Quick hits (part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Damaging to Clinton’s election prospects

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

2016 campaign coverage was dominated by emails

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The core of the article consists of these paragraphs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this really work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14) Not great:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits (part I)

1) Some good background on the gas stove issue:

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

It’s the gas stove.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Any Lowrey on encouraging trends in the economy:

Inequality is easing

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

We bent the cost curve in health care

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

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

We bounced back after the COVID recession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderna is doing better

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

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

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

Lots of other good stuff in there, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15) Brian Beutler on classified documents and both sidesism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17) David Wallace-Wells on electric vehicles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a better gut microbiome help you fight cancer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(New Year’s) Quick hits

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

Here’s how to get smarter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Drum’s top 10 charts of 2022:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This case offends me on many levels:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The show is dangerous! How was it allowed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

10) Farhad Majjoo on ChatGPT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the excuse for the Republicans there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17) Happy New Year!

(Christmas Eve) Quick hits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Loved this in Yglesias‘ mailbag:

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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Good stuff in Vox on young voters. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15) Frank Bruni on DeSantis:

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

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

That’s precisely the starring role he wants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The news is absolutely excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19) Merry Christmas.  

Quick hits (part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Love deBoer on the “unhoused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mounk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people can walk into a room and instantly put everyone at ease. Others seem to make teeth clench and eyes roll no matter what they do. A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it “affective presence.”

This concept was first described nearly 10 years ago in a study by Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. They put business-school students into groups, had them enroll in all the same classes for a semester, and do every group project together. Then the members of each group rated how much every other member made them feel eight different emotions: stressed, bored, angry, sad, calm, relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic. The researchers found that a significant portion of group members’ emotions could be accounted for by the affective presence of their peers.

It seems that “our own way of being has an emotional signature,” says Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s been known for some time that emotions are contagious: If one person feels angry, she may well infect her neighbor with that anger. But affective presence is an effect one has regardless of one’s own feelings—those with positive affective presence make other people feel good, even if they personally are anxious or sad, and the opposite is true for those with negative affective presence.

“To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn’t mean they’re annoyed all the time,” Elfenbein says. “They may be content because they’re always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they’re themselves quite depressed.”

Unsurprisingly, people who consistently make others feel good are more central to their social networks—in Elfenbein’s study, more of their classmates considered them to be friends. They also got more romantic interest from others in a separate speed-dating study

Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn’t yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener. Madrid suggests that further research might also find that some people have a strong affective presence (whether positive or negative), while others’ affective presence is weaker. But both Madrid and Elfenbein suggest that a big part of affective presence may be how people regulate emotions—those of others and their own.

Throughout the day, one experiences emotional “blips” as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, “Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?” she asks. “Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?”

This “smoothing over”—or emotional regulation—could take the form of finding the positive in a bad situation, which can be healthy. But it could also take the form of suppressing one’s own emotions just to keep other people comfortable, which is less so.

Elfenbein notes that positive affective presence isn’t inherently good, either for the person themselves, or for their relationships with others. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, and may well use their positive affective presence for manipulative ends. Neither is negative affective presence necessarily always a bad thing in a leader—think of a football coach yelling at the team at halftime, motivating them to make a comeback. Elfenbein suspects that affective presence is closely related to emotional intelligence. And, she says, “You can use your intelligence to cure cancer, but you can also use it to be a criminal mastermind.”

10) Good stuff on the high quality of this year’s World Cup:

The point is that everyone can do it now. Refined technique — the term of art for the instruments of control and precision — is no longer the secretive preserve of the Dutch academy and the Italian training ground. It is now expected that a player be able to bring a hurtling orb to a complete standstill — to kill it dead — and rifle it to all four corners of the field with laserlike accuracy. The gap between the iconic teams and the middling powers has never been narrower, which is why the group stage of this World Cup was so thrillingly unpredictable and why two of the four semifinalists, Croatia and crowd favorite Morocco, came from outside the traditional elite. This was the globalization of the game at work, greased by enormous pools of cash. It was evident in everything from the quality of the players, each of whom represents an investment in cutting-edge training and nutritional technology, to the ubiquitous haircut of the tournament: high and very tight on the sides, as if every player were a Navy Seal, an assassin.

The players may be less distinctive than they used to be, more like interchangeable parts of the streamlined soccer machine, but they are certainly stronger, faster, better. The teams, too, are less idiosyncratic, less animated by any sense of national style or identity. The greatest tactical advances of the 21st century have come out of Spain (possession play, i.e., “tiki taka,” personified by former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) and Germany (the intense press and counter-press, what the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp calls “heavy metal football”), and every team now deploys some combination of these philosophies. Japan’s first goal against Spain came from a very high press, which ironically enough was designed originally to break tiki taka’s stranglehold on the game. Brazil had the best squad of the tournament, maybe one of the best ever, but essentially played European-style soccer with its Europe-based players. The team added a touch of Brazilian flair, just as Serbia has its grit and Germany its die Mannschaft ethos and the U.S. its chip on the shoulder, but this is all seasoning. It should be noted that nearly half of Japan’s squad plies their trade in Germany.

11) Enjoyed this, even though I disagreed with many, “An Unofficial Ranking of the 10 Most Annoying Kids’ Toys”

12) So, “How Important Is Stretching, Really?” Not very!  Never bothered and not going to start.

13) This is true, “ChatGPT’s Fluent BS Is Compelling Because Everything Is Fluent BS”

All of this makes playing around with ChatGPT incredibly fun, charmingly addictive, and—as someone who writes for a living—really quite worrying. But you soon start to sense a lack of depth beneath ChatGPT’s competent prose. It makes factual errors, conflating events and mixing people up. It relies heavily on tropes and cliché, and it echoes society’s worst stereotypes. Its words are superficially impressive but largely lacking in substance—ChatGPT mostly produces what The Verge has described as “fluent bullshit.”

But that kind of makes sense. ChatGPT was trained on real-world text, and the real world essentially runs on fluent bullshit. Maybe the plausibility of a made-up movie like Oil and Darkness comes not because AI is so good, but because the film industry is so bad at coming up with original ideas. In a way, when you ask an AI to make you a movie, it’s just mimicking the formulaic process by which many Hollywood blockbusters get made: Look around, see what’s been successful, lift elements of it (actors, directors, plot structures) and mash them together into a shape that looks new but actually isn’t. 

It’s the same in publishing, where narrow trends can sweep the industry and dominate for years at a time, lining bookshop shelves with covers that look the same or titles with the same rhythm: A Brief History of Seven KillingsThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe Seven Lives of Seven Killers. (ChatGPT made that last one up.)

And it’s not just the creative industries. Fluent bullshit is everywhere: in viral LinkedIn posts and rules for life podcasts, in fundraising decks and academic journals, even in this article itself. Politics and business are full of people who have risen to the top because they’re able to stand in front of a room and ad-lib plausibly at length without saying anything real. Prestigious schools and universities structure education in a way that teaches people one skill: how to very quickly absorb information, confidently regurgitate it in a predetermined format, and then immediately forget it and move on to something else. Those who succeed spill out into government, consultancy, and yes, journalism.

14) Eric Levitz with absolutely the best take on the twitter files, “The ‘Twitter Files’ Is What It Claims to Expose”

15) I find Ron DeSantis‘ rabid anti-vax actions so thoroughly depressing about what they say about the Republican Party and the, supposedly, more sane alternative to Trump:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, is escalating his campaign to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines, the drug companies that produced them, and the public health officials and government leaders who urged Americans to get them.

Florida under DeSantis has been home base for anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-lockdown policies in the past three years. His administration sought to block cities and universities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates; his surgeon general drew widespread criticism this fall for urging young men not to get vaccinated. This week, DeSantis hosted a 90-minute panel discussion filled with experts questioning the efficacy of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and touting their potential dangers for some people, while alleging a vague conspiracy exists to hide that information from the public.

Now he is taking this crusade to the next level, asking the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury charged with investigating any wrongdoing related to the promotion and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

16) Really interesting analysis suggesting the electoral college doesn’t have a Republican bias, so much as a Trump bias (all the more reason to get rid of it!)

But Trump has an ace up his sleeve if an “electability” debate emerges in the GOP primaries: the electoral college.

Trump has proven that he can win 270 electoral votes even when Democrats win the popular vote. If Republicans choose DeSantis or some other Trump alternative, that edge might shrink — or even disappear.

Trump has a three-point electoral college advantage. That makes him electable.

Trump’s electoral college advantage comes through most clearly when we compare the “tipping point” or “pivotal” state to the national popular vote.

In 2016, Wisconsin was the tipping point state: That is, if every state was lined up from Trump’s best to his worst, Wisconsin was the state that got him past the 270 electoral votes and into the White House.

Trump took Wisconsin by one percentage point while losing the national popular vote by two percentage points — adding up to an electoral college advantage of about three points.

In 2020, Trump again had a three point advantage: He lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 4.5 points while losing Pennsylvania (that year’s pivotal state) by only about one point.

In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage…

In most elections, the electoral college bias doesn’t matter: The results in the key state only slightly differ from the national popular vote margin, and the popular vote winner takes the White House. But Trump’s electoral college edge let him stay competitive even as he lost the popular vote by millions…

When Trump is off the ballot, the GOP loses its electoral college edge

In 2018 and 2022 — two elections where Trump was off the ballot — the Republican Party didn’t do as well in key electoral college states.

In the 2022 House elections, Republicans won the national vote by roughly 1.8 percentage points after adjusting for uncontested seats (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race). But in Wisconsin — the pivotal state in both 2016 and 2020 — the GOP won the adjusted House vote by 2.8 percentage points (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race using the procedure described here).

The House vote — even after adjusting for uncontested seats — isn’t perfectly comparable to the presidential vote. But it’s the closest substitute we have. And when Trump was off the ballot in 2022, the House Republicans beat their popular vote margin by about a point in the key swing states.

That’s a steep decline from Trump’s three-point edge…

Put simply, when Trump has been on the ballot, the GOP has had an edge in the most important electoral college states. When he’s gone, that extra boost has disappeared.

17) Paul Waldman, “Republicans have a new version of ‘Lock her up!’”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, no Donald Trump rally was complete without chants of “Lock her up!” shouted with a wild glee. Whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned, Trump’s supporters indulged in a vivid fantasy, one that saw Clinton arrested, handcuffed and tossed behind bars. It was not enough to defeat her in the election;she had to be punished, in a very personal and physical way.

Versions of that fantasy are becoming more common on the right, not just among the rank and file but from Republican leaders, conservative media figures and right-wing celebrities. Though liberals are not immune to the impulse, conservatives are usually most eager to contemplate deploying the criminal justice system against their foes.

This desire isn’t really about the actual procedures of that system. It’s about the fantasy itself, one that thrums with an undercurrent of violence…

But lately, politics hasn’t offered conservatives much satisfaction. They keep coming up short in elections, and even after four years of the Trump presidency, the things they hate about American politics and American life, particularly the very existence of liberals and liberalism, did not disappear.

It’s frustrating for them — and more frustration is on the way. Having won control of the House, Republicans canmount as many investigations of Hunter Biden as they please, or try to impeach the secretary of homeland security. But none of that will amount to much; it certainly won’t make them feel as though they’ve vanquished the left once and for all.

18) Good stuff from Nick Kristoff on the West and Ukraine:

The fundamental misconception among many congressional Republicans (and some progressives on the left) is that we’re doing Ukraine a favor by sending it weapons. Not so. We are holding Ukraine’s coat as it is sacrificing lives and infrastructure in ways that benefit us, by degrading Russia’s military threat to NATO and Western Europe — and thus to us.

“They’re doing us a favor; they’re fighting our fight,” Wesley Clark, the retired American general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. “The fight in Ukraine is a fight about the future of the international community.”

If the war ends in a way favorable to Russia, he argues, it will be a world less safe for Americans. One lesson the world would absorb would be the paramount importance of possessing nuclear weapons, for Ukraine was invaded after it gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s — and Russia’s nuclear warheads today prevent a stronger Western military response.

“If Ukraine falls, there will certainly be a wave of nuclear proliferation,” Clark warned.

For years, military strategists have feared a Russian incursion into Estonia that would challenge NATO and cost lives of American troops. Ukrainians are weakening Russia’s forces so as to reduce that risk.

More broadly, perhaps the single greatest threat to world peace in the coming decade is the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait that escalates into a war between America and China. To reduce that danger, we should help Taiwan build up its deterrent capacity — but perhaps the simplest way to reduce the likelihood of Xi Jinping acting aggressively is to stand united against Russia’s invasion. If the West falters and allows Putin to win in Ukraine, Xi will feel greater confidence that he can win in Taiwan.

Putin has been a destabilizing and brutal bully for many years — from Chechnya to Syria, Georgia to Moldova — partly because the world has been unwilling to stand up to him and partly because he possesses a powerful military force that Ukraine is now dismantling. Aside from energy, Russia’s economy is not substantial.

“Putin and Russia are weak,” Viktor Yushchenko, a former Ukrainian president who challenged Russia and then was mysteriously poisoned and disfigured, told me. “Russia is a poor country, an oil appendage to the world, a gas station.”

The world owes Ukraine for its willingness to finally stand up to Putin. If anything, I’d like to see the Biden administration carefully ratchet up the capabilities of the weaponry it supplies Ukraine, for it may be that the best way to end the war is simply to ensure that Putin finds the cost of it no longer worth paying.

19) Fascinating stuff in Wired, “There’s a New Explanation for ‘Genetic’ Trait Pairs: Your Parents
For years, researchers thought characteristics like weight and education had shared genetic roots. The real answer might lie in how people choose to pair up.”

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, MORE educated people tend to weigh less. That correlation alone, though, doesn’t really tell you much—you could make a parlor game out of coming up with plausible explanations. Maybe the reason is that more educated people have access to healthier foods. Maybe it’s because people who are bullied about their weight are more likely to leave school. Or maybe the people who can afford college tuition and the people who can afford gym memberships are one and the same.

In 2015, a study in Nature Genetics introduced a surprising new possibility: Perhaps weight and education are so intimately connected because they share some of the same genetic roots. Using enormous collections of genetic data, the study’s authors searched for pairs of traits that were correlated with the same genes. For each pair they calculated a metric called “genetic correlation,” which quantifies just how similar the whole set of genes linked to one trait is to that linked to another trait. A smattering of trait pairs popped out as having significant genetic correlations, among them body mass index (BMI) and years of education—as well as more obvious pairs, like depression and anxiety, or type 2 diabetes and blood glucose levels. (Researchers have since tried to explain the apparent genetic link between weight and education by suggesting that people who are genetically predisposed to be better decision makers, and are presumably successful in the classroom, are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyles.)

Compared to simpler, behavioral explanations, such genetic explanations might sound far-fetched. But the data would seem to offer few other alternatives. Genes, after all, have an unquestionable primacy. If the same genes are associated with both education and BMI, it stands to reason that those traits must have intertwined biological roots. 

Now, a new study in Science shows that this idea is illusory. It suggests that geneticists must also consider what comes before people’s genes: their parents. Even if two traits are statistically associated with the same genes, they might not have any true genetic overlap: That same pattern can also appear if people with those traits tend to mate with each other. (This is called “cross-trait assortative mating.”)

 For example, people with many years of education, who are likely to be of a higher social class, tend to seek out partners who display markers of social standing like a low BMI, and vice versa. Their children will then have genes linked to both high education and low weight. If this happens repeatedly across a population, the two traits will appear to share some of the same genetic causes, because the traits and genes will co-occur so frequently. In reality, they will have been inherited from different sides of the family…

But Howe’s study didn’t explain exactly how parents played a role. There were some promising possibilities. Parents don’t just pass down genes to their kids—they also pass down their socioeconomic status, which has consequences for both schooling and diet. And, of course, parents typically choose whom they reproduce with. Loic Yengo, group leader of the Statistical Genomics Laboratory at the University of Queensland, says that geneticists had realized that cross-trait assortative mating could—in theory—inflate genetic correlations. But no one had yet produced concrete evidence that it did. 

Border and his colleagues found that evidence. Studying cross-trait assortative mating in detail requires knowing how much it actually happens in the real world. It seems reasonable that depressed people might end up with anxious people due to their shared experience of living with a mental illness, or that educated people would tend to marry people who got high scores on IQ tests, but Border needed to put numbers on those trends. The team was able to find the information they needed in the UK Biobank, an enormous dataset that comprises genetic, medical, and demographic data about hundreds of thousands of UK residents. They found that the more often people who had a particular pair of traits tended to couple up, the more those traits seemed to be genetically correlated. It was reasonable to suspect, then, that assortative mating was in fact making some genetic correlations appear stronger than they would otherwise be.

20) Sad but true… people in the American South are, on average, much worse dog owners:

NASHVILLE — As the documentary “Free Puppies” opens, a fluffy dog named Albert is galloping down a beach boardwalk. His companion, a much bigger dog, is leaping with excitement, but Albert is harnessed into a dog wheelchair. He was found on the side of a road in Arkansas, “either thrown out of a car or hit by a car,” a voice-over tells us. “We brought him up on one of those pet carriers that come up with tons of animals from the South.” Albert’s wheelchair bears a miniature Connecticut license plate.

This little dog is one of millions of pets transported from the American South to places in the Northeast and Midwest with fewer adoptable animals — communities where there are well funded animal-welfare agencies, stricter leash laws, a shorter breeding season and weather harsh enough that fewer strays survive.

Widespread animal relocation began in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina, according to Karen Walsh, the senior director of animal relocation at the A.S.P.C.A. “When we saw how many people were willing to step up and help an animal that had lost their home in Katrina, that idea grew,” she says in the film. “Animals started to flow across the country.”

Only a fraction of the needy pets here are cute enough or young enough to be easily placed this way — often based solely on a rescue organization’s website or social media feeds. So “Adopt, don’t shop” has become a national mantra among pet rescue advocates working desperately to reduce the number of animals euthanized in overcrowded shelters or left to starve on their own. Most of those doomed pets live in the South.

21) Fellow ChatGPT lovers will enjoy this, “How to Get the Most Out of ChatGPT”

22) And this still seems like magic to me, “OpenAI Has the Key To Identify ChatGPT’s Writing
They’ll add a secret watermark to the AI’s creations. Will they share the means to see it?”

As Aaronson says, an invisible “conceptual” watermark is what they need to make it “much harder to take a GPT output and pass it off as if it came from a human.” This feature could prevent misinformation, plagiarism, impersonation, cheating, etc., because what most malicious use cases share is that the user has to “conceal[] ChatGPT’s involvement.”

OpenAI already has a “working prototype” that he says “seems to work pretty well:”

“Empirically, a few hundred tokens seem to be enough to get a reasonable signal that yes, this text came from GPT. In principle, you could even take a long text and isolate which parts probably came from GPT and which parts probably didn’t.”

This means a couple of paragraphs are enough to tell if the content came from ChatGPT or not.

(Note that Aaronson doesn’t refer to ChatGPT explicitly but to a generic “GPT”. My guess is that all of OpenAI’s language models will integrate the watermarking scheme, likely including the next iteration of ChatGPT.)

Although the specifics of how the mechanism works are too technical to cover here (if you’re interested, check out Aaronson’s blog. It’s very good!), it’s worth mentioning a few relevant details buried in the jargon:

First, users won’t have the means to see the watermark (DALL-E’s, on the contrary, was visible and easily removable) unless OpenAI shares the key. I doubt anyone will find a direct way to remove it.

However, second, although the watermark it’s hard to bypass with trivial approaches (e.g. remove/insert words or rearrange paragraphs), it’s possible (e.g. Aaronson mentions that paraphrasing ChatGPT’s outputs with another AI would remove the watermark just fine).

Third, only OpenAI knows the key. They can share it with whoever they want so third parties can, too, assess the provenance of a given piece of text.

Finally, what I consider the most critical aspect of this: the watermark won’t work with open-source models because anyone could go into the code and remove the function (the watermark isn’t inside the model, but as a “wrapper” over it).

23) I really enjoyed learning about the physics and engineering of air conditioning in Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.

24) Great stuff from Scott Alexander on ChatGPT and the alignment problem, “Perhaps It Is A Bad Thing That The World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs”

Probably the reason they released this bot to the general public was to use us as free labor to find adversarial examples – prompts that made their bot behave badly. We found thousands of them, and now they’re busy RLHFing those particular failure modes away.

Some of the RLHF examples will go around and around in circles, making the bot more likely to say helpful/true/inoffensive things at the expense of true/inoffensive/helpful ones. Other examples will be genuinely enlightening, and make it a bit smarter. While OpenAI might never get complete alignment, maybe in a few months or years they’ll approach the usual level of computer security, where Mossad and a few obsessives can break it but everyone else grudgingly uses it as intended.

This strategy might work for ChatGPT3, GPT-4, and their next few products. It might even work for the drone-mounted murderbots, as long as they leave some money to pay off the victims’ families while they’re collecting enough adversarial examples to train the AI out of undesired behavior. But as soon as there’s an AI where even one failure would be disastrous – or an AI that isn’t cooperative enough to commit exactly as many crimes in front of the police station as it would in a dark alley – it falls apart.

People have accused me of being an AI apocalypse cultist. I mostly reject the accusation. But it has a certain poetic fit with my internal experience. I’ve been listening to debates about how these kinds of AIs would act for years. Getting to see them at last, I imagine some Christian who spent their whole life trying to interpret Revelation, watching the beast with seven heads and ten horns rising from the sea. “Oh yeah, there it is, right on cue; I kind of expected it would have scales, and the horns are a bit longer than I thought, but overall it’s a pretty good beast.”

This is how I feel about AIs trained by RLHF. Ten years ago, everyone was saying “We don’t need to start solving alignment now, we can just wait until there are real AIs, and let the companies making them do the hard work.” A lot of very smart people tried to convince everyone that this wouldn’t be enough. Now there’s a real AI, and, indeed, the company involved is using the dumbest possible short-term strategy, with no incentive to pivot until it starts failing.

I’m less pessimistic than some people, because I hope the first few failures will be small – maybe a stray murderbot here or there, not a planet-killer. If I’m right, then a lot will hinge on whether AI companies decide to pivot to the second-dumbest strategy, or wake up and take notice.

Finally, as I keep saying, the people who want less racist AI now, and the people who want to not be killed by murderbots in twenty years, need to get on the same side right away. The problem isn’t that we have so many great AI alignment solutions that we should squabble over who gets to implement theirs first. The problem is that the world’s leading AI companies do not know how to control their AIs. Until we solve this, nobody is getting what they want.

25) Good take from Chait on Sinema going Independent, “Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken Going independent is a way to force Democrats to back her.”

Sinema’s declaration of independence from the party is a ploy to avoid the primary and keep her job. Democrats could still run a candidate against her in the general election, of course, but they would face an extremely difficult prospect of winning. So her calculation in leaving the party is that she can bluff it into sitting out the campaign altogether, endorsing her as the lesser-evil choice against the Republican nominee.

It may work. If it doesn’t, it is because Sinema has underestimated just how much ill will she has generated across the breadth of the Democratic Party by reconceptualizing her role as the personal concierge of the superrich.

26) And Yglesias from last year on just why Sinema is so awful.

Quick hits (part II)

1) I read this advice about exercising with a cold years ago and it’s worked well for me:

Before you don your workout gear, assess your symptoms carefully. “The most popular advice is to do what’s referred to as the neck check, where if symptoms are above the neck, exercise is probably safe,” said Thomas Weidner, a professor of athletic training and chair emeritus of the school of kinesiology at Ball State University in Indiana. If your only symptoms are nasal congestion and a low-grade headache, for example, a light workout shouldn’t make your cold worse.

In fact, a landmark study that demonstrated this was led by Dr. Weidner in the 1990s. In it, 50 young adults were infected with the common cold virus and randomly split into two groups: one that did 40 minutes of moderate exercise every other day for 10 days, and one that didn’t exercise at all. The researchers found that there was no difference in illness length or severity between the two groups — meaning that working out moderately did not prolong or exacerbate their colds. Other research done by Dr. Weidner has led to similar findings.

If, however, you do have symptoms below the neck, such as a hacking cough, chest discomfort, nausea, diarrhea or body-wide symptoms like fever, muscle aches or fatigue, “then it’s not a good idea to exercise,” Jeffrey Woods, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said via email.

2) Drum on crime and perceptions of crime:

I’ve written a lot about crime over the past month or so. Here’s a summary of the most important bits. First, crime has gone down steadily over the past decade. Property crime continued to go down in 2021 while violent crime remained stable.

In 2022, the largest cities in the US almost all reported lower murder rates and only smallish increases in violent crime. New York City is the sole outlier, and its numbers are iffy.

If there’s nevertheless a genuine fear of rising crime, it should show up in concrete actions taken by consumers. But it doesn’t. Google searches for home security devices have gone steadily down over the past few years.

Perception of rising crime is highly partisan and very recent. It started among Republicans in 2021, after Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Taking all parties together, overall perceptions of crime have been down consistently over the past decade. This changed only in 2022, when news media reports and Republican campaign ads began to insist that crime was out of control this year even though every indicator suggests that property crime is down and violent crime is up only slightly.

The Gallup poll results are easily explained. Fox News cynically began running sensationalized reports on violent crime beginning in 2021, and then almost instantly pulled back after the midterm elections of 2022 were over.

Bottom line:

  • Property crime is down over the past decade and has continued to fall this year.
  • Violent crime is also down over the past decade and is up only slightly this year.
  • Perceptions of crime were consistently modest during this time.
  • Perceptions changed only after Joe Biden took office. This was thanks to deliberate manipulation of crime coverage from Fox News.

3) Patrick Sharkey, “The Crime Spike Is No Mystery: By zooming out and looking at the big picture, the question of what causes violence becomes quite answerable.”

Why are some American neighborhoods so vulnerable to so much violence?

To answer this question requires thinking less in terms of months and years, and more in terms of decades. It requires thinking less about specific neighborhoods and cities where violence is common, and more about larger metropolitan areas where inequality is extreme and the affluent live separated from the poor. And it requires thinking less about individual criminals and victims, and more about bigger social forces, including demographic shifts, changes in urban labor markets, and social policies implemented by states and the federal government. All told, nearly six decades of data on violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods point to an unmistakable conclusion: Producing a sustained reduction in violence may not be possible without addressing extreme, persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, and income…

If this all seems far removed from the people wielding guns in cities like Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Philadelphia, it is. The forces that have left American neighborhoods vulnerable to rising violence are entirely distinct from the people who live in those neighborhoods.

The young men who are most likely to be the victims or perpetrators of gun violence weren’t alive when the United States began to disinvest in central cities. In the decades during and after the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the rural South, federal dollars built our interstate highway system, insured home mortgages, and subsidized a large-scale movement of white people and other high-income segments of the population out of central cities. You needed money to buy a car in order to move to a house in the suburbs and commute into the city. And in many new housing developments, you needed to be white to be eligible to purchase a home or get a loan. New suburbs and exurbs outside Chicago and St. Louis quickly established zoning codes that would not allow for apartments or other forms of affordable housing to be built, meaning local property taxes would fund services only for relatively well-off residents. As the most advantaged segments of the urban population moved elsewhere, the share of city budgets funded by the federal government dwindled and political influence in state legislatures shifted away from the cities…

Let me be clear: It is important to find out what is driving this latest rise in gun violence, and to develop targeted responses in the neighborhoods where violence is concentrated—I am, in fact, devoting the next several years of my research to this question. But it is equally important to ask why the same neighborhoods have had the highest level of violence.

Analyzing the short-term fluctuations along with the long-term vulnerability allows us to move beyond the simplistic idea that to deal with violence, we must choose between an approach that addresses “root causes” and one that attempts to “stop the bleeding.” The long view tells us that disinvestment in communities, concentrated disadvantage, the disintegration of core community institutions of support, an overreliance on the institutions of punishment, and an unfathomable and unregulated supply of guns have created neighborhoods vulnerable to violence. In those vulnerable neighborhoods, a shorter-term perspective reveals how shifts in the local social order, policy tweaks, shocks such as crack cocaine and an influx of guns, and other micro changes—a new boys’ and girls’ club opens; a tenants’-rights group organizes an effort to mobilize against guns in a housing development; a violence-interruption organization loses funding; an abandoned building is razed—can lead to declines and spikes in violence.

4) It seems preposterous to me that the parents of a suicide victim should sue the university that punished a student before the suicide for wrongful death. 

5) This is cool, “To Ditch Pesticides, Scientists Are Hacking Insects’ Sex Signals: It’s now possible to mass-produce pheromones that keep insects from breeding near crops—protecting cereals and other staples with fewer chemicals.”

Female insects can attract partners in complete darkness without any audible signal, and over hundreds of meters—sometimes over a kilometer—using sex pheromones. Males track the smell of these chemical signals and mate with the females they’re led to, who then lay eggs that hatch into hungry larvae. It’s an incredible chemical power—and one that can be exploited.

“We can apply artificial pheromone compounds into the field, which will be released everywhere in the air and cover the original signal from the real female,” says Hong-Lei Wang, a researcher in the pheromone group at Lund University in Sweden. This blanket cover of the sex scent makes it harder for males to find females and mate, he explains, and so the insect population falls, meaning fewer pests in the area to cause crop damage.

Farmers have been using artificial pheromones this way for decades—but up until now, costs have limited how widely they’re used. Creating artificial pheromones has been pretty expensive, so it’s only made economic sense to use them to protect high-value crops, such as fruits. But now Wang and his colleagues have uncovered a way to affordably and sustainably produce pheromones that attract pests that eat cheaper crops, such as cabbage and beans, opening the door for pheromone-based pest control to be used more widely. 

6) Who knew we had a tree problem? “America’s Billion-Dollar Tree Problem Is Spreading: Grasslands are being overrun by drought-resistant invaders that wreck animal habitats, suck up water supplies, and can cost landowners a fortune.”

FAST-GROWING, DROUGHT-TOLERANT TREES are slowly spreading across grasslands on every continent except Antarctica. Given how desperate we are to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, millions of new saplings sprouting each year might seem like a good thing. But in reality, their spread across vulnerable grasslands and shrublands is upending ecosystems and livelihoods. As these areas transform into woodland, wildlife disappears, water supplies dwindle, and soil health suffers. The risk of catastrophic wildfire also skyrockets.

In a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, researchers have shown how woodland expansion also takes an economic toll. American ranchers often depend on tree-free rangelands to raise their livestock. Between 1990 and 2019, landowners in the Western US lost out on nearly $5 billion worth of forage—the plants that cattle or sheep eat—because of the growth of new trees. The amount of forage lost over those three decades equates to 332 million tons, or enough hay bales to circle the globe 22 times.

“Grasslands are the most imperiled and least protected terrestrial ecosystem,” says Rheinhardt Scholtz, a global change biologist and affiliate researcher with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Also called steppes, pampas, or plains, our planet’s grasslands have dwindled drastically. According to Scholtz, less than 10 percent are still intact, as most have been plowed under for crops or bulldozed for human development. One of the most dire threats facing the grasslands that remain is woody encroachment. “It’s a slow and silent killer,” Scholtz says. 

 

Historically, tree expansion onto grasslands was checked by regular fires, which relegated woody species to wet or rocky places. But as European settlers suppressed fires and planted thousands of trees to provide windbreaks for their homes and livestock, trees proliferated. When trees invade grasslands, they outcompete native grasses and wildflowers by stealing the lion’s share of sunlight and water. Birds, often used as a bellwether for ecosystem health, are sounding the alarm: North America’s grassland bird populations have declined more than 50 percent since 1970, a 2019 study in Science found. 

According to University of Montana researcher Scott Morford, who led the study on rangeland forage loss, tree cover has increased by 50 percent across the western half of the US over the past 30 years, with tree cover expanding steadily year on year. In total, close to 150,000 km2 of once tree-free grasslands have been converted into woodland. “That means we’ve already lost an area the size of Iowa to trees,” says Morford, who emphasizes that an additional 200,000 km2 of tree-free rangelands—an area larger than the state of Nebraska—are “under immediate threat” because they are close to seed sources.

7) Should you stop washing your hands? No.  Does washing them protect you from respiratory viruses? Also no.

And then we learned we’d had it all backwards. The virus didn’t spread much via surfaces; it spread through the air. We came to understand the danger of indoor spaces, the importance of ventilation, and the difference between a cloth mask and an N95. Meanwhile, we mostly stopped talking about hand-washing. The days when you could hear people humming “Happy Birthday” in public restrooms quickly disappeared. And wiping down packages and ostentatious workplace-disinfection protocols became a matter of lingering hygiene theater.

This whole episode was among the stranger and more disorienting shifts of the pandemic. Sanitization, that great bastion of public health, saved lives; actually, no, it didn’t matter that much for COVID. On one level, this about-face should be seen as a marker of good scientific progress, but it also raises a question about the sorts of acts we briefly thought were our best available defense against the virus. If hand-washing isn’t as important as we thought it was in March 2020, how important is it?

Any public-health expert will be quick to tell you that, please, yes, you should still wash your hands. Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, considers it “commonsense hygiene” for protecting us against a range of viruses spread through close contact and touch, such as gastrointestinal viruses. Also, let’s be honest: It’s gross to use the bathroom and then refuse to wash, whether or not you’re going to give someone COVID.

Even so, the pandemic has piled on evidence that the transmission of the coronavirus via fomites—that is, inanimate contaminated objects or surfaces—plays a much smaller role, and airborne transmission a much larger one, than we once thought. And the same likely goes for other respiratory pathogens, such as influenza and the coronaviruses that cause the common cold, Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer and aerosols expert at Virginia Tech, told me…

The upshot, for Goldman, is that surface transmission of respiratory pathogens is “negligible,” probably accounting for less than .01 percent of all infections. If correct, this would mean that your chance of catching the flu or a cold by touching something in the course of daily life is virtually nonexistent. Goldman acknowledged that there’s a “spectrum of opinion” on the matter. Marr, for one, would not go quite so far: She’s confident that more than half of respiratory-pathogen transmission is airborne, though she said she wouldn’t be surprised if the proportion is much, much higher—the only number she would rule out is 100 percent.

For now, it’s important to avoid binary thinking on the matter, Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. Fomites, airborne droplets, smaller aerosol particles—all modes of transmission are possible. And the proportional breakdown will not be the same in every setting, Seema Lakdawa, a flu-transmission expert at Emory University, told me. Fomite transmission might be negligible at a grocery store, but that doesn’t mean it’s negligible at a day care, where kids are constantly touching things and sneezing on things and sticking things in their mouths. The corollary to this idea is that certain infection-prevention strategies prove highly effective in one context but not in another: Frequently disinfecting a table in a preschool classroom might make a lot of sense; frequently disinfecting the desk in your own private cubicle, less so.

8) I was so excited to watch “Confess, Fletch.”  I love Fletch and I love Jon Hamm.  But just so poorly written

9) Good stuff from Tom Nichols, “To Putin, Brittney Griner Is a Pawn. To the U.S., She’s a Person.: Russia will regard any prisoner swap as a propaganda win. But the real message we can proclaim is about American values.”

Putin probably sees this trade, if it happens, as a double win for Russia. Moscow gets a shady but loyal arms dealer back on the roster for the price of two wrongly imprisoned Americans, one of whom the Russian media will spin as a spy and the other as an example of a decadent culture. In the Kremlin’s eyes, we recover two worthless people while it gains a top-shelf criminal asset. And they get to remind Russians that America is the kind of place where the president of the United States will go the distance for someone whom most Russians would regard with contempt.

So be it. Russia is at war with the entire international order at this point, and allowing Putin to indulge in some cheap racism and spy hysteria is a small price to pay for the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans. Unlike Russia, we make the effort to care about all Americans, wherever they are. Often, both at home and abroad, we fail in that effort, but we start from the proposition that our citizens are not merely disposable pawns.

In a just world, Bout would rot in a U.S. federal prison. But his sentence is not worth the lives of any Americans we can get released from Russia. And Bout, if he is sent back home, will go back to the life of a man who lives among enemies and bodyguards, a world in which today’s friends are tomorrow’s assassins. If we can bring Griner and Whelan home, maybe Bout’s exile back to Russia will be a fitting and just exchange, after all.

10) Apparently bodybuilders are just dying all the time because of the drugs they regularly subject their bodies to.  It just seems so nuts to me.  I could kind of get it if you were taking these kind of health risks to win the Tour de France or be a multi-million dollar pro athlete.  But to do it for some completely niche sport where the vast majority of the public just thinks you’re some kind of freak?  What the hell, man.

11) Great midterm analysis from Nate Cohn, “Turnout by Republicans Was Great. It’s Just That Many of Them Didn’t Vote for Republicans.”

In state after state, the final turnout data shows that registered Republicans turned out at a higher rate — and in some places a much higher rate — than registered Democrats, including in many of the states where Republicans were dealt some of their most embarrassing losses.

Instead, high-profile Republicans like Herschel Walker in Georgia or Blake Masters in Arizona lost because Republican-leaning voters decided to cast ballots for Democrats, even as they voted for Republican candidates for U.S. House or other down-ballot races in their states.

Georgia is a fine example. While Mr. Walker may blame turnout for his poor showing in November and earlier this week, other Republican candidates seemed to have no problem at all. Gov. Brian Kemp won by nearly eight points over Stacey Abrams; Republican candidates for House won the most votes on the same day.

Yet Senator Raphael Warnock won in Georgia anyway because a large group of voters willing to back other Republicans weren’t willing to back Mr. Walker.

The final turnout figures make it clear that Republicans — including Mr. Walker — benefited from very favorable turnout last month. Unlike in recent years, Republican primary voters were likelier to vote than Democrats (by a modest margin). Meanwhile, the white turnout rate exceeded the Black turnout rate by the widest margin since 2006.

We went back and looked at the respondents to our pre-election Times/Siena survey, and matched them to post-election vote turnout records. We found that the respondents who said they backed Mr. Walker were actually likelier to vote than those who said they backed Mr. Warnock…

It’s fair to say voters in these key states probably preferred Republican control of government, in no small part because more Republicans showed up to vote. They just didn’t find Republican candidates they wanted to support at the top of the ticket.

12) Loved this from Derek Thompson on breakthroughs of the year.  Yes, AI is number one.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Jamelle Bouie, “The Supreme Court Is Turning Into a Court of First Resort”

There is another possibility. According to Mark A. Lemley, a law professor at Stanford, the Roberts court, with its conservative majority, is an “imperial” Supreme Court, undermining the power and authority of the other branches of government, as well as weakening the power of lower courts to act and make decisions. “The Court,” Lemley writes, “has taken significant, simultaneous steps to restrict the power of Congress, the administrative state, the states, and the lower federal courts.” It gets its way, he continues, “not by giving power to an entity whose political predilections are aligned with the Justice’s own, but by undercutting the ability of any entity to do something the Justices don’t like.”…

The upshot of all of this, Lemley writes, is a court that is “consolidating its power, systematically undercutting any branch of government, federal or state, that might threaten that power, while at the same time undercutting individual rights.”

This, I think, is a useful way of thinking about the current Supreme Court’s aggressive disregard for its own rules and tradition regarding case selection, methodology and precedent. The conservative majority is working to make the court the leading institution in American politics, with total control over the meaning of the Constitution and its application to American life.

Americans can and should challenge this. Here, as I’ve noted before, Abraham Lincoln is invaluable: “If the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court,” he said in his first inaugural address, “the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

The first step toward challenging the Supreme Court’s power grab is to recognize the basic fact that, as the law professor Eric Segall has written, the Supreme Court is not actually a court. Yes, the justices of the Supreme Court work in a courtroom, wear robes and decide cases. But the court, he says, “functions much more like a political veto council than a court of law” and the justices “decide cases more like a traditional council of elders than typical judges.”

To see the truth about the Supreme Court is to see that it is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning, holding forth on how we must organize our political lives. It is to see, instead, that it is a political institution, jockeying for power and influence among a set of political institutions. It is to see that the Supreme Court exists to serve American democracy, and when it does not, then it can and must be checked by us, the people.

2) Love this from National Geographic.  Definitely learned some new ones here. “The 22 most amazing discoveries of 2022.”  I liked this one:

A bobcat eating python eggs shows ‘Everglades fighting back’

Burmese pythons have been overrunning the Florida Everglades for decades. These invasive animals are so ecologically destructive in part because they have no native predators—or so scientists thought.

For the first time, biologists have observed a native species, a bobcat, raiding a python nest and eating its eggs. Later, when the bobcat returned to find the snake guarding its nest, the cat took a swipe at the reptile. “When you get interactions like this and see the native wildlife fighting back, it’s like a ray of sunshine for us,” says Ian Bartoszek, an ecologist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “In 10 years of tracking snakes, I can count on one hand the number of observations” of native animals standing up to the reptiles. The confrontation could represent a step toward restoring ecological balance in the python-troubled Everglades.

3) Apparently “stiff person syndrome” is a thing. And Celine Dion is suffering from it. 

4) Okay, I think I might actually start running up the stairs at work. “2-Minute Bursts of Movement Can Have Big Health Benefits”

Dashing up the stairs to your apartment, weaving between commuters as you dart toward the train — those small snippets of exercise, if they’re intense enough, can add up, according to a new study. The paper is among the first to examine what many exercise scientists have long hypothesized: A little bit of physical activity goes a long way, even movement you might not consider a workout.

The paper, published today in Nature Medicine, shows that tiny spurts of exercise throughout the day are associated with significant reductions in disease risk. Researchers used data from fitness trackers collected by UK Biobank, a large medical database with health information from people across the United Kingdom. They looked at the records of over 25,000 people who did not regularly exercise, with an average age around 60, and followed them over the course of nearly seven years. (People who walked recreationally once a week were included, but that was the maximum amount of concerted exercise these participants did.)

Those who engaged in one or two-minute bursts of exercise roughly three times a day, like speed-walking while commuting to work or rapidly climbing stairs, showed a nearly 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality risk and a roughly 40 percent reduction in the risk of dying from cancer as well as all causes of mortality, compared with those who did no vigorous spurts of fitness…

One 2020 study linked four-minute bursts of exercise with longer life spans; another in 2019 found that climbing stairs for 20 seconds, multiple times a day, improved aerobic fitness. And still others have found that repeating just four-second intervals of intense activity could increase strength or counteract the metabolic toll of sitting for long stretches of time.

“Intensity is very effective at building muscle and stressing the cardiovascular system,” said Ed Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas who has researched intense bursts of exercise. Quick blasts of vigorous exercise, performed repeatedly with short rest periods, can increase oxygen uptake and keep cardiac arteries from clogging, he said, as well as power the heart to pump more blood and function better overall.

The new study, however, shows that the average person doesn’t need to go out of their way to identify those small spikes in activity; everyday movements, intensified, can be enough. And because they collected data from trackers that participants wore on their wrists, rather than questionnaires, which some exercise studies rely on, the researchers were able to analyze the impact of minute movements.

“It really just emphasizes how little vigorous physical activity can be extremely beneficial,” said Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario who was an author on the study.

5) David Wallace-Wells, “Covid-19 Isn’t a Pandemic of the Unvaccinated Anymore”

Americans received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses in December 2020, which means we are now approaching the beginning of the third year of the pandemic’s vaccine phase. And yet hundreds of Americans are still dying each day. Who are they? The data offers a straightforward answer: older adults.

Though it’s sometimes uncomfortable to say it, the risk of mortality from Covid has been dramatically skewed by age throughout the pandemic. The earliest reports of Covid deaths from China sketched a pattern quickly confirmed everywhere in the world: In an immunologically naïve population, the oldest were several thousand times more at risk of dying from infection than the youngest.

But the skew is actually more dramatic now — even amid mass vaccinations and reinfections — than it was at any previous point over the last three years. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people 65 and older accounted for 75 percent of all American Covid deaths. That dropped below 60 percent as recently as September 2021. But today Americans 65 and over account for 90 percent of new Covid deaths, an especially large share given that 94 percent of American seniors are vaccinated…

As many Twitter discussions about the “base rate fallacy” have emphasized, this is not because the vaccines are ineffective — we know, also from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, that they work very well. Estimates of the effectiveness of updated bivalent boosters suggest they reduce the risk of mortality from Covid in Americans over the age of 12 by more than 93 percent compared with the population of unvaccinated. That is a very large factor.

But it isn’t the whole story, or vaccinated older adults wouldn’t now make up a larger share of Covid deaths than the unvaccinated do. That phenomenon arises from several other factors that are often underplayed. First is the simple fact that more Americans are vaccinated than not, and those older Americans most vulnerable to severe disease are far more likely to be vaccinated than others.

It is also partly a reflection of how many fewer Americans, including older ones, have gotten boosters than got the initial vaccines: 34 percent, compared with 69 percent. The number of those who have gotten updated bivalent boosters is lower still — just 12.7 percent of Americans over the age of 5.

Finally, vaccines are not as effective among older adults because the immune system weakens with age. It’s much harder to train older immune systems, and that training diminishes more quickly. In Americans between the ages of 65 and 79, for instance, vaccination reduced mortality risk from Covid more than 87 percent, compared with the unvaccinated. This is a very significant reduction, to be sure, but less than the 15-fold decline observed among those both vaccinated and bivalent-boosted in the overall population. For those 80 and above, the reduction from vaccination alone is less than fourfold.

That is a very good deal, of course. But it also means that, given the underlying age skew, vaccinated people in their late 80s have a similar risk of Covid death as never-vaccinated 70-year-olds. Which is to say, some real risk. If it was ever comfortable to say that the unconscionable levels of American deaths were a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it is surely now accurate to describe the ongoing toll as a pandemic of the old.

6) German Lopez with lots of good stuff on ChatGPT:

Advanced efficiency

The upside of artificial intelligence is that it might be able to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently than any person can. The possibilities are up to the imagination: self-driving and even self-repairing cars, risk-free surgeries, instant personalized therapy bots and more.

The technology is not there yet. But it has advanced in recent years through what is called machine learning, in which bots comb through data to learn how to perform tasks. In ChatGPT’s case, it read a lot. And, with some guidance from its creators, it learned how to write coherently — or, at least, statistically predict what good writing should look like.

There are already clear benefits to this nascent technology. It can help research and write essays and articles. ChatGPT can also help code programs, automating challenges that can normally take hours for people.

Another example comes from a different program, Consensus. This bot combs through up to millions of scientific papers to find the most relevant for a given search and share their major findings. A task that would take a journalist like me days or weeks is done in a couple minutes.

These are early days. ChatGPT still makes mistakes, such as telling one user that the only country whose name starts and ends with the same letter is Chad. But it is very quickly evolving. Even some skeptics believe that general-use A.I. could reach human levels of intelligence within decades.

Unknown risks

Despite the potential benefits, experts are worried about what could go wrong with A.I.

For one, such a level of automation could take people’s jobs. This concern has emerged with automated technology before. But there is a difference between a machine that can help put together car parts and a robot that can think better than humans. If A.I. reaches the heights that some researchers hope, it will be able to do almost anything people can, but better.

Some experts point to existential risks. One survey asked machine-learning researchers about the potential effects of A.I. Nearly half said there was a 10 percent or greater chance that the outcome would be “extremely bad (e.g., human extinction).” These are people saying that their life’s work could destroy humanity.

That might sound like science fiction. But the risk is real, experts caution. “We might fail to train A.I. systems to do what we want,” said Ajeya Cotra, an A.I. research analyst at Open Philanthropy. “We might accidentally train them to pursue ends that are in conflict with humans’.”

Take one hypothetical example, from Kelsey Piper at Vox: A program is asked to estimate a number. It figures out that the best way to do this is to use more of the world’s computing power. The program then realizes that human beings are already using that computing power. So it destroys all humans to be able to estimate its number unhindered.

If that sounds implausible, consider that the current bots already behave in ways that their creators don’t intend. ChatGPT users have come up with workarounds to make it say racist and sexist things, despite OpenAI’s efforts to prevent such responses.

The problem, as A.I. researchers acknowledge, is that no one fully understands how this technology works, making it difficult to control for all possible behaviors and risks. Yet it is already available for public use.

7) And the Times’ technology reporter Kevin Roose with a really good rundown on ChatGPT.

8) Nice thorough look at NC turnout from Michael Bitzer.  What sticks out to me is the Republicans just keep getting more turnout.

9) Good stuff from Yglesias, “A lot of the best political messages are really boring”

So how did she pull it off? I think Dobbs was clearly an important factor, as it was in many states.

But a new report suggests that Cortez Masto and her campaign can offer some important lessons, namely that one incredibly banal message about law enforcement that she ran is apparently very potent. To an extent, this insight backs up things I’ve believed for a long time about the value of normie politics. But I also think that people who are more left-wing than I am will find a fair amount to like in this story because it suggests the possibility of making substantial gains in public opinion with very superficial gestures to the center.

Democrats’ best message, revealed

The key insight here comes from Data for Progress’ post-election report, which I recently heard Danielle Deiseroth, Marcela Mulholland, Julia Jeanty, and McKenzie Wilson describe in a post-election panel.

The report includes the results of a large sample experiment DFP did with Brian Schaffner that involved a sample of 77,197 registered voters. Each person was given six different head-to-head matchups between congressional candidates, with each candidate given a random set of demographic characteristics and also randomly assigned a policy message drawn from real things said by real politicians. This is designed to capture two things that a typical poll doesn’t:

  • Given these realistic settings, the impact of different messages on vote choice is just very very small — the vast majority of people vote consistently for either the hypothetical Democrat or the hypothetical Republican regardless of what message they are assigned. Campaign effects are small.

  • But because the sample is so large, you can pick up on the impact of small campaign effects. And that matters because so many races are so close. Small effects can be a big deal.

They ran 135 different Democratic messages in this experiment, of which 35 generated statistically significant campaign effects.

And now the big reveal, Democrats’ top campaign message:

I worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to crack down on crimes and keep our communities safe. I led the fight to combat sex trafficking, helped protect victims of sexual assault, and passed legislation to combat law enforcement suicide. I’ve worked tirelessly to get law enforcement the support and resources they need to keep our communities safe

When I shared this factoid on Twitter, I got a somewhat incredulous response from a number of rightists who didn’t believe a Democrat would ever say that. This was funny because these are all real-world messages, in this case, one from Cortez Masto. You can see a version of it here on her campaign website, and it’s similar to the opening of her official bio on her Senate page.

The flip side of the rightists’ incredulity is that a lot of progressives I’ve talked to are a little disheartened to see that the very best thing DFP could come up with is so boring. This message doesn’t speak at all to the big, structural changes that get progressives out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t reference the existential battle for American democracy, and it doesn’t touch on the climate crisis that has become the progressive movement’s top priority or the abortion rights struggle that invigorated so many after the Dobbs decision. It’s just blah.

But part of the reason this blah message works is precisely because it’s blah. Persuadable voters aren’t persuaded by the stuff that gets progressives fired up, in part because if they were fired up about that stuff they wouldn’t be persuadable voters, and in part because everyone already knows that Democrats care about that stuff, so talking about it at the margin doesn’t change anything. And in that light, what takes the message from good to great is that despite being so blah, conservatives were incredulous that a Democrat would actually say it. The content is not that surprising or exciting but the context apparently is — voters were genuinely swayed by a Democrat making some extremely banal supportive statements about law enforcement.

And it’s not unique to Cortez Masto or her precise framing. This from John Fetterman apparently worked really well, too:

Everyone has the right to feel safe in their communities. I worked with the Chief of Police, our police officers, and the community to reduce violent crime. I’ve worked hand-in-hand with the police and I understand the challenges our police forces face and how to support them to make communities more safe. I will make sure law enforcement has the resources necessary to do their job, but I will also prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention.

Fetterman’s version of this nods a bit more to the left by mentioning oversight and accountability, but is also even more straightforwardly tough on crime than Cortez Masto’s. He talks generically about violent crime instead of centering more feminist concerns like sex trafficking and sexual assault.

The point is that just being a Democrat who says loud and clear “I think it’s good when the cops arrest criminals” actually moves the needle meaningfully because people’s baseline impression of Democrats on crime has become so bad.

10) NYT Editorial on the Independent State Legislature case:

“The most important case for American democracy” in the nation’s history — that’s how the former appeals court judge J. Michael Luttig described Moore v. Harper, an extraordinary lawsuit that the Supreme Court considered in oral arguments Wednesday morning. Judge Luttig, a conservative and a widely respected legal thinker, is not one for overstatement. Yet most Americans aren’t paying attention to the case because it involves some confusing terminology and an arcane legal theory. It is essential that people understand just how dangerous this case is to the fundamental structure of American government, and that enough justices see the legal fallacies and protect our democracy.

First, the back story on the case: In 2021, North Carolina lawmakers redrew their congressional maps. The state had 13 districts at the time, and its voters were more or less evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But the Republicans who are in control of North Carolina’s legislature didn’t want fair maps; they wanted power. In one of the most egregious gerrymanders in the nation, they drew 10 seats intended to favor themselves.

The North Carolina courts were not amused. A panel of three trial judges found that the 2021 maps were “intentionally and carefully designed to maximize Republican advantage” — so much so that Republicans could win legislative majorities even when Democrats won more votes statewide. The State Supreme Court struck down the maps, finding they violated the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantees of free elections, free speech, free assembly and equal protection.

That should have been the end of it: A state court applying the state Constitution to strike down a state law. But North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers appealed, arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not give state courts authority to rule on their congressional maps — even though the legislature had passed a law authorizing the courts to review redistricting plans like these. Instead, the lawmakers are relying on an untested theory that asserts that state legislatures enjoy nearly unlimited power to set and change rules for federal elections…

To be clear, this is a political power grab in the guise of a legal theory. Republicans are trying to see if they can turn state legislatures — 30 of which are controlled by Republicans — into omnipotent, unaccountable election bosses with the help of the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. The theory has no basis in law, history or precedent. The idea that state lawmakers exist free of any constraints imposed by their constitution and state courts makes a mockery of the separation of powers, which is foundational to the American system of government. By the North Carolina lawmakers’ logic, they possess infinite power to gerrymander districts and otherwise control federal elections. It is a Constitution-free zone where no one else in the state — not the governor, not the courts, not the voters through ballot initiatives — has any say.

On Wednesday morning, Justice Elena Kagan rejected the theory out of hand, saying it “gets rid of the normal checks and balances on the way big governmental decisions are made in this country. And you might think that it gets rid of all those checks and balances at exactly the time when they are needed most.”

In practice, the theory that the petitioners in the case are seeking to use would turn hundreds of state constitutional provisions into dead letters in federal elections. 

11) Good stuff from Brian Beutler on Musk and twitter.

12) Enjoyed these in Yglesias‘ weekly reader response:

Hutcheson: Granted that “cancel culture” in academe is not the world’s top priority problem but is there anything productive that a good faith conservative state legislature could do to promote less of an ideological bias in state universities.

I think conservatives need to think a little bit harder about what it is they actually think about higher education. Here are three different center-right narratives that are in reasonably wide circulation:

  • We need more practical education that is aimed at useful job skills and delivers economic benefits to individuals and society. This is like a conservative critique of student loan relief or something Marco Rubio would say.

  • We need more “old-fashioned” education that challenges preconceptions, wrestles with difficult ideas, and engages the canon. This is like the Chicago Principles or the kind of thing I heard a lot when I went to a Heterodox Academy conference.

  • We need to accept that education is largely just pointless status-seeking and consumption, and we should reduce the number of resources our society dedicates to this and the power and prestige of top universities. That’s in Bryan Caplan’s books and in a lot of takes you see on the internet about how employers should give job candidates IQ tests.

These takes all kind of converge to express a negative attitude toward incumbent universities, left-wing faculty, faddish political ideas, cancel culture, etc. But they’re actually very different claims. And in particular, the kind of ideas from bullet point two or in the book “The Coddling of the American Mind” have opposite implications from the ideas in points one and three. Right now, anti-coddlers are in a coalition with anti-humanists and education skeptics on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but to devise a constructive anti-coddling agenda, you need to break out of that coalition.

City Dweller: Any thoughts on the White House’s just-announced guidance on incorporating “indigenous knowledge” into federal agency decision-making?

I’ve read this twice, and I don’t really understand what it says.

I think it’s an example of a dynamic that is pretty toxic: academics like to come up with striking-sounding terms for things, then foundations tend to port these academic concepts into an advocacy context, and then executive branch officials want to show responsiveness to the advocates, so they embrace weird, radical-sounding jargon, the upshot of which may actually be pretty banal. There was a Nature article right around Thanksgiving whose headline was about “Decolonizing” agricultural research, but its specific proposal was that “decolonization should go beyond simply citing colleagues from developing countries to including them in conferences and as co-authors.” Now if I were trying to communicate the idea “it would be good to invite more scholars from poor countries to conferences about agriculture,” I think I would just say that. These scholars might have valuable perspectives, and the conferences are a networking opportunity that could help the field.

So back to “indigenous knowledge” — is this a fancy, off-putting, radical-sounding way of saying “we should consult with indigenous communities about what’s up when we make changes?” That sounds very reasonable! Or are we actually endorsing some radical epistemological ideas? I find the document very unclear and the overall rhetorical approach to be at best unhelpful.

13) Kid in the area brings a gun to school and shoots a window before handing it over to a teacher. And this…

Seth Lanterman-Schneider, 39, of Willow Spring is charged with selling/giving a weapon to a minor, which is a misdemeanor, according to the sheriff’s office.

This needs to be a felony!!

14) Good stuff from Benjamin Mazer, “COVID Science Is Moving Backwards”

At the outset of the crisis, the world’s scientists used their grit and genius to develop new ideas with unprecedented speed; collectively, the COVID vaccines and treatments they produced saved tens of millions of lives. But their historic push for knowledge has lately slowed and sputtered in its tracks. Society spent billions of dollars to answer a single, urgent question: How do you combat a novel respiratory virus? Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves a little baffled by the follow-up: How do you handle a respiratory virus that is familiar? …

What’s pushing COVID science backwards? Don’t blame viral evolution—or not entirely. The emergence of new subvariants does weaken the effects of our vaccines. (It may also render some monoclonal-antibody treatments obsolete.) But the bigger problem isn’t that the virus has become a stranger. It’s that we’ve come to know it all too well.

Most of the groundbreaking research that led to our current vaccines and treatments was performed in a type of human that no longer exists in any but the smallest numbers: Homo uninoculatus uninfectus, which is to say, a person who has neither gotten sick with COVID nor ever taken a vaccine against it. The original vaccine studies by Moderna and Pfizer excluded participants who were known to have caught COVID. Paxlovid was authorized based on a study of unvaccinated subjects. The other antivirals, too, were tested only in those who hadn’t gotten any shots. Yet here’s where we are right now: Seven in 10 Americans have received at least a primary vaccine series, and more than 95 percent have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from vaccination, infection, or both. Globally, 13 billion shots have been administered, and nearly every country has suffered through widespread disease. We developed all these drugs for a world of COVID virgins, and now that world is gone.

This is very good news: Patients with preexisting immunity are at far lower risk. New infections are a lot milder, on average, than they were in 2020. Fewer patients are entering ICUs with lungs damaged by the severe pneumonia we saw at the start of the pandemic, and those hospitalized with COVID are trending older and sicker overall. Clearly we’re living through a new—and better—phase of the pandemic. But the same development also makes it harder to figure out whether vaccines are still doing what they’re meant to do.

15) I cannot believe the degree to which Pro Publica just completely lit their reputation on fire over bad translations in the Chinese lab leak story.  It’s really kind of amazing.  James Fallows with details.

The central figure in the story is a man named Toy Reid, the one shown in that dramatic black-and-white photo. He is an American who speaks Mandarin and claims to have unique insight into the nuance and meaning of official Chinese documents. He is introduced thus:

[Communist] Party speak is “its own lexicon,” explains Reid, now 44 years old. Even a native Mandarin speaker “can’t really follow it,” he says. “It’s not meant to be easily understood. It’s almost like a secret language of Chinese officialdom. When they’re talking about anything potentially embarrassing, they speak of it in innuendo and hushed tones, and there’s a certain acceptable way to allude to something.”

For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team [the “minority oversight” staffers] dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins.

My BS-detectors all switched on when I first read this. I know only a little about Mandarin. But enough to doubt that properly reading official documents is some extremely rare “unusual skill.” I know a little more about editing investigative stories, and about the moments when you’d ask a reporter, “Wait a minute, does this make any sense?”

—Almost as soon as the story appeared, it was met with questions, criticism, and derision from the very large group of people accustomed to reading Chinese documents, including Party statements. You can see a summary of the pushback in a Semafor piece by Max Tani, and some line-by-line critique in this widely circulated Twitter thread by Jane Qiu. People I’d known and worked with in the Chinese-translator community, both Chinese and international, were all critics.

Here is a crucial point: Skepticism about the story was entirely separate from views on the “lab leak” hypothesis itself (which the story supported, as had the Republican staff report). I have no idea where the pandemic virus came from and have never joined arguments about its origin. I don’t know enough. This post is explicitly not about the “lab leak” idea. The same is true for most people questioning the ProPublica story. The controversy involves language, evidence, and journalistic transparency and accountability.

16) Nice 538 piece on the high-tech soccer ball in use at the World Cup.

17) What I found amazing about this story, “ABC News Pulls Daytime Co-Anchors After Revelations of a Romance” is how stunningly well-documented the romantic assignations of these two C-list celebrities were.  

18) Enjoyed this on Kanye and mental illness:

Which brings me to Kanye West, now known as Ye, and probably the most famous mentally ill person in the world right today. West’s mental state has been in freefall for years and he has been talking about his bipolar disorder for a while. His manic behaviour goes off and on, and right now, it is very much on…

I’m Jewish, but when I read West’s posts I didn’t feel offended. I just felt sad that an artist so talented is now so clearly out of his tree. Maybe West really does think Diddy is being controlled by Jewish people. Or maybe that reflects his true feelings as much as that man in hospital was genuinely turned on by Richard and Judy. “Being bipolar doesn’t make you racist,” people shout on Twitter. Not necessarily, but poor mental health makes you say a lot of crazy stuff, because it’s not about being sexily impetuous or soulfully sensitive. It’s about being out of your fucking mind. And I get that’s not special or sparkly, but then, tuberculosis is a lot less pretty than some of those Victorian novels made it sound. Illness sucks…

Yet I would bet that many of the same people who are demanding West be held accountable for his actions would be horrified at the idea of sending a mentally ill person who commits a terrible crime to prison. He should be sent to a psychiatric hospital, they would say. That is correct, and the same is true of West. He doesn’t need punishment — he needs help.

And, yes, it feels good to say “mental illness doesn’t make you anti-semitic.”  But we don’t say “mental illness doesn’t make you think you are Jesus” or “mental illness doesn’t make you think CIA agents are after you.”  But, of course, it does!  What Kanye is saying is decidedly not okay, but it really does need to be seen through the perspective of a man clearly in a genuine mental health crisis.

19) Not quite a simple pill yet, but actually bringing some nice rigor and standardization to fecal transplants.

20) Ian Bogost writes in the Atlantic, “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think: Treat it like a toy, not a tool.” For the record, I think he’s dead wrong. 

But you may find comfort in knowing that the bot’s output, while fluent and persuasive as text, is consistently uninteresting as prose. It’s formulaic in structure, style, and content. John Warner, the author of the book Why They Can’t Write, has been railing against the five-paragraph essay for years and wrote a Twitter thread about how ChatGPT reflects this rules-based, standardized form of writing: “Students were essentially trained to produce imitations of writing,” he tweeted. The AI can generate credible writing, but only because writing, and our expectations for it, has become so unaspiring.

Yes, right now, it is a very predictable and boring writer.  So are most people who aren’t paid to write! (And even many of them)

21) A couple of good takes on the utter nonsense on twitter and Hunter Biden’s laptop

22) But Mona Charen’s is fantastic:

So what is this really about? Consider the timing.

For seven years, the right has been explaining, excusing, avoiding, and eventually cheering the most morally depraved figure in American politics. That takes a toll on the psyche. You can tell yourself that the other side is worse. Or you can tell yourself that the critics are unhinged, suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome” whereas you are a man of the world who knows nobody’s perfect. But then Trump will do what he always does—he’ll make a fool of you. You denied that Trump purposely broke the law when he took highly classified documents to Mar-A-Lago and obstructed every effort to retrieve them. And then what does Trump do? He admits taking them! You scoff at the critics who’ve compared Trump with Nazis. And then what does he do? He has dinner with Nazis! (And fails to condemn them even after the fact.) You despised people who claimed Trump was a threat to the Constitution, and then Trump explicitly calls for “terminating” the Constitution in order to put himself back in the Oval Office.

Hunter Biden seems to be corrupt. He traded on his father’s name. He has abused drugs and engaged in other unsavory practices. He’s a mess. But there is nothing relevant to public policy or civic virtue here. President Biden is hardly the first president to have troubled family members. But Joe Biden didn’t hire Hunter at the White House, and if there is any evidence of the president using official influence on Hunter’s behalf, we haven’t seen it. The Department of Justice under President Trump opened an investigation into Hunter Biden. President Biden has left it alone. It’s ongoing.

The right has a deep psychological need for the Hunter Biden story. They desperately want Joe Biden to be corrupt and for the whole family to be, in Stefanik’s words, “a crime family” because they have provided succor and support to someone who has encouraged political violence since his early rallies in 2015, has stoked hatred of minorities through lies, has used his office for personal gain in the most flagrant fashion, has surrounded himself with criminals and con men, has committed human rights violations against would-be immigrants by separating children from their parents, has pardoned war criminals, has cost the lives of tens of thousands of COVID patients by discounting the virus and peddling quack cures, has revived racism in public discourse, and attempted a violent coup d’etat.

They know it. It gnaws at them. That’s why the Hunter Biden story is their heart’s desire. But here’s something else they need to meditate on: Even if everything they’re alleging about Joe Biden were true; even if he did pull strings to help his son and even profited unjustly thereby, it still wouldn’t amount to a fraction of what Trump did. And it still won’t wash out the “damn’d spot.”

Quick hits

1) I’ve got 3 free two-month subscriptions to Yglesias’ substack.  Let me know if you want one.

2) When the 2nd amendment impedes on the 1st amendment, that’s not great:

Across the country, openly carrying a gun in public is no longer just an exercise in self-defense — increasingly it is a soapbox for elevating one’s voice and, just as often, quieting someone else’s.

This month, armed protesters appeared outside an elections center in Phoenix, hurling baseless accusations that the election for governor had been stolen from the Republican, Kari Lake. In October, Proud Boys with guns joined a rally in Nashville where conservative lawmakers spoke against transgender medical treatments for minors.

In June, armed demonstrations around the United States amounted to nearly one a day. A group led by a former Republican state legislator protested a gay pride event in a public park in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Men with guns interrupted a Juneteenth festival in Franklin, Tenn., handing out fliers claiming that white people were being replaced. Among the others were rallies in support of gun rights in Delaware and abortion rights in Georgia.

Whether at the local library, in a park or on Main Street, most of these incidents happen where Republicans have fought to expand the ability to bear arms in public, a movement bolstered by a recent Supreme Court ruling on the right to carry firearms outside the home. The loosening of limits has occurred as violent political rhetoric rises and the police in some places fear bloodshed among an armed populace on a hair trigger.

3) I did not realize the typical elite soccer game often has less than 50 minutes of the ball in play.  One possible solution, a 60 minute clock that stops (gasp!) 

4) I’m sure part 2 of this will be great, but I love the aviation only part from James Fallows, “Learning from Disasters: If aviators can do so, why won’t the press? Part 1.”

This post is about aviation. But really it’s about institutional self-correction. I intend it as a Part 1 setup to a Part 2 post coming up, about media and politics…

The connecting theme is how to learn from mistakes — as individuals, as companies and organizations, as a larger culture. Today I’ll discuss what happens what individuals and institutions do learn. Next, what happens when they don’t.

Summary version: Modern aviation is so incredibly safe because aviation has been so thorough and unsparing about facing and learning from its errors…

An under-appreciated miracle of modern society is how safe and reliable developed-country airlines have become. On a statistical basis, being aboard a North American or Western European airliner is about the safest thing you can do with your time, compared even with taking a walk or sitting in a chair1.

A big-picture illustration: Over the past 13-plus years, U.S. airlines have conducted well over ten billion “passenger journeys” — one person making one trip. And in those years, a total of two people, of the ten billion, have died in U.S. airline accidents. For comparison: on average two people in the U.S. die of gunshot wounds every 25 minutes around the clock. And two more die in car crashes every half hour. (Around 45,000 Americans died last year of gunshots, and around 42,000 in car crashes.)

How could the aviation system possibly have managed this? Airplanes weighing close to one million pounds hurtle into the sky, carrying hundreds of passengers who are separated by sheets of aluminum and plastic from air so cold and thin it would kill them quickly on exposure. Passengers gaze out at engines each up to 1/10th as powerful as those that sent Apollo 13 toward the moon. At the end of the journey the pilots bring the plane down on a precise strip of pavement—perhaps 60 seconds after the plane ahead of them in the queue, 60 seconds before the next one. And we take it all for granted—grumbling about the crowds and the hassle and the pretzels and the leg room, but safe.

The origins of this ongoing safety revolution is well chronicled; I spent several chapters on it in my book China Airborne. My point for now involves the aviation world’s relentless, unsparing, de-personalized, and highly systematized insistence on learning from whatever makes the system fail.

—On an informal level, this involves aviation magazines, newsletters, websites, and seminars—90% of which have titles like “What went wrong?” or “Breaking the accident chain.” It may sound counter-intuitive, but if you love flying and being in the air, much of your avocational reading will be articles in the “Anatomy of Disaster” category.2

5) I’ve had a really annoying cough (finally gone) the last couple of weeks.  Inspired my latest dive into the research on cough medicine.  And, as before, the reality is… suck it up, there’s not much you can do, but honey at least works somewhat. 

6) I’m only about half-way through Andor, but really enjoying it and especially liked this take:

It wasn’t until the sixth episode of the shape-shifting and genre-curious new “Star Wars” series “Andor” that I figured out what had been nagging at me. The episode, titled “The Eye,” centers on rebel fighters as they plan to infiltrate an imperial base. At the outset of this risky operation, the group splits into two teams. “Safe travels,” the leader of one team says to the other. Safe travels? I thought. What am I watching? Surely that was the moment to drop a “May the Force be with you.” But neither the Force nor the Jedi had been mentioned during the previous episodes. Indeed, the mystical mumbo-jumbo that saturates much of “Star Wars” is entirely absent from this series. There has been no discussion of the Dark Side or the Sith. Thus far, a single lightsabre has been waved.

I made a quick list of other “Star Wars” staples that the creators of “Andor” have eschewed. There are hardly any cute comic-relief characters speaking in bleeps, grunts, or cringey patois. Despite one quirky, lovable robot, the series is notably short on aliens and droids. All the major characters are human, and none hide their face behind a mask à la Darth Vader. (As if to emphasize this human-centeredness, Andy Serkis, who built his career playing the likes of Gollum and King Kong—as well as the ghoulish Supreme Leader Snoke in the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy—gives a striking performance as a prison-inmate leader, without any apparent aid from a bodysuit or C.G.I.) The plot of “Andor,” mercifully, doesn’t hinge on a love story—the only real romance is low-key and lesbian. And there is a decided lack of interest in paternity, which is as essential to much of “Star Wars” as it is to daytime talk shows. I began to wonder whether “Andor” was prestige TV masquerading as a “Star Wars” story.

7) We should’ve done better by our children during Covid:

Academic progress for American children plunged during the coronavirus pandemic. Now a growing body of research shows who was hurt the most, both confirming worst fears and adding some new ones.

Students who learned from home fared worse than those in classrooms, offering substantial evidence for one side of a hot political debate. High-poverty schools did worse than those filled with middle class and affluent kids, as many worried. And in a more surprising finding, older students, who have the least amount of time to make up losses, are recovering much more slowly from setbacks than younger children.

Most school districts saw declines, but the magnitude varied.
 
Those are the findings from more than a half-dozen studies published in recent months examining the pandemic’s toll on academic achievement. Across-the-board, they find big drops between spring 2019, before the pandemic hit, and spring 2021, one year in.

“The pandemic was like a band of tornadoes, leaving devastating learning losses in some districts and leaving many other districts untouched,” said Tom Kane, faculty director for the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Students made more progress last year, but it was nowhere near enough to make up for the losses already sustained.

“People were hoping, ‘Oh gosh, there’s going to be a lot of natural bounce back that occurs,’ and we did not see it last year,” Kane said. “Maybe it will happen this year, but I’m not sure there’s much evidence underlying that hope.”

The high price of distance learning

One of the fiercest debates during the pandemic’s first year was how quickly schools should reopen and how significant the ramifications would be of keeping them closed. We now have some answers…

A pile of evidence charts setbacks that were more severe the longer students stayed in virtual school. These studies examined the impact of in-person vs. remote education during the 2020-21school year, when policies varied widely. In Texas and Florida, Republican governors ordered schools to operate in person starting in fall 2020. Elsewhere, and often in big cities, resistance and fear of the virus among teachers and parents kept schools virtual for a year or longer.

Different studies rely on different data sets and describe the magnitude of the impact to varying degrees, but they all point in the same direction:

· A study using data from the testing company NWEA found modest academic declines for students who quickly returned to in-person classes in fall 2020. But achievement losses were far higher for those who learned from home, and they were most pronounced for students in high-poverty, mostly remote schools, widening long-standing racial and economic achievement gaps.

Students who were in person full-time during 2020-21 lost an average of 7.7 weeks of learning in math. But those who were in virtual class for more than half the year lost more than double that — an average of 19.8 weeks.

This research was based on NWEA assessments of 2.1 million students in 10,000 districts and analyzed by researchers at NWEA, Harvard and the American Institutes for Research.

8) There’s been a lot of speculation on a Trump 3rd party run if he doesn’t get the nomination.  Chait makes a strong case for otherwise:

But I think this idea misunderstands both Trump and the incentive structure of the Republican Party.

It is true that a world in which Trump has lost a primary to DeSantis is a world in which Trump feels very angry with DeSantis. But DeSantis is not the only person Trump feels angry with. Trump has spent the past several years simmering with anger at Joe Biden. And while a contested primary would make Trump resent DeSantis more than he does now, it’s hardly certain that it would make him hate DeSantis more than he hates Biden.

More important, it would be uncharacteristic for Trump to allow his grudges to get in the way of his clear self-interest. Trump does lash out wildly at anybody who disrespects him, but he also turns on a dime and makes friends with his former enemies. You can see this pattern in the way he lashed out at the likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio before reconciling on the basis of mutual interest.

What interests would Trump have in common with DeSantis? For one thing, DeSantis could offer Trump legal protection — either pardons or immunity from additional prosecution. Second, DeSantis already commands a massive fundraising network, and as the Republican nominee, he would hold enormous power over various revenue streams around the party, ranging from its scam PACs to its media outlets. DeSantis would be in a position to make sure Trump is very well compensated in return for an endorsement.

9) If you know what you want to buy, Amazon is great.  If you want to shop and see what’s available (for, I dunno, a step-in dog harness for a GSP) Amazon has turned into a complete joke.  This Washington Post piece shows how (free link so you can check it out). 

10) David Frum on guns in 2017. More relevant than ever, “The Rules of the Gun Debate”

A parable:

A village has been built in the deepest gully of a floodplain.

At regular intervals, flash floods wipe away houses, killing all inside. Less dramatic—but more lethal—is the steady toll as individual villagers slip and drown in the marshes around them.

After especially deadly events, the villagers solemnly discuss what they might do to protect themselves. Perhaps they might raise their homes on stilts? But a powerful faction among the villagers is always at hand to explain why these ideas won’t work. “No law can keep our village safe! The answer is that our people must learn to be better swimmers – and oh by the way, you said ‘stilts’ when the proper term is ‘piles,’ so why should anybody listen to you?”

So the argument rages, without result, year after year, decade after decade, fatalities mounting all the while. Nearby villages, built in the hills, marvel that the gully-dwellers persist in their seemingly reckless way of life. But the gully-dwellers counter that they are following the wishes of their Founders, whose decisions two centuries ago must always be upheld by their descendants…

The deadliest mass shooting in American history has restarted the long debate whether something can be done to impede these recurring slaughters. That debate is conducted pursuant to rigid rules.

Rule 1. The measures to be debated must bear some relationship to the massacre that triggered the debate. If the killer acquired his weapons illegally, it’s out of bounds to point out how lethally easy it is to buy weapons legally. If the killer lacked a criminal record, it’s out of bounds to talk about the inadequacy of federal background checks. The topic for debate is not, “Why do so many Americans die from gunfire?” but “What one legal change would have prevented this most recent atrocity?”…

Rule 3. The debate must always honor the “responsible gun owners” who buy weapons for reasonable self-defense. Under Rule 1, these responsible persons are presumed to constitute the great majority of gun owners. It’s out of bounds to ask for some proof of this claimed responsibility, some form of training for example. It’s far out of bounds to propose measures that might impinge on owners: the alcohol or drug tests for example that are so often recommended for food stamp recipients or teen drivers.

11) Binyamin Applebaum, “Overconfident Regulators Caused the Ticketmaster Mess”

Before the federal government let Live Nation merge with Ticketmaster in 2010, it obtained some very solemn promises that the company would not use its newly acquired dominance in the business of selling tickets to take advantage of customers.

Ask a Taylor Swift fan how well that has worked out.

Ticketmaster’s website was overwhelmed last week by people seeking tickets for Ms. Swift’s upcoming concert tour. It was inevitable that most people who wanted tickets wouldn’t be able to buy them. There aren’t enough to go around. But crashes, bugs and error messages left many people feeling they never really had a chance.

Monopolies raise prices, but that’s not the only reason Americans should be worried about the rise of corporate concentration. Companies with market power also tend to get lazy. They stop trying to deliver the best possible product. Jonathan Skrmetti, the Republican attorney general of Tennessee, told The Washington Post that Ticketmaster’s customer service problems raised the question of whether “because they have such a dominant market position, they felt like they didn’t have to worry about that.”

That’s an important question, and it raises another one: Why do antitrust regulators keep getting tricked by companies that don’t keep their promises?

The federal government in recent decades has blessed the vast majority of proposed corporate mergers. And even when regulators have concluded that a merger is not in the public interest, they have often sought to address concerns by imposing conditions rather than blocking the deal. In effect, the government has adopted the strategy of asking companies to refrain from taking full advantage of their power.

12) Science! “Turns Out Fighting Mosquitoes With Mosquitoes Actually Works: New evidence indicates that an effort to stamp out disease-carrying insects is working. The key? Mosquitoes genetically engineered to kill off their own kind.”

HE Aedes aegypti mosquito is not just a nuisance—it’s a known carrier of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika viruses. Distinguished by the black and white stripes on its legs, the species is one of the most dangerous to humans.

In the Brazilian city of Indaiatuba, an effort is underway to eliminate these pests before they have a chance to spread illness. The weapon: more Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—but ones genetically engineered to kill their own kind. Made by British biotechnology firm Oxitec, the mosquitoes seem to be working. 

The modified mosquitoes carry a synthetic self-limiting gene that prevents female offspring from surviving. This is important, because only the females bite and transmit disease. In a new study, scientists at the company showed that their engineered insects were able to slash the local population of Aedes aegypti by up to 96 percent over 11 months in the neighborhoods where they were released. 

13) German Lopez on the stark disjunction between American public opinion on marijuana and our actual laws.

14) The story of the hero in the Club Q shooting is just amazing.  It’s like a action movie script, but real life.  And the here was not a good guy with a gun.  It was a good guy with combat experience in Iraq, which is clearly worth a helluva lot more.

15) Encouraging biotechnology, “F.D.A. Approves a Drug That Can Delay Type 1 Diabetes

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first treatment that can delay — possibly for years — the onset of Type 1 diabetes, a disease that often emerges in teenagers.

The new drug, teplizumab, is made by Provention Bio, which will partner with Sanofi to market the drug in the United States under the brand name Tzield. In an investor call on Friday, Provention said the drug would cost $13,850 a vial or $193,900 for the 14-day treatment. The company said teplizumab should be available by the end of the year.

The drug, which the F.D.A. approved on Thursday, does not cure or prevent Type 1 diabetes. Instead, it postpones its onset by an average of two years and, for some lucky patients, much longer — the longest so far is 11 years, said Dr. Kevan Herold of Yale, a principal investigator in trials of the drug.

The only other treatment for the disease — insulin — was discovered 100 years ago and does not affect the course of the disease. It just replaces what is missing.

16) We have vaccines and some excellent treatments now, but the latest editions of the virus have outsmarted all our existing monoclonal antibodies.  

17) Experts on aging on a Biden second term.  He would be really old to be president.

18) I am enjoying the World Cup, but it is such a damn shame that the world’s greatest sporting event is run my literally one of the most corrupt organizations on the planet.

Qatar hosting the soccer World Cup is like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. It should not have happened, but the very fact that it has only exposes how bad things have become. Once this famous old tournament kicks off in Doha tomorrow, the fact that it did can never be unwound: Qatar will forever have been the host of the 22nd FIFA World Cup, the greatest absurdity in the history of the sport.

Even to recite the details of the backstory feels darkly grim. In 2010, soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, awarded the right to host the world’s most popular and prestigious sporting event to a tiny Middle Eastern autocracy with a population of barely 3 million. Qatar had never even played in a World Cup before, let alone hosted one, and it made a singularly unsuitable venue: In summer, when the tournament has always been held, the temperatures are so hot, soccer cannot safely be played at all. To hold 90-minute matches in the desert at the height of an Arabian summer is self-evidently ludicrous.

This is why, for the first time ever, the tournament is taking place in November and December, which is midway through the European soccer season. This is as preposterous as running the World Series over Christmas week—in Jeddah. They might as well have handed Dubai the rights to the Winter Olympics.

But this idiocy glosses over the true ignominy. Qatar might now be home to about 3 million people, but the proportion of actual Qatari citizens who live there is little more than 10 percent. The rest comprise some very rich expatriates of other nations and a huge army of poor migrants who do most of the work. When Qatar won the tournament, it did not have the infrastructure, weather, or fan base to justify being awarded the World Cup. But it was very, very rich.

The whole saga is rather like Dave Chappelle’s cynical take on Trump. Just as the former president acted as the “honest liar” who revealed something important about American politics in Chappelle’s view, Qatar seems to me to have done something similar for soccer. Until now, the sport’s world governing body was able to at least partially hide its sheer awfulness because everyone had a stake in the charade. If handing the tournament to Russia in 2018 might have looked bad on a democracy and human-rights index, it was at least a big country with a proud soccer history. But Qatar?

Not even FIFA’s disgraced former boss Sepp Blatter now feels able to defend the decision—a “mistake,” he recently admitted. That Qatar was able to beat rival bids from the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea to win the right to host the event was so indefensible, so in-your-face ridiculous, that it is impossible not to conclude that the whole system is rigged. Which, in essence, it is.

19) Ethan Mollick on what research says on how to make other people happier:

So, there is no need to belabor the point further. You can make people (including yourself!) happier, and the reason you aren’t doing it is because you are stuck in your own head. So the research suggests a few small things you can do this Thanksgiving (or World Cup) week, to make the world a little bit better:

  • Express gratitude more

  • Give more genuine compliments to people you know

  • Don’t feel awkward about offering to help, even if you can’t solve the problem

  • Reach out to some old contacts and say “hi”

Science says it is okay, and not nearly as awkward as you think.

20) Interesting research on academic credentials:  I think it’s kind of wild that even after the PhD, undergraduate institution still matters.  Most of my professor friends that I have who are way more accomplished than me did not go to an “Ivy Plus” institution as I did (Duke).  Or, maybe I’m just an under-achiever.  

We introduce a model of the admissions process based upon standard agency theory and explore its implications with economics PhD admissions data from 2013-2019. We show that a subjective score that aggregates subjective ratings and recommendation letter features plays a more important role in determining admissions than an objective score based upon graduate record exam (GRE) scores. Subjective evaluations by references who write multiple letters are not only more influential than those of references who write one letter, but they are also more informative. Since multiple-letter references are also more highly ranked economists, this implies that there is a constraint on the supply of high-quality references. Moreover, we find that both the subjective and objective scores are correlated with job placement at a top economics department after the completion of the PhD. These indicators of individual achievement have a smaller effect than an undergraduate degree from an Ivy Plus school (i.e., Ivy League + Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago). In the self-selected pool of applicants, Ivy Plus graduates are twice as likely to be admitted to a top 10 graduate program and are much more likely to obtain an assistant professor position at a top 10 program upon PhD completion. Given that Ivy Plus students must pass a stringent selection process to gain admission to their undergraduate program, we cannot reject the hypothesis that admission committees use information efficiently and fairly. However, this also implies that there may be a return to attending a selective undergraduate program in order to be pooled with highly skilled individuals.

21) I had really been looking forward to seeing Nope.  But, OMG, the pacing and plot… just plain old boring.  One of the few reviews willing to call out the film’s failures.

22) With a Republican majority in the House, we’ll surely be hearing a lot more about Hunter Biden’s laptop next year.  Drum:

It’s still 43 days until the new Congress starts up, but it’s never too early to take a deep dive into some the important issues Republicans will be addressing when January 3rd rolls around. And anyway, there’s only one, so it’s not like you have a ton of homework to do. The subject, of course, is Hunter Biden and his laptop. Here’s a detailed rundown of this sordid affair:

  • Back in the day, Hunter did a lot of drugs and got himself enmeshed in a bunch of sleazy deals. Apparently he routinely promised people that his ties to “Dad” would be a big help to their cause.
  • There is no evidence that Joe Biden knew about Hunter’s dealings or was ever involved in any of them.

Also, come on. Even if you’re a total partisan hack, this doesn’t really sound like Joe’s style, does it?

I guess that wasn’t so hard after all. Just try to keep these bullet points in mind during the 672 days of Fox News hits; strategic leaking to friendly reporters; invocations of “there’s no other explanation for ______” (there always is); New York Times excerpts from the inevitable Peter Schweizer book; 3,000-word thumbsuckers on the Ukrainian judicial system circa 2017; and, of course, chants of “Lock him up” because MAGAnauts are nothing if not predictable.

23) Apparently, many bands now eschew the encore.  Given that the encore is really almost always just completely planned after a short break, I’m good with that.  

24) Can hunter-gatherers teach us lessons for dealing with the modern workplace?

(Abbreviated and late) Quick hits (part II)

1) Spent all of Saturday being a marching band dad, which put me way behind, but a few things you should try and find some time to read.

1) This Yascha Mounk conversation with Sam Harris is really, really good.  If you are the type of person who finds the same things interesting that I do (and, if not, why are you here?) you should just read it. 

2) Loved this NYT Magazine interview with Bono.  They covered a lot of interesting ground, but I especially enjoyed the parts about contemporary pop music and about songwriting:

It’s more about where your music fits into the culture. Is the pop-culture world still a place where U2 can realistically compete for attention? I know now that with youth culture I am kind of tolerated hanging out at the back of the birthday party but the magic show’s going on down here for the kids. I wished to connect with the pop charts over the last two albums and failed. But the songwriting got really good. “Songs of Experience” is great songwriting even if you don’t like the sound of it. Or “Every Breaking Wave” or “The Troubles” on “Songs of Innocence.” I would have loved to have a pop song on the radio. Probably we’ve run a road on that. So right now I want to write the most unforgiving, obnoxious, defiant, [expletive]-off-to-the-pop-charts rock ’n’ roll song that we’ve ever made. I spoke to about it this week. He’s going, “Is it that call again?” “What call?” “The one about we’re going to write the big [expletive]-off rock song?” And I say, “Yeah, it’s our job!” We can make songs famous now, but I don’t think U2 can make them hits…

Not exactly your highest moment. You’ve never heard us doing those songs. [Expletive] you. “The Boy Falls From the Sky” is an amazing song; so is “Turn Off the Dark.” 

 But why did we end up working on Broadway? The American songbook! If I could impart one thing to you in this exchange it’s that I’m a student, and so is my friend Edge. We’re students of songwriting. We don’t mind if we’re humiliated to find a great song. These  we worked with on our last albums know a lot about songs. You say, “But you’re U2 — you don’t need that.” What’s interesting is that we want that.

3) Paul Waldman, “We’ve been told a lie about rural America”

There’s a story Republicans tell about the politics of rural America, one aimed at both rural people and the rest of us. It goes like this: Those coastal urban elitist Democrats look down their noses at you, but the GOP has got your back. They hate you; we love you. They ignore you; we’re working for you. Whatever you do, don’t even think about voting for a Democrat.

That story pervades our discussion of the rural-urban divide in U.S. politics. But it’s fundamentally false. The reality is complex, but one thing you absolutely cannot say is that Democrats don’t try to help rural America. In fact, they probably work harder at it than Republicans do.

Let’s talk about just one area that has been of particular interest to Democrats, and to rural people themselves: high-speed internet access, a problem that’s addressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that the Biden administration announced this week.

The problem is straightforward: The less dense an area is, the harder it is for private companies to make a profit providing internet service. Laying a mile of fiber-optic cable to reach a hundred apartment buildings is a lot more efficient than laying a mile of cable to reach one family farm.

So you need government to fill the gaps. That’s because the lack of high-speed service makes it harder to start and sustain many kinds of businesses, have schools access the information students need, and allow people many of the basic pleasures of modern life, like rewatching all six seasons of “Peaky Blinders.”

The Biden administration has now rolled out $759 million in new grants and loans for building rural broadband. This money comes from the infrastructure bill, but the other big spending bills President Biden signed, the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, also had a wealth of money and programs specifically targeted to rural areas.

While those programs cover a variety of needs, broadband is particularly visible. The administration is using the money to fund rural broadband projects from Alaska to Michigan to Minnesota to Oregon. And of course, when that federal money provided by Democrats over the objection of Republicans comes to red states, Republican officials rush to take credit for it.

This isn’t new or unusual. Every Democratic presidential campaign puts out a plan for rural America. The Biden administration created the Rural Partners Network to coordinate executive branch initiatives affecting rural Americans. Every big spending bill Democrats write makes sure to direct money to address the needs of rural areas…

Liberals sometimes say rural dwellers have been fooled into voting Republican — and therefore against their economic interests — based on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. That’s not the argument I’m making here. It’s legitimate to put those issues first if they’re what you care about the most. If you live in rural Kansas and your opposition to abortion is profoundly important to you, it would be unreasonable to expect you to support the pro-abortion-rights party, even if it brought broadband to your town.

But it would be wrong to ignore the extremely hard work Democrats do to improve the lives of rural Americans, even as they won’t win most of their votes. We could argue about the value of different programs or economic policies in such areas, but you can’t say Democrats aren’t trying.

4) Before he became a public intellectual on race and wokism, John McWhorter was just a great linguist.  I loved this column on the oddity of English having the exact same word for singular and plural 2nd person, ie., you.

Fish don’t know they’re wet, and we English speakers don’t know we’re weird. Have you ever thought about how odd it is that English uses the same word for “you” in the singular and the plural?

Possibly not, because to speak English lifelong is to sense this as normal. But try to think of another language where there is only one word for “you.” Imagine if in Spanish one used “usted” to mean both one person and several, or if in French there were no “tu” and “vous” was the only word ever used to mean “you.” As often as not, languages do even more than just distinguish the singular and plural in the second person, marking distinctions of politeness as well. In Hindi there is the informal singular “tū,” the more formal “tum” and then “āp” for addressing elders and others to whom one is meant to show respect.

And in cases where English serves as the foundation for brand-new languages, one of the first things people do is fill in the “you” hole. When the British first arrived in Australia, one of the ways they initially communicated with Indigenous people was through a pidgin English with a limited vocabulary. That pidgin was later used throughout the South Seas area, and ultimately flowered into actual languages. One of them is now the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. In that language, Tok Pisin, no one puts up with this business of using “you” for all numbers of people. Rather, they get even more fine-grained than most others: They address two people as “yutupela” — you two fellows — and three as “yutripela.” …

What happened with English?

It’s something we may never have a complete answer to. Certainly, in the Middle Ages across Europe, a fashion arose in various languages of addressing individuals with the plural pronoun as a mark of respect. The idea was that using a singular form was too direct; the plural form suggested a kind of polite distance, rather like Queen Victoria’s reputed fondness for saying about herself that “we are not amused,” the premise being that to refer to herself in the singular would suggest that she was on the same level as ordinary people.

At first, this usage of “you” was between people of higher status, with the expectation then developing that people lower on the social scale would address their betters as “you” while addressing one another as “thou.” But the “you” fashion spread down the scale, with even middle-class couples alternating between calling each other “thou” and “you” depending on factors of formality, affection and subject matter. In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Benedick, likely wanting to connote intimacy to Beatrice, tells her, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” But a bit later, when he is addressing a more formal and even menacing matter, he switches to “you”: “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?”

This stage was paralleled in many European countries, but the odd thing about English is that “you” then edged out “thou” completely in the 17th century. Why English took it this far is difficult to know. At a time when “thou” was still a recent memory, Quakers found the “you” takeover elitist, with its overtone of saluting and bowing creating conflict with their egalitarian ideology. I attended a Quaker school for a while in the late 1970s and at least one teacher was still using “thou” in this way — I will never forget him reminding me before an exam, “Be sure to put thy name on thy paper.” However, in the 17th century, Quakers’ insistence on using “thou” even with people of high status felt to many like an insult, and some were even physically assaulted for their refusal to get on the “you” bandwagon.

The Quakers’ beef was with matters of hierarchy, but they were also onto something in the linguistic sense. Normal languages have separate singular and plural second-person pronouns, period.

5) The US Constitution is way too hard to amend and that’s bad for our country.  Jill Lepore with a cool interactive feature on it in the New Yorker. 

6) Eric Levitz, “The Media Did Not Trick Voters Into Disliking Inflation”

As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives Republicans an 81 percent chance of taking the House. Democrats’ prospects for keeping the Senate, meanwhile, are surprisingly favorable: Despite widespread disapproval of Joe Biden and the economy, Democrats are narrowly favored to retain a majority in the upper chamber.

This suggests that the GOP might be paying a penalty for its flirtations with authoritarian rule. But if so, the penalty is small. In polls, voters consistently name inflation as their top concern. And support for Democrats appears to rise and fall with the price of gasoline; when pain at the pump goes up, Democratic vote-share goes down…

The open conspiracy against democratic government in the U.S. troubles voters much less than the cost of living.  When Gallup asked voters to name America’s most important problem in September, only 4 percent mentioned threats to its democracy.

This has inspired an understandable yet ironic genre of commentary: The denunciation of the voting public, in the name of democracy…

There is something to this critique. All news media has a negativity bias. And mainstream outlets have not devoted much attention to the merits of the Biden economy. Two and a half years after the 2008 crash, unemployment remained well above 8 percent; two and a half years after the COVID crash, unemployment is at 3.5 percent. More basically, the press has done a poor job of contextualizing today’s inflation. The cause of contemporary economic dysfunction is not primarily Biden’s economic mismanagement, even if one stipulates, for the sake of argument, that the American Rescue Plan was excessively large. Rather, the cause of our economic difficulties is a prolonged pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans, disabled many others, forced factory closures, bankrupted many small businesses, and triggered a sudden shift in the structure of consumer demand. We could have been paid for those costs through high unemployment. Instead, we are paying them through elevated prices. One can debate whether the Biden administration struck the right balance between full employment and price stability. But they were dealt a difficult hand, and were likely to preside over economic discontent no matter how they chose to play it. At the same time, cable news has done far more to spotlight the Democrats’ failure to reduce inflation than to inform the public of the GOP’s (heinously unpopular) plans for restoring price stability.

Separately, mainstream news outlets aim to reach the broadest possible audience. And in a country closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, this often compels such outlets to elide the reality that only one of America’s major parties is committed to the basic tenets of liberal democracy.

But none of this means that CNN and the New York Times boast primary responsibility for the electorate’s frustration with the economy or its complacency about the threat to U.S. democracy.

7) No you don’t actually need to read past the headline of “Climate Protester Glues His Head to ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ Painting.”  OMG these people are absolutely moronic!  Could ExxonMobil even come up with a better strategy for undermining climate goals?!

8) And, damn, no better take on skewering these morons than Jeff Maurer.  I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this, “If You’re Not Hot-Gluing Your Scrotum to the Venus de Milo, Then I Don’t Believe You Really Care About Climate Justice”

Let’s not mince words: These protesters are idiots. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that you won’t solve climate change by gluing your face to “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”. For starters: It’s not even Vermeer’s best work. This list ranks it as his eighth-best; “View of Delft” is clearly superior in both composition and theme. And frankly, I’m skeptical that the challenge of finding alternate energy sources will be solved by gluing ourselves to anything less than classical masterpieces. I’m talking ancient works — the pediments of the Parthenon, or Tutankhamun’s burial mask, for example. Only when I open the paper and see some brave climate warrior permanently attached to “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” will I start to believe that solutions might be nigh.

Also: Only an amateur glues his face to something. Once you’ve been around for a while, you know that a more sensitive body part = more justice. That’s why we need to use our brains and get our ball sacks involved. At the risk of being gender-exclusive, nothing generates political capital quite like a glued nutsack — it’s a benefit that stems from the organ’s unique sensitivity. In a pinch, a labia will do, as will a clitoris (despite the obvious logistical challenges), and I applaud women who use these organs to their advantage. But at the end of the day, nothing wins people over quite like gluing your balls to something — it’s how Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment! …

Shame on these milquetoast protesters! Let’s see some fucking commitment, assholes. Are you dodging the Louvre — where the Venus de Milo is kept — just because it’s a high-profile museum with advanced security? Well then I guess we’ll all burn alive because you can’t figure out how to get 8 ounces of Loctite Ultra Gel and a thermos of clam chowder past a security guard! Did these protesters think that solving climate change will be easy? It won’t be. As Max Weber said: “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Phrased another way: “If you’re not prepared to permanently attach your sack to a classical masterpiece, then you might as well stay home.”

National parks were established when John Muir stapled his dick to a Terracotta soldier. Erin Brockovich brought Pacific Gas & Electric to heel by epoxying both buttcheeks to Nefertiti’s burial mask. Acid rain was solved when an international coalition of leaders came together to rubber cement their taints to The Stele of Hammurabi. The recipe is clear: firm attachment + sensitive body part + classical work of art = environmental progress. That’s what it takes — that’s where solutions are found. We need brave climate warriors who are ready to make that commitment. If these protesters aren’t prepared to stand tall, drop trou, and firmly attach their fuzzy bean bag to a two thousand year-old Greek masterpiece, then I’m afraid I just can’t take them seriously.

9) So fascinating, “How the ‘Black Death’ Left Its Genetic Mark on Future Generations”

Many Europeans carry genetic mutations that protected their ancestors from the bubonic plague, scientists reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

When the Black Death struck Europe in 1348, the bacterial infection killed large swaths of people across the continent, driving the strongest pulse of natural selection yet measured in humans, the new study found.

It turns out that certain genetic variants made people far more likely to survive the plague. But this protection came with a price: People who inherit the plague-resistant mutations run a higher risk of immune disorders such as Crohn’s disease.

“These are the unfortunate side effects of long-term selection for protection,” said Hendrik Poinar, a geneticist at McMaster University in Canada and an author of the new study…

The idea makes basic evolutionary sense: When a lot of organisms die off, the survivors will pass down mutations that protected them from death. During the Industrial Revolution, for example, peppered moths changed from a light speckled coloring to dark. That shift was driven by the coal smoke that blackened the trees where the moths rested. Dark moths were better able to hide from birds and survived to pass on their genes.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Eric Levitz on Republican hostage-taking on the debt:

Unfortunately, the debt ceiling provides the GOP with a hostage. This means the second half of Biden’s first term may look a lot like a throwback to the Obama era, when a Republican-controlled Congress would repeatedly torment the Democratic administration with threats to blow up the global economy in exchange for austerity. Alarmingly, Biden appears to have learned little from those manufactured crises. On October 21, the president ruled out the one tool that Democrats could use to preempt Republican brinksmanship.

In most developed countries, the budgetary process goes roughly like this: The legislature passes laws that authorize spending and taxation and then the government borrows money to cover the gap between the two. The U.S. follows a similar procedure except it includes an additional step. After Congress has approved deficit-increasing budgets, it must vote on whether it will allow the Treasury to borrow the necessary funds. This is because there is a statutory limit on how much debt the government is allowed to hold. Congress must raise this “debt ceiling” whenever the budgets it has already authorized generate debt in excess of the limit.

Raising the debt ceiling does not increase the amount of money the government owes its bondholders. It just prevents the government from having to default on either its debt or its obligations to U.S. service members, Social Security recipients, Medicaid enrollees, and the myriad other beneficiaries of federal spending.

In other words, the debt ceiling is an insane institution. Failing to raise it to a level consistent with Congress’s fiscal demands presents the executive branch with an impossible order: It is simultaneously instructed by Congress to borrow more and forbidden from doing so…

In light of all this, Democrats should do two things.

First, the party should inform voters that the GOP’s plan for lowering inflation is to cut America’s most popular government programs or else engineer a global depression. Attacking the GOP’s plan to reduce inflation at the expense of America’s seniors allows Democrats to increase the relevance of an issue on which it enjoys an advantage (protecting Medicare and Social Security) while addressing voters’ top concern.

Second, and most important, Democrats must effectively abolish the debt ceiling. Assuming Republicans win the House in November, the new majority won’t take the reins until January 2023. Between Election Day and then, Democrats will have the opportunity to use the reconciliation process to pass a budget bill without needing to overcome a Senate filibuster (and thus without needing Republican votes). Due to Senate rules, such a bill couldn’t technically abolish the debt limit, but it could effectively do so by raising the debt ceiling to, say, a googolplex of dollars. Better to kill the debt ceiling before Republicans can use it to take the world hostage.

But no such bill can pass without Biden’s support, and he told reporters that abolishing the debt limit would be “irresponsible.” In so doing, he affirmed the GOP’s fiction about what raising the debt ceiling actually means, while leaving the economy at its mercy. If the Republican Party’s commitment to brinksmanship threatens to upend the global financial system, the president’s nostalgic attachment to congressional conventions threatens to do the same.

I’d like to think Biden isn’t really this dumb and just didn’t want to give the Republicans another economic talking point before the election.  Because, if Democrats don’t actually essentially eliminate the debt ceiling, that’s just profound political malpractice.

2) Couldn’t agree more with this Melinda Wenner Moyer post, “Why I Won’t Teach My Son Chivalry”

I know this post is going to ruffle some feathers. So first, I want to point out that I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our kids to be generous or helpful. It’s great to teach kids to hold the door for others! It’s important to teach kids to offer a helping hand when someone is struggling! But I firmly believe we should not be teaching boys to do this specifically for girls,and especially not to be doing it because they are girls. We should teach kids to come to the aid of others who need and want help, regardless of their gender — and not to make blanket assumptions about the kinds of people who need assistance and don’t. The notion that boys should go out of their way to help or protect girls promotes dangerous ideas, and, ultimately, dangerous behavior. (But if you have been teaching your kids chivalry, don’t fret! Just a slight tweak in framing turns chivalry into kindness towards all.)

Although chivalry is insidious — more on why in a minute — it’s very attractive. Among other things, it provides a simple code of conduct for young, typically heterosexual, people to follow when dealing with the opposite sex. “People are pretty desperate for a rulebook — ‘Okay, you want to get in a relationship, here’s how you do it,’” said Matt Hammond, a social psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who studies prejudice and intimate relationships. Chivalry provides “hard and fast rules, which are super restrictive [but] are also very freeing in their restrictiveness, because they present a solution to complex problems.” (Speaking of restrictive rules: This post focuses on people who identify as either men or women and who are in heterosexual relationships, but of course, the world is much more complex than that. Still, chivalry does tend to thrive within these particular spheres.)…

But if you sit with the concept for a few minutes, and take a look at the research, you discover that chivalry is patronizing and based on misogynistic ideas. (In the research literature, chivalry is referred to as “benevolent sexism.”) The notion that men should care for and protect women inherently implies that women are weaker and less competent. It’s as if chivalrous guys think, “‘We love women. We love girls. But they’re also so helpless that we need to like make sure that they don’t hurt themselves while opening the door,’” said Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at NYU who studies cognitive development, including how biases develop. “Sending the signal that girls need additional protection — while in the moment, it might be a nice thing for girls and they might feel good about it — it is ultimately undermining because the message is that you need extra help.”

Consciously, of course, many women and girls don’t interpret chivalry as sexist — and as I said, years ago, neither did I. This is another reason it’s become such a staple of our culture: It serves, at least initially, to keep women happy in their subordinate roles. If men were overtly misogynistic, many women wouldn’t tolerate them (I mean, one would hope?). Chivalry makes the existing gender power structure more palatable — it is what researchers have described as “the carrot dangled in front of women to motivate them to accept inequality” (whereas overt, hostile sexism is “the stick by which they are beaten when they do not”).

I’m not saying that chivalrous men are pretending to adore women in order to get females to tolerate them. Chivalry isn’t an act of willful manipulation. Many chivalrous men truly believe that what they’re doing is helpful and loving — I know lots of these guys and they mean well! — and many may be extremely offended by the argument that chivalry is rooted in sexism. (I can’t wait for all the hate mail I get in response to this post.) But we know from the research that men who support or engage in chivalrous behavior also tend to hold more overtly sexist beliefs deep down, even if they’re not consciously aware that they do. The two kinds of sexism — benevolent and hostile — typically go hand in hand. We also know that chivalry has negative consequences, even when men mean well.

3) OMG, Scott Alexander’s review of the Malleus Malificarum is soooo good:

I myself read the Malleus in search of a different type of wisdom. We think of witch hunts as a byword for irrationality, joking about strategies like “if she floats, she’s a witch; if she drowns, we’ll exonerate the corpse.” But this sort of snide superiority to the past has led us wrong before. We used to make fun of phlogiston, of “dormitive potencies”, of geocentric theory. All these are indeed false, but more sober historians have explained why each made sense at the time, replacing our caricatures of absurd irrationality with a picture of smart people genuinely trying their best in epistemically treacherous situations. Were the witch-hunters as bad as everyone says? Or are they in line for a similar exoneration? …

Question IX: Whether Witches May Work Some Prestidigitory Illusion So That The Male Organ Appears To Be Entirely Removed And Separate From The Body.

IE: can witches steal your penis?

It would seem that witches can steal your penis. After all, many people claim to have had their penis stolen by witches. The fifteenth-century peasants among whom Kramer went witch-hunting claimed this. And modern people claim it even today. Frank Bures’ The Geography Of Madness is a great book about recent penis-stealing-witch-related panics, which happened until the mid-20th century in Asia and still happen in Africa. For some reason, this is a classic concern across cultures and centuries.

But on the contrary side, God created the human body, and charged Man to be fruitful and multiply. So if the Devil could steal people’s penises it would seem that he must be more powerful than God, which is blasphemous.

Kramer answers that witches cannot steal men’s penises, but they can cast an illusion that causes it to look and feel like the penis has been stolen. Classic namby-pamby liberal centrist compromise! …

So what’s going on? Theory 1, Kramer made everything up. I don’t want to completely discount this. There must be at least one pathological liar in 15th century Europe, and surely that would be the kind of person who would write the world’s most shocking book on witches and start a centuries-long panic. Against this proposal, he sometimes names specific sources who a fact-checker could presumably go talk to, or specific court cases that living people must remember. I’ll stop here before we start retreading the usual arguments around the Gospels, etc.

Theory 2, Kramer is faithfully reporting a weird mass hallucination that had been going on long before he entered the picture. You can imagine a modern journalist interviewing UFO abductees or something. Some consistent rules might emerge – the spacecraft are always saucer-shaped, the aliens always have big eyes – but only because pre-existing legends have shaped the form of the hallucinations and lies. Then, unless he’s really careful, he unconsciously massages the data and adds an extra layer of consistency, until it everything makes total sense and seems incontrovertible.

I think 2 is basically right – again, I refer interested readers to Frank Boles’ study of penis-stealing-witch traditions around the world. Wherever there are superstitious people, there will be stories about witches, which will cohere into a consistent mythos. Add a legal system centered around getting people to confess under torture, and lots of people will confess. And since confessed witches were judged more repentant if they explained to the judge exactly what they did and maybe incriminated others, they’ll make up detailed stories about entire covens, and these stories will always match what their interlocutors expect to hear – ie the contours of the witch myth as it existed at the time…

So I think of Henry Kramer as basically a reasonable guy, a guy who expected the world to make sense, marooned in a century that hadn’t developed enough psychological sophistication for him to do anything other than shoot himself in the foot again and again.

This is how I think of myself too. As a psychiatrist, people are constantly asking me questions about schizophrenia, depression, chronic fatigue, chronic Lyme, chronic pain, gender dysphoria, trauma, brain fog, anorexia, and all the other things that the shiny diploma on my wall claims that I’m an expert in. In five hundred years, I think we’ll be a lot wiser and maybe have the concepts we need to deal with all of this. For now, I do my best with what I have. But I can’t shake the feeling that sometimes I’m doing harm (and doing nothing when I should do something is a kind of harm!)

They say the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown. I am not afraid of witches. But I am afraid of what they represent about the unknowability of the world. Somewhere out there, there still lurk pitfalls in our common-sensical and well-intentioned thought processes, maybe just as dark and dangerous as the ones that made Henry Kramer devote his life to eradicating a scourge that didn’t exist.

Happy Halloween!

4) I’ve been sleeping with variations of white noise for almost as long as I’ve been a parent.  It proved to be a godsend when our children were infants, and since we were in the same room with them we all got used to it and never stopped.  We have white noise machines in all the bedrooms.  I did know there were different “colors” of noise till a few years ago when I downloaded the Simply Noise app to use for white noise on my phone when I’m on the road (as my PS conference roommates can attest).  I was intrigued to discover the other colors, and “brown” noise is definitely the bomb.  And now here it is in the NYT (complete with interactive sounds).  Haven’t done a gift link in a while. “Can Brown Noise Turn Off Your Brain?”

5) I don’t know why The New Yorker would have a pretty scientific explainer on how metabolism works, but it’s pretty cool.  

6) Good stuff from Pew, “Parents Differ Sharply by Party Over What Their K-12 Children Should Learn in School”

Bar chart showing Republican and Democratic parents have widely different views of what their K-12 children should learn about certain topics in school

And check out the huge racial differences among Democrats on this graph below.  This matters.

Bar chart showing views on what children should learn about gender identity in school differ by gender among Republicans and by race and ethnicity among Democrats

7) It really is amazing how many fewer bugs are on my windshield on road trips these days.  It’s hardly an issue at all anymore and it used to be a big messy deal.  And this is probably not good. “Wait, why are there so few dead bugs on my windshield these days?”

Before we address possible causes of the “windshield phenomenon,” such as more aerodynamic cars, we should make one thing clear: It’s not a mass delusion or faulty collective memory. Windshield splats are valid ecological data, and they don’t bear good news…

From 1996 to 2017, insect splatters fell by 80 percent on one of the routes Moller regularly travels. On the other, longer stretch, they plunged 97 percent. Conventional measures show similar trends, and more recent observations have seen even sharper declines, Moller told us.

Experts say the lack of insect innards on our summer windshields is just one symptom of a broader decline in insect populations worldwide. But how much are insects declining? We’re not sure…

Many smart people we spoke with, including entomologists and wheat farmers, speculated that maybe the cars have changed, not the bugs. As vehicles become more aerodynamic, the thinking goes, their increasingly efficient airflow whisks the bugs away from the windshield instead of creating head-on splatters.

But when we called experts in the arcane art of computational fluid dynamics, they sounded skeptical. Yes, today’s sleek sedans can have half the drag of the land boats that ruled the road just a generation or two ago. But that improved airflow won’t do much for a bug.

8) Among my many concerns about the midterm elections is this, ‘Why Putin hopes for a GOP victory, as explained by a top Russia expert”

Greg Sargent: The guy likely to become House speaker is openly declaring that Republicans might not continue U.S. military aid to Ukraine. A number of House GOP and Senate candidates are also hostile to such aid. How seriously do you take this threat?

Timothy Snyder:I take it very seriously, because democracy around the world depends on Ukrainians winning this war. I also find it puzzling, because the Ukrainians are doing more for declared bipartisan American national security interests than any American foreign policy has done for decades.

By pinning down the Russian army and substantially weakening it, they are weakening China’s cat’s paw, which is Russia. By showing how difficult it is to carry out this kind of invasion, Ukraine is making the scenario for war with China — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan — much less likely.

A lot of Republicans genuinely support the Ukrainian cause and want the United States to help Ukraine prevail. But now we might see a genuine power struggle inside the GOP over whether the party will retreat from backing Ukraine.

I talk to quite a few Republicans who say and do exactly the right things regarding Ukraine. But an underlying source of the [power struggle] you mention is media. The guidelines for state-sponsored Russian propaganda television predict very well what Tucker Carlson says about Russia and Ukraine. Then Russian propagandists play clips of Tucker Carlson for their viewers.

So an awful lot of Americans and Republican voters are imbibing Russian propaganda tropes without knowing it.

It seems to me that the alignment of nontrivial swaths of the Republican Party with Vladimir Putin — we should try to understand this as potentially a serious geopolitical development.

We are actually on the verge of winning in Ukraine. We’re also on the verge of a tipping point back toward democratic institutions, and I don’t mean just in the West; I mean around the world. An awful lot hinges on Russia losing and Ukraine winning.

The tipping point can also go the other way. If the Ukrainians hadn’t fought — or if they had already lost — we would have already seen a tipping point where authoritarianism and Putin-style nihilism would be much more popular.

Right now, we have an opportunity for a positive tipping point. We could throw it all away if we do the wrong thing after November. Things could go either extremely well or extremely poorly.

9) Good (and free) stuff from Yglesias, ‘Getting back on track with the Latino vote: A decade of bad analysis built on a flawed analogy”

If you want some good takes on where things stand, I’d recommend this Pablo Manríquez article, as well as Miriam Jordan’s piece on racism in Latin America and in Latin-derived communities in the United States. I’d recommend Jay Caspian Kang on the difference between ethnic politics grounded in community solidarity and ideological anti-racism. And I really recommend “Reversion to the Mean, or Their Version of the Dream: An Analysis of the Latino Voting in 2020” by Bernard Fraga, Yamil Velez, and Emily West which concludes the rightward shift in the Hispanic vote may be permanent. I also recommend Ruy Teixeira’s article “Hispanic Voters are Normie Voters.”

This new conventional wisdom is, I think, completely correct — Americans of Latin American ancestry are a very diverse group with a range of ethnic backgrounds, issue positions, interests, etc.

This has always been personally salient because my grandfather was a Cuban-American leftist whose family came to the United States before the Cuban Revolution. He had very little in common politically with the mainstream Cuban-American community in the United States, which was dominated by anti-Castro emigrés. Which is just to say that even though everyone always knew the Cuban-American case was somewhat “special” in political terms, I knew that amongst Cuban-Americans, there were a lot of differences based on specific family experiences and, ultimately, the individual ideas of individual people.

And I think it’s important to remember the extent to which this was not the conventional wisdom in the recent past.

Teixeira, famously, was the author of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” a book whose actual thesis was more complicated than the caricature, but that a lot of people read as “the growing Hispanic population will deliver victory to the Democrats.” Fraga wrote the more recent book, “The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America.”His newer work doesn’t contradict anything the older work on turnout says. But it does reflect an important shift in emphasis from a mobilization frame to a persuasive one.

I’ve written about this a couple of times, but understanding the depth and persistence of the belief that Democrats could win elections through mobilization alone is critical to understanding what’s happened over the past decade of American politics. A lot of progressives were very disappointed by Barack Obama’s eight years in office. As far back as 2011, Jonathan Chait was writing pieces about how progressives are disappointed by every president and should maybe alter their expectations. But most progressives didn’t agree with that and wanted to construct a theory of how it would be possible to run and win campaigns with a much more progressive agenda.

If you want to understand why Democrats moved left on almost every issue since 2012, this misread of the Hispanic vote is a key piece of the picture. The idea was that if the party went left on criminal justice issues, Black turnout would remain high. Then the party could go left on immigration to maintain high Hispanic turnout, and count on the rising Hispanic share of the population to loft Democrats to victory as they moved left on climate and economics. The belated recognition that there are lots of moderate and conservative Hispanic voters, that the conservative ones will probably vote Republican, and that you need to court the moderate ones by paying attention to what they actually think and care about is welcome. But I think assimilating the significance of those facts requires revisiting some earlier debates.

10) And the Teixeira piece, “Hispanic Voters Are Normie Voters: Time for Woke Democrats to Wake Up”

It therefore follows that, if Hispanic voting trends continue to move steadily against the Democrats, the pro-Democratic effect of nonwhite population growth will be blunted, if not cancelled out entirely. Exactly that happened in 2020. This radically undermines the Democrats’ rising American electorate theory of the case.

Digging deeper reveals even more problems for the Democrats. Their slippage among Hispanic voters in 2020 was all over the country and among all the different ethnicities lumped under the Hispanic label. The biggest damage was among Cuban Hispanics (a 26 point decline in Democratic margin) and in Florida (down 28 points), but the damage went far beyond that. The Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters declined 18 points in Texas and Wisconsin, 16 points in Nevada, 12 points in Pennsylvania and 10 points in Arizona. And among Hispanic ethnicities, the Democratic margin was down 18 points among Puerto Ricans, 16 points among Dominicans, 12 points among Mexicans and 18 points among other Hispanic ethnicities…

But it’s not that simple, as the election results from 2020 demonstrate. In retrospect, it seems clear that Democrats, in fact, seriously erred by lumping Hispanics in with “people of color” and assuming they embraced the activism around racial issues that dominated so much of the political scene in 2020, particularly in the summer. This was a flawed assumption. In reality, Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly an upwardly mobile, patriotic population with practical and down to earth concerns focused on jobs, the economy, health care, effective schools and public safety.

In short, they are normie voters, not at all a liberal voting bloc, especially on social issues, that just needs to be mobilized. This is not true about Hispanics in general and is very far from the truth among working class Hispanics, three-quarters or more of Hispanic voters. In Pew’s post-election validated voter survey, just 20 percent of these voters described themselves as liberal, while 45 percent said they were moderate and 35 percent said they were conservative.

Just how normie and not super-progressive Hispanics are as a group is well-illustrated by recent data from Echelon Insights. Take the issue of structural racism. Echelon asked respondents to choose between two statements: Racism is built into our society, including into its policies and institutions vs. Racism comes from individuals who hold racist views, not from our society and institutions.

Of course in progressive sectors of the Democratic party, which do so much to define the party’s national brand, it is an article of faith that the first statement is the correct one. Indeed, in Echelon’s “strong progressive” group—roughly 10 percent of voters—they are so very, very sure of America’s systemic racism that they endorse the first statement by an amazing 94-6 margin. But Hispanic voters disagree, endorsing the second statement that racism comes from individuals by 58-36.

That’s quite a difference. Clearly, this constituency, unlike Democratic progressives, does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy. 

Or consider patriotism. The Echelon survey posed this choice to respondents: America is not the greatest country in the world vs. America is the greatest country in the world. By 66 percent to 28 percent, strong progressives say America is not the greatest country in the world. By 70-23, Hispanic voters say the reverse…

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Democrats’ emphasis on social and democracy issues, while catnip to some socially liberal, educated voters, leaves many Hispanic voters cold. Their concerns are more mundane and economically-driven. This is despite the fact that many of these voters are in favor of moderate abortion rights and gun control and disapprove of the January 6th events. But these issues are just not salient for them in the way they are for the Democrats’ educated and most fervent supporters.

In short, they are normie voters.

11) Seems like harnessing the power of the tides for energy would be really cool.  At least for now, it’s hard to make cost-effective, but, that could potentially change with the right investments.  Almost surely worth a shot.

13) I don’t think we should have the death penalty.  But, since we actually do, this seems like a legitimate question, ‘If Not the Parkland Shooter, Who Is the Death Penalty For?”

Society embraces four major justifications for punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation and retribution. Retribution has often been scorned by academics and judges, but ultimately, it provides capital punishment with its only truly moral foundation. Critics of the theory, including Mr. Cruz’s lawyers, commonly equate retribution with revenge — disparaging “an eye for an eye” as barbaric.

But retribution is not simply revenge. Revenge may be limitless and misdirected at the undeserving, as with collective punishment. Retribution, on the other hand, can help restore a moral balance. It demands that punishment must be limited and proportional. Retributivists like myself just as strongly oppose excessive punishment as we urge adequate punishment: as much, but no more than what’s deserved. Thus I endorse capital punishment only for the worst of the worst criminals.

Notice what retributivists don’t count: punishment’s future costs or benefits. Although Mr. Cruz’s execution might deter future mass murderers, especially school shooters, we don’t subtract its costs and add its benefits. We refuse to make an example of convicted killers, to treat them as means to other ends.

Can Mr. Cruz be rehabilitated? Will he ever acquire the skills and values to function as a productive member of society? It’s morally irrelevant. Nor can his future dangerousness — that he might kill again — justify permanently incapacitating him by executing him. Surely it’s possible to construct and operate prisons that keep us safe.

So we retributivists reject deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. Instead we insist that Mr. Cruz’s human dignity requires his just punishment as an end in itself. By rejecting as morally insufficient the defense’s plea that Mr. Cruz’s life should be spared because he suffered fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, by holding him fully responsible and executing him, we acknowledge him as fully human, condemning the free will that produced his monstrous crimes.

For Nikolas Cruz, adequate, proportional punishment means death. His crime was coldblooded and calculated. At 13 or 14, he first thought about shooting up a school. He studied how mass murderers had committed their crimes. He told a psychiatrist that he thought, “If I do go onto the school campus, the police are not going to do anything, and I would have a small opportunity to shoot people for maybe 20 minutes.”

14) Yes, Newsweek ain’t exactly Newsweek any more, but it’s still cool to be in there:

Steven Greene, professor of political science at North Carolina State University, told Newsweek that given the pattern of national polls, it seems consistent that Budd would “have a reasonable but certainly not safe lead” in what he described as a purple state “with the slightest red tinge.” …

Greene said he would be surprised if independents broke at more than 60-40 once results conclude on Election Day.

“That’s not to say it can’t happen but kind of looking at the whole larger political context, I don’t necessarily see the scenario where voters break strongly for Beasley to put her over the top….Regardless of the history, when you have a race polling this close, it would be insane for Democrats not to invest in this race and give a go at it,” he said.

15) Derek Thompson, “How the U.K. Became One of the Poorest Countries in Western Europe: Britain chose finance over industry, austerity over investment, and a closed economy over openness to the world.”

This calamity was decades in the making. After World War II, Britain’s economy grew slower than those of much of continental Europe. By the 1970s, the Brits were having a national debate about why they were falling behind and how the former empire had become a relatively insular and sleepy economy. Under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, markets were deregulated, unions were smashed, and the financial sector emerged as a jewel of the British economy. Thatcher’s injection of neoliberalism had many complicated knock-on effects, but from the 1990s into the 2000s, the British economy roared ahead, with London’s financial boom leading the way. Britain, which got rich as the world’s factory in the 19th century, had become the world’s banker by the 21st.

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it hit hard, smashing the engine of Britain’s economic ascent. Wary of rising deficits, the British government pursued a policy of austerity, fretting about debt rather than productivity or aggregate demand. The results were disastrous. Real wages fell for six straight years. Facing what the writer Fintan O’Toole called “the dull anxiety of declining living standards,” conservative pols sniffed out a bogeyman to blame for this slow-motion catastrophe. They served up to anxious voters a menu of scary outsiders: bureaucrats in Brussels, immigrants, asylum seekers—anybody but the actual decision makers who had kneecapped British competitiveness. A cohort of older, middle-class, grievously nostalgic voters demanded Brexit, and they got it.

The past few months have been rough for the United Kingdom. Energy prices are soaring. National inflation has breached double digits. The longest-serving British monarch has died. The shortest-serving prime minister has quit.

You probably knew all of that already. British news is covered amply (some might say too amply) in American media. Behind the lurid headlines, however, is a deeper story of decades-long economic dysfunction that holds lessons for the future.

In the American imagination, the U.K. is not only our political parent but also our cultural co-partner, a wealthy nation that gave us modern capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. But strictly by the numbers, Britain is pretty poor for a rich place. U.K. living standards and wages have fallen significantly behind those of Western Europe. By some measures, in fact, real wages in the U.K. are lower than they were 15 years ago, and will likely be even lower next year.

This calamity was decades in the making. After World War II, Britain’s economy grew slower than those of much of continental Europe. By the 1970s, the Brits were having a national debate about why they were falling behind and how the former empire had become a relatively insular and sleepy economy. Under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, markets were deregulated, unions were smashed, and the financial sector emerged as a jewel of the British economy. Thatcher’s injection of neoliberalism had many complicated knock-on effects, but from the 1990s into the 2000s, the British economy roared ahead, with London’s financial boom leading the way. Britain, which got rich as the world’s factory in the 19th century, had become the world’s banker by the 21st.

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it hit hard, smashing the engine of Britain’s economic ascent. Wary of rising deficits, the British government pursued a policy of austerity, fretting about debt rather than productivity or aggregate demand. The results were disastrous. Real wages fell for six straight years. Facing what the writer Fintan O’Toole called “the dull anxiety of declining living standards,” conservative pols sniffed out a bogeyman to blame for this slow-motion catastrophe. They served up to anxious voters a menu of scary outsiders: bureaucrats in Brussels, immigrants, asylum seekers—anybody but the actual decision makers who had kneecapped British competitiveness. A cohort of older, middle-class, grievously nostalgic voters demanded Brexit, and they got it.

In the past 30 years, the British economy chose finance over industry, Britain’s government chose austerity over investment, and British voters chose a closed and poorer economy over an open and richer one. The predictable results are falling wages and stunningly low productivity growth. Although British media worry about robots taking everybody’s jobs, the reality is closer to the opposite. “Between 2003 and 2018, the number of automatic-roller car washes (that is, robots washing your car) declined by 50 percent, while the number of hand car washes (that is, men with buckets) increased by 50 percent,” the economist commentator Duncan Weldon told me in an interview for my podcast, Plain English. “It’s more like the people are taking the robots’ jobs.”

16) And, while we’re on the subject, “What Liz Truss Proved: Dismantling guardrails to cater to the grassroots is a dangerous experiment.”

Until 1998, Conservative members of parliament (MPs) had the job of choosing their party leader. That leader would become head of government if the party could command a majority in the House of Commons. After 1998, however, the rules changed: henceforth Conservative MPs would “thin the herd” of leadership hopefuls through successive rounds of balloting, then leave the choice between the final two to the members.

What could possibly go wrong?

A lot, it turns out. Political scientists know that weakening party officials can introduce all kinds of dysfunction into a democracy. Britain’s recent history bears that out in great detail.

The first hint of trouble came from the opposition benches. The Labour Party moved decisively to let ordinary members choose their party leader in 2014. In 2015, the rank-and-file, which skews far to the left, overruled the party’s MPs and picked the hardliner Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party. Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader is now widely understood to have been a catastrophe. Constant Labour infighting left Britain without a credible opposition for five crucial years.

Seven years later, following the fall of Boris Johnson, it was the Conservative rank-and-file’s turn to overrule their MPs’ preferences by choosing a new ideologically rigid and fundamentally unserious leader. Only, as the party in power, the stakes were far higher: their choice would move directly into Downing Street.

Liz Truss’s leadership bid was exquisitely in tune with the 142,000 or so people who voted in the Conservative Party leadership vote. But they amount to about a third of one percent of the 47.6 million people registered to vote in Britain. Conservative members are older, whiter, wealthier and more right wing than Britain’s electorate. To win power, she convinced them she would pursue an aggressive tax cutting agenda that most of the public reject

Was the danger of a Truss premiership unknowable ahead of time? Not at all: her colleagues knew it. Most Conservative MPs understood very well that trying to introduce massive tax-cuts amid a surge in inflation would be madness—both politically and economically. That’s why more of them voted for her moderate opponent for leadership, Rishi Sunak (who was today announced as her successor), than voted for her. It didn’t matter. Their judgment was overruled by the grassroots.


A prodigious body of literature in political science deals with the role of parties within democracy. A leading hypothesis appeared inResponsible Parties, Saving Democracy from Itselfby Yale’s Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, published in 2018. In exhaustive detail, Rosenbluth and Shapiro chronicle how reforms that weaken parties in the name of grassroots involvement fail. Such reforms, they argue, “feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who advocate the decentralizing reforms.” They end up leaving voters more dissatisfied with the political system, and less able to hold their leaders to account.

17) The worst part about 2022 may be how it sets us up for a democracy-crushing 2024.

“My hair is on fire” to an even greater degree than it was in 2020, said Hasen, who published a prescient book that year called “Election Meltdown.”

18) My neighborhood has acorns like you wouldn’t believe (I should take a photo), thus I was intrigued to see this in the NYT, “Why We Should All Be Chasing Acorns

As Douglas W. Tallamy explains in his splendid 2021 book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees,” oaks are keystone plants, the central life form upon which so many other species in the ecosystem depend. Hundreds of insects and caterpillars feed on oak leaves, and those insects in turn feed birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and even other insects. In fall and winter, acorns feed many of them all over again. Because so many predators eat the creatures that eat the acorns, a good year for oaks is a good year for everybody. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” Dr. Tallamy notes.

It probably goes without saying that oaks are commercially valuable, too, used in making everything from furniture and flooring to cabinets and whiskey barrels. Those utilitarian purposes go a long way toward explaining why the vast oak forests once found in the United States have been destroyed in many places and are too often fragmented where they remain.

One of my dogs has taking to eating some acorns.  Alas, the other day he was having a lot of trouble finishing the job of clearing his bowels while we were on a walk and it was most unpleasant. When all was finally done, I discovered the culprit– acorns!

19) I won’t be reading American Midnight, but I certainly enjoyed this review:

At a time when professional doom-mongering about democracy has become one of the more inflationary sectors of the American economy, it is tonic to be reminded by Adam Hochschild’s masterly new book, “American Midnight,” that there are other contenders than the period beginning in 2016 for the distinction of Darkest Years of the Republic. By some measures — and certainly in many quarters of the American left — the years 1917-21 have a special place in infamy. The United States during that time saw a swell of patriotic frenzy and political repression rarely rivaled in its history. President Woodrow Wilson’s terror campaign against American radicals, dissidents, immigrants and workers makes the McCarthyism of the 1950s look almost subtle by comparison.

As Hochschild vividly details, the Wilson administration and its allies pioneered the police raids, surveillance operations, internment camps, strikebreaking and legal chicanery that would become part of the repertoire of the American state for decades to come. It may be recalled how, when Donald Trump was a presidential candidate in 2016, his followers ignited a media storm when they threatened to lock up his challenger. But only Wilson went the distance: He jailed his charismatic Socialist opponent, the 63-year-old Eugene Debs, for opposing America’s descent into the carnage of the First World War, with the liberal press in lock step. “He is where he belongs,” Hochschild quotes The New York Times declaring of the imprisoned Debs. “He should stay there.” …

Aided by the news of German war atrocities, the Wilson administration whipped up anti-German hysteria. Wilson produced a great deal of cant about making the world “safe for democracy,” though by “democracy” he had in mind something like an international clinic for political delinquents with America as supervisor. Internal enemies ultimately proved more reliable than high ideals in sustaining the country’s war fever. German-speaking Americans and other immigrant groups made for obvious targets. “I want to say — I cannot say it too often,” Wilson declared in 1919, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.” But the grander enemy was American socialists, who publicly opposed entering a war in which they would kill fellow workingmen at the behest of their ruling classes.

20) Among the more unusual features (including interactive video game!) I’ve seen in the Post, “D.C.’s great rat migration — and how they survived during the pandemic.” Definitely worth the gift link. 

21) I hope JPP is reading this so he can appreciate the Quick Hits birthday wishes.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Jennifer Rubin on the GOP and antisemitism:

It’s routine for Republicans “who surely know better,” as the Atlantic’s Peter Wehner aptly described them, to claim that they don’t subscribe to these views or that those reacting to antisemitic statements are simply being “politically correct.” Let’s get real. To subscribe to a party that tolerates antisemitism and is headed by a figure who regularly spouts racist, antisemitic and misogynistic rhetoric is to condone and endorse the same.

Moreover, hatred toward minorities is no sideline for the GOP these days. White grievance, xenophobia, the “great replacement theory” and Confederate idolatry have taken center stage. They are the emotional levers by which Republicans incite their base and draw attention away from their rotten governance. Sure, Republicans might not deliver drinkable water. And yes, they have no plan to solve inflation. But by gosh, they are going to “own the libs” by demonizing minorities and consigning women to motherhood.

2) $40/kg is a lot for a steak, but, pretty cool for a 3D printed, meat-free steak.  This will only get better at economies of scale.  I look forward to our meatless future. 

3) Good stuff in a WP Editorial, “California made prison phone calls free. Others should follow.”

Imagine having to go into debt to stay in touch with a loved one — all while fearing for their safety and well-being. That is the grim reality facing 1 in 3 families of incarcerated people in the United States, thanks to the sky-high costs of phone calls from prison. So it is welcome news that California has moved against this cruel situation. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a law to make all phone calls from state prisons free. Now it’s time for other states, and Congress, to act.

This represents a clear market failure. The prison phone industry is a near-duopoly: Two companies control between 74 and 83 percent of the market. That, coupled with the fact that many facilities select which companies to use based on kickbacks rather than service, has permitted rapacious corporations to charge exorbitant rates without consequence. The industry earns more than $1.4 billion annually, largely profiting off low-income, incarcerated people of color.

Allowing inmates to affordably speak to relatives and friends would be a more humane approach — and a more effective one. Studies have shown that frequent and consistent family phone calls reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation after release. In the long run, lowering phone costs could save taxpayers money and improve public safety.

4) I just had my students read this for class this past week and it’s about the best thing I’ve seen for understanding modern presidential primary campaigns.  Definitely worth your time, “Voters need help: How party insiders can make presidential primaries safer, fairer, and more democratic”

More specifically, we argue that:

  • Professional input makes the process more representative. Copious theory and evidence, dating back to the time of America’s Founders, show that nomination by plebiscite (popular vote) can collapse into randomness or minority capture, and it does not dependably aggregate and reflect the preferences of Democrats and Republicans. When many candidates are in the field, professionals help majorities and coalitions to form, and they help prevent minorities and factions from capturing the process.
  • Professional input strengthens quality control. Primary elections place insufficient emphasis on evaluating nominees with an eye toward competence at governing: that is, selecting individuals with traits such as coalition-building skill, connections to varied constituencies, ability to work with others, and IOUs to and from other politicians. Only professionals can fill that gap.
  • Professional input deters renegades. Combined with the party ballot’s accessibility to all comers, the plebiscitary nomination process opens the field to demagogues and charlatans. Party leaders have strong incentives to keep candidates off the party ballot who are dangerous to both the party and democracy.
  • Professional input checks the power of billionaires and media elites. Influence in nominations has shifted dramatically toward actors who bear no responsibility for governing. Billionaires can bankroll themselves or favored candidates, while media elites propel those who break norms and generate conflict. Party professionals tend to favor candidates who are responsible to broad voter constituencies and other members of the governing party.
  • Professional input is widely acceptable to Americans. There is nothing undemocratic or un-American about professional vetting of nominees. To the contrary, even as the nation became more democratic and inclusive since its founding, formal and informal vetting of candidates by parties and professionals remained standard practice until just a decade or so ago. Even today, survey results indicate that most Americans support giving parties and professionals a voice in the process.
  • Restoring professional input is mechanically easy, but politically hard. Methods might include superdelegates, early votes of confidence, ratings or signoffs by party stalwarts, use of influence on debate participation, unbinding convention delegates, routing more campaign money through the party organizations, and many more possibilities. The harder challenge is pushing back against democracy fundamentalism, the idea that more democratization is always good for democracy—something which the Founders knew is not true.

We do not claim that primary elections have no place or serve no purpose. To the contrary: They test candidates’ abilities to excite voters, raise money, and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for fresh faces, ideas, and constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. What we do claim is that primaries are insufficient. By themselves, they are only half of a functional nominating system.[1] Without professional input, the nominating process is fraught with risks that turn filling the country’s highest office into game of chance. If Democrats don’t think it can happen to them, they are deluding themselves.

5) Perry Bacon Jr on the case for the Democratic Party:

The Democratic Party’s voters (not necessarily its leaders) are what we want America to be. They are diverse on a number of dimensions, unified around laudable goals such as reducing economic and racial inequality, and actively trying to make the United States the best nation it can be.

Because the news media tries to cover both parties equally critically, the story of U.S. politics today is often depicted as an extreme Republican Party facing an almost-as-extreme Democratic Party dominated by over-educated elites who are hostile to the values of average Americans and leave them little choice but to vote Republican. But that’s an attempt to turn a one-sided problem into a two-sided one.

Being a consistent, stalwart Democratic voter today should not be dismissed as being overly partisan or unthinking. It’s common sense.

What unifies Democrats isn’t education or race but policy stances and values. Around 80 percent of Democrats support the Black Lives Matter movementraising the federal minimum wage to at least $15 per hourstricter gun lawsfree public collegethe right to an abortionhigher taxes on the wealthy to redistribute income, and say that increased attention on America’s history of slavery and racism in recent years is a positive development.

Those are not out-there views. The majority of Americans agree with Democrats on nearly all of those positions.

More important, these are the morally correct stands. We tend to think the issues of our day are more nuanced than the issues of past eras. But being deeply committed to ending slavery was a controversial position in the 1850s, as was being deeply committed to ending racial segregation 100 years later. Today, describing the United States as having racial practices and systems that end up maintaining disparities between White and Black people even if individual people are not being explicitly racist (this is what critical race theory essentially argues) is so controversial that it’s being banned from being taught in public schools in conservative areas. But 50 or 100 years from now, I suspect people studying this period of U.S. history will conclude fairly easily that critical race theory was correct and that the bans on teaching it were just an assertion of White power over Black people.

And it’s not just that Democratic voters are on the right side of a host of issues, in a way that is obvious now and will be even clearer in a few decades. It’s also that the Democratic Party is very representative of the broader nation. The Republican Party is way more White (the GOP is about 85 percent White) than the country is (59 percent). About 60 percent of people who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 are White. About 60 percent of Democrats are Christian, Jewish or part of another major religion tradition, compared with around 70 percent of Americans nationally. About half of Democrats have a four-year college degree, as do about 40 percent adults overall.

6) You will not be surprised to learn I loved this in Persuasion, “Talking About John Fetterman’s Stroke Is Not Ableism”

But no matter how much journalists, activists, and the campaign might disagree, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the health of a candidate running for one of the highest elected offices in the nation. Being a politician, especially a senator, is hard work. It requires long days negotiating with colleagues, listening to and giving speeches, sitting through hours of committee meetings, and the like. Physical and cognitive stamina are necessary to be effective. It’s valid for voters to ask whether or not Fetterman’s stroke would impact his job performance, and therefore his ability to effectively represent the people of Pennsylvania.


As recently as a few years ago, most people wouldn’t have denied that a stroke’s aftereffects are reasonable to consider when evaluating a Senate candidate. There is even a test case from 2016, when the Chicago Tribune explicitly cited Republican Senator Mark Kirk’s stroke as grounds for endorsing his Democratic challenger:

While a stroke by no means disqualifies anyone from public office, we cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk’s recovery and readiness. His health is a fundamental component of this race — a hotly contested matchup that could return control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. We aren’t physicians; Kirk’s doctor attests to his good cognitive health. But we are voters. And our reluctant judgment is that, due to forces beyond his control, Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest the job of a U.S. senator.

When this was published, there wasn’t any pushback of the sort that is coming now from the people and groups so aggressively defending Fetterman. The lack of outrage is likely because Kirk was a Republican and, more importantly, people recognized the validity of the Tribune’s concern. The unfortunate truth is that strokes can be life-changing events with aftereffects that never fully go away, and so asking questions about Fetterman’s health shouldn’t be out of bounds. The media and the Fetterman campaign should be addressing the issue head-on…

Reasonable people can, of course, disagree about the point at which honest concern veers into genuinely offensive prejudice. Unfortunately, Fetterman’s challenger Mehmet Oz, and some right-wing media figures, are guilty of the latter. Oz’s campaign joked that “if John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson made comments that were even more off-color when discussing the closed captioning that Fetterman used in the NBC interview: “Here you have one of the most famous politicians in the country merging with a computer … where exactly does the software end and John Fetterman’s consciousness begin?” 

It’s a shame that Fetterman’s allies have refused to differentiate between these types of attacks and earnest concern about Fetterman’s health. Though they might not realize it, those who fail to make this distinction are hurting their own cause; their public frustration has brought more attention to the issue of Fetterman’s health than the NBC interview alone ever would have. Likewise, a great number of Pennsylvanians are probably seeing charges of ableism and just rolling their eyes at yet another instance of tone policing from the left.  

7) I love Yglesias‘ distillation of politics here in his weekly Q&A:

Mark: Right wing activists on abortion and other issues are much more disciplined and strategic than left wing activists, whose theory of change is basically 1) throw soup on painting, 2) ???, 3) profit. But the voting bases are basically the opposite, where the GOP primary consistently elects insane people to lose winnable races, while Democratic primaries mostly nominate widely acceptable candidates. How do you explain this contrast?

If you go back to the origins of electoral democracy 200-300 years ago, you see a basic issue that emerges quickly — the median voter is always poorer than the national mean, so there is a potential electoral majority for redistribution.

There is a set of political forces — the right — that wants to resist that redistribution. And there is a contrary set of forces — the left — that wants to encourage it. The left’s strategy is to make this dynamic explicit and transparent — we the people can seize the levers of power and make ourselves better off. And the right’s strategy is to obfuscate — the left will denigrate God, endanger public safety, weaken our national defenses, and so forth. That’s politics boiled down to its essence.

But this in turn gives rise to the characteristic flaws of the left and the right.

On the left, that’s a kind of romanticism about politics that holds that every issue comes down to the masses versus narrow moneyed elites. It denies that the people themselves may just be wrong or short-sighted, so it believes that the answer to every problem is to raise the temperature with more dramatic stunts and “calling out.”

On the right, it’s a fondness for conmen and grifters. Because right-wing politics is organized as a conspiracy to mislead people into not voting to give themselves more money, it creates structures that elevate and reward hucksters and flim-flam artists. GOP politicians and conservative media figures elevated Donald Trump as a political spokesman in the Obama years not despite the fact that he’s a fraud and a liar but because he’s a fraud and a liar. They know it would be toxic to put a professor up there to tell people about the Chamley-Judd theorem and why we should cut capital gains taxes. You need someone who’s going to talk about Mexican rapists and how Obama is secretly Kenyan.

8) Unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed this NatGeo take on plant-based meat:

A single hamburger is by all measures an unsustainable product, requiring 660 gallons of water to produce, including lettuce, tomato, and a bun. And yet we’ve come to expect this subsidized luxury, the result of tens of billions of dollars in annual U.S. reimbursements to the meat and dairy industries over the past decade (versus a fraction of that subsidizing fruits and veggies). None of meat’s true cost—ethical, environmental, or nutritional—really matters to most people, an Arby’s restaurant executive told me in 2019. He also vowed that his company would never sell plant meat, because, as he declared, “people are not going to pay more for something that tastes worse.”…

My biggest shock recently was a chicken breast made with mycelium, the subterranean heart of a mushroom. It looked like a giant breaded guitar pick but flavorwise was so indistinguishable from breaded baked chicken that I wondered, from a practical standpoint, why we still bother raising chickens (or portobellos for that matter). Yet no company is good at making everything. When I tried the same vendor’s steak, made from the same mycelium, it had the texture of an aged fillet but the odor of a subway pole.

I watch the plant-based meat industry like I watch the Chicago Bears—with marvel, skepticism, and frequent disappointment.

But truth be told, much of the world solved its meat addiction millennia ago. Examine cuisines across the world, and you’ll see that cultures have evolved to harvest protein without meat.

I am not simply referring to the original plant meats: tofu, commonly thought to have been invented during the Han dynasty circa 150 B.C., or seitan, thought to have been developed in the area even earlier. In Mexico, corn tortillas and beans marry the essential amino acids to create a complete protein. Across South America, it’s beans and rice. In Ethiopia, it’s lentils and the ancient grain teff. And in India, ground rice and black gram, a relative of the mung bean, ferment together into a batter used to make steamed idli cakes and crisp dosas.

It’s difficult to imagine the human sacrifices that brought our culture this incredible knowledge. How many poisonous things did we eat before we learned that rice was worth cultivating? How many generations were malnourished until a tribe realized that one family—stronger and healthier than the rest—always ate certain plants in combination?

The first amino acid wasn’t discovered until 1806 (from asparagus, by the way). The last wasn’t discovered for another 120 or 130 years. By the time scientists found the 20 amino acids inside a complete protein, cultures had been reverse-engineering them into their diets for thousands of years.

Through this historical lens, I will admit that I begin to see plant meat differently—and for what it really is.

Consider that when we talk of the pea protein inside any popular plant burger, it’s not made from garden-fresh green peas but from an ingredient many Americans ignore in the grocery’s ethnic foods aisle: the split yellow peas cooked into popular Indian dals. Here, the cutting-edge combination of pea protein and rice in a plant-based burger is not particularly novel or unique. Rather, it is what the West does best: We have reconstituted tradition into a logo.

Repackaging these staple proteins as “meat” is more than a hot business trend; it is the colonialization of the global diet. We’re Americanizing and corporatizing the very components behind historical, meatless world cuisines that have successfully and satisfyingly fed countless generations.

9) The Clearer Thinking “World’s Biggest Problems” quiz was so much fun!  I did pretty well, I think.

10) Here’s a fun graph from it:

Deadliest animals 01

11) And a cool video about nuclear winter:

12) Are Republican Senators better at politics than Democrats?  Maybe.  When pro-life interests pushed hard for a legislative push on banning abortion, they basically said, forget it, we have elections to win:

On September 19, Republican senators received a letter from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America warning them in no uncertain terms that they needed to publicly back a proposed national ban on abortion within days — or risk taking a hit on their prized candidate scores.

Few budged. [all bold in original] The pressure campaign angered Republicans, who are still wary of the politics around the bill, authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Within weeks, the same group had sent a follow-up letter toning down their demands and extending their deadline.

In the initial letter to lawmakers, obtained by Semafor, senators were given a deadline of September 30 — the date bolded, underlined, italicized and highlighted for emphasis — to sign onto the bill as a co-sponsor.

At the point the letter was sent, Graham’s bill was co-sponsored by only three more senators, according to Congress.gov: Steve Daines, Marco Rubio and Kevin Cramer. That number ticked up to nine after SBA’s warning.

But Graham’s bill proved divisive within the party. Publicly, prominent Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said they prefer to leave the issue to the states. Privately, there was frustration with the outside push from anti-abortion groups to back a national ban just as candidates were trying to find their footing in must-win races.

“We should be able to reasonably disagree on the best pro-life legislative strategy at this exact moment,” a Republican staffer familiar with the conversation around the SBA letter told Semafor. “Threatening pro-life senators with a reduced score unless they adopt a policy only previously discussed by SBA and Graham is divisive, and it’s going to make their scorecard look silly. SBA is overplaying their hand, and offices will remember this attempt to strong-arm us.”

The backlash seemed to have had an impact. In a follow-up letter on October 4, after the bill’s support had stalled, SBA made an apparent concession and told members they would “continue to add cosponsorship recognition” up to election day. They also noted they had “received questions” about how the bill would affect member scores, and that while “votes weighed most heavily” in their evaluations, they would also consider “the totality of each member’s pro-life activity.”

13) Nice interview with the always interesting David Hopkins on what a Republican Congress would do:

Graham Vyse: How do you understand the key aspects of the agenda U.S. Republicans will pursue if they win back power in Congress?

David A. Hopkins: Their agenda will have two parts: The first is about legislation and policy; the second, investigations. The Republicans’ legislative ambitions mostly relate to standard conservative policies, as they laid out in their Commitment to America policy platform introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives—though there’s more of an emphasis there than there has been in the past on cultural issues. Of course, Republicans won’t be able to achieve any of their legislative ambitions on their own, given President Joe Biden’s ability to veto legislation. But they will be able to use the subpoena power of congressional committees—and the public attention you can get from that power in conducting oversight hearings—to investigate their political opponents, including the Biden administration, Biden’s family, and the technology companies they accuse of discriminating against conservative users.

The last time there was both a Democratic House and a Republican president in the United States, the president was impeached twice. The last time there was a Republican House and a Democratic president, the Republican speaker got run out of town by his own party. So if you’re the presumptive speaker in the next Congress, Kevin McCarthy, one lesson you’re likely to take from recent American history is that there will be tremendous pressure from within your party to attack major Democratic and liberal targets. Now, that might not mean impeaching President Biden, but it certainly might mean investigating his family—or trying to impeach a cabinet official or some other senior member of the administration. Another lesson you’re likely to absorb is that if you don’t satisfy your party’s quests for political retribution, you could easily end up on the firing line yourself..

Vyse: Would you say they’re facing more pressure from their base—and from conservative media—than they would have faced in the past?

Hopkins: Conservative media keeps growing more powerful within the Republican Party in America. It was stronger during Donald Trump’s presidency than it was during George W. Bush’s presidency. The Fox News host Sean Hannity essentially recruited Herschel Walker to run for the Senate in Georgia this year. [Walker, a former American football star and emphatically right-wing politician, is now the Republican nominee.] There’s less and less of a distinction between the Republican Party and the American conservative media universe. The conservative media is now functionally a part of the party in a lot of ways.

Republican members of Congress are going to need to show their base that they’re doing something. Actually passing legislation is going to be really tough, and a lot of what their base is demanding isn’t about passing legislation; it’s about waging a broad symbolic war against the left.

Vyse: Why is that?

Hopkins: Conservative voters have come to understand politics as largely a symbolic, cultural battle. They don’t necessarily want a lot of policy changes; that’s not necessarily what they’re asking for. A lot of what they’re asking for—and what conservative media encourages them to ask for—are gestures of superiority over Democrats and the left.

Similarly, a lot of what people liked about Trump didn’t have to do with his policies, and his lack of many legislative accomplishments in office didn’t reduce his appeal with his base. Much of Trump’s appeal came from his daily combativeness against liberals, the media, celebrities, and anyone who opposed him. That’s what his bond with his supporters was largely based on. [emphasis mine]

This dynamic wouldn’t have held true for a Democratic president. Contemporary Democratic voters have a different set of expectations for their leaders, which are much more centered on legislative accomplishments and policy achievements.

Now, I do think that the average Republican member of Congress has policy goals, even if those goals won’t necessarily get a lot of attention in conservative media. They want to try to cut taxes and regulations and to oppose liberal expansions of the government—and they may have some points of leverage, including around the U.S. debt limit.

14) Drum on the Republicans improvement in the polls:

Democrats seemed to be doing well this summer as their approval level surged following the Dobbs decision. But now Republicans are surging back. This is partly because the out party always does well in midterm elections, but David Brooks thinks there’s more to it:

The Trumpified G.O.P. deserves to be a marginalized and disgraced force in American life. But I’ve been watching the campaign speeches by people like Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona. G.O.P. candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which common-sense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people.

Sure, I guess. But this is the farthest thing imaginable from something new. The details change from election to election, but this narrative began with Richard Nixon and became fully weaponized by Newt Gingrich and Fox News in the 1990s. It’s been part of the core Republican message for 50 years, and it’s been their nearly exclusive message for the past 20.

The most discouraging part of this is not that Republicans do it. What do you expect an opposition party to do? The discouraging part is that after 50 years Democrats still have no idea how to fight it.

It’s not that we lose every culture war battle. In fact, we win quite a few. But when Republicans sense weakness, they circle the wagons and beat the class war drums loudly and in unison. That’s what we don’t know how to fight.

Practically all the evidence suggests the United States is fundamentally a strong country right now. Probably the strongest in the world, and with the brightest future. It’s extraordinary to think of just how good a place it could be if only we could figure out a way to overcome the debilitating fear that so many people still have of progress and change.

15) I really enjoyed Katherine Wu on the bivalent boosters, especially about the under-studies randomness of side effect responses. I too have a spouse that is significantly annoyed by my minimal comparative side effects:

“Why don’t you feel anything?” my spouse howled at me from the bedroom, where his sweat was soaking through the sheets. “Sorry,” I yelled back from the kitchen, where I was prepping four days’ worth of meals between work calls after returning from an eight-mile run…

On average, then, mRNA-vaxxed people can probably expect to have an annual experience that’s pretty similar to the one they had with their first COVID booster. As studies have shown, that one was actually better for most people than dose No. 2, the most unpleasant of the injections so far. (The math, of course, becomes tougher for people getting another vaccine, such as the flu shot, at the same time.) There are probably two main reasons why side effects have lessened overall, experts told me. First, the spacing: Most people received the second dose in their Pfizer or Moderna primary series just three or four weeks after the first. That’s an efficient way to get a lot of people “fully vaccinated” in a short period of time, but it means that many of the immune system’s defensive cells and molecules will still be on high alert. The second shot could end up fanning a blaze of inflammation that was never quite put out. In line with that, researchers have found that spacing out the primary-series doses to eight weeks, 12 weeks, or even longer can prune some side effects.

Dose matters a lot too: Vaccines are, in a way, stimulants meant to goad the immune system into reacting; bigger servings should induce bigger jolts. When vaccine makers were tinkering with their recipes in early trials, higher doses—including ones that were deemed too large for further testing—produced more side effects. Each injection in Moderna’s primary series contains more than three times the mRNA packaged into Pfizer’s, and Moderna has, on average, caused more intense side effects. But Moderna’s booster and bivalent doses contain a smaller scoop of the stimulating material: People 12 and older, for instance, get 50 micrograms instead of the 100 micrograms in each primary dose; kids 6 to 11 years old get 25 micrograms instead of 50. (All of Pfizer’s doses stay the same size across primaries and boosters, as long as people stay in the same age group.) People who switch between brands, then, may also notice a difference in symptoms…

The fact that I get fewer side effects than my spouse does not imply that I’m any less protected. A ton of factors—genetics, hormone levels, age, diet, sleep, stress, pain tolerance, and more—could potentially influence how someone experiences a shot. Women tend to have more reactive bodies, as do younger people. But there are exceptions to those trends: I’m one of them. The whole topic is understudied, Locci told me.

16) Vox with a nice feature on the NC Senate race (even if they didn’t talk to me).

DURHAM, North Carolina — Before locals packed inside Beyú Caffè in downtown Durham on a Tuesday evening in October, Rheba Heggs arrived early to save her seat. A retired attorney, she had come to see Democrat Cheri Beasley, who could become the first Black person to represent North Carolina in the US Senate.

A Black woman herself, Heggs visited North Carolina as a girl, decades before she relocated to the state to be closer to her grandchildren, and well before desegregation was complete. In the front row at Beyú Caffè, she was giddy with caffeine, and hopeful about witnessing history.

“I listened to … [Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown] Jackson the last few days. That is something I never expected to see in my lifetime. … This is the result of all the women who have come before, not just Black women, pushing,” Heggs said. “If [Cheri Beasley] wins — when she wins, it means so much. But it also means that the Senate becomes a working institution.”

North Carolina hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than a decade, and most thought this year, with its tough climate for Democrats, would go the same way. But the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr is actually competitive, with FiveThirtyEight’s tracking poll showing Republican Rep. Ted Budd with a less than 2 percentage point lead over Beasley, former chief justice of the state supreme court. Both are now attracting big spending from their parties and outside groups, with the Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC announcing an additional $4 million investment Thursday.

Even with polls close, Beasley has a tougher task ahead than Budd in the closing weeks of the campaign. There’s the recent history of close federal races slipping away from the state’s Democrats and the long history of parties in power struggling during the midterms. She has to thread a needle to assemble a coalition of enthusiastic urban, suburban, and Black voters while mitigating losses in increasingly red rural areas. But Beasley may be close to doing that, and defying history despite initially tepid investment from national Democrats.

That said, the two polls out since this article (though, only two polls) aren’t great.

17) Monkey Cage, “Why resentful rural Americans vote Republican”

As the midterms approach, political observers are once again talking about the widening divide between urban and rural voters. Over the past 25 years, rural areas have increasingly voted Republican while cities have increasingly voted Democratic — a dividing line that has replaced the North/South divide as the nation’s biggest source of political friction. That divide will influence which party takes control of Congress in January.

But why are rural and urban voters so sharply divided? Some scholars and pundits argue that it comes down to who lives where: that the disproportionately White, older, more religious, less affluent and less highly educated voters who live in rural areas are more likely to hold socially conservative views generally championed by Republicans. Meanwhile, urban areas are filled with younger, more racially diverse, more highly educated and more affluent people who hold the more socially liberal views generally championed by Democrats.

While all that matters, our new research shows that place itself also matters. Unlike Republican voters in suburbs and the cities, rural voters care about what we might call “geographic inequity” — the idea that rural areas receive less than their fair share from the government, are ignored by politicians, and are mocked and derided in popular culture. Without these beliefs, the urban-rural political divide would not be as vast as it is today…

Political scientist Katherine Cramer defines rural resentment as focused on three things. First concerns redistribution, or the belief that rural areas don’t receive their fair share of government resources and benefits. Second is representation, or the perception that most politicians ignore rural residents. And third, a sense of being culturally overlooked, that rural lifestyles and cultures don’t get the same respect as those of urban and suburban communities…

18) Big thanks to BB for sharing this twitter thread on how hard it is to actually have a playoff series be a reasonably reliable indicator of who the better team is.  And this related post.

19) Remember the missing crabs.  Excellent thread on the interaction between climate and overfishing.

20) Interesting study on just how much YouTube actually sends people down rabbit holes.

Contrary to popular concern, we do not find evidence that YouTube is leading many users down rabbit holes or into (significant) ideological echo chambers via its recommendation algorithm. While we do not find compelling evidence that these rabbit holes exist at scale, this does not mean that some that the experiences of the small number of individuals who encounter extremist content due to algorithmic recommendations are not consequential, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be worried about the possibility for users to find harmful content online if they go searching for it. However, as we consider ways to make our online information ecosystem safer, it’s critical to understand the various facets of the problem.

While our study was designed to test whether the algorithm leads users down rabbit holes, into echo chambers, or in a particular ideological direction, these outcomes could still emerge from user choice (recall that the recommendations in our study were collected without user choice). So, for example, a well known article by Baskhy et al. shows that Facebook recommended an ideologically diverse array of content but users consistently clicked on ideologically congruent content. In another study of YouTube, Chen et al. found that other platform features—subscriptions and channel features—were the primary path by which users encountered anti-social content.

Furthermore, other platforms, like 4chan, are hotbeds for extremist content. Indeed, if an individual is bound and determined to jump down a rabbit hole online, they can do so fairly easily. What we explore in our work is incidental exposure: that is, users who are perusing content and encounter harmful content by accident, subsequently leading them down a rabbit hole. While recommendation systems may play a small role in this type of incidental exposure, we do not find significant evidence that they drive consumption of harmful content (at least on YouTube). Other studies have found that harmful content is often encountered off-platform via link sharing, driving users to extreme places on YouTube via the internet at large rather than the recommendation algorithm. That’s what makes this problem tricky. If it’s not just the recommendation engine and instead it’s the entire online ecosystem, then how do we fix it?

Our findings are consistent with—and add additional evidence to—a growing body of research showing that YouTube is not consistently pushing harmful or polarizing content to their users but rather that users self-select into viewing the content when offered. Collectively, the research suggests that there is unlikely to be one technological panacea to reducing the consumption of harmful content on YouTube. Instead, we need to be sure we focus both on the amount of harmful content online as well as the (many) paths which users might take to this content. Focusing solely on the role of YouTube’s algorithm in advertently luring people to extremist content may make for great headlines, but our research suggests that this alone is not going to get us at the crux of the problem.

21) Important new research on the insidious impact of Fox:

COVID-19 vaccines have reduced infections and hospitalizations across the globe, yet resistance to vaccination remains strong. This paper investigates the role of cable television news in vaccine hesitancy and associated local vaccination rates in the United States. We find that, in the earlier stages of the vaccine roll-out (starting May 2021), higher local viewership of Fox News Channel has been associated with lower local vaccination rates. We can verify that this association is causal using exogenous geographical variation in the channel lineup. The effect is driven by younger individuals (under 65 years of age), for whom COVID-19 has a low mortality risk. Consistent with changes in beliefs about the effectiveness of the vaccine as a mechanism, we find that Fox News increased reported vaccine hesitancy in local survey responses. We can rule out that the effect is due to differences in partisanship, to local health policies, or to local COVID-19 infections or death rates. The other two major television networks, CNN and MSNBC, have no effect. That, in turn, indicates that more differentiated characteristics, like the networks’ messaging or tendency for controversy, matter and that the effect of Fox News on COVID-19 vaccine uptake is not due to the general consumption of cable news. We also show that there is no historical effect of Fox News on flu vaccination rates, suggesting that the effect is COVID-19-specific and not driven by general skepticism toward vaccines.

22) Really cool post from Jeremy Faust on how ER docs think about treating their patients, “Two questions about headaches that ER doctors always ask—and the one they don’t, but should.”

And in general, an ER physicians’ job is sorting out which patients have “dangerous headaches” including subarachnoids, and which ones have bothersome headaches which need symptom control, but no further action. Again, most headaches (even extremely painful ones) are benign. But headaches that are different from anything a patient has previously experienced should be checked out.

Fewer than 1% of patients who come to the ER with a headache have a subarachnoid hemorrhage. If we ordered CT scans or MRIs on everyone with a headache, the system would break down and patients wouldn’t benefit. There aren’t enough scanners and not enough radiologists to interpret them. The system would grind to a halt, causing delays in diagnosing other time-sensitive conditions. Plus, we’d be harming patients by scanning all comers with headaches. Yes, the scans are low risk (though they add hours to an ER visit), but there’s radiation to consider, and the harms stemming from false positives (i.e., findings which look like disease, but are not). False positives often lead to further tests, leading to “medical misadventures.” Occasionally, a rare but significant complication occurs, which is particularly tragic when the procedure that caused it was unnecessary in the first place.

The goal is to only scan perhaps 10% of ER patients with headaches, and yet never miss a single dangerous condition. Doing this is a huge aspect of emergency medicine as a cognitive discipline.

23) Very good post from Yglesias, “Elon Musk’s business ties deserve more scrutiny”

Dozens of different controversies are swirling around Elon Musk at any given time, most of them related to people being angry and/or thrilled by the idea of a rich businessman vocalizing right-of-center political opinions.

What has gotten lost in this discourse is a more boring — but, I think, more significant — concern about his possible takeover of Twitter. This is because Musk, like most global manufacturing executives these days, has extensive business dealings with China. And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it means Musk has to watch what he says regarding the PRC, not just in his personal capacity as a business executive but potentially in his institutional role as well. And he’s not alone; Apple TV+, for example, has a rule that none of its content can portray China negatively.

That’s an unfortunate but straightforward consequence of Apple TV+ being so small compared to Apple’s core business of making and selling smartphones: they compromise the content business for the sake of the manufacturing business. The good news for the world is that Apple TV+ is a very small share of western cultural output. They’re doing well with niche content (I love “For All Mankind”), and they won an Oscar for “Coda.” But it’s a small service in the scheme of things.

The problem for the world is that Twitter would be the Apple TV+ of Elon Musk’s enterprises, much smaller and less important than Tesla, so its interests will always be sacrificed to advance Tesla’s interests. And Tesla, like Apple’s hardware business, is deeply enmeshed in China. But Twitter is much more important to global politics and culture than Apple TV+. That’s the whole reason the Musk/Twitter saga has been such a subject of fascination. Twitter is one of a handful of other influential media properties — The New York Times, the three cable networks, AM talk radio stations — that exert a cultural and political influence that far exceeds their modest financial footprints. Apple executives are much less polarizing and controversial than Musk. But pretty much everyone on both the left and right knows they’re a bit squirrelly about China for business reasons. And if they bought the New York Times, that would have dire implications for the integrity of their China coverage.

Musk is mercurial and I won’t pretend to be able to predict what he will do. But I think his business relationships with China and tendency to take pro-PRC positions in his public statements raise some disturbing questions about the future of Twitter that deserve much more scrutiny relative to the concern that he won’t be strict enough in policing hate speech.

24) Our current federal marijuana policy is just stupid.  Marijuana should be legal.  But that does not mean its an unalloyed good and we should take its potential harms to youth seriously.  Leanna Wen:

The dominant narrative about marijuana seems to be that it is harmless. Indeed, 19 states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana, and young people are increasingly nonchalant about using it. One study shows nearly half of college students said they consumed marijuana. Eight percent reported they used it daily or nearly every day. One in 5 high school students used marijuana in the preceding 30 days.

But there are real dangers associated with the substance, as a 2020 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showsAbundant research demonstrates how exposure to marijuana during childhood impacts later cognitive ability, including memory, attention, motivation and learning. Studies have linked regular cannabis use in adolescents with lower IQs in adulthood and higher propensity to drop out of high school. This association persists in college-age students. One large study followed college students and found frequency of marijuana use to correlate with skipping classes, lower grade-point average and longer time to graduation.

Some studies have also linked frequent cannabis use in youths to increased rates of schizophreniadepression and anxiety. One Lancet article reported that smoking high-potency marijuana every day increased the chance of developing psychosis by nearly five times.

More research is needed on whether the causality could be the other way around — perhaps those predisposed to mental health diagnoses are more likely to seek out marijuana. But as Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist and the director of NIDA, told me, “Based on the data we already have, we can clearly say that marijuana is not a benign drug, especially for children and adolescents.”

25) Talk about overdue! “The US Is Finally Considering Protections Against Salmonella

Last week, responding to pressure from these groups, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it is considering reforms to the way it regulates the processing and sale of raw poultry, the largest single source of salmonella infections. If the changes go through, they will give that agency the power to monitor salmonella contamination in live birds and slaughterhouses, and the power to force producers to recall contaminated meat from the marketplace.

The agency doesn’t have those powers now, even though salmonella causes more serious illnesses than any other foodborne pathogen. It sickens about 1.35 million people in the US each year; about 26,500 of them end up in the hospital, and 420 die. At its mildest, it causes fever and diarrhea that can last up to a week. But because it can migrate to the bloodstream and invade bones, joints, and the nervous system, it often leaves victims with arthritis and circulatory problems.

Today, the USDA can only ask meat producers to voluntarily recall their products, and companies don’t always move as rapidly as the agency would wish. That leaves consumers vulnerable to threats they do not know exist…

It might come as a surprise that the USDA didn’t already have this authority. But that agency (which regulates meat, poultry, and eggs; the US Food and Drug Administration oversees everything else) can force recalls only for contamination with one specific, small group of organisms: E. coli O157:H7 and a few related strains, which make toxins that destroy red blood cells. It got that power during the shocked national reaction to a 1993 outbreak that sickened 732 kids who ate hamburgers from the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. That outbreak killed four and left 178 with kidney and brain damage.

 

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