions officers see a student with low scores, they don’t know whether that person lacked potential or has instead been deprived of educational opportunity.

So how should colleges and universities use these data, given what they know about the factors that feed into it? The answer depends on how colleges and universities view their mission and broader purpose in society.

14) As you know, I’m so tired of people insisting diet soda is bad for you when there’s so much evidence suggesting otherwise.  This is from a year ago, but recently shared with me:


Importance  There are concerns that low- and no-calorie sweetened beverages (LNCSBs) do not have established benefits, with major dietary guidelines recommending the use of water and not LNCSBs to replace sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Whether LNCSB as a substitute can yield similar improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors vs water in their intended substitution for SSBs is unclear.

Objective  To assess the association of LNCSBs (using 3 prespecified substitutions of LNCSBs for SSBs, water for SSBs, and LNCSBs for water) with body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors in adults with and without diabetes.

Data Sources  Medline, Embase, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched from inception through December 26, 2021.

Study Selection  Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) with at least 2 weeks of interventions comparing LNCSBs, SSBs, and/or water were included.

Data Extraction and Synthesis  Data were extracted and risk of bias was assessed by 2 independent reviewers. A network meta-analysis was performed with data expressed as mean difference (MD) or standardized mean difference (SMD) with 95% CIs. The GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) system was used to assess the certainty of the evidence.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The primary outcome was body weight. Secondary outcomes were other measures of adiposity, glycemic control, blood lipids, blood pressure, measures of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and uric acid.

Results  A total of 17 RCTs with 24 trial comparisons were included, involving 1733 adults (mean [SD] age, 33.1 [6.6] years; 1341 women [77.4%]) with overweight or obesity who were at risk for or had diabetes. Overall, LNCSBs were a substitute for SSBs in 12 RCTs (n = 601 participants), water was a substitute for SSBs in 3 RCTs (n = 429), and LNCSBs were a substitute for water in 9 RCTs (n = 974). Substitution of LNCSBs for SSBs was associated with reduced body weight (MD, −1.06 kg; 95% CI, −1.71 to –0.41 kg), body mass index (MD, −0.32; 95% CI, −0.58 to –0.07), percentage of body fat (MD, −0.60%; 95% CI, −1.03% to –0.18%), and intrahepatocellular lipid (SMD, −0.42; 95% CI, −0.70 to –0.14). Substituting water for SSBs was not associated with any outcome. There was also no association found between substituting LNCSBs for water with any outcome except glycated hemoglobin A1c (MD, 0.21%; 95% CI, 0.02% to 0.40%) and systolic blood pressure (MD, −2.63 mm Hg; 95% CI, −4.71 to −0.55 mm Hg). The certainty of the evidence was moderate (substitution of LNCSBs for SSBs) and low (substitutions of water for SSBs and LNCSBs for water) for body weight and was generally moderate for all other outcomes across all substitutions.

Conclusions and Relevance  This systematic review and meta-analysis found that using LNCSBs as an intended substitute for SSBs was associated with small improvements in body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors without evidence of harm and had a similar direction of benefit as water substitution. The evidence supports the use of LNCSBs as an alternative replacement strategy for SSBs over the moderate term in adults with overweight or obesity who are at risk for or have diabetes.

Quick hits (part I)

1)Must read from David Wallace-Wells, “America Has Decided It Went Overboard on Covid-19” (great thread summary here, too):

Last weekend, The Times published a survey of pandemic recommendations from experts considering the possibility of another outbreak, and it looked to me as though in nearly every case even those taking the more aggressive side of the argument endorsed mitigation measures that were no stronger and often weaker or more caveated than those that had been put in place in 2020. They did so even though the hypothetical disease they were considering was both more transmissible and more deadly than the new coronavirus (and even though it also affected children and adults equally). That is, faced with a disease that would spread more quickly than Covid, kill more of those infected than Covid, with a mortality burden, compared with Covid’s, markedly rebalanced toward the young, they would vote, in general, to do less.

This isn’t a question limited to abstract, virtual-reality-style debates on op-ed pages and social media. In at least 30 states, The Washington Post reported last week, legislatures have already passed laws limiting public health powers in the wake of the pandemic. Most of the states are in Republican control, but not all, and the restrictions legislated so far are quite intrusive: in many cases, extending outright bans against health officials or governors from issuing mask mandates, closing schools or businesses, restricting large gatherings in places like churches, or testing or vaccine protocols. But what is most striking is how little consideration they give to the particular attributes of future outbreaks — treating a future disease that spreads like measles but kills one in five kids it infects the same as one that spreads like swine flu and doesn’t kill anybody. And stopping public health authorities from doing anything about any of them.

Stop and think about that for a second: As the country emerges from three years of death, disruption and suffering, dozens of states have decided not just that future mitigation measures should be carefully targeted and calibrated, or that they should be time-limited, or that they should always integrate trade-offs and cost-benefit calculations from the beginning. They have decided that the best way to prepare for those future diseases is to tie our hands ahead of time.

Is this the lesson the country should be taking from its experience with Covid-19? More than a million Americans died, and several hundred more continue to each day, keeping the country on a path to more than 100,000 Covid-19 deaths annually. Polls continue to show significant public support for mitigation measures like masking, believe it or not. These kinds of surveys are notoriously unreliable and may well significantly overstate such support, but last fall’s elections tell something of the same story: Candidates who were Covid hard-liners weren’t punished for their policies any more than skeptical or hands-off governors. These dynamics may shift again, as the country pulls past exhaustion toward some real pandemic perspective — which many of the installments of Opinion’s Next Pandemic series attempt to provide. But for now, at the level of policy and public discourse, a striking American consensus seems to be hardening: When Covid-19 hit, the country did too much.

2) Really enjoyed Yglesias on the dramatically changed politics of education reform:

This conversation is from just five years ago, but the way we discuss (or don’t discuss) the achievement gap — the fact that Black and Hispanic students score lower on standardized tests than white and Asian students — has completely changed.

That’s in part because the phrase itself has gone out of style. But it’s also because the whole idea of emphasizing kids’ performance on tests of their reading and math skills now seems extremely old-fashioned. A K-12 education controversy in 2023 is overwhelmingly likely to feature conservatives complaining about excessively woke programming versus progressives complaining about conservative censorship. You might hear a debate about the presence of police officers in public schools or about admissions to selective schools. George W. Bush infamously kicked off the education reform era with his gaffe, “rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” And during his presidency and Barack Obama’s, that question was asked quite frequently. These days, though, Bush’s observation seems relevant once again —we actually don’t ask it much anymore.

In his monologue, Hayes also clearly associates the achievement gap discussion with things progressives dislike (charter schools, school choice, Betsy DeVos).

The thesis of the episode is that school integration is a better, more progressive way to close the achievement gap, and perhaps there’s a world in which the progressive movement unites around this competing vision. Instead, we’ve largely moved on from talking about the issue. This is too bad, because the achievement gap continues to be a noteworthy feature of American society…

School management only matters so much

Here are three propositions about K-12 education:
  1. Many public school systems, especially the ones attended by low-income Black and Hispanic students, are sub-optimally managed.

  2. Changing these sub-optimal K-12 management practices — reforming them —would be a good idea.

  3. Implementing these reforms would mean Black and Hispanic students’ scores would improve to be on par with those of white and Asian students.

Propositions one and two seem extremely sensible; proposition three seems like a wild over-extrapolation of how much K-12 school system management could possibly matter. I think a big tell here is that Asian students do better on average than white ones, and as far as I know, nobody has ever argued that education reform is going to close the white-Asian test score gap. I’m not sure that we know (or need to know) exactly why Asian students — on average — do better, but it’s pretty clear that a large share of the gap is due to factors that arise outside of the school.

By the same token, Black students are more likely to grow up with above-average levels of poverty, below-average levels of wealth and income, above-average rates of single-parent households and other signifiers of family instability, and below-average levels of parental educational attainment. If you described any subset of the population that had those characteristics, you’d expect the kids to perform worse-than-average in school. You can debate how those disparities arise or what else might follow from them, but the broad facts are really pretty clear. And while obviously the quality of the school that you attend and the level of attention that the school gives to you individually is a big deal, all these other things are also a big deal, and it was pretty crazy to act like the school system could single-handedly fix everything.

3) It was so cool to learn that Bing’s GPT search is actually the upgraded GPT 4.0.  I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and it doesn’t actually blow me away compared to ChatGPT, but it is so cool that it can actually search the internet and respond. Ethan Mollick with a guide on how to best use it’s powers. 

4) And here’s Mollick, too, “Using AI to make teaching easier & more impactful”

5) I actually got into a fight with my wife for arguing this, but, here you go, 538: “The Polls Were Historically Accurate In 2022” (it was the media who got it so wrong, not the polls). 

5) Okay, I just had an absurdly long excerpt from Jonathan Haidt and decided it was wrong to have this all in quick hits. It’s own post later today it shall be.  That said, a nice summary of it from Drum fits in quick hits:

Why are teen girls so depressed these days. Jonathan Haidt thinks the answer is smartphones and social media, and I expressed some doubts about that a few weeks ago. Haidt is back today and, among other things, shows us this chart:

You can see one of the reasons for my skepticism here: the starting point for the rise in “self-derogation” is around 2009, not 2012, the year that Haidt has always focused on. This may seem trivial, but it’s not. If a trend started in 2009, it’s all but impossible for the cause to be something that didn’t start until 2012.¹

So what do we make of this? Haidt suggests that a big part of the problem is an increasing feeling of not being in control of your life. In psychology-ese, this is referred to as having an external locus of control:

After trying a few different graphing strategies, and after seeing if there was a good statistical justification for dropping any items, we reached the tentative conclusion that the big story about locus of control is not about liberal girls, it’s about Gen Z as a whole. Everyone—boys and girls, left and right—developed a more external locus of control gradually, beginning in the 1990s. I’ll come back to this finding in future posts as I explore the second strand of the After Babel Substack: the loss of “play-based childhood” which happened in the 1990s when American parents (and British, and Canadian) stopped letting their children out to play and explore, unsupervised.

Haidt thinks this began in the 1990s and then accelerated after 2012 when smartphones became widespread. I’m inclined to believe this, mainly because I’ve long been astonished at the suffocating amount of control that parents apparently have over their kids these days. And the worst part of this, in my view, isn’t even the control per se. It’s the motivation for the control: fear. Modern parents seem to be extraordinarily sensitive to even the tiniest potential danger to their children, and it’s hard to believe that this constant fear doesn’t get picked up by the kids. It’s probably not even conscious.

But either way, it can’t be healthy. If you live in a bubble of fear and control, what happens when you start to move outside of that bubble in your teenage years? My guess is that the answer is increased stress and depression, which is exactly what we see. Smartphones and social media might give this an extra push, but I’ll bet they aren’t the primary source.

6) A.O. Scott gives himself an exit interview as an NYT film critic:

How have the movies changed?

Gather ’round, children. When I first came to this newspaper — when it was still, mostly, a newspaper — the phrases “streaming platform,” “cinematic universe” and “social media” were not part of the general lexicon. Films were still mostly shot and projected on film. You could still rent VHS tapes at the video store, and Netflix would send you DVDs in the mail. The American independent cinema of the previous decade was reaching a new stage of maturity, and international auteur cinema was thriving in the work of Abbas Kiarostami, the Dardenne brothers, Pedro Almodóvar, Olivier Assayas and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

It was the worst of times! In the fall of 1999, a few months before I was hired, the critic Godfrey Cheshire of The New York Press published a long, agonized, in many ways prescient essay titled “The Death of Film, the Decay of Cinema.” A few years earlier, in The New York Times Magazine, Susan Sontag had proclaimed the end of cinephilia and the “decay” of the art form that sustained it. Jean-Luc Godard, finishing his decade-long video project “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” in 1998, struck a similarly elegiac tone.

And now? I’m tempted to say that the sky is still falling, or falling again, and that it’s the same old sky. The death of cinema is almost as old as cinema itself. In 1935, the German critic Rudolf Arnheim declared that film as an art form had died with the coming of sound, and that what followed the silence was mere commercial propaganda, a bastardized form he prophetically called “television.” After the war, television killed movies all over again, and even when a technological villain wasn’t apparent — the VCR, the internet — things were always bad. Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” appeared in 1957. Two decades later Pauline Kael asked “Why Are the Movies So Bad?” The End Times have a way of turning out to have been golden ages all along.

The current apocalypse is that streaming and Covid anxiety are conspiring to kill off moviegoing as we have known it, leaving a handful of I.P.-driven blockbusters and horror movies to keep theaters in business while we mostly sit at home bingeing docuseries, dystopias and the occasional art-film guilt trip. Am I worried? Of course I’m worried. The cultural space in which the movies I care most about have flourished seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original and ambitious work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling. The state of the movies is very bad.

7) There’s been a whole online thing this week about what “woke” means.  Of course, everybody uses it quite differently to the point it is almost useless now. Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” That’s not bad so far as it goes, and there is a secondary definition that encapsulates the “vulgar” (or common) understanding that the attention is excessive: “disapproving: politically liberal (as in matters of racial and social justice) especially in a way that is considered unreasonable or extreme.” But neither adequately conveys the implication that the point of the attention is fundamentally to remake society. Progressives sometimes exploit these ambiguities to accuse the “anti-woke” side of rejecting near-consensus beliefs, such as the need to call out and remedy actual instances of racism.

This messiness is why I have argued for years now that “woke” is not a viable descriptor for anyone who is critical of the many serious excesses of the left yet remains invested in reaching beyond their own echo chamber. The word is more confusing than useful, and we should make good-faith efforts to avoid using it. As I wrote in The Guardian in November 2021: “Fairly or not, ‘woke’ and ‘wokeness’ now overwhelmingly signal that you’re not fundamentally interested in that rhetorical labor, and those who need the most convincing give themselves permission to stop paying attention.” …

But perhaps we can all agree, at bare minimum, to set ourselves the task of limiting our reliance on in-group shorthand, and embracing clear, honest, precise, and original thought and communication. If we want to persuade anyone not already convinced of what we believe, we are going to have to figure out how to say what we really mean.

8) Meanwhile, Freddie deBoer says we all really do know what it means. And he’s not wrong and I do like his definition:

The conceit is that “woke” has even shaggier or vaguer boundaries than “liberal,” “fascist,” “conservative,” or “moderate.” And I just don’t think that’s true.

“Woke” or “wokeness” refers to a school of social and cultural liberalism that has become the dominant discourse in left-of-center spaces in American intellectual life. It reflects trends and fashions that emerged over time from left activist and academic spaces and became mainstream, indeed hegemonic, among American progressives in the 2010s. “Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene – woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.

Woke is defined by several consistent attributes. Woke is

  1. Academic – the terminology of woke politics is an academic terminology, which is unsurprising given its origins in humanities departments of elite universities. Central to woke discourse is the substitution of older and less complicated versions of socially liberal perspectives with more willfully complex academic versions. So civil rights are out, “anti-racism” is in. Community is out, intersectionality is in. Equality is out, equity is in. Homelessness is out, unhousedness is in. Sexism is out, misogyny is in. Advantage is out, privilege is in. Whenever there’s an opportunity to introduce an alternative concept that’s been wrung through academia’s weird machinery, that opportunity is taken. This has the advantage of making political engagement available only to a priestly caste that has enjoyed the benefits of elite university education; like all political movements, the woke political movement is captured by the urge to occupy elevated status within it.

  2. Immaterial – woke politics are overwhelmingly concerned with the linguistic, the symbolic, and the emotional to the detriment of the material, the economic, and the real. Woke politics are famously obsessive about language, developing literal language policies that are endlessly long and exacting. Utterances are mined for potential offense with pitiless focus, such that statements that were entirely anodyne a few years ago become unspeakable today. Being politically pure is seen as a matter of speaking correctly rather than of acting morally. The woke fixation on language and symbol makes sense when you realize that the developers of the ideology are almost entirely people whose profession involves the immaterial and the symbolic – professors, writers, reporters, artists, pundits. They retreat to the linguistic because they feel that words are their only source of power. Consider two recent events: the Academy Awards giving Oscars to many people of color and Michigan repealing its right-to-work law. The latter will have vastly greater positive consequences for actually-existing American people of color than the former, and yet the former has been vastly better publicized. This is a direct consequence of the incentive structure of woke politics.

  3. Structural in analysis, individual in action – the woke perspective is one that tends to see the world’s problems as structural in nature rather than the product of individual actors or actions. Sometimes the problems are misdiagnosed or exaggerated, but the structural focus is beneficial. Curiously, though, the woke approach to solutions to politics is relentlessly individualistic. Rather than calling for true mass movements (which you cannot create without the moderation and compromise the social justice set tends to abhor), woke politics typically treats all political struggle as a matter of the individual mastering themselves and behaving correctly. The fundamental unit of politics is not the masses but the enlightened person, in the social justice mindset, and the enlightened person is one who has attained a state of moral cleanliness, particularly as expressed in language. The structural problems (such as racism) are represented as fundamentally combated with individual moral correctness (such as articulated in White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which argues that racism is combated by white people interrogating their souls rather than with policy). The only real political project is the struggle against the self; the only real political victory is the mastery of one’s thoughts. The distinction between the effective political actor and the morally hygienic thinker is collapsed. You combat homophobia by being gay-affirming. You combat misogyny by respecting women. You combat all social ills by relentlessly fixating on your own position in society and feeling bad about it. Nothing political can escape the gravity of personal psychodrama and no solutions exist but cleansing the self.

  4. Emotionalist – “emotionalist” rather than emotional, meaning not necessarily inappropriately emotional but concerned fundamentally with emotions as the currency of politics. In woke circles, political problems are regularly diagnosed as a matter of the wrong emotions being inspired in someone. Someone feeling “invalid” is no longer an irrelevant matter of personal psychology best left to a therapist but instead a political problem to be solved, and anyone who provoked that feeling is someone who has committed a political crime no matter what the context or pretext. Good political action makes people feel better. To the extent that material victories like feeding the hungry are celebrated, they are celebrated because they inspire good feelings rather than solve corporeal problems. The famous woke antipathy towards the concept of civil liberties and personal freedoms stems from the triumph of emotions; things like rights are no match for the claims of any individual of psychic distress. Economic, legal, and political inequality are all relevant only to the extent that they make people from minority identities sad. The fixation on emotions fits snugly in the assumption of the individual as the basic unit of politics. It also ensures that woke politics assume the possibility of a frictionless universe in which everyone feels good all the time.

9) Meanwhile, UPenn has a tenured law professor who’s just clearly racist and I honestly just don’t know what the right move is in a situation like this.  Amy Wax is awful and academic freedom is good and, I could be wrong, but it seems you either compromise academic freedom or else you leave an absolutely awful person teaching law at Penn.

Amy Wax, a law professor, has said publicly that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites,” that the country is “better off with fewer Asians” as long as they tend to vote for Democrats, and that non-Western people feel a “tremendous amount of resentment and shame.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, where she has tenure, she invited a white nationalist to speak to her class. And a Black law student who had attended UPenn and Yale said that the professor told her she “had only become a double Ivy ‘because of affirmative action,’” according to the administration.

Professor Wax has denied saying anything belittling or racist to students, and her supporters see her as a truth teller about affirmative action, immigration and race. They agree with her argument that she is the target of censorship and “wokeism” because of her conservative views.

All of which poses a conundrum for the University of Pennsylvania: Should it fire Amy Wax?

The university is now moving closer to answering just that question. After long resisting the call of students, the dean of the law school, Theodore W. Ruger, has taken a rare step: He has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” on the professor.

10) Fascinating analysis of sports programming, cable, and streaming. 

11) Hot off the presses social science, “Negativity drives online news consumption”

Online media is important for society in informing and shaping opinions, hence raising the question of what drives online news consumption. Here we analyse the causal effect of negative and emotional words on news consumption using a large online dataset of viral news stories. Specifically, we conducted our analyses using a series of randomized controlled trials (N = 22,743). Our dataset comprises ~105,000 different variations of news stories from Upworthy.com that generated 5.7 million clicks across more than 370 million overall impressions. Although positive words were slightly more prevalent than negative words, we found that negative words in news headlines increased consumption rates (and positive words decreased consumption rates). For a headline of average length, each additional negative word increased the click-through rate by 2.3%. Our results contribute to a better understanding of why users engage with online media.

12) You know I love Derek Thompson. Well, he’s coming to NC State on March 27. And “The conversation with…” part is me. 

13) Excellent analysis from Nate Cohn, “Why Fox’s Call on Arizona, Which Was Right, Was Still Wrong”

Analytical and research failures are inevitable. No one can perfectly anticipate what will happen on election night, especially in the midst of a pandemic. What matters is whether these failures yield a bad projection, and here the quality of statistical modeling — and especially whether the model properly quantifies uncertainty — becomes an important factor.

Fox’s statistical modeling was highly confident about its Arizona call. On election night, Mr. Mishkin said, “We’re four standard deviations from being wrong” in Arizona. This implied that the Fox model gave Mr. Trump a 1-in-10,000 chance of victory.

It’s hard to evaluate why the model was so confident. What’s clear is that it provided a basis for Fox to call the race, even as there were mounting nonstatistical reasons to begin to doubt the estimates.

By the time of the Arizona call, it was already clear that the AP/NORC survey data — along with virtually all pre-election polling — had overestimated Mr. Biden. In North Carolina, for example, Mr. Trump had already taken the lead after AP/NORC data initially showed Mr. Biden ahead by five points. The same data initially showed Mr. Biden ahead by seven points in Florida, where Mr. Trump was by then the projected winner.

As a result, there was already reason to be cautious about estimates showing great strength for Mr. Biden. But rather than become a source of uncertainty, Mr. Biden’s positive numbers in the AP/NORC data appeared to become a source of confidence — as Mr. Biden’s strength in the early vote appeared to confirm expectations.

One indication that Fox’s modeling was prone to overestimate Mr. Biden was its publicly available probability dials, which displayed the likelihood that Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump would win the key battleground states.

At various points, these estimates gave Mr. Biden at least an 87 percent chance of winning Ohio and at least a 76 percent chance of winning Iowa; Mr. Trump ultimately won both by nearly 10 points.

Maybe most tellingly, Fox gave Mr. Biden a 95 percent chance to win North Carolina — even at a point when it was quite obvious that Mr. Trump would win the state once the Election Day vote had been counted.

Through a Fox News spokesperson, Mr. Mishkin said, “The program that translated the decision desk’s numbers into the probability dials was not working properly at times.” Fox stopped using the probability dials on air, though they remained available online.

But even if the dials were erroneously overconfident or otherwise not exactly to Fox’s liking, they nonetheless erred in almost exactly the same way as the Arizona call. In all four states, including Arizona, the AP/NORC data greatly overestimated Mr. Biden; the early vote count leaned heavily toward Mr. Biden; and the Fox estimates confidently swung toward Mr. Biden.

Whether it was inaccurate AP/NORC data, misunderstanding the “late” mail vote, technical issues or overconfident modeling, there’s not much reason to believe that there was a factual basis for a projection in Arizona. It came very close to being wrong. If it had been, it could have been disastrous.

The public’s confidence in elections would have taken another big hit if Mr. Trump had ultimately taken the lead after a call in Mr. Biden’s favor. It would have fueled the Trump campaign’s argument that he could and would eventually overturn the overall result. After all, he would have already done so in Arizona.

14) More GPT: “10 Ways GPT-4 Is Impressive but Still Flawed”

OpenAI said the new system could score among the top 10 percent or so of students on the Uniform Bar Examination, which qualifies lawyers in 41 states and territories. It can also score a 1,300 (out of 1,600) on the SAT and a five (out of five) on Advanced Placement high school exams in biology, calculus, macroeconomics, psychology, statistics and history, according to the company’s tests.

Previous versions of the technology failed the Uniform Bar Exam and did not score nearly as high on most Advanced Placement tests.

On a recent afternoon, to demonstrate its test skills, Mr. Brockman fed the new bot a paragraphs-long bar exam question about a man who runs a diesel-truck repair business.

The answer was correct but filled with legalese. So Mr. Brockman asked the bot to explain the answer in plain English for a layperson. It did that, too.

15) Emily Oster’s take on teen mental health:

Has independence declined over time?


The argument that the physical independence of children has declined over time comes down to a bit of data and a lot of “look around, it’s obvious.” The authors draw on an academic book that analyzes changes in parenting advice over time and shows that earlier eras more often portray children as independent, going out and playing alone in early childhood, and having more adult responsibilities (like jobs) at the age of 11 or 12. 

You can see this even in something like The Baby-Sitters Club. The seventh graders in these books — published from 1986 to 2000 — are babysitting for young infants, including at night, making dinner, cleaning the house, and so on. The feel of the world is somewhat different than what many of us experience with our children now. 

For more concrete data, the authors draw on a survey in European countries that focused on how much independent mobility kids were given. For metrics like “Can children walk home from school alone?” independent mobility declined over the period 1990 to 2010. And this is Europe! The U.S. tends to be even more cautious.

The authors seemingly worry here about both physical independence and free time. Kids are in school for more hours, and in extracurricular activities and homework for more hours. Their time is more structured and less free. They also comment specifically on the loss of ability to engage in slightly risky activities (climbing a big tree, for example) out of the sight of adults. 

It would be helpful to have even more precise data about this — and perhaps a better sense of when these changes really picked up — but it seems hard to argue with the conclusion that, relative to the 1980s, children have less physical freedom…

What is the link between independence and happiness?

If we acknowledge that independence has gone down, making the link to happiness would require knowing those factors are related.

The evidence here is a lot more indirect.

One argument is that children like to play (this seems obvious, but is also shown in data) and — this part is less obvious — that play often means without adults. There is some review data on this, and the authors point to one study in which kids between the ages of 4 and 6 were asked to classify pictures into play versus not play. The interesting finding is that when they see pictures where a teacher is involved, they are less likely to classify them as play. Play seems to be when it’s just kids. 

Other data presented would be consistent with this, but has multiple interpretations. Adolescent and teen mental health tends to improve in the summer; this is a time of more independence, but there are other changes too. It’s hard to link that directly to independence.

The play evidence is on short-term happiness. When we turn to the longer-term links, the authors move quickly from data to theory. 

The authors link their ideas to theories about locus of control. It has been widely demonstrated that having low levels of internal locus of control — basically, feeling that you do not have a lot of control over your own life — leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety. Feelings of internal locus of control have declined over time. The authors hypothesize that independence at younger ages, with the associated need to problem-solve, could contribute to higher levels of internal locus of control. By extension, the loss of this time may contribute to the decline in these levels. This fits, but requires us to stretch beyond the data in the link between independence and these feelings.

A second theoretical link is with self-determination theory, which suggests that people are happier if they feel like they are living in accordance with their own desires, rather than being driven from the outside. The authors again hypothesize — although this isn’t something we see directly in data — that independence might play a role in increasing these feelings of self-determination. 

A final point relates to our evolutionary background. For most of human history, and still in many societies today, children had more freedom (and more was expected of them in terms of contribution to the larger group). The common setup we have today, with the combination of scaffolding and expectation, is counter to this. So perhaps kids are not adapted to it. (I’d recommend Hunt, Gather, Parent for a different type of perspective on this.) 

The authors make a few other points — looking at correlations between parenting styles and child outcomes, and reflecting on what adults say about their formative life experiences. 

These sections are both the most interesting and — the authors acknowledge this — the most under-evidenced claims. The argument “things were different in paleolithic times” can be both true and also not responsible for an increase in mental health issues. It seems like an area that would be ripe for more research, which would probably have a more significant experimental component. 

The paper spends less time on the “how” of making this work. Our built and social environment isn’t necessarily set up for kids to play outside all day until dark. The answer is probably: baby steps. Could a child walk themselves home from school or the bus stop? Could you work with another neighborhood family to let the kids do some unsupervised play in a way that you were both comfortable with? Summer can be a good opportunity here. The authors of the paper are writing for pediatricians, and arguing that providers should talk to families about what might be possible for them…

The role of risk in childhood

However: I think these issues bear thinking about even if they do not explain this particular trend, or only partially relate. A key point made in the paper is that many parents right now spend a lot of time protecting their children from exploring slightly risky situations — things that would stretch their problem-solving just a bit, or even scare them a little. When I reflect on my childhood, experiences like those did stick with me, but they were also very formative.  

I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing unsupervised in the parking lot of the church down the street. One game, “elimination,” involved trying to catch a tennis ball thrown against the wall, with the loser having to stand on the wall while other people tried to throw the ball to hit them. I do not remember this especially fondly, but I cannot help but wonder whether experiences like that better prepared me for the metaphorical ball-throwing that is part of talking in the public eye. 

The point is not that our children need to play elimination in a parking lot. But I was compelled by this piece to some reflection on scaffolding, and perhaps a greater need to look at where we are comfortable introducing independence to our kids. We have a strong and appropriate parental instinct to protect our children. The point here is that letting them go a little freer is actually part of that protection. 

Yes! So much this.

16) I loved this article on Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour helping out with his kids’ hockey team, “What happens when a top NHL coach takes the helm of a Pee Wee team?”

Brind’Amour may be the most decorated assistant coach for a youth hockey team in the country. And the guy next to him in flip flops and a black Hurricanes jumpsuit, retired Kings and Hurricanes winger Justin Williams, might be a close second.

But on days like this, Williams says, “we’re just dads.”

Brind’Amour, 52, has just returned from the NHL All-Star Game in South Florida. One day, he was offering instruction to superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. A couple of days later, he is teaching hockey fundamentals to a team that includes Brooks, Jagger and Williams’ 11-year-old daughter, Jade…

As Brind’Amour enters the building, he stands by the glass and stares at the empty rink. In the NHL, he’s known for his emotional, motivating speeches. But he isn’t one to give a lot of pep talks to 11-year-olds.

Williams sat next to Brind’Amour in the Hurricanes dressing room as a teammate for six years, then played for him for several more. The retired center says when Brind’Amour speaks to people, you can feel the emotion. He’ll talk to the kids, but the message, the lessons, carry a different tone.

“You teach 11 year olds about discipline, how to play the game, how you win and how you lose, it’s almost like life as well,” Williams says. “To have a good attitude, bad attitude, that’s what coaches look for. There’s so many things you can learn in every sport. Really hockey, it teaches you a lot of things. He’ll tell them to ‘stay with it’ and teaches them how to be good hockey players — and people.”

The bold part is because I had the amazing privileges to coach Jade for one season of rec soccer.  She was so amazingly good despite being new to soccer.  (And I talked to Justin Williams a few times, but just coach to soccer dad, never as a hockey fan).

17) I had never heard of the Mensa Fallacy before, but given my lack of respect for Mensa and my love for selection bias as an explanation for almost everything, I loved this:

Now at ISIR in Vienna in 2022, we get this talk:

High intelligence is associated with mental health problems in a sample of intellectually gifted Europeans
Mr. Jonathan Fries 1 , Dr. Tanja G. Baudson2,3,4 , Dr. Kristof Kovacs 5 , Dr. Jakob Pietschnig1
1 Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna,
2 HS Fresenius Heidelberg University of Applied Sciences, Heidelberg, Germany
3 Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE)
4 MENSA in Deutschland gGmbH, Germany
5 Institute of Psychology, ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary

Background: High intelligence is a well-known predictor of favorable health outcomes and longer lifespans. However, recent evidence suggests that the proposed linear relationship between health and cognitive ability might not extend to the upmost end of the intelligence spectrum, indicating that intellectually gifted individuals exhibit high prevalences in an array of specific physical and mental health conditions, so-called overexcitabilities. Presently, only few targeted investigations of this research question have been carried out, and none outside the USA. Here, our objective was to replicate and extend previous accounts to numerous uninvestigated overexcitabilities in a sample of intellectually gifted Europeans.

Methods: We conducted a preregistered survey among members of MENSA, the world’s largest society of individuals scoring in the highest two percent of the intelligence distribution. In all, 615 (307 female) members of the chapters from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom participated. Results: Compared to reference populations, the intellectually gifted sample showed considerably elevated rates of several conditions, such as autism spectrum disorders (risk ratio = 2.25), chronic fatigue syndrome (RR = 5.69), depression (RR = 4.38), generalized anxiety (RR = 3.82), or irritable bowel syndrome (RR = 3.76). Previously reported conditions such as asthma, allergies, or autoimmune diseases were within the general population range…

It’s a textbook example of sampling bias. The samples rely on Mensa samples. For this study to work, Mensans have to be representative of smart people in general, or at least, not be a biased sample for the things examined. But everybody knows Mensans are dorks and this is a club for underachievers. For some amusing quantitative evidence, check out the Reddit subreddit overlap tool. The strongest overlap for being in Mensa is also being in introverted personality subreddits, with a 60x+ rate. Now, low achievement for one’s intelligence can be explained by only a few things: bad work ethic, physical disability, and mental illness. These often go together (genetic fitness factor). Mensans are below average achievers for their intelligence level, and this has a lot to do with their other traits. Obviously, then, studying Mensa people and finding that they have a high rate of various issues compared to a normal population does not tell you that intelligence is associated with these problems, but rather that you have strong sampling bias. 

18) I can’t help but finding it hilarious that this exists as actual research: “Worldwide Temporal Trends in Penile Length: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”


Seventy-five studies published between 1942 and 2021 were evaluated including data from 55,761 men. The pooled mean length estimates were flaccid length: 8.70 cm (95% CI, 8.16–9.23), stretched length: 12.93 cm (95% CI, 12.48–13.39), and erect length: 13.93 cm (95% CI, 13.20–14.65). All measurements showed variation by geographic region. Erect length increased significantly over time (QM=4.49, df=2, p=0.04) in several regions of the world and across all age groups, while no trends were identified in other penile size measurements. After adjusting for geographic region, subject age, and subject population; erect penile length increased 24% over the past 29 years.


The average erect penis length has increased over the past three decades across the world. Given the significant implications, attention to potential causes should be investigated.

19) Someday we’ll know a lot more about our microbiome and all sorts of health conditions, “Chronic fatigue syndrome is a puzzle. Your gut microbiome may have the key.”

Two recent studies funded by the National Institutes of Health point to changes in the microbiome as a possible cause of ME/CFS, and they provide new avenues toward diagnosing and caring for people with the ailment. Certain bacteria in the gut that produce substances involved in metabolism and the immune system were found to be less abundant in patients with ME/CFS than in control groups.

Human digestive systems are home to trillions of microorganisms that help digest food and send signals to other parts of the body. The gut “should be a very rich, diverse, tropical rainforest,” says Suzanne Vernon, research director of the Bateman-Horne Center, a leading center of ME/CFS research. Vernon hypothesizes that viral infections such as COVID-19 can lead to a “disruption” in this gut ecosystem, often felt in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal symptoms.

In most people, the microbiome quickly returns to normal. But for some, “the gut disruption stays,” Vernon says, leading to long-term problems in regulating many body functions…

In the two recent studies published in Cell Host & Microbe, research groups at Columbia University and the Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit institute headquartered in Maine, performed detailed analyses of the microbes in stool samples from patients with ME/CFS and compared them to healthy controls.

The two groups found similar bacteria species were less present in ME/CFS patients compared to control patients. They homed in on bacteria that produce butyrate, a fatty acid involved in regulating metabolism and the immune system. Butyrate plays several roles in directing the body’s response to infections, while also protecting the barrier between the intestine and the circulatory system, regulating genetic changes in cells, and more, says Brent Williams, lead author on the Columbia study. Williams and his colleagues extensively analyzed the role of butyrate in ME/CFS patients’ guts, even identifying a correlation between low levels of bacteria that produce this acid and more severe symptoms.

Parallel findings from the Jackson Laboratory team suggest the bacteria that produce butyrate could be used to diagnose ME/CFS. Previous research has identified microbiome issues in ME/CFS patients, but the new findings help clarify which microbes could be related to the illness. “What the new studies did was to take it a step further, and to really identify the different bacterial species,” says Vicky Whittemore, program director at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, who was not involved in the new research.

20) In honor of March Madness, this was really good. And I love that the Big East just let football go and refused to have all other sports ruled by it, “How the Big East Rose From the Ashes of Its Doomed, Picked-Over Predecessor: Wednesday marks the beginning of the Big East men’s basketball tournament—and the 10-year anniversary of a bold move that likely saved the conference from extinction”

21) I used to watch baseball a lot but stopped completely because it’s long and boring.  Sounds like the new rules changes will actually help a lot. 

22) The whole Ken White piece on the Stanford free speech debacle (referenced in a post earlier this week) is just terrific. 

Everyone in this story makes me angry.

Judge Duncan is part of a culture of turning the federal judiciary into a conservative grievance LiveJournal. He’s also part of a pathetic culture of conservative victimology and free-speech hucksterism. The American right is trumpeting a purported concern for freedom of speech, based mostly on cries of “cancel culture” and gripes about how other people are using their free speech and association, while campaigning vigorously to use government force to limit speech they don’t like. The Federalist Society is complicit, off the bench and on it.

The right-wing media (check out the links in item 6 on David Lat’s update) is campaigning to make money and clicks off of that conservative victimology. In the process it’s undermining everything that was ever admirable or worthwhile about American conservatism and making it into a cult of crybabies. Meanwhile, it’s torpedoing whatever American consensus we’ve ever had in favor of free speech values, conveying to half of America’s youth that free speech is cynical bullshit and to the other half that it’s a bludgeon to own the libs.

Associate Dean Steinbach and her ilk are campaigning to undermine free speech legal and social norms, striving to make someone’s subjective reaction to speech an unquestionable justification for suppressing it. Academic freedom is under state assault and she’s busily undermining it and telling students they have a right to shut people up.

Stanford, and schools like it, are shitting the bed over controversial speakers. Decide that students can shut down speeches they don’t like, if you want to take that path. If not, protect speakers from disruption and have the students escorted out if they shut down a speech. Don’t half-ass it and then apologize afterwards.

And students. Students think that they should be able to dictate which speakers their peers invite, who can speak, what they can say, and who can listen. They’re not satisfied with the most free-speech-exceptionalist system in the world that lets them respond to speech by assembling, protesting, and reviling people of authority like Judge Duncan. They demand the right not just to speak, but to control the speech of others. That’s straight-up thuggish, an aspiration born of a fascist soul. These are law students. They are training to express themselves for a living. If their view is “we can’t respond to awful speech, we can only stop it from happening,” then they’re going to be terrible lawyers.

Law students also persist in imagining that they invented the world. They believe they discovered that free speech laws and norms protect awful speech and awful people. They believe they discovered the plea “yes, but what you don’t understand is that this speech is really bad.” They believe that they are so self-evidently right, good, trustworthy, and noble that it’s obvious that we should let them decide who talks and who doesn’t. And they are too hubris-swollen — not too stupid, but too drunk with self-righteousness — to see that exceptions to free speech have always been used most harmfully against the powerless, and always will be. They’re too full of themselves to see that “let a crowd decide who is allowed to speak” is a horrific norm to promote with grotesque historic resonance. Some of them will grow out of this.

23) If you think everybody who questions what we are doing with medicalizing adolescent gender transitions is an area for reasonable concern is just a transphobe bigot you probably gave up on me in anger a long time ago. But, if not, you really owe it to yourself to read what happened at the famous gender clinic in Britain. 

But there is also a less generic moral to this story: the importance of the distinction between values and facts in social justice movements, particularly for institutions in the business of producing objective information. Medical science can and should fully embrace the values of trans equality. To that end, it should produce reliable knowledge and safe and effective interventions that help those with gender identity incongruence or distress to flourish. This entails attending to hidden biases and other distortions of knowledge production. Instead trans rights activism demands the endorsement of a set of contestable “facts”: that gender identity is innate and objectively known even by children, while sex is a social construction; that trans identification never arises from psychological distress; that the sudden rise in trans identification, including marked changes in sex and age demographics, is satisfactorily explained by greater trans visibility and acceptance; that regret over medical transition is rare; that blockers are safe and reversible, promote mental health and avert suicide risks. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it package deal, and to question any part of it is to be “anti-trans”.

Examples abound in Time to Think of the permeation of this activist logic within GIDS. A clinician who declared that she didn’t herself have a gender identity was branded transphobic. Natal sex was no longer referred to as a fact observed at birth, but as “assigned”. Or consider events following the publication in 2018 of a controversial book, Transgender Children and Young People: Born in your own body. Its editors proposed that the “‘transgender child’ is a relatively new historical figure, brought into being by a coalition of pressure groups, political activists and knowledge makers”. Following complaints, a copy of the book was removed from the Tavistock library. A clinic director who sent an email letting staff know where the book could be purchased more cheaply ended up with a note on his HR file, and the prospect of disciplinary action, for abusing the Trust’s email policy.


Quick hits (part I)

1) Great Adam Serwer piece on Fox News:

The Dominion filing drives home a few points. One is that there is a Fox News propaganda feedback loop: The network inflames right-wing conspiracism, but it also bows to it out of partisan commitment and commercial incentive. Another is that despite the long-standing right-wing argument that conservatives distrust mainstream media outlets because they do not tell the truth, Fox News executives and personalities understand that their own network loses traction with its audience when it fails to tell the lies that the audience wishes to hear. There are infinite examples of the mainstream press making errors of omission, fact, or framing. But as the private communications in the Dominion filing show, the mainstream media’s unforgivable sin with this constituency is not lying, but failing to consistently lie the way conservative audiences want them to.

Looking at these internal messages however, the confident, implacable cynicism on the right about how mainstream media outlets work is easier to understand. It is a reflection of how some of their own media institutions function, combined with an assumption that everyone else operates in a similarly amoral way.

Internally, Carlson referred to Sidney Powell, the attorney who was spreading the false fraud allegations, as a “complete nut,” while the Fox News host Sean Hannity said in a deposition that the “whole narrative that Sidney was pushing, I did not believe it for one second.” But Carlson and Hannity also demanded that the Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich be fired after she fact-checked one of Trump’s tweets spreading the false election-fraud claims about Dominion, with one Fox executive fretting that viewers would be “disgusted.” The offending tweet was deleted. In another email, a different Fox executive feared that what he called “conspiratorial reporting” at Newsmax “might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for,” later warning, “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”

2) A bunch of good tweets I’ve bookmarked in the past few weeks and forgot to share in previous quick hits.  Starting with Joseph Allen’s policy on ChatGPT use by students.

3) This was great from Tim Urban.

4) I get a ton of my podcast listening in during exercise, but when I really need a pick-me-up, yeah… music.

5) This is wild.  You’d never know that the median American has barely any alcohol in a given week.

6) Some really cool new political science research:

7) This is an amazing use of ChatGPT.  Especially impressed with how it captures Sagan’s voice:

8) The worst part about this is that the police are basically Q-Anon believers, “Connecticut Parents Arrested for Letting Kids, Ages 7 and 9, Walk to Dunkin’ Donuts: “I have never felt threatened by a single person in this town until meeting those officers and the social worker.””

This was in Killingly, Connecticut, a suburban town in the northeast part of the state. The Rivers’ lived near an elementary school, library, state police barracks, sidewalks, crosswalks, many Victorian-style homes, and the aforementioned donut shop. The kids gathered $7, and off they went.

A few minutes later, the River parents heard a knock at the door. It was the police.

The first cop to show up “said he didn’t think it was safe for the kids to walk by themselves,” Rivers tells Reason. “We told him that while we did feel it was safe, we agreed to not allow them to walk around town unsupervised.”

“We thought that would have been the end of it,” Rivers added, “until three more officers showed up.”

The first cop sent Rivers’ husband to retrieve the kids, who had only made it about two blocks. Then mom, dad, and the kids faced a barrage of questions.

“They told us that it wasn’t safe for kids to walk down the street, that there are registered sex offenders all over town that could take them, that drug dealers were going to give them drugs, and that it was ‘a different world now,'” says Rivers.

She tried to dispute what the police were saying, and one of them asked if she watched the news.

The police report, which was reviewed by Reason, makes clear that the police were obsessed with the possibility of sex offenders harming the children. Indeed, they pressed the Rivers to search the sex offender registry to learn which of their neighbors were on it.

The officers also claimed that they had received a dozen 911 calls about the kids during the short time they were gone. Rivers thought this was unlikely, as they had only made it past four other homes. But whatever the rationale, the officers proceeded to charge Rivers’ husband with risk of injury to a minor. They charged Rivers separately for the same thing. Then they arrested her husband and took him away.

9) Paul Poast, “The U.S. Has No Good Options for How to Approach China”

10) On subjective age:

Yet we seem to have an awfully rough go of locating ourselves in time. A friend, nearing 60, recently told me that whenever he looks in the mirror, he’s not so much unhappy with his appearance as startled by it—“as if there’s been some sort of error” were his exact words. (High-school reunions can have this same confusing effect. You look around at your lined and thickened classmates, wondering how they could have so violently capitulated to age; then you see photographs of yourself from that same event and realize: Oh.) The gulf between how old we are and how old we believe ourselves to be can often be measured in light-years—or at least a goodly number of old-fashioned Earth ones…

But “How old do you feel?” is an altogether different question from “How old are you in your head?” The most inspired paper I read about subjective age, from 2006, asked this of its 1,470 participants—in a Danish population (Denmark being the kind of place where studies like these would happen)—and what the two authors discovered is that adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, about 20 percent younger than their actual age. “We ran this thing, and the data were gorgeous,” says David C. Rubin (75 in real life, 60 in his head), one of the paper’s authors and a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University. “It was just all these beautiful, smooth curves.”

This is weird to me!  I’m 51.  I don’t know what it would mean to feel 41 or 35 or whatever. What does 41 “feel like”?  I’m I constantly amazed at how old I am?  Yes, actually, but it doesn’t mean I don’t “feel” 51.

11) I had not heard of the S2 Cognition Test, but was totally fascinated by learning of it and this article.  I’ve always talked about great team sport athletes intuitively understanding what I call “the geometry of the game” and I think that’s exactly what’s being measured here.  

The S2 isn’t an intelligence test like the 50-question Wonderlic exam but rather measures how quickly and accurately athletes process information. It’s like the 40-yard dash for the brain.

”The game will never be too fast for Brock, I’ll say that,” said Brandon Ally, a neuroscientist and cofounder of Nashville-based S2 Cognition. “I don’t think he’ll ever have trouble adjusting.”

Ally and his partner, Scott Wylie, have tested more than 40,000 athletes, from big-league batsmen to pro golfers, and the company has contracts with 14 NFL teams. The group already has been testing players at college all-star games during the current draft cycle and will do more testing at next week’s combine in Indianapolis. By the time the draft begins in April, S2 will have scores for more than 800 prospects.

“The GMs have become so interested in the data that we start testing as soon as these kids declare,” Ally said.

The exam lasts 40 to 45 minutes. It’s performed on a specially designed gaming laptop and response pad that can record reactions in two milliseconds. To put that in perspective, an eye blink lasts 100 to 150 milliseconds.

In one section of the exam, a series of diamonds flash on the screen for 16 milliseconds each. Every diamond is missing a point, and the test taker must determine — using left, right, up or down keys — which part is missing.

In another, the test seeks to find out how many objects an athlete can keep track of at the same time. In another, there are 22 figures on the screen and the athlete must locate a specific one as quickly as possible. The object might be a red triangle embedded in other shapes that are also red.

“We’re talking about things they have to perceive on the screen within 16/1,000th of a second, which is essentially subliminal and which scientific literature says you shouldn’t be able to process,” Ally said. “And I’ll be honest with you, we’re seeing pro baseball players see something way faster than 16 milliseconds, which has never been reported in literature, all the way to some athletes who may take 150 milliseconds. So our eyes may see the same thing. But for some, it takes longer to process than others.” …

The battery of tests they had patients perform then are similar to the ones the athletes take now, only they’re modified to record the differences between brains that are merely healthy and ones that work on another level.

Ally says the results are predictive.

He couldn’t give out Purdy’s exact score because it’s privileged information but said it was in the “mid 90s.” That’s about where Brees, the former Saints quarterback famous for lightning-fast decision-making, scored and where two of the top passers in the league now, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Bills’ Josh Allen, also landed. The Bengals’ Joe Burrow took the test while at LSU and agreed to allow S2 to disclose the information.

Of course he did — he scored in the 97th percentile.

“We consider anything above the 80th percentile to be elite,” Ally said…

Top-tier quarterbacks have the highest average scores, followed closely by safeties. That makes sense considering safeties are known as the “quarterback of the defense” and must keep an eye on multiple moving opponents.

“The average human being can keep track of about three and a half objects at a time,” Alley said. “The average safety in the NFL, it’s closer to six.”

The positions with the third-highest scores: linebacker and cornerback.

The traditional thinking about cornerback was that it was all about physical skills — being fast and mimicking the movements of a wide receiver. As it turns out, the ability to make rapid decisions and to control impulses are paramount. One of the S2 tests looks at impulse control. Ally said low scores predict substandard play as well as holding and pass-interference penalties.

“If you’re impulsive, you fall prey to that double move,” Ally said. “You make a step in the wrong direction. And second, they just can’t control that impulse to grab a jersey when (the receiver) gets by them. You saw that call in the Super Bowl? We could argue all day long whether that was (a penalty) or not. But you saw him start to get burned and he just couldn’t control that impulse to grab the jersey. That’s very typical of someone with low impulse control.”

12) This is great from Jerusalem Demsas, “Permission-Slip Culture Is Hurting America”

In louisiana, it takes $1,485 and roughly 2,190 days to become an interior designer. In Washington, it takes $319 and 373 days to become a cosmetologist. The District of Columbia requires $740 to become an auctioneer, and a college degree to watch children for someone else. (Having and watching your own children continues to be an unlicensed affair.) In Kansas, you have to cough up $200 to work as a funeral attendant. And Maine requires $235 and 1,095 days to become a travel guide. Want to move states? That could mean you have to relicense, as if, say, cutting hair is materially different in Massachusetts than it is in New York.

This is absurd, and not just to me. Last week, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced that he would seek to “fully remove 34 different outdated licenses from state government” and eliminate “14 underutilized regulatory boards.” He also said that he would seek to make New Hampshire the next state to adopt universal recognition: “If you have a substantially similar license and are in good standing in another state, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a license on Day One in New Hampshire.” He joins a number of governors in embracing universal recognition but is going one step further by pushing to fully delicense certain professions.

The usual argument in favor of strict and pervasive licensing is that the system helps ensure high standards for consumer welfare. Of course we can all think of several professions where some form of licensing makes sense: doctors and nurses, operators of dangerous machinery, handlers of hazardous materials. But the assumption that barriers to entry, no matter their form, will necessarily increase the quality of services provided is flawed.

The Institute for Justice looked at state licensing requirements for 102 low-income occupations across the country and found that 88 percent of those professions were unlicensed in at least one state, suggesting that the system is fairly arbitrary. It also found that a high licensing burden does not mean a high-risk occupation: “Workers in 71 occupations, including all the barbering and beauty occupations we study, face greater average burdens than entry-level emergency medical technicians.”

Nor does licensing necessarily translate to high standards for health and safety. A report by the Obama White House in 2015 concluded that “most research does not find that licensing improves quality or public health and safety” and that “stricter licensing was associated with quality improvements in only 2 out of the 12 studies reviewed.”

So the benefits of excessive licensing are unsubstantiated, theoretical, or minimal. But the drawbacks? Those are very real for workers and consumers alike…

Occupational licensing springs from a permission-slip mentality that has infected American political institutions of all sorts. Permission slips to braid hair, permission slips to build affordable housing, permission slips to put solar panels on your roof … a country full of adults raising our hands waiting for someone to let us use the bathroom!

Although pro-licensing forces would have you believe that we must choose between permission-slip governance and peril, this is a false choice. The question is not whether a particular industry poses risks but what kind and how they can best be reduced. Our current licensing regime has not rid American society of risk; heavily licensed industries continue to present safety issues. Instead it has exacerbated labor shortages in crucial industries, encouraged artificially high prices, and created unreasonable barriers to employment and mobility.

I don’t need government workers to ensure that a restaurant is aesthetically pleasing by licensing interior designers; I need them to certify that the food is safe by regularly inspecting establishments. I don’t need the government to decide who’s qualified to work as a locksmith; I can ask my neighbors or check Yelp for advice. And although a test may be appropriate to guarantee that someone can operate a forklift, a college degree most certainly isn’t.

13) Good stuff about libel law and the legal case against Fox News:

If so, the messages could amount to powerful body of evidence against Fox, according to First Amendment experts, because they meet a critical and difficult-to-meet standard in such cases.

“You just don’t often get smoking-gun evidence of a news organization saying internally, ‘We know this is patently false, but let’s forge ahead with it,’” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a University of Utah professor who specializes in media law.

Under New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court ruling that has guided libel and defamation claims for nearly 60 years, a plaintiff like Dominion must show that a defendant like Fox published false statements with “actual malice” — meaning that it was done “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Based on the messages revealed last week, “I think that Dominion both will and should prevail,” said Laurence Tribe, a former Harvard law professor. “If anything, the landmark this case is likely to establish will help show that New York Times v. Sullivan” is not an impossible legal hurdle to clear, as some critics have claimed.

“While it’s true that the Supreme Court [in Sullivan] has set a high bar for plaintiffs, a high bar doesn’t mean no bar,” said Sonja R. West, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Georgia law school. “What we’re seeing in this case looks an awful lot like the exception that proves the rule. The First Amendment often protects speakers who make innocent or even negligent mistakes, but this does not mean they can knowingly tell lies that damage the reputation of others.”

14) I’ll admit to not reading all of this, but for my fellow ChatGPT lovers, this is the ultimate explanation for how it works. 

15) A nice little essay on three lessons from the Ukraine war

The three lessons of the past year—war is never straightforward; power is not based on weapons; national identity has military value—should come as a relief to supporters of democracy. The great tragedy is that they had to be relearned in the first place.

16) Lots of good stuff in Chait’s newsletter this week.  I liked this part about standardized tests:

17) I also liked this take on the measures taken by the “there’s a scientific consensus on ‘gender-affirming care’ for teens and if you say otherwise you are a transphobe!” crowd:

18) Paul Waldman, “Republican elites fear the monster they created”

On screen, Fox News personalities paint a world of clear heroes and villains, where conservatives are always strong and right and liberals are weak and wrong. But the extraordinary private communications revealed in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox show who they really are. Panicked over Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, those same hosts, and the executives who run the network, cowered in abject terror.

They feared the same monster that keeps House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) up at night, the monster that conservative media and Republican politicians created: base voters who are deluded, angry and vengeful.

McCarthy has sought to appease the beast by granting exclusive access to 44,000 hours of surveillance footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But with each capitulation, McCarthy and Fox News only make the monster stronger…

These documents make clear not only that Fox News stars and executives think their audience is a bunch of half-wits but also that they live in fear that the audience will turn on them unless they tell viewers exactly what they want to hear regardless of the facts.

Who taught that audience to believe conspiracy theories and to assume that any unwelcome information must be a sinister lie? Fox News, of course.

Now consider Jan. 6. McCarthy knows the facts. The Capitol insurrection wasn’t a false-flag operation by antifa or the FBI. Indeed, McCarthy initially blasted Trump for his role in stirring the rioters and dismissed conspiracy theories. So why has he given exclusive access to surveillance footage to Carlson, the constant purveyor of conspiracy theories?

There’s no mystery. Carlson’s producers will comb through endless pixels to find images with which to mislead viewers: to convince them that the riot wasn’t so bad or that Trump’s supporters weren’t to blame or that the whole thing was a setup…

Like the trembling dissemblers of Fox News, McCarthy must feel that he has no choice: Feed the beast or be eaten by it. Winning the future is an idea they cannot latch on to because they are so frantic to survive one more day.

Republican elites are not powerless. They helped make this mess and could nudge their base back toward reality if they chose. But they’re too afraid to try.

19) It really is ridiculous what a stigma we place on herpes when you consider how damn common it is and how easily it spreads.  It’s one damn tricky virus. 

Brittany, 29, who asked that her last name be withheld in order to discuss her personal health, only thinks about her HSV-2 when she scrolls through a dating app. In the two years since she was diagnosed, she’s only had one outbreak. Still, when she looks at each profile, she wonders how the man would respond to learning about her diagnosis. “I just worry so much that people are going to judge me,” she said. “That no matter how I present it to them, I’ll still face rejection. That weighs heavily on me.”

Some men have told her, flat-out, that they would never date someone with herpes, but what bothers her, too, are the ones who say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she said. “I wake up every day and I’m fine.”

Scientists have worked on herpes vaccines in fits and starts since the 1970s, said Dr. Harvey Friedman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who has studied the disease for over 40 years. But past attempts have failed, for reasons researchers are still trying to uncover.

Because herpes has been around for so long, the viruses have evolved alongside us, making them more difficult to eradicate, said Christine Johnston, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who has studied herpes.

There are new vaccines under development. Dr. Friedman is working with BioNTech on an HSV-2 vaccine candidate that was given to the first human subject in December. But none are in late-stage clinical trials, said Dr. Ina Park, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of S.T.D.s.” “There’s nothing anywhere close to prime time,” she said.

20) My 23-year old son has no desire for a driver’s license.  I thought his brother would get his right when he turned 16 (as I did on my 16th birthday), but he’s 17 and seemingly no rush (though, I think in the next few months).  But, this is really common these days. “Why aren’t teenagers driving anymore?”

When Dawn Johnson was a teenager growing up in Northern Virginia in the 1990s, she remembers counting down the days until she could start driving. The freedom to see her friends whenever she wanted was tantalizing, she says: “I wanted to get out of my house.”

So when her son, Derek, turned 15 nearly 10 months ago, she and her husband thought he might feel the same. “We were like, Derek, don’t you want to do this?” she says. “And he was like, ‘Nah. I’m good.’ And we just — we did not understand it.”

Driving a car was once a widely coveted rite of passage, but a rising number of kids no longer see it that way: 60 percent of American 18-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2021, down from 80 percent in 1983, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. In that same period, the number of 16-year-olds with licenses dropped from 46 percent to 25 percent. Today’s driving-age teens are navigating a very different world, filled with new complexities and anxieties.

21) Excellent NYT Editorial on what our drug policy should be, “America Has Lost the War on Drugs. Here’s What Needs to Happen Next.”

But there’s still much work for the nation’s leaders to do.

Amend outdated policies. Criminal justice still has a role to play in tackling addiction and overdose. The harm done by drugs extends far beyond the people who use them, and addictive substances — including legal ones like alcohol — have always contributed to crime. There is a better balance to strike, nonetheless, between public health and law enforcement.

One example is the so-called “crack house statute.” This federal law subjects anyone to steep penalties, including decades in prison, if they maintain a building for the purpose of using illicit drugs. It was enacted at the height of the crack epidemic but is currently being used to stymie supervised consumption sites, which are fundamentally different from crack houses.

At supervised consumption programs, people bring their own drugs, including heroin, and use them under the supervision of a staff that has been trained to reverse overdoses, promote safer drug use and in some cases help people access treatment. With several states now considering planning or starting supervised consumption programs, federal officials should make it clear that the people operating them will not face prosecution.

The federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine should finally be eliminated. The “Len Bias Law,” which enables courts to send anyone involved in an overdose death to prison, should also be amended, so that family members or fellow drug users aren’t criminalized for calling 911 in a crisis.

Invest in treatment. There are not enough programs or trained medical professionals to treat substance-use disorders.

As a result, it is too often left to the criminal justice system to decide who gets care. When wait lists for programs run long, people whose treatment is court-ordered jump to the front of the line. The outcomes have not been great. Judges and probation officers tend to have a paltry understanding of addiction medicine, producing treatment that tends to be punitive instead of therapeutic. For example, people placed on parole or probation for drug-related crimes are often incarcerated when they relapse, instead of getting additional care. (Relapses are a common feature of substance-use disorder and a normal part of the recovery process.)

One way to shift this calculus is to create incentives for more doctors and medical professionals to treat addiction. Lifting the special waiver that doctors need to prescribe buprenorphine — as federal lawmakers recently did — will help.

Other policy tweaks are needed as well: Parity laws, which require health insurers to cover addiction and mental health services as extensively as they cover treatments for other medical conditions, should be expanded to include Medicare. There are a lot of people aging into that program with substance-use disorders. Elected officials should also make basic training in addiction treatment a requirement for medical schools that receive state and federal funding.

Address root causes. People cannot heal from, or live stably with, substance-use disorders if they lack proper housing or suffer from untreated trauma or mental illness. For harm reduction — or any honest attempt to address the nation’s drug use and overdose epidemic — to succeed, communities will need to create more housing options. They will also need to provide clear pathways for people struggling with addiction to achieve food security and to have access to basic medical care. Policies that make it easier for people convicted of drug felonies to get benefits from social safety-net programs — including food stamps and supportive housing programs — would help. So would the Medicaid Re-entry Act, a bill that would reactivate Medicaid for inmates before their release.

Build an actual system. In other advanced nations, harm reduction and treatment for addiction are core public health services funded and protected by the national government. In the United States, syringe service programs and would-be supervised consumption sites have largely been left on their own, forced to design vital public health programs from scratch, then operate them in a legal morass, with little guidance or support.

22) I know nothing about Politics in Peru.  But as a political parties scholar, I loved this, “Peru is a Warning
Democracy doesn’t work without strong political parties.”

23) Jared Diamond, “Like Finland, Imagine Everything That Could Go Wrong”

Finland offers a model of preparing politically for any disaster. During World War II, Finns suffered greatly as a result of being cut off from imports. Finns responded after the war by setting up a government commission that meets once a month, imagines everything that could go wrong and each month plans and prepares for one such disaster. (A Finnish friend of mine is on that commission.) Finns are now prepared for chemical shortages, fuel shortages, medical supply shortages, an electric net failure and other eventualities.

One of those Finnish commission meetings several years ago recognized the likelihood of a respiratory disease pandemic. The commission advised the government to buy and store lots of face masks, which were cheap at the time. The result: Finland was ready for Covid, as well as for all of those other disasters.

Similar thinking is useful in our personal lives. In my field work as a biologist in New Guinea’s jungles, almost everything that could go wrong has at some time gone wrong for me. Whenever I’ve had an accident in Los Angeles, my wife has driven me to the hospital emergency room. But I don’t have that option in New Guinea’s jungles. After some close calls, I eventually learned to think constantly about what could next go wrong, and to prepare for it. I’ve found that habit useful even in my daily life in Los Angeles.

Psychiatrists use the term “paranoia” to mean constant exaggerated fear of something going wrong. Many non-Finns, and many of my Los Angeles friends, consider Finns’ and my outlook on life as an absurd vice, verging on paranoia. I consider our outlook as a healthy virtue that I call constructive paranoia. In other words, be ready for lots of bad luck.


Continuing isolation quick hits (part II)

1) OMG this is just the absurdist end-point of leftists eating themselves, “Durham fails to condemn anti-gay bill because of debate over who is more oppressed” 

Things got heated at Durham City Council’s Thursday work session when council member and former Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson introduced a resolution that would take a firm stance against the transphobic bills being filed in the North Carolina General Assembly.

North Carolina Republicans have filed at least two bills that directly target trans youth in North Carolina. The most worrisome of these is the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” — also known as N.C.’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill — that has already passed the N.C. Senate and will soon get a vote in the House.

This type of resolution seems like a no-brainer for Durham, the city that held North Carolina’s first Pride parade. Yet the conversation ended up taking a turn when Mark-Anthony Middleton, the current Mayor Pro Tem, had a concern over the phrasing of the second sentence in the resolution.

“WHEREAS, members of the LGBTQ+ community currently experience the highest rate of hate-motivated violence among all marginalized communities in the US.”

Middleton said he felt this wasn’t factually accurate, as the FBI’s hate crime tracking data shows that race is the most common reason victims of hate crimes were targeted. Johnson pointed out that, when compared to the size of the overall U.S. population, LGBTQ individuals experience the highest rate of hate crime victimization. 

From there, other members of the council began weighing in on the resolution and the argument between Johnson and Middleton. Johnson eventually asked if the rules could be suspended so that the council could hold a vote, even though that isn’t part of work session procedure. The council voted against changing things up, and now the resolution will be voted on in 10 days.

2) I really, really liked the movie Tar. (And shoutout to Peacock TV, which is proving to be my best $2/month).  Loved this analysis of key scenes from the movie.  And, I really liked this exploration of the movie’s reality (definitely don’t read this if you haven’t seen it). 

3) Ethan Mollick with a guide to making a remarkably effective fake video of yourself (it looks fake if you are looking for it, but could easily fool people not paying close attention) for less than $10 in software and tools. 

4) I really respect Cochrane views (as people who take science/medicine seriously, generally do), so was pretty taken aback by their essentially “masks don’t work” review.  I’ve seen surprisingly few good takes on-line, but, Scott Alexander came through with something that made a lot of sense:

45: New Cochrane meta-analysis finds no evidence that masks work for preventing transmission of respiratory illnesses, including COVID, but that hand-washing does.

Context is that long before COVID, there was debate about whether respiratory illnesses were more droplet spread (in which case hand-washing > masks) or airborne spread (in which case masks > hand-washing), and some people who have been on Team Droplet for decades wrote this meta-analysis, which did indeed find handwashing > masks.

This shouldn’t be surprising – most of the studies included were the same pre-COVID studies that the establishment used to argue that hand-washing worked and masks didn’t back in March 2020. Most of these were studies showing that if one person in a household had flu, them wearing a mask at home didn’t seem to prevent their family from getting flu – although there were some issues here like “they were supposed to wear masks even while sleeping because they slept in the same bed as their spouse, but obviously they didn’t do that and then their spouse got the flu” which don’t translate to the COVID situation. The analysis does include two new COVID studies – one from Bangladesh that shows a positive effect from masks and one from Denmark that doesn’t (but people complain the lockdown there was so strict that there was too low a sample size of people getting COVID). But mostly it’s just the same set of studies. So this shouldn’t be a strong update on whatever you thought about the mask debate in March 2020.

In March 2020, I reviewed many of these same studies and concluded that while they pretty clearly showed that masking within households didn’t prevent flu from spreading, this seemed different enough from the spread of COVID in public places that it was hard to say, and given the low risk of masks, they were probably worth trying for most people. I still think this is true, although notice that this is a lower bar than “government mandate”.

More commentary hereherehereherehere, I’m focusing on the negative commentary since obviously the positive commentary is “haha, we were right, suck it”. This article discusses the broader transition from Team Droplet to Team Airborne among epidemiologists, and I would interpret continuing establishment support for masks as coming from this change at the theoretical level, rather than new RCTs (which mostly haven’t happened). I’m cynical enough to believe that most RCTs conducted during the pro-droplet-consensus period got pro-droplet results, but that once they get around to conducting new RCTs during the new pro-airborne-consensus period, they’ll get pro-airborne results. But people mostly haven’t gotten around to conducting new RCTs during the new pro-airborne-consensus period, so most RCTs are still pro-droplet, so all the meta-analyses come out pro-droplet for now. Trust Science!

5) What we really need is regulatory crackdown so that pharmaceutical companies cannot change one meaningless molecule and claim they have a new drug with new patent protection, but, until then, I love this idea, “Insulin is way too expensive. California has a solution: Make its own.”

The newer artificial insulins can be very valuable for people with diabetes who need to time their insulin injections with meals in mind, though it is not clear that artificial insulin is more beneficial than bioengineered human insulins for some patients, such as those with Type 2 diabetes. But, according to many academic experts, the amount of innovation in the insulin business hardly justifies the current costs for insulin products. Insulin is still, at its core, more or less the same product that debuted a century ago.

Nevertheless, pharmaceutical companies stand to make a lot of money by continually refreshing their products. Thus, the three major insulin manufacturers in the US — Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi — continue to do that, and thereby maintain their control of the country’s insulin supply. The main mechanism the US has for bringing down prescription drug prices is allowing generic drugs to compete with brand-name versions. When a company develops a new drug, it gets a period of exclusivity, 10 years or more, in which it is the only one able to make or sell that drug. But after that exclusivity period has passed, other companies can make a carbon copy and sell it at a lower price. Studies find that once several generic competitors come on the market, prices drop significantly.

But pharma companies are savvy about finding ways to extend their monopolies, with insulin and other drugs, by making minor tweaks to the chemical compound and asking for a patent extension. In the case of insulin, the companies can also modify the delivery device to protect their market share. Each product is meant to be used with specific, company-designed injectors. Though the patents on the artificial insulin developed in the 1990s have started expiring, these companies continue to hold and extend monopolies on either their devices or other chemical compounds, making it harder for generic competitors to enter the market.

Other federal regulations have added to the challenge. The FDA began to treat insulin as a biologic drug in 2020 — meaning it is made with living materials instead of combining chemicals like conventional pharmaceuticals — which comes with a different set of standards for generic versions, which are known as biosimilars, as well as manufacturing challenges given the precise conditions these products must be made in. Biosimilars can cost up to $250 million to produce and take up to eight years to bring to the market, versus a one-year investment of as little as $1 million for conventional generics. And unless the FDA recognizes a new generic insulin as interchangeable with the products already on the market, health insurers might not want to cover it and doctors may not be willing to prescribe it.

6) How did I have no idea about these absolutely massive prehistoric elephants?? “These Extinct Elephants Were Neanderthals’ ‘Biggest Calorie Bombs’
A study of butchered bones from 125,000 years ago offers what researchers call “the first clear-cut evidence of elephant-hunting in human evolution.””

It is now accepted that the more typical Neanderthal was one who lived in southern Europe through the Ice Age and in central Europe during interglacial periods, as epitomized by Neumark-Nord. About 86,000 to 106,000 years ago, for instance, fisher-hunter-gatherers occupied the Gruta da Figueira Brava site on Portugal’s Atlantic coast.

Similarly, a new body of research has transformed our image of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging brutes who wandered from cave to cave while gnawing on slabs of slain mammoth. Evidence is mounting that they were skilled toolmakers with a complex language who built shelters, traded jewelry and lived in large social groups.

“Until very recently, Neanderthals were considered simple slaves of nature who were living off the land, the first hippies,” Dr. Roebroeks said. “The truth is that they were using fire to shape their environment, as well as having a huge impact on the most massive animals alive at that time.”

Straight-tusked elephants were the largest terrestrial mammals of the Pleistocene, a geological epoch lasting until 11,700 years ago when vast ice sheets and other glaciers spread across North America and Eurasia. Adult males weighed as much as 14 tons, adult females about half that. The straight-tusked elephant, or Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was the reigning elephant ancestor of that time. It was much larger than the woolly mammoth and roughly twice as big as today’s African elephant.

7) This is good. Liberals should not back from either of these.  We just need to define the progressive vision, not the cramped and problematic conservative versions. “Ro Khanna on the Progressive Case for Patriotism and Capitalism”

8) Jennifer Rubin on PRRI’s new poll on white Christian nationalism:

When you hear the phrase “Christian nationalists,” you might think of antiabortion conservatives who are upset about the phrase “Happy Holidays” and embrace a vaguely “America First” way of thinking. But according to a Public Religion Research Institute-Brookings Institution poll released Wednesday, Christian nationalists in fact harbor a set of extreme beliefs at odds with pluralistic democracy. The findings will alarm you.

“Christian nationalism is a new term for a worldview that has been with us since the founding of our country — the idea that America is destined to be a promised land for European Christians,” PRRI president and founder Robert P. Jones explained in a news release on the survey of more than 6,000 Americans. “While most Americans today embrace pluralism and reject this anti-democratic claim, majorities of white evangelical Protestants and Republicans remain animated by this vision of a white Christian America.”The poll used the following beliefs to gauge how deeply respondents embraced Christian nationalism:
  • “The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.”
  • “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.”
  • “If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.”
  • “Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.”
  • “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.”

PRRI found that 10 percent (“adherents”) of American adults believe in these ideas overwhelmingly or completely; 19 percent agree but not completely (“sympathizers”); 39 percent disagree (“skeptics”) but not completely; and 29 percent disagree completely (“rejecters”).

Who are these people? “Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (35%) or adherents (29%).” Put differently, Christian nationalist adherents are a minority but when combined with sympathizers still comprise a stunning 29 percent of Americans — many tens of millions.

Christian nationalists also make up the base of the Republican Party. “Most Republicans qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (33%) or adherents (21%), while at least three-quarters of both independents (46% skeptics and 29% rejecters) and Democrats (36% skeptics and 47% rejecters) lean toward rejecting Christian nationalism.” In total, “Republicans (21%) are about four times as likely as Democrats (5%) or independents (6%) to be adherents of Christian nationalism.” Some promising news: There are fewer adherents and sympathizers among younger Americans. “More than seven in ten Americans ages 18-29 (37% skeptics, 42% rejecters) and ages 30-49 (37% skeptics, 35% rejecters) lean toward opposing Christian nationalism.” Support is also inversely related to educational attainment.

Christian nationalist adherents are emphatically out of synch with the pluralist majority. “Americans overall are much more likely to express a preference for the U.S. to be a nation made up of people belonging to a variety of religions (73%).” They also are much more likely to hold authoritarian and racist views…

More than 70 percent of adherents embrace replacement theory, nearly one-quarter harbor the antisemitic view that Jews hold too many positions of power and 44 percent believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than America, the poll found. More than 65 percent think Muslims from some countries should be banned. Almost 70 percent believe “the husband is the head of the household in ‘a truly Christian family’ and his wife submits to his leadership.”

If you think this sounds like MAGA tripe, you’re right. This is the hardcore MAGA base. More alarming: “Nearly six in ten QAnon believers are also either Christian nationalism sympathizers (29%) or adherents (29%).”

9) I love “Rick and Morty” and have definitely had concerns about how the loss of one of the co-creators may affect the show in the future, but this Vox essay suggests I need not worry and is a great appreciation of the show:

Hidden in all this clever recursion and juvenile brinkmanship are genuine human concerns. Throughout both shows, Jeff and Rick earnestly, even plaintively continue to wonder why they’re such walking disasters — at least they do when they can overcome their self-loathing long enough to get the question out. Why do people do bad things? Harmon wants to know, and he wants us to want to know.

10) No, “Last of Us” cordyceps is not coming for us, but we do need to worry about fungal pathogens:

Fungus-caused infections — real ones, not the ones sparking the zombie apocalypse on the popular show “The Last of Us” — pose a growing threat in the United States and around the world.

Mississippi has become the latest state to report residents infected with Candida auris, a highly contagious fungus that thrives in hospitals and nursing homes. It won’t be the last and, without dedicated effort, infections and deaths will continue to pile up.

The Mississippi Department of Public Health announced it has identified six people infected with C. auris. This pathogen can contaminate just about any surface imaginable, from intravenous lines and feeding tubes to bedsheets, doctors’ coats, and sinks. People who are elderly or immunocompromised are the most vulnerable to this pathogen, and it is often deadly: two of the six people infected in Mississippi have died.

The rapid ascent of C. auris is unsettling. The fungus has carved a deadly path around the globe since Japanese researchers identified the first-known infection in 2009. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that it had logged seven cases of C. auris across four states: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Illinois. By 2019, the pathogen had infected more than 700 people across 12 states, and the numbers continue to climb. In 2022, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Delaware, and Hawaii all confirmed their first C. auris cases, and nearly 5,000 people in the U.S. have now been infected with it.

Public health experts have for years been warning that C. auris and other fungal infections are a growing threat. Numerous studies have detailed the ways in which climate change may aid and abet the spread of these pathogens as the world warms. C. auris is just one of dozens of fungal pathogens affecting humans, yet the U.S. — and the world — has continually failed to take action against this threat.

A quick assessment of the armamentarium of antifungal agents shows just how underprepared countries are. No new classes of antifungal drugs have become available during the last 20 years, according to a study in the journal Drugs, and only one new agent from a known antifungal class has been approved in the last decade. Investment in this area is sorely lacking: the World Health Organization reports that fungal infections receive less than 1.5% of all infectious disease research funding.

11) Some good political science here, even if I find it mystifying as to why there would be a dozen co-authors, “Rooted in Racism? Race, Partisanship, Status Threat, and Public Opinion Toward Statehood for Washington, D.C.”

In recent years, a number of prominent elected officials on both sides of the partisan divide have weighed in on the possibility of making Washington, D.C., the nation’s fifty-first state. While Democratic supporters of statehood for D.C. emphasize issues of equal representation, some Republican opponents have stressed the partisan and ideological consequences of D.C. statehood. Other Republican opponents, in justifying their position, have made the claim that Washington, D.C., lacks the necessary and sufficient characteristics associated with statehood, and these claims have been widely interpreted as implicitly racist appeals. In this paper, using three nationally representative surveys, we explore whether mass opinion on this issue is primarily shaped by partisanship, ideology, racial status threat, or racial prejudice. We find clear and consistent evidence that while partisan and ideological attachments, as well as perceptions of racial status threat, influence opinion on statehood for Washington, D.C., the strongest determinant of opposition to statehood are negative racial attitudes. We take these results as further evidence of the debate over D.C. statehood, like debates over public policies that are purported to benefit African Americans, is intimately intertwined with negative racial views expressed by the mass public.

12) I don’t know how I had never come across this 10-year old Gladwell talk at Google, but it’s really good, “Why Did I Say “Yes” to Speak Here?”

13) This Vox video on the Titanic’s insufficient number of lifeboats is the best thing I’ve seen on the subject by far. 

14) Here’s a fun technology story, “‘My Watch Thinks I’m Dead’ Dispatchers for 911 are being inundated with false, automated distress calls from Apple devices owned by skiers who are very much alive.”

Winter has brought a decent amount of snowfall to the region’s ski resorts, and with it an avalanche of false emergency calls. Virtually all of them have been placed by Apple Watches or iPhone 14s under the mistaken impression that their owners have been debilitated in collisions.

As of September, these devices have come equipped with technology meant to detect car crashes and alert 911 dispatchers. It is a more sensitive upgrade to software on Apple devices, now several years old, that can detect when a user falls and then dial for help. But the latest innovation appears to send the device into overdrive: It keeps mistaking skiers, and some other fitness enthusiasts, for car-wreck victims.

Lately, emergency call centers in some ski regions have been inundated with inadvertent, automated calls, dozens or more a week. Phone operators often must put other calls, including real emergencies, on hold to clarify whether the latest siren has been prompted by a human at risk or an overzealous device.

“My whole day is managing crash notifications,” said Trina Dummer, interim director of Summit County’s emergency services, which received 185 such calls in the week from Jan. 13 to Jan. 22. (In winters past, the typical call volume on a busy day was roughly half that.) Ms. Dummer said that the onslaught was threatening to desensitize dispatchers and divert limited resources from true emergencies.

15) Great stuff from Jeff Maurer, “Debt Ceiling Idiocy Shows the Dangers of Living in a Fantasyland”

But here we are, trying to find a way forward that’s compatible with the Bizarro World of false narratives that Republicans have been living in for years.

The first falsehood warping Republican brains is the idea that the deficit needs to be mostly or completely eliminated to avoid catastrophe. This idea has become a bedrock of Republican orthodoxy over the course of several decades. Remember the National Debt Clock, which showed up in Times Square in 1989? Remember the Balanced Budget Amendment that was part of Newt Gingrich’s 1995 Contract with America? Remember Paul Ryan’s YouTube videos, which were delivered with the solemn tone of a tough-love dad who’s worried about your marijuana use? Conservatives keep warning of a fiscal crisis that never comes. Of course, the kernel of truth here is that debt does matter; leftists who have convinced themselves that it doesn’t are in a cult every bit as deranged and disappointingly sexless as the Republican one. But it’s become an article of faith on the right that we must move the deficit towards zero AND FAST, which doesn’t comport with reality.

Republicans love to compare the federal budget to a household budget. But the federal budget is different from a household budget in a few crucial ways. For starters, you and I can’t print money. I mean…I suppose we could. could run off a few million Maurer Bucks on the ol’ HP ink jet, but if I try to buy a Whopper with them, they’ll kick me out of Burger King. Also, my self-produced currency is unlikely to become a coveted store of value around the globe, and that remains true even in a world in which people buy Dogecoin. In contrast, the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, which makes it easier for the US to borrow money. Finally, a lot of federal borrowing is done in-house; America can borrow money from Americans, whereas I can’t borrow $1,000 from my son, because he is both a baby and a deadbeat.

Which is to say: We don’t need to balance the budget. And in fact, we shouldn’t: A singular focus on a balanced budget would cause us to pass up low-interest-high-yield investments that we should make. Our goal should be to keep the debt manageable, and our definition of “manageable” should change depending on economic conditions. The obsession with zero deficit is an overly-simple view promoted by people who either have ulterior motives or who don’t understand how the federal budget works.

The second Republican misunderstanding driving this insanity is the idea that a vote to raise the debt ceiling “puts more money on the nation’s credit card”. In reality, the money has already been charged to the card, and raising the debt ceiling just lets us pay the bill…

The third relevant brain worm is the myth that the budget could be balanced through a few relatively-painless cuts. Republicans frequently object to suggestions that they want to cut Social Security or Medicare, and obviously, tax hikes are as heretical to GOP doctrine as Lobsterfest is to Orthodox Judaism. So, if the deficit is a crisis, then what’s the proposed solution?

Republican rhetoric tends to focus on non-defense discretionary spending. That is: nuts-and-bolts government function stuff like highways and diplomacy, plus more touchy-feely stuff like environment, health, and education. That stuff doesn’t butter a typical Republican’s toast, and even a liberal like me will admit that not every penny of that spending is crucial funding keeping vulnerable Americans from being dragged out to sea by economic currents and ripped apart by sharks. But to talk about non-defense discretionary spending as a solution to the budget deficit is basically a non-sequitur.

The bottom line is that there just isn’t enough money there. Non-defense discretionary spending is usually around $600 billion (adjusted for inflation); the deficit has averaged $1.16 trillion over the past 15 years. So, if you carved out the whole District of Columbia, floated it into the Atlantic ocean, and then sank it along with the entire federal government, you’d be about half way to where you’d need to be. For context, this spending is slightly below where it’s been for the last 35 years as a percentage of GDP. To allege a budget crisis and then shift to talk of shaving non-defense discretionary spending is like announcing a plan to lose 100 pounds and declaring that you’ll get there by reducing how often you eat bananas foster.

These three myths combine to form a simple, misleading, narrative, which goes like this: The government is on the brink of a fiscal crisis. This crisis can be solved without tax hikes or cuts to popular programs. Members of Congress who vote to raise the debt ceiling are authorizing more profligate spending instead of getting our fiscal house in order.

How much does the GOP base believe this narrative? Well, they believe it enough that most Republican members of the House seem scared to vote to raise the ceiling. We also might deduce something from the fact that the most zealous debt ceiling warriors seem to be those Republicans who are least in touch with reality. To wit: Major players include Ralph Norman, who doesn’t appear to know what the debt ceiling is, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, of whom former RNC chair Michael Steele recently said: “She doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.” GOP leadership has ignored White House calls for proposed spending cuts, and of course they have: No cuts exist that are big enough to satisfy the Republican base and that are popular with the rest of the country. The GOP is reaping what they sowed: They promoted a lie, people believed the lie, and now those same people are demanding that their leaders take action in response to a crisis that doesn’t exist.

16) Just maybe this time the promising new Alzheimer’s drug is actually promising?  Really interesting stuff here on the latest drug and the history of false hope.

17) Good stuff from Phillip Bump, “The core weakness of the Republican Party, on raucous display”

Why is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in Congress?

The 2020 campaign that first brought her to Washington wasn’t centered on the policy proposals Greene wanted to enact as a legislator. Her campaign was instead centered mostly on fringe rhetoric and chastisements of the D.C. establishment, including members of her own party. This was amplified after Republican leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) criticized past comments of Greene’s that were racist or endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory.

But that didn’t matter. Greene easily won the primary and then election in a district that backed Donald Trump by a 3 to 1 margin. So now she’s in Congress — and was a key ally of McCarthy in his struggle to be elected House speaker. Her willingness to throw bombs at her perceived opponents has made her a force in Republican politics, one that McCarthy clearly thinks is useful to keep close.

In other words, Greene is in Congress because her style of agitating the Republican base was useful in winning a primary in a deep-red district, winning election in a wildly pro-Trump one and in getting access to the core of Republican institutional power. And this, really, is the Republican Party’s central weakness, as made obvious in last year’s midterm elections: It is very, very good at energizing its base and not very good at appealing to everyone else.

On Tuesday night, President Biden delivered his State of the Union address. This annual event is Congress’s prom, an opportunity to get dressed up and be fancy with lots of expectations that people will be on their best behavior. Before this year’s iteration, McCarthy cautioned his caucus to behave, reportedly reminding them that the country would be watching.

To continue the prom analogy, this is a bit like the principal telling the jocks that the local news would be filming the dance and not to act up. Guess what the jocks are going to do? …

The other motivation for interrupting Biden is implicit: Many Republican elected officials are simply used to treating their opponents with overt disdain. Greene has endorsed QAnon theories and mused about executions of prominent Democrats. Given the rare opportunity to be face-to-face with Biden, we should expect her to demurely observe his speech?

We should not be surprised that McCarthy’s warning to his caucus about behaving went unheeded. We should not be surprised that his efforts to quell the uproar in the moment were ignored. We should not be surprised that on Wednesday morning he excused the interruptions as evidence of his caucus being “passionate.” After all, the story of McCarthy’s tenure as leader of his party has largely been about his failure to erect fences around the party’s fringe, from Trump on down.

There is simply a large element of his party that is focused on combating the left, on fighting Democrats or other elites in Fox News hits or punchy tweets. They do so for the same reasons some of them interrupted Biden’s speech: They want attention or they are simply behaving in the way they’ve become accustomed to behaving. There’s a Pavlovian element here. Greene and others have been successful at getting Republican votes by ginning up Republican anger. In districts where Republicans win easily, that works just fine. In the jostle to get attention and support from Republicans nationally, extremism in this regard is a boon. But in winning contested races? Less so.

18) So tired of stories like this!! Our laws and enforcement are both woefully insufficient.  And who are all the damn people buying dogs from these disreputable breeders and thereby propping up the whole sordid mess?!  Shame on them! “47 dogs rescued from backyard breeder, animal hoarding home in rural NC”

19) I’m in a monthly meeting with a faculty member who I am pretty sure never turns her camera on because she believes cameras on is “ableist.” Oh, yeah, that’s a thing.  As for me, I believe it’s rude to hide yourself and participate by voice only if you are perfectly capable of more fully participating.  It’s already diminishing human contact enough to be on in zoom instead of in person, that you really shouldn’t make it worse unless there’s a good reason (to be fair, there’s often good reasons, but a stand against ableism is not among them).   

20) It was pretty cool to read this Atlantic article on obstacles to nuclear power growth from within the nuclear power industry and think, “wow, that was really good” and then go back and see it was Jonathan Rauch. I love that guy. 

Small and safe is the vision, at least. Dozens of companies and labs in the U.S. and abroad are pursuing it. Kairos is well along, with a permit to build a full-fledged nuclear test reactor already moving toward federal approval, hopefully by the end of 2023. That test will depend on this one in Albuquerque, because molten-salt reactor cooling has not been tried in the United States since the 1960s, when a five-year experiment at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, proved the idea viable. In a few days, the test unit’s top will be installed, crowning the device with bristling pipes and sensors. Nearby, welders ready those pipes and valves. Engineers stand on top of scaffolding slotting graphite reflectors into place.

As I tour the facility, however, I soon realize that the crucial technology is not 16 feet tall but about 5 foot 6, balding, with jeans and thick, black-framed glasses…

Nuclear power is in a strange position today. Those who worry about climate change have come to see that it is essential. The warming clock is ticking—another sort of countdown—and replacing fossil fuels is much easier with nuclear power in the equation. And yet the industry, in many respects, looks unready to step into a major role. It has consistently flopped as a commercial proposition. Decade after decade, it has broken its promises to deliver new plants on budget and on time, and, despite an enviable safety record, it has failed to put to rest the public’s fear of catastrophic accidents. Many of the industry’s best minds know they need a new approach, and soon. For inspiration, some have turned toward SpaceX, Tesla, and Apple…

The real challenge with giant nuclear plants like Fukushima and Three Mile Island is not making them safe but doing so at a reasonable price, which is the problem that companies like Kairos are trying to solve. But even people who feel scared of nuclear power do not dispute that fossil fuels are orders of magnitude more dangerous. One study, published in 2021, estimated that air pollution from fossil fuels killed about 1 million people in 2017 alone. In fact, nuclear power’s safety record to date is easily on par with the wind and solar industries, because wind turbines and rooftop panels create minor risks such as falls and fire. As for nuclear waste, it has turned out to be a surprisingly manageable problem, partly because there isn’t much of it; all of the spent fuel the U.S. nuclear industry has ever created could be buried under a single football field to a depth of less than 10 yards, according to the Department of Energy. Unlike coal waste, which is of course spewed into the air we breathe, radioactive waste is stored in carefully monitored casks.

And so environmentalists, I thought, were betraying the environment by stigmatizing nuclear power. But I had to revise my view. Even without green opposition, nuclear power as we knew it would have fizzled—today’s environmentalists are not the main obstacle to its wide adoption…
And so, in a generation, nuclear power went from the fuel of the future to not worth the bother. Supply chains withered; talented engineers and executives sought greener pastures. The United States, once the industry’s world leader, became an also-ran. Today, as Peterson said, we find ourselves “mired in this world where all you can get are light-water reactors, and they’re challenging and expensive to build, and we don’t have good alternatives. Breaking out of that set of problems is one of the critical things we need to do today.” That requires technological breakthroughs; more important, however, it requires attitudinal ones.

21) Headlines like this all the time, of course, “Single Powerball Ticket Wins $754.6 Million Jackpot” got me thinking how much more good would we do in in the world and really change lives by having 100 $7 million jackpots.  That would be so much better!  Of course, I’m sure you’d sell way less tickets for that.

22) McWhorter on “racism” and policing:

As Duane Loynes Sr., an assistant professor of urban and Africana studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, told The Los Angeles Times’s Jaweed Kaleem, “Here’s a dirty little secret: Studies indicate that Black officers are just as brutal and at times even more brutal against Black bodies as their white counterparts.”

The point is not that we don’t have a grievous problem, but rather that the problem is not exclusively racist white cops. It’s cops, period. (An important note: When it comes to nonlethal mistreatment, as opposed to police shootings, studies demonstrate the existence of outright racial bias. This is very much a problem, but a very different problem from police killings.)

The way we are trained to view the situation is understandable, but outdated. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, cops killed people — Black and white alike — at much higher rates in major cities than they do now, as the criminologist Peter Moskos has shown. I grew up in the Philadelphia of that era, where Mayor Frank Rizzo openly condoned cops’ brutality against Black people. By morbid coincidence, I saw the gruesome videotaped beating of Nichols shortly after I rewatched Melvin Van Peebles’ pioneering 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” In the movie, Van Peebles plays a Black man on the run from racist white cops whose shameless, bloodletting brutality roughly corresponded to what some Black people of the period actually experienced. A lot of time has passed since then, but the way we discuss police brutality against Black people today can sometimes make it sound as if there is no difference between the situation Van Peebles depicted — of marauding, openly racist cops — and the one we face today.

Yet white Americans are also killed by police officers in appalling numbers — many more, overall, than Black Americans, owing to the fact that the latter make up only about 14 percent of the U.S. population. In 2022, The Washington Post’s database on cop killings documented that of 755 victims whose race was known, 225 were Black and 389 were white.

Because casual and sometimes lethal violence against Black people by cops is part of our shameful and still recent national narrative, names like those of the victims I cited earlier sometimes become national news stories. But the media rarely even covers police killings of white people, which don’t fit so neatly into that pre-existing narrative…

Police killings of unarmed or unthreatening American citizens are a national disgrace, and one that requires action. But action requires comprehension, and the simplest explanation — “racist white cops kill Black people” — is clearly often not the correct one.

Is “systemic racism” at work in Memphis?  Quite clearly.  That said, I think the fact that black cops killed a black man forces us to deal with the broader problems of policing and police culture rather than just simply saying, “see… racism.”

23) Drum on social security: “Fixing Social Security forever requires only 1.5% of GDP”

Social Security is back in the news. The word on the street is that MAGA Republicans—unlike Donald Trump himself—want to “reform” Social Security so it doesn’t go “bankrupt” and cut off our kids from their rightful pensions.

I’m willing to go toe-to-toe on the gritty details of Social Security with anyone, but not today. Instead, I’ll just give you a taste of the Social Security doomsaying we’re likely to get. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, here is Travis Nix telling us that raising the payroll tax cap is a bad idea:

The Social Security administration forecasts that without benefit cuts or structural reforms the entitlement program will run out of money in 2035. In response, lawmakers in both parties are mulling the idea of lifting the payroll tax cap.

….[This] wouldn’t fix the structural issues with Social Security. Like a ponzi scheme, the program relies on the contributions of a shrinking young population to pay off an increasing elderly population.

….These programs need serious structural reforms—more tax revenue won’t save them….Lawmakers need to think bigger to offer real solutions. By raising the retirement age, letting workers put their tax in personal accounts instead of Social Security, and shifting Social Security to a flat benefit to make it a true antipoverty program, lawmakers could begin to address the crisis.

First off, Social Security will not “run out of money” in 2035. Current estimates say it will run about 25% short in 2035. That’s a big difference, but conservatives can never bring themselves to say it.

Second, it’s not a Ponzi scheme. If you cut off all the babble surrounding it, Social Security is just a standard social welfare program: Taxes go in and pensions go out. This can keep up forever, just like it can for Medicaid or the military or anything else.

Third, raising the retirement age saves money but does so mainly on the backs of the poor. Personal accounts are risky, which is why Social Security doesn’t use them. And a flat, small benefit for the few would destroy public support for Social Security. Nix surely knows all this.

Fourth, literally everything Nix implies is baloney. I’m excited to report that the Social Security Trustees now include Excel data in their annual report, which means I can recreate their charts on my own. Here’s the most basic, most important single chart you will ever see about Social Security:

That’s it. That’s all you need to know. Forget about high and low estimates or bend points or the accuracy of the Trustees’ actuarial assumptions or any of that. Those are trivial. What this chart tells you is that Social Security is not doomed to an endless spiral of death. It’s projected to eventually run annual deficits of about 1.5% of GDP forever.

So to fix it, all we need is reform that eventually adds up to 1.5% of GDP. That’s it. Some combination of tax hikes and benefit cuts that come to 1.5% of GDP. That will keep Social Security properly financed forever

24) Oh man do I hate unrealistic obsessions with “stranger danger” and I loved this Melida Wenner Moyer post so much!

During the show, host Brown took a moment to address the audience, saying: “Predators are a real threat. In the U.S., 2,300 children go missing each day. I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s an urgent child safety issue.”


There is so much fear-mongering about child safety these days, and I believe it’s actually more dangerous than the supposedly scary things parents are being warned about.

Consider the terrifying statistic that 2,300 kids are reported missing each day in the U.S. That’s technically true, but extremely misleading. For one thing, an estimated 99 percent of those kids are found fairly quickly, and 98 percent of them are either runaways or abducted by family members. The F.B.I. reported that only between 52 and 306 children were kidnapped by strangers or acquaintances in 2019, which is a very, very small number, considering that there are about 75 million children living in the United States. As researchers from UC-Irvine explained in a 2016 research paper:

The actual risk of a teen or child being abducted by a stranger and killed or not returned is estimated at around 0.00007%, or one in 1.4 million annually—a risk so small that experts call it de minimis, meaning effectively zero.

And yet, according to a new Pew Research survey published in January, 28 percent of American parents say they are “extremely worried” that their children will someday be abducted.


Why are we so worried about abductions when they are so rare? Well, because of shows like The Parent Test. Okay, I’m oversimplying; there are many reasons, but the media sure hasn’t been helping. In a 2022 study, researchers in Australia analyzed the content of TV shows and other media that discussed child abductions and related issues. They found that 94 percent of the media coverage focused on scary risks and that only six percent mentioned the potential benefits of granting kids autonomy. (The reports of parents being arrested for not constantly supervising their kids don’t help, either.)

It’s worth pointing out, too, that violent crime rates have dropped precipitously since the 1990s, even though U.S. adults tend to say they think crime has been increasing:

Okay, but, you might be thinking — it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? I mean, if there’s even a slim chance your kid could be abducted or hurt, shouldn’t you teach them to be scared of strangers and supervise them as much as possible? Not necessarily. When we worry too much about stranger danger and overestimate the potential risks of giving kids freedom, we rob our children of important experiences and opportunities. (It’s important to note here that some American kids really do face horrific dangers. Black children are, for instance, are nearly six times as likely as white children to be killed with guns. So some parents are indeed right to be terrified, which is unfair and awful.)

Among other things, parents today are much less likely than parents of generations past to let kids walk to school alone and to let them play unsupervised. In fact, research has found that parents believe they should be communicating to their kids that the world is a terrible, scary place.

The problem is that all this over-protectiveness doesn’t give kids the chance to learn how to navigate the world. It may also make them more prejudiced. And when we constantly tell our kids to be afraid, they are more likely to develop anxiety. (To learn more about why over-protectiveness is dangerous — and what to do instead — check out the non-profit organization Let Grow and its resources.)

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t consider risk or teach our kids to be aware of it. What I am saying is that safety risks — especially to kids — are often overstated, and that this inaccurate messaging harms kids and society at large. I found myself quite frustrated that The Parent Test chose drama over data, fueling a dangerous parenting trope. What we need from the media is balance.

Yes, we should teach our kids what to do if strangers ring the doorbell. But if our kids are a bit too trusting at times, this does not mean we have failed them or that they have failed. We shouldn’t teach our kids that the world is always out to get them, and, assuming they really aren’t at much risk, we shouldn’t hide our children away to keep them safe.

Isolation Quick hits (part I)

1) I’ve been really, really lucky with my Covid.  Symptom-wise, only the first day was bothersome at all.  As of now, I feel completely normal.  Alas, that doesn’t keep me from showing up instantly with a dark red line on the Covid rapid test.  On the bright side, lots of open windows in my house, judicious use of N95 by me, and spending most of my time shut away in a room with a fan blowing out the window means nobody else in my family has gotten sick from me.  We’ve also been really lucky with the weather and I’ve spent a good amount of time with my family out on the deck.  Alas, that ends today.  All along I feared that when I got Covid I would suffer more from the isolation than from the actual disease and that has definitely proven to be the case.  That negative test can’t come soon enough.

2) Great stuff from Eric Levitz on how Democrats should not be so afraid of DeSantis:

Generally speaking, it is wiser to overestimate one’s political rivals than to underestimate them. But it would nevertheless be a mistake for Democrats to grow so awed by a Florida governor with a 56 percent approval rating as to conclude that their only hope for keeping a reactionary out of the White House is to become more reactionary themselves.

DeSantis’s much-publicized political strengths are paired with underexposed weaknesses. And the issues on which he is most vulnerable — Medicare, Social Security, and abortion rights — are far more nationally salient than his crusades against “wokeness” in public schools…

Before his present incarnation as a populist purple-state governor, DeSantis was a pro-austerity, right-wing House member. In his 2011 book, he wrote that the U.S. Constitution was designed to “prevent the redistribution of wealth through the political process” and that this was commendable because “when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” He further lamented that “popular pressure to redistribute wealth or otherwise undermine the rights of property … will ever be present.”

In other words, the self-styled “populist” argued that democracy is inherently dangerous since ordinary voters are sometimes able to pursue their economic interests through the political process — interests that include the progressive redistribution of income. Thus, DeSantis implied that the very existence of social-welfare programs that take resources from the wealthy and transfer them to the middle class, poor, and elderly is a violation of property rights and inherently tyrannical.

Although Congressman DeSantis did not go so far as to propose the wholesale abolition of all transfer programs, his congressional record is largely of a piece with his libertarian musings. During his 2012 congressional campaign, DeSantis expressed support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare. In 2013 and 2014, DeSantis deemed Paul Ryan’s infamous proposals for balancing the federal budgets insufficiently austere. Instead, as Josh Barro notes, DeSantis voted to replace those proposals with the Republican Study Committee’s more radical budget blueprints. The RSC’s 2013 fiscal vision would have raised the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare to 70, slowed the growth of Social Security benefits, and ended Medicare as we’d known it, transforming the program from a health-insurance entitlement to a stipend that wouldn’t necessarily increase with rising health-care costs…

Biden remains an unpopular president, and U.S. voters remain unhappy with inflation. Were Republicans capable of nominating a (relatively) moderate figure like former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Democrats’ 2024 prospects might look poor. But a short, charisma-free, nasal-voiced proponent of Social Security cuts and abortion bans is not an especially fearsome adversary. Conventional Democratic politics — which is to say, promising to sustain entitlements by taxing the rich and to protect abortion rights by beating back the Bible-thumpers — is quite plausibly equal to the challenge of Ron DeSantis. And in his State of the Union on Tuesday night, Biden showed he remains more than fluent in such politics.

2) David Leonhardt on all the damn hidden fees:

Sneaky fees have become a big part of America’s consumer economy.

Hertz charges almost $6 a day simply for using a toll transponder in a rental car. Marriott and Hilton add nightly “resort fees” to the bill even at hotels that nobody would consider to be resorts. American, Delta and United list one airfare when you first search for a seat — and then add charges for basic features like the ability to sit next to your spouse.

Ticketmaster is especially aggressive about imposing fees, as I experienced recently while buying two tickets to a football game. When I initially selected my seats on Ticketmaster’s online stadium map, they cost $48. The bill at checkout was more than one-third higher — $64.40.

President Biden has announced a crackdown on these fees (which his administration calls “junk fees”), and he devoted a section of his State of the Union address to them. “Look, junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most other folks in homes like the one I grew up in,” he said Tuesday night. “I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it.”

Today, I want to explain why anybody is even worrying about this problem. After all, in a competitive capitalist economy like ours, shouldn’t the market have already solved it?


The market solution to sneaky fees seems straightforward. When Marriott starts charging $50 nightly “resort fees,” Hilton can call out its competitor and try to steal Marriott customers. And some companies do take this approach: Southwest Airlines advertises a “Bags Fly Free” policy, an obvious swipe at rivals.

But the mushrooming number of fees has made clear that competition does not usually eliminate the practice. Why not? Academic research has suggested that there are two main reasons.

First, human beings are not the efficiently rational machines that economic theory pretends they are. An entire branch of the field, behavioral economics, has sprung up in recent decades to make sense of our limited attention spans.

If you are familiar with the best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, you will recognize these ideas. We lead busy lives that keep us from analyzing every purchase, and we get distracted by salient but misleading information (like a low list price). Big companies, with the resources at their disposal, have learned to take advantage of these limitations. The economist Richard Thaler refers to practices like these as “sludge,” the evil counterpart to nudges that use behavioral economics to improve life.

True, one company could call out another for using sludge. But doing so often requires a complex marketing message that tries to persuade people to overcome their psychological instincts (like the appeal of a low list price). For that reason, Hilton can probably make more money by charging its own sneaky resort fees than by criticizing Marriott’s.

“Once some subset of hotels start charging these fees and generating a significant amount of revenue,” Bharat Ramamurti, a Biden adviser, told me, “that creates pressure on hotels to do this, or otherwise they’re getting left behind.”

No choices

The second major reason is monopoly power. In some markets, consumers don’t have much choice. Ticketmaster’s fees outrage many people. But I didn’t have any choice when I bought those football tickets. There was no rival service selling them.

In recent decades, many American industries have become more concentrated, partly because Washington became more lax about enforcing antitrust laws. Thomas Philippon, an N.Y.U. economist, has estimated that increased corporate concentration costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year.

In some industries, sludge and monopoly power feed off each other. The small number of dominant internet providers, for instance, reduces the chances that a new entrant can design a business strategy around undercutting Comcast’s and Verizon’s sneaky fees. Those new entrants don’t exist. Comcast and Verizon have also figured out how to make the cancellation of internet service unpleasant and time-consuming. Airlines — another concentrated industry — use frequent-flier programs in a similar way, effectively punishing customers for switching to a different carrier.

Here’s what I don’t get.  I honestly don’t object to the fees, in theory, if the cost of a ticket is $50, I just want to know that.  I don’t care how you break it down, but don’t tell me the ticket is $35 and then charge me $50.  What I’ve yet to have explained to me is why we manage to pull this off for airline tickets, but not anything else.  Search for an airline ticket right now and it will show you the cost of what you will pay.  Click through, and you can see the various fees that add up to to full price.  Clearly, there’s some good regulation at work here.  Why isn’t it like this for all tickets?!

3) And now for the anti-wokeness portion of quick hits… This is a fascinating must-read, “I Thought I Was Saving Trans Kids. Now I’m Blowing the Whistle.: There are more than 100 pediatric gender clinics across the U.S. I worked at one. What’s happening to children is morally and medically appalling.”

I am a 42-year-old St. Louis native, a queer woman, and politically to the left of Bernie Sanders. My worldview has deeply shaped my career. I have spent my professional life providing counseling to vulnerable populations: children in foster care, sexual minorities, the poor. 

For almost four years, I worked at The Washington University School of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases with teens and young adults who were HIV positive. Many of them were trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, and I could relate: Through childhood and adolescence, I did a lot of gender questioning myself. I’m now married to a transman, and together we are raising my two biological children from a previous marriage and three foster children we hope to adopt…

I left the clinic in November of last year because I could no longer participate in what was happening there. By the time I departed, I was certain that the way the American medical system is treating these patients is the opposite of the promise we make to “do no harm.” Instead, we are permanently harming the vulnerable patients in our care.

Today I am speaking out. I am doing so knowing how toxic the public conversation is around this highly contentious issue—and the ways that my testimony might be misused. I am doing so knowing that I am putting myself at serious personal and professional risk.

Almost everyone in my life advised me to keep my head down. But I cannot in good conscience do so. Because what is happening to scores of children is far more important than my comfort. And what is happening to them is morally and medically appalling.

4) This was something else, too. “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell”

On the sunny first day of seminar, I sat at the end of a pair of picnic tables with nervous, excited 17-year-olds. Twelve high-school students had been chosen by the Telluride Association through a rigorous application process—the acceptance rate is reportedly around 3 percent—to spend six weeks together taking a college-level course, all expenses paid.

The group reminded me of the heroes of the Mysterious Benedict Society books I was reading to my daughter: Each teenager, brought together for a common project, had some extraordinary ability and some quirk. One girl from California spoke and thought at machine-gun speed and started collecting pet snails during the pandemic; now she had more than 100. A girl from a provincial school in China had never traveled to the United States but had mastered un-accented English and was in love with E.M. Forster. In addition to the seminar, the students practiced democratic self-governance: They lived together and set their own rules. Those first few days, the students were exactly what you would expect, at turns bubbly and reserved, all of them curious, playful, figuring out how to relate to each other and to the seminar texts.

Four weeks later, I again sat in front of the gathered students. Now, their faces were cold, their eyes down. Since the first week, I had not spotted one smile. Their number was reduced by two: The previous week, they had voted two classmates out of the house. And I was next.

“I was guilty of countless microaggressions.”

Each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.

This might be just another lament about “woke” campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues. But the seminar topic was “Race and the Limits of Law in America.” Four of the 6 weeks were focused on anti-black racism (the other two were on anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous racism). I am a black professor, I directed my university’s black-studies program, I lead anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and I have published books on anti-black racism and prison abolition. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia, my daughter went to an Afrocentric school, and I am on the board of our local black cultural organization.

Like others on the left, I had been dismissive of criticisms of the current discourse on race in the United States. But now my thoughts turned to that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion. How did this happen to a group of bright-eyed high school students?

5) Graeme Wood, “DEI Is an Ideological Test”

Here, I offer a qualified defense of Rufo’s initiative. The grossest aspect of his work is his villainization of individuals—people who, like the tatted-up social-media addicts and priggish schoolteachers featured on the Libs of TikTok account, are hardly the best advocates for their cause. Picking weak targets is dishonorable. But a public college is not a weak target, and if Rufo wants to challenge an entrenched bureaucracy, then he will have a fair fight. I am curious as to how it will turn out.

Many institutions of higher learning ask faculty applicants to write a statement of commitment not just to diversity, equity, and inclusion but to an extreme form of it. The universities’ publicly stated positions imply that there is only one proper way to interpret the DEI trinity: through the concept of “anti-racism,” which may not mean what you think it means. Anti-racists argue that “the only remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination”—that is, not ignoring race but focusing on it with renewed vigor and treating people differently depending on their skin color.

Discerning applicants know not to say that they will treat students of different races and backgrounds equally. Academic jobs are rare, so woe to any applicant who makes this error and thereby expresses a political view that runs against the policies plastered all over the university’s website. Hiring committees who want to bring on such a heretic will have to explain to the dean why the campus should tolerate a professor who holds these forbidden views, and who is too dense or too ornery to hide them…

But the demolition of DEI as a bureaucratic force is another matter. Critics have accused Rufo of trying “to turn [New College] into a space of extremist indoctrination”—as if a campus with a de facto ideological test for employment is not already political. Whether that ideological test is valid is unsettled in the general public, at least judging by the controversy Rufo has kicked up so far.

It is a simple step, to go from believing that politics is everywhere to believing that because it is everywhere, the politics may as well be one’s own politics rather than one’s enemy’s—to make politics not just omnipresent but hyper-partisan. Curiously, though, those who have spent decades saying that politics is everywhere seemed to have been caught flat-footed when it arrived in the form of Rufo. Last week, when Rufo and another trustee, Jason “Eddie” Speir, showed up to talk to New College’s faculty about their plans, the provost tried to cancel the event for security reasons. She alleged that the event “put our community at risk,” because someone wrote in to say that trustees should “MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE A FLAK JACKET ON.” (It’s not even obvious that this is a threat. The message is certainly menacing, but it would be more menacing if it expressed a hope that Rufo not wear a flak jacket.) Rufo, of course, treated the threat as serious, which allowed him to insist in Churchillian fashion that the event go forward. Then he used the occasion to humiliate the provost, calling her an example of the censorious crybabies whom he had come to relieve of their responsibility.

6a)  And this was depressing, “Yet another campus blasphemy dispute in Minnesota: Macalester College covers up Iranian-American’s feminist art exhibition after student complaints”

A series of images, titled Blasphemy X and Blasphemy IX, and sculptures depicting niqab and hijab-clad women with exposed body parts or visible lingerie especially caused a stir. Students decried these “overtly sexualized” images in a petition shared after the installation of the exhibit. 

“Though we respect the principle of academic freedom, we are also simultaneously aware that freedom, like art, does not simply exist in a vacuum. The decision to display and continue to display this exhibition despite the harm it perpetuates is a deeply problematic issue. It is targeting and harming an already small community that exists on this campus,” students wrote. “The lack of action on the part of the administration is unacceptable, but unfortunately not surprising. The administration’s decisions continue to ignore the deep pain felt by many of their students.”

Ikran Noor, the Macalester student who started the petition, said “a lot of it is really proactive and really supportive of the Iranian women’s movement that’s happening,” but she believed “the ones that are particularly depicting hijabi women and niqabi women, I think those should be put down.”

Black curtains covered the Law Warschaw Gallery’s glass walls over the weekend
Black curtains cover artwork in the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College. (Courtesy Taravat Talepasand)

At a community meeting held to discuss complaints about the art, some Iranian students reportedly shared their support of their exhibition despite their peers’ objections. 

Nevertheless, after the meeting to discuss student opposition to the exhibition, the college temporarily closed it, and covered windows with large black curtains to obscure all of the art. 

Obstructed glass and “non-consensual” art

In an email sent to the campus this week, the college announced the reopening of the gallery — with some caveats. During the shutdown, Macalester wrote, “we had several conversations with students, faculty, and staff to consider multiple perspectives from Muslim communities on campus, worked with the artist, and supported gallery staff. We also prepared the gallery to prevent unintentional or non-consensual viewing of certain works and added a content warning.”

That’s right: obscured windows to prevent “unintentional,” “non-consensual” glimpses of works of art. In an American campus art gallery. 

6b) And Jill Filipovic:

Two of Talepasand’s drawingsBlasphemy X and Blasphemy IX, show women in conservative garb revealing parts of themselves: A woman in a niqab shows her leg and crotch and gives the viewer the finger; a woman in a hijab pulls up her dress to show the sexy lingerie underneath. Several sculptures depict women in niqabs fully covered except for cartoonishly large protruding breasts. One piece references a teddy bear, which was at the center of a blasphemy case in Sudan: A teacher there allowed her students to name the bear, they picked the name Muhammad, and she faced 40 lashes and six months imprisonment (in the end, she spent 10 days in jail and was deported).

The exhibition, in other words, does a pretty good job at highlighting the small-minded and misogynist absurdities of religious fundamentalism.

The exhibition isn’t for everyone (what is?). But this exhibition has been challenged by a number of students at Macalester who say it’s offensive — and that because it’s offensive, it should never have been displayed in the first place, and should now be taken down. And the administration, briefly, ceded to their demands, hitting pause on the exhibition to listen to student complaints, before reopening it — but with black veils hiding its contents so as not to offend anyone who doesn’t choose to avert their eyes. This, the university said, was to prevent “non-consensual viewing.”

(I have some bad news for these students: If you are a person who has the gift of eyesight, life is a series of non-consensual viewings)…

If I were an administrator at Macalester, censoriousness, small-mindedness, and religious fundamentalism are the sorts of things I wouldn’t want to be associated with. And I would be very troubled if students at my institution believed that we shouldn’t be associated with art that challenges fundamentalism and embraces feminism.

But the Macalester administrators don’t seem so sure. Unlike the craven and cowardly administrators at Hamline University just a few miles down the road from Macalester, Macalester didn’t immediately and entirely cave to the wholly unreasonable demands of these young fundamentalists. But it did partly cave. It put an exhibition — one point of which is to criticize the mandatory covering of female bodies and the fear of female sexuality — behind curtains and frosted class, to cater to students who demanded the mandatory covering of images of female bodies. It attempted to prevent “non-consensual viewing” of the female form which is, by the way, awfully similar to the justification for mandatory hijab and modesty laws.

The university also emailed students a mea culpa: “Unfortunately, as the Taravat exhibition was installed, we did not take the steps needed to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of the art. For this and for the harm it caused, we apologize.”

And then the school posted a QR code that links to the student petition on the front door of the gallery, alongside a sign warning that the exhibition “contains images of sexuality and violence that may be upsetting or unacceptable for some viewers. Please view the exhibition with caution.”

I haven’t been to this exhibition. But nothing I can find suggests it depicts “violence.” Most of what I see are boobs.

If you can’t handle seeing breasts — including breasts on a woman who wears a hijab or niqab — I would recommend not going to any art museum or exhibit. I might stay off of the internet, too, and perhaps reconsider leaving the house.

The artist herself believes that these choices are censorious and inappropriate. “I really didn’t argue about the closure for the weekend or the pause,” she told Sahan Journal. “But nobody told me about the black curtain veiling all the windows. That’s a whole other level of censorship.”

Like in the Hamline case, the Macalester students who want this work censored don’t use the language of religious fundamentalism or blasphemy — although that is what they are, and that is what they are objecting to — but rather the language of social justice, therapy, and DEI initiatives. They talk about the “harm” caused by mere images of women with both breasts and headscarves. The sign that includes a QR code to sign the petition encourages viewers to “stand in solidarity” with them. The university uses this language, too, apologizing for “the harm it caused” and the lack of “cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of the art.”

Yes, this is a different, gentler kind of censoriousness than we see on the right. But it’s censoriousness nonetheless — and it’s frankly embarrassing that the school apologized or took any steps at all to placate students with unreasonable and profoundly illiberal demands.

7) Oh, let’s just keep going.  Are there any worse activists than those fighting against ableism?  Who else could somehow find wrongness in YouTube star Mr Beast paying for 1000 people’s cataract surgery to restore their vision.  What’s wrong with being blind, damnit??

8) Stories like this are so frustrating. “How Educators Secretly Remove Students With Disabilities From School: Known as informal removals, the tactics are “off-the-book” suspensions often in violation of federal civil rights protections for those with disabilities.”  I’m a parent with a disabled kid.  I get it.  But this story completely ignores the fact that in many situations one misplaced disabled kid can seriously set back the learning of 30 other kids and that has to be wrestled with.  Shame on the NYT author for entirely failing to do so (interestingly, NYT commenters are totally on this problem). 

9) Likewise, its an opinion column sure. And Jamelle Bouie is right to push back against Republicans’ demonization of trans people.  But, to do so without at least admitting that sometimes, yes, trans activists can really push things and that the science of medical treatment for trans minors is far from settled is intellectually dishonest.

10) This is depressing.  Ranked-choice voting is one of the best things we could do to improve our democracy. So, of course Republicans are now against it. “Republicans go to war against ranked-choice voting”

11) Now, this is how it’s done.  Properly condemn DEI in universities for what it does wrong, but make the case that what DeSantis is doing in Florida is far worse:

  • “Typical DEI training includes unscientific claims.”

  • “The growth of DEI bureaucracies has fueled bureaucratic bloat.”

  • “DEI offices… are in fact a threat to academic freedom.”

We agree with these three claims. They come from a recent Manhattan Institute Issue Brief about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in public universities. The lead author, Christopher Rufo, is a pivotal figure in the nation-wide anti-Critical Race Theory movement and the brains behind Ron DeSantis’s wholesale efforts to remake Florida’s system of public higher education.

As professors, we have long been skeptical of conventional DEI initiatives. We’ve argued that diversity training is ineffective, often counterproductive; that the push for more DEI administrators has swelled the ranks of unnecessary middle management;and that DEI offices have a pernicious predilection to undermine academic freedom

Expertise and competence don’t appear to count for much in DeSantis’ top-down, directives-driven program for higher education reform. On top of eliminating funding for DEI, key features include prohibitions against teaching CRT and “identity politics,” as well as a directive to align universities’ missions to “Florida’s existing and emerging workforce needs.” In a further blow to faculty-led university governance, the proposed legislation empowers institutions’ presidents and boards of trustees to “take ownership of hiring and retention decisions, without interference from unions and faculty committees” and “to conduct a post-tenure review of a faculty member at any time with cause.”

But academic freedom is effectively meaningless if faculty, who are the experts in their areas, are cut out from the hiring process. Presidents and trustees simply do not have the requisite expertise to make judgment calls about the needs and requirements of academic departments and programs. The fact that presidents and board members are increasingly political appointees (thinkthe half-dozen new trustees at New College) makes these provisions even more alarming.

At a recent press conference, DeSantis justified his proposal as a necessary corrective to the left-wing “political agenda” currently being imposed on higher education. Rufo, who spoke after DeSantis, applauded the move to defund campus DEI programs, declaring that “the purpose of a university is not to push political activism.”

But the plan from Rufo and DeSantis is itself a multi-pronged campaign to impose a deeply conservative political agenda: an attempt to fight politicization with politicization. Watch this recent Rufo video titled “The Conservative Counter-Revolution Begins in the Universities” and it’s abundantly clear that he sees college campuses first and foremost as culture war battlegrounds. It’s high time, he maintains, that conservatives organize to “recapture territory” and “reverse” the alleged “leftwing ideological dominance” at public universities in Florida and other states…

What’s happening in Florida is a power play. While we are deeply skeptical of many DEI initiatives, we recognize that DEI needs to be reformed—and indeed transformed—from within the university itself, with faculty taking the lead. Even if you find Rufo and DeSantis’s criticisms compelling, top-down change by state diktat is never the answer.  

12) This is really cool, “‘Most lifelike’ Lincoln portrait on display after years in obscurity”

A close-up of an 1865 portrait of Abraham Lincoln by W.F.K. Travers on display at the National Portrait Gallery. (Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery)

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled a rare portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on Friday, ahead of Lincoln’s 214th birthday. The nine-foot-tall portrait, painted by W.F.K. Travers in 1865, is one of only three known full-length renderings of the 16th president and will be on loan to the Smithsonian gallery in downtown D.C. for the next five years.

The painting, which hung for decades in relative obscurity in a municipal building in a small New Jersey town, has been newly restored and is now part of the “America’s Presidents” gallery.

There are plenty of photographs of Lincoln, but, like most subjects of the day, he sits stiffly and somberly, and of course, is rendered in black and white. This portrait — painted in color, face relaxed with a hint of a smile, and body standing at its full 6-foot-4 height — offers viewers perhaps the best opportunity today to see Lincoln as he really was.

13) Katherine Wu writes so much great stuff, “A ‘Distinctly Human’ Trait That Might Actually Be Universal: Disgust is surprisingly common across nature.”

Eleven years ago, on the remote Japanese island of Kojima, a female macaque walked backwards into a stray heap of primate poop, glanced down at her foot, and completely flipped her lid. The monkey hightailed it down the shoreline on three feet, kicking up sand as she sprinted, until she reached a dead tree, where “she repeatedly rubbed her foot and smelled it until all of the sticky matter disappeared,” says Cécile Sarabian, a cognitive ecologist at the University of Hong Kong, who watched the incident unfold. Sarabian, then a graduate student studying parasite transmission among primates, was entranced by the familiarity of it all: the dismay, the revulsion, the frenetic desire for clean. It’s exactly what she or any other human might have done, had they accidentally stepped in it.

In the years following the event, Sarabian came to recognize the macaque’s panicked reaction as a form of disgust—just not the sort that many people first think of when the term comes to mind. Disgust has for decades been billed as a self-awareness of one’s own aversions, a primal emotion that’s so exclusive to people that, as some have argued, it may help define humanity itself. But many scientists, Sarabian among them, subscribe to a broader definition of disgust: the suite of behaviors that help creatures of all sorts avoid pathogens; parasites; and the flora, fauna, and substances that ferry them about. This flavor of revulsion—centered on observable actions, instead of conscious thought—is likely ancient and ubiquitous, not modern or unique to us. Which means disgust may be as old and widespread as infectious disease itself.

Researchers can’t yet say that disease-driven disgust is definitely universal. But so far, “in every place that it’s been looked for, it’s been found,” says Dana Hawley, an ecologist at Virginia Tech. Bonobos rebuff banana slices that have been situated too close to scat; scientists have spotted mother chimps wiping the bottoms of their young. Kangaroos eschew patches of grass that have been freckled with feces. Dik-diks—pointy-faced antelopes that weigh about 10 pounds apiece—sequester their waste in dunghills, potentially to avoid contaminating the teeny territories where they live. Bullfrog tadpoles flee from their fungus-infested pondmates; lobsters steer clear of crowded dens during deadly virus outbreaks. Nematodes, no longer than a millimeter, wriggle away from their dinner when they chemically sense that it’s been contaminated with bad microbes. Even dung beetles will turn their nose up at feces that seem to pose an infectious risk.

14) Great takedown of the awful originalism on display behind new court gun rulings:

American law has not historically been good to women, and whatever progress there once was is now vulnerable to regression. This return is being midwifed into the world by the theory of constitutional interpretation known as originalism—the idea that a law’s constitutionality today is dependent on the Constitution’s purported “original public meaning” when the relevant constitutional text was enacted. Its adherents market originalism as fair and free from favor or prejudice—but its effects are not and will not be fair at all. By its very nature, originalism threatens women and other minority groups who were disempowered at the time of the Constitution’s adoption. We must instead develop a new constitutional interpretative method that protects all Americans as equal members of our democratic society.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrated as much when it relied on originalism in United States v. Rahimi, a case about a law restricting the gun rights of domestic-violence offenders, last week. The central legal issue in Rahimi was not whether protecting women and children from gun violence is good; the court conceded that it is. Rather, the question before the court was whether protecting women and children from gun violence is constitutional. And the court concluded that it is not.

A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the Second Amendment was violated by a federal statute that made possessing a gun unlawful for a person who is subject to a restraining order in protection of an intimate partner or child. Its explanation for this dangerous ruling was a straightforward application of originalism. The Founders mentioned a right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution. They did not, however, mention women, who are disproportionately victimized by domestic violence. And although today’s lawmakers may care about women’s rights, they cannot deviate from the Founders’ wishes without a formal constitutional amendment. This will almost assuredly have very real, potentially fatal consequences for women in America: The presence of a gun in a domestic-violence situation increases the risk of femicide by more than 1,000 percent. Originalism is going to get women killed.

United States v. Rahimi is the latest example of the intolerable hazard that  originalism poses to women’s lives and our democratic society. Originalist ideology glorifies an era of blatant oppression along racial, gender, and class lines, transforming that era’s lowest shortcomings into our highest standards. The country and the Constitution do not belong to the nation’s white and wealthy forefathers alone. But the consequence of chaining constitutional interpretation to a time when much of the country was much worse off and only a rarefied few held power is as foreseeable as it is deadly: Huge swaths of the population will be worse off once again. Originalism is fundamentally incompatible with a legal system interested in protecting the rights of all of the nation’s people.

15) Science! “Plant toxin hailed as ‘new weapon’ in antibiotic war against bacteria”

Scientists have discovered a plant toxin whose unique method of dispatching bacteria could be used to create a powerful new range of antibiotics. The prospect of developing new antibacterial drugs this way has been hailed by doctors, who have been warning for many years that the steady rise of multidrug-resistant pathogens such as E coli now presents a dangerous threat to healthcare across the planet.

The new antibiotic – albicidin – attacks bacteria in a completely different way to existing drugs, a group of British, German and Polish scientists have revealed in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Catalysis. This suggests a new route could be exploited to tackle bacterial disease, they say.

“We could not elicit any resistance towards albicidin in the laboratory,” said Dmitry Ghilarov, whose research group is based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. “That is why we are really excited – because we think it will be very hard for bacteria to evolve resistance against albicidin-derived antibiotics.”

Albicidin is produced by a bacterial plant pathogen called Xanthomonas albilineans that triggers a devastating disease, known as leaf scald, in sugarcane. The pathogen uses albicidin to attack the plant, but it was also found, several decades ago, that it was highly effective at killing bacteria.

“The problem was that, at the time, we did not know exactly how albicidin attacked bacteria and so we could not use it as the basis of new antibiotics because these might have triggered all sorts of complications in the human body,” said Ghilarov. “We had to determine precisely how it killed bacteria before we could do that – and that is what we have now achieved.”

16) Jonathan Haidt makes a very important case on the rise of teen mental health problems.  I’m not as prepared to lay this so much at the feet of social media as he is, but I agree entirely on the scope and seriousness of the problem. You should just read this. Really.

17) Oh, yeah, happy 51st birthday to me.  I hope I get a negative covid test for my birthday, but, I suspect what I’ll really get is just more isolation and worse weather. 

Quick hits (part I)

1) I think my students would tell you I genuinely care about them and want the best for them. But, my god the coddling approach that the Chronicle of Higher Education teaching newsletter is always taking is just so grating:

  • Acknowledge the Bigger Picture. “We were brought up to just walk into the classroom and say, oh, this DNA molecule is so cool, or this new Shakespeare play is so cool,” said Bryan Dewsbury, associate professor of biological sciences and associate director of the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University. But that’s not working for today’s students, who face not only the pandemic but climate change and a host of other serious threats. “We have to stop pretending that the classroom and the campus and the online-course space are just completely disconnected to what’s happening in the wider world — and that people are walking in and just able to shelve all that chaos and just fully be present.”

So, expect less of my students because… climate change?

2) Really interesting interview on how two Supreme Court cases could make some pretty big differences in how social media companies operated. A lot of complicated issues involved.  Also, how had I never heard of this painting?

You said you were sympathetic with the goals, but it seems that the goals might have been just to stop companies from restricting far-right content.

Yes, I do think that’s the goal. But the first time that I saw litigation on claims like this, it came from more traditionally left sources. In Brazil, Facebook took down an image of a native Amazonian woman who was topless. And [the Ministry of Culture said] this was a violation of cultural diversity.


That’s hilarious.

The other one’s even crazier. I don’t know if you know the French “L’Origine du Monde,” which is a Gustave Courbet painting? It hangs in the Musée d’Orsay. Its credentials are impeccable, but it’s also a very closeup depiction of female genitalia. Facebook took it down. And the Frenchman who had posted it was, like, “But this is art. I have a right to post art.”

Both of these state laws require platforms to carry speech that the platforms don’t want to. And both of them imposed transparency obligations somewhat similar to the ones in the Digital Services Act in the E.U. The platforms challenged both of those laws in both aspects, the transparency and the so-called must-carry provisions, on a couple of different legal grounds. But the grounds that the Supreme Court would look at if they took it is whether the platform’s own First Amendment rights to set editorial policy have been violated.

The Florida one says that, if an online speaker counts as a journalistic enterprise, which is defined very broadly and strangely, or if they’re a political candidate or they’re talking about a political candidate, then the platform can’t take down anything they say, with almost no exceptions. There’s a weird obscenity exception. Basically, that means if you’re talking about a political candidate or you are a political candidate, you can share electoral disinformation or covid disinformation or racist biological theories. All kinds of things that I think most people would consider pretty horrific. Platforms would have to leave it up in Florida.

The Texas law is also motivated by a concern about conservative voices being silenced, but it comes at it a little bit differently. It says that platforms can engage in content moderation under their own discretionary terms, but they have to do so in a way that is viewpoint-neutral. And there’s a lot of disagreement and uncertainty about what it means to be viewpoint-neutral. I think, and a lot of people think, that it means that if you take down posts celebrating the Holocaust, you also have to take down posts condemning it. If you leave up posts that are anti-gun violence, you also have to leave up posts that are pro-gun violence.

Sorry, these examples are very dark. But that is what we’re talking about here: horrific things that people say on the Internet, that, effectively, platforms such as Facebook or YouTube would have to leave up under this Texas law, unless they want to take down a whole lot of user speech. They could not let anybody ever talk about racism at all, because they have to be viewpoint-neutral on the topic, or not let people talk about abortion at all, because they have to be viewpoint-neutral on the topic, etc.

3) Scott Alexander on AI is always interesting.  I was also listening to a podcast on ChatGPT today and what was really key was that the language model was trained by feedback from real humans.

So far, so boring. What really helped this sink in was reading Nostalgebraist say that ChatGPT was a GPT instance simulating a character called the Helpful, Harmless, and Honest Assistant.

The masked shoggoth on the right is titled “GPT + RLHF”. RLHF is Reinforcement Learning From Human Feedback, a method where human raters “reward” the AI for good answers and “punish” it for bad ones. Eventually the AI learns to do “good” things more often. In training ChatGPT, human raters were asked to reward it for being something like “Helpful, Harmless, and Honest” (many papers use this as an example goal; OpenAI must have done something similar but I don’t know if they did that exactly).

4) The Durham investigation is a complete embarrassment. Nice summary from Drum:

Today’s big New York Times piece about the Durham investigation is chock full of goodies about how Donald Trump and his lackeys desperately tried to prove that the FBI had illegally opened an investigation of Trump for no good reason. Attorney General Bill Barr and his special counsel, John Durham, were obsessed about this and became increasingly agitated as their investigation continued and they were unable to find anything that backed up their suspicions. They never did. We know now that, in fact, Trump’s presidential campaign did have links to the Russian government. The FBI did have a perfectly sensible reason to open an investigation into this. Vladimir Putin did try to interfere with the election in Trump’s favor. And several members of Durham’s team did quit because of disagreements with him over prosecutorial ethics.

There’s no single smoking gun in the story, just a long series of incidents that paint a damning picture of Barr’s Justice Department. In one of them, Barr received a tip from Italian intelligence:

[In 2019] the Times reported that Mr. Durham’s administrative review of the Russia inquiry had evolved to include a criminal investigation, while saying it was not clear what the suspected crime was. Citing their own sources, many other news outlets confirmed the development.

The news reports, however, were all framed around the erroneous assumption that the criminal investigation must mean Mr. Durham had found evidence of potential crimes by officials involved in the Russia inquiry. Mr. Barr, who weighed in publicly about the Durham inquiry at regular intervals in ways that advanced a pro-Trump narrative, chose in this instance not to clarify what was really happening.

Barr was normally a chatterbox, constantly tossing out tidbits about the investigation that made it seem as if they had the goods on the FBI. This time, however, he kept his mouth shut.

Why? Because the tip from the Italians linked Trump to financial crimes. That was the criminal investigation, but Barr saw no need to correct reporters who thought he was looking into criminal conduct by the FBI.

Nothing came of this investigation, but it’s telling nevertheless. And it’s a warning to everyone to take Durham’s final report with a salt mine’s worth of skepticism when it comes out. Past experience tells us that Durham will do his best to make it look like the FBI was guilty of massive crimes even though he was unable to prove any of them and unable to successfully prosecute even the minor charges he took to court.

Poor John Durham. He made his own bed, but this was partly because he got sucked into the black hole that is Donald Trump. Everyone who associates with Trump comes out of it looking worse than when they went in, and that’s what happened to Durham. In 2019 he was a respected veteran prosecutor. Four years later that reputation is in tatters. Nomen amicitiae sic, quatenus expedit, haeret.

5) Pamela Paul on the chilling effect of the American Dirt controversy:

Three years ago this month, the novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins landed in bookstores on a tsunami of enthusiasm. “Extraordinary,” Stephen King wrote in a prepublication blurb. “Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment,” raved Julia Alvarez. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Sandra Cisneros proclaimed. “This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”

The book’s momentum was nonstop. Riding on starred prepublication reviews from the trades, the book, a fast-paced road novel about a Mexican bookseller and her son trying to cross the border to escape a murderous drug cartel, was named an Indie Next List Pick by independent bookstores. Then came the rapturous reviews. “A thrilling adrenaline rush — and insights into the Latin American migrant experience,” raved The Washington Post. Cummins “proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy,” said Time magazine. Finally, the golden ticket: Oprah selected “American Dirt” for her book club. “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up,” Winfrey said.

It all fell apart with stunning speed. Following a blistering online campaign against the author and others involved in the book over who gets to write what, and in response to threats of violence against both author and booksellers, Cummins’s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour. Cummins’s motives and reputation were smeared; the novel, eviscerated. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor,” Flatiron’s president said in a statement.

Looking back now, it’s clear that the “American Dirt” debacle of January 2020 was a harbinger, the moment when the publishing world lost its confidence and ceded moral authority to the worst impulses of its detractors. In the years since, publishers have become wary of what is now thought of as Another American Dirt Situation, which is to say, a book that puts its author and publishing house in the line of fire. This fear now hangs over every step of a fraught process with questions over who can write what, who should blurb and who can edit permeating what feels like a minefield. Books that would once have been greenlit are now passed over; sensitivity readers are employed on a regular basis; self-censorship is rampant.

A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it. And it all stemmed from a single writer posting a discursive and furious takedown of “American Dirt” and its author on a minor blog. Whether out of conviction or cowardice, others quickly jumped on board and a social media rampage ensued, widening into the broader media. In the face of the outcry, the literary world largely folded.

“It was a witch hunt. Villagers lit their torches,” recalled the novelist and bookseller Ann Patchett, whose Nashville home Cummins stayed in after her publisher told her the tour was over. The two were up all night crying. “The fall that she took, in my kitchen, from being at the top of the world to just being smashed and in danger — it was heartbreaking.”…

But if the proposal for “American Dirt” landed on desks today, it wouldn’t get published.

“In the past two or three years, there’s a lot of commentary about the publishing industry being increasingly eager to appease potential cancelers, to not get into trouble to begin with, to become fearful and conformist,” says Bernard Schweizer, a professor emeritus of English at Long Island University who is founding a small publishing company, Heresy Press, with his wife, Liang, to take on the kind of riskier work that now gets passed over. According to Schweizer, the publisher will look for work “that lies between the narrow ideological, nonaesthetic interests presently flourishing on both the left and the right” and “won’t blink at alleged acts of cultural appropriation.” As he told me: “The point is not to offend but to publish stories that are unfettered and freewheeling, maybe nonconformist in one way or another. Somebody may be offended or not, but that’s the kind of risk we want to take.”

For some aspiring writers, the mood remains pessimistic. “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals,” the Latino writer Alex Perez said in an interview with Hobart magazine last fall. “This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of 15.” Shortly after publication of Perez’s interview, Hobart’s staff of editors quit and Perez was widely mocked on social media. Elizabeth Ellen, Hobart’s editor and the person who conducted the interview, posted a letter from the editor advocating for an atmosphere “in which fear is not the basis of creation, nor the undercurrent of discussion.”

6) It really is crazy that on an entirely regular basis the local school system simply fails to run the necessary busses to get kids to school.  It’s not even Econ 101 about what to do about the bus driver shortage; it’s Econ 01.  Just pay more or find other ways to make the job more enticing.  But, damnit, you’ve got to get the kids to and from school!

That means parents need to be prepared — sometime on short notice — to become their child’s chauffeur when the school bus is very late or isn’t running at all.

“Any day in the office I could get the message that I need to leave my job to get my child,” said Heather Wilson, a Raleigh parent whose daughter rides the bus to Farmington Woods Elementary School in Cary. “It’s definitely very stressful.”

The driver shortage is causing students to miss school, teachers to stay late watching students and bus drivers to feel burned out from the additional routes they’re running.

And the situation could get worse as more drivers retire or switch to other jobs with better hours and higher pay. School bus driver vacancy rates have soared post-pandemic.

7) Big story in the NYT this week about whether schools should tell parents when the kids switch gender identities. I don’t think this is an easy issue with an obviously right answer.  I do think all the trans “allies” who consider the very reporting of this story and a sympathetic hearing of the parents’ views to be so very wrong.  Mona Charen:

Advocates for “gender-affirming care” are vigilant, potent, and feared, trashing anyone who raises questions about rushing into transition as hatemongers who are attempting to “erase” trans people. But their campaign to stifle debate is ebbing. The Atlantic ran a sympathetic account of detransitioners, i.e., patients who’ve regretted sex changes and sought to restore their natal identity. Both of the authors are trans themselves. The New York Times Magazine also ran a piece highlighting competing views within the medical community about how best to handle the explosion of young people saying they think they’re trans, and acknowledging that social contagion may indeed be at work.

The Times also reported on the controversy (yes, there is a controversy) about the use of puberty blocker drugs in children. The Washington Post, noting the pattern of schools withholding information about students’ social transitions from parents, quoted Erica Anderson, a transgender woman and former president of the U.S. Professional Association for Transgender Health, to the effect that failing to notify parents is a form of malpractice: “If there are issues between parents and children, they need to be addressed. It’s not like kicking a can down the road. It only postpones, in my opinion, and aggravates any conflict that may exist.” And New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait chastised enforcers on the left who attempt to cow mainstream journalists on this topic:

The purpose of their rhetorical strategy is to conflate advocates of more cautious treatment of trans children with conservatives who oppose any treatment for trans children. This campaign has met with a great deal of success. Much of the coverage in mainstream and liberal media has followed this template—ignoring or denying the existence of the medical debate, and presenting anti-trans Republican politicians as the only alternative to gender-affirming care. This has been the theme . . . of mainstream organs like Politico and CNN, where coverage of the issue often treats progressive activists as unbiased authorities and dismisses all questions about youth gender treatment as hate-driven denial of the medical consensus.

It’s healthy that the suppression of competing views on this subject is starting to subside, because, as independent journalist Jesse Singal has indefatigably reported, the research on puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone treatment, and other aspects of the affirmative treatment model is actually quite weak. Several European nations, including France, Sweden, and Finland, have drastically limited treatment with puberty blockers, and the largest transgender clinic in Great Britain has been closed due to controversy about unprofessional standards.

8) I actually found this NYT feature on mass shooters infuriating, “We Profiled the ‘Signs of Crisis’ in 50 Years of Mass Shootings. This Is What We Found.”  They are deeply disturbed people suffering despair.

This is no coincidence. The killings are not just random acts of violence but rather a symptom of a deeper societal problem: the continued rise of “deaths of despair.”…

We think the concept of “deaths of despair” also helps explain the accelerating frequency of mass shootings in this country.

Every damn country has people like this, though.  Only in America do they have such ready access to guns.  It’s the guns, guns, guns!

9) I’m cranky about a lot this week. Like this guest essay on childhood obesity:

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its first comprehensive guidelines for evaluating and treating children and adolescents with obesity. The paper, co-written by 21 prominent doctors, health researchers and obesity experts, advises health care providers that they may refer children as young as 2 years old to “intensive health behavior and lifestyle treatment” programs if they have a body mass index in the overweight or obese range. For children ages 12 and up with an obese B.M.I., doctors are encouraged to prescribe weight-loss medications and to offer those over age 13 with severe obesity a referral to a bariatric surgery center.

The paper’s authors see this new guidance as a brave leap forward in the fight against childhood obesity, which they frame as a “complex and often persistent disease” requiring early and aggressive treatment.

But the guidelines are rooted in a premise that should have been rejected long ago: that weight loss is the best path to health and happiness.

The academy’s guidelines are the latest sally in the war on obesity that health care providers, public health officials and the general public have waged to shrink our bodies for over 40 years. The approach hasn’t worked; Americansincluding kids, are not getting thinner.

Instead, we face an epidemic of anti-fat bias, which results in the stigmatization of fat people in schools, workplaces, doctor’s offices and other public spaces. In a study of almost 14,000 people enrolled in behavioral weight management programs across six countries, researchers found that over half of the participants had experienced weight stigma, with more than two-thirds of those encountering it doing so from doctors…

The guidelines acknowledge that experiences of “weight stigma, victimization, teasing and bullying” are major challenges faced by kids in larger bodies that contribute to disordered eating and worse mental health outcomes. Some health care providers, they note, are biased against fat patients in ways that compromise the quality of care and contribute to more severe illness and even death.

Yes, be nice to overweight people!  But, that doesn’t mean childhood obesity isn’t a serious health issue that we should not take diet and behavioral steps to try and reduce!

10) Loved this in Yglesias‘ mailbag about Reuben Gallego taking on Sinema in Arizona:

Gallego is a great type of candidate for Democrats to run in general — very solid working-class background, military veteran, knows how to talk to normal people — and I think specifically in Arizona is well-positioned to hold on to Democrats’ new voters while halting or partially reversing some Republican gains with Latinos. You can’t tell all that much from his electoral track record because he’s been running in very safe blue House seats, but he did run two to three points ahead of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in 2016 and 2020 respectively, which is what you want to see. Some House members use safe seats like that to be bomb throwers and cast prudence to the wind. That’s fine if that’s what you want to do (members of the Squad run on average 6+ points worse than a generic Democrat, but none of them are at risk of losing their seats), but Gallego doesn’t do that. He’s personable, he champions mainstream Democratic positions on economic issues, and he tries to represent his constituents. He’s also got good judgment, and his team features Rebecca Katz, late of the John Fetterman campaign, and Chuck Rocha, who was Bernie’s Hispanic outreach strategist in the 2020 cycle.

People get touchy about how exactly you characterize the Fetterman campaign, but I’d say it was a good example of how to run a race that progressive factionalists are happy with while avoiding progressive pitfalls and embracing banal popular messages.

But there are sort of three interrelated challenges facing Gallego:

  1. He needs to establish himself as quickly as possible as the immovable force in the race — the Democratic Party nominee who is either going to win the race and finish in first place, or else a Republican will win and Gallego will be in second. Sinema is a spoiler, don’t waste your vote on Sinema.

  2. He needs to define the campaign as having some texture to it other than “he’s more left-wing than Sinema.” I think that probably means trying to find at least one topic to be in some sense to her right on, even as he can clearly position himself as a champion of mainstream Democratic positions on taxing private equity managers and prescription drug pricing against her plutocrat politics. He’s got the progressive base locked down, but he needs to be more than a factional candidate.

  3. He needs to manage his elite politics — his relationship with Katie Hobbs and Mark Kelly and Chuck Schumer and the White House and the national press — to clarify that he, Gallego, the guy with the D next to his name, is standing up for mainstream Democratic Party positions, not for left-factionalist positions. The stuff Sinema killed from the reconciliation package was Biden/Wyden ideas on taxation and prescription drugs that Joe Manchin supports.

The upshot of all this is that as unrealistic as it sounds, I think a dream goal for a Gallego campaign would be to do something collaborative with Manchin on taxes, pharma pricing, and deficit reduction where they talk about how working-class people have a lot in common whether they’re rural whites in West Virginia or Latinos in southern Phoenix, and the Democrats need to be something more than a party for educated snobs.

We’ll see what happens. But I thought the launch ad was pretty great. My only criticism is that I think they are going to want to drop the framing that he is “challenging Kyrsten Sinema” for the seat. She has vacated the Democratic Party nomination and he is running to (a) get the Democratic Party nomination and (b) defeat the GOP nominee. Sinema is unpopular, electorally doomed, and should just bow out from running and go be a part-time lobbyist, part-time triathlete. If she wants to insist on running an obviously doomed spoiler campaign, that’s on her, but Gallego wants to rally the Kelly/Biden/Hobbs coalition of Democrats, independents, and McCain Republicans against the MAGA forces who’ve taken over the Arizona GOP.

11) I love German Lopez’s take on the classified documents– especially since it’s basically what I told my class earlier this week.  A cost/benefit lens and bureaucratic risk aversion explain so much:

Why does this keep happening? One possible reason, experts say, is that too many documents are classified in the first place. The federal government classifies more than 50 million documents a year. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of all of them. Some get lost and found years later — and many more are likely still out there…

Playing it safe

The government classifies all kinds of information, including informants’ identities, war plans and diplomatic cables. There are three broad categories of classification: confidential, secret and top secret. Technically, the president decides what is classified. But the job is delegated to cabinet and agency heads, who further delegate, through agency guidelines, to lower-ranked officials.

That system effectively encourages federal officials to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach to classification. The classification of a document reduces the risk that important secret information leaks and leads to trouble, particularly when it concerns national security. But if a document is not classified and is obtained by America’s enemies or competitors, the people who originally handled that information could lose their jobs, or worse.

In many agencies, officials “face no downsides for over-classifying something,” said Oona Hathaway, a professor at Yale Law School and former special counsel at the Pentagon. “But if you under-classify something, really dire consequences could come for you.”

So officials tend to play it safe. Of the more than 50 million documents classified every year, just 5 to 10 percent warrant the classification, Hathaway estimated, based on her experience at the Pentagon.

One example of the extremes of classification: In a cable leaked by Chelsea Manning, an official marked details of wedding rituals in the Russian region of Dagestan as “confidential” — as if most such details were not already well known in a region of more than three million people.

Presidents have criticized the classification system, too. “There’s classified, and then there’s classified,” Barack Obama said in 2016. “There’s stuff that is really top-secret top-secret, and there’s stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open-source.”

In 2010, Obama signed the Reducing Over-Classification Act. It didn’t solve the problem, experts said.

The downsides

So what’s the harm? Experts say there are several potential dangers to over-classification.

For one, it keeps potentially relevant information from the public, making it harder for voters and journalists to hold their leaders accountable. One example: Starting in the 2000s, the U.S. ran a highly classified drone program to identify, locate and hunt down suspected terrorists in the Middle East and South Asia. The program’s existence was well known, and the destruction it caused was widely reported. Yet elected officials, including members of Congress briefed on the program, could answer few questions from constituents or reporters about it because the details were classified.

Over-classification can also make it difficult for agencies to share information with others, whether they are other U.S. agencies or foreign partners. “There are national security concerns — in terms of information not getting shared that should be,” said Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.

And, of course, the recent discoveries show how hard it can be to track all of these classified documents. “We’ve just overloaded the system,” Goitein said. “And that makes slippage inevitable.”

12) You know where I stand on Alec Baldwin’s guilt, but here’s the other side, “Why Alec Baldwin Could Be Found Guilty.”  Not to be belabor, but I just feel like a gun on a movie set is in important ways, fundamentally different from a gun in the rest of the world in ways that affect what would be considered “negligence.”

13) Sorry, but this is wokeness amok, “Stanford student may need to ‘take accountability,’ ‘acknowledge harm’ for reading Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’”

14) Good public post from Yglesias on the debt ceiling, “Republicans can’t even explain what they’re trying to do with the debt ceiling”

15) I ultimately found this New Yorker article not all that enlightening, “Republicans’ sustained and successful courting of Latino voters in South Florida could be a road map for the G.O.P. in 2024.”  And it raises the question of why it is so easy to convince South American immigrants that Democrats are basically socialists/communists when this is not remotely true. 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Best stuff I’ve seen on XBB1.5:

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

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

Is XBB.1.5 more severe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Lee Drutman on the Republican mess:

Thought #2: Divided government encourages Republican recklessness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

What’s behind this sluggish pace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10) Eric Levitz on a supply-constrained economy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17) On college majors and income.

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

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

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

20) Good stuff on “neuromyths” of learning


Quick hits (part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Love deBoer on the “unhoused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people can walk into a room and instantly put everyone at ease. Others seem to make teeth clench and eyes roll no matter what they do. A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it “affective presence.”

This concept was first described nearly 10 years ago in a study by Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. They put business-school students into groups, had them enroll in all the same classes for a semester, and do every group project together. Then the members of each group rated how much every other member made them feel eight different emotions: stressed, bored, angry, sad, calm, relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic. The researchers found that a significant portion of group members’ emotions could be accounted for by the affective presence of their peers.

It seems that “our own way of being has an emotional signature,” says Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s been known for some time that emotions are contagious: If one person feels angry, she may well infect her neighbor with that anger. But affective presence is an effect one has regardless of one’s own feelings—those with positive affective presence make other people feel good, even if they personally are anxious or sad, and the opposite is true for those with negative affective presence.

“To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn’t mean they’re annoyed all the time,” Elfenbein says. “They may be content because they’re always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they’re themselves quite depressed.”

Unsurprisingly, people who consistently make others feel good are more central to their social networks—in Elfenbein’s study, more of their classmates considered them to be friends. They also got more romantic interest from others in a separate speed-dating study

Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn’t yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener. Madrid suggests that further research might also find that some people have a strong affective presence (whether positive or negative), while others’ affective presence is weaker. But both Madrid and Elfenbein suggest that a big part of affective presence may be how people regulate emotions—those of others and their own.

Throughout the day, one experiences emotional “blips” as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, “Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?” she asks. “Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?”

This “smoothing over”—or emotional regulation—could take the form of finding the positive in a bad situation, which can be healthy. But it could also take the form of suppressing one’s own emotions just to keep other people comfortable, which is less so.

Elfenbein notes that positive affective presence isn’t inherently good, either for the person themselves, or for their relationships with others. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, and may well use their positive affective presence for manipulative ends. Neither is negative affective presence necessarily always a bad thing in a leader—think of a football coach yelling at the team at halftime, motivating them to make a comeback. Elfenbein suspects that affective presence is closely related to emotional intelligence. And, she says, “You can use your intelligence to cure cancer, but you can also use it to be a criminal mastermind.”

10) Good stuff on the high quality of this year’s World Cup:

The point is that everyone can do it now. Refined technique — the term of art for the instruments of control and precision — is no longer the secretive preserve of the Dutch academy and the Italian training ground. It is now expected that a player be able to bring a hurtling orb to a complete standstill — to kill it dead — and rifle it to all four corners of the field with laserlike accuracy. The gap between the iconic teams and the middling powers has never been narrower, which is why the group stage of this World Cup was so thrillingly unpredictable and why two of the four semifinalists, Croatia and crowd favorite Morocco, came from outside the traditional elite. This was the globalization of the game at work, greased by enormous pools of cash. It was evident in everything from the quality of the players, each of whom represents an investment in cutting-edge training and nutritional technology, to the ubiquitous haircut of the tournament: high and very tight on the sides, as if every player were a Navy Seal, an assassin.

The players may be less distinctive than they used to be, more like interchangeable parts of the streamlined soccer machine, but they are certainly stronger, faster, better. The teams, too, are less idiosyncratic, less animated by any sense of national style or identity. The greatest tactical advances of the 21st century have come out of Spain (possession play, i.e., “tiki taka,” personified by former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) and Germany (the intense press and counter-press, what the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp calls “heavy metal football”), and every team now deploys some combination of these philosophies. Japan’s first goal against Spain came from a very high press, which ironically enough was designed originally to break tiki taka’s stranglehold on the game. Brazil had the best squad of the tournament, maybe one of the best ever, but essentially played European-style soccer with its Europe-based players. The team added a touch of Brazilian flair, just as Serbia has its grit and Germany its die Mannschaft ethos and the U.S. its chip on the shoulder, but this is all seasoning. It should be noted that nearly half of Japan’s squad plies their trade in Germany.

11) Enjoyed this, even though I disagreed with many, “An Unofficial Ranking of the 10 Most Annoying Kids’ Toys”

12) So, “How Important Is Stretching, Really?” Not very!  Never bothered and not going to start.

13) This is true, “ChatGPT’s Fluent BS Is Compelling Because Everything Is Fluent BS”

All of this makes playing around with ChatGPT incredibly fun, charmingly addictive, and—as someone who writes for a living—really quite worrying. But you soon start to sense a lack of depth beneath ChatGPT’s competent prose. It makes factual errors, conflating events and mixing people up. It relies heavily on tropes and cliché, and it echoes society’s worst stereotypes. Its words are superficially impressive but largely lacking in substance—ChatGPT mostly produces what The Verge has described as “fluent bullshit.”

But that kind of makes sense. ChatGPT was trained on real-world text, and the real world essentially runs on fluent bullshit. Maybe the plausibility of a made-up movie like Oil and Darkness comes not because AI is so good, but because the film industry is so bad at coming up with original ideas. In a way, when you ask an AI to make you a movie, it’s just mimicking the formulaic process by which many Hollywood blockbusters get made: Look around, see what’s been successful, lift elements of it (actors, directors, plot structures) and mash them together into a shape that looks new but actually isn’t. 

It’s the same in publishing, where narrow trends can sweep the industry and dominate for years at a time, lining bookshop shelves with covers that look the same or titles with the same rhythm: A Brief History of Seven KillingsThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe Seven Lives of Seven Killers. (ChatGPT made that last one up.)

And it’s not just the creative industries. Fluent bullshit is everywhere: in viral LinkedIn posts and rules for life podcasts, in fundraising decks and academic journals, even in this article itself. Politics and business are full of people who have risen to the top because they’re able to stand in front of a room and ad-lib plausibly at length without saying anything real. Prestigious schools and universities structure education in a way that teaches people one skill: how to very quickly absorb information, confidently regurgitate it in a predetermined format, and then immediately forget it and move on to something else. Those who succeed spill out into government, consultancy, and yes, journalism.

14) Eric Levitz with absolutely the best take on the twitter files, “The ‘Twitter Files’ Is What It Claims to Expose”

15) I find Ron DeSantis‘ rabid anti-vax actions so thoroughly depressing about what they say about the Republican Party and the, supposedly, more sane alternative to Trump:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, is escalating his campaign to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines, the drug companies that produced them, and the public health officials and government leaders who urged Americans to get them.

Florida under DeSantis has been home base for anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-lockdown policies in the past three years. His administration sought to block cities and universities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates; his surgeon general drew widespread criticism this fall for urging young men not to get vaccinated. This week, DeSantis hosted a 90-minute panel discussion filled with experts questioning the efficacy of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and touting their potential dangers for some people, while alleging a vague conspiracy exists to hide that information from the public.

Now he is taking this crusade to the next level, asking the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury charged with investigating any wrongdoing related to the promotion and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

16) Really interesting analysis suggesting the electoral college doesn’t have a Republican bias, so much as a Trump bias (all the more reason to get rid of it!)

But Trump has an ace up his sleeve if an “electability” debate emerges in the GOP primaries: the electoral college.

Trump has proven that he can win 270 electoral votes even when Democrats win the popular vote. If Republicans choose DeSantis or some other Trump alternative, that edge might shrink — or even disappear.

Trump has a three-point electoral college advantage. That makes him electable.

Trump’s electoral college advantage comes through most clearly when we compare the “tipping point” or “pivotal” state to the national popular vote.

In 2016, Wisconsin was the tipping point state: That is, if every state was lined up from Trump’s best to his worst, Wisconsin was the state that got him past the 270 electoral votes and into the White House.

Trump took Wisconsin by one percentage point while losing the national popular vote by two percentage points — adding up to an electoral college advantage of about three points.

In 2020, Trump again had a three point advantage: He lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 4.5 points while losing Pennsylvania (that year’s pivotal state) by only about one point.

In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage…

In most elections, the electoral college bias doesn’t matter: The results in the key state only slightly differ from the national popular vote margin, and the popular vote winner takes the White House. But Trump’s electoral college edge let him stay competitive even as he lost the popular vote by millions…

When Trump is off the ballot, the GOP loses its electoral college edge

In 2018 and 2022 — two elections where Trump was off the ballot — the Republican Party didn’t do as well in key electoral college states.

In the 2022 House elections, Republicans won the national vote by roughly 1.8 percentage points after adjusting for uncontested seats (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race). But in Wisconsin — the pivotal state in both 2016 and 2020 — the GOP won the adjusted House vote by 2.8 percentage points (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race using the procedure described here).

The House vote — even after adjusting for uncontested seats — isn’t perfectly comparable to the presidential vote. But it’s the closest substitute we have. And when Trump was off the ballot in 2022, the House Republicans beat their popular vote margin by about a point in the key swing states.

That’s a steep decline from Trump’s three-point edge…

Put simply, when Trump has been on the ballot, the GOP has had an edge in the most important electoral college states. When he’s gone, that extra boost has disappeared.

17) Paul Waldman, “Republicans have a new version of ‘Lock her up!’”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, no Donald Trump rally was complete without chants of “Lock her up!” shouted with a wild glee. Whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned, Trump’s supporters indulged in a vivid fantasy, one that saw Clinton arrested, handcuffed and tossed behind bars. It was not enough to defeat her in the election;she had to be punished, in a very personal and physical way.

Versions of that fantasy are becoming more common on the right, not just among the rank and file but from Republican leaders, conservative media figures and right-wing celebrities. Though liberals are not immune to the impulse, conservatives are usually most eager to contemplate deploying the criminal justice system against their foes.

This desire isn’t really about the actual procedures of that system. It’s about the fantasy itself, one that thrums with an undercurrent of violence…

But lately, politics hasn’t offered conservatives much satisfaction. They keep coming up short in elections, and even after four years of the Trump presidency, the things they hate about American politics and American life, particularly the very existence of liberals and liberalism, did not disappear.

It’s frustrating for them — and more frustration is on the way. Having won control of the House, Republicans canmount as many investigations of Hunter Biden as they please, or try to impeach the secretary of homeland security. But none of that will amount to much; it certainly won’t make them feel as though they’ve vanquished the left once and for all.

18) Good stuff from Nick Kristoff on the West and Ukraine:

The fundamental misconception among many congressional Republicans (and some progressives on the left) is that we’re doing Ukraine a favor by sending it weapons. Not so. We are holding Ukraine’s coat as it is sacrificing lives and infrastructure in ways that benefit us, by degrading Russia’s military threat to NATO and Western Europe — and thus to us.

“They’re doing us a favor; they’re fighting our fight,” Wesley Clark, the retired American general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. “The fight in Ukraine is a fight about the future of the international community.”

If the war ends in a way favorable to Russia, he argues, it will be a world less safe for Americans. One lesson the world would absorb would be the paramount importance of possessing nuclear weapons, for Ukraine was invaded after it gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s — and Russia’s nuclear warheads today prevent a stronger Western military response.

“If Ukraine falls, there will certainly be a wave of nuclear proliferation,” Clark warned.

For years, military strategists have feared a Russian incursion into Estonia that would challenge NATO and cost lives of American troops. Ukrainians are weakening Russia’s forces so as to reduce that risk.

More broadly, perhaps the single greatest threat to world peace in the coming decade is the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait that escalates into a war between America and China. To reduce that danger, we should help Taiwan build up its deterrent capacity — but perhaps the simplest way to reduce the likelihood of Xi Jinping acting aggressively is to stand united against Russia’s invasion. If the West falters and allows Putin to win in Ukraine, Xi will feel greater confidence that he can win in Taiwan.

Putin has been a destabilizing and brutal bully for many years — from Chechnya to Syria, Georgia to Moldova — partly because the world has been unwilling to stand up to him and partly because he possesses a powerful military force that Ukraine is now dismantling. Aside from energy, Russia’s economy is not substantial.

“Putin and Russia are weak,” Viktor Yushchenko, a former Ukrainian president who challenged Russia and then was mysteriously poisoned and disfigured, told me. “Russia is a poor country, an oil appendage to the world, a gas station.”

The world owes Ukraine for its willingness to finally stand up to Putin. If anything, I’d like to see the Biden administration carefully ratchet up the capabilities of the weaponry it supplies Ukraine, for it may be that the best way to end the war is simply to ensure that Putin finds the cost of it no longer worth paying.

19) Fascinating stuff in Wired, “There’s a New Explanation for ‘Genetic’ Trait Pairs: Your Parents
For years, researchers thought characteristics like weight and education had shared genetic roots. The real answer might lie in how people choose to pair up.”

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, MORE educated people tend to weigh less. That correlation alone, though, doesn’t really tell you much—you could make a parlor game out of coming up with plausible explanations. Maybe the reason is that more educated people have access to healthier foods. Maybe it’s because people who are bullied about their weight are more likely to leave school. Or maybe the people who can afford college tuition and the people who can afford gym memberships are one and the same.

In 2015, a study in Nature Genetics introduced a surprising new possibility: Perhaps weight and education are so intimately connected because they share some of the same genetic roots. Using enormous collections of genetic data, the study’s authors searched for pairs of traits that were correlated with the same genes. For each pair they calculated a metric called “genetic correlation,” which quantifies just how similar the whole set of genes linked to one trait is to that linked to another trait. A smattering of trait pairs popped out as having significant genetic correlations, among them body mass index (BMI) and years of education—as well as more obvious pairs, like depression and anxiety, or type 2 diabetes and blood glucose levels. (Researchers have since tried to explain the apparent genetic link between weight and education by suggesting that people who are genetically predisposed to be better decision makers, and are presumably successful in the classroom, are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyles.)

Compared to simpler, behavioral explanations, such genetic explanations might sound far-fetched. But the data would seem to offer few other alternatives. Genes, after all, have an unquestionable primacy. If the same genes are associated with both education and BMI, it stands to reason that those traits must have intertwined biological roots. 

Now, a new study in Science shows that this idea is illusory. It suggests that geneticists must also consider what comes before people’s genes: their parents. Even if two traits are statistically associated with the same genes, they might not have any true genetic overlap: That same pattern can also appear if people with those traits tend to mate with each other. (This is called “cross-trait assortative mating.”)

 For example, people with many years of education, who are likely to be of a higher social class, tend to seek out partners who display markers of social standing like a low BMI, and vice versa. Their children will then have genes linked to both high education and low weight. If this happens repeatedly across a population, the two traits will appear to share some of the same genetic causes, because the traits and genes will co-occur so frequently. In reality, they will have been inherited from different sides of the family…

But Howe’s study didn’t explain exactly how parents played a role. There were some promising possibilities. Parents don’t just pass down genes to their kids—they also pass down their socioeconomic status, which has consequences for both schooling and diet. And, of course, parents typically choose whom they reproduce with. Loic Yengo, group leader of the Statistical Genomics Laboratory at the University of Queensland, says that geneticists had realized that cross-trait assortative mating could—in theory—inflate genetic correlations. But no one had yet produced concrete evidence that it did. 

Border and his colleagues found that evidence. Studying cross-trait assortative mating in detail requires knowing how much it actually happens in the real world. It seems reasonable that depressed people might end up with anxious people due to their shared experience of living with a mental illness, or that educated people would tend to marry people who got high scores on IQ tests, but Border needed to put numbers on those trends. The team was able to find the information they needed in the UK Biobank, an enormous dataset that comprises genetic, medical, and demographic data about hundreds of thousands of UK residents. They found that the more often people who had a particular pair of traits tended to couple up, the more those traits seemed to be genetically correlated. It was reasonable to suspect, then, that assortative mating was in fact making some genetic correlations appear stronger than they would otherwise be.

20) Sad but true… people in the American South are, on average, much worse dog owners:

NASHVILLE — As the documentary “Free Puppies” opens, a fluffy dog named Albert is galloping down a beach boardwalk. His companion, a much bigger dog, is leaping with excitement, but Albert is harnessed into a dog wheelchair. He was found on the side of a road in Arkansas, “either thrown out of a car or hit by a car,” a voice-over tells us. “We brought him up on one of those pet carriers that come up with tons of animals from the South.” Albert’s wheelchair bears a miniature Connecticut license plate.

This little dog is one of millions of pets transported from the American South to places in the Northeast and Midwest with fewer adoptable animals — communities where there are well funded animal-welfare agencies, stricter leash laws, a shorter breeding season and weather harsh enough that fewer strays survive.

Widespread animal relocation began in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina, according to Karen Walsh, the senior director of animal relocation at the A.S.P.C.A. “When we saw how many people were willing to step up and help an animal that had lost their home in Katrina, that idea grew,” she says in the film. “Animals started to flow across the country.”

Only a fraction of the needy pets here are cute enough or young enough to be easily placed this way — often based solely on a rescue organization’s website or social media feeds. So “Adopt, don’t shop” has become a national mantra among pet rescue advocates working desperately to reduce the number of animals euthanized in overcrowded shelters or left to starve on their own. Most of those doomed pets live in the South.

21) Fellow ChatGPT lovers will enjoy this, “How to Get the Most Out of ChatGPT”

22) And this still seems like magic to me, “OpenAI Has the Key To Identify ChatGPT’s Writing
They’ll add a secret watermark to the AI’s creations. Will they share the means to see it?”

As Aaronson says, an invisible “conceptual” watermark is what they need to make it “much harder to take a GPT output and pass it off as if it came from a human.” This feature could prevent misinformation, plagiarism, impersonation, cheating, etc., because what most malicious use cases share is that the user has to “conceal[] ChatGPT’s involvement.”

OpenAI already has a “working prototype” that he says “seems to work pretty well:”

“Empirically, a few hundred tokens seem to be enough to get a reasonable signal that yes, this text came from GPT. In principle, you could even take a long text and isolate which parts probably came from GPT and which parts probably didn’t.”

This means a couple of paragraphs are enough to tell if the content came from ChatGPT or not.

(Note that Aaronson doesn’t refer to ChatGPT explicitly but to a generic “GPT”. My guess is that all of OpenAI’s language models will integrate the watermarking scheme, likely including the next iteration of ChatGPT.)

Although the specifics of how the mechanism works are too technical to cover here (if you’re interested, check out Aaronson’s blog. It’s very good!), it’s worth mentioning a few relevant details buried in the jargon:

First, users won’t have the means to see the watermark (DALL-E’s, on the contrary, was visible and easily removable) unless OpenAI shares the key. I doubt anyone will find a direct way to remove it.

However, second, although the watermark it’s hard to bypass with trivial approaches (e.g. remove/insert words or rearrange paragraphs), it’s possible (e.g. Aaronson mentions that paraphrasing ChatGPT’s outputs with another AI would remove the watermark just fine).

Third, only OpenAI knows the key. They can share it with whoever they want so third parties can, too, assess the provenance of a given piece of text.

Finally, what I consider the most critical aspect of this: the watermark won’t work with open-source models because anyone could go into the code and remove the function (the watermark isn’t inside the model, but as a “wrapper” over it).

23) I really enjoyed learning about the physics and engineering of air conditioning in Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.

24) Great stuff from Scott Alexander on ChatGPT and the alignment problem, “Perhaps It Is A Bad Thing That The World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs”

Probably the reason they released this bot to the general public was to use us as free labor to find adversarial examples – prompts that made their bot behave badly. We found thousands of them, and now they’re busy RLHFing those particular failure modes away.

Some of the RLHF examples will go around and around in circles, making the bot more likely to say helpful/true/inoffensive things at the expense of true/inoffensive/helpful ones. Other examples will be genuinely enlightening, and make it a bit smarter. While OpenAI might never get complete alignment, maybe in a few months or years they’ll approach the usual level of computer security, where Mossad and a few obsessives can break it but everyone else grudgingly uses it as intended.

This strategy might work for ChatGPT3, GPT-4, and their next few products. It might even work for the drone-mounted murderbots, as long as they leave some money to pay off the victims’ families while they’re collecting enough adversarial examples to train the AI out of undesired behavior. But as soon as there’s an AI where even one failure would be disastrous – or an AI that isn’t cooperative enough to commit exactly as many crimes in front of the police station as it would in a dark alley – it falls apart.

People have accused me of being an AI apocalypse cultist. I mostly reject the accusation. But it has a certain poetic fit with my internal experience. I’ve been listening to debates about how these kinds of AIs would act for years. Getting to see them at last, I imagine some Christian who spent their whole life trying to interpret Revelation, watching the beast with seven heads and ten horns rising from the sea. “Oh yeah, there it is, right on cue; I kind of expected it would have scales, and the horns are a bit longer than I thought, but overall it’s a pretty good beast.”

This is how I feel about AIs trained by RLHF. Ten years ago, everyone was saying “We don’t need to start solving alignment now, we can just wait until there are real AIs, and let the companies making them do the hard work.” A lot of very smart people tried to convince everyone that this wouldn’t be enough. Now there’s a real AI, and, indeed, the company involved is using the dumbest possible short-term strategy, with no incentive to pivot until it starts failing.

I’m less pessimistic than some people, because I hope the first few failures will be small – maybe a stray murderbot here or there, not a planet-killer. If I’m right, then a lot will hinge on whether AI companies decide to pivot to the second-dumbest strategy, or wake up and take notice.

Finally, as I keep saying, the people who want less racist AI now, and the people who want to not be killed by murderbots in twenty years, need to get on the same side right away. The problem isn’t that we have so many great AI alignment solutions that we should squabble over who gets to implement theirs first. The problem is that the world’s leading AI companies do not know how to control their AIs. Until we solve this, nobody is getting what they want.

25) Good take from Chait on Sinema going Independent, “Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken Going independent is a way to force Democrats to back her.”

Sinema’s declaration of independence from the party is a ploy to avoid the primary and keep her job. Democrats could still run a candidate against her in the general election, of course, but they would face an extremely difficult prospect of winning. So her calculation in leaving the party is that she can bluff it into sitting out the campaign altogether, endorsing her as the lesser-evil choice against the Republican nominee.

It may work. If it doesn’t, it is because Sinema has underestimated just how much ill will she has generated across the breadth of the Democratic Party by reconceptualizing her role as the personal concierge of the superrich.

26) And Yglesias from last year on just why Sinema is so awful.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Democrats not acting in the lame duck to do anything about the debt ceiling is insane.  Though, all it takes is one or two insane Democrats to ruin it for the whole damn country.  Oh, yeah, and all the Republicans.  Greg Sargent:

It’s clear that the incoming House GOP majority will try to use debt-limit extortion to extract all kinds of concessions from Democrats. This will likely focus on refusing to raise the nation’s borrowing limit to try tosecure deep spending cuts. The slimness of the GOP majority will empower the MAGA caucus, which will wield this weapon to wreak havoc we can only guess at.

A top Senate Republican has now signaled that his party will use the debt limit to seek cuts to entitlements. Sen. John Thune (S.D.) flatly declared this week that if Republicans withhold support for raising the debt limit — which would threaten default and economic disaster — it could increase pressure on Democrats to “deliver” on raising the Social Security retirement age. This is ominous coming from the Senate GOP whip.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to be skeptical that Democrats will usethe lame-duck session to protect the country from the damage this could unleash. Senate Republicans are supposed to be the sober ones, relative to the House GOP. If such threats from a GOP leader in the upper chamber aren’t enough to get Democrats to act, what would be?

The need to do somethingduring the lame-duck session to eliminate the threat of debt-limit extortiondid not get addressed in a meeting Tuesday between President Biden and congressional leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters: “That didn’t come up.”

This is not exactly encouraging. “I’m extremely concerned,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who has long argued for dealing with the debt limit, told me. “We must do this now. If we don’t, we’ll come to deeply regret it.”

True, securing lame-duck action on the debt limit would be challenging. First, there is already a ton to do, from fixing the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to preventing future coups to funding the entire government.

Second, action would require either Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on one side, or Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on the other, to play against type in a dramatic way.

2) You know I’m always here for takedowns of originalism, “Originalism is bunk. Liberal lawyers shouldn’t fall for it.”

Liberal lawyers — and liberal justices, for that matter — risk being caught in an originalism trap.

Originalism, the belief that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed at the time it was adopted, is the legal theory that dominates the thinking of this conservative Supreme Court. Not all of the conservative justices are committed originalists. I count four of the six — all but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and perhaps Samuel A. Alito Jr., who describes himself as a “practical originalist.” But they have all written or joined originalist rulings.


Given that reality, liberals can’t lightly dismiss conservatives’ insistence that the Constitution should be interpreted based strictly on the original meaning of its text. In the current circumstances, liberal advocates appearing before the court would be remiss not to make an originalist case.

But there’s also little evidence, at least in the highest-profile cases, that it will do them much good. When originalist arguments favor a result the conservative justices dislike, they’re content to ignore them, or to cherry-pick competing originalist interpretations that comport with their underlying inclinations. Originalism doesn’t serve to constrain but to justify.This is not a fair fight — or an honest one.

And it is one with dangerous consequences. The more liberals present originalist arguments, the more they legitimate originalism rather than refuting it and offering a compelling alternative. Courtroom advocates need to win the case at hand, yet that undermines the more critical long-term effort to wrench the court away from its reliance on what is, at least as currently practiced, a flawed doctrine that peddles the illusion of impartiality in the service of a conservative result.
Because originalism purports to freeze our understanding of the Constitution as written at the end of the 18th century or amended in the second half of the 19th, it is skewed to a cramped reading of the document, unleavened by modern science and sensibilities. Why should we understand — much less accept — the constitutional meaning as fixed at a time when women lacked the right to vote, when recently enslaved Black people attended segregated schools, when the economy was agrarian, and when the notion of gay rights was unthinkable?

3) Great N&O story about how the poultry industry is running roughshod over North Carolina and is just a perfect example of externalities amok (i.e., they get the profits, ordinary citizens get the environmental degradation and unpleasant living conditions). This really is worth your time.

4) OMG the new OpenAI chatbot is insanely good.  Every twitter professor I know has been struck by this the past couple days.  I’m honestly going to have to radically revise my exams starting now.  The current chatbot could surely get at least a B-, and probably higher, on my tests.  I definitely need to do a full post on this.  For now, my twitter thread with some examples.

5) I’m enjoying seeing a much more robust discussion of expected goals in this year’s World Cup.  Nice explainer of how they work in soccer here. 

6) Good piece from Nate Cohn on Black turnout in the midterms.

There was a lot of good news — or at least news that felt good — for Democrats this election cycle, from holding the Senate to remaining stubbornly competitive in the House.

But as more data becomes final, it’s clear that Black turnout is not one of those feel-good stories for the party.

We won’t get conclusive numbers for months, but the evidence so far raises the distinct possibility that the Black share of the electorate sank to its lowest level since 2006. It certainly did in states like Georgia and North Carolina, where authoritative data is already available.

The relatively low turnout numbers aren’t necessarily a surprise. After all, this was not supposed to be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps this is one of the things that went about as expected, with no reason to think it portends catastrophe for Democrats in the years ahead.

Still, relatively low Black turnout is becoming an unmistakable trend in the post-Obama era, raising important — if yet unanswered — questions about how Democrats can revitalize the enthusiasm of their strongest group of supporters.

Is it simply a return to the pre-Obama norm? Is it yet another symptom of eroding Democratic strength among working-class voters of all races and ethnicities? Or is it a byproduct of something more specific to Black voters, like the rise of a more progressive, activist — and pessimistic — Black left that doubts whether the Democratic Party can combat white supremacy?

Whatever the answer, it is clear that the relatively low Black turnout was not exactly disastrous electorally for Democrats in 2022. With the possible exception of the Wisconsin Senate race, it’s hard to identify a high-profile election where Democrats might have prevailed if the Black share of the electorate had stayed at 2014 or 2018 levels.

But it does help make sense of one of the stranger features of this election: how Republicans fared so well in the national vote, but routinely underperformed in critical states and districts. With the important exceptions of Georgia and North Carolina, the Black population share was below the national average in virtually all of the key districts and Senate contests.

Georgia and North Carolina are two of the states where voters indicate their race when they register to vote, offering an unusually clear look at the racial composition of the electorate. In both states — along with Louisiana — the Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest levels since 2006…

Perhaps more remarkable is that Raphael Warnock, the Democratic senator from Georgia, and Ms. Beasley fared so well, even with Black voters representing such a low share of the electorate. Mr. Warnock and Ms. Beasley appear to have fared better among non-Black voters than any Democrats in recent memory in either state.

7) Crazy story. “A Man Fell From a Cruise Ship. And Survived.”

The passenger, according to the Coast Guard, turned out to be James Grimes, 28, who had been traveling with his parents and siblings on the five-day cruise. His family had last seen him the night before, around 11 p.m.

But by 10:45 on Thanksgiving morning, when there was no sign of him, the family notified the crew, the Coast Guard said.

At 8:10 p.m., more than nine hours after his family reported him missing, a passing tanker spotted the man near the mouth of the Mississippi River and alerted the Coast Guard.

Rescuers found Mr. Grimes struggling in the water, waving frantically and trying to keep his head above the surface.

When the crew of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter lifted him out, he was in shock, had mild hypothermia and was extremely dehydrated, said Lt. Seth Gross, who managed the search and rescue operation for the Coast Guard. But he was alive and in stable condition.

Mr. Grimes, whose family described him as an exceptional swimmer, had treaded in 65- to 70-degree water for hours, withstanding rain, 20-knot winds and three- to five-foot waves in the Gulf of Mexico, where bull sharks and blacktip sharks are common, Coast Guard officials said.

“This case is certainly extraordinary,” Lieutenant Gross said. “The survival instinct, the will to survive is just crazy.”

8) A UNC professor makes the case for a return to oral exams.  This one I felt the need to comment upon:

I’m tenured, have reasonable-sized classes, and yet this would still be an incredibly profligate use of my time (no, I’m not grading hundreds of students, but I have significant research and service constraints on my time). The simple fact is that, for the vast majority of faculty, this is time-wise, just a really inefficient way to assess students. And as many have pointed out, unfairly advantages extroverts, the more confident, etc. (and I say this as a confident extrovert).

9) Radley Balko did an overly credulous interview with the head of the Oath Keepers a decade ago and now provides a nice mea culpa and a thoughtful examination of how he got things so wrong.  We should all practice thinking like this.  

10) Just finished Amazon Prime’s “The Peripheral.”  Loved it!

11) Crazy story of a pilot who somehow accidentally fell out of plane near here a few months ago.  It is now, officially, indeed, an accident.  Seems like something out of a Cohn Brothers movie or something. 

12) Yes, I really cannot wait to see Cocaine Bear

13) This is important, “The $6 Billion Shot at Making New Antibiotics—Before the Old Ones Fail”

The possible collapse of Brown’s treatment could be avoided, if there were another option. Right now, there are no new antibiotics that doctors can add to his regimen. In the US, antibiotic innovation has skidded to a halt. The last novel class approved by the FDA debuted in 1984.

Independent analysts and drug-company personnel all say the measure is critically needed. But the Congress that reconvenes this week will be bruised from vituperative electioneering and distracted by races that remain unresolved. The body will also have to make decisions on a raft of legislative proposals that were delayed earlier in the year by hyperpartisan jostling, and will have to choose what they can accomplish before their session ends around Christmas Eve. If the Pasteur Act can’t get through by then, it will need to be reintroduced when the new Congress convenes in January. But that session will be focused on the 2024 election, and it could be hard for other issues to break through.

“If this doesn’t pass, or something like it doesn’t get implemented, then I don’t know what Plan B is,” says Joe Larsen, a vice president at Locus Biosciences Inc. who launched an Obama–era program of antibiotic investment while serving in the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority. “We need to re-envision the way we support antimicrobials in the US.”

14) This was pretty interesting, “The Physics of Scuba Diving”

15) The truth about job interview questions:

16) Oh man, Haiti is just such a disaster right now. “Gang Warfare Cripples Haiti’s Fight Against Cholera: The disease is spreading in the Caribbean nation in part because armed groups control poor neighborhoods with ruthless violence and prevent doctors from providing basic care.”

17) Loved this from Freddie deBoer, “Your Personality Has To Be Load-Bearing”

If the stuff you buy isn’t who you are, then what are you? I would say that your personality is simply your behavior, including your expressions. It would be lovely if our selves were only the product of our conscious choices, but as a species we are famously unaware of ourselves and act based on impulses and influences we would never choose. Sigmund Freud, and all that. Your personality is the way you talk and act; it’s your behaviors under a given circumstance that might be different from the behavior of others. The constituent elements of our personalities can’t be fully enumerated, but I would name honesty, creativity, gentleness, courage, perceptiveness, equanimity, extroversion, intelligence, kindness, and a sense of humor as essential parts. What I’m here today to argue is that these things have to be constitutive of you as a human being. You cannot be Mac Guy, not for long, not really. And I want to say also that the desire to be Mac Guy is profoundly human and something I have a lot of sympathy for.

The thing is that it’s hard to be a person. It’s hard! Our personalities are something that we both are and do, and we are always being evaluated by the others around us. Appearing attractive or admirable to other people, for most people most of the time, is something like the work of life. And like any other kind of work, there’s pressure to do it well. To fail at the construction of a self could hardly be more fraught with stakes and meaning. Looking around at your life and finding not much to be proud of is a common condition. To try and find that thing, that one external thing that shapes and animates your life, is a constant temptation, whether it’s Buddhism or Marxism or Alcoholics Anonymous or always carrying a guitar around for no reason or pretending to have Tourette’s on Twitch or buying every FunkoPop or being the guy who always has a toothpick hanging out of his mouth or your new boyfriend or cottagecore or vintage electronics or reading on the subway or the Buffalo Sabres or your insouciant yet political Twitter feed or your skill at Mario Kart or being a cat person or having an opinion on “Cat Person” or your Polish heritage or your pink gold iPhone or all your guns. These various external things can be core to our self-presentation, can be healthy and positive elements of our lives, and can amount to signals to others about what we value and enjoy. But they can’t fulfill our fundamental desire to be somebodies, to be people. I’m sure people in the comments will trouble the distinctions I’m drawing, and that’s fine. I still believe that, at the core of things, you can be your studied indifference to the vagaries of fate, but you cannot be the motorcycle you bought to broadcast it.

I have already discussed this issue when it comes to the realm of “fandom” specifically. I think people within that world – generally speaking, the world of intense devotion to cultural products in the realms of sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, comic books, fan fiction, and the like – are particularly at risk of obscuring the boundaries of the self, confusing what they like with what they are. This is why such people are so often still filled with resentment over perceived slights against their cherished properties despite the fact that such properties are commercially dominant in our world today; they can’t separate a difference in artistic tastes from insults to the self. You can broaden this to the entire concept of the “stan” and the frightening fan communities you find on the internet, such as those celebrating K-pop or Taylor Swift. Oftentimes, people deeply ensconced in these worlds are attempting to offload the burden of having a personality (of being a person) onto the art they enjoy. Such art is celebrated and, more importantly, acknowledged as real, as they would like to be. If you want to be a Star Wars fan existentially, if you want that to be your personality, there’s so much stuff, so much to grab onto that has heft and the feeling of being real – movies and shows and comic books and bedsheets and commemorative Coke cans but also communities and lore. The self? For a lot of people, that feels flimsy and not worthy of other people’s attention.

18) Fatherhood changes your brain!

The time fathers devote to child care every week has tripled over the past 50 years in the United States. The increase in fathers’ involvement in child rearing is even steeper in countries that have expanded paid paternity leave or created incentives for fathers to take leave, such as GermanySpainSweden and Iceland. And a growing body of research finds that children with engaged fathers do better on a range of outcomes, including physical health and cognitive performance.

Despite dads’ rising participation in child care and their importance in the lives of their kids, there is surprisingly little research about how fatherhood affects men. Even fewer studies focus on the brain and biological changes that might support fathering.

It is no surprise that the transition to parenthood can be transformative for anyone with a new baby. For women who become biological mothers, pregnancy-related hormonal changes help to explain why a new mother’s brain might change. But does fatherhood reshape the brains and bodies of men – who don’t experience pregnancy directly – in ways that motivate their parenting? We set out to investigate this question in our recent study of first-time fathers in two countries…

Dads’ brains change, too

As with practicing any new skill, the experience of caring for an infant might leave a mark on the brains of new parents. This is what neuroscientists call experience-induced brain plasticity – like the brain changes that occur when you learn a new language or master a new musical instrument.

A sparse but growing body of research is observing this type of plasticity in fathers who experience the cognitive, physical and emotional demands of caring for a newborn without going through pregnancy. In terms of brain function, for instance, gay male fathers who are primary caregivers show stronger connections between parenting brain regions when viewing their infants, compared with secondary male caregivers…

We found several significant changes in the brains of fathers from prenatal to postpartum that did not emerge within the childless men we followed across the same time period. In both the Spanish and Californian samples, fathers’ brain changes appeared in regions of the cortex that contribute to visual processing, attention and empathy toward the baby.

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