Quick hits (part II)

1) Meant to post this a couple weeks ago, “KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: In Their Own Words, Six Months Later.”  To be clear, why people say they don’t want a vaccine and why they did not actually get a vaccine likely have a pretty modest correlation, but, interesting nonetheless:

Key Findings

At the beginning of 2021 as vaccine distribution began in the U.S., KFF conducted interviews with a nationally representative sample of adults using open-ended questions to better understand public concerns around receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Six months later, we recontacted these individuals to find out whether they chose to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, their reasoning behind their decisions, and how they are feeling about their choice.

  • The vast majority (92%) of those who planned to get vaccinated “as soon as possible” in early 2021 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as have slightly more than half (54%) of individuals who had previously said they wanted to “wait and see” before getting vaccinated. On the other hand, a majority (76%) of people who had previously said they would “only get vaccinated if required” or said they would “definitely not” get a COVID-19 vaccine remain unvaccinated.
  • One-fifth of adults (21%) now report being vaccinated after saying in January they planned on waiting to get vaccinated, would only get it if required, or would definitely not get vaccinated. Many of these individuals noted the role of their friends and family members as well as their personal doctors in persuading them to get a vaccine. Seeing their friends and family members get vaccinated without serious side effects, talking to family members about being able to safely visit, and conversations with their personal doctors about their own risks were all persuasive factors for these individuals. A small but meaningful share also say the easing of restrictions for vaccinated people was a factor in their decision to get a vaccine.
  • When asked to name the feeling that best describes how they feel now that they have been vaccinated, nearly a quarter of vaccinated adults offer responses around feeling safe (24%) and relieved (22%). Other positive feelings reported were freedom, confidence, and more certainty that if they did get COVID-19 it would be less serious or they were less likely to die from it. And while most respondents react with some positive emotion, one in ten said they felt the same or neutral. This feeling was more common among those who initially said they would “wait and see” in January or who said they would only get vaccinated if required or would not get vaccinated.
  • Conversations with family members and friends have played a major role in persuading people to get vaccinated. Two-thirds of vaccinated adults say they have tried to persuade their friends and family members to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and 17% of adults who are now vaccinated after saying in January they planned on waiting to get vaccinated, would only get it if required, or would definitely not get vaccinated, say they were persuaded to do so by a family member and 5% say they were persuaded by a friend. In addition to this, others cite protecting friends and family members as the main reason for getting vaccinated and others offer being able to see their friends and family members as well as family pressure or encouragement as the main reasons why they chose to receive a vaccine.
  • About one-fourth of those who previously said they planned on getting vaccinated “as soon as possible” or were wanting to “wait and see” before getting a vaccine, remain unvaccinated six months later. Some of these individuals either have an appointment to get a vaccine or still plan on getting it as soon as they are able, but one in ten (6% of total) now say they either will “only get vaccinated if required” or say they will “definitely not” get a vaccine. When asked what changed their mind, many offer concerns about the side effects of the vaccine as the reasons why they now do not plan on getting vaccinated.
  • Being concerned about side effects is the top reason offered by unvaccinated people for why they haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. When asked what would motivate them to get vaccinated against COVID-19, most in the “wait and see” group say they just want more time to see how the vaccine affects others who have already gotten it.

2) Good stuff from Margaret Sullivan, “Our democracy is under attack. Washington journalists must stop covering it like politics as usual.”

Back in the dark ages of 2012, two think-tank scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, wrote a book titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” about the rise of Republican Party extremism and its dire effect on American democracy.

 

In a related op-ed piece, these writers made a damning statement about Washington press coverage, which treats the two parties as roughly equal and everything they do as deserving of similar coverage.

Ornstein and Mann didn’t use the now-in-vogue terms “both-sidesism” or “false equivalence,” but they laid out the problem with devastating clarity (the italics are mine):

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change any time soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.”

Nearly a decade later, this distortion of reality has only grown worse, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s rise to power and his ironclad grip on an increasingly craven Republican Party.

Positive proof was in the recent coverage of congressional efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol…

This strain of news coverage, observed Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review, centers on twinned, dubious implications: “That bipartisanship is desirable and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it — even in the face of explicit Republican obstructionism.”

This stance comes across as both cynical (“politics was ever thus”) and unsophisticated (“we’re just doing our job of reporting what was said”). Quite a feat.

Mainstream journalists want their work to be perceived as fair-minded and nonpartisan. They want to defend themselves against charges of bias. So they equalize the unequal. This practice seems so ingrained as to be unresolvable.

There is a way out. But it requires the leadership of news organizations to radically reframe the mission of its Washington coverage. As a possible starting point, I’ll offer these recommendations:

Toss out the insidious “inside-politics” frame and replace it with a “pro-democracy” frame.

Stop calling the reporters who cover this stuff “political reporters.” Start calling them “government reporters.”

Stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it.

Stop being “savvy” and start being patriotic.

3) Anne Applebaum who really gets threats to democracy, “The MyPillow Guy Really Could Destroy Democracy.”

4) I mean, surely we would should be getting 1st and 2nd shots out to the rest of the world before we start offering ordinary Americans (immunocompromised is a different story) 3rd shots.  But, also, everything in the world is actually similarly unfair– should we really expect vaccines to be any different? “COVID boosters for wealthy nations spark outrage: Nations short of vaccine should get first doses to curb the pandemic, researchers say.”

Unequal distribution. A scatterplot showing GDP and Vaccination coverage by country.

5) Katherine Wu makes the case for vaccines and masks under Delta:

Partnering masks and vaccines is, in many ways, a natural move. If an unmasked, unvaccinated body is like an unprotected bank, vulnerable to burglars, these two tools are akin to the different high-security measures used to prevent a heist. Shots steel the institution from the inside out, papering its walls with most-wanted posters and alerting bank personnel to upswings in local crime. Supersensitive alarms get installed at windows; extra security guards are stationed throughout the building; the local sheriff’s office is put on speed dial. Should thieves try to force their way in, they’ll be recognized as familiar foes and get arrested on the spot, maybe before any real damage can be done.

COVID-19 vaccines have proved themselves ace at deploying these safeguards and preventing symptomatic disease, especially in its most severe forms, even when tangoing with variants. That is the classic vaccination modus operandi: fortifying our defenses so a pathogen has higher hurdles to clear.

But even vaccinated immune systems can be somewhat foiled when local conditions change. A well-armored bank will still be better off than an unsecured one, but could struggle to thwart career criminals—ones who are savvy enough to show up en masse,move fast, and use brutal tactics. And more of those robbers might make it out of the scuffle unscathed and eager to hit up a neighboring bank. Vaccine-prepped immune systems are still mostly clobbering Delta, the SARS-CoV-2 variant that’s now found in 80 percent of the virus samples being sequenced across the nation: People who have gotten all their shots are a lot less likely to experience symptoms, hospitalization, or death, and don’t seem to be responsible for much virus transmission. But Delta also appears to be especially good at accumulating in airways, and seems to eke past some of our immune defenses. These troubling traits might make it easier for the virus to mildly sicken some inoculated individuals, and perhaps spread from them as well. Vaccines are an imperfect shield; variants like Delta find their way through the cracks.

Masks cut down on all of this risk. If vaccines shore up security from the inside, face coverings (which, you know, literally cover your face) erect a sturdy blockade around the bank’s exterior—fences, bars, better locks, and ID checks at an intruder’s typical point of entry. Masks are physical barriers; they’re “great at preventing exposure to large doses of virus” before the invaders even enter the premises, Iwasaki said. And in the same way that it’s easier for security guards to incapacitate just a few crooks busting through the door, “the less virus you need to fight off, the better—I think that’s pretty clear,” Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington, told me. Masks, in other words, curb the amount of labor our immune systems are forced to do—in some cases, maybe eliminating the threat entirely. In that way, they accomplish something vaccines can’t: Unlike immune cells, they don’t have to wait until after the virus has broken into the body to act. That’s an especially big asset for people whose bodies are less equipped to respond to vaccines, including the elderly and the immunocompromised, populations the CDC says should mask more vigilantly indoors, regardless of where they live.

6) I’m about 6 years behind on “Nathan for You” (enjoying it on my glitchy HBO Max) and I must say I love when the show’s preposterous stunts breakthrough into real media.  The episode on “The Movement” workout routine was just brilliant.  

7) I watched a Russian men’s gymnast compete this week who completely tore his Achilles in April and I just cannot even believe at all that he did this.  

8) I haven’t watched any Ted Lasso yet, but I plan on bingeing it once the Olympics is over.  Really enjoyed this James Poniewozik essay on how TV has evolved, “How TV Went From David Brent to Ted Lasso: Two decades ago, TV’s most distinctive stories were defined by a tone of ironic detachment. Today, they’re more often sincere and direct. How did we get here?”

In TV’s ambitious comedies, as well as dramas, the arc of the last 20 years is not from bold risk-taking to spineless inoffensiveness. But it is, in broad terms, a shift from irony to sincerity.

By “irony” here, I don’t mean the popular equation of the term with cynicism or snark. I mean an ironic mode of narrative, in which what a show “thinks” is different from what its protagonist does. Two decades ago, TV’s most distinctive stories were defined by a tone of dark or acerbic detachment. Today, they’re more likely to be earnest and direct. [emphases mine]

You can see this change in the careers of some of the medium’s biggest stars and in its creative energy overall. You could chalk the shift up to burnout with cringe comedies and antihero stories, to exhaustion with the cultural weaponization of irony, to changes in the viewership and creators of TV — to all these and more.

But the upshot is that, if David Brent would be out of place in 2021, it wouldn’t be because of the strictures of some cultural human-resources department; it would be because of the current vogue for TV that says things, for better or worse, like it means them.

Earlier this summer, my fellow Times critics and I put together a list of the 21 best American comedies of the past 21 years. It runs chronologically — I hate ranked lists that turn art into math — which has the side benefit of showing you TV history in time-lapse form.

It kicks off with the likes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Arrested Development” and the American “Office”: series with comically obnoxious or oblivious protagonists. It ends with the warm dramedy “Better Things” and the coming-of-age buddy comedy “PEN15”: big-hearted shows whose main characters may be imperfect or awkward, but whom you are meant to identify with.

If the patron imp of early-aughts comedy was Gervais’s David Brent — self-centered, desperate to be liked, casually vulgar and insulting to his staff — the essential face of comedy today might be Ted Lasso, the earnest American-transplant soccer coach in England who quotes Anne Lamott, encourages his players to be psychologically healthy and bakes cookies for his boss. He’s so sweet you could box him up like shortbread.

At heart, the original “Office” and “Ted Lasso” (which just scored 20 Emmy nominations) are both about the importance of kindness and empathy. Gervais’s show may be even more morally didactic; it has a sentimental, even maudlin streak that has become all the more pronounced in his later comedies, like “After Life.” But it makes its case ironically and negatively, expecting you to infer its judgment on David Brent from the reactions of other characters, and from your own.

What was going on at the turn of the millennium? “The Office” and company followed on the “Seinfeld” and David Letterman era of High Irony, a time when a literary device was enough of a cultural concern to inspire magazine coversbooks and premature obituaries. They were also of a piece with dramas like “The Sopranos,” which asked you to like watching their protagonists without like-liking them.

Antiheroes existed in art long before Tony whacked his first victim. Dostoyevsky created them; Northrop Frye wrote about them. And earlier TV dabbled in difficult protagonists, like Archie Bunker of “All in the Family.” But they were a harder sell for television, which required much broader audiences than literary fiction — or did, before outlets like HBO came along.

The common thread of antihero drama and cringe comedy is the assumption that audiences could and should be able to distinguish between the mind-set of the protagonist and the outlook of the author. They asked you to accept dissonance within the story and within yourself: You could see Tony as an animal while acknowledging the beast in you that resonated with him, you could see Larry David as a jackass while recognizing that you found it thrilling.

And, yeah, that’s definitely my favorite mode of storytelling.

9) This is true, “America’s COVID-19 Air Travel Rules Are Insane”

If you want to see how warped the current U.S. COVID-19 travel restrictions are, consider this: in 2019, there were 15.4 million air passenger arrivals from Mexico, almost 7 times the number from Italy. Today, despite Mexican COVID-19 prevalence being higher than in Italy, Delta variant cases permeating both countries, and Italy having administered well over double the number of Mexico’s vaccinations per 100 people, entry for non-Americans from Italy to the U.S. is banned, but people can fly in from Mexico irrespective of their vaccination status.

Despite months of clarity that the current COVID-19 U.S. air travel passenger rules defy basic logic, though, the White House remains stubbornly unmoved. “Given where we are … with the Delta variant,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, “we will maintain existing travel restrictions.” There was no acknowledgement of the incoherence of the current orders in terms of the countries they apply to, the people they apply to, or the changing context of COVID-19 in a world of vaccinations, let alone the dreadful impact of the rules on families and the economy.

10) Great, great stuff from David Epstein on athletes and mental health through the eyes of a former champion bobsledder.  Just read it.

11) Enjoyed Freddie deBoer on what’s wrong with the internet through his experience of writing his substack.

This is an consistent reality about writing for the internet, at least in my experience: the vast majority of the people who would prefer you to write something other than that which gives the most engagement will not reward you for doing that something else with their engagement. They have a vision of what your work could be that they will happily share with you, but they won’t actually read any of it when you try to put those principles into practice. Look, I’m not trying to be overly deterministic here; I still write mostly based on personal whim, I have zero long term tracking or plans for what I write in a given week or month, and I don’t sit around saying “how can I please those Facebook critics?” But it’s simply not realistic to be truly indifferent to quantitative rewards, and I would have to fly completely blind in this project to remain ignorant of the fact that the more I produce the content many people say they want, the worse this newsletter performs. Allow me to illustrate.

yes, I have noticed the dates on these, thank you

These categories are chosen purposefully. Getting salty about media is my most consistent click-generator and money-maker and is also what most people say they would prefer I do less often or not at all. Education research/policy posts are probably the single most-requested type of post in emails and comments, and because they could plausibly get a lot of engagement, it makes the comparison more fair. (As you see, the top-performing education post did pretty well.) I do other types of writing that don’t get many views at all, but I don’t expect them to. My favorite type of piece I do here is things like my review of Jenny Offill’s Weather, but I go in to those knowing that they won’t do numbers and I consider the opportunity to produce them part of the gift of artistic freedom I’m lucky to have. The issue is that, if I want this to continue being financially viable as my job long-term, it’s hard to look at that table and not realize what I’m losing by giving up the upper rows and emphasizing the bottom.

12) Oh, and, hey, this was a really, really unexpected surprise for my largely-ignored twitter feed.

Maybe he stumbled across all the good Covid stuff I retweet?

13) Good stuff in the Upshot, “What Improves the Chances of Solving a Murder? Speedy work is helpful, but it’s not the main factor in clearing a case, research finds.”

“The First 48,” a documentary on A&E about solving murders, has produced more than 450 episodes since its 2004 debut. The show’s title sequence tells us homicide detectives’ chances of solving a murder are “cut in half if they don’t get a lead within the first 48 hours.”

It’s hard to verify this claim because such data is not systemically tracked, but “my experience is that it’s not true,” said John Skaggs, a retired detective from the Los Angeles Police Department who supervised more than 200 homicide investigations and was the protagonist in the 2015 book “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy.“Sometimes it takes a few days for something to develop.”

Research suggests that the reality is indeed more complex, but that one key to solving a murder is straightforward: devoting more hours to it, which usually involves more investigators…

Mr. Skaggs says about 15 percent to 18 percent of all murders are “self-solvers.” They are easy cases because “there is a smoking gun when the cops get there or it’s on video.” All others require more effort. Beyond the circumstances of the crime, two factors — the weapon used, and the resources dedicated to solving the crime — largely determine the success of a murder investigation.

Fatal shootings are harder to solve quickly than other kinds of murders. In Oakland, Calif., for example, 82 percent of stabbing murders that were solved were cleared within a week, compared with 32 percent of firearm murders.

14) If you haven’t noticed, women’s gymnasts have been getting older.  Very good stuff at 538:

In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, stories were being written about the increasing age of female gymnasts, pointing out that the sport, once thought to be the exclusive domain of young teens, can be done — and done exceptionally well — by gymnasts who are in their late teens or even their 20s. After all, the average age for a female gymnast in these Olympics is just under 22 years. But the focus has been almost exclusively on the end of a gymnast’s career. Far less attention is being paid to how early a gymnast’s specialization starts and how that has the potential to affect how one’s final years look. There’s even less focus on how the sport can better accommodate gymnasts so they may extend their careers beyond what had long been thought impossible.

This change — which really has been underway for more than a decade, if not longer — is welcome, but it doesn’t signify a fundamental shift in how we approach training gymnasts. It doesn’t challenge the timeline that puts gymnasts on pace to being at their “peaks,” or at least a first “peak,” when they’re just 15 or 16 years old. It doesn’t question what is generally taken as an article of faith in the gymnastics community — that gymnasts have to train upward of 20 hours a week before they even hit their teen years just to have a shot at an Olympic team or a college scholarship. It is this timeline, which was built around the erroneous belief that female gymnasts had a narrow competitive window in their teens, that needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. If we want adult women to thrive in gymnastics, we have to change how their preteen and early teen years look.

15) And a really good feature in the NYT, “What If Everything We Know About Gymnastics Is Wrong? In the wake of a seismic scandal, Chellsie Memmel and other gymnasts are done with inhumane coaching — and the idea that they have to peak in their teens.”

16) Zaid Jilani, “Progressive Denial Won’t Stop Violent Crime”

Rising anxiety about crime will fuel support for policies that Ocasio-Cortez is opposed to. Many on the left feel understandably outraged about police abuses, and worry that using policing as a tool to combat crime will only harm people in the most vulnerable communities. But if progressives pay close attention to people in those high-crime communities, they’ll discover that residents generally want both police reform to prevent abuses and more effective policing to tackle crime…

One progressive who promotes that message is former Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort, who spent decades working on gun-violence issues in Atlanta, where homicides are up nearly 60 percent over the past year.

Fort primarily blames underlying socioeconomic factors for crime in the city, but he also thinks that an ever-expanding network of gangs and easy access to guns are fueling the violence. He senses little contradiction between tackling crime and promoting police reform. “I’ve been in courtrooms … not just fighting, you know, against over-policing, but I’ve been in the courtrooms sitting with the victims of violent crime,” he told me. “I’m equally comfortable standing with the victims of gun violence.”…

In the minds of many progressives, acknowledging cases like Ansari’s and the demand by those who are most at risk for policing to combat crime would only offer ammunition to conservatives and other supporters of the carceral state. John Pfaff, a prominent progressive criminologist, recently argued that “those who favor the status quo are trying to use the rise in homicides as grist for rolling back policies they dislike.”…

I’m sure that many progressives don’t buy the argument that quality policing is essential to controlling violent crime, but many voters do. The recent Democratic primaries in New York City provide an example of how progressives, when they are unable to address the public’s concerns about crime, will pay for it at the ballot box. Although the left found some success down the ballot, capturing the Democratic nomination for comptroller and a number of city-council spots, progressives found themselves overwhelmed in the mayoral race.

17) Great conversation on crime between Yascha Mounk and Patrick Sharkey:

Mounk: What do we know about the ways in which this may have been caused by the pandemic? Or do we really need to look for other factors?

Sharkey: It wasn’t just the suffering that came about because of the pandemic, and it wasn’t just people being locked down. It was [also] the breakdown of social institutions that bring us together and that provide the foundation for every community across the country. I’m talking about schools, but also libraries and parks and playgrounds. Those public spaces were shut down, in addition to community centers, after-school programs and summer jobs programs, and so forth. Those sorts of institutions provide the foundation for social order, and when those institutions shut down, people retreat to their homes. It doesn’t make every community more violent, but it makes every community more vulnerable to violence. When public spaces are abandoned, and institutions start to shut down, it creates the possibility for violence to emerge. So I think that was the starting point. [But] we didn’t see the explosion of violence until later in the year. That gives us a hint that it wasn’t all about the pandemic. 

First, you had the pandemic and lockdown. While that was going on, we had this incredible increase in gun ownership and gun sales in the background, a record-breaking year in terms of gun sales. There is some new evidence (or at least hints of evidence) that those guns were circulating [on] the streets early in the pandemic. Jens Ludwig, maybe the best criminologist in the world, who runs the Chicago Crime Lab, put out an analysis [recently] showing that there was an increase in the number of people who were stopped and were carrying a gun in Chicago as early as March and April. And then you have the protests in late May, after George Floyd was murdered, and the reaction to it and the set of processes that that generates, which includes changes in police behavior, but also changes in residents’ behavior. And that’s when violence really started skyrocketing in lots of cities across the country. 

When I look at last year, lots of people are still gathering data. These are all hypotheses right now. But [at] my lab at Princeton, we’ve started making some progress toward an […] explanation. It’s leading me to this idea that there’s a confluence of three stages, or three sets of factors: (1) the pandemic, the breakdown of social institutions; (2) the rise in guns, circulating guns; and then (3) the reaction to the protests, creating [an] overall feeling—which was partly around the election and the attack on the Capitol on January 6—that the social fabric was breaking down, and everybody’s on their own to deal with this set of crises…

Sharkey: The reason I called the book Uneasy Peace is because we hadn’t solved the larger challenge of extreme urban inequality and all of the problems and challenges that come bundled when you have extreme inequality. By this I mean segregation, [and] how segregation then translates into vastly unequal resources across communities and vastly unequal institutions across communities—concentrated poverty, extreme housing unaffordability, and [the] severe cost burden that is often concentrated in particular communities: addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and circulation of guns. 

I make the case in the book that the model that we developed in the U.S. to deal with that was to abandon central-city neighborhoods—not try to solve those problems—and instead invest in [and] rely on the police and the prison system to deal with all of that. I think that model has been very stable since the late 1960s, when we first set along that path, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced the policy of “benign neglect” to deal with the problems of central cities. Even though there have been investments over time, there have not been sustained investments to deal with urban inequality. 

The police are effective at controlling violence, but it also generates all these costs: anger and resentment. And that anger and resentment grew as more and more people saw what was happening in low-income communities of color, or how law enforcement was interacting with residents. It generally generates a feeling of legal estrangement: feeling like one is not protected by the law, or one is not part of the citizenry of a city. And it also generates costs that are more tangible, in the sense of mass incarceration. Our incarceration rate had been stable throughout the history of the country until the start of the 1970s. It increased by 700% from the 1970s to 2010. The impact of that on families and communities is only starting to reveal itself, because it doesn’t just affect the people who are incarcerated. It affects their entire networks, their families, and the next generation.

Quick hits (part I)

1) The fact that here we are in 2021 with all the technological sophistication we have and HBO cannot make an app for Roku that’s not extremely glitchy strikes me as nuts.  I mean, I use a bunch of different apps on Roku and HBO Max is the only one that consistently has problems.  And, yet, here we are.  It clearly cannot be that difficult a technological problem if you just care enough, thus HBO apparently, does not.  Damn them and all their good programming I want to watch despite their glitchy app!  Appreciated very much this Bloomberg article as I now know it’s not remotely just me:

Hershberger is not the only irritated customer. For months, subscribers have been complaining about HBO Max’s technical shortcomings, particularly on Roku — one of the most popular streaming devices, with 54 million active accounts. A post in December on Roku’s community forum about how HBO Max freezes and crashes now stretches 37 pages long and is filled with more than 360 replies. Similar angry comments from HBO Max subscribers have flooded Twitter and Reddit

Andi Agardy, 46, who lives in Tennessee, decided to wait a few months to sign up for HBO Max to give the service time to work out the bugs on Roku’s platform. But she said the app still frequently freezes and crashes, forcing her Roku to restart.

She also subscribes to Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV. But HBO Max, she said, “is the one I have the most problems with.” …

Annoyed HBO Max subscribers say they’re torn between a desire to see the acclaimed shows and the headaches of constantly restarting the app.

2) Very good stuff on the evolution of Covid:

This progression of variants demonstrates the virus’s drive for heightened fitness, the natural selection of mutations and strains that make it more likely to find hosts and are further facilitated by sidestepping the immune response, even allowing repeat infections of people who previously had COVID-19. We emphasize, however, that enhanced transmissibility, rather than immunoevasion or greater lethality, would be considered the most potent path for the virus to become more fit and viable.

Indeed, more-fit variants can be expected to emerge over time (the occurrence of which will need to be monitored meticulously, as these pose a potential public health threat), but we believe that these will not continue to emerge indefinitely: nothing is infinite in nature, and eventually the virus will reach its form of ‘maximum transmission’. After then, new variants will provide no further advantage in infectivity. The virus will thus stabilize and this ‘final’ variant will prevail and become the dominant strain, experiencing only occasional, minimal variations.

By homology, we can imagine that the same took place when some very contagious RNA viruses (e.g., measles virus) spilled over in humans: in the early stages of the epidemic, the virus was probably unstable and less transmissible than it is now; then—once the most contagious phenotype was reached—the measles virus stabilized. We note that the inevitable outcome of this strategy for all RNA viruses that have developed high contagiousness (beyond measles virus, we could name, for instance, the viral agents that cause hepatitis A, poliomyelitis, mumps and rubella) is the lack of molecular structures that allow the virus to ‘dodge’ the immune response of the recovered host. Why is that? To make a long story short, by the time these viruses are attacked by the adaptive immunity of their new host, they have no immediate advantage in evading it, because they have probably already spread to another susceptible host, where replication and survival are ensured4.

3) I was having a hard time figuring out how I felt about the Simone Biles thing until I read this.  I had actually come to the conclusion that what was going on seemed a lot like the yips in golf or baseball and then I read this.  It’s the twisties! I love validation. I absolutely feel for Biles and this makes it clear she was right to pull out.  But, also, it really is stunning and I think unprecedented for such a superlative athlete to be felled by a psychological malady in a circumstance like this.

TOKYO — Imagine flying through the air, springing off a piece of equipment as you prepare to flip on one axis while twisting on another. It all happens fast, so there’s little time to adjust. You rely on muscle memory, trusting that it’ll work out, because with so much practice, it usually does.

But then suddenly, you’re upside down in midair and your brain feels disconnected from your body. Your limbs that usually control how much you spin have stopped listening, and you feel lost. You hope all the years you’ve spent in this sport will guide your body to a safe landing position.

When Simone Biles pushed off the vaulting table Tuesday, she entered that terrifying world of uncertainty. In the Olympic team final, Biles planned to perform a 2½-twisting vault, but her mind chose to stall after just 1½ twists instead.

Biles, who subsequently withdrew from the team competition and then the all-around final a day later, described what went wrong during that vault as “having a little bit of the twisties.”

The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

“Simply, your life is in danger when you’re doing gymnastics,” said Sean Melton, a former elite gymnast who dealt with the twisties through his entire career. “And then, when you add this unknown of not being able to control your body while doing these extremely dangerous skills, it adds an extreme level of stress. And it’s terrifying, honestly, because you have no idea what is going to happen.”
The twisties are essentially like the yips in other sports. But in gymnastics, the phenomenon affects the athletes when they’re in the air, so the mind-body disconnect can be dangerous, even for someone of Biles’s caliber.

4) Really, really enjoyed this profile of Matt Damon.  Especially the parts about the changing business of hollywood and how there’s no good mid-range movies anymore.

But you only have to look a bit closer at Damon’s career, at the notion of Matt Damon, Movie Star we have in our heads, to see that nice might be an ingenious sleight-of-hand, an illusion of sorts. Because that darkness is there. Damon doesn’t just play nice guys. Far from it. There’s Jason Bourne, whom he has played in four hit films and who is a miserable, self-loathing killing machine; the sociopathic social climber Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; the crooked Colin Sullivan in “The Departed.” Or the prep-school anti-Semite in “School Ties,” an early hint at the lurking appeal of Bad Matt. Damon’s most deftly portrayed cretin may be Mark Whitacre, the self-dealing, weaselly-mustached corporate whistle-blower in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” His most unexpected heel turn: a cameo as a cowardly astronaut (Mark Watney turned inside out) in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” “He has a willingness to rip apart his boyish, all-American exterior,” says Soderbergh, who has directed Damon in nine films. “He’s self-aware enough, and secure enough, to riff on that.” Whether another actor could have similar riffing opportunities anymore is doubtful. Over the course of his career, Damon has seen the films like the ones that sustained him — that is, the $20-million-to-$70 million drama, what he calls his “bread and butter” — mostly disappear. “You need those roles to develop as an actor and build your career, and those are gone,” Damon said, nodding. “Courtroom dramas, all that stuff, they can’t get made.” Those sorts of movies have been replaced by more easily exportable, higher-budget but paradoxically lower-risk ones. “You’re looking for a home run that can play in all these different territories to all these different ages,” Damon said. “You want the most accessible thing you can make, in terms of language and culture. And what is that? A superhero movie.” …

William Goldman’s old saw about how in Hollywood nobody knows anything could probably now be amended to this: Everyone knows only one thing, and it’s that superhero movies sell. The reorientation of the studios toward those films and other pre-existing intellectual property means the power of actors, even proven stars like Damon, has diminished. It’s the recognizable characters and cinematic universes that can be counted on financially, not the people inhabiting them. Fewer attractive parts adds extra pressure on stars to pick those parts wisely — a big, undervalued aspect of Hollywood acting. In hindsight, when you look over a successful actor’s IMDB page, it’s a list of hits and near misses and duds, but originally, they were all the same: a script. Nothing is preordained. Anyone who has a 25-year career as firmly A-list as Damon is good at picking, at telling not just whether a movie will be good but also whether he can be good in it, and whether it can be good for him. “Sometimes the right choice for an actor isn’t the biggest film, but what is the right choice for that moment in an actor’s career,” says George Clooney, who directed Damon in “The Monuments Men” and “Suburbicon.” “Matt has bounced back and forth between big studio pictures and independent, interesting films. Because he doesn’t keep doing the same thing, audiences don’t get bored of him.”

5) Drum has his list of rules for the pandemic. I endorse:

YES, kids should go back to school in person next month, with temporary exceptions during serious outbreaks. The risks of infection are far lower than the risk of yet another year of remote “learning.”

YES, kids should wear masks in school. Some extra caution is a good idea.

YES, vaccinations should be mandated for all health professionals who work with the public. This is really a no-brainer.

YES, we should accept help from wherever we can get it. If Alex Jones is willing to hype vaccinations by inventing a story that liberals have been secretly promoting vaccine fear in order to kill off conservatives, that’s fine. Whatever.

YES, vaccination mandates should be as widespread as possible. Corporations should put them in place for their own workers; businesses should put them in place for customers; and states should put them in place for everyone. They are legal, constitutional, and sensible. Enforce them via tax credits available only to those who have been vaccinated.

NO, mask mandates shouldn’t include most outdoor areas. The point here is not to put in place the maximum possible regime. It’s to put in place a regime that truly provides the most bang for the buck.

6) What’s interesting to me is the pathetically transparent rationalizations/justifications of the journalists who think this is a remotely reasonable way to practice journalism, “A Catholic newsletter promised investigative journalism. Then it outed a priest using Grindr data.”

In January, when Ed Condon and JD Flynn broke off from their jobs at a long-standing Catholic news agency, they promised readers of their new newsletter that they would deliver reporting without an agenda, or a foregone conclusion. “We aim to do serious, responsible, sober journalism about the Church, from the Church and for the Church. . . . We want The Pillar to be a different kind of journalism.”

Six months later the Pillar broke the kind of story mainstream news organizations would be unlikely to touch: They said they had obtained commercially available data that included location history from the hookup app Grindr, and used it to track a high-ranking priest from his offices and family lake house to gay nightclubs.

Now Condon and Flynn, two 38-year-old canon lawyers-turned-muckrakers, are at the center of both a global surveillance-ethics story as well as a mud fight among their fellow Catholics over whether last week they served or disgraced the church. One Catholic writer described it as “a witch hunt aimed at gay Catholic priests.”…

Flynn and Condon initially said they were not interested in participating in an interview for this article, then agreed to consider questions by email, and later said they didn’t have sufficient time and declined. But in comments they’ve tweeted since Tuesday and a podcast they posted Friday, they explained a bit of their thinking.

“There’s nothing to recommend the indiscriminate naming and shaming of people for moral failures just because you can. That is unethical. And that is not something I believe we’ve done,”Condon said on the podcast.

“People are entitled to moral failures and repentance and reconciliation and to a legitimate good reputation. There’s a difference between that and serial and consistent, immoral behavior on the part of a public figure charged with addressing public morality, isn’t there?” Flynn said.

7) Great stuff from Jeremy Faust (I highly recommend his newsletter) on the Olympics.  “Don’t cancel the Tokyo Olympics. Emulate them.”

In the lead up to the Opening Ceremonies, many in Japan and around the world called for the Tokyo Olympics to again be postponed or scrapped entirely. But one week into the Games, it appears that the 108-acre Olympic Village may actually be one of the safest populated areas on the planet.

Yes, there have been coronavirus cases among athletes and staff, and more will occur. That was inevitable. But a close analysis reveals that the International Olympic and Paralympic Committee “playbook” seems to be working as hoped. Cases have been identified rapidly. Those with positive tests have been quickly isolated and contact tracing has been completed. As a result, the situation has never spiraled out of control. The realistic goal was never to find zero cases. The idea was to rapidly find any and all cases, act decisively, and keep everyone else safe.

The system is working. While the plan has many elements, it is rooted in one crucial idea: a testing tsunami.

Check out the data visualization that we created for Inside Medicine below‡. It demonstrates that if the Olympic Village were a country, it would be the 4th most vaccinated nation in the world, behind Gibralter (population 34,000), Pitcairn (population 67), and Malta (population 502,000), and it would lead the world in daily coronavirus testing per person by a colossal margin. In fact, if coronavirus testing were an Olympic sport, the Olympic Village would tower over the world in Gold Medal position at over 250 tests per 1,000 people each day, with Cyprus in a distant Silver Medal position at just 84 tests per 1,000 people per day. Only 9 countries on Earth are currently conducting more than 10 tests per 1,000 people daily.

One week into the Games, it appears that the 108-acre Olympic Village may actually be one of the safest populated areas on the planet.
1.00
 
 
 
There is no populated region anywhere on the globe currently combining such high rates of vaccination and anything close to the testing protocols being implemented at the Olympic Games. So far, around 1 in 5,000 coronavirus tests performed in the Olympic Village have come back positive, giving it the lowest “positivity” rate in the world by a factor of 5 over its four closest competitors (Austria, Singapore, Australia, and Taiwan), and a literal order of magnitude or better than the rest of the nations of the world. As of this writing, more Olympic athletes have tested positive for banned drugs leading up to and during the Games than have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 while living in the actual Olympic Village in Tokyo.
 

8) The Washington Post takes a deep dive behind the scenes of UNC and NHJ.

9) For those of you at all epidemiologically inclined, this was really, really good, “How the coronavirus infects cells — and why Delta is so dangerous.”  Lots of really cool visualizations, e.g., 

Life cycle of the pandemic coronavirus: Infographic showing how the virus enters, adapts and exits from host cells.

10) Good Covid stuff from Katherine Xue, “COVID-19 is likely to become an endemic disease. How will our immune systems resist it?”

Still, it is likely that the virus itself is here to stay. “I personally think that there’s essentially zero chance that sars-CoV-2 will be eradicated,” Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told me. (Bloom advised my Ph.D. research on influenza evolution.) Most viruses, including the four seasonal coronaviruses, other common-cold viruses, and the flu, haven’t been eradicated; scientists describe them as “endemic,” a term derived from the Greek word éndēmos, meaning “in the people.” Endemic viruses circulate constantly, typically at low levels, but with occasional, more severe outbreaks. We don’t shut out these endemic viruses with quarantines and stay-at-home orders; we live with them.

What will it be like to live with endemic sars-CoV-2? That depends on the strength of our immune memories. How vividly will our bodies remember the virus or vaccine? How will waning immunity and the rise of variants—such as Delta, which is currently driving a spike in covid cases around the world—affect our vulnerability to reinfection? We’re beginning to learn the answers to some of these questions, and to get a sense of the years to come…

The immune system’s overlapping layers work together to strengthen its memory. But viruses aren’t static. As they accumulate mutations, their shapes shift, and they gradually become more difficult for the system to recognize. Survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic maintained strong antibody responses against that virus for almost ninety years. And yet adults still get the flu approximately once every five years, because the influenza virus’s rapid evolution insures that each year brings new variants. On average, flu viruses acquire half a dozen mutations each year; many of these alter the proteins that allow the viruses to enter and exit host cells. Antibodies that once bound tightly to a virus may have a weaker grip on its evolved form; the virus might escape the notice of certain T cells that used to recognize it.

“You can also ask the question for coronaviruses,” Bloom said. “How much of the ability to reinfect people might be driven by the virus changing?” Growing evidence suggests how much viral evolution might make us vulnerable to coronavirus reinfection. Recently, researchers in Bloom’s lab analyzed blood samples collected from people in the nineteen-eighties and nineties; the samples contained antibodies for the version of seasonal coronavirus 229E that circulated back then. Those same antibodies failed to recognize the descendants of the virus that had evolved in the intervening years. Coronaviruses mutate more slowly than viruses like influenza and H.I.V., but, over the course of a decade or two, they can still change enough to evade our immune memory.

11) This was fascinating, “Doctors Might Have Been Focusing on the Wrong Asthma Triggers: The pandemic was a big social experiment that sent asthma attacks plummeting.”

All around the country, doctors have spent the pandemic wondering why their patients with asthma were suddenly doing so well. Asthma attacks have plummeted. Pediatric ICUs have sat strangely empty. “We braced ourselves for significant problems for the millions of people living with asthma,” says David Stukus, Scarlett’s doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It was the complete opposite. It’s amazing.” (Fears about people with asthma getting more severe COVID-19 infections haven’t been borne out either.) Studies in other countries, including England, Scotland, and South Korea, also found big drops in hospital and doctor’s-office visits for asthma attacks.

The massive global experiment that is the pandemic is now leading doctors to rethink some long-held assumptions about the disease. Asthma is a chronic condition that occasionally flares up, leading to 3,500 deaths and 1.6 million emergency-room visits a year in the United States. These acute attacks can be triggered by a number of environmental factors: viruses, pollen, mold, dust mites, rodents, cockroaches, pet dander, smoke, air pollution, etc. Doctors have often scrutinized allergens that patients can control at home, such as pests and secondhand smoke. But patients have stayed at home for a year and suffered dramatically fewer asthma attacks—suggesting bigger roles for other triggers, especially routine cold and flu viruses, which nearly vanished this year with social distancing and masks.

With life in the U.S. snapping back to normal, asthma doctors and patients are facing another new reality. Masks are going away; schools will be reopening in the fall. The pandemic unexpectedly reduced asthma attacks, and now doctors and patients have to navigate between what they know is possible in extraordinary conditions and what is practical in more ordinary ones.

12) Good stuff from the How Democracies Die team, “The Biggest Threat to Democracy Is the GOP Stealing the Next Election: Unless and until the Republican Party recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk.”

13) What I find particularly interesting about this study is the ideological backlash to its conclusions.  Maybe it’s wrong and could have been conducted better; always a reasonable critique.  But I really don’t like critiques based on not liking the implications of the findings.  “Is opening more strip clubs one way to reduce sex crimes?”

In theory, adult entertainment businesses — including strip clubs and escort services — could either increase or decrease sex crimes. By teaching men to treat women as sex objects, they could foster the kinds of attitudes that lead men to commit rape and sexual assault. On the other hand, such establishments might provide substitutions for sex crimes: Men otherwise inclined to commit assaults might instead spend more time in strip clubs or hiring escorts.

In a forthcoming study in the Economic Journal, we found evidence for the second theory: In New York City, over the period from Jan. 1, 2004, to June 30, 2012, the opening of an adult entertainment business in a police precinct decreased sex crimes by 13 percent in that precinct.

This did not seem to be because police presence increased in those precincts when strip clubs appeared: Other crime rates — involving drugs and theft, for example — were not affected, something we’d be unlikely to see if more police were patrolling these neighborhoods. Nor was it because women (including street prostitutes, who are often the victims of sex crimes) avoided the areas around such businesses: If that were true, we’d expect to find sex crimes increase in neighboring precincts; the crimes might simply be relocated.

All of that suggests that the substitution explanation may be true: People inclined to commit sex crimes may be less likely to do so if they have an outlet for sexually explicit entertainment (which may include, at some clubs, illegal prostitution). Strengthening the case for this conclusion is the fact that the effect we found was more powerful at night, when these establishments do most of their business.

14) Pretty damn happy with the heat pump that’s been keeping me warm in winter for almost 20 years here in NC, “Are ‘Heat Pumps’ the Answer to Heat Waves? Some Cities Think So.”

15) Michael Pollan, “The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?” Ummm, no, it’s not time.  But I do try to avoid it after mid-afternoon most all days.  In my case, I’m definitely not using caffeine to compensate for poor sleep as, I never use caffeine before noon (that’s when I go on my Diet Dr Pepper binge for the day).

An English neuroscientist on the faculty at University of California, Berkeley, Walker, author of Why We Sleep, is single-minded in his mission: to alert the world to an invisible public-health crisis, which is that we are not getting nearly enough sleep, the sleep we are getting is of poor quality, and a principal culprit in this crime against body and mind is caffeine. Caffeine itself might not be bad for you, but the sleep it’s stealing from you may have a price. According to Walker, research suggests that insufficient sleep may be a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, depression, anxiety, suicide and obesity. “The shorter you sleep,” he bluntly concludes, “the shorter your lifespan.”

Walker grew up in England drinking copious amounts of black tea, morning, noon and night. He no longer consumes caffeine, save for the small amounts in his occasional cup of decaf. In fact, none of the sleep researchers or experts on circadian rhythms I interviewed for this story use caffeine.

I thought of myself as a pretty good sleeper before I met Walker. At lunch he probed me about my sleep habits. I told him I usually get a solid seven hours, fall asleep easily, dream most nights.

“How many times a night do you wake up?” he asked. I’m up three or four times a night (usually to pee), but I almost always fall right back to sleep.

He nodded gravely. “That’s really not good, all those interruptions. Sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity.” The interruptions were undermining the amount of “deep” or “slow wave” sleep I was getting, something above and beyond the REM sleep I had always thought was the measure of a good night’s rest. But it seems that deep sleep is just as important to our health, and the amount we get tends to decline with age.

Caffeine is not the sole cause of our sleep crisis; screens, alcohol (which is as hard on REM sleep as caffeine is on deep sleep), pharmaceuticals, work schedules, noise and light pollution, and anxiety can all play a role in undermining both the duration and quality of our sleep. But here’s what’s uniquely insidious about caffeine: the drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation; it is also the principal tool we rely on to remedy the problem. Most of the caffeine consumed today is being used to compensate for the lousy sleep that caffeine causes – which means that caffeine is helping to hide from our awareness the very problem that caffeine creates.

16) I cannot imagine writing a book without Laurel Elder’s help.  Meanwhile, Laurel just churns out books on her own:

From Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren to Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, women around the country are running in—and winning—elections at an unprecedented rate. It appears that women are on a steady march toward equal representation across state legislatures and the US Congress, but there is a sharp divide in this representation along party lines. Most of the women in office are Democrats, and the number of elected Republican women has been plunging for decades.

In The Partisan Gap, Elder examines why this disparity in women’s representation exists, and why it’s only going to get worse. Drawing on interviews with female office-holders, candidates, and committee members, she takes a look at what it is like to be a woman in each party. From party culture and ideology, to candidate recruitment and the makeup of regional biases, Elder shows the factors contributing to this harmful partisan gap, and what can be done to address it in the future. The Partisan Gap explores the factors that help, and hinder, women’s political representation.

Republicans versus science

Pretty interesting Gallup report last week with this headline, “Democratic, Republican Confidence in Science Diverges”

And here’s a key chart:

20210715_ConfidenceScience_1@2x

Whoa!  Come on Republicans!  That Covid vaccine, all our amazing technology and various medical miracles?  Science!  

But, if you’re like me, you might have thought, “yeah, well, the college educated have shifted dramatically away from Republicans and towards Democrats.”  And, quite often, Gallup does not take potential confounding variables into account.  But, hooray for Gallup, this time they did and I was actually somewhat surprised by the results:

Party Differences Exceed Those by Education

College graduates (72%) and college nongraduates (60%) differ modestly in the degree of confidence they have in science. Notably, these education differences appear to be confined mostly to Democrats, as 91% of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree are confident in science compared with 70% of Democrats without a four-year degree. Among independents and Republicans, college graduates and non-graduates have similar levels of confidence in science. Thus, it does not appear that education has much of a mediating effect on confidence in science among Republicans or independents.

And damn, if Gallup doesn’t also call it pretty accurately with their “bottom line”

Republican mistrust may stem from conservative thought leaders’ allegations of liberal bias in the scientific community, perhaps because colleges and universities employ many scientists. Republicans also mistrust colleges and universities and cite a liberal political agenda as the reason for that lack of trust. A specific recent example of Republican allegations of bias concerned the theory that the COVID-19 virus leaked from a Chinese lab. Many scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, initially favored other theories, but the lab-leak theory has gotten more serious consideration in recent months.

Still, Republicans’ lack of trust in science opens up the possibility of their being more vulnerable to influence by ideas that lack scientific support, especially if those ideas are advanced by political conservatives they implicitly trust.

One real-world manifestation of Republicans’ lack of faith in science is the greater reluctance among Republicans than Democrats to get COVID-19 vaccines.

At first it may be fun to dunk on Republicans as troglodytic science deniers.  But, actually it just sucks.  We are sharing this country.  We are sharing this (increasingly Covid-infested) air.  We are sharing this government.  It would be a lot better if we could figure out what’s going on here and if there’s anything we can do about it.  My quasi-naïve hypothesis, there is huge profit to be made by right-wing media by playing to populist/anti-science fears and there’s always incentive for people to do what’s profitable.  We need a better electoral system and better institutional design, but, damn, if we could solve the “right-wing media is genuinely destroying American democracy” problem, that would be good.  

Better late than never quick hits

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

1) Great conversation between Yascha Mounk and Sabrina Tavernise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So which is which?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits (part I)

1) No, prominent Catholic priests should not be using Grindr.  But it’s far more disturbing that this kind of private data can somehow make it into the hands of people who will exploit it so easily.  Who among us is confident we’d be okay with all the information our cell phone has about us getting out?

2) Given that ties have already seemed pretty optional in the vast majority of workplaces, I wonder how true this is.  Like, will law firms and wherever else they wear ties stop now? “Neckties Are the New Bow Ties: Now that tie wearers have tasted freedom, no one should expect them to go back.”  I mean, I almost always wear a tie to teach (even when that was through Zoom) and I’m not changing that now.

3) Really enjoyed this story about the “miracle” drug Rappamune, discovered in the soil of Easter Island because it is the drug that has successfully shrunk my son’s brain tumors without surgery.  

4) It’s great that Republican politicians are finally taking Covid seriously?  But what’s behind the change of heart?  Susan Glasser speculates:

So it was more than a bit surprising to see some Republicans this week kinda, sorta, maybe embrace a different message. The Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise, the House’s No. 2 Republican, posed for a photo of himself getting a vaccine shot, many months after he was eligible, and urged others to do the same. “Get the vaccine,” Scalise said, at a press conference on Thursday. “I have high confidence in it. I got it myself.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor who was never on board with his party’s vaccine denialists and anti-maskers, warned, during his own press conference: either get vaccinated or get ready for more lockdowns. “This is not complicated,” McConnell said. Fox News, which, along with Facebook, has been among the country’s premier platforms for vaccine disinformation in recent months, started promoting a new get-vaccinated public-service announcement. Its prime-time star, the Trump confidant Sean Hannity, stared straight into the camera on Monday night and said, “It absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated.”

These statements were not a coincidence; they were a coördinated political retreat. And no wonder: the new politics of the pandemic are following the alarming new math of the pandemic. With not quite half of the country—48.8 per cent, to be exact—fully vaccinated, cases of the new Delta variant are spiking upward across the United States, with particularly pronounced increases in large swaths of Trump country. At the end of June, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that eighty-six per cent of Democrats had at least one shot, versus fifty-two per cent of Republicans—and the gap in vaccination rates is not closing but widening. As of July, thirty-five per cent of the population in counties that voted for Trump had been vaccinated, compared with nearly forty-seven per cent in counties that voted for Biden. By this week, new daily cases nationally were at their highest level since April. Deaths are increasing, too, while the number of new vaccinations is down to January levels.

The Republican pollster Glen Bolger told me that he didn’t think the G.O.P.’s about-face stemmed from a sudden fear of electoral debacle so much as a reflection of the alarming trend lines in red America. Until now, “Republicans felt like we don’t necessarily need to push on vaccines and tick off a significant portion of our base, so we won’t talk about it,” Bolger said. But, with cases increasing, that calculus changed. “It’s more of ‘Hey, guess who’s getting sick? Republicans,’ ” he said. Red America is facing a deadly fourth wave of the pandemic, and Republican politicians, or at least some, appear to have decided that they don’t want to take the blame for killing off their own voters.

5) Good stuff in Politico on 2020 polling, “Pollsters: ‘Impossible’ to say why 2020 polls were wrong”

A new, highly anticipated report from the leading association of pollsters confirms just how wrong the 2020 election polls were. But nine months after that closer-than-expected contest, the people asking why are still looking for answers.

National surveys of the 2020 presidential contest were the least accurate in 40 years, while the state polls were the worst in at least two decades, according to the new, comprehensive report from the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

But unlike 2016, when pollsters could pinpoint factors like the education divide as reasons they underestimated Donald Trump and offer specific recommendations to fix the problem, the authors of the new American Association for Public Opinion Research report couldn’t put their finger on the exact problem they face now. Instead, they’ve stuck to rejecting the idea that they made the same mistakes as before, while pointing to possible new reasons for inaccuracy

“We could rule some things out, but it’s hard to prove beyond a certainty what happened,” said Josh Clinton, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the chair of the association’s 2020 election task force. “Based on what we know about polling, what we know about politics, we have some good prime suspects as to what may be going on.”

Those “prime suspects” will hardly be comforting to pollsters and those who depend on them, from political campaigns to the news media. The most likely — if far from certain — culprit for off-kilter polling results is that key groups of people don’t answer polls in the first place.

Decreasing response rates have been a major source of concern for pollsters for more than a decade. But the politicization of polling during the Trump era — including the feedback loop from the former president, who has falsely decried poll results he doesn’t like as “fake” or deliberately aimed at suppressing enthusiasm for answering polls among GOP voters — appears to be skewing the results, with some segment of Republicans refusing to participate in surveys.

I think a key test will be how the problem is influenced by Trump not being on the ballot.  2018 seemed to be somewhat better as a result.

6) Enjoyed this list.  Love most all these movies. “The Best Time Travel Movies of … All Time”  Though, apparently, I really need to see Primer.

7) Science/nature never fails to amaze what millions of years of evolution can accomplish, “The Never-Aging Ants With a Terrible Secret: A parasite gives its hosts the appearance of youth, and an unmatched social power in the colony.”

Under typical circumstances, Temnothorax ants live as most other ants do. They reside in communities ruled by a single fertile queen attended by a legion of workers whose professional lives take a predictable trajectory. They first tend the queen’s eggs as nurses, then graduate into foraging roles that take them outside the nest. Apart from the whole freaky parasite thing, “they are pretty boring,” Foitzik told me…

Normalcy goes out the door, however, when Temnothorax larvae ingest tapeworm-egg-infested bird feces trucked in by foragers. The parasites hatch and set up permanent residence in the young ants’ abdomens, where they can access a steady stream of nutrients. In return, they offer their host an unconventional renter’s fee: an extra-long life span that Foitzik and her colleagues managed to record in real time.

The researchers spent three years monitoring dozens of Temnothorax colonies in the lab, comparing the fates of workers who’d fallen prey to the parasites and those who remained infection-free. By the end of their experiment, almost every single one of the hundreds of worm-free workers had, unsurprisingly, died. But more than half the parasitized workers were still kicking—about the same proportion as the colonies’ ultra-long-lived queens. “That was amazing to see,” Biplabendu Das, an ant biologist and parasite expert at the University of Central Florida, who wasn’t involved in the study, told me. And despite their old age, the ants’ bodies still bore the hallmarks of youth. They were difficult to distinguish from uninfected nurses, who are usually the most juvenile members of the colony’s working class.

The tapeworm-laden ants didn’t just outlive their siblings, the team found. They were coddled while they did it. They spent their days lounging in their nest, performing none of the tasks expected of workers. They were groomed, fed, and carried by their siblings, often receiving more attention than even the queen—unheard of in a typical ant society—and gave absolutely nothing in return.

The deal the ants have cut with their parasites seems, at first pass, pretty cushy. Foitzik told me that her team couldn’t find any overt downsides to life as an infected ant, a finding that appears to shatter the standard paradigm of parasitism. Even the colonies as a whole remained largely intact. Workers continued to work; queens continued to lay eggs. The threads that held each Temnothorax society together seemed unmussed.

Only when the researchers took a closer look did that tapestry begin to unravel. The uninfected workers in parasitized colonies, they realized, were laboring harder. Strained by the additional burden of their wormed-up nestmates, they seemed to be shunting care away from their queen. They were dying sooner than they might have if the colonies had remained parasite-free. At the community level, the ants were exhibiting signs of stress, and the parasite’s true tax was, at last, starting to show. “The cost is in the division of labor,” Das said. The worms were tapping into not just “individual [ant] physiology, but also social interactions,” Farrah Bashey-Visser, a parasitologist at Indiana University who wasn’t involved in the study, told me.

8) Helen Branswell, “Can we stretch existing Covid vaccines to inoculate more people? Experts are divided.”  Actually, I’d say it’s pretty damn clear we “can.”  But, since it’s not actually tested in phase 3, we get disagreement:

Several times in recent years the World Health Organization has recommended “fractionation” — using partial or fractional doses when supplies of critical vaccines have been limited. When a dangerous yellow fever outbreak in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo threatened to exhaust the world’s stores of yellow fever vaccine, the WHO instructed countries to use one-fifth of a normal dose in their emergency vaccination efforts. (Research done during that 2016 outbreak suggested the lower dose protected those who received it.) The WHO has also recommended use of fractional doses of inactivated polio vaccine and meningococcal conjugate vaccines during periods of scarcity of those shots.

The idea of splitting doses of Covid vaccines is not universally supported, however; a number of experts contend that the vaccines should be used in the dose size tested during clinical trials and cleared for use by regulatory agencies. That route offers the best protection for individuals who are vaccinated, they insist. “The problem where I’m coming from is you have to prove fractional dosing works,” said Larry Corey, who co-led design of the trials of the Covid vaccines supported by the U.S. government. That hasn’t happened yet.

“Think of the lives that would have been saved” if manufacturers geared their research to finding the smallest possible dose that was protective when they were testing their Covid vaccines, Cowling told STAT in an interview about fractionation.

It’s important to understand that when pharmaceutical companies set out to develop Covid vaccines in early 2020, they were in a race against time, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus sweeping the globe and infections and deaths rising rapidly. In such a scenario, there was no time to find a Goldilocks dose — the one that used just enough antigen to protect a person being vaccinated, but no more than was needed.

Settling on a vaccine dose in a situation like this is as much an art as it is a science. Most manufacturers tested a two-dose regimen, because the accumulated body of vaccine experience suggests that an immune system will need two introductions to a new pathogen to mount a good response against it. (The sole exception was Johnson & Johnson, which tested both a one-dose and a two-dose vaccine. The former has been authorized for use; study of the latter continues.)

On the question of how much antigen — the fluid that comprises each vaccine dose — was needed, each of the manufacturers quickly tested a small range of options. For instance, Pfizer and BioNTech, the partnership that brought the first vaccine to market in the U.S., tested doses of 10, 20, and 30 micrograms given in a two-dose regimen, and a single 100-microgram dose in its dose-finding studyModerna tested doses of 25, 100 and 250 micrograms. Both opted for two-dose regimens with Pfizer selecting the 30-microgram dose and Moderna opting for 100 micrograms. (Moderna’s 250-microgram dose had caused too many side effects and was abandoned.)

The studies used to decide on those doses weren’t large enough to show whether the lower doses would have been protective. They only charted how tolerable the doses were — did they trigger too many unpleasant reactions? — and what the measurable immune responses were in the people who were vaccinated. For manufacturers, the priority was to find a vaccine dose that was effective, pushing them toward higher doses to be on the safe side.

9) One of those issues that really flies under the radar, but is an example of business power run amok being reigned in by the Biden administration, “Joe Biden Wants You to Be Able to Fix Your Own Damn iPhones: A sweeping new presidential directive includes, among other things, an initiative to secure consumers’ right to repair their own devices.”

10) Timing on this was maybe not the best right as Delta was about to surge, but David Wallace-Wells does make some good points here (while, perhaps eliding some issues):

In fact, for all the consternation that the United States responded to the pandemic by abandoning individuals to fend for themselves — a narrative belied by the data, which shows a roughly average level of stringency in our public response and a remarkably generous level of social-welfare spending, as Alex Tabarrok, among others, has noted — this principle of universal and shared burden has guided an enormous amount of our pandemic response: We have treated the disease almost as a uniform threat as a way of encouraging uniform vigilance. The best way to stop deaths was to stop cases, went the thinking, which dovetailed naturally with every parent’s intuitive caution and desire to keep their kids healthy and uninfected — and distrust, perhaps, of anyone who suggested that your child would be fine if she got sick. But whatever we told ourselves in doing so, we didn’t pull those kids out of school and put them in masks for their own. We did it for the sake of others.

But on that point mass vaccination in the United States has utterly changed the landscape of the pandemic: not only by protecting those who have received shots, indeed astonishingly well, but by changing the calculus for all those who haven’t, by eliminating almost all of the mortality risk of the population at large. All told, 80 percent of American deaths have been among those 65 and above. According to the White House, 90 percent of American seniors are now fully vaccinated. Which means that while more cases are likely and some amount of hospitalization and death, as well, vaccines have eliminated the overwhelming share of American mortality risk, with the disease now circulating almost exclusively among people who can endure it much, much better — kids especially.

The country’s whole risk profile has changed. But our intuitions about risk tolerance haven’t — at least not yet…

But the second gift may be more profound: the way our collective vulnerability has been transformed by vaccination programs focused on the old. The scale of this impact reflects the still under-appreciated fact of the age skew of COVID-19 — even by those who know, vaguely, that the older are more vulnerable. The important question is: How much more vulnerable? According to the CDC, the mortality risk for those 85 and above is 610 times higher than for 18-29 year olds. The number is so large it is almost hard to process. If a given number of infections among 20-somethings would produce just a single fatality, the same number of infections in 85-year-olds would produce 610. Of all the risk factors and comorbidities we read and heard so much about last spring, from race and class to obesity and COPD, each of which should raise ringing alarm bells about inequities in our society and our health system, the effect of age absolutely dwarfs all of them. Somehow, we could barely hear that alarm bell in the panicked pandemic din.

And though the skew is most visible among the very old, the effect is consistent across all age groups, with mortality risk doubling every five years. This means every difference of two decades multiplies risk 16-fold. Three decades and the difference is 64-fold. Those aged 75-84 face a mortality risk from the disease 230 times higher than those in their twenties. Between 65 and 74 you are 95 times more likely to die from a COVID infection than the CDC’s 20-something baseline reference group.

And the risk of children is dramatically smaller still than that CDC baseline; according to one, much-cited paper, the infection fatality rate for those aged 5 to 9 is less than 0.001 percent. It suggests that a child of that age, even sick, faces roughly one-ten-thousandth the mortality risk of an 85-year-old. Statistically speaking, if a kid who comes down with a coronavirus infection is facing a threat to her life equivalent to the flu — perhaps significantly less — a 90-year-old who does so is treading in the neighborhood of anthrax, the bubonic plague, and certain lighter outbreaks of Ebola. It was often said, in lamentations of American indifference at the outset of the pandemic, that the country would have taken the disease much more seriously if it hadn’t spared the very young. In the year that followed, we mostly pretended it didn’t.

11) Don’t 100% agree with Andrew Sullivan here on the illiberalism of the American left, but he makes a lot of good points, especially for Wokeism to traffic in overly-simple binaries:

The reason “critical race theory” is a decent approximation for this new orthodoxy is that it was precisely this exasperation with liberalism’s seeming inability to end racial inequality in a generation that prompted Derrick Bell et al. to come up with the term in the first place, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to subsequently universalize it beyond race to every other possible dimension of human identity (“intersectionality”).

A specter of invisible and unfalsifiable “systems” and “structures” and “internal biases” arrived to hover over the world. Some of this critique was specific and helpful: the legacy of redlining, the depth of the wealth gap. But much was tendentious post-modern theorizing. The popular breakthrough was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations in the Atlantic and his subsequent, gut-wrenching memoir, “Between The World And Me.” He combined the worldview and vocabulary of CRT with the vivid lived experience of his own biography. He is a beautifully gifted writer, and I am not surprised he had such an emotional impact, even if, in my view, the power of his prose blinded many to the radical implications of the ideology he surrendered to, in what many of his blog readers called his “blue period.”

The movement is much broader than race — as anyone who is dealing with matters of sex and gender will tell you. The best moniker I’ve read to describe this mishmash of postmodern thought and therapy culture ascendant among liberal white elites is Wesley Yang’s coinage: “the successor ideology.” The “structural oppression” is white supremacy, but that can also be expressed more broadly, along Crenshaw lines: to describe a hegemony that is saturated with “anti-Blackness,” misogyny, and transphobia, in a miasma of social “cis-heteronormative patriarchal white supremacy.” And the term “successor ideology” works because it centers the fact that this ideology wishes, first and foremost, to repeal and succeed a liberal society and democracy.

In the successor ideology, there is no escape, no refuge, from the ongoing nightmare of oppression and violence — and you are either fighting this and “on the right side of history,” or you are against it and abetting evil. There is no neutrality. No space for skepticism. No room for debate. No space even for staying silent. (Silence, remember, is violence — perhaps the most profoundly anti-liberal slogan ever invented.)

And that tells you about the will to power behind it. Liberalism leaves you alone. The successor ideology will never let go of you. Liberalism is only concerned with your actions. The successor ideology is concerned with your mind, your psyche, and the deepest recesses of your soul. Liberalism will let you do your job, and let you keep your politics private. S.I. will force you into a struggle session as a condition for employment.

What happened to me? You know what I want to know: What on earth has happened to you?

12) Thanks to BB for sending this my way on intermittent fasting.  Even if it’s not helping you lose weight, there appears to be some benefit, 

Abstract

Introduction 

Recently, a modified intermittent fasting protocol was demonstrated to be able to maintain muscle mass and strength, decrease fat mass and improve some inflammation and cardiovascular risk factors in healthy resistance-trained males after 2 months. The present study sought to investigate the long-term effects on these parameters.

Methods 

The experiment is a single-blind randomized study. Twenty healthy subjects were enrolled and underwent 12 months of either a time-restricted eating (TRE) diet or a normal diet (ND) protocol, along with resistance training. In the TRE protocol, subjects consumed their energy needs in 3 meals during an 8-h period of time each day (1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 8 p.m). Subjects in the normal diet (ND) group also had three meals, which were consumed at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m. Groups were matched for kilocalories consumed and macronutrient distribution at baseline.

Results 

After 12 months of TRE, body mass, fat mass, IGF-1 and testosterone were significantly lower compared to ND. Moreover, inflammatory markers (IL-6, IL-1β and TNF-α), insulin sensitivity (fasting glucose, insulin and HOMA-IR) and lipid profile (cholesterol, HDL and LDL) significantly improved after TRE compared to ND. Finally, subjects in TRE spontaneously decreased their daily energy intake whilst ND maintained their starting kcal/day. No adverse events were reported.

Conclusion 

Our results suggest that long-term TRE combined with a resistance training program is feasible, safe and effective in reducing inflammatory markers and risk factors related to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

13) Really liked this Yglesias post, “In defense of the old-fashioned idea of “racism”” as he takes on what Kendi gets wrong (I tried to give Kendi a chance in his recent interview with Ezra, but he really elided some key points, and, yes, he too readily deals in seemingly simple binaries when the world is more complicated:

To me, one of the weirder phenomena of the past 12 to 18 months in American life is the way that Ibram X. Kendi has become this widely quoted, widely interviewed, widely celebrated figure, and yet hardly anyone has asked him about the most provocative and distinctive ideas in his book.

When the book was first published in 2019, that’s not how it was received. Kelefa Sanneh’s excellent review in the New Yorker heads straight for what I think is the core weirdness of Kendi’s ideas. If we accept the definition that a racist is a person who supports racist policies, and what makes a policy racist is that it “produces or sustains racial inequity,” then determining which policies are racist requires exhaustive analysis of controversial empirical questions. Sanneh uses the example of “ban the box” laws which prohibit employers from asking about past criminal convictions. Many activists and the National Employment Law Center regard this as an important anti-racist measure since African Americans are more likely to have prior convictions and thus be disadvantaged by this question.

But Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen find that “ban the box” laws lead to worse employment outcomes for Black men because absent specific information about past criminal records, employers engage in statistical discrimination.1

“Are these laws and their supporters racist?” Sanneh asks. “In Kendi’s framework, the only possible answer is: wait and see.”

Sanneh’s review suggests, rightly, that neither Kendi nor anyone else can consistently stick with this empiricist concept of racism. That the visceral reaction to animus, bias, and discrimination is still with us and still works as the primary meaning of “racism,” even for people who would like to officially move to something more like Kendi-ism…

Structural racism has its place

It feels almost absurd to write a column about how, you know, hate crimes are bad and discrimination is bad and nobody likes to be subjected to bigotry.

But something very odd happened in the Trump years. A lot of people had a visceral reaction of disgust to his bigoted rhetoric — implying that Mexican immigrants are typically murderers or offhand references to “shithole countries,” but at the same time, more people than ever were insisting that this actually isn’t what racism is, that real racism is what Kendi says it is.

Yet it seems inescapable that the reason white liberals started talking more about racism isn’t that we suddenly became aware of gaps in economic conditions — it’s because Trump was saying all this racist stuff.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for a structural account of racism. My go-to example is the U.S. Senate, which not-really-by-design systematically down weights the preferences of Black voters. Things then flow downstream from that. A more equitable Senate would have confirmed Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. A more equitable Senate would have passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. A more equitable Senate would not need to swap rural broadband money to get mass transit money…

This is different from how other political systems work. Finland’s political institutions create a situation where the small party representing the country’s Swedish-speaking minority is almost always useful to have as a coalition partner. As a result, even though Swedish-speakers are in some sense marginalized in a majority-Finnish-speaking country, their concrete interests are safeguarded. But a lot of America’s governance institutions (including the aforementioned zoning ordinances) were created in a much more aggressively racist time and become ongoing sources of disadvantage.

That being said, remember when Donald Trump spent years making “jokes” about how Barack Obama was secretly Kenyan? That was really racist. And then when those racist jokes catapulted him into being someone whose endorsement Mitt Romney would court, and someone who was on Fox News a lot, and then suddenly someone leading in the polls for the GOP nomination, that was really disturbing. Because it was super racist. And racist in a very banal, commonsense way that I think is actually very important relative to the more fashionable and largely unworkable version of racism that Kendi is trying to sell us on.

14) I liked this from Ed Kilgore, “Democrats Can’t Win the Culture War With Silence”

The most persuasive case for treating silence on cultural issues as golden is being made by data analyst David Shor, who believes Republican traction on such issues explains why Donald Trump and his party did better than expected last year. I won’t go through his math lesson on Trump’s performance among non-college-educated white and nonwhite voters, other than to say it leads to the conclusion he outlined earlier this year in an interview with my colleague Eric Levitz:

If we divide the electorate on self-described ideology, we lose — both because there are more conservatives than liberals and because conservatives are structurally overrepresented in the House, Senate, and Electoral College. So the way we get around that is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues. … Now, how we should campaign and what we should do once in office are different questions. Our immigration system is a humanitarian crisis, and we should do something about that. But the point of public communication should be to win votes. And the way that you do that is to not trigger ideological polarization.

With all due respect to Shor, Democrats do not have the power to keep “ideological polarization” from happening on cultural issues that he considers party weak points. Indeed, if they are Democratic weak points, Republicans are going to talk about them incessantly, and if Democrats fall silent, Republicans will be free to define Democrats as they wish. Silence is not golden, in other words; in politics, it’s often a big mistake.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask Hillary Clinton, who lost in 2016 in no small part because decades of conservative attacks on her personality and character that she never effectively addressed came to fruition that year in the ridiculous but crucial pseudo-scandal of “Hillary’s emails.” Ask John Kerry, whose campaign’s determination to stay on message in the face of the smears of his war record, launched by the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads in the late summer of 2004, let Republicans turn his biography upside down and arguably cost Democrats the presidency. Or ask Michael Dukakis, who relentlessly pursued a good-jobs-at-good-wages message in 1988, as George H.W. Bush’s campaign savaged him on his crime record as governor of Massachusetts. And as Crooked’s Brian Beutler reminds us, something similar happened in the 2014 midterm elections, when Democrats tried to ignore the conspiracy-theory-mongering and thinly veiled racism of Republican attacks on Obama by serving up tasty and poll-tested economic policy treats:

Dems entered the 2014 cycle with a head of steam from President Obama’s re-election; their advantage narrowed over the first half of 2013; exploded when Republicans shut down the government; reverted to the mean when the shutdown ended (exacerbated a bit by the failed launch of healthcare.gov); then basically nothing happened for a year until the month before the election when Republicans (led even then by Donald Trump) began a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that Obama would allow ISIS to bring Ebola into America across the southern border. They rode that lie to victory in the Senate, through the theft of the Scalia Supreme Court seat, and straight into the maw of Trump’s America. All the ups and downs of policy for two years, completely swamped by a late surge of culture-war nonsense.

And that was only a pale echo of what happened in 2010, when the tea-party movement — supposedly about fiscal discipline but actually a nasty attack pushing the notion that our nonwhite president was robbing white taxpayers to shower vast federal resources on undeserving nonwhite constituents — blew two years of major Democratic messaging on health care and the economy out of the water.

Beutler isn’t just right about the failure of change-the-subject Democratic politics in the past. He’s also right about the painful but necessary remedy for what Republicans are campaigning on right now:

I’d wager that the January 6 insurrection polls terribly basically everywhere and that discouraging young people from getting their COVID-19 shots is only popular in the fringiest of communities. 

For Republicans to suffer politically for embracing these things, though, Democrats have to make them. To treat these liabilities less as side shows than as the actual thematic center of the election. To stop hiding from the culture wars and actually win them.

It would take a little creative thinking, and a modest tolerance for getting down in the mud; but the goal should be to make Republicans pay a price for venturing down the road to cultishness and political violence directly, rather than through a parallel referendum on health care or the minimum wage.

Exactly how to do that is a separate conversation (Beutler suggests, for example, a campaign to honor the health-care providers going door-to-door to save lives with COVID-19 vaccinations who Republicans are attacking as brownshirts). But the key point is to contest Republican smears, instead of looking like you are afraid to discuss them because they are true. Bill Clinton was an effective media-era politician in part because he understood Democrats had to address their perceived weaknesses. You don’t have to agree with exactly how he responded on this or that issue see how his determination to counterattack drove Republicans crazy. “He’s stealing our issues!” they’d cry. And his success showed how ridiculous the very idea of “issue ownership” was.

15) This was something, “A Grizzly Bear Terrorized a Man for Days in Alaska. The Coast Guard Saw His SOS.”

16) Caitlyn Flanagan on how California is being dishonest about the impact of discontinuing standardized testing for admissions:

The university has averred that standardized tests discriminate against low-income Black and Latino students; its evidence is that these students tend to perform worse on the SAT and ACT than students from other racial and ethnic groups. If we were to think about this assertion rationally instead of emotionally, we would have to face what California has done: consigned its most vulnerable students to some of the worst K–12 schools in America. There can be no more obvious example of state-sponsored discrimination than the condition of these schools, which, decade after decade, have robbed students of 13 years and given them little in return. All the standardized tests do is reveal the obvious outcome of our cruelty. Saying it’s the tests’ fault is like feeding children a poisoned sundae and then blaming the cherry on top for making them sick.

Do the tests prevent low-income Black and Latino students from getting college degrees? This is the charge of a lawsuit filed in 2019 and settled by the university in May that claimed that requiring test scores for admission “actively prevent[s] Plaintiffs from accessing public higher education and its attendant opportunities.“

Only the counterrevolutionary impulse would lead anyone to want to douse the flames of social justice with the fire retardant of fact. But the truth is that no high-school graduate in California is denied higher education because of a test score. The UC schools are some of the most competitive in the state, but the Cal State system has more than twice as many campuses and costs about half as much to attend, and some locations have an admission rate of almost 90 percent. Students reluctant to earn a degree from the “lesser” system may avail themselves of the best deal in American higher education: Earn a 2.4 GPA in the requisite courses at a California Community College, and your ability to transfer to a UC campus is guaranteed. Not a single standardized test need ever be taken.

Here are some more of the fiercely held arguments for dumping the tests: Test scores don’t reflect the character-forging aspects of life as a poor teenager; the tests force students from underfunded schools to compete against “affluent whites” who can afford expensive test prep; high-school GPA is a much better predictor of students’ ability to succeed in a UC program anyway.

These are not facts. They are assumptions, all of them flawed or flat-out incorrect.

First, poor students were not pitted against rich students. One of the ways the UC system found to work around the state’s ban on affirmative action was to evaluate test scores “in local context.” You didn’t need to be a top test taker in California to be UC-eligible. You just needed to be a top test taker within your own school. Moreover, UC admissions adopted a system of “holistic review” to take into account the hardships that applicants faced, allowing students to express themselves in essays that are read by an army of readers.

Second, while high-school GPA has been found to be more predictive of success at college than standardized test scores at some schools, the exact opposite turns out to be true for students at UC schools. There, standardized test scores say more about which applicants are likely to earn a degree and to do it in less than eight years; they also correlate strongly with students’ GPA at the university.

The biggest barrier to getting into the University of California is not the SAT; it is, again, the GPA. Because students at underfunded schools have such limited access to college counseling, they often assume that if they want to go to the UC, they should keep an eagle eye on their GPA. What many don’t know is that, to be eligible, they must complete a series of 15 college prep classes called the A-G requirements. Good grades in other classes don’t count. (And—shockingly—some high schools don’t even offer all the A-G requirements.)

There was a loophole these students could use, and it involved test scores: The course-load requirement could be waived for those who did well enough on the SAT or the ACT. This was a Hail Mary pass for many smart kids who, for whatever reason, didn’t do well in high school or did well but not in the A-G classes. In 2018, about 22,000 students “tested in” to the UC. Almost half of those students were low-income, and more than a quarter were Black, Latino, or Native American. The UC has now taken this lifeline away…

How do i know all of this? Because unlike the regents, who enthusiastically voted to eliminate the tests for the first time in 2020, I did not ignore the findings of a 225-page report that was prepared for them at the request of the UC’s then-president, Janet Napolitano. This report, by the Academic Council’s Standardized Testing Task Force, was based on years of UC admissions data and was the product of a tremendous amount of work by a formidable team of experts in statistics, medicine, law, philosophy, neuroscience, education, anthropology, and admissions.

The scholars determined that the obvious challenges faced by low-income Black and Latino students were poverty and poor K–12 education. And they found that the UC’s use of standardized tests did not amplify racial disparities. They agreed that the university should continue using test scores in admissions, but recommended that the UC begin developing its own test, which would be designed to meet the needs of both students and the institution.

17) Wonky and good: “The smartest way to make the rich pay is not a wealth tax”

In Ms. Warren’s version of the wealth tax, which calls for 2 percent annual levies on net wealth above $50 million, and 3 percent above $1 billion, very rich people would face large tax bills even when they had little or negative net income, forcing them to sell assets to pay their taxes. That could set off a downward spiral in the markets, affecting people of more modest means. Though prices of marketable securities are easy to track, the huge chunks of private wealth tied up in real estate, rare art and closely held businesses are more difficult — sometimes impossible — to assess consistently.

Such problems help explain why national wealth taxes yielded only modest revenue in the 11 European countries that levied them as of 1995, and why most of those countries subsequently repealed them. Americans should be familiar with the issues from our existing equivalent to a wealth tax: state and local property taxes, which raised $547 billion in 2018, a surprising 10 percent of all federal, state and local revenue. The fairness and accuracy of property-value assessments is a perennial bone of contention. Reforming local property taxes — though a difficult battle that would have to be waged across thousands of counties and cities — could go a long way toward reducing national wealth inequality, without adding a new layer of political controversy and policy complexity by trying to replicate them at the federal level.

Fortunately, legitimate goals of a wealth tax can be achieved through other means, as the OECD report indicates. This would require undoing not only some of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, but much previous tax policy as well, which has produced a top federal marginal tax rate on capital gains of 23.8 percent — far below the top rate on ordinary income, which is 37 percent. The Treasury Department has aptly summarized the effect of this differential: “Preferential tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends disproportionately benefit high-income taxpayers and provide many high-income taxpayers with a lower tax rate than many low- and middle-income taxpayers.” The disparity “also encourages economically wasteful efforts to convert labor income into capital income as a tax avoidance strategy.” A notorious example of the latter is the “carried interest” loophole that enables hedge fund managers to characterize their multimillion-dollar annual compensation as lightly taxed capital gains.

The higher capital gains rate should be applied to a broader base of investment income, of which carried interest, egregious as it is, represents a relatively small slice. The big money is in changing rules that let wealthy people pass on securities that have increased in value to their heirs, without the latter having to pay taxes on the appreciation. President Biden’s American Families Plan calls for reform of this so-called “stepped-up basis” loophole that would yield an estimated $322.5 billion over 10 years.

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Noah Smith on counter-acting the Hispanic shift towards Republicans:

In other words, despite starting from a very humble base, Hispanics are treading the same upward path that American immigrant groups always tread. The history of the Irish, Italians, Poles, and so on is repeating itself. Whatever structural forces have kept Black Americans and Native Americans from realizing their full economic potential, they don’t appear to be acting on Hispanics — or at least, not to nearly the same extent. If Chetty et al. are correct, Hispanics are headed for parity with Whites, or very close to it.

And anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the progress of Hispanic Americans over the decades knows that this is exactly the reason they came here. When Mexican immigrants waved American flags at pro-immigration rallies in the 2000s, they weren’t just courting public opinion — they really believed in this country, and in the American Dream they were promised. The dream of working hard, bettering yourself, and moving up. They were immigrants, damn it. And their children and their grandchildren remembered that dream as well — and now they’re achieving it. America has kept the promise it made.

So why would this make Hispanics shift toward the GOP? Maybe it’s because Trump presided over the most recent boom, in which Hispanic incomes did so well. Maybe it’s because when you start moving up the economic ladder, you get the urge to protect your gains with low taxes.

But it might also be because many liberals have been disparaging the American Dream. In 2015, a faculty training guide at the University of California warned professors that calling America a “land of opportunity” constituted a microaggression. Liberal rhetoric has turned increasingly against the notion of the American Dream, both because of the people who are still excluded from it — undocumented immigrants, many Black and Native American people, many people caught up in the justice system, etc. — and because of rising inequality. To call America a “land of opportunity” seems, to many liberals, a cruel taunt directed at those who still don’t enjoy full opportunity.

And of course, they’re not wrong; America is a deeply unequal place, and many are excluded from opportunity. That needs to be remedied, and to be remedied it needs to be remembered, highlighted, and focused on. But at the same time, focusing exclusively on the areas in which American opportunity still lags — and punishing people who highlight the very real opportunity that still exists — does a disservice to all the people who were given a chance, who believed in this nation and who worked hard for their place in it.

Like, for example, many Hispanic Americans. They, or their parents or grandparents, worked damn hard to get to this country and succeed here; my bet is that they do not want to see the America they believed in and fought so hard for be yanked away by pious White liberals and replaced with a stifling spoils system.

Now, you might respond that this derogatory attitude toward the American Dream is confined to media outlets, shouty activists, and overzealous university administrators. But in this age of ubiquitous social media exposure, politicians don’t have the luxury of merely standing above the cultural fray — they have to actually address the things that it seems like “their side” is doing all over the country. And conservatives, for their part, are racing to take advantage of the situation, claiming that Biden’s programs are aimed at ending the American Dream. It’s all B.S., of course — Biden’s programs would enhance and strengthen the American Dream (I’ll write more on this in subsequent posts). But if woke pundits and clucking university admins are running all over the country denouncing the idea that the American Dream even exists, then there’s no one to push back on conservative alarmism.

If they want to make sure that the Hispanic trend toward the GOP remains a blip, Democrats need to start talking about the American Dream again. And more than that, they need to focus their policies on upward mobility for working-class and middle-class strivers. For example, despite income gains, Hispanics are still way behind in wealth and homeownership (which for the middle class are the same thing). Elizabeth Warren and Cecilia Rouse’s proposal for down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers living in traditionally segregated areas should be expanded to target low-income Americans in general, or people who grew up in low-income households — that will make sure it targets Hispanic as well as Black Americans, giving them a leg up into the middle class. Also, Biden’s call for free community college shouldn’t be tabled or left by the wayside, as this would be very targeted toward working-class Hispanic Americans climbing toward the middle class.

America isn’t a perfect land of opportunity by any means, but to immigrants and their children and grandchildren, it remains a beacon of hope. That’s the whole reason we take in immigrants in the first place. Liberals must not forget that.

2) Eric Levitz really good on Democrats and crime:

America’s distribution of violent death has changed little over the past seven years. But the sum total has risen considerably. In 2019, the U.S. murder rate was about 11 percent higher than it had been in 2014. We do not yet have an official body count for 2020. But preliminary data suggests that, across major cities, homicides rose by an average of 30 percent last year — and then jumped another 24 percent through the first few months of this one. If current estimates prove accurate, 2020 witnessed the largest single-year increase in homicides in U.S. history, and 2021 is on pace to see a jump an even higher jump.

Thus, the present homicide surge threatens to erode the left’s fragile progress toward a justice system worthy of that name. Already, the Democratic Party is seeking greater distance from radical police reform. And since frightened electorates are often reactionary ones, the rising salience of crime imperils the entire progressive project…

In isolation, almost all of these media criticisms are defensible. One can muster reasonable critiques of the framing of most articles about gun violence. America is not experiencing a “crime wave” (i.e., an across-the-board increase in all categories of crime) so much as a homicide surge in certain pockets of certain cities. A wide range of socially devastating activities are not coded as criminal because powerful interests benefit from them. And yet, as these plausible-if-overheated denunciations of homicide coverage proliferate on progressive social media, they send one fundamental, meta-message: The left is complacent about a large increase in the already exceptionally high rate of homicide victimization endured by the urban working class.

I think it’s both politically and morally imperative for progressives to disavow such complacency. The threat that public alarm over crime will trigger a punitive turn in policy is real. But the best way for the left to counter that threat is not to downplay concerns about rising murder rates, but rather to insist that such violence only underscores the necessity of progressive reform. That is not an easy argument to make in the U.S., but at the municipal level at least, we know that it can be a winning one.

3) David Epstein:

Misconception 4: Unless Sha’Carri was running for a bag of chips, weed wouldn’t have made her faster so it shouldn’t be banned. 

Honestly, even if she were running for a bag of chips, it would probably just make her think she was faster. Seriously, though, I sympathize with this argument. Personally, I do not think WADA should be testing for marijuana, and — as a year-round track fan — I would be thrilled to see Sha’Carri run in Tokyo. That said, even if everyone agreed that marijuana only makes you slower, (and they might), it could still be banned. 

First off, the WADA prohibited list is not sport-specific — with one exception that I know of. For the most part, a substance is either banned or not; it isn’t banned by sport. So let’s say a sedative is banned in archery or shooting, where athletes have used calming drugs to improve performance. Then it’s going to be banned in track, too, even if it wouldn’t help. The lone exception (that I know of) is for beta blockers, common prescription drugs that lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Beta blockers are banned in archery and shooting, and a few other sports, presumably because of potential performance enhancement. (Shooters try to fire between heartbeats.)

Unlike, say, anabolic steroids, marijuana is only banned in competition, and a 2011 WADA paper gives the reasons why. In a nutshell, the paper claims that marijuana meets all three criteria of a prohibited substance — and it only needs to meet two to get on the list: 1) Health risk: impaired reaction time and decision making could endanger the athlete or other athletes. 2) Performance enhancement: the paper contends that studies and athlete interviews suggest it could help with some sports. (The paper mentions that marijuana dilates blood vessels and airways, which “could improve oxygenation.”) 3) Violates the spirit of sport: it’s illegal in most places, and hence doesn’t make for good role modeling for young people. 

The third criterion is plainly subjective. (And given that THC is only banned in competition, that criterion may not be carrying much weight.) The evidence for the other two, in my opinion, is extremely thin. If I were emperor of WADA, the agency would simplify testing more generally and would not be testing for marijuana. (Believe me, if I were WADA emperor, I’d have changed lots of things over the years.) Like any international body, WADA tends to be a slow-moving ship. But, to its credit, it removed CBD from the prohibited list in 2019, so perhaps THC will be reconsidered in the future. The 2011 paper did note that the issue is controversial, and knowledge on it is evolving. 

I was really looking forward to a showdown between Richardson and Fraser-Pryce. And I’m still holding out some consolation-prize hope. Richardson’s ban will end mid-Olympics, just before the 4×100-meter relay starts, so maybe we can still get a showdown in the relay.

4) We should be so much better about this:

When it came to coronavirus vaccination, the third time was the charm for Esther Jones, a dialysis nurse in rural Oregon. After two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine failed to jolt her immune system into producing antibodies, she sought out a third, this time the Moderna shot.

It worked. Blood tests revealed a reasonable antibody response, although lower than what would be detected in healthy people. She received a fourth dose last month in hopes of boosting the levels even more.

Ms. Jones, 45, had a kidney transplant in 2010. To prevent rejection of the organ, she has taken drugs that suppress the immune response ever since. She expected to have trouble responding to a coronavirus vaccine, and enrolled in one of the few studies so far to test the utility of a third dose in people with weak immune systems.

Since April, health care providers in France have routinely given a third dose of a two-dose vaccine to people with certain immune conditions. The number of organ transplant recipients who had antibodies increased to 68 percent four weeks after the third dose from 40 percent after the second dose, one team of French researchers recently reported.

The study in which Ms. Jones enrolled has turned up similar results in 30 organ transplant recipients who procured third doses on their own.

Being vulnerable to infection even after inoculation is “very scary and frustrating” for immunocompromised people, said Dr. Dorry Segev, a transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins University who led the study. “They have to continue to act unvaccinated until we figure out a way to give them better immunity.”

But in the United States, there is no concerted effort by federal agencies or vaccine manufacturers to test this approach, leaving people with low immunity with more questions than answers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health in fact recommend even against testing to find out who is protected. And academic scientists are stymied by the rules that limit access to the vaccines.

5) Persuasion on what we got right and wrong about Covid

VP: Another great failure is that we didn’t learn a lot. We did so many different interventions, but we didn’t actually study many of them. For example, there are still questions about how much to wear masks, and under what circumstances. We don’t know much more about that than when the pandemic began.

The other kind of failure is the cultural failure, which I view as several interlocking things. One is when you have a very polarizing political figure making statements, some of the response from the public health community was to oppose the polarizing figure because he’s polarizing, not necessarily because what he says is always wrong. As bad as Trump is, as much as I personally disliked him, he was probably right on opening schools.

I think the social media environment was an abject failure. If you had the same pandemic without social media, you would have naturally, I think, had a consensus towards centrist risk reduction—a harm reduction philosophy. But in the era of social media, it’s so easily skewed into two diametric policy positions, both unhelpful. One [extreme] was that the virus doesn’t exist, or “it’s just the flu, bro”—a totally bizarre and farcical view. And the other extreme was, all you needed to do to exterminate the virus was for everyone to be a good person and wear their N-95 mask for four weeks and we get to zero COVID.

The last thing I would say is sort of a core failure is Zoom. I think many people think Zoom is what liberated us—were it not for Zoom, how bad would this pandemic have been? But my counterfactual is different. Zoom allowed a lot of upper-middle-class white-collar people the ability to work and make money and not lose their jobs, and to exclude themselves from society. That fundamentally changed the pandemic. If you went back 15 years ago, and you didn’t have Zoom, you would be facing unprecedented layoffs of wealthy, upper-middle-class people. I think a lot of businesses would have had staggered schedules and improved ventilation. Schools would have pushed to reopen. Amazon Prime and Zoom and all these things in our lives allowed a certain class of people to be spared the pains of COVID-19, taking them out of the game, and making them silent on many of the issues that affected other communities.

6) James Lang on digital versus print reading and what it means for college students:

You can find different angles of that story in two recent books, both of which I highly recommend for faculty members who assign readings (which means almost all of us). Both books analyze the differences between print and digital reading:

  • How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio, by Naomi S. Baron, was published in March by Oxford University Press.
  • Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, by Jenae Cohn, appeared in June from West Virginia University Press. (Full disclosure: Cohn’s book is part of a teaching-and-learning series that I edit for the press.)

What the research showsBaron’s book provides a straightforward overview of a growing body of scholarship that explores both how students learn from different types of “texts” (including audio) and how they prefer to read. That research tells a story that educators should consider as they select or create readings for their courses.

That finding seems to be especially true for longer texts and for narrative-based reading, but Baron reports that, in most studies in this area, print is superior to digital reading for learning purposes. In some contexts, the research shows little or no difference between digital and print, but in almost no cases did digital reading prove the better option for learning.

This one is tough.  E-books and on-line reading save students a ton of money.  I also like that the profits from ebooks are captured by those who created the intellectual property, not re-sellers.

7) Great stuff from Bernstein on the ongoing deleterious influence of Trump on Republican politics:

Where to start? Usually, when a president loses re-election, his party quickly moves on. Republicans in 1992 and Democrats in 1980 thanked George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter for their service and then ignored them. Donald Trump never fell to the popularity lows of either of those one-termers and didn’t lose re-election by margins comparable to theirs, but then again he never had the periods of solid popularity that they had — or an initial impressive win. Trump is popular among Republicans, but that’s less of an accomplishment than it seems. Most partisan voters like most of their party’s politicians! Republicans could have moved on, during a period where the danger in doing so was as low as it’s likely to be, and they chose not to.

Part of the reason was that Trump didn’t act like Bush, Carter or any other former president. Not only is he whining nonstop about his usual grievances, and adding false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, but he’s pressuring candidates up and down the Republican Party to go along with his increasingly anti-democratic rants.

Among other things, this has meant that Republicans have lost a made-to-order opportunity supplied by the Jan. 6 attack. Mainstream Republicans could have looked good by consistently condemning the attack, thereby distancing themselves from organized hate groups involved in the event. Instead, they’re stuck defending the indefensible and making it a major part of Republican messaging, while allowing their leading voices to be … well, let’s call them the high-profile Republicans least likely to appeal to swing voters.

This is most important in its effect on readying the party to govern when it next gets a chance at the national level, and to some extent it’s making governing at the state level more and more difficult. The Republican agenda right now is a combination of three things: Opposition to whatever President Joe Biden and the Democrats propose; support for whatever Fox News Channel’s product of the month happens to be; support for whatever incoherent and self-serving whims come out of Trump’s mouth.

This is barely a formula for making the strongest supporters happy. It’s certainly no way to build a policy agenda. What has been a problem for the party for several years, especially at the national level, is only getting worse…

One is about candidates. We’ve seen Republicans lose elections they could have won by nominating fringe candidates. It’s still unlikely, but certainly possible, that they could wind up with another round of that in 2022 and 2024 — or that otherwise generic or better candidates could turn themselves into fringers by spending more effort trying to impress Trump than appealing to actual voters. Trump’s nomination endorsements are a key wild card. At times they’ve seemed strategic, with Trump picking good general-election candidates and backing ones who were going to win anyway. But at times he’s seemed arbitrary, choosing the best flatterer or otherwise undermining the party’s interests.

The other risk is that the party could wind up incapable of running a regular campaign because its feels obliged to follow whatever Trump says, rather than what’s popular in their districts — that at worst, Republicans run on contesting the 2020 election. Perhaps that still would make little difference, and Biden’s popularity will be more important than whatever the out-party says. We can’t be sure that evidence from previous elections applies, because nothing like that has ever happened.

8) Chait on Trump supporters and racism:

Kaufmann’s proposal is more audacious: He wants the government to step in. “Employers should not be permitted to fire employees for legally protected speech unless the firing is justified by the core aims of the organization and authorized in an employee’s contract,” he suggests. Also, “publicly funded organizations would be required to be politically neutral in their communications and operations except on matters directly pertinent to organizational aims.”

Conservatives normally take a highly skeptical view of extending government authority into such prerogatives as an employer deciding whom to hire and fire. Kaufmann argues that this robust new government authority will merely be used to enforce “neutrality,” not to coerce institutions into becoming active supporters of the Republican agenda. Putting aside the difficult, if not impossible, task of designing and enforcing workable rules to this end, the goal of politically neutral spaces that permit political disagreement is sympathetic…

If Trump supporters don’t want to be seen as racist, one easy remedy would be to stop supporting a politician who utters slurs — like saying Ilhan Omar has no business critiquing American policy because “her country” is a mess — so routinely that it no longer even rates press coverage. But somehow, the problem of Trump fans being seen as racist is a crisis enormous enough to justify the creation of vast new government powers, but not large enough to justify steps like “let’s stop supporting a huge racist.” [emphasis mine]

A related, somewhat more longstanding stigma attached to conservatives in elite spaces is their hostility to science and empiricism, which have become more significant cultural barriers between conservatives and business in the age of Moneyball and big data. Trump has deepened that association: If you support a candidate whose stream of cartoonishly transparent lies practically screams that he doesn’t want or need any thinking person’s vote, whose fault is that?

The cultural stigma attached to right-wing thought isn’t purely due to Trump; an enthusiastic George W. Bush fan might have had a bit more trouble getting hired or moving up the ranks at a hip software company, not to mention a prestigious tenure-track job. But the choice to make “Republican” a useful heuristic for “meathead ideologue who refuses to accept evidence” was not made by liberals. Conservatives spent decades insisting the mainstream news media, government bureaucracy, and academia were hopelessly biased, and built their own counter-establishment to affirm their belief that climate change is fake, tax hikes always reduce revenue, and so on. Now that they’ve spent generations mocking pencil-necked nerds, they realize the nerds run a lot of institutions they would like to join, after all.

9) TNR on death of Friedmanonmics

South Africa, he warned, should avoid the example of the United States, which since 1929 had allowed political democracy to steadily encroach on the domain of the “economic market,” resulting in “a drastic restriction in economic, personal, and political freedom.”

The idea that America experienced an erosion of political liberty amid the destruction of Jim Crow is simply impossible to take seriously. Between 1929 and 1976, in addition to the advances in civil rights, explicitly racist immigration quotas were eliminated, prohibition was repealed, and legal barriers to birth control were abolished, as poverty rates plunged across demographic groups and American income inequality reached the lowest levels on record. And yet, as he toured South Africa, Friedman did not retreat from his conviction that the state had dealt a perilous blow to American freedom. In a conversation with the courageous anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman, Friedman expressed his belief that “a laissez-faire economic policy” was “the only way in which you could get a multiracial community going” in South Africa. And the free market had to be insulated from democratic pressure. The burgeoning activist movement to “urge all foreign enterprises to boycott investment in South Africa,” Friedman believed, would ultimately serve to “hurt the Blacks, not to help them.”

Friedman did not subscribe to biological theories of racial inferiority. His time in South Africa does not instruct us on his moral character or any unique failures of political judgment. It offers instead a window into the deepest currents of his intellectual contributions. The program Friedman prescribed for apartheid South Africa in 1976 was essentially the same agenda he called for in America over his entire career as a public intellectual—unrestrained commerce as a cure-all for inequality and unrest.

That this prescription found political purchase with the American right in the 1960s is not a surprise. Friedman’s opposition to state power during an era of liberal reform offered conservatives an intellectual justification to defend the old order. What remains remarkable is the extent to which the Democratic Party—Friedman’s lifelong political adversary—came to embrace core tenets of Friedmanism. When Friedman passed away in 2006, Larry Summers, who had advised Bill Clinton and would soon do the same for Barack Obama, acknowledged the success of Friedman’s attack on the very legitimacy of public power within his own party. “Any honest Democrat will admit that we are now all Friedmanites,” he declared in The New York Times.

But the real turn is not about deficits or spending levels. It is the relationship between economic policy and democracy itself. For Friedman, liberty lived in the marketplace, rendering government a necessary evil under the best of circumstances. Today’s Democrats, by contrast, have reclaimed state power as an essential component of self-government. When he laid out his agenda in April, Biden declared “it’s time to remember that ‘We the People’ are the government—you and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us.”

The new consensus on Friedman’s work among economists has essentially reversed Summers’s verdict from 2006. “Almost nothing remains of his intellectual legacy,” according to Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. “It has proven to be a disastrous misdirection for the world’s economies.”

In 2021, 15 years after his body gave out, Milton Friedman is finally dead…

Much of Friedman’s political relevance within the Republican Party derived from his willingness to defend conservative policies on race during the 1950s and 1960s. “Missing from most analyses of Friedman’s economic thought is the inseparable role of race,” said Darrick Hamilton, the director of the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy. “The racialization of poverty and ideas about those who are deserving and undeserving allows us to have a system without empathy where those in despair are treated as surplus populations.” …

“The Role of Government in Education” marks the earliest appearance of what remains Friedman’s most damaging belief—the idea that bigotry and violence could be forced out of public life by the magic of the market. Friedman would insist on this basic proposition again and again throughout his career. In 1972, he would go so far as to suggest that the free market could have put a stop to the war in Vietnam if people had really wanted it to end. Enough chemists would have refused to make napalm that the cost of producing the explosive would have become prohibitively high. This was the appropriate way to stop a war—not the crude “voting mechanism” of “the political system.”…

Friedman wrote: “The man who objects to buying from or working alongside a Negro, for example, thereby limits his range of choice. He will generally have to pay a higher price for what he buys or receive a lower return for his work. Or, put the other way, those of us who regard color of skin or religion as irrelevant can buy some things more cheaply as a result.” The relentless logic of the market would drive such inefficiency from public life.

Of course, the voters who backed Goldwater in 1964 didn’t believe a word of that. They supported Goldwater because they believed he would maintain the Jim Crow order, not because they expected economic freedom to unleash a wave of radical egalitarian social change across the South. This was clear to conservative political commentators during the campaign. As Robert Novak wrote (with his partner Rowland Evans) for The Washington Post in June 1963, “These Republicans want to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party.”…

And few serious economists today accept Friedman’s hard divide between economic fact and political reality. “Friedman developed a fantasy land of theory that ignored the way economic power can be used to capture elements of the political system to generate additional economic gains for those at the top,” said the New School’s Hamilton.

This vicious cycle has been degrading American democracy for decades. Joe Biden is the first president to desecrate not only the tenets of Friedman’s economic ideas, but the anti-democratic implications of his entire philosophy. He is also the first Democratic president since the 1960s who has formulated and publicly endorsed a coherent defense of American government as an expression of democratic energy. It is a powerful vision that enjoys the support of a large majority of American citizens. He has nothing to fear but Friedman himself.

10) More Noah Smith on the Economics profession:

There’s a sort of popular myth that economics began with Adam Smith’s declaration that the “invisible hand” of the market would lead to a good society. In fact, while Smith did recognize the importance of market forces and self-interest, his vision of a good society didn’t stop there. Here are some Adam Smith quotes:

  1. “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains.”

  2. “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

  3. “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.”

  4. “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”

  5. “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

And so on. Adam Smith decries the existence of inequality and poverty, blames property rights for this inequality, advocates progressive taxation as a remedy, and is innately suspicious of profit. He sounds more like Thomas Piketty than Milton Friedman…

It turns out that the “economics” most people interface with is not even mainstream academic economics. It’s a pop version of conservative ideology, broadcast by a network of well-funded partisan think tanks, right-leaning publications, and TV hucksters. So-called “supply-side economists” were often not even trained economists, but political columnists and commentators like Larry Kudlow and Jude Wanniski.

This process is well-described in James Kwak’s excellent book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality. I encourage you to read that book. What the various hucksters did was to describe their political positions using the language of economics, without much (any?) support from actual economics research. Academics who knew this was a lot of hot air tended to stay in the ivory tower, not speaking out. So the public’s perception of “economics” became dominated by the media motormouths.

Looking at where Carr is getting his impression of the econ profession, it turns out he’s getting it from…pop economics!

Now, to be fair, the Economist has moved strongly in a pro-government-intervention direction in recent years, and Russ Roberts has evolved in this direction as well. But when you’re getting your idea of what economics is from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you’re not getting any sort of accurate picture of what economics actually says.

And that’s a problem…

In recent decades, three huge and important changes have happened in the economics profession. All of these changes work against both the free-market wave of the 70s and 80s and the rise of well-funded “economism” in the public sphere.

First, the profession has become much more empirical.

Whether or not something works in theory is less important now than whether it works in practice. Papers still have theory sections, but they’re more phenomenological — proposed explanations for observed phenomena, rather than a mathed-up form of philosophy. Meanwhile, new econometric methods relying on quasi-experiments are rapidly becoming dominant.

The empirical turn means that economists are more open to being persuaded by the evidence…

Meanwhile, young high-profile economists tend to be champions of government intervention and foes of inequality.

This leftward shift of economic ideas parallels the overall leftward shift among the public — the age of Reagan and Thatcher is over, and the shortcomings of the free-market revolt have made themselves painfully apparent. Economists aren’t pushed around by popular opinion, but nor are they blind to events in the real world.

In any case, this hopefully clears up why Carr’s stereotype of the economics profession is — happily — a misconception. Econ did go through a phase where many of its most outspoken leaders and a coterie of loosely affiliated political pundits were dedicated to promoting the cause of government inaction. That phase has now been over for a while.

The obsession with microaggressions is a perfect example of the desperate need for materialism in racial politics. Yes, it’s unfortunate if people say or do things that subtly indicate racial superiority or otherwise embody imperfect racial attitudes, such as making oblique references to stereotypes. But human beings have profoundly limited control over their minute social interactions. (Among other things, we literally do not choose the things we say.) Policy cannot effectively stop microaggressions, even if we implemented heavy-handed laws to attempt to do so, and I certainly hope we won’t. Meanwhile a mile or two from me a bunch of Black children live in Brownsville in environmentally unhealthy housing, go hungry every night, and are regularly exposed to violence and crime. The notion that we should spend so much time talking about microaggressions and so little talking how to improve the conditions of those children can only happen when the racial discourse has been hijacked by a bunch of cossetted affluent college-educated journalists and academics who are as far removed from Brownsville as they are from Mars, whatever their race. And this is another key element of materialist approaches to race: recognizing that we in fact have limited political and social and argumentative resources, that we must prioritize, that we will never achieve a perfect racial environment and that our efforts to do so are counterproductive. We have to decide what comes first, and what should come first is making sure people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, and cared for. After that we can worry more about being nice to each other…

It would take a long time to sketch out a materialist antiracist policy agenda. But in the broadest strokes, it would be a redistributive agenda, one that seeks to redistribute both money and power to Black people. Given the reality of political life in a country with a significant white majority and a dominant white hold on power, these programs would rarely be explicitly announced as pro-Black as such. But because of the distribution of material need in contemporary America, if they redistributed money from rich to poor they would inevitably redistribute money from white to Black. Would gradually bringing Black income and wealth and incarceration rates and similar comparable to white suddenly eliminate racism, or make life easy for Black people? Of course not. But a richer Black America is a Black America with far greater ability to secure their own material interests, so that they no longer have to worry about the good will of white people. And that’s the ultimate goal: not just Black wellbeing but Black autonomy. I don’t want a world where white people generally have positive feelings towards Black people. I want a world where white people’s feelings towards Black people don’t matter.

11) So, I’m a complete convert on the “it’s all bout the calories in” take (Burn is an amazing book, full post on it when I’m done), but, this study on the benefits of resistance training has me intrigued.  

Weight lifting, however, changed those outcomes, the researchers found, substantially lowering the risk that someone would become obese, by any measure. Men and women who reported strengthening their muscles a few times a week, for a weekly total of one to two hours, were about 20 percent less likely to become obese over the years, based on B.M.I., and about 30 percent less likely, based on waist circumference or body-fat percentage.

The benefits remained when the researchers controlled for age, sex, smoking, general health and aerobic exercise. People who worked out aerobically and lifted weights were much less likely to become obese. But so were those who lifted almost exclusively and reported little, if any, aerobic exercise.

The results suggest that “you can get a lot of benefit from even a little” weight training, says Angelique Brellenthin, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State, who led the new study.

Of course, the study was observational and does not prove that resistance training prevents weight gain, only that they are linked. It also did not consider people’s diets, genetics or health attitudes, any of which could affect obesity risk.

Perhaps most important, it does not tell us how muscle strengthening influences weight, although it is likely that resistance training builds and maintains muscle mass, Dr. Brellenthin says. A metabolically active tissue, muscle burns calories and slightly increases our metabolic rate. Interestingly, the desirable effect of adding muscle mass may also explain why fewer lifters avoided obesity when the researchers used B.M.I. as a measure. B.M.I. does not differentiate muscle from fat, Dr. Brellenthin points out. If you add muscle with weight training, your B.M.I. can rise.

Still, the primary message of the study is that some weight training likely helps, over time, with weight control. “So, my advice would be to fit in a few body weight exercises before or after your usual daily walk,” Dr. Brellenthin suggests. Or join a gym or an online class. Or try one of Well’s easy, at-home resistance-training routines, like the 7-Minute Standing Workout.
 

12) I haven’t watched “Luca” yet, but I enjoyed reading this, “Pixar’s latest film deftly features a character born without an arm. Here’s how a director of “Crip Camp” came to consult on the project.”  One thing I always loved about breaking bad was that Walter Jr was a character that happened to have cerebral palsy, but it didn’t define him.  

13) Brian Beutler:

④ A TOO CONVENIENT TRUTH

 

When I started in this business in the mid-aughts, blogs were all the rage, and the liberal blogosphere flourished on the premise that the ultimate purpose of politics should be to improve people’s lives through the enactment and implementation of good policy. That insight was correct and decent, and holds true all these many years later. It’s why Biden’s infrastructure agenda matters! But some of the same wonky minds ultimately convinced themselves that the inverse is also true; that the hidden upshot of good policy is that it makes for great politics. 

This should have struck these very smart people as suspiciously convenient. If it were true as a rule, we might expect that the passage of the American Rescue Plan, one of the most popular and consequential kitchen-table policies in history, had made Democrats politically bulletproof. In reality, it had no discernible impact on Biden’s popularity whatsoever.

And if you think about it for more than just a second, you realize it’d be a huge coincidence if both of these things happened to be right. The end goal of politics could after all be many things: the common good, liberty, group dominance, scientific innovation. The wonkosphere formed around one I agree with: the common good. But the other question—what’s the ideal politics for building power to advance political end goals?—is separate, and you could answer in many ways: divide and conquer, conciliation, pandering to the fevered imaginations of swing voters, technocratic excellence in pursuit of the common good. The wonks quite conspicuously decided that their calling in life also happened to be self-actualizing. It’s not impossible to imagine that being the case, but it is improbable. The kind of tidy theory one arrives at through motivated reasoning: both the means and the ends of politics happen to be the same things that bring me professional and intellectual satisfaction.

In the face of this belief, election after election has come and gone, and few if any have turned on the substantive policies that came into existence over the preceding two years, or that the candidates in those elections promised to support going forward. More often they turned on whose passions had been stirred the most. So ask yourself, which is the more galvanizing appeal: 1. The other side (sotto voce: which stole the last election and murdered the hero who could have stopped them) seeks to control your lives, and the life of the American mind, or 2. We passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill with those people!

Unless Dems swap out option 2 for something a little more responsive to the passions of the moment, I think I know the answer. The election won’t be about both of these things. One or the other will take hold. And what’s at stake is whether a major U.S. political party can turn their countrymen into cannon fodder for a deadly virus, embrace an attempted coup…and win.

14) Michael Pollan, “The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?”  Honestly, I’m pretty confident I actually could if it didn’t mean having to give up diet sodas (seriously, if there were caffeine-free diet sodas in restaurants, I could pull this off).

An English neuroscientist on the faculty at University of California, Berkeley, Walker, author of Why We Sleep, is single-minded in his mission: to alert the world to an invisible public-health crisis, which is that we are not getting nearly enough sleep, the sleep we are getting is ofpoor quality, and a principal culprit in this crime against body and mind is caffeine. Caffeine itself might not be bad for you, but the sleep it’s stealing from you may have a price. According to Walker, research suggests that insufficient sleep may be a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, depression, anxiety, suicide and obesity. “The shorter you sleep,” he bluntly concludes, “the shorter your lifespan.”

Walker grew up in England drinking copious amounts of black tea, morning, noon and night. He no longer consumes caffeine, save for the small amounts in his occasional cup of decaf. In fact, none of the sleep researchers or experts on circadian rhythms I interviewed for this story use caffeine.

Walker explained that, for most people, the “quarter life” of caffeine is usually about 12 hours, meaning that 25% of the caffeine in a cup of coffee consumed at noon is still circulating in your brain when you go to bed at midnight. That could well be enough to completely wreck your deep sleep.

I thought of myself as a pretty good sleeper before I met Walker. At lunch he probed me about my sleep habits. I told him I usually get a solid seven hours, fall asleep easily, dream most nights.

“How many times a night do you wake up?” he asked. I’m up three or four times a night (usually to pee), but I almost always fall right back to sleep.

He nodded gravely. “That’s really not good, all those interruptions. Sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity.” The interruptions were undermining the amount of “deep” or “slow wave” sleep I was getting, something above and beyond the REM sleep I had always thought was the measure of a good night’s rest. But it seems that deep sleep is just as important to our health, and the amount we get tends to decline with age.

Caffeine is not the sole cause of our sleep crisis; screens, alcohol (which is as hard on REM sleep as caffeine is on deep sleep), pharmaceuticals, work schedules, noise and light pollution, and anxiety can all play a role in undermining both the duration and quality of our sleep. But here’s what’s uniquely insidious about caffeine: the drug is not only a leading cause of our sleep deprivation; it is also the principal tool we rely on to remedy the problem. Most of the caffeine consumed today is being used to compensate for the lousy sleep that caffeine causes – which means that caffeine is helping to hide from our awareness the very problem that caffeine creates.

15) We should be using more heat pumps to save energy.  That’s been my home heating source since I moved to NC in 2002.  

16) In honor of lots of Euro 2020 watching, I liked this from 2020, “5 Rule Changes That Could Improve World Football.”  And, honestly, penalty shootouts to decide games are dramatic, yes, but I absolutely loathe them.  And, as I’ve written here before, I think the penalty kick rule is also extremely problematic.  

17) I was recently discussing with BB the fact that I suspect that we are, on average, pretty awful at accurately assessing the quality of soccer goalkeepers.  There’s just so few shots in a typical game where the goalkeeper makes the difference as to whether a goal is scored or not (probably a mode of 0).  Thus, I’m intrigued by this analysis suggesting an MLS goalkeeper is the league’s most valuable player, but I’m far from convinced.   

Quick hits (part I)

1)Aaron Carroll is all about the coming vaccine mandates.  But it will a lot easier if the FDA actually gets its butt in gear on this.  

The U.S. experience with diseases for which vaccination isn’t mandated is also instructional: In those cases, vaccination rates have remained much lower than desired. The human papillomavirus vaccine approved in the United States, for example, protects against an extremely widespread and often asymptomatic sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cancer. Despite calls to mandate HPV vaccination, it is required for school only in a few states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico and has never been mandated outside the school environment, where it would do more good.

Although the vaccine was approved in 2006, only about half of teens are currently covered. What’s worse, only 22 percent of 18- to 26-year-olds, who are most at risk for infection, are fully vaccinated. Influenza vaccination is another that has rarely been mandated, and the United States has never achieved anywhere near the rates of protection that health experts would like, even during pandemics…

When vaccination is the default, most people will get vaccinated. Mandates still aren’t popular; few public health measures are. But they work.

2) This seems about right from Jeffrey Sachs, “Laws Aimed at Banning Critical Race Theory in K-12 Schools Are a Poorly Written, Misguided Mess: Even if you agree with the intention, these laws are a mistake.”  That seems pretty obvious and you should read it. My favorite part was his caveat:

It’s tempting to stop here. But instead, let me offer a concession to anti-CRT activists, as well as perhaps a few suggestions.

First, critics of CRT pedagogy (or whatever you wish to call it) have a legitimate gripe. There are real episodes where public school teachers have crossed the line. In Cupertino, third graders were instructed by their teacher to create an “identity map” with their race, ethnicity, and so forth, and then mark which of their identities “holds power and privilege.” An Oklahoma high school teacher told his students that “to be white is to be racist, period.” And at a public charter school in Las Vegas, students were taught that white, male, Christian, and heterosexual identities are inherently oppressive.

No one knows how common or representative these episodes are, but they’re real.

And that’s a problem. I am a parent. My daughter hasn’t begun grade school yet, but needless to say, I do not want her to feel guilt or shame on account of her racial identity. And while I believe it is important that she be taught about systemic racism at some point in K-12, it must be done at the right age and with great care. These episodes do not inspire confidence. They feel shallow, crude, and potentially harmful.

The “woke Left” (and here I broadly include myself) needs to do a much better job denouncing examples of bad antiracist pedagogy and elevating examples it thinks are good. There’s no use pretending the bad examples don’t exist. Clearly they do, and clearly people are going to talk about them. The least we can do is show that we are taking them seriously.

3) This has really stuck with me from Scott Alexander, “Drug Users Use A Lot Of Drugs”

When I first considered prescribing ketamine, the bladder injury stories scared me so much that I asked a bunch of veteran ketamine prescribers how I should monitor it. They all gave me weird non-commital answers like “I’ve prescribed ketamine to thousands of patients and never had a problem with this, so I guess don’t worry”. But why not? There are all these papers saying we should worry, and all these reports in the literature of ketamine-induced bladder injury!

A standard psychiatric dose of ketamine might be 0.5 mg/kg IV, 2x/week, for four weeks. So a 70 kg patient would get about 280 mg over the course of a month. This Chinese study and this UK study analyze recreational ketamine users, and both find they take about 3g daily, every day. That’s 90,000 mg over the course of a month. Again, that’s 280 mg for the psych patients and 90,000 mg for the recreational users (and you wouldn’t believe how many hoops the psych patients have to jump through to get their 280, or how terrified their doctors are that something could go wrong). Drug users use a lot of drugs! So why don’t psychiatric patients get bladder injuries? It’s because you get bladder injuries when you’re taking more like 90,000 mg of ketamine a month, and not when you’re taking 280 mg…

Every so often somebody realizes that there’s not much chemical difference between methamphetamine and Adderall. Then they freak out that we give ADHD kids Adderall all the time. Isn’t that like giving them crystal meth?

See eg Shoblock et al:

Despite the repeated claims of METH being more addictive or preferred than AMPH, proven differences between METH and AMPH in addiction liability and in reward efficacy have evaded researchers. Animals self-administer METH and AMPH at comparable rates (Balster and Schuster 1973) and humans prefer similar doses (Martin et al. 1971). Also, neither humans nor animals discriminate between equal doses of METH and AMPH (Huang and Ho 1974; Kuhn et al. 1974; Lamb and Henningfield 1994). Furthermore, while METH is commonly believed to be a more potent central psychostimulant than AMPH, no direct comparison on the potency of the two drugs to stimulate central processes have been verified. In addition, no previous study has directly compared the acute effects of the two drugs on locomotor activity, an important central process that contributes tothe definition of psychostimulant. Moreover, there are no known neurobiological differences in action between METH and AMPH that would account for the putatively greater addictive, rewarding, or psychomotor properties of METH.

So should we be less concerned about methamphetamine? More concerned about Adderall? Or what?

The average crystal meth addict uses about 500 mg a day. And they snort it, which probably produces about double the peak plasma level as taking it orally. So they’re getting the equivalent of 1000 mg oral amphetamine daily. The average Adderall patient takes 20 mg. The most important reason meth makes your teeth fall out and ruins your life but Adderall just makes you study a little harder is that the meth users are taking 50x higher doses (yeah, okay, there are also some pharmacokinetic differences, but those are less important). Drug users really do use a lot of drugs!

I recently had a patient stop their Adderall after reading this paper on how amphetamines appear to accelerate cardiovascular aging. The study was done on polysubstance abusers who were probably taking 50x higher doses than they were. This Reuters article on the study actually gets this exactly right, and has an interview with an expert saying the doses are so high that it can’t be extended to clinical practice. I don’t want to claim total victory here, because nobody’s done a study on clinical users proving they don’t get accelerated aging. But given the high doses necessary to produce the small effects found in the original paper, I’m not losing sleep.

4) I was vaguely aware of the “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” controversy when it happened and how it was yet again wokeness/cancellation amok.  Emily VanderWerf with, actually, a pretty nuanced take on all this.  Which led to Jesse Singal making free his take from when it first happened.  It’s really good.  

But nowhere in this almost 1,400-word-long statement will you find a clear explanation of exactly what is wrong with the story. That’s because the only accurate answer to that question is something like “Some people have very superficial but dearly held ideas about what gender is, and because this story took a more complicated and fraught and creative approach to its theories of gender — one which challenged those ideas — those people became deeply offended.” That’s why a story in a major sci-fi outlet had to be unpublished. I guess the alternative, by Clarke’s logic, would be to tell or imply to some people that their interpretation of the story isn’t ‘valid.’ Can you imagine that? Dealing with the pain of someone telling you your interpretation of a work of art isn’t valid??? I’d be in bed for weeks.

I wrote a lot about the YA unpublishings and the surrounding culture of online fear in this newsletter. I don’t want to jump back into this subject. But I found this entire turn of events so profoundly depressing. We are building a world of cowardly, shallow, masturbatory art. The ideology pushing things in this direction is completely incoherent, because it really is just built on visceral feelings. Look at the above excerpt: Clarke’s notes claims that 1) trans people did read this story beforehand, and therefore (by implication) must have been okay-enough with it that he was confident enough to publish it; and 2) that he (reluctantly) now thinks he should have noted the author was trans.

So: Do trans voices matter or not? Do trans opinions matter or not? Which ones? What about when they disagree? If I read the exact same fictional text once with the belief it was written by a cisgender person, and then again with the believe it was written by a transgender person, should my interpretation of it differ wildly?

Of course, in the long run this only punishes the bravest and most creative people. Neil Clarke will not feel any compunction about running the next Clarkesworld story about cyborgs and aliens and pew-pew-pew space battles. No. But he will think extra long and extra hard about publishing anything with even the faintest whiff of genuine thematic danger do it, anything that actually touches on the jagged edges of real human life. Which is too bad, because danger is an absolutely vital component of some of the best, most memorable art.

It’s too bad so many people in different areas of fiction publishing are cowards, opportunists, or both. It would be better if they could get a bit more organized and stand up for the creative values that should be underpinning this whole “writing and editing and publishing fiction” thing. Instead, over and over and over, gatekeepers are caving to loud, angry, thoughtless people who often haven’t read the stuff they’re criticizing, and who don’t actually care about art at all. They just want their own fragile beliefs stroked at every turn, which is poison to genuine creativity. Neil Clarke had an opportunity, and like so many others, he failed; like so many others, he empowered people at whom he should have been flipping a middle finger.

He also links to the original short story.  I didn’t read the whole thing, but… its good!!  And its good whether the author is trans, cis, white, black, or Australian Aborigine.  It’s just good!

5) I liked this from Jordan Ellenberg, “Want kids to learn math? Level with them that it’s hard.: It’s only easy once you’ve mastered the concepts. Telling students otherwise can backfire.”

These questions are vexed, but I’ve got one suggestion for how we can improve. We can tell students that math is very, very hard.

It’s the truth. The techniques of algebra, geometry and calculus were hard to create, and they’re hard to learn. But saying so forthrightly doesn’t come naturally to a lot of teachers — or to commenters on education. “Math Is Not Hard: A Simple Method That Is Changing The World,” reads a headline in HuffPost, extolling an approach that aims to help ease kids into the subject. I embraced rhetoric like this when I was an apprentice college instructor. I was constantly telling students, at the outset of a computation, “Now this is pretty simple” — encouraging them, or so I thought. My mentor, the master teacher Robin Gottlieb, now a professor at Harvard, set me straight. When we say a lesson is “easy” or “simple,” and it manifestly isn’t, we are telling students that the difficulty isn’t with the mathematics, it’s with them. And they will believe us. They won’t think, “I’ve been lied to,” they’ll think, “I’m dumb and I should quit.”

This applies to parents, too. I’ve been teaching math for two decades, and I still find myself telling my kids that a math concept they’re struggling with is “not that hard.” That’s not encouragement — that’s evidence of my frustration with watching them struggle, and it’s not part of teaching.  

6) Jesse Singal again, “What the media gets wrong on gender reassignment: The media is guilty of gross negligence on gender reassignment reporting.”  TL;DR Gender reassignment, especially among adolescents, is complex and complicated.  The media do the public no favors by just bowing to angry and loud ideology that pretends it’s not.

7) Ezra, “The Rest of the World Is Worried About America”

This weekend, American skies will be aflame with fireworks celebrating our legacy of freedom and democracy, even as Republican legislature after Republican legislature constricts the franchise and national Republicans have filibustered the expansive For The People Act. It will be a strange spectacle.

It is hard to view your own country objectively. There is too much cant and myth, too many stories and rituals. So over the past week, I’ve been asking foreign scholars of democracy how the fights over the American political system look to them. These conversations have been, for the most part, grim.

“I’m positive that American democracy is not what Americans think it is,” David Altman, a political scientist in Chile, told me. “There is a cognitive dissonance between what American citizens believe their institutions are and what they actually are.”

“The thing that makes me really worried is how similar what’s going on in the U.S. looks to a series of countries in the world where democracy has really taken a big toll and, in many cases, died,” Staffan Lindberg, a Swedish political scientist who directs the Varieties of Democracy Institute, said. “I’m talking about countries like Hungary under Orban, Turkey in the early days of Erdogan’s rule, Modi in India, and I can go down the line.”

Perhaps perversely, I was cheered by Lindberg’s list. America defies those examples in a consequential, and often ignored, way. In most cases of democratic collapse, a dominant party deploys its power and popularity to tighten its control. But there is more possibility in America than that. Democrats have a slim governing majority, at least nationally, and they are not fighting for the status quo. Even Senator Joe Manchin’s compromise proposal — to ban partisan gerrymandering, pass automatic voter registration, ensure 15 days of early voting, reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act and make Election Day a holiday, to name just a few provisions — would be a striking expansion of American democracy, bigger by far than anything passed since the 1960s.

8) Marty Makary in the Post, “Los Angeles’s masking guidance is not only excessive. It undermines vaccination efforts.”  I found this part about testing most compelling:

One factor driving the fearmongering is that public health officials are staring at case numbers on their computers, oblivious to our new over-testing problem that is inflating case numbers. Specifically, the United States and Britain are routinely testing vaccinated people who are asymptomatic. This is ignoring CDC guidelines that say fully vaccinated people who have no symptoms do not need to get tested. This is based on the recognition that immune people who are asymptomatic might have a detectable virus particle in their nose, but it does not represent a transmission risk and does not cause illness.

9) Interesting perspective, “Conspiracy theories are a mental health crisis: No one’s talking about the complex relationship between disinformation and mental health. That changes now.”

Studies have shown that conspiracy theories appeal to people with unmet psychological needs. They crave knowledge, desire safety and security, and need to maintain positive self-esteem. Conspiracy theories, which may sometimes be true, help explain the unknown, giving people a deep sense of satisfaction. That relief, however, can be temporary. Past research shows conspiracy theories are associated with anxietysocial isolation, and negative emotions. Now a new wave of research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a plausible connection between uncertainty, anxiety, and depression and an increased likelihood of believing conspiracy theories.

Perhaps with so much beyond understanding, people looked for answers wherever such revelations might be found. Insight was plentiful on YouTubeFacebookTelegramTwitter, and other media platforms where grifters, hucksters, and conspiracy theorists peddled the truth as they saw it to people who wanted what few could offer: certainty. That confidence became an antidote to the misery of not knowing what might come next.

10) Frank Bruni:

Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in American history. You would think that the church’s leaders in the United States would look kindly and proudly on him.

You would be wrong. They’re going farther out of their way to admonish him than they ever did to reprimand Donald Trump.

As you probably know, Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have taken steps toward possibly denying communion to Biden, who pays them the compliment of regular attendance at Mass. His sin? Support for abortion rights.

That support indeed contradicts Catholic teaching. The bishops have every right to be displeased with and even heartsick over it and to make those feelings known. I respect their principles in this regard, just as I respect the principles of the tens of millions of Americans who oppose abortion rights. Although I am passionately pro-choice, I understand how if you believe to your core that human life begins at conception, you cannot easily let the matter of abortion go.

 

In an astute essay in The Week, Peter Weber noted the extreme harshness of the punishment for Biden that bishops are proposing, writing: “Deploying what amounts to the Catholic nuclear option only on abortion signals that abortion is the only issue the Catholic Church really cares about.”

An abortion monomania is the only explanation for why Biden is coming in for greater condemnation than Trump received. For many Catholic leaders as well as many leaders of other Christian denominations, Trump’s promotion of anti-abortion judges and measures often served as a get-out-of-jail-free card — and it shouldn’t have.

I concede that Trump isn’t Catholic and that he wasn’t going to Catholic services (or, on a regular basis, to any worship services whatsoever). Catholic leaders had less cause in that sense to weigh in on his degree of adherence to their strictures.

But they purport to care about the welfare of all humanity. That’s kind of their raison d’être. Along those lines, they had ample invitation to upbraid Trump.

 

Pope Francis gets it. He understands that his church and its followers shouldn’t be reduced to any one issue. Indeed, the Vatican tried to nudge the American bishops away from this course and has conspicuously not endorsed it. The bishops are marching to the beat of their own pious drummer. They no doubt consider themselves brave. Arrogant is as apt a descriptor.

Foolish, too. They’re not going to change Biden’s mind about abortion. And the sternness that they’re projecting — the imperiousness — makes it less likely that they’ll change anyone else’s.

That imperiousness is what Francis has been striving to move the church away from. He’s trying to put a friendlier, more accessible face on its hierarchy. He’s trying to modernize its image. He knows that you can’t preach to people effectively if your voice and your language feel utterly alien to them.

And you can’t win them over if your animating impulse is a punitive rather than exalting one.

11) Drum, “Liberals Need To Have the Courage to Call Out Our Own Nutcases”

On the left, which is what I care about, this is a big issue, and it’s a big issue for one specific reason: it scares off people who might vote for us. Go ahead and ask your moderate conservative friends why they’re afraid to vote for Democrats even though they admit that Trump has turned the Republican Party into a clown show. The answer is almost always going to be a litany of complaints about the most extreme progressive policies out there. They’re afraid Democrats want to spend another $6 trillion because one guy proposed it. They’re afraid Democrats want to open the border with Mexico because a small clique approves of it. They’re afraid Democrats want to get rid of the police because three or four people suggested it. They’re afraid Democrats want to pack the Supreme Court even though this is a distinctly limited view.

I could go on, but you get the idea. These kinds of things are killers for a party that wants to win more votes, but everyone is afraid to publicly denounce them hard and fast for fear of being branded racist/sexist/transphobic/etc. by a few extremists. And that’s all the opening that Fox News and others need to make it seem as if this stuff might really be the goal of mainstream liberals.

Mainstream liberals should not be afraid to make a distinction between proposals that are merely to our left and proposals that are batshit crazy. The former we can oppose in a normal way (and vice versa), but the latter should be swatted down with extreme prejudice. It doesn’t matter if the folks proposing the crazy ideas are white or Black, young or old, or men or women. Have the guts to call them nutcases if that’s what they are and to accept the inevitable accusations of racism, sexism, ageism, or whatever. Just tell the truth. If something is crazy, call it crazy.

After all, you want to win, don’t you?

12) This was really good.  I keep meaning to do this more with my wife. “The Most Effective Way to Thank Your Significant Other: One fact of long-term relationships is that humans often take their partner for granted. Think of gratitude as a buffer against that.”

It’s so simple that it can be easy to overlook: In the commotion of daily life, people forget to thank their partner for the myriad things they do. During the pandemic, significant others have made even more sacrifices, picked up the slack, or gone outside their comfort zone, putting plenty of romantic relationships through the wringer. Now could be the ideal moment to step back and reassess how you show gratitude for it all.

Yet when partners acknowledge and appreciate each other, it appears to create a protective effect, according to Barton’s research, that can help buffer couples from negative communication patterns such as being overly critical or conflict-avoidant. Even if couples struggle to communicate, their marital stability can be just as high as partners who navigate conflict well—as long as they maintain high levels of appreciation. In a 2015 study, Barton and a team of researchers found that showing gratitude for your spouse was highly linked to marital quality.

13) Generally not a big fan of Bari Weiss, but some of her anti-cancel culture/anti-woke takes are definitely on.  Like this guest post from Abigail Schrier about book banning to enforce a pro-trans orthodoxy.  Again, to be clear, I know, like, and respect multiple trans people and want them to be treated with decency and respect.  But, the idea that we cannot even be exposed to other ideas?

14) This seems… not great.  “Amazon destroying millions of items of unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses every year, ITV News investigation finds”

15) Drum’s take on the CRT controversy, “Critical Race Theory Is Just the Latest Hysteria About Black People From Fox News”

Out of nowhere, Fox News suddenly starts putting critical race theory in heavy rotation starting in March. Six weeks later, everyone else is following suit.

Among conservatives, this is nothing surprising. Fox News has built its brand since the beginning on stoking white fear of black (and brown) people. Conservatives have never objected to this—in fact, most of them won’t even admit it—so it’s perfectly natural that they’re along for the ride.

But there are also well-meaning moderates and liberals out there who have gotten on the “let’s hear them out” bandwagon. These are people who would insist that they aren’t influenced by right-wing agitprop, but they are. It goes like this: Fox keeps up the noise long enough; a few Republican legislatures propose performative laws to “ban CRT”; the mainstream media takes notice; and now we’re all talking about it.

But why? Are there a few schoolrooms where teachers have taken wokeness farther than they should? Sure. There are a couple of million schoolrooms in the United States and it would be shocking if there weren’t a few of them doing stupid stuff. Even if that number is a minuscule 0.1%, that’s 2,000 schoolrooms, more than enough to generate a couple of shocking stories per week.

But wait. How many schoolrooms are there who have taken wokeness to ridiculous levels? What’s that? You don’t know? And Fox News doesn’t know? Then knock off the crap until you do.

As long as you’re worried about this based solely on the highly orchestrated daily anecdotes of Fox News, you’re a sucker just like everyone else. This is the power of Fox News and you ignore it at your peril.

16) Jack Shafer, “Why Has Local News Collapsed? Blame Readers.”

So, why is local news collapsing, a trend spotted over the past two years by everybody from the New York Times to the Brookings Institution to the Harvard Business Review? The blame is often placed on rapacious publishers like Alden Global Capital or online advertising giants like Facebook and Google. Yes, they’ve contributed to local news’ declining fortunes, but the best explanation might be that publishers and editors have ignored the underlying cause. Despite all the impassioned calls from academics and journalists to salvage it, local news’ most vital constituency—readers—have withheld their affections.

In 2009, just as the apocalypse befell the newspaper industry but while local news was still in relative abundance, many readers gave it an apathetic shrug. A Pew Research Center survey from that year found that an astonishing 42 percent said they would miss their paper “not much” or “not at all” if it vanished. They said this even though 74 percent conceded that civic life would suffer “a lot” or “some” if their local newspaper died. Their apathy ultimately expressed itself in financial terms. Weekday newspaper circulation has dropped from about 55.8 million households to about 28.6 million in the past two decades. More than 2,000 newspapers have vanished since 2004 (most of them weeklies), creating what some call “news deserts.” And revenues have just about halved in the past decade, as has newsroom size, making it harder to report local news. Readers keep shrugging, too. A more recent Pew survey (2018) found that only 14 percent of respondents had paid for local news in the previous year.

For all the praise directed at local news and the importance of preserving it, the dirty secret of today’s newspapers is that there’s not all that much local news coverage to save anymore. A 2018 Duke University study of 16,000 local news outlets (including broadcasters) in 100 communities deemed only about 17 percent of articles as truly local (i.e., they took place in or were about the local municipality), and just over half were hard news. Another 2018 finding by Pew revealed that only 16 percent of Americans get their news “often” from a newspaper, further lowering the status of the press. Another marker of how scarce local news has become: Last year, when Facebook went prospecting for local news to include in a new section called “Today In,” it found that one in three of its users lived in places where there wasn’t enough local news published to sustain the section. “New Jersey was the worst place for finding local news on Facebook, with 58 percent of users unable to do so on any day in the last month,” Recode reported. Maybe what the Pew respondents were really saying is you can’t miss what’s already gone.

Where did all the local news go? A couple of decades ago, publishers collected so much revenue that they invented new sections, including local news, to spend the loot. Many metro newspapers ran weekly sections about computers and tech, weekly TV program guides, free-standing business sections filled with page after page of stock prices, Sunday magazines, pull-out book review sections and weekly tabloids about suburban counties. The Washington Post once ran a weekly section called “Sunday Source,” designed to hook young readers, and column after column of police blotter in its “District Weekly” section. Newspapers were cash machines, even in regional markets like Buffalo, N.Y. In her book Ghosting the NewsWashington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan writes that her old paper, the Buffalo News, was once so flush that, for many years, “the News would send a million dollars a week” to its owner, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. But after the Internet destroyed the advertising moat that had protected newspaper revenues for more than a century, editors and publishers stripped down the old newspaper, including local sections, to a more basic package to cut costs.

For what it’s worth, I love all the state and local coverage I get nowhere else but the N&O.  I mean, everything you could possible want to know about the zebra cobra this week.

17) Science! “Immune Cells Are More Paranoid Than We Thought: Healthy birds watched their friends get sick with a bacterial disease. Their immune cells freaked out.”

18) Onion FTW:

The idea that she has to miss the Olympics over marijuana is just so profoundly stupid.

19) J&J vaccine seems to be holding up well against Delta.  That’s great news.  Everybody compares J&J to AZ since they are both adenovirus vector vaccines.  But AZ was the only major vaccine not to stabilize the prefusion form of the spike protein and that could well be responsible for their under-performance against certain variants.  I really feel like science types should be talking about that more.  

20) Terrific, terrific piece from Emily Bazelon.  Read it. “I Write About the Law. But Could I Really Help Free a Prisoner? For years as a journalist, I’ve covered attempts to exonerate incarcerated people. But a letter from Yutico Briley led to a different kind of story.”

Writing about legal issues for 25 years, I’ve been frustrated by a stubborn truth: When science exposes a weakness in how criminal cases are conducted or how a jury determines the truth, it takes a long time for the practice in police precincts and courtrooms to catch up with the expert consensus. Research points the way, for example, on how to conduct interrogations with less risk of eliciting false confessions. New findings upend previous certainty about the medical diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome. Similar doubts emerge about the reliability of forensic analysis of a variety of physical evidence, including hair, fiber, bite marks, burn patterns and blood spatters. But many investigations and prosecutions grind on, impervious to the latest studies.

When science makes it harder to prove guilt, police officers, prosecutors and judges may see it as an impediment. They keep doing their jobs much as they always have.

As I read Briley’s case file alongside the research on eyewitness IDs, I thought I might have a story after all. It would be different from any I had written before, because of my own involvement, but I was starting to see Briley’s case as emblematic of something larger — of how flaws in the criminal-justice system can cascade, one after the next. The very ordinariness of his case was the story. Everyone can deflect responsibility, and someone like Briley can spend the rest of his life in prison.

Bio-tech optimism– nano-proteins edition

This Scientific American article on advances in the biotechnology of nano-proteins, protein folding, etc., was kind of mind-blowing.  This is not like the “we’ll have usable nuclear fusion in 5-10 years” which is always 5-10 years away.  The progress we keep seeing– and have clearly seen with Covid-19– of biotechnology really is pretty stunning.  What they are doing with vaccines and the potential here really is a very possible game-changer:

Like other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 resembles a ball covered in protein “spikes.” Each spike ends in a cluster of amino acids—a section of the protein known as the receptor-binding domain, or RBD—whose alignment and atomic charges pair perfectly with a protein on the surface of human cells. The viral protein docks at the receptor like a spacecraft, and the virus uses this connection to slip inside the cell and replicate.

Because of its dangerous role, the RBD is the primary target of the immune system’s antibodies. They, too, are proteins, created by the body to bind to the RBD and take it out of commission. But it takes a while for specialized cells to manufacture enough effective antibodies, and by that time the virus has often done considerable damage.

The first-generation COVID vaccines, including the mRNA vaccines that have been such lifesavers, work by introducing the virus’s spike into the body, without a functional coronavirus attached, so the immune system can learn to recognize the RBD and rally its troops. But the RBD is periodically hidden by other parts of the spike protein, shielding the domain from antibodies looking to bind to it. This blunts the immune response. In addition, a free-floating spike protein does not resemble a natural virus and does not always trigger a strong reaction unless a large dose of vaccine is used. That big dose increases costs and can trigger strong side effects.

As successful as the COVID vaccines have been, many experts see inoculations based on natural proteins as an interim technology. “It’s becoming clear that just delivering natural or stabilized proteins is not sufficient,” says Rino Rappuoli, chief scientist and head of vaccine development at U.K.-based pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Most current vaccines, from childhood inoculations to adult flu shots, involve such natural proteins, which vaccinologists call immunogens; GSK makes a lot of them. “We need to design immunogens that are better than natural molecules,” Rappuoli says…

Walls and Veesler had an idea. What if, instead of a whole spike, the immune system were presented with just the RBD tip, which would not have any shield to hide behind? “We wanted to put the key component on display,” Walls says, “to say, ‘Hey, immune system, this is where you want to react!’…

In 2019 a group in the IPD led by biochemist Neil King had designed two tiny proteins with complementary interfaces that, when mixed together in solution, would snap together and self-assemble into nanoparticles. These balls were about the size of a virus and were completely customizable through a simple change to their genetic code. When the scientists festooned the particles with 20 protein spikes from the respiratory syncytial virus, the second-leading cause of infant mortality worldwide, they triggered an impressive immune response in early tests.

Why not try a similar nanoparticle core for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Walls and Veesler thought, using just the RBD instead of an entire spike? As a bonus, the protein-based nanoparticle would be cheap and fast to produce compared with vaccines that use killed or weakened virus. It would also be stable at room temperature and easy to deliver to people, unlike fragile mRNA vaccines that must be kept in a deep freeze.

Walls reached out to the IPD and collaborated with nanoparticle specialist Brooke Fiala, who worked with King, on a prototype—a nanoparticle sphere displaying 60 copies of the RBD. The scientists also tried something radical: Instead of fusing the RBDs directly to the surface of the nanoparticle, they tethered them with short strings of amino acids, like kites. Giving the RBDs a little bit of play could allow the immune system to get a better look at every angle and produce antibodies that would attack many different spots.

But nobody knew whether that would really happen. So on that April Friday last year, as Walls waited for results, she had her fingers crossed. Three weeks earlier she and her colleagues had injected some mice with the nanoparticle vaccine. Other mice got the plain spike that other vaccines were using. Now the researchers had drawn blood from the mice and mixed it with a SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus, an artificial, nonreplicating version of the virus that is safer to use in labs. The idea was to see whether any vaccinated mice had developed antibodies that would home in on and neutralize the pseudovirus…

Some mice had been given a low dose of the plain spike, and that was a total failure: zero effect on the pseudoviruses. Mice given a high dose of the spike showed antibodies with a moderate neutralizing effect, similar to what some other vaccines had produced. But in mice that got the nanoparticle vaccine, the pseudovirus was completely outmatched. Antibodies smothered it and had 10 times the neutralizing effect of the large-dose spike preparation. That magnitude held even when only a minuscule dose was used. Walls was looking at something that could be a low-cost, shelf-stable, ultrapotent vaccine.

Lots of really cool stuff going on non-vaccine-wise, too.  Like this:

But most important proteins in living things are much bigger than these examples and contain thousands of amino acids, each of which interacts with up to a dozen neighbors, some forming bonds as strong as those in a diamond, some pushing others away. All those relationships morph depending on proximity. So the possibilities quickly become astronomical, and the formulas for figuring out the final structures have long eluded our best minds and supercomputers…

Then came CASP13 in 2018. The best teams, led by Baker’s institute, improved again, averaging nearly 50, but they were bested by a surprise entrant: Google’s DeepMind, whose artificial-intelligence system had trounced the world’s best Go player in 2017. The AI averaged a score of about 57 per protein.

That result rocked the world’s protein-engineering labs, but it turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for 2020. In that year DeepMind’s predictions were spot-on. “I thought, ‘This can’t be right. Let’s wait for the next one,’” Moult says. “And they just kept coming.”

DeepMind averaged a 92 for all proteins. On the easier ones, it had virtually every atom in the right place. But its most impressive results were on some exceedingly difficult proteins that completely stymied most teams. On one molecule, no group scored higher than the 20s—DeepMind scored in the high 80s.

Moult was stunned by the results. “I spent a lot of my career on this,” he says. “I never thought we’d get this level of atomic accuracy.” Most impressive, he says, is the indication that DeepMind has picked up on previously unknown fundamentals. “It’s not just pattern recognition. In some alien way, the machine ‘understands’ the physics and can calculate how the atoms in a unique arrangement of amino acids are going to arrange themselves.”

“It was shocking,” agrees structural biologist and CASP competitor Mohammed AlQuraishi of Columbia University. “Never in my life had I expected to see a scientific advance so rapid.” AlQuraishi expects the breakthrough to transform the biological sciences.

Or this:

Amazing as they are, antibodies are not perfect. The body cannot custom-design an antibody in advance for a pathogen it has never seen, so it makes a lot of different versions. When a new invader shows up, immune system cells make many copies of whatever antibody binds best, but the fit is not always tight enough to stop the pathogen. Natural antibodies are also relatively big proteins that are not always able to get their business end snug against a virus’s RBD.

Enter the “mini binders,” as Baker calls them. These are small synthetic proteins that can be designed amino acid by amino acid to fit precisely against a virus’s RBD. With no extraneous bits, they bind more tightly. And they are small and lightweight enough to be administered through a spritz up the nose rather than an injection into the arm. No needles!

Baker’s dream was to create a medication rather than a vaccine: a nasal spray that could be used at the first sign of infection—or beforehand as daily prevention—to flood the nose with a mist of mini binders that would coat the RBDs of virus particles before they could attach to anything. It would have the long shelf life of a bag of dried lentils, and it could be quickly reformulated for any new pathogen and rushed into the hands of health-care workers, teachers and anyone else on the front lines—a kind of designer-driven immune system for civilization.

This is still science fiction… for now.  But I think a fair reading of the evidence suggests it’s quite reasonable to think we’re going to see some truly amazing and world-changing technological developments in our ongoing fight against communicable diseases.  Yeah, science! 

Quick hits (part II)

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



Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A goanna burrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mRNA vaccines are amazing. That doesn’t mean they are better

I’ve  been seeing stuff like this from the vaccine people I follow on twitter for a while, so really appreciated this Atlantic piece from Hilda Bastian (you know, it was probably her tweets, now that I think about it) laying it all out.  Yes, the mRNA vaccines really are amazing, but there was a substantial element of luck and good timing in their success.  Anyway…

At the end of January, reports that yet another COVID-19 vaccine had succeeded in its clinical trials—this one offering about 70 percent protection—were front-page news in the United States, and occasioned push alerts on millions of phones. But when the Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax announced its latest stunning trial results last week, and an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent even against coronavirus variants, the response from the same media outlets was muted in comparison. The difference, of course, was the timing: With three vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the nation is “awash in other shots” already, as the The New York Times put it.

Practically speaking, this is true. If the FDA sees no urgency, the Novavax vaccine might not be available in the U.S. for months, and in the meantime the national supply of other doses exceeds demand. But the asymmetry in coverage also hints at how the hype around the early-bird vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna has distorted perception. Their rapid arrival has been described in this magazine as “the triumph of mRNA”—a brand-new vaccine technology whose “potential stretches far beyond this pandemic.” Other outlets gushed about “a turning point in the long history of vaccines,” one that “changed biotech forever.” It was easy to assume, based on all this reporting, that mRNA vaccines had already proved to be the most effective ones you could get—that they were better, sleeker, even cooler than any other vaccines could ever be.

But the fascination with the newest, shiniest options obscured some basic facts. These two particular mRNA vaccines may have been the first to get results from Phase 3 clinical trials, but that’s because of superior trial management, not secret vaccine sauce. For now, they are harder and more expensive to manufacture and distribute than traditional types of vaccines, and their side effects are more common and more severe. The latest Novavax data confirm that it’s possible to achieve the same efficacy against COVID-19 with a more familiar technology that more people may be inclined to trust. [emphases mine] (The mRNA vaccines delivered efficacy rates of 95 and 94 percent against the original coronavirus strain in Phase 3 trials, as compared with 96 percent for Novavax in its first trial, and now 90 percent against a mixture of variants…

In the meantime, the early success of two mRNA vaccines pulled attention away from the slower progress of other candidates based on the same technology. Just two days after last week’s Novavax announcement came the news that an mRNA vaccine developed by the German company CureVac had delivered a weak early efficacy rate in a Phase 3 trial, landing below even the 50 percent minimum level set by the World Health Organization and the FDA. “The results caught scientists by surprise,” The New York Times reported. CureVac is the company that President Donald Trump reportedly tried to lure to the U.S. early in the pandemic, and the one that Elon Musk said he would supply with automated “RNA microfactories” for vaccine production. In the end, none of this mattered. CureVac’s mRNA vaccine just doesn’t seem to be good enough…

Now we’ve seen what happened to CureVac, and that some mRNA formulations clearly work much better than others…

In this context, the success of the Novavax vaccine should be A1 news. The recent results confirm that it has roughly the same efficacy as the two authorized mRNA vaccines, with the added benefit of being based on an older, more familiar science. The protein-subunit approach used by Novavax was first implemented for the hepatitis B vaccine, which has been used in the U.S. since 1986. The pertussis vaccine, which is required for almost all children in U.S. public schools, is also made this way. Some of those people who have been wary of getting the mRNA vaccines may find Novavax more appealing.

The Novavax vaccine also has a substantially lower rate of side effects than the authorized mRNA vaccines.

So, yeah, Novavax is pretty awesome and who knows when it will even be approved here (a good friend of mine is in the trial and unblinded to find out out that he got it).  

I also followed the link on the different approach to mRNA vaccines and found that really interesting:

All three mRNA vaccines encode a form of the coronavirus spike protein, which helps virus particles to penetrate human cells. But the Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech vaccines use modified RNA, incorporating an mRNA nucleotide called pseudouridine — which is similar to uridine but contains a natural modification — in place of uridine itself. This is thought to circumvent the body’s inflammatory reactions to foreign mRNA. CureVac’s vaccine uses normal uridine and relies on altering the sequence of RNA letters in a way that does not affect the protein it codes for, but helps the vaccine to evade immune detection.

Proponents of modified mRNA have long argued that the chemical adjustment is integral to the success of the vaccine technology. Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who co-discovered the importance of pseudouridine in this context in the mid-2000s4, describes it as the “best platform for antibody and neutralization levels”. In light of the new CureVac data, many scientists who spoke to Nature agree.

“Modified mRNA has won this game,” says Rein Verbeke, an mRNA-vaccine researcher at Ghent University in Belgium.

There are a few other possible explanations for CureVac’s tolerability problems. Structural differences in the non-coding regions of the CureVac sequence could play a part. Alternatively, the higher storage temperature of CureVac’s jab might have accelerated the breakdown of mRNA in the vial, yielding pieces of genetic code that would raise immune hackles. And if any impurities were introduced during the company’s manufacturing process, these would, in principle, have the same effect.

So for some scientists it remains too early to draw conclusions. “The jury is still out on which of these is a better technology,” says Jeffrey Ulmer, a former pharmaceutical executive who now consults on vaccine research issues. He predicts that both modified and unmodified mRNA will be useful in different contexts. “It could be that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to everything.”

Short version: mRNA vaccines are amazing and have tremendous potential.  But, more traditional vaccines are amazing, too, and have some real potential advantages.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Enjoyed Noah Smith‘s interview with Marc Andressen.  I don’t know if the advice is right, but it’s worth thinking about.

N.S.: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

M.A.: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all

2) National Geographic on Delta:

Why is the Delta variant so scary?

Freely circulating viruses, especially coronaviruses and influenza viruses, which encode their genetic instructions using the molecule RNA, mutate frequently and randomly due to copying errors introduced as they replicate in their human host cells. Some mutations enable the virus to evade antibodies; some enhance its ability to infect a cell; others go unnoticed since they yield no benefits or can even weaken it.

The key to Delta’s success is the collection of mutations the variant has accumulated in the spike protein, which covers SARS-CoV-2 and gives the virus its signature crown-like appearance. These mutations have changed the spike, and, as a result, some of the existing antibodies may not bind as tightly or as often, explains Markus Hoffmann, an infectious disease biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Germany. Hoffman and others have shown that Delta and its closely related Kappa variant evade antibodies that were generated through previous infection and vaccinationSome synthetically produced antibody therapies, like Bamlanivimab, were unable to neutralize the Delta variant; but others such as Etesivimab, Casirivimab, and Imdevimab were still effective.

The Delta variant has mutations on the spike protein that alter how it interacts with the ACE2 receptor protein, which is found on the surface of lung and other human cells and is the portal to invade the cell. The mutation at location 452 of the spike protein, which is also present in some of the California variants, appears to make the virus more transmissible and helps it spread through the population, explains Mehul Suthar, an immunologist at the Emory Vaccine Center.

If a mutation gives a virus a fitness or reproductive advantage, that mutation tends to evolve independently around the world. Delta, its closely related variants, and the highly contagious Alpha variant all carry a mutation at position 681 of the spike protein, which is thought to be an evolutionary game changer that also makes it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to invade the host cell and spread. This mutation is fast becoming common in COVID-19 viruses around the globe.

“When you have all of these mutations, then you start seeing a difference in infectivity (of the virus),” says Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, who has shown in an unpublished study how these variants can have a greater potential to cause disease.

3) I’m actually not at all sure it’s unreasonable to have slower mail service that’s more cost-effective for the USPS.  Pretty cool interactive feature to see how proposed changes will affect your Zip code.

4) Here’s some cool social science, “People tend to overestimate their romantic partner’s intelligence even more than their own”

People can estimate their own and their romantic partner’s intelligence (IQ) with some level of accuracy, which may facilitate the observation of assortative mating for IQ. However, the degree to which people may overestimate their own (IQ), as well as overestimate their romantic partner’s IQ, is less well established. In the current study, we investigated four outstanding issues in this area. First, in a sample of 218 couples, we examined the degree to which people overestimate their own and their partner’s IQ, on the basis of comparisons between self-estimated intelligence (SEI) and objectively measured IQ (Advanced Progressive Matrices). Secondly, we evaluated whether assortative mating for intelligence was driven principally by women (the males-compete/females choose model of sexual selection) or both women and men (the mutual mate model of sexual selection). Thirdly, we tested the hypothesis that assortative mating for intelligence may occur for both SEI and objective IQ. Finally, the possibility that degree of intellectual compatibility may relate positively to relationship satisfaction was examined. We found that people overestimated their own IQ (women and men ≈ 30 IQ points) and their partner’s IQ (women = 38 IQ points; men = 36 IQ points). Furthermore, both women and men predicted their partner’s IQ with some degree of accuracy (women: r = 0.30; men: r = 0.19). However, the numerical difference in the correlations was not found to be significant statistically. Finally, the degree of intellectual compatibility (objectively and subjectively assessed) failed to correlate significantly with relationship satisfaction for both sexes. It would appear that women and men participate in the process of mate selection, with respect to evaluating IQ, consistent with the mutual mate model of sexual selection. However, the personal benefits of intellectual compatibility seem less obvious.

How about that.  And here I’ve been thinking that one of the reasons my wife and I get along well is that she’s very smart.

5) I love Paul Campos on how slow the NBA has been to maximize the gains from the 3-point shot:

I was surprised that almost no one in that long thread noted that, while advanced analytics have hurt the aesthetics of baseball, they’ve been fantastic for the aesthetics of basketball, since it was analytics that finally convinced coaches that the three-point shot was being radically underemployed. These demonstrate that the expected point value of shots from three feet from the basket and 24 feet from the basket are pretty much the same).

Missed three-point attempts are also slightly more likely to produce offensive rebounds than missed two-pointers. All in all, the creation of the three-point shot should have immediately transformed the way the game was played. Again, this is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in which merit and success are defined and measured in the most straightforward way possible, unlike in most human endeavors.

So what happened? The answer is that for many years all the coaches in the most profitable and important basketball league in the world (basketball has become an extremely popular sport internationally over the past few decades) basically just ignored that the three-point shot even existed.

The statistics on this point are stunning: for most of the 1980s, NBA teams averaged two and three three-point shot attempts per game! What’s amazing about this is that, between long shots at the buzzer at the end of quarters and halves, and long jumpers beyond the arc forced by the expiration of the 24-second shot clock, I would have thought that teams would average more three-point attempts per game than that even if they literally never took a three-point shot as part of the normal flow of the offense.

What’s fair to say is that for the first decade of the three-point shot’s existence, the typical NBA team essentially never attempted any three-point shots as part of its standard offensive sets. This was just insane. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of players in the league at the time who were more than capable of nailing an open 23-foot jump shot — the names Larry Bird and Dell Curry leap immediately to mind. Furthermore, the introduction of the three-point shot should have immediately produced a huge shift in the talent distribution of the players in the league, since a massive premium should have been put on being able to hit a long jump shot. (Imagine if the NFL suddenly decided that any touchdown scored from more than 25 yards out was worth nine points instead of six. What sort of premium would/should that suddenly put on speed receivers, big-armed QBs, lockdown corners etc?)…

Average number of three-point shots attempted by team per game:

1980: 2.0

1985: 3.3

1990: 7.1 (Still an absurdly low number)

1995: 13.2

2000: 14.9

2005: 16.8

2010: 18.1

2015: 24.1

2020: 34.6

The only reason this took so long is because of the incredibly deep-seated nature of fundamentally reactionary thinking among the relevant decision-making authorities, even though, again, the most straightforward possible metrics should have made it clear to them decades earlier that not structuring their rosters and offenses to take advantage of the three-point shot meant foregoing what would have been a massive competitive advantage against their similarly clueless and reactionary opponents.

6) I don’t know a lot about PsyPost, but when I checked it out, it seemed legit, so I did an email interview on some research.  The end result is, I think, a surprisingly good summary, “Mothers are not more likely than other women to demand action on guns”

When it comes to support for gun control policies, mothers are not significantly different than women without children, according to new research published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. The findings indicate that parenthood doesn’t have a substantial impact on gun control views in the United States.

“I’ve always been interested in topics around gender and parenthood in American politics where I think, maybe, how a group or political dynamic is portrayed in the media may not actually reflect the underlying dynamic that well,” said study author Steven Greene (@HankGreene), a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

“For example, 14 years ago, Laurel Elder and I co-wrote, ‘The Myth of “Security Moms” and “NASCAR Dads”: Parenthood, Political Stereotypes, and the 2004 Election.’ So much media and public attention around gun control has focused on moms (e.g., the Million Mom March) that we were anxious to explore this dynamic to see how much motherhood seemed to explain gun attitudes.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data collected by the Pew Research Center in March and April of 2017 as part of the organization’s nationally representative American Trends Panel.

The survey asked respondents to indicate whether they believed gun laws should be more or less strict. It also asked several questions related to gun ownership, such as support for allowing concealed carry in more places, preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns, banning assault weapons, and requiring background checks on all private gun sales.

In addition, the survey included several questions on gun policy relating to children, such as whether school officials should carry guns and whether stricter gun laws would reduce mass shootings.

 

The researchers had hypothesized that fatherhood would push men towards more conservative attitudes on gun control policies, while motherhood would push women towards more liberal attitudes. But after controlling for sociodemographic variables, there was little evidence that parenthood had much impact.

Mothers held more liberal views on guns control compared to the general population. But this appeared to be unrelated to motherhood. Women were more liberal than men in general on questions related to gun laws and regulations. But there was no evidence that mothers’ opinions on guns were more liberal compared to women without children. In fact, mothers were slightly more likely to support less restrictive gun laws.

“The big take-away is that moms are not uniquely liberal on guns,” Greene told PsyPost. “As with most issues across the American political spectrum, women are more liberal than men on gun policies, but there is nothing unique to being a mom that adds to more liberal gun attitudes. A focus from both the media and gun reform advocacy groups (e.g., Moms Demand Action on Guns) has clearly determined that this is a useful political/rhetorical framing, but it does not appear to reflect an underlying reality on gun attitudes beyond that which can simply be explained by gender.”

7) Dhruv Khullar on Delta in the New Yorker:

Earlier this year, scientists estimated that lineage B.1.1.7—the Alpha variant, first isolated in England—could be some sixty per cent more transmissible than the original version of sars-CoV-2. Now experts believe that the Delta variant is sixty per cent more transmissible than Alpha—making it far more contagious than the virus that tore through the world in 2020. It hasn’t yet been conclusively shown that Delta is more lethal, but early evidence from the U.K. suggests that, compared to Alpha, it doubles the risk of a person’s being hospitalized. Even if the variant turns out to be no deadlier within any one person, its greater transmissibility means that it can inflict far more damage across a population, depending on how many people remain unvaccinated when it strikes.

In this regard, India’s apocalyptic surge is Exhibit A. In May, at the crest of the wave, the role of the Delta variant was still unclear. A number of factors—the return of large gatherings, a decline in mask-wearing, and a sluggish vaccination campaign—had made a disaster of some kind more or less unavoidable. But it now seems likely that the rise of Delta accelerated the crisis into a shockingly rapid and widespread viral catastrophe. In the course of weeks, millions of people were infected and tens of thousands died; the country’s medical system buckled under the weight of a mutated virus. One of the most disturbing aspects of India’s surge was that many children fell ill. And yet there is currently no data to suggest that Delta causes severe illness in a greater proportion of kids; instead, it seems likely that the sheer transmissibility of the variant simply resulted in a higher absolute number of infected children.

One vitally important finding to emerge from the U.K. and India is that the covid vaccines are still spectacularly effective against Delta. According to one study from the U.K., a full course of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is ninety-six per cent effective at preventing hospitalizations due to the Delta variant; AstraZeneca’s vaccine is in the same ballpark, reducing the chance of hospitalization by ninety-two per cent. But these findings come with caveats. The first is that, with Delta, partial immunization appears to be less effective at preventing disease: a different study found that, for people who have received only the first shot, the vaccines were just thirty-three per cent effective at preventing symptomatic illness. (A first dose still appears to offer strong protection against hospitalization or death.) The second is that even full courses of the vaccines appear somewhat less effective at preventing infection from Delta. This may be especially true of the non-mRNA vaccines. A team of scientists in Scotland has found that both doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine reduced the chance of infection with Delta by just sixty per cent—a respectable showing, but less impressive than what the same vaccine offers against other strains of the virus. (The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine demonstrated seventy-nine per cent efficacy against Delta infection—a significant, but smaller, decrease.)

Taken together, these findings have led some experts to propose adjustments in vaccination strategy. Muge Cevik, an infectious-diseases expert at St. Andrews University and an adviser to the British government, told me that, given the arrival of Delta, it was important to ask “what our main aim of vaccination is.” She went on, “If our primary objective is to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, a first dose still gives very good protection. If it’s to stamp out transmission, then the second dose becomes quite important. I think that, especially in hot spots, we need to expedite second shots.” Others have proposed the idea of mRNA-vaccine booster shots for Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, like AstraZeneca’s, uses non-mRNA technology. The C.D.C.’s official guidelines tell Americans that “the best covid-19 vaccine is the first one that is available to you. Do not wait for a specific brand.” But that advice was minted when vaccine supply was constrained. The accumulated evidence has led many people to wonder whether the mRNA vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, are preferable to the one offered by Johnson & Johnson, and whether the Delta variant makes them even more so.

8) Quite liked this from Yasha Mounk, “The Perils of 180ism: Stop blindly opposing your adversaries. Stick to your values and think for yourself.”

180ism has three core components.

The first and most obvious is that the primary question most participants in public debate ask themselves is not “How do my values inform my views on this matter?” or “What is the evidence for what is being asserted?” Rather, it is “How do I demonstrate that I am a loyal member of my political tribe?” As it happens, the easiest way to do that is simple: Look for what the enemy says on any one issue and stake out the opposite position.

The second component is that public discourse becomes dangerously narrow when a lot of individuals with big platforms reflexively contradict whatever their adversaries say. Complex questions that should, in principle, allow for a large number of different answers are then flattened into a simple referendum between diametrically opposed sides. 

The third component is that the dynamics of 180ism exert enormous pressure on anybody who does not behave as expected. If, unwilling to let the discourse shoehorn you into one of two sanctioned positions, you insist on giving a third answer, you are denounced as an attention-seeking contrarian. And if, following your long-held values or principles, you come up with an answer that your political adversary happens to agree with, you are denounced as a traitor. In a discourse dominated by 180ism, occasionally disagreeing with your friends—a sign that you are willing to think for yourself—is widely interpreted as proof of bad faith.


In many of the examples I have given, it is the left that is guilty of 180ism. So let me be abundantly clear: I do not believe that the two sides in America’s great political fight are morally equivalent. That is why I publicly and persistently advocated for the election of Joe Biden. Nor do I think that conservatives are any less susceptible to the sins of 180ism than progressives; the aversion to supporting anything that a prominent adversary happens to agree with is, almost certainly, even more pronounced on the right.

But that is no reason to soft-pedal just how bad the state of the discourse has now become on my own side. In fact, it is precisely because I myself have long been part of the left-wing tribe that I feel especially compelled to speak out when my ostensible allies are willing to throw their principles out of the window.

Part of the reason is instrumental. To succumb to 180ism is to define yourself, not by your own principles, but rather against your opponents. In other words, it is to let your political adversaries choose your values for you. And if the right is even a little shrewd—choosing their own positions in ways that force those who are stuck in the logic of 180ism to defend highly unpopular ideas and organizations—this will inflict serious harm on liberal values. It could even increase the chances that Donald Trump or one of his allies will return to the White House in 2024.

But an even deeper reason is moral, intellectual or, if you will, aesthetic. I work in left-leaning institutions, write for left-leaning publications, and live in a left-leaning milieu. How the people around me talk about things is especially important to me because I care about thinking through the complex challenges that face all of us in an intellectually honest way—and the only way to do that is as part of a community that encourages people to think for themselves.

The deepest reason to resist 180ism is, simply, that succumbing to it is a terrible way to think and live.

9) Rick Hasen, interviewed by Isaac Chotiner, on protecting elections and Congressional legislation:

If you were designing a bill for Congress to prevent the subversion of a future election, what would that bill include? And how has your answer changed or not changed since the wave of state laws we’ve seen in the last several months?

I think the best place to start is to differentiate between election subversion and voter suppression. We’ve been hearing for many years about voter suppression: things that make it harder for people to register and to vote, like the provision of the Georgia law that says you can’t give water to people waiting on line to vote. That’s a different concern than this idea of election subversion, which is trying to manipulate the rules for who counts the votes in a way that could allow for a partisan official to declare the loser as the winner. This was, for example, a concern when President Trump called the secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, in the period after the election, to try to get him to “find” the 11,780 votes.

Much of what proposed federal legislation would do in both H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is aimed at stopping voter suppression. Stopping election subversion requires a different set of tools, and, ideally, you might want to have federal legislation that attacks both. But, if you’re focussing solely on election subversion, then I think there are a few important things to do. No. 1, require every state to hold elections using some form of a paper ballot. That provision is actually in H.R. 1—it’s a small part of a very large bill. But that standing alone is not only something that could get bipartisan support—it’s absolutely essential. Just imagine if in Georgia, in the period after the election, when Secretary of State Raffensperger ordered a hand recount of all the ballots, with the ability for the public to observe—if Georgia was using voting machines that didn’t use a piece of paper, then the conspiracy theories of the flipped votes would have had much more resonance.

No. 2, fixing the 1887 Electoral Count Act. That’s this arcane federal law that explains how Congress is supposed to count the Electoral College votes from each state. One of the provisions in there says you only need an objection from one senator and one representative in order to go into separate trial sessions to negotiate over whether or not Electoral College votes should be accepted or rejected. There should be a much higher threshold, and there should be a substantive standard for rejecting those votes, so we would not see something like a hundred and forty-seven members of Congress that voted to object to state Electoral College votes on January 6th. There are other things that could be done as well, such as requiring that there be some kind of court review or independent review of the standards that are used for declaring winners in elections, as well as various transparency requirements in dealing with election administration, so that people can go to court if there is a problem with the fairness of how the election is conducted…

In the raft of voting legislation that we’ve seen in the past few months, what has most concerned you in terms of voter suppression, and what has most concerned you in terms of subversion?

 

There was, first of all, an expected tightening of the rules that allow people to easily cast a ballot, especially by mail. Requiring that Georgia voters provide certain identification information when they vote by mail is new. There was a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said over two hundred and seventy thousand voters would not be able to vote by mail with that requirement. In some instances, such as in Iowa, there’s been a criminalization of attempts by local election administrators to try to allow for the expansion of voting opportunities, such as in sending absentee-ballot applications to voters. That’s not something that should be criminalized. We’re seeing, in a number of bills, attempts to make the job of local election administrators even harder and dissuade people even more from becoming election administrators.

In terms of election subversion, the biggest concern I have right now is what happened in Georgia, where as punishment for Raffensperger standing up to Trump, the secretary of state has been taken out of any authority as to how the state election board does its job, to be replaced by someone handpicked by the Republican legislature. This board now has the power to do temporary takeovers of up to four counties. You could easily imagine the state boards taking over how the election is run in heavily Democratic Fulton County, and then imposing rules or messing with election counts in ways that could affect the outcome in the now very purple state of Georgia.

10) Drum on the increased murder rate:

Here is the fundamental mystery of crime in the US over the past year:

As you might guess, the murder rate and the overall violent crime rate usually rise and fall in tandem. But in 2020, they suddenly diverged by an enormous amount: Compared to 2019, violent crime rose 3.3% while the murder rate went up 25%.

If you’re interested in the murder rate beyond partisan talking points, this is what you need to explain. What could account for a huge increase in homicides but not in violent crime more generally? Police presence seems an unlikely explanation. Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of murder, which is usually committed against someone you know.

In any case, this is what needs explaining. But be careful. This is trickier than it looks.

11) It was actually kind of depressing to see this take from a scientist and a historian just completely riddled with logical fallacies.  Support trans people.  Respect them.  But don’t make really bad arguments in service of that, “Attacks on trans people are also attacks on science itself.”  I’ll just give one example; this is a complicated issue and this rhetorical sophistry in no way does it justice:

The false premise behind them is that if transgender girls are allowed to compete on girls’ sports teams, then cisgender girls (whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) won’t be able to win. Experience in California shows that this is not true. In 2013, the state passed a law that protects the rights of transgender students to participate in sports teams that match their gender identity. Los Angeles teacher and retired basketball coach Larry Strauss wrote that he has seen and heard of no problems with implementing the policy, and trans athletes are not dominating girls’ sports leagues. Similarly, when The Associated Press asked Republican legislators who introduced these bills to name a single transgender athlete in their state, most could not. This just doesn’t seem to be a real issue.

12) Okay, now this is nuts and definitely cancel-culture-adjacent, “‘I am appalled’: Billie Eilish apologises for mouthing apparent racist slur in resurfaced five-year-old clip: 
Singer says she was unaware of the meaning of the offensive word at the time, did not mean to cause offence, and the prospect of causing people hurt ‘absolutely breaks my heart’”  She was 14!!

13) Definitely a lot of truth to this, “The TV hit isn’t just dying — it may already be dead: Astute observers of television say the idea of a unifying show on even a modest scale is gone. In its wake are a hundred Twitter niches — and a dangerous lack of common culture.”  That said, although I may not be able to talk Mare of Easttown with my Food Lion cashier (hey, there’s always sports!), among the people I actually socialize with, there’s still substantial overlap in common viewing.

14) This is kind of wild, “Sharks Almost Went the Way of the Dinosaurs 19 Million Years Ago: Analysis of the fossil record shows a mysterious mass extinction that decimated the diversity of sharks in the world’s oceans, and they’ve never fully recovered.”

In 2015, Dr. Sibert received a box of mud spanning about 40 million years of history. The reddish clay, extracted from two sediment cores that had been drilled deep into the Pacific Ocean seafloor, contained fish teeth, shark denticles and other marine microfossils. Using a microscope and a very fine paintbrush, Dr. Sibert picked through the two sediments and counted the number of fossils in samples separated in time by several hundred thousand years.

About halfway through her data set, Dr. Sibert spotted an abrupt change in the fossil record. Nineteen million years ago, the ratio of shark denticles to fish teeth changed drastically: Samples older than that tended to contain roughly one denticle for every five fish teeth (a ratio of about 20 percent), but more recent samples had ratios closer to 1 percent. That meant that sharks suddenly became much less common, relative to fish, during an era known as the early Miocene, Dr. Sibert concluded.

Dr. Sibert and her collaborators, in an earlier study using the same data set, had also found that sharks declined in abundance by roughly 90 percent about 19 million years ago.

“We had a lot of them, and then we had almost none of them,” she said. “Basically the sharks almost completely disappear.”

15) This just seems so crazy to me, “Many People Have a Vivid ‘Mind’s Eye,’ While Others Have None at All: Scientists are finding new ways to probe two not-so-rare conditions to better understand the links between vision, perception and memory.”

Dr. Adam Zeman didn’t give much thought to the mind’s eye until he met someone who didn’t have one. In 2005, the British neurologist saw a patient who said that a minor surgical procedure had taken away his ability to conjure images.

Over the 16 years since that first patient, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues have heard from more than 12,000 people who say they don’t have any such mental camera. The scientists estimate that tens of millions of people share the condition, which they’ve named aphantasia, and millions more experience extraordinarily strong mental imagery, called hyperphantasia.

In their latest research, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues are gathering clues about how these two conditions arise through changes in the wiring of the brain that join the visual centers to other regions. And they’re beginning to explore how some of that circuitry may conjure other senses, such as sound, in the mind. Eventually, that research might even make it possible to strengthen the mind’s eye — or ear — with magnetic pulses.

“This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” said Dr. Zeman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain. “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”

16) I love zoos and this is one of those things I really just want to argue against.  But it’s probably right.  “Modern Zoos Are Not Worth the Moral Cost”

Quick hits (part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

%d bloggers like this: