Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this Wired feature on the challenges facing the NYT.  I love the idea of it re-inventing itself as a premium subscriber service like HBO and Netflix.  For the record, I think NYT, HBO, and Netflix are all terrific and worth paying for.  (Though, “The Young Pope” please!)

2) Nick Kristoff on a stark, ignored, reality: husbands (and a hell of a lot of other things) are far more dangerous than terrorists.

3) John Oliver decide to take the message to Trump where he’ll see it– cable news ads.

4) I don’t doubt that those who have fought to remove smoking from public gathering places have overstated the health benefits of doing so, as argued in this extreme example of a #slatepitch.  That said, I find it amusing that the piece does not even address the fact that most of us non-smokers (i.e., most of us Americans) strongly prefer to not be around noxious vapors fouling our air.

5) Interesting Op-Ed– what modern day Muslims should learn from Jesus.

6) Why is Trump so obsessed with apologies?  Like so much else, it’s a simple dominance display for him:

For Trump, apologies aren’t about resolving conflict or fostering relationships or even setting the record straight. Like so much of what he does, they are about besting someone. Trump expresses his displeasure at how he has been treated; the offending party feels compelled to make amends. An apology that requires threats or twitter trolls to extract only highlights Trump’s superior strength all the more. Your criticisms of Trump may not have been wrong. You may not feel one bit bad about them. You may loathe and disdain him even more after apologizing. What matters to him is that you have had to publicly ask for his forgiveness. Which proves you are a total loser.

7) Zack Beauchamp takes a deep-dive into the utterly delusional world of “counter-jihadism” that is so influential with Trump’s own delusional worldview.

8) NYT pulling no punches in the lede on Pruitt’s confirmation.

The Senate on Friday confirmed Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, putting a seasoned legal opponent of the agency at the helm of President Trump’s efforts to dismantle major regulations on climate change and clean water — and to cut the size and authority of the government’s environmental enforcer.

9) Advice to conservative college students from a formerly conservative professor.

10) Drum with more evidence for the lead-crime link.

11) Amanda Taub with a good piece on “the deep state” you’ve likely been hearing much about.

12) I got more enjoyment out of “why liberals are wrong about Trump” than anything I read all week.  Just trust me and click the link.  Seriously.

13) Peter Beinart on how much of the anti-Trump right has made peace with Trump:

It’s not deranged to worry that Trump may undermine liberal democracy. It’s deranged to think that leftist hyperbole constitutes the greater threat. Unfortunately, that form of Trump Derangement Syndrome is alive and well at National Review. And it helps explain why Republicans across Washington are enabling Trump’s assault on the institutions designed to restrain his power and uphold the rule of law.

It is inconvenient for National Review that the individual in government who now most threatens the principles it holds dear is not a liberal, but a president that most conservatives support. But evading that reality doesn’t make it any less true.

14) Raising the price of a $575 life-saving drug to $4500.  So wrong.  Pharmaceutical companies make life-saving drugs.  Many pharmaceutical companies are also greedy and evil while they’re at it.  Talk about preying upon human suffering.

15) John Cassidy on Republican plans to cut Medicaid:

Still, the Republican Party’s internal machinations are a secondary matter. The key point is that G.O.P. leaders are intent on ripping up a successful and affordable reform that helped fill a gaping hole in the social safety net. In the process, they will endanger the health of a lot of Americans who don’t have the resources to protect themselves and their families. And that’s shameful.

16) Why yes, there are some bad dudes when it comes to immigration.  Unfortunately, it seems that some of these bad dudes are actually working for ICE.

17) More evidence for modern conservatism as white tribal politics.

18) I know you’ll be shocked to see evidence of how Trump tried to keep Black families out of his properties.

19) Terrific piece in Vox looking at (and speculating upon) the mating history of humans and neanderthals.  This particular bit was new to me:

Siepel has also found evidence of an even earlier mating than those that took place around 50,000 years ago. In the fully sequenced Neanderthal genome published in 2014, he found some human genes dating back to 100,000 years ago. “Instead of finding Neanderthal segments in modern human genomes, we identified modern, human-like segments in one of the Neanderthal genome,” he says.

It goes to show these matings weren’t a one-time event in our history. (And it adds a wrinkle to the common story that humans left Africa around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Human DNA found its way into Neanderthals 100,000 years ago, so there must have been an earlier human incursion into Europe. Those humans, though, did not survive.)

20) Democrats are now more inclined to embrace conspiracy theories.  Why?  Because conspiracy theories are for losers.

21) Doctors finally admit that lifestyle and exercise– not drugs– are the best treatment for lower back pain.  I found this bit of particular interest:

Obesity, being overweight, smoking, depression, and anxiety have all been linked with lower back pain. But the cause is usually more complicated. “Our best understanding of low back pain is that it is a complex, biopsychosocial condition — meaning that biological aspects like structural or anatomical causes play some role, but psychological and social factors also play a big role,” said Chou, who wrote a big evidence review that helped inform the new ACP guideline.

For example, in patients who have nearly identical results from an imaging test like an MRI, those who are depressed or unsatisfied with their jobs tend to have worse back pain than people who aren’t, Chou said. Partly for this reason, doctors don’t generally recommend doing MRIs for acute episodes of low back pain, since they can lead to overtreatment — like surgery — that also won’t improve health outcomes.

As for the modestly annoying lower-back pain I began experiencing about 10 years ago… I started sleeping with a pillow under my hips (I sleep on my stomach) and it’s never been anything but a very occasional annoyance since.

22) Catherine Rampell on Republicans plans to completely gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  It really is truly breathtaking how much Republicans are totally willing to screw over the little guy.  There’s plenty of areas where I just disagree with Republicans, and I get that, but I really do not understand how people justify these types of positions.

23) Drum’s quasi fact-checking of Trump’s disaster press conference is so entertaining.  My favorite part:

I mean, I watch CNN, it’s so much anger and hatred and just the hatred. I don’t watch it any more…Well, you look at your show that goes on at 10 o’clock in the evening. You just take a look at that show. That is a constant hit…Now, I will say this. I watch it. I see it. I’m amazed by it.

Fact-check: Schrödinger’s cat. Trump both watches and doesn’t watch CNN.

24) Yeah, the modern research university really is built off the exploitation of adjuncts.   But that’s because far too many people are willing to work for $3-4000 per class in the hopes that it will lead to somethhing good and permanent when it almost never, ever does.  Hope springs eternal…  And, yes, universities need to stop producing so many more PhD’s than there are decent jobs.  Damn, perverse incentives.

25) Great Vox conversation with Gary Kasparov on Putin and Trump.

Map of the day

I love birds and I love cool maps, so this animated gif (soft g, damnit) of bird migrations is right in my sweet spot.

animated map of bird species migrating in western hemisphere

Curiosity saved the liberal?

Let’s stick with the liberals and conservatives are different theme.  Dan Kahan (the man behind your partisanship even makes you bad at math, research) has some really interesting new research that presents– to some degree– a way out of this.  Scientific curiosity.  Nice summary in the Atlantic:

Kahan and his collaborators wanted to see whether this very human tendency to seek out facts that conform with our reasoning and identities—staying glued to our red and blue feeds—can ever be tamped down.

They found that it could, as long as you possess an odd trait called “science curiosity.” This is not, it turns out, the same as merely being good at science, or understanding it. Science curiosity, as Kahan measured it, describes people who are intrigued by surprising information and scientific discoveries. In the study, the science-curious spent longer watching a science documentary and were more interested in reading science news. Meanwhile, those who simply understood science weren’t as engaged with the videos. They weren’t into “self-motivated consumption of science information for its own sake,” they write.

Typically, being confronted with evidence only makes people cling more firmly to their beliefs on controversial topics like gun control, climate change, or vaccine safety. Similarly, in this study, Kahan found that science-literate conservatives were more likely to dispute humans’ role in global warming, while science-literate liberals were much more likely to acknowledge it. (People who didn’t know much about science were equally likely to agree and disagree, regardless of party.)

“We always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized,” Kahan said in a statement.

But, surprisingly, the science-curious among them didn’t harbor the same knee-jerk biases. They were more likely than the non-curious to read a news story that clashed with their political affiliation. The liberals, for example, opted to read a newspaper article headlined, “Scientists Report Surprising Evidence: Ice Increasing in Antarctic, Not Currently Contributing To Sea-Level Rise.” They craved novelty, even when they knew they wouldn’t agree with it.

“For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright, shiny objects—they can’t help but grab at them,” Kahan said.

And though the conservative, science-curious participants still thought global warming and fracking were less of a big deal than their liberal counterparts, the more science-curious they were, the more of a risk they considered it. The two party lines ran in parallel, rather than toward opposite poles:

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”[emphasis mine]


Cool!  I think I’ve pretty well-established that I’m “scientific curious” and I know many of you are as well.  And I love that analogy– to me, the shiny new thing is indeed something that pushes against what I already believe/know (from a respected source, of course).  There’s not a lot of interest in one more article telling me that single-payer health plans are a good idea.

Both this and the Vox article I link below, however, suggest that this is some sort of “solution” to the cognitive biases behind partisan polarization.  Unfortunately, until you can demonstrate to me that we can fundamentally change persons’ baseline levels of scientific curiosity, hard to see how that’s actually the case.

Also, check out the more thorough summary of Kahan’s work at Vox (and you know you’re curious to know more– right?).


Photo of the day

Very cool gallery of space photos from Wired:

This image shows the Calabash Nebula transforming from a red giant into a planetary nebula, as it blows outer layers of dust and gas into space at close to 620,000 miles per hour. Calabash is also known as the Rotten Egg Nebula, because of its high sulphur contents.ESA

Quick hits (part II)

Damn.  I could say a million things about Trump’s craziness from just yesterday.  And, if you really care, I re-tweeted a ton of really good stuff.  So, the regular awfulness, plus not awful miscellany:

1) But, we’ll start with this tweet from yesterday.  As many pointed out, imagine the reaction from Fox, etc., if Obama said something close to half this bad.

2) Cato takes on the precautionary principle.  Hooray:

The precautionary principle emphasizes the “better safe than sorry” mentality but shelters us from the reality that nothing is absolutely safe. Risk exists on a spectrum, it is not binary. The fear of high risks and uncertainty should not stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees here, only if a realistic projection that the long-term harms would exceed the long-term benefits should convince the government to further block Syrian refugees. A cold, hard look at the risks and benefits of allowing more Syrian refugees favors a more open policy.

3) The truth is Bannon and Trump don’t really want immigrants of any kind.  Muslims and refugees are just a start.

4) A nice bit of non-politics, Fans de Waal argues that the link between language and cognition is a red herring.

5) Among other things, Trump is just cruel.  But you knew that.

6) You will not be at all surprised that actual experts think Trump’s ban would do nothing to curtail terrorism.

7) The rules for making a protest work.


8) This Wired piece about a woman with no autobiographical memory was so fascinating.  Just trust me and read it.

9) Krispy Kreme donut run made the NYT yesterday.  David and I ran together (this year, I upped my intake from 2 to 3 donuts) for the 4th straight year.  Next year, we’ll add Evan to the mix.

10) Great piece on the reality of living in Russia and scary lessons for the US:

One tends to imagine life in an autocratic regime as dominated by fear and oppression: armed men in the street, total surveillance, chanted slogans, and whispered secrets. It is probably a version of that picture that has been flitting lately through the nightmares of American liberals fretting about the damage a potential autocrat might do to an open society. But residents of a hybrid regime such as Russia’s — that is, an autocratic one that retains the façade of a democracy — know the Orwellian notion is needlessly romantic. Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge. This cynicism, coupled with endless conspiracy theories about everything, was at its core defensive (it’s hard to be disappointed if you expect the worst). But it amounted to defeatism. And, interestingly, the higher up the food chain you moved, the more you encountered it. Now that Russia has begun to export this Weltanschauung around the world, in the form of nationalist populism embodied here by Donald Trump, I am increasingly tempted to look at my years there for pointers on what to expect in America.

11) Kind of bizarre, definitely needs more editing, but riveting… Swedes trying to decide whether to jump off a 10m diving platform.

12) Of course I knew about Brian Nosek and efforts at replication, etc., did not know there was an Enron billionaire behind it.

13) A 538 piece arguing Trump’s national security council changes really aren’t that unusual.

14) Linda Greenhouse on the changing “judicial mainstream.”

15) Of course Trump is still way too closely tied to his business.

16) It’s too easy for police to get your location data without a warrant.

17) Pretty disturbing story of an accountability-free police shooting.  One thing I’m pretty confident of– police unions are too powerful and too interested in protecting police who are bad actors.

18) Really interesting Pew piece on what makes a “real American” (and a “real” many other nationalities as well).

19) Ezra Klein on Donald Trump and “the Snake.”  Like all longer Ezra pieces on Trump, it is really, really good and you should definitely read it.  And, yes, I’m talking to you faithful reader who doesn’t actually read it.

20) Former right-wing talk radio host sees the error of his ways and how it has led to Trump:

Mr. Trump understands that attacking the media is the reddest of meat for his base, which has been conditioned to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem.

For years, as a conservative radio talk show host, I played a role in that conditioning by hammering the mainstream media for its bias and double standards. But the price turned out to be far higher than I imagined. The cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information. We thought we were creating a savvier, more skeptical audience. Instead, we opened the door for President Trump, who found an audience that could be easily misled.

The news media’s spectacular failure to get the election right has made it only easier for many conservatives to ignore anything that happens outside the right’s bubble and for the Trump White House to fabricate facts with little fear of alienating its base.

Unfortunately, that also means that the more the fact-based media tries to debunk the president’s falsehoods, the further it will entrench the battle lines.


Future of fruit

So, let’s take a break from Trump for a post and talk about one of my other favorite topics– fruit (and GMO’s).  A recent Wonkblog post on GMO apples (yum) reminded me of this excellent NYT story on the future of fruit from back in December.  In a very cool technological development, scientists have invented new ways to dramatically improve the shelf-life of fruit with a natural treatment:

What if a Florida tomato could be left on the vine long enough to turn red and fully develop its flavor — and still be ripe and juicy when it arrived at a grocery store in New York days later?

That is precisely the promise of a start-up here in Southern California, Apeel Sciences, that aims to make obsolete the gas, wax and other tricks growers use to keep fruits and vegetables fresh over time.

Using leaves, stems, banana peels and other fresh plant materials left behind after fruits and vegetables are picked or processed, Apeel has developed a method for creating imperceptible, edible barriers that the company says can extend the life of produce like green beans and berries by as much as five times. Apeel can even deliver a day-of-the-week bunch of bananas, each ripening on a different day.

An Apeel product already has been used to stretch the shelf life of cassava in Africa.

“It takes 30 days to get blueberries grown in Chile to market in the United States, which means they have to be picked before they’re ripe and shipped under heavy refrigeration,” said James Rogers, the founder and chief executive of Apeel. “We can change that.”

Awesome!!!  And, here’s where I mention, I’m loving the bumper crop of Chilean blueberries.  Fresh blueberries for $3/pint in January (hooray, Southern hemisphere) means I’m back on fresh blueberries instead of frozen for now.  But, in general, this is really, really cool.

If the product performs as advertised, it could bring sweeping changes to the produce industry and grocery aisles. It could reduce food waste and the use of pesticides and increase the varieties of fruits and vegetables available…

Another effort to alter that trade-off is SmartFresh, a product developed with Professor Watkins’s research that keeps apples from ripening too quickly in storage.

Apeel’s products, sold under the brand names Edipeel and Invisipeel, take plant materials and extract all liquids from them to produce tiny pellets. The company then uses molecules from those pellets to control the rate of water and gases that go in and out of produce, thus slowing down the rate of decay.

The version of Apeel for avocados, for example, creates a barrier that effectively fools anthracnose, a fungus that exploits tiny cracks that develop in the fruit’s skin when it begins to shrivel. Anthracnose extends a little leg through those cracks and into the fruit itself, creating the ugly brown spots that are such a nasty surprise when an avocado is opened.

Edipeel can stave off anthracnose by up to 30 days longer than existing techniques for combating the fungus. “It basically sees a different molecule than it’s used to seeing and moves on,” Mr. Rogers said.

Invisipeel can be applied while crops are still in the field. Edipeel can be applied after a harvest; crops can be coated while on a conveyor belt or dipped in the solution.

So far, the products are derived primarily from the remains of produce that has been certified organic, like grape skins left over from wine production and stems left behind after broccoli is harvested. They can be easily washed away with water.

And, maybe, I’ll get decent-tasting apples in January through March until the Chilean and New Zealand apples finally show up in April.

And, speaking of apples, solid Wonkblog piece on the new never-browning GMO apple.  Importantly, I think, the only modified genes in here are apple genes (and the science behind this is pretty cool).  I always eat a whole apple at a time, so brown slices are simply not an issue for me.  But if this gets more kids to eat apples via slices, that’s great.  And if it gets more people to accept GMO food as no less healthy, even better.  The company behind this is optimistic.  That said, I’m pessimisstic as I think there’s just too much irrational fear of GMO food.  This may be the food that breaks through (then again, maybe if everybody knew there were already eating a ton of GMO soy and corn every day), but maybe not:

After years of development, protest and regulatory red tape, the first genetically modified, non-browning apples will soon go on sale in the United States.

The fruit, sold sliced and marketed under the brand Arctic Apple, could hit a cluster of Midwestern grocery stores as early as Feb. 1. The limited release is an early test run for the controversial apple, which has been genetically modified to eliminate the browning that occurs when an apple is left out in the open air.

Critics and advocates of genetic engineering say that the apple could be a turning point in the nation’s highly polarizing debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While genetic modifications have in the past been mainly defended as a way to protect crops, the Arctic Apple would be one of the first GMOs marketed directly to consumers as more convenient.

“What companies are desperate for is some really popular GMO product to hit the market,” said McKay Jenkins, the author of a forthcoming history of the debate. “Any successful product could lift the cloud over GMOs.”

Industry executives predict the apple could open a whole new trade in genetically engineered produce, potentially opening the market to pink pineapples, antioxidant-enriched tomatoes, and other food currently in development.

“We see this as less about genetic modification and more about convenience,” said Neal Carter, founder of the company that makes the Arctic Apple. “I think consumers are very ready for apples that don’t go brown. Everyone can identify with that ‘yuck’ factor.”

GMO critics say they are hopeful, however, that consumers will continue to show skepticism about the produce. Despite a growing consensus in scientific circles that GMOs pose little risk, environmental and consumer groups have successfuly mounted campaigns against GMOs over the past 30 years, successfully limiting the practice to commodity crops like soybeans and corn…

For the Arctic Apple, however, the greatest test is yet to come: whether the convenience of a non-browning apple is enough to convince consumers to look past GMO’s negative reputation.

“I don’t know what their chances are — it’s a very polarized debate,” said Michael White, an assistant professor of genetics at the Washington University School of Medicine. “But I think this is huge. What the Arctic Apple is doing, trying to push GMOs on their own merits, could lead to a more positive discussion.”

Despite widespread scientific consensus that genetic engineering is not dangerous to human health, the practice remains controversial and poorly understood. Both the World Health Organization and the National Academies of Science have concluded that there’s no health reasons for avoiding the current slate of genetically engineered foods.

Personally, I’ll buy them just to support the effort (and to try and get my son Evan to eat more fruit). Anyway, no matter what, the future of fruit looks to be different and better.

Photo of the day

Just learned about “light pillars” on this week’s quirks and quarks.  Google image search brought me to this photo.

aurora light pillars, aurora light pillars lapland, aurora light pillars finland, aurora light pillars Antti Pietikäinen, Antti Pietikäinen january 2016, aurora light pillars finland Antti Pietikäinen, aurora light pillars picture, aurora light pillars photo, aurora light pillars photography

Photograph by Antti Pietikäinen on January 13, 2016 @ Muonio, Lapland, Finland via The Aurora Zone


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