Quick hits (part II)

1) Something tells me if the impact from the wildfires out west were happening on the East coast there’d be way more media coverage.  Something about this article and it’s images really got through to me.  Just… damn.

Smoke from the Caldor fire shrouded Emerald Bay, near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Wednesday.

2) I don’t love the “puppy” description for a 14-month old pit bull mix, but if you watch the video (and read the context) there’s just no way this police officer should be on the force.  And rules that allow police to shoot any dog that comes towards them under any circumstances lead to an ongoing dogmaggedon.  If you’ve spent 5 minutes with dogs, you clearly recognize this is a dog coming to play, not attack.  “Body-cam footage shows police shoot a ‘playful’ puppy: ‘He was curious and excited to greet this officer’”

3) Yes, of course the energy we spend on air conditioning makes climate change worse, but, come on, articles telling people to not use air conditioning are not the way to save the planet.  Not to mention, this one goes full woke Vox with a whole section on how air conditioning is “racist.”  

4) Ezra’s take on Afghanistan this week was so, so good.  But, I’ve already given you a lot of NYT links, so here’s an extensive excerpt:

To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.

Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It’s also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

“The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. “Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory.” …

It is worth considering some counterfactuals for how our occupation could have ended. Imagine that the Biden administration, believing the Afghan government hollow, ignored President Ashraf Ghani’s pleas and began rapidly withdrawing personnel and power months ago. The vote of no-confidence ripples through Afghan politics, demoralizing the existing government and emboldening the Taliban. Those who didn’t know which side to choose, who were waiting for a signal of who held power, quickly cut deals with the Taliban. As the last U.S. troops leave, the Taliban overwhelms the country, and the Biden administration is blamed, reasonably, for speeding their victory.

Another possible scenario was suggested to me by Grant Gordon, a political scientist who works on conflict and refugee crises (and is, I should say, an old friend): If the Biden administration had pulled our allies and personnel out more efficiently, that might have unleashed the Taliban to massacre their opposition, as America and the world would have been insulated and perhaps uninterested in the aftermath. There have been revenge killings, but it has not devolved, at least as of yet, into all-out slaughter, and that may be because the American withdrawal has been messy and partial and the Taliban fears re-engagement. “What is clearly a debacle from one angle may actually have generated restraint,” Gordon told me. “Having spent time in places like this, I think people lack a real imagination for how bad these conflicts can get.”

Let me offer one more: Even though few believed Ghani’s government would prevail in our absence, and the Trump administration cut them out of its deal with the Taliban, there’s widespread disappointment that the government we supported collapsed so quickly. Biden has been particularly unsparing in his descriptions of the Afghan Army’s abdication, and I agree with those who say he’s been unfair, underestimating the courage and sacrifice shown by Afghan troops throughout the war. But put that aside: Americans might have felt better seeing our allies in Afghanistan put up a longer fight, even if the Taliban emerged victorious. But would a multiyear civil war have been better for the Afghans caught in the crossfire?

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put it simply: “I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance, and smart people are struggling with how to rationalize defeat. Because that’s what we have here in Afghanistan — a defeat.” …

The tragedy of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy philosophy is that it binds our compassion to our delusions of military mastery. We awaken to the suffering of others when we fear those who rule them or hide among them, and in this way our desire for security finds union with our desire for decency. Or we awaken to the suffering of others when they face a massacre of such immediacy that we are forced to confront our passivity and to ask what inaction would mean for our souls and self-image. In both cases, we awaken with a gun in our hands, or perhaps we awaken because we have a gun in our hands.

To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

This is the deep lacuna in America’s foreign policy conversation: The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.

My heart breaks for the suffering we will leave behind in Afghanistan. But we do not know how to fix Afghanistan. We failed in that effort so completely that we ended up strengthening the Taliban. We should do all we can to bring American citizens and allies home. But if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees. If we truly care about the suffering of others, there is so much we could do. Only 1 percent of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that, too.

“I want America more forward-deployed, but I want it through a massive international financing arm and a massive renewable energy arm,” Senator Murphy told me. “That’s the United States I want to see spread across the world — not the face of America today that’s by and large arms sales, military trainers and brigades.”

The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.

5) I had never really thought about how much it sucks to be a tennis great of declining skills getting whipped by no-names in the 1st and 2nd round as opposed to a star from a team sport who manages to have a farewell tour while competing far below peak ablity:

There are many reasons that tennis does not lend itself to perfect endings. The modern game imposes immense physical demands and a relentless schedule. Its ranking system rewards consistent, elite play and punishes those whose aging bodies only allow them to dabble with lower seeds and more difficult early-round matches. The knockout format prevents anyone, regardless of past performance, from being guaranteed a grand setting for a final match, which can easily occur on a random Tuesday in a half-empty stadium.

The result is a stark choice for even the best tennis players: Go out on top while most likely leaving some championships on the table, or meander through a frustrating descent into being OK at best, which can be less than fun in a sport that shines its brightest lights on the top two or four players and lumps nearly everyone else into something of an also-ran category.

A star on a team sport can flicker then fade amid the protection of teammates. There’s an unforgiving loneliness to stardom in tennis.

The tennis equivalent of Derek Jeter’s gift-collecting farewell tour as the Yankees’ shortstop — an unproductive .256 batting average over 145 games coupled with not good but not embarrassing defense — is a lot of early-round losses to journeymen.

6) Just came across this study from March that just a good solid surgical mask (type II) does a good job with protecting aerosols while hardly impacting the difficulty in breathing.  And, just use a hack or two to make it fit better and you are in quite good shape. 

7) I so want to say “yes” to this even though I recognize the inherent problems, “Would It Be Fair to Treat Vaccinated Covid Patients First?” 

8) David Zweig with a solid piece in New York, “The Science of Masking Kids at School Remains Uncertain.”  I’m entirely okay with accepting “uncertain,” but with “nonetheless plenty of suggestive evidence that indicates this really is a good idea, and one who’s potential benefits almost surely outweigh the costs.” 

9) Among the various diet trends I’ve been interested in, I was pretty intrigued by this high/low glycemic index thing for a while.  Now, I just simply try and focus on more healthy food and calorie counting when I really want to lose weight.  Interestingly, some solid research suggests it doesn’t actually matter all that much.  

High-glycemic index (high-GI) foods (so-called fast carbs) have been hypothesized to promote fat storage and increase risk of obesity. To clarify whether dietary GI impacts body weight, we searched PubMed and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews for observational studies reporting associations between BMI and dietary GI, and for meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing low-GI and high-GI diets for weight loss. Data on 43 cohorts from 34 publications, totaling 1,940,968 adults, revealed no consistent differences in BMI when comparing the highest with the lowest dietary GI groups. In the 27 cohort studies that reported results of statistical comparisons, 70% showed that BMI was either not different between the highest and lowest dietary GI groups (12 of 27 cohorts) or that BMI was lower in the highest dietary GI group (7 of 27 cohorts). Results of 30 meta-analyses of RCTs from 8 publications demonstrated that low-GI diets were generally no better than high-GI diets for reducing body weight or body fat. One notable exception is that low-GI diets with a dietary GI at least 20 units lower than the comparison diet resulted in greater weight loss in adults with normal glucose tolerance but not in adults with impaired glucose tolerance. While carbohydrate quality, including GI, impacts many health outcomes, GI as a measure of carbohydrate quality appears to be relatively unimportant as a determinant of BMI or diet-induced weight loss. Based on results from observational cohort studies and meta-analyses of RCTs, we conclude that there is scant scientific evidence that low-GI diets are superior to high-GI diets for weight loss and obesity prevention.

10) Of course Democrats’ plans to make Medicare a lot better are going to come under zealous assault from those who may stand to lose, such as dentists and insurers.  Money before better health for more Americans, of course.  

11) I really need to write another post about boosters, especially in regard to J&J.  For now:

As vaccine makers set their sights on boosters, new studies unveiled on Wednesday from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech demonstrated that extra shots can dramatically raise antibodies against the coronavirus.

The companies said they were submitting the new data to the Food and Drug Administration for evaluation, and Pfizer has formally asked the agency to authorize a booster shot. The Biden administration said last week that it wants to provide booster shots for all Americans eight months after vaccination.

The Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine was absent from the government’s booster plan announced last week. But with the new data, the company hopes to be part of the initial distribution of additional shots, which could happen as early as September…

In its new study, Johnson & Johnson tracked 17 volunteers from last year’s clinical trial. When given a booster shot at six months, their antibodies against the coronavirus jumped nine times as high as after the first dose. The data has not yet been published in a scientific journal.

Small studies of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech booster shots have found comparable jumps in antibody levels, as the companies reported on recent earnings calls.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech released new data from 306 people showing that a third dose given five to eight months after the second caused a strong immune response. The level of antibodies against the coronavirus in the volunteers more than tripled, the companies reported.

The side effects of a third injection were about the same as after the initial two doses, the companies said. The underlying data was not included in the news release, nor were the dates or location of the study specified. The companies said they were preparing a scientific publication describing the research.

12) I didn’t even realize today that an open tab from an old (i.e., 2020) article was actually about epistemic trespassing.  “Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?
It should be a no-brainer: your best bet is to follow those who have actual expertise.”  Turns out Ballantyne’s twitter thread was better because I had a bunch of issues with this.  Basically, using a bunch of anecdotes of “epistemic trespassing” to say, “see, and they were wrong.”

Trespassers lack that well-tailored expertise. What they actually do know does not always transfer to new and different topics. Worse, they often lack the awareness that such tailored expertise exists. Their gaps in knowledge remain invisible to them.

Meanwhile, let’s ignore the fact that all sorts of people with “tailored expertise” kept on insisting on “droplet” transmission and denying airborne for months and months after many without this “tailored expertise” had correctly concluded otherwise.  Sure, ceteris paribus, go with those with the real expertise.  But, quite often, not else is equal.  I’ll take my ivermectin now :-).

13) Interesting take from Frum, “The One Thing That Could’ve Changed the War in Afghanistan: Had Osama bin Laden been killed or captured in December 2001, justice would have been served in the way Americans like: fast, hard, and cheap.”

Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward. I cannot prove that. It’s only an opinion from my vantage point as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002.

Had U.S. forces succeeded against bin Laden in 2001, justice would have been served in the way Americans like: fast, hard, and cheap. Republicans could have campaigned in the elections of 2002 as the winners of a completed war—and pivoted then to domestic concerns. Remember, if George W. Bush learned one single lesson from his father’s presidency, it was that even the most overwhelming military success does not translate into reelection. In November 1992, the elder Bush won 37 percent of the vote against a Democratic nominee who had opposed the triumphant Gulf War.

Bin Laden’s survival doomed any idea of pivoting back to domestic concerns. Without a kill or capture of bin Laden to show, the swift overthrow of the Taliban government seemed very much a consolation prize.

The road opened to the Iraq War.

Again, this is only one man’s opinion, but I don’t believe Bush was yet committed to a ground war against Saddam Hussein when he delivered his “Axis of Evil” speech in January 2002. That speech identified Iraq’s weapons potential as a deadly serious security threat. It said the same of Iran’s and North Korea’s weapons potential, and Bush had no intention of fighting either of them. There were and are many ways to address weapons potential short of a ground war, whether sanctions or sabotage or air strikes.

Yet in the year after that speech, the decision for war coalesced. Something had to be done against Islamic terrorism that was not Afghanistan; the Iraq War became that something. A strange dichotomy split the U.S. foreign-policy elite. Prominent figures in the Bush administration—Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—wished fiercely to escape Afghanistan. This wish was partly because of their determination to finish off Saddam Hussein, but it was also a policy preference in its own right. (For what little it’s worth, that’s how I personally felt at the time: However steep the odds against a stable future for Iraq, that urbanized and literate country was a more promising terrain for U.S. strategic goals than hopeless Afghanistan.)

14) Good stuff from Pew, “How Americans feel about ‘cancel culture’ and offensive speech in 6 charts”

In the September 2020 survey, Americans said they believed calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable than punish people who don’t deserve it. Overall, 58% of adults said that in general, when people publicly call others out on social media for posting content that might be considered offensive, they are more likely to hold people accountable. In comparison, 38% said this kind of action is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it.

A chart showing that partisans differ over whether calling out others on social media for potentially offensive content represents accountability or punishment

Views on this question differed sharply by political party. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say that this type of action holds people accountable (75% vs. 39%). In contrast, 56% of Republicans – but just 22% of Democrats – said this generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.

In a separate report using data from the same September 2020 survey, 55% of Americans said many people take offensive content they see online too seriously, while a smaller share (42%) said offensive content online is too often excused as not a big deal.

A chart showing that Democrats, Republicans are increasingly divided on whether offensive content online is taken too seriously, as well as the balance between free speech, feeling safe online

Americans’ attitudes again differed widely by political party. Roughly six-in-ten Democrats (59%) said offensive content online is too often excused as not a big deal, while just a quarter of Republicans agreed – a 34 percentage point gap. And while 72% of Republicans said many people take offensive content they see online too seriously, about four-in-ten Democrats (39%) said the same.

15) What could be better?  Matt Grossman interviews Ezra Klein about how political science informs our understandings of politics in the modern world.

16) Really, really interesting analysis from Chait: “Why the Media Is Worse for Biden Than Trump”

And they’re right: Conservative media really does command enormous audiences that frequently dwarf its mainstream-news counterparts. But this merely underscores the fact that what we think of as “the media” only accounts for a portion of the American news-media diet. The other half of the media is simply a vehicle for partisan propaganda. And whatever its failings, the last week has amply demonstrated once again that the nonconservative mainstream media is not that.

This is not necessarily to deny that the mainstream media has some kinds of liberal bias. It’s certainly true that, as the electorate has grown more polarized by education, the mainstream media’s near-total reliance on college graduates has made it much more socially liberal than the overall country. (One stark example of this bias was the stampede last year to dismiss the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis as a “racist conspiracy theory.”) For the sake of argument, I am willing to concede that this liberal bias outweighs other cross-cutting biases. I would simply maintain that liberal bias is not the only determinant of media coverage.

Above all else, it treats bad news as more important than good news. And so, while mainstream media often covers Republican presidents critically, it metes out the same treatment to Democratic presidents. For instance, the American media’s coverage of COVID — which a study found to be more relentlessly negative than coverage in almost any other country — probably hurt Trump, but now it’s hurting Biden. Even many situations that a Democratic president handles almost perfectly — think of President Obama’s innovative response to the BP oil spill or the Ebola outbreak — will produce little reward, just scary headlines disappearing and the subject being dropped in favor of the next looming disaster.

Traditional journalistic norms may have weakened, especially in subjects like culture and sports, but they remain intact in most newsrooms, and especially in political coverage. Those norms enshrine a certain definition of objectivity that implicitly favors, in addition to social liberalism, hawkish foreign policy, deficit reduction, and bipartisanship.

Putting aside the ethics of the media’s approach, the political effect seems clear enough. Most Democratic voters will experience Democratic administrations as a mixed bag, at best. Republican voters, who mostly absorb the news through party-aligned media, will experience Republican administrations as an unmitigated triumph. The four-year experiment in Trump proved conclusively just how low the conservative media’s standards of truthfulness and competence are for a Republican president. If nothing else, Trump proved conservative media will support anything its party’s leader does.

Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning. On Trump’s worst days, the Fox News chyrons depicted him as a triumphal leader. On Biden’s best days, the conservative media was still giving him hell. In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Are the Covid vaccines victims of their own success?

When Covid-19 vaccines were reported last fall to be roughly 95% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 infections, the world rejoiced — and even veteran scientists were blown away. Very few vaccines are that protective. Those made to fend off viruses like SARS-CoV-2 — viruses that invade the nose and throat, like flu — typically aren’t at the high end of the efficacy scale.

That was the good news. Now, however, our soaring expectations for Covid-19 vaccines are in the process of sinking back to earth.

With the more transmissible Delta variant of SARS-2 circulating, it is increasingly apparent that, even if mRNA vaccines like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s offer impressive protection against severe Covid infections, they aren’t going to prevent infections in the upper respiratory tract of some proportion of vaccinated people.

“We all wish that that this would be gone. That we would get a vaccine and … we would control it,” Kathryn Edwards, a vaccine expert at Vanderbilt University, told STAT. “But I think that looking back, probably that wasn’t always realistic.” …

A critic of the booster decision, Anna Durbin, believes the high bar set by the results of the Phase 3 clinical trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is now negatively impacting U.S. vaccination policy.

“I think these vaccines are a victim of their own success,” said Durbin, a vaccine researcher in Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Now we expect perfection. And if it’s less than perfect, we want a booster.”

I think Durbin is wrong, though.  The vaccines really were nearly perfect against Alpha.  They’re not against Delta.  It’s that we had a real vision of normal life again this summer because there were so few breakthrough infections of vaccinated people.  Now even the vaccinated must live in fear of each other as a potential vector.  That sucks.  And it’s not unreasonable to get back to where we were a couple months ago if a booster can realistically achieve that.

2) Pretty much everything you want to know about Covid and airborne transmission in one amazing Science article.  Written by some of the best public scientists of the pandemic.  Long and thorough, but really quite accessible.  

3) Now that you’ve read that, you might be thinking about how to monitor your air quality.  Dustin Poppendieck’s got you covered.  

4) Spencer Bokat-Lindell on using more nuclear power to combat climate change.  Yes, yes, and yes. 

Its proponents often point out that nuclear power is responsible for the fastest decarbonization effort in history. In the 1970s, France embarked on a sweeping, centrally planned expansion of its nuclear power industry to break its dependence on foreign oil. Over the next decade, it managed to expand its economy even as it cut its emissions at a rate that no other country has achieved since. Today, France derives 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

Why shouldn’t the United States follow suit? “A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote in 2019. “Even today, France’s carbon density — its carbon emissions per capita — ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.”

While renewable energy has made enormous strides in recent years, nuclear power still has distinct advantages. Solar and wind farms, for example, take up much more space than nuclear plants, and they provide power only as the weather allows. In part for that reason, several recent studies have found that utilities could achieve 80 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2030 using today’s renewable energy technology, but cleaning up the last 20 percent will prove more difficult.

There are several proposed ways of solving renewable energy’s storage problem — including huge battery arrays and hydrogen fuel — but those technologies aren’t yet up to the task, my colleague Brad Plumer wrote last month.

From a public health perspective, nuclear power is also much safer than fossil fuels, Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker argued in The Times in 2019. According to one study published this year, air pollution from fossil fuels killed a staggering 8.7 million people in 2018. By contrast, Goldstein, Qvist and Pinker noted that in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm, and just one — Chernobyl — directly caused any deaths.

What about nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years? Compared with climate change, it’s a much easier environmental problem to solve, they wrote. More than 90 percent of spent fuel can be recycled, and that which can’t could be entombed in repositories deep underground, as is done in Finland.

In 1987, Congress settled on plans to build a national nuclear waste repository in Nevada, but local, state and federal opposition have thwarted the project for decades. As a result, America’s nuclear plants keep their waste on site in steel and concrete casks that were not intended for permanent storage.

5) Given my strong reaction against the “stay in your lane types” (seriously, just think about how much good Zeynep has done going outsider her “lane”), I really liked this from Noah Smith taking on the idea of “epistemic trespassing.” 

Ballantyne’s essay is basically a 24-page argument that people should stay in their intellectual lane. He starts out with some well-known examples of people who are respected experts in one field becoming quacks in another field — Linus Pauling hawking vitamin C, and so on. Ballantyne then cites other people who have complained about the same phenomenon (Plato!). Following anecdote and argument-from-authority, he then goes on to make a number of conjectures about the harms from epistemic trespassing. Finally, having argued to his own satisfaction that epistemic trespassing is a problem, he throws out some proposals for solutions — basically, more interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual modesty.

Now, I’m all for interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual modesty, as a general rule. But although Ballantyne raises interesting points and creates food for thought, he fails to make a conclusive case that what he calls “epistemic trespassing” is, on balance, bad for society. And his arguments raise uncomfortable questions that he doesn’t really wrestle with — most importantly, the question of who gets to decide who’s a trespasser.

Actually, though, after Ballantyne explains his actual take nicely in this twitter thread.

6) This “Planet of Cops” essay from Freddie deBoer from a few years ago (he just re-published it) is great.  

7) The Novavax vaccine is cool and effective and facing major delays in getting approved.  That’s a real shame.  Makes you realize how lucky we are that Pfizer and Moderna both proved to be so good at this.

8) One reason, I think, that ineffective cloth masks (to be clear, there are many effective ones, too) remain so popular is because a lot of people think that medical masks are one use only.  In theory they are.  In practice, they are designed for all day in surgery, which means a bunch of trips to the grocery store.  And, in fact, this study showed N95’s holding up to use by medical workers for a good 40 uses.  

9) And speaking of masks, this is nice, “How to choose and care for your kid’s masks.”  It includes two handy spreadsheets which led me to an (in stock!) Allett mask which we just got today, but, fortunately fits my daughter (and her small 10-year old face) great and worked well during dance class.  

10) The media has done a really poor job of properly covering the Afghanistan evacuation and Eric Boehlert is on it.

Six days ago, as she prepared her airlifted exit from Kabul, CNN reporter Clarissa Ward declared that the United States’ effort to evacuate thousands of Afghans was doomed to failure. “I’m sitting here for 12 hours in the airport, 8 hours on the airfield and I haven’t seen a single US plane take off,” she reported. “How on Earth are you going to evacuate 50,000 people in the next two weeks? It just, it can’t happen.”

Ward seemed to speak for most journalists who lined up for days to condemn President Joe Biden and to predict a perilous future for the Afghanistan capitol. (Talk of “mass murders” and U.S. embassy employees being taken hostage were in the media mix.) Wildly eager to portray the U.S. troop withdrawal as a “humiliating” and “disastrous” “fiasco,” the media were sure the story was going to get much worse.

And they were wrong.

“In fact, it didn’t take 2 weeks to evacuate 50,000. It took 10 days,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted in response to Ward. “Lots of work still to do, but it might be time for a bit of a reassessment by the media of this operation given the actual results.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for journalists to acknowledge that their assessments of Kabul have been badly undercut by the stunning evacuation success.

For the first 10 days of the refugee crisis, the media obsessed over “optics” and how they were “disaster” for Biden. Suddenly though, the press shows little interest dwelling on the optics of successfully extricating nearly 100,000 people without a single U.S. casualty. Instead, the press remains married to its narrative.

That early media emphasis on optics was all consuming. “President Biden’s Reassurances on Afghanistan Contradict Chaotic Images on the Ground, Capping Week of Bad Optics For His Administration,” CNN announced.

According to the New York Times, the optics were so bad they threatened to doom Biden’s entire presidency. “The chaotic endgame of the American withdrawal has undercut some of the most fundamental premises of President Biden’s presidency,” the paper claimed, in a page-one piece that implied the Democrat was incompetent, void of empathy, and “struggling to assert command over world events.”

Those turned out to be hollow claims, given the U.S.’s commitment to evacuating so many people this month, and nearly 20,000 on Tuesday alone.

11) Catherine Rampell, on Afghan refugees and Republican bad faith:

Trumpy nativists, posing as fiscal conservatives, want you to question whether the United States can afford to take in Afghan allies and refugees.

The better question is whether we can afford notto.

The Republican Party has cleaved in recent weeks over the issue of Afghan refugees, specifically those who served as military interpreters or otherwise aided U.S. efforts. On the one hand, Republican governors and lawmakers around the country have volunteered to resettle Afghan evacuees in their states. Likewise, a recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that bringing these allies to the United States is phenomenally popular, garnering support from 76 percent of Republican respondents. Influential conservative constituencies are invested in this issue, too, including veterans’ groups and faith leaders.
On the other hand, the Trump strain within the GOP has been fighting such magnanimous impulses with misinformation.

Xenophobic politicians and media personalities have been conspiracy-theorizing about the dangers of resettling Afghan allies here — even though we had previously entrusted these same Afghans with the lives of U.S. troops and granted them security clearances. And even though they go through additional extensive screening before being brought to our shores.

No matter; if you listen to Tucker Carlson and his ilk, you’ll hear that these Afghans are apparently part of a secret plot to replace White Americans, and that untamed Afghan hordes are going to rape your wife and daughter.

Often these demagogues try to disguise their racist objections to refugee resettlement (and immigration more broadly) as economic concerns. Their claim: that however heartbreaking the footage from the Kabul airport, compassion for Afghan refugees is a luxury Americans simply cannot afford.

12) First soccer game of the season later this morning and now I know the secrets to the pre-game and half-time pep talks.

There is, however, a science to motivating people in this way. To better understand the various tools that help people get psyched up in the moments before important performances, I talked extensively with academics and practitioners in business and a variety of other fields. I discovered that while every individual has his or her own tips and tricks, according to the science, most winning formulas include three key elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. The most extensive research in this field—dubbed motivating language theory, or MLT—comes from Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, a husband-and-wife team at Texas A&M International University who have studied its applications in the corporate world for nearly three decades. Their findings are backed by studies from sports psychologists and military historians. And all the evidence suggests that once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skillfully.

Three Elements, Carefully Balanced

The Mayfields describe direction giving as the use of “uncertainty-reducing language.” This is when leaders provide information about precisely how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.

“Empathetic language” shows concern for the performer as a human being. It can include praise, encouragement, gratitude, and acknowledgment of a task’s difficulty. Phrases like “How are we all doing?” “I know this is a challenge, but I trust you can do it,” and “Your well-being is one of my top priorities” all fit into this category.

“Meaning-making language” explains why a task is important. This involves linking the organization’s purpose or mission to listeners’ goals. Often, meaning-making language includes the use of stories—about people who’ve worked hard or succeeded in the company, or about how the work has made a real difference in the lives of customers or the community.

A good pep talk—whether delivered to one person or many—should include all three elements, but the right mix will depend on the context and the audience. Experienced workers who are doing a familiar task may not require much direction. Followers who are already tightly bonded with a leader may require less empathetic language. Meaning making is useful in most situations, but may need less emphasis if the end goals of the work are obvious.

13) So, this is old, but just came across it yesterday, “Why Are Private-School Teachers Paid Less Than Public-School Teachers? One explanation: The working conditions are better in private schools, so instructors are willing to take a salary cut.” 

Both of these positions overlook the simplest explanation. The labor markets are just plain different—and those differences may hold meaningful lessons.

The first main difference is licensure. Public education has more jobs to fill (87 percent of all teaching jobs nationwide) and fewer people to fill them. That’s because whereas private schools hire whomever they want, state laws require public schools to hire only licensed teachers.

That means public schools have greater demand for workers, and smaller supply. Any economist—really, anyone who’s slept through an Econ 101 lecture—can tell you what comes next. In order to fill their staffs, public schools will need to offer a more attractive wage. They aren’t splurging, any more than private schools are scrimping. It’s just the market—two different markets, in fact—at work.

This brings us to the second main difference between publics and privates, and to the crux of the paradox. How can private schools pay their teachers less, yet offer an education for which parents gladly spend tens of thousands per year? The answer is right there in the question.

Private schools can pay less precisely because they’re better. Not necessarily for students, but for teachers.

Class sizes are smaller—a 12:1 student-to-teacher ratio, compared with 16:1 at public schools. There’s also less red tape—private teachers answer to principals and parents, rather than to principals, parents, and three meddling levels of government. And the families at private schools are, quite literally, invested in education.

14) Delta airlines policy of punishing unvaccinated employees with higher health insurance rates sure feels good, but, alas, we really don’t want to start getting into a world (again!) where we price health care based on individual conditions and behavior.

There are also reasons to be uncomfortable that such proposals are being widely discussed. “I’m worried that making an exception for covid or someone’s vaccine status starts us down a slippery slope,” says Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University. Denying health insurance coverage for preexisting conditions, even seemingly minor ones, ended only with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. “It was a long, hard-fought battle to end the practice,” she says.

Lots of things in day-to-day life are risky, Corlette notes. “Should we charge people more if they work with toxic chemicals in their day job?”

Many Americans seem to understand that people shouldn’t be singled out by an optional health status. A recent poll by Eagle Hill Consulting Research found that almost 6 out of 10 oppose the idea of charging unvaccinated Americans higher insurance premiums. “Even employees who are vaccinated might oppose higher rates, as they could worry this could lead to more health-care costs placed on employees,” says Eagle Hill CEO and President Melissa Jezior.

That’s not an unreasonable fear. In the ongoing battle over who will pay our ever-increasing medical bills, consumers all too often get tagged as “it.”

If you believe, like I do, that health care is a basic human right, narrowing access to care is a step backward. Costs should not be conditional on someone behaving in a medically approved way.

None of this is to excuse those who choose to be unvaccinated. In some ways the unvaccinated are freeloaders, benefiting from the risk reduced by those of us who got jabbed even as they raise the risk to the immunocompromised and others around them. These days, the unvaccinated account for the vast majority of the pandemic strain on our health-care system. Every eligible American needs to get vaccinated.

But we don’t need to give employers and the medical industrial complex another excuse to raise people’s bills, no matter how worthy the end goal. If Delta or other companies are concerned about unvaccinated employees, they should tackle the issue in the most direct way possible: mandate that all their employees get jabbed. They’ve got the power to require vaccination, and no extra premiums are needed.

15) I’ve not loved the Supreme Court decisions this week and seen a lot of angry takes, but, I think Drum is probably right in his contrarianism here:

The progressive left is outraged at the Supreme Court based on two recent rulings:

  • In 2019, President Trump put in place his “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required migrants seeking asylum to stay in Mexico while their cases were being adjudicated. On his first day in office, Joe Biden rescinded the policy. On Tuesday the Supreme Court ordered the policy to be reinstated pending a full hearing.
  • Last month Biden was set to allow the CDC’s eviction moratorium to lapse, but under pressure from progressives he ordered it to be continued. On Thursday the Supreme Court ruled that the moratorium had to end.

Strictly as a matter of law, are these two rulings really so outrageous? Regarding the first one, the Supreme Court has frequently said that a policy, once put in place according to the rules, can’t be “arbitrarily and capriciously” ended. Since Biden killed the “Remain in Mexico” policy on his first day, it seems like you can make a pretty good case that it was arbitrary, can’t you?

On the second one, the Court had clearly signaled months ago that it wouldn’t approve an extension beyond July 30. Biden himself didn’t expect to win a SCOTUS battle, and sure enough he didn’t.

IANAL and I’m more than willing to hear from lawyers who know the law and have opinions about this. But tentatively, at least, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything to be all that outraged about.

16) Hooray, John McWhorter is now an NYT columnist.  Here he takes on performative anti-racism at University of Wisconsin:

The University of Wisconsin has apparently done Black people a favor. It lifted away a rock.

It was a big one, 42 tons, and at least some Black students thought of it as a symbol of bigotry. Because, you see, 96 years ago, when the rock was placed where it was until just now, someone in a local newspaper called it — brace yourself — a “niggerhead.”

That didn’t settle in as a permanent nasty local moniker for the rock. It was just something some cigar-chomping scribbler wrote in 1925. But still, the Wisconsin Black Student Union, making one of the kinds of demands such groups started pushing with especial fervor last year, insisted that the rock be taken away, with the backing of the school’s Indigenous student organization. News reports say the rock had troubled students over the decades; some saw it as a “racist monument,” as one put it, whose absence now allows them to “begin healing.”

The students are fashioning their take on the rock as a kind of sophistication or higher awareness. But what they are really demanding is that we all dumb ourselves down.

The idea, it would seem, is that there is no difference between the past and the present, that what some writer said one day during the Coolidge administration would be hurtful to a student walking past the rock while texting last month, that this rock is representative of racism in the same way that a Confederate statue is representative of Southern racism.

So apparently the passage of time is an illusion? That’s sophisticated indeed as a literary conceit, but what’s deep in Faulkner becomes mere performance when it’s wielded to have a rock lifted away because of what one person called it almost a century ago.

And a crude performance at that. The students essentially demanded that an irrational, prescientific kind of fear — that a person can be meaningfully injured by the dead — be accepted as insight. They imply that the rock’s denotation of racism is akin to a Confederate statue’s denotation of the same, neglecting the glaringly obvious matter of degree here — as in, imagine pulling down a statue upon finding that the person memorialized had uttered a single racist thing once in his or her life.

We are to pretend these students are engaged in something called critique. Interesting, though, that the root of that word, “krei,” originally referred to making distinctions, as did the root of the word science as in knowledge. These students are implying instead that on race matters, the advanced way is to resist distinguishing.

The philosopher George Santayana analyzed criticism as “dividing the immortal from the mortal part of the soul,” as in isolating for posterity that which is true, essential. These students’ critique suggests, among other things, that something that hurts you makes you weaker. Is that really what we want to classify as truth — essence? How can the same people who would lustily insist that Black people are strong get behind having a rock removed from their sight because of something some boob wrote about it some 100 years ago?

If the presence of that rock actually makes some people desperately uncomfortable, they need counseling. And as such, we can be quite sure that these students were acting. Few can miss that there is a performative aspect in the claim that college campuses, perhaps the most diligently antiracism spaces on the planet, are seething with bigotry. The Wisconsin rock episode was a textbook demonstration of the difference between sincere activism and playacting, out of a desire to join the civil rights struggle in a time when the problems are so much more abstract than they once were.

17) I did quite enjoy the first season of Ted Lasso (not started the second yet).  I had no idea about this real-life Ted Lasso coaching in Germany, Jesse Marsch, though in this case, he really knows soccer and has been really successful.  I’m always skeptical of how much difference the coach’s emotional approach to his/her players makes, but this take is certainly making the case for a Lasso-like approach.

18) Another oldie but goodie I came across this week from Alex Tabarrok “Firefighters Don’t Fight Fires”

19) Another really good piece about the future evolution of Covid, this time from Katherine Wu.

If evolution is a numbers game, the coronavirus is especially good at playing it. Over the past year and a half, it’s copied itself quickly and sloppily in hundreds of millions of hosts, and hit upon a glut of genetic jackpots that further facilitate its spread. Delta, the hyper-contagious variant that has swept the globe in recent months, is undoubtedly one of the virus’s most daring moves to date. This variant is the product of unfettered transmission, and will thrive further on it; if allowed to, Delta could morph into something even more formidable. “Delta is already a really strong competitor,” Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University, told me. “It could get significantly worse.”

We can’t precisely predict what worse will look like. There is no playbook for evolution. Delta could continue to ratchet up its rate of spread, or it could be ousted by another super-infectious variant. But the speed that has powered Delta’s transmission for months probably can’t sustain SARS-CoV-2 forever, at least not on its own. Humanity’s collective immunity to the virus is growing, which means the next variants we encounter might be better off taking a tack that relies a lot more on stealth. “There’s some sort of tipping point where immune evasion becomes a bigger fitness advantage than transmission,” Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah, told me. No one yet knows exactly where that tipping point is—just that we will probably, eventually, collide with it.

This transition will mark a new stage in our extended parlay with SARS-CoV-2. Viruses depend intimately on their hosts—and the global population no longer looks or acts as it did when this one was a fresh threat. A large fraction of us, especially in vaccine-wealthy countries such as the United States, now have some degree of immunity, simultaneously suppressing the pathogen’s ability to pass among us and pressuring it to circumvent those shields. Our defenses are upping the ante for the virus. And the virus will likely rise to meet it.

The cyclical nature of this game might sound disheartening. But nothing will ever put us back at square one. Even as the virus evolves away from us, we can give chase. As immunity builds, our dalliances with the virus will trend milder, shorter, and less frequent. With vaccination on our side, we’re giving the virus fewer turns at the board, and slowing the pace at which the game is played. Although we can’t yet trounce SARS-CoV-2 for good, we can buy ourselves time to make our next decisive move.

20) And speaking of evolution, if you are interested in the topic at all (you should be), the story of how Palmer amaranth as evolved into a super-herbicide-resistant superweed is absolutely fascinating (and very concerning for the future of agriculture).  Just trust me and read this great NYT Magazine feature.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) Good stuff on why some people are more resilient than others.  Short version– have good parents:

An individual’s resilience is dictated by a combination of genetics, personal history, environment and situational context. So far, research has found the genetic part to be relatively small.

“The way I think about it is that there are temperamental or personality characteristics that are genetically influenced, like risk-taking, or whether you’re an introvert or extrovert,” said Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Professor Koenen studies how genes shape our risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. “We all know people that are just very even-tempered,” she said. “Some of that is simply how we’re built physiologically.” Yet it isn’t true that some people are born more resilient than others, said Professor Koenen, “That’s because almost any trait can be a positive or negative, depending on the situation.”

Far more important, it seems, is an individual’s history.

The most significant determinant of resilience — noted in nearly every review or study of resilience in the last 50 years — is the quality of our close personal relationships, especially with parents and primary caregivers. Early attachments to parents play a crucial, lifelong role in human adaptation.

“How loved you felt as a child is a great predictor of how you manage all kinds of difficult situations later in life,” said Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine who has been researching post-traumatic stress since the 1970s. He is the founder of the Trauma Research Foundation in Boston.

2) Greg Sargent on what Tucker Carlson’s lovefest for the Hungarian dictator reveals about Republicans:

An ugly tension sits at the core of Carlson’s conversation with the Hungarian leader. Carlson fawns over the “free” nature of Hungarian society — contrasting it favorably with the supposed repression of widespread anti-liberal yearnings in American society — while saying little to nothing about the autocratic nature of Orbanism.

In this lurks a sort of dream combination: ethno-nationalism secured via autocracy.

The interview’s central feature is Carlson gushing over Orban’s virulently anti-immigrant policies and demagoguery. Orban describes these as urgent to defending national identity, defined as his country’s “population” and “culture” and “language” and “tradition” and “land,” a right of defense dictated by “God” and “nature.”

Throughout, Carlson treats this vision of national identity as fundamental to Hungary’s success. He even suggests that in Hungary, people are freer than in the United States.

Here, Carlson says, you’ll be silenced by Silicon Valley or hounded from your job if you dare criticize the “orthodoxy” of liberal internationalism and social liberalism — that is, if you yearn for association with a national identity that is culturally insulated and unsullied by socially liberal threats (like “transgender athletes”) to traditional conservative values.

“Who’s freer?” Carlson asks. “If you’re an American, the answer is painful to admit.”…

Though Carlson won’t say it this way, autocratic rule is preferable to democracy because the former, he imagines, is the only route to the closed, ethno-nationalist, culturally reactionary society he wants for the United States. What Carlson and his ilk cannot accept, and are fighting their rearguard action against, is that open, liberal internationalist societies are and can be legitimately democratic creations.

3) Thanks to BB for this, “Undercounting of Covid-19 deaths is greatest in pro-Trump areas, analysis shows

4) More of this, please! “CNN fires three employees who went into the office unvaccinated.”

5) Yglesias with a good take (public post if you want to read the whole thing) on the Hungarian silliness:

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Hungary, of course. Budapest is a beautiful city that used to be the secondary metropolis of a vast cosmopolitan empire — a sort of Habsburg Los Angeles. And in those days, Hungary was an open society that assimilated Slovenes and Ruthenians and Romanians to Hungarian culture. But the legacy of European ethnic nationalism has been felt very strongly in Central Europe — it sparked multiple world wars, multiple genocides, rounds of ethnic cleansing, and now we have lots of itty-bitty, fairly homogenous countries there. And of them, Hungary is the most overtly gender traditionalist and xenophobic, and that’s what some American conservatives have decided they envy.

Cosmopolitan America is very successful

The problem with this is that the parts of America that the populist right has decided it hates are precisely the parts that make the United States richer than Hungary.

Our big tech companies dominate the global market capitalization listings. Our entertainment industry dominates global popular culture. Our universities dominate global higher education rankings. The foreign-born scientists and entrepreneurs are coming here, not Hungary. And it’s not just immigrants from the non-shithole countries that Donald Trump approves of — Steve Jobs’ biological father was a Syrian Muslim and Jeff Bezos’ adoptive father was a refugee from Cuba.

There are a lot of perfectly reasonable critiques one could make of existing immigration policy in the United States.

And if you want to argue for changes to the asylum system or for a reduced emphasis on family ties and more on labor market skills, that’s fine. But you don’t see Tucker Carlson making pilgrimages to Ottawa to meet with Justin Trudeau, and nobody is publishing Canadian Conservative magazine here in the United States. That’s too bad, though, because Canada is actually an example of a successful country, all things considered. And Stephen Harper probably could teach American conservatives some useful lessons in how to have less ridiculous opinions about healthcare policy.

What makes you reach for Hungary as an example is a desire to live in a country with very few immigrants of any kind, very little internal ethnic diversity, and lots of overt hostility to people with non-traditional ideas about gender roles.

But it’s worth saying that the United States already has places like that, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from moving there. One reason the non-diverse, non-cosmopolitan, highly traditionalist parts of the United States are much wealthier than rural Hungary is that they are connected to and subsidized by the much richer and more successful parts of the United States where you can find drag queen happy hour at the public library and the headquarters of big multinational corporations.

I don’t necessarily want to make a strong causal argument that if the United States adopts reactionary authoritarian policies it will kill the golden high-tech goose. But particularly in a world of increasing remote work, I would not entirely count out the possibility that the innovation moves to Vancouver or Amsterdam or wherever else. Mostly, though, I’m just saying that on an aesthetic level, the parts of America that conservatives have decided they hate are the parts that make us rich and successful.

6) Zaid Jilani on teaching racialism to kindergarteners:

If you want to know how this new racialism manifests in the real world, look no further than Oregon’s Kindergarten 2021 Social Science Standards, which have been updated to integrate “ethnic studies.” Standards like this one lay out the knowledge, skills, and understandings that educators are expected to impart to their students, and teachers use them as a rough guide for composing their lessons for the year. Although Oregon schools are not required to implement these new standards until 2026, they have been approved for classroom use as of March of this year. 

The Kindergarten 2021 standards definitively step away from colorblindness and towards racialism. For example, students are expected to be able to “engage in respectful dialogue with classmates to define diversity,” which includes “comparing and contrasting visible and invisible similarities and differences.” Teachers are tasked with making sure that students “develop an understanding of one’s own identity groups including, but not limited to, race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion, and ability.”

Furthermore, students should be able to “make connections identifying similarities and differences including race, ethnicity, culture, disability, and gender between self and others,” “identify examples of unfairness or injustice towards individuals or groups,” and “identify possible solutions to injustices that demonstrate fairness and empathy.”

Reading over these standards, you have to wonder if the people who composed them have actually ever met your average five-year-old. Of course, kids do notice skin color. But skin color is distinct from race. The notion of race carries with it a set of preconceptions about someone’s culture, social class, and history based on whatever categorization we sort them into. The new approach encourages students to reify these stereotypes and groupings rather than treat their classmates as individuals…

Although there isn’t a lot of research on the impact of preaching racial categorization to such young children, we do know that viewing people as individuals is one of the best ways to counter stereotypical thinking. The Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, who studies stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, told me exactly this when I reported on her research in 2019. “It’s just much harder to view someone through the lens of a stereotype—good or bad—when you start to imagine their individual mind,” she said. 

Oregon’s approach does just the opposite: It encourages students to see others as members of certain identity groups rather than as individuals.

7) More good stuff on masks from Katherine Wu:

By limiting the virus’s access to human airways, masks can set vaccinated immune systems up for success. And they help protect vulnerable people in the vicinity, by corralling the problem and curbing its spread. “I’ve always thought the real strength of vaccines is keeping you from getting severely ill,” Chu told me. “Masks work on the other end of the spectrum.” Their return to the pandemic front lines makes logical sense.

Still, some vaccinated people can’t help but feel a bit like “suckers,” Chapman said. Many people covered up dutifully while awaiting their shots, then tossed their masks aside because the government said they could—only to reel from the whiplash of last week’s switcheroo. The guidelines for the unvaccinated (that is, keep masking) haven’t changed, while the immunized are once again being called upon to act. “Asking people to mask up again is triggering a lot of emotional stuff,” Lindsey Leininger, a public-health-policy expert at Dartmouth, told me. “You can’t tell people that those feelings are invalid.”…

 asked nearly a dozen infectious-disease experts this week if they had set a new benchmark—the next bellwether to signal to the vaccinated that they can divorce themselves from pandemic-level masking. Everyone agreed on only one thing: There isn’t a clear-cut answer, not yet.

At this stage of the pandemic, the goal isn’t to stop all infectionsbut to prevent as many cases as possible from turning into life-threatening or chronic illnesses. “The outcome here is to prevent people from dying in large numbers, and figure out who those [highest-risk] people are, and to keep our health-care systems ready,” Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric-infectious-disease physician and vaccine expert at Stanford, told me. Meeting that goal might mean reaching a “low” transmission rate, such as 10 new coronavirus cases for every 100,000 people over a seven-day period, as the CDC stipulates. Or it could mean sky-high vaccine uptake—a percentage well into the 80s or even 90s, to account for Delta’s eagerness to spread. (That last option is contingent on expanding immunization eligibility to the 50 million Americans younger than age 12.)

But too much remains in flux to pin down those statistics. Immunity is neither uniform across people nor static in individuals. Even though vaccine efficacy seems to have taken a bit of a hit since Delta’s rise, experts still don’t know how often immunized people are catching the virus and passing it on. It’s also unclear when, or how quickly, our immune cells’ memory of the virus will start to fade. If people are slipping back toward vulnerability, the threshold for “high enough”vaccination will be hard to defineThe virus, too, will keep changing, and could one day bamboozle even bodies whose immune safeguards remain intact. As bad as Delta is, “it’s not the scariest thing you could imagine,” John Moore, a virologist at Cornell, told me.

Humans could sharpen their weapons too. Some experts, including Kanta Subbarao, a virologist and infectious-disease expert at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, are hopeful for a next-generation vaccine that could be delivered not as a shot to the arm but as, say, a nasal spray. That could better marshal local, airway-specific immune defenses to head the virus off at its point of entry, potentially making infection and transmission even less likely.

8) I haven’t read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article yet, but this Fresh Air interview is really good (and disturbing): “‘Dark Money’ Is Funding The 2020 Election Challenge — And Could Challenge 2024”

9) Good stuff from Brian Beutler:

Here’s a maxim I just made up that I think would have served elected Democrats well over the years, particularly the last seven months: The only thing you know for certain about the future is that Republicans will make things worse to hurt you…

Back in January, we might not have been able to anticipate Delta variant per se, but we did know that coronavirus was prone to mutate into more transmissible forms, that uncontrolled spread (both here and internationally) created ideal conditions for mutation, that a large unvaccinated population would thus leave the whole country vulnerable to risk, and that Republicans were already fomenting vaccine resistance. I know we knew it, because Chris Hayes and I discussed it at length on an episode of Rubicon that I think holds up depressingly well. 

If you understood the implications of all that as painting a pessimistic-but-plausible scenario, yet didn’t apply the maxim to it, the Democratic approach makes a lot of sense: address the problems we face today, and if we face different problems in the future, we’ll address those then. They might even have imagined that Republicans would lend a hand. But if you accept at the outset that Republicans will exploit problems as they arise—and even manufacture new ones—for political gain, then you start thinking about ways to fortify your policies and strategies against predictable sabotage. 

If the only thing you know for sure about the future is that Republicans will make things worse to hurt you, you might design your rescue plan to phase in and out automatically on the basis of economic and public-health benchmarks: Provide regular checks and enhanced jobless benefits until unemployment falls below X, ban eviction and pay out rental assistance until case-positivity falls below Y, ramp them all back up if conditions deteriorate. If you know the only way to insure against mutant-variant case surges is to vaccinate nearly every adult in the country, then you might not shy away from vaccination requirements because you know Republicans will sabotage herd immunity for political gain. This isn’t 20/20 hindsight, because I and others have been droning on tediously about the importance of automatic stabilizers since March 2020, and about beating Republicans in their culture war against mask and vaccine mandates for almost as long. 

Democrats have begun to come around on vaccination requirements. They’ve also joined the partisan fight over the pandemic, and the Biden administration even cobbled together a partial stopgap measure to limit mass evictions. But they could’ve avoided the problems altogether if they’d been willing or able to understand what the GOP truly is and plan accordingly.

10) More of this, please, “Pizzeria becomes latest Triangle restaurant to require COVID vaccine for indoor dining”

11) Encouraging, but I do wonder how long we’ll have to wait for what we all know is coming (there’s clear evidence of benefit in a number of immunocompromised conditions), “F.D.A. Aiming to Speed Extra Vaccine Doses for Immunocompromised Patients”

12) I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Treat trans people with respect and humanity, but don’t pretend like biological sex as (overwhelmingly a) binary is not a thing.  This is good, “Battle of the sexes is a war no one can win”

Hooven’s experiences in the forests of Uganda studying chimps left her wondering about the behaviour of males and their pre­disposition towards violence. She came to the conclusion that the sex hormone testosterone – an ­androgen – plays a large role in the make-up of the male brain. There was, after all, some truth to the adage that men think with their genitals; or, rather, that they are genetically selected to behave aggressively, even if aggressive tendencies themselves are modulated by personality and environment.

Testosterone “masculinises the brain as well as the body”, she writes in her new book, Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.

When I reach her at Cambridge, Massachusetts, she expands on that crux point: “Tes­tosterone not only shapes the body – things like the development and maintenance of the male re­productive system, including making sperm, along with increased muscle mass and large body size. It also has to shape the brain to get the animal to be motivated to use that stuff.

“Why give an animal big muscles or lots of sperm if he has no ­desire to compete for mates that he actually has sex with? Testosterone acts in the brain in utero, in adolescence, and adulthood to shape neural circuitry and function in ways that promote adaptive reproductive behaviour in a given environment.”

Testosterone is such an ungainly polysyllable that in the book she contracts it to an initial, and it becomes simply “T”. Her ­account of this important androgen, which is also found in women, is subtle, nuanced, and written with the sure touch of a natural storyteller. Hooven goes to great lengths to address contemporary sensitivities and, to some extent, accommodate them. But her ­commitment to science – to good science – is resolute.

On the subject of transgender women aspiring to compete in women’s sport, for example, she observes that some of these athletes have enjoyed the benefits of male puberty, and these advantages don’t entirely disappear with the testosterone reduction therapy that enables gender transition.

Bone size and frame height don’t budge, naturally, with these therapies; and much of the testosterone-induced bone strength, muscle mass and strength are ­typically retained…

Proof of her point came a few days later when the director of Harvard’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, Laura Simone Lewis, shot back on Twitter: “I am appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks made by a member of my department in this interview.” Lewis, who identifies herself on Twitter as a “Blewish (black and Jewish) feminist mermaid”, later wrote: “I respect Carole as a colleague & scientist. But this dangerous language perpetuates a system of discrimination against non-cis people within the med system. It directly opposes our Task Force work that aims to create a safe space for scholars of ALL gender identities and sexes.”

Hooven’s book seems to anticipate this line of attack through its persistent invocation of liberal ­ideals and, at the same time, a kind of scientific realism that insists on the need to confront facts rather than deny them if they fail to accord with ideological pieties.

“People seem to believe that validation and support of trans and nonbinary people requires the erasure of the biological underpinnings of sex,” she tells me. “But it doesn’t – human rights is a separate issue. Understanding the facts about biology doesn’t prevent us from treating people with respect. We should aim to use language that’s inclusive, but which doesn’t sacrifice scientific clarity, especially in the realm of science education.”

13) Jeremy Faust’s Covid newsletter is great and you should subscribe.  His latest, “Can we safely open schools in the Delta era? Yes, if we implement a powerful and under-utilized weapon.”

The weapon is rapid testing. Alas, we could barely get enough schools to even care about ventilation.  Great idea, and yes, affordable, but, alas, not going to happen:

Throughout the pandemic rapid antigen tests have been tragically misunderstood. Rapid antigen tests do not generate too many false negative results (that is, negative results even though the person being tested is actually positive). They simply are not designed to identify cases in the pre- and post-contagious periods. Rapid antigen tests reliably indicate whether or not a person is contagious. It may sound jarring, but if someone either just caught coronavirus or is on the tail end of their infection, they pose no threat to others. People who have tested positive for coronavirus can safely go about their normal life provided they are not contagious. That, more than anything, is what matters in controlling a pandemic.

We accept this fact already, if you think about it.It’s exactly what happens after people complete their mandatory isolation or quarantine period after a coronavirus infection or high-risk exposure.

People who have tested positive for coronavirus can safely go about their normal life provided they are not contagious….We accept this fact already, if you think about it.

The recommendations on the duration of isolation and quarantine are based on averages which were derived from population data. The reality is that many people are contagious for less than 10 days, and a select few may be contagious for longer. Asking people to hunker down for too short a period is dangerous for obvious reasons. Asking them to sequester for too long comes with other costs, ranging from days of missed work to pandemic fatigue (i.e. losing steam and ignoring all of the guidelines). The Delta variant adds complexity because it may lengthen the contagious window compared to previous versions of the virus. Vaccines may shorten that window, but apparently not entirely. With a negative rapid test, though, one can truly say “I’m not contagious,” and not be guessing. Think how powerful that information is.

We can apply this knowledge to schools. Using widescale frequent rapid testing, in-person learning can re-open safely in many places (though especially those with high vaccination rates in the community). Also, in the event of an important outbreak, classrooms or entire schools could be closed within minutes or hours of a contagious case being identified, rather than days later with the PCR test-based regimens used last year, which must be sent to a lab and take far too long. PCR tests can remain positive for weeks, meaning that they might consign a person to isolation who ceased being a threat long ago…
Can we afford this? We can’t afford not to. Let’s run the numbers. There are over 8 million employees in the US elementary and secondary school system and around 56 million children. Schools in most states are open 36 weeks per year. At scale, rapid tests cost $5 each. That means we could administer a rapid test to every person in the US school system twice per week for the coming year for around $23 billion. That may sound like a lot until you remember that the last stimulus package was $1.9 trillion. Isn’t keeping schools open safely worth 1.2% of the last stimulus? Not to mention, we’d quickly recover those costs by allowing the economy in these communities to remain open more often. Employed people do not need paycheck support.

14) Good stuff from Zeynep, “The C.D.C. Needs to Stop Confusing the Public”

The C.D.C. faces three major problems.

The first is reality: a sustained campaign of misinformation against vaccines and other public health measures, originating mostly with right-wing commentators and politicians, and a new media environment that has upended traditional information flows.

Second, the C.D.C. is still mired in the fog of pandemic, with too little data, collected too slowly, leaving it chasing epidemic waves and trying to make sense of information from other countries. Epidemics spread exponentially, so delayed responses make problems much worse. If the response to a crisis comes after many people are already aware of it brewing, it leaves them confused and fearful if they look to the C.D.C. for guidance, and vulnerable to misinformation if they do not.

Third, the agency is simply not doing a good job at what the pamphlet advises: being first, right and credible, and avoiding mixed messaging, delays and confusion.

It’s hard not to have sympathy for its predicament. The previous administration undermined the C.D.C., and anti-vaxxers’ deliberate misinformation assault has not made the agency’s job any easier. The digital public sphere operates fast and furious, and that’s difficult for traditional institutions to keep up with or to counter.

All this makes it even more important that the C.D.C. properly handle what’s under its control…

How else could this have played out? Ideally, with better data and earlier response. The C.D.C. should start tracking more breakthrough cases, and do much more systematic data collection, including cluster and contact-tracing, while the pandemic continues to rage. Yes, such infrastructure cannot be built overnight, but we have to start from where we are.

The C.D.C. also needs to better take into account the sociological effects of its guidance. Recently, Dr. Walensky attributed the current rise in infections to the unvaccinated, saying: “Unvaccinated people took off their masks as well. And that’s what led us to where we are today.” However, as many pointed out at the time, those who are not eager to get vaccinated were not going to be eager to keep on their masks. And a grocery store or a club cannot be expected to enforce masking selectively, so the practical effect of that guidance change was to undermine masking in general. Getting mad at the public for not following public health advice might be understandable at the individual level, but the agency should focus on how to broaden trust and facilitate better behaviors for everyone.

The nation should have waited a bit more before lifting indoor mask guidelines, tying changes to concrete benchmarks like vaccination and infection rates, especially given the vulnerability of the immunocompromised and children who are ineligible for vaccination.

Most important, the C.D.C. can follow the principles it espouses — organize and coordinate the release of information, back up recommendations with solid research, and move as quickly as possible to respond to crises. The C.D.C. should have news conferences weekly, or even a few times a week, with a consistent spokesperson and a team of experts to answer technical questions. If officials feel the media has been misleading, then they should quickly hold a news conference and explain why.

15) I was enjoying the Decathlon the other day and speculating with my kids, “is the scoring across time and events even remotely rational?”  Turns out, 538 had the same question back in Rio and the answer is a resounding… no.  

After decades of tumultuous modification in decathlon and heptathlon scoring, the tables set in 1984 are still in place. However, standout performances still earn more in certain events than they do in others:

pagels-decathalon-1

These charts unambiguously show where an athlete gets the best point return on performance, short-distance running, and it’s clear they’re investing their training accordingly.

pagels-decathlon-3

The system has a clear bias toward short-distance running events. This is in large part due to these running events having C (exponent) parameters all north of 1.8, significantly higher than throwing ones, which are between 1.0 and 1.1.

I found the whole thing fascinating, especially this part:

Comparing which events correlate best to overall points, the men are highly correlated with long jump (0.74), while shot put, pole vault, discus throw and 1,500 meters each have correlations less than 0.50. For women, long jump (0.72) also correlates best with overall points, while javelin throw only correlates at 0.30. These findings corroborate research that shows that in the heptathlon, performance in speed events is overwhelmingly the biggest determinant in predicting overall success, dwarfing the importance of the strength and endurance events.

16) Well, sure this is appealing to an extrovert like me, “The Surprising Benefits of Talking to Strangers

Nic’s experience is telling. A hefty body of research has found that an overwhelmingly strong predictor of happiness and well-being is the quality of a person’s social relationships. But most of those studies have looked at only close ties: family, friends, co-workers. In the past decade and a half, professors have begun to wonder if interacting with strangers could be good for us too: not as a replacement for close relationships, but as a complement to them. The results of that research have been striking. Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic. Yet, like Nic, many of us are wary of those interactions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.

17) Adam Serwer asks, “The Capitol Rioters Attacked Police. Why Isn’t the FOP Outraged?”  Of course, you know the answer. Because police unions are right-wing cesspits that we should no longer tolerate.  

The FOP has many reasons to remain quiet. Much of its rank-and-file membership is strongly supportive of Trump, whom the organization endorsed and worked to elect in 2016 and 2020. FOP leaders also know that some off-duty officers were in the mob, and might not want to suggest that they should be fired or prosecuted. And they probably also do not want to antagonize right-wing voters who will reflexively support their members as long as any police  abuses are aimed at the communities those voters hate and fear.

All of these reasons, however, are a tremendous indictment of police unions in general and the FOP in particular. The group has placed its parochial interests ahead of the needs of the public, from whom police derive their authority, and ahead of its sworn brothers and sisters in Washington, who drew the wrath of a political constituency that police unions would prefer not to antagonize. If a commitment to “law and order” does not include support for the peaceful and democratic transition of power, it is meaningless.

The officers who defended the Capitol have noticed the FOP’s relative silence. Officer Michael Fanone, who also testified this week, told CNN that he spoke with Yoes. “I asked him to publicly denounce any active-duty or retired law-enforcement officer that participated in an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 and in doing so betrayed their oath of honor,” Fanone said. Yoes, he added, would not commit to doing so.

Perhaps the nation’s largest police union simply does not see trying to overthrow an election in the name of Donald Trump as such a betrayal. But a commitment to democracy is not a position that an organization representing armed agents of the state should ever have to “clarify.” That it did so only through gritted teeth gives the public little reason to trust its sincerity.

18) Alas, with Delta being so damn transmissible, headlines like this were only a matter of time, “Covid Outbreaks Tied to Music Festivals Raise Outdoor Transmission Concerns.”  Now, these were crowded outdoor venues with people surely aerosolizing like mad with singing and shouting, but, with Delta, the wrong outdoor circumstances may mean a case of Covid.

19) Richard Hasen, “Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time.”

20) Indoor Air Quality expert and Harvard Professor, Joseph Allen, has been an invaluable source of knowledge and thoughtful opinion throughout this pandemic.  Fascinating profile, as it turns out he was a private investigator and almost FBI agent before turning to academia.  

21) This sounds like a good idea, “Maine Will Make Companies Pay for Recycling. Here’s How It Works.”

Recycling, that feel-good moment when people put their paper and plastic in special bins, was a headache for municipal governments even in good times. And, only a small amount was actually getting recycled.

Then, five years ago, China stopped buying most of America’s recycling, and dozens of cities across the United States suspended or weakened their recycling programs.

Now, Maine has implemented a new law that could transform the way packaging is recycled by requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost. Nearly a dozen states have been considering similar regulations and Oregon is about to sign its own version in coming weeks.

Maine’s law “is transformative,” said Sarah Nichols, who leads the sustainability program at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. More fundamentally, “It’s going to be the difference between having a recycling program or not.”

The recycling market is a commodities market and can be volatile. And, recycling has become extremely expensive for municipal governments. The idea behind the Maine and Oregon laws is that, with sufficient funding, more of what gets thrown away could be recycled instead of dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators. In other countries with such laws, that has proved to be the case.

Essentially, these programs work by charging producers a fee based on a number of factors, including the tonnage of packaging they put on the market. Those fees are typically paid into a producer responsibility organization, a nonprofit group contracted and audited by the state. It reimburses municipal governments for their recycling operations with the fees collected from producers.

Nearly all European Union member states, as well as Japan, South Korea and five Canadian provinces, have laws like these and they have seen their recycling rates soar and their collection programs remain resilient, even in the face of a collapse in the global recycling market caused in part by China’s decision in 2017 to stop importing other nations’ recyclables.

22) Cool research from my friend and co-author or late, Melissa Deckman, “New voters, new attitudes: how Gen Z Americans rate candidates with respect to generation, gender, and race”

A vast literature discusses the barriers to minority and women representation in politics. We examine whether the youngest generation of Americans, Generation Z, penalizes women and minority candidates. Gen Z has come of age when matters of race and gender have come to the forefront of American politics. Simultaneously, the slate of candidates being offered has grown younger, more diverse, and increasingly female. We investigate the ways in which young Americans approach these candidates using two survey experiments of Generation Z respondents. We find mixed evidence that Gen Z prefers women candidates to men, but consistently find they view Black candidates more favorably than their white counterparts. Notably, Gen Z shows little to no preference for younger candidates. We assess the findings of these studies in the context of theories of representation and bias. The results of the analyses suggest the possibility in future elections that race, and to a lesser extent gender, may become an asset for minorities and women running for political office.

23) Nature!! “A Plant That ‘Cannot Die’ Reveals Its Genetic Secrets: Events in the genome of Welwitschia have given it the ability to survive in an unforgiving desert for thousands of years.”

24) Really, really enjoyed this analysis of athletes age range and average age across a bunch of Olympic sports.  Archery, shooting, sailing, and equestrian are the sports where someone like me (almost 50) can still be a reasonable competitor.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Yglesias on DeSantis:

Florida governor Ron DeSantis is an intelligent person with a keen sense of self-preservation, so he got vaccinated against Covid-19 early, which makes a lot of sense. But he’s also an intelligent person with a keen sense of self-preservation, so he then spent a lot of time engaging in showy anti-vax politics. It’s not just that he didn’t mandate vaccinations for any class of Floridians; he signed laws prohibiting private businesses from mandating vaccination. He went to battle with the cruise ship industry to stop them from requiring vaccinations.

And it’s really worth dwelling on how extraordinary that is.

Republicans are, after all, normally the party of property rights and free enterprise. They don’t oppose regulation in all instances, but they tend to have a default view that businesses should be allowed to do what they want. Yet DeSantis made an exception to this strong presumption in favor of capitalism specifically in order to stand up for the rights of unvaccinated people.

Which is really an extraordinary step. I’m not sure whether or not it would’ve been good for business for Disney World to require vaccination of its workers and visitors. But had Disney World decided to do that, there would have been benefits for all Floridians, including the unvaccinated ones. For a free enterprise party to break its own ideological precepts in order to prevent private business owners from doing something pro-social is extraordinary. But that’s where DeSantis was — eager to do everything he possibly could at the margin to discourage vaccination in his state, even while personally safeguarding himself.

2) Chait on Republicans and Hungary:

What makes this alliance especially chilling is that Hungary is the model of democratic backsliding that has loomed largest in their imaginations of internationalist thinkers. Orban’s corruption of a former democracy occurred step by step. He gerrymandered the electoral map to give his supporters an overwhelming advantage, stacked the judiciary with supporters, leveraged state power to force large businesses to support his party, and installed supporters in charge of the country’s largest media organs. (Think about Trump’s efforts to bully Jeff Bezos into putting a leash on the Washington Post by denying Amazon a lucrative Pentagon contract, and you have a picture of the methods Orban has used, with more success.)

Hungary’s democratic backsliding was slow and gradual, without a single dramatic moment when its character flipped from democracy to dictatorship. Even now, it retains the surface trappings of a democracy without the liberal characteristics that make those processes meaningful. If America ceases to be a democracy, it will likely follow a path similar to Orban’s.

The broad lesson of Trump’s presidency is that clumsy, violent efforts to seize power — such as the January 6 insurrection — will meet with intra-party resistance, but subtler power grabs will not. Republicans decided to shrug at abuses like Trump using American diplomacy as a lever to coerce Ukraine to smear his opponent, refusing to accept the election outcome, or using the presidency to line his own pockets. They have enthusiastically joined in state laws to restrict voting and hand power over elections to party hacks.

What they seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orban offers.

3) A little dated (in Covid world, that happens in two weeks), but a great interview with Eric Topol

Why is that? Is it because of changes in social behavior in response to rapid spread? Something particular about this variant? A reflection of the dispersion of unvaccinated through the country? Or some other factor, some combination, some dynamic we don’t truly understand?
There are many reasons why Delta will die out before getting to everyone vulnerable — you have listed some like change in behavior. It’s a combination of factors. But the best evidence is from India and now Russia, without vaccines at any appreciable percent — even there, however efficient the virus is, it’s not capable of reaching everyone. Just as the 1918 flu pandemic didn’t get to everyone. These pandemic pathogens burn through a population, but they invariably leave many behind who are vulnerable, not because they had prior COVID or some genomic host insulation. I believe the U.K. is clearly heading down now, which is a quite important prognosticator for the U.S. pattern in the weeks ahead. How many weeks and what will be the peak cases (and other outcomes) is the only unknown in my mind.

So the proclamation that some have made, saying you’re going to either get a vaccine or you’re going to get COVID, the Delta version — that’s not exactly accurate. Because even though it’s really efficient, this variant, it doesn’t find everybody. It just can’t get to everybody, but it gets to a lot of people.

How many?
We’re tracking right with the U.K., if you want to look at the log charts. They got to 50,000-plus cases. And if you multiply that by five, for the population difference, we’d get to 250,000 — that’s easy extrapolation. That could be where we’re heading.

That’s nationally, you mean — 250,000 new cases per day, right?
Some states look like they’re in really bad shape — worse, if you look at the arc of increase, including hospitalizations, than at any prior point in the pandemic. That’s not great. It doesn’t look pretty. But, as you aptly pointed out, we’re blunting the deaths, and to a lesser extent blunting the hospitalizations, because the younger people, they do get to the hospital, they just don’t die, fortunately.

The age skew for hospitalizations, while dramatic, isn’t as dramatic as the age skew for mortality. I think, according to the CDC, mortality risk is 600 times as high for someone in their 80s than someone in their 20s; for hospitalization, it’s just a 15-fold increase.
Right. And in this Delta wave, the hospitalized are mostly unvaccinated younger people. The other thing I’d say is a lot of people discount long COVID, but that’s a big deal. If we do get to 200,000 cases a day, that’s a lot of long COVID.

From what I can tell, estimates of that prevalence are really all over the place — some studies suggest rates as high as 30 percent or even 50 percent of all cases, but those don’t seem to me to be very good surveys and would suggest something like 50 million Americans are dealing with a debilitating chronic condition already. Some other estimates are very, very low — considerably under one percent, even. How do you ballpark? 
Ten percent. Probably it’s either high single digits or low double digits is the real deal. When you get north of that, with those surveys showing higher figures, those people are not necessarily dealing with serious symptoms for, say, a year plus — they’re getting better, or their symptoms aren’t as worrisome. They’re not as debilitated. But for the real-deal cases — the ones that can’t work, the real, significant brain fog, the ones that really are suffering — it’s probably one out of ten…

How do you think it all plays out heading into the fall?
Looking ahead to the fall, I’m optimistic. Delta will have passed through by then — it’ll pass through by late August, or September, if it looks like India or the U.K. or Netherlands. We’ll have a rapid descent, and it’ll burn through. We’ll still have lots of COVID in this country, but it’ll be back to where it was before Delta came. It will be at a lower level. The only question is, is there something lurking that’s worse than Delta? There’s no sign of it yet, but there’s too much of this virus circulating to be confident — too many people in Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa who are getting sick. But I hope not. I’m hoping that this is as bad as it gets. But if you talk to evolutionary biologists, they’ll tell you the variants are going to get worse.

4) Good stuff on Covid boosters in Nature, “Concerns over waning immunity and SARS-CoV-2 variants have convinced some countries to deploy extra vaccine doses — but it’s not clear to scientists whether most people need them.”

Is immunity from vaccines waning?

Scientists typically look at antibody levels, or titres, as a proxy for how well a vaccine has worked. These usually spike along with the surge in short-lived B cells and then fall as the cells dwindle. Memory B cells and bone-marrow plasma cells continue to churn out antibodies, but at reduced levels, for decades. That’s expected. “There isn’t a vaccine where you don’t see a drop over time in antibody titres and T-cell titres,” says Ahmed. “There is always a drop.”

Early indications suggest that antibody levels triggered by most COVID-19 vaccines are falling, too4. What scientists don’t know is whether these drops reflect a decline in protection against the virus. Teams around the world are racing to determine what level of neutralizing antibodies or another immune marker is most closely associated with a vaccine’s effectiveness. They’re seeking what’s known as a correlate of protection.

“What that magic number is, is something that we have a hint of — but not a firm handle on,” says Kanta Subbarao, a virologist at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia. Knowing this threshold would allow researchers to determine more precisely whether and when a booster becomes necessary — such as in response to waning immunity or to the emergence of new variants that evade antibody recognition. “Without having that properly defined correlate, it’s hard to say if we really need a booster,” says Ellebedy.

That said, at this point I would say the preponderance of the evidence very much says boosters are the smart move for the genuinely immunocompromised.

5) Ezra’s latest take on all this.  Love the title, “Is the Future Just a Spike Protein Stamping on a Human Face, Forever?”

Here’s the good news: As of now, if you’re an adult vaccinated with a double dose of an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, most experts I talked to believe the Delta variant is no more likely than the flu to hospitalize or kill you. (The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is another story, and while I do not give medical advice from the confines of this column, all the doctors I spoke to told me they would get an mRNA shot if all they’d gotten was Johnson & Johnson, and San Francisco General Hospital has made that official and so that’s what I did.)…

All of this is to say: The data we have suggests the vaccines can turn even Delta into a flu-level nuisance, or better, in terms of the risks of hospitalization and death. There is some worry that Delta is modestly worse for children than the original strain, but the absolute risk for young kids is still quite low, and the best firewall for them is vaccinated adults. The big unknown here is the possibility for long Covid or other lingering consequences. But it’s worth noting that this is true with the flu, too. A number of chronic diseases seem to trace back to the body’s reaction to viral infections.

“Do I wish anybody long Covid? No,” Gounder told me. “Do I want to get long Covid? No. However, we run the risk in our everyday lives of getting one of these viral infections that for most people are very mild, but that can very rarely set off something like chronic fatigue syndrome or an autoimmune disease, but that’s a risk we tolerate.”

All of this made me feel a bit better. And then I talked to Bob Wachter.

Wachter is the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. His main point was simply this: The numbers aren’t stable. He’s concerned that the immunity people got from past coronavirus infection is waning more quickly than we’d expected. And he thinks the same is true for vaccine-based immunity. “I think the best estimate now is the vaccines begin to lose some efficacy after six months and your immune response loses some mojo too,” he told me.

I love Wachter, but without citing anything, he’s getting a little ahead of the publicly available science here.  Then again, also depends on just what lose “some” efficacy means.

6) Frum, “Government has done what it can. Now we need to use the power of free markets to fight the pandemic.”

The COVID-denial policies of so many state governments did not result from inattention or incompetence. They were intentionally adopted to serve influential constituencies and uphold powerful ideologies. They are not mistakes. They are plans. But if ideologically deformed local government defines 21st-century America, so too does the ingenuity and adaptability of the private sector. Science did its part by developing the vaccines in record time. The federal government and many state governments did their part by getting vaccines into willing arms.

Now here’s where markets get to do their part.

Thanks to gerrymandering and the overrepresentation of rural areas in legislatures and Congress, unvaccinated America exerts disproportionate political power. Vaccinated America, however, has more market power. And it’s time for individual consumers to start using it.

Ordering an Uber or a Lyft? Ask the driver whether he is vaccinated. If not, refuse the ride. If the company tries to charge you for the refusal, complain. Pretty soon, Uber and Lyft will require that their drivers be vaccinated.

Contemplating a holiday? Cruises departing from Florida are forbidden to require proof of vaccination from passengers. Cruises departing from almost all other ports do require it. Plan accordingly.

Underneath the right-wing outrage against Big Tech is the angry recognition that America’s most dynamic and fastest-growing companies all recognize that, when they must choose, choosing the values of metropolitan America is just better business. The Pride flag is more lucrative than the Confederate flag, and nobody knows that better than the Confederate flag’s last standard-bearers.

Over the early summer, conservative governors such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis struck first, deploying the power of state government to impose their values on recalcitrant businesses. Now it’s time for public-health-conscious consumers to strike back, just as they would if the state of Florida tried to junk its fire codes or abolish food-safety rules or forbid cruise ships at Florida ports from carrying lifeboats.

7) Important, disturbing read on just how nuts “mainstream” Republicans are going with buying into the Big Lie and January 6 nonsense.

This past week, amid the emotional testimony of police officers at the first hearing of a House select committee, Republicans completed their journey through the looking-glass, spinning a new counternarrative of that deadly day. No longer content to absolve Mr. Trump, they concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the violence.

Their new claims, some voiced from the highest levels of House Republican leadership, amount to a disinformation campaign being promulgated from the steps of the Capitol, aimed at giving cover to their party and intensifying the threats to political accountability.

This rendering of events — together with new evidence that Mr. Trump had counted on allies in Congress to help him use a baseless allegation of corruption to overturn the election — pointed to what some democracy experts see as a dangerous new sign in American politics: Even with Mr. Trump gone from the White House, many Republicans have little intention of abandoning the prevarication that was a hallmark of his presidency.

Rather, as the country struggles with the consequences of Mr. Trump’s assault on the legitimacy of the nation’s elections, leaders of his party — who, unlike the former president, have not lost their political or rhetorical platforms — are signaling their willingness to continue, look past or even expand his assault on the facts for political gain.

8) I recently downloaded the Merlin Bird ID app and it’s pretty cool.  But, I didn’t realize it’s basically Shazam for bird songs.  Very, very cool.  Definintely had some cool bird ID’s I would’ve had no idea about.  Also, alas, realized how much damn ambient noise in my backyard (so many trains!) interferes with the ability to identify birds.

9) Ellie Murray with all sorts of good R0 equations and math.  The end results?  Yeah, we really do need the widespread masking again.  

10) That self-driving car we’ve been waiting for keeps not coming.  But, hey, maybe that self-driving tractor-trailer you want will be here soon.

11) One reason I love Noah Smith’s substack is where else am I going to read takes on a relatively obscure (I sure never heard of it) Orwell essay on socialism and it’s implications for modern times.  Really good stuff.  

In the U.S., anti-patriotism has become reflexive, almost de rigeur, on the political left. The traditional socialist opposition to American power abroad has merged with the new “woke” liberal consensus that America was founded on racism to produce something truly counterproductive to positive change. There are plenty of signs of this, from the near-glee with which some leftists recite litanies of the country’s problems as proof of its “unexceptionalism”, to the the lashing out against any and all symbols of the country.

There is no endgame for this sort of smug anti-Americanism. A leftist revolution to overthrow the country and establish a new one in its place is highly unlikely. And barring that, there’s really nowhere for anti-Americanism to go. People like their country. Eventually they’ll tire of the America-bashing and look for someone who will tell them that the place they live, and the people they live with, are a positive force instead of a negative one. And if the Right ever actually pulls its head out of its Trump-shaped ass and figures out how to stop bashing the U.S. Olympic team and shitting on military families and calling veterans “losers” and storming the damn Capitol building, then people who just a few years ago were marching in the street wearing pussy-hats or yelling “defund the police” may find themselves voting Republican. Thus might the Left’s greatest generational advantage in American political history be squandered.

Orwell understood this in his day. Ultimately, British socialists were able to harness postwar patriotism enough — or at least to triangulate it enough — to enact much of their desired program. Even if that program turned out not to be the most economically effective program, it was certainly a political victory, and it also enabled the orderly and prompt — and long overdue — dissolution of the British Empire. If the American Left doesn’t heed Orwell’s advice, I think it’ll end up accomplishing far less.

12) What does it mean to get a breakthrough Covid case when you’re vaccinated?  Katherine Wu breaks it down:

Post-vaccination infections, or breakthroughs, might occasionally turn symptomatic, but they aren’t shameful or aberrant. They also aren’t proof that the shots are failing. These cases are, on average, gentler and less symptomatic; faster-resolving, with less virus lingering—and, it appears, less likely to pass the pathogen on. The immunity offered by vaccines works in iterations and gradations, not absolutes. It does not make a person completely impervious to infection. It also does not evaporate when a few microbes breach a body’s barriers. A breakthrough, despite what it might seem, does not cause our defenses to crumble or even break; it does not erase the protection that’s already been built. Rather than setting up fragile and penetrable shields, vaccines reinforce the defenses we already have,so that we can encounter the virus safely and potentially build further upon that protection.

To understand the anatomy of a breakthrough case, it’s helpful to think of the human body as a castle. Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, compares immunization to reinforcing such a stronghold against assault.

Without vaccination, the castle’s defenders have no idea an attack is coming. They might have stationed a few aggressive guard dogs outside, but these mutts aren’t terribly discerning: They’re the system’s innate defenders, fast-acting and brutal, but short-lived and woefully imprecise. They’ll sink their teeth into anything they don’t recognize, and are easily duped by stealthier invaders. If only quarrelsome canines stand between the virus and the castle’s treasures, that’s a pretty flimsy first line of defense. But it’s essentially the situation that many uninoculated people are in. Other fighters, who operate with more precision and punch—the body’s adaptive cells—will eventually be roused. Without prior warning, though, they’ll come out in full force only after a weekslong delay, by which time the virus may have run roughshod over everything it can. At that point, the fight may, quite literally, be at a fever pitch, fueling worsening symptoms.

Vaccination completely rewrites the beginning, middle, and end of this story. COVID-19 shots act as confidential informants, who pass around intel on the pathogen within the castle walls. With that info, defensive cells can patrol the building’s borders, keeping an eye out for a now-familiar foe. When the virus attempts to force its way in, it will hit “backup layer after backup layer” of defense, Bhattacharya told me.

13) Very true from WP Editorial Board.  Arguably the key metric to work on to bring about true racial justice, “Narrowing the U.S. wealth gap is important. Narrowing the racial wealth gap is urgent.”

14) Do you run? Or enjoy running as a fan.  This interactive photo/video essay from the NYT is a must, must read.  “Running Fast vs Running Far: How Speed and Distance Dictate How Olympians Run.”  I especially loved this part:

Endurance races are considered aerobic because virtually all of the energy for the races come from the use of oxygen in the body. Elite marathoners, for example, have trained their bodies to be extremely efficient at processing oxygen for fuel.

But for each runner, there is a maximum limit to the rate at which oxygen can be used. That’s called their VO2 max, which is an important measure in predicting how fast an endurance runner can go for the duration of their race.

Running at a certain level below their maximum limit allows distance runners to sustain their race pace for long periods of time. For elite distance runners, the level under VO2 max changes according to the length of the race, but is strikingly similar among athletes in the same race. That’s why at the Olympics you will see large packs of athletes running at the same pace.

Note: Data shown are measurements for typical elite runners in each race. The share of VO2 max is not shown for 100- and 200-meter runners because they are almost exclusively anaerobic events.

Sprint races, on the other hand, are considered anaerobic. Although sprinters also use some oxygen as a fuel source, it does not determine their performance. Instead, they burn glucose and use energy already stored in the muscles. But the body pays a high price for quick anaerobic energy. This fuel system induces rapid muscle fatigue that progressively compromises speed and performance.

The 800 meters lies at the painful intersection between the aerobic and anaerobic races. The race requires both systems of energy: 800 runners rely heavily on aerobic metabolism, but they also have to sprint.

With both fuel systems being taxed, the body undergoes two types of stress, leading to agonizing descriptions of the race: “Psychotic.” “Painful.” “I would never run the 800.”

It’s the only race that elicits this kind of universal reaction. So have sympathy when you’re watching the 800-meter runners in the Olympics. It’s the race they were destined for: not fast enough for the sprints; not enough endurance for distance races.

15) This is really good and really depressing, “The incredibly frustrating reason there’s no Lyme disease vaccine: Your dog can get vaccinated for Lyme. You cannot.”

LYMErix had the misfortune of being approved the same year some people were becoming suspicious of vaccines in the United States. In 1998, the journal Lancet published a now-retracted study that (falsely) claimed the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) was linked to autism, and the modern anti-vax movement was born.

At the same time, a few members of the FDA panel that approved LYMErix had voiced a theoretical concern that the drug could cause an autoimmune reaction leading to arthritis. The idea was that as the immune system learned to attack the protein that covered the Lyme bacteria, it could overreact and start to attack healthy tissue in the body. This side effect didn’t occur in the clinical trial. It was listed as a hypothetical possibility.

The FDA panel eventually unanimously approved the drug, but the fear of an autoimmune reaction trickled down to the public.

What happened next was a perfect storm to drive the product from the market. A 2000 study found the vaccine contributed to autoimmune arthritis in hamsters. Other research posited (but didn’t prove) that it was possible some people were more genetically predisposed to develop this type of autoimmune response in reaction to the vaccine.

Sure enough, some LYMErix recipients soon began to complain publicly that the drug was causing them to develop joint pain. National news media reported on the concerns, casting them in a harrowing light. In 2000, ABCNews told the story of a man who fell ill with a “fever and an intense, hellish pain” after taking the vaccine. Patients sued the manufacturer in a class-action lawsuit (which was eventually settled after the vaccine was pulled from the market).

The FDA looked into the claims but never found a connection between the vaccine and arthritis. By 2001, 1.4 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed, but the FDA’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System only picked up on 59 reports of arthritis.

“The arthritis incidence in the patients receiving Lyme vaccine occurred at the same rate as the background in unvaccinated individuals,” a 2007 paper in Epidemiology and Infection explains.

Overall, FDA’s VAERS only picked up on 905 reports of any adverse side effects at all — a tiny fraction of the number of people who had gotten the shots.

The vaccine was pulled from the market, despite evidence finding it was safe

But it was too late. Already, there was “significant media coverage, sensationalism, the development of anti-Lyme vaccine groups … who urged withdrawal of the vaccine from the market,” Poland explained in his 2011 article. A class-action lawsuit targeted SmithKline Beecham, claiming the company did not do enough to warn people of potential autoimmune side effects.

The FDA continued to follow up with an additional drug safety trial to try to settle the matter for the public. The trial was supposed to last four years. But sales of LYMErix had plummeted “from about 1.5 million doses in 1999 to a projected 10,000 doses in 2002,” the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases explains on its website.

Falling sales, combined with the mounting lawsuits from patients, led the manufacturer to pull it from the market, although early data from the additional safety trial found “no differences in any significant adverse reactions noted between control subjects and vaccinated persons,” Poland writes.

16) From my not-too-close-attention perspective, the ongoing violence/protest in Portland was really kind of nuts.  And here’s the close attention take on how it really was kind of nuts.  This just should not happen in a major American city (or anywhere, actually).  

17) Going through puberty as a man provides life-long athletic advantages that various transgender hormone therapy simply cannot undo.  Laurel Hubbard kind of flamed out at the Olympics (among other things, she was really old to be competing in weightlifting) and she should absolutely be treated with respect, but, I really don’t think she should be competing against women in a sport such as weightlifting. 

18) And  to finish off an Olympics note (on in the background as I work on this)… Good stuff on how Olympic athletes are made, “The best world-class athletes often dabble in a range of sports when young before rising to the top of their game in one, a new analysis found.”

World-class junior competitors, the scientists found, who stockpiled international medals while still in their teens, tended to have settled on a single sport before about age 12, a year or two earlier than most of their competitors, including other young athletes who excelled at the regional and national levels. What separated great young athletes in this group from the good, in other words, was picking a sport young and practicing it fiercely.

But at the senior or adult-sports level, the impacts of specialization flip-flopped, the data showed. (Most senior athletes are in their 20s or 30s, although each sport sets its own age cutoff for junior and senior divisions.) The world’s best adult athletes, including Olympic and world champions, typically took up competitive sports of any kind a year or two later than other players, and practiced fewer hours throughout their careers. Most also dabbled with multiple sports, usually three or four a year, often not settling on a primary activity until their midteens or so, several years after most of their later competitors. And few garnered much immediate attention or acclaim from coaches and officials, rarely joining select teams at the start of their careers.

“Most of the adult, world-class performers were not prodigies as kids,” said Arne Güllich, the director of the Institute of Applied Sports Science at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany, who conducted the new study with his American colleagues Brooke N. Macnamara of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and David Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University.

These patterns held true for men and women, boys and girls, and in team and individual sports.

Photo of the day

You know I love me some Olympics.  I also love Olympics photo.  Nice gallery from Alan Taylor in the Atlantic:A long jumper is photographed in mid-air above the track.

Tara Davis of Team U.S.A. competes in the women’s long-jump final at the Olympic Stadium on August 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. 

Matthias Hangst / Getty

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 II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Better late than never quick hits

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

1) Great conversation between Yascha Mounk and Sabrina Tavernise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So which is which?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 II)

1) Lots of new interesting analysis of the 2020 election past week.  Nice summary in the NYT: “Biden Gained With Moderate and Conservative Voting Groups, New Data Shows: President Biden cut into Donald Trump’s margins with married men and veteran households, a Pew survey shows. But there was a far deeper well of support for Mr. Trump than many progressives had imagined.”

2) I used to be a pretty big tennis fan way back when.  Hardly at all anymore.  Very thorough and interesting NYT piece on the off-the-court troubles with tennis and the economic issues, in particular.  I was particularly intrigued by the hockey comparison.

What especially bothered him, though, was a sense that the A.T.P. was failing at its most basic duty: to promote the interest of the players. “There’s no way that tennis shouldn’t have 300 players making decent livings,” he said. Pospisil was acutely aware of how much better middle-of-the-pack athletes in other sports had it. The N.H.L. was his reference point: The league had roughly 700 players and, in 2019, a guaranteed minimum salary of $700,000. More than half the players were earning more than $1 million per year. Coaching and travel were free, as was health care, and players were paid even when they were out with injuries, which was not the case in tennis.

Pospisil recognized that a team sport could offer benefits that an individual sport could not. “Tennis is its own animal,” he said. But the share of revenue that the players received from the tournaments — around 17.5 percent across the two tours and the four majors — struck him as inexcusably low. Players were the ones pulling in the fans and driving the revenue, and in his view, they were being exploited. And when he thought about why the 300th-best hockey player was making seven figures while Chris O’Connell, the 139th-best tennis player, was barely solvent, the answer was self-evident. It wasn’t because N.H.L. team owners were inordinately generous; it was because N.H.L. players had a union and tennis players did not. “It was a logical conclusion,” Pospisil said.

3) Okay, I haven’t actually watched this NYT video of January 6, but a lot of people I trust swear by it.  I am going to watch this week.

4) In search of another short comedy to mix in with my evening TV viewing I finally gave “Rick and Morty” a try after HBO Max dubbed it Rick and Morty day a few weeks ago.  I must say, I’m loving it and really glad I finally gave it a chance (after hearing good things about it for years).

5) Really liked this conversation on happiness between Yascha Mounk and Arthur Brooks:

Mounk: How do I analyze the parts of my life where I’m not as happy as I could be? How do I come up with a plan?

Brooks: When it comes to satisfaction, we’ve already talked about strategies: the chipping-away exercise by managing your wants, and trying to practice intention without attachment where you have audacious goals. All of these are very concrete strategies. But it starts with a diagnosis of your life. There are four dishes that you think are the dishes of happiness: money, power, pleasure, and fame. Those are the wrong dishes. The right dishes are faith, family, friendship, and work. 

When I say “faith,” I don’t mean a traditional religious faith, necessarily. You don’t need my faith. You need something that is more transcendent than the boring TV program, something that zooms you out from your own individual life. It gives you the adventure of the transcendent. [Another] dimension is family, the ties that bind kin. Never make the stupid error of not talking to a family member because of politics. One in six Americans, by the way, is doing that right now. And then there’s friendship. Vivek Murthy, our wonderful surgeon general, talks about the epidemic of loneliness. It’s the most important avoidable problem that we have in public health today, he believes. And one of the reasons is that people actually are getting more and more incompetent at romantic love and are denying themselves the psychological nutrition of friendship. And then the last [dimension that people] don’t understand is that you’ve got to have two parts of work, which is earning your success and believing that you’re serving other people. 

Mounk: Let’s talk about friendship for a moment. [There is a] difference between how I see friendship in Europe and how I see it in the United States. Friendship in Europe is an obligation: It’s a natural element of friendship that you do each other favors. If you’re sick at 3 a.m., you can ask a friend to go run to the pharmacy for you, and there’s nothing strange about that. 

It seems to me that in the United States, often friendship is much more modular: “We both have some free time, let’s go grab a beer together.” The implied mutual obligation isn’t part of a social contract of friendship to the same extent. Obviously, you choose your friends. But it seems to me that there are meaningful friendships which at some point take on a kind of givenness: You’ve been friends for so long, you’ve been friends in such a close way, that it acquires [some of the characteristics of] a familial relationship. And even if your friend is no longer the person whom you would choose to make friends with, or if your life circumstances start to diverge, there is a kind of imperative, which gives you satisfaction and purpose in life, to [maintain] those links. 

6) Not sure if we’ll get improved laws on exotic pets in NC or not due to the zebra cobra episode.  But, we just might and I’ll be using this example when I talk about agenda setting and policy change for a long time.  

7) So, the local Catholic parish I used to belong to is bringing in as a speaker the author of this book, “Slaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should Know.”  What we should know includes that yoga and Harry Potter are both tools of the devil.  Not sorry that’s no longer my parish.  Wow.  

8) Good stuff from Ed Yong on Delta:

1. The vaccines are still beating the variants.

The vaccines have always had to contend with variants: The Alpha variant (also known as B.1.1.7) was already spreading around the world when the first COVID-19 vaccination campaigns began. And in real-world tests, they have consistently lived up to their extraordinary promise. The vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna reduce the risk of symptomatic infections by more than 90 percent, as does the still-unauthorized one from Novavax. Better still, the available vaccines slash the odds that infected people will spread the virus onward by at least half and likely more. In the rare cases that the virus breaks through, infections are generally milder, shorter, and lower in viral load. As of June 21, the CDC reported just 3,907 hospitalizations among fully vaccinated people and just 750 deaths…

2. The variants are pummeling unvaccinated people.

Vaccinated people are safer than ever despite the variants. But unvaccinated people are in more danger than ever because of the variants. Even though they’ll gain some protection from the immunity of others, they also tend to cluster socially and geographically, seeding outbreaks even within highly vaccinated communities.

The U.K., where half the population is fully vaccinated, “can be a cautionary tale,” Hanage told me. Since Delta’s ascendancy, the country’s cases have increased sixfold. Long-COVID cases will likely follow. Hospitalizations have almost doubled. That’s not a sign that the vaccines are failing. It is a sign that even highly vaccinated countries host plenty of vulnerable people…

3. The longer Principle No. 2 continues, the less likely No. 1 will hold.

Whenever a virus infects a new host, it makes copies of itself, with small genetic differences—mutations—that distinguish the new viruses from their parents. As an epidemic widens, so does the range of mutations, and viruses that carry advantageous ones that allow them to, for example, spread more easily or slip past the immune system to outcompete their standard predecessors. That’s how we got super-transmissible variants like Alpha and Delta. And it’s how we might eventually face variants that can truly infect even vaccinated people.

None of the scientists I talked with knows when that might occur, but they agree that the odds shorten as the pandemic lengthens. “We have to assume that’s going to happen,” Gupta told me. “The more infections are permitted, the more probable immune escape becomes.”

9) It’s easy to forget we’re still imprisoning people at Gitmo.  This is good, “I was a prosecutor at Guantánamo. Close the prison now.”

I was one of the prosecutors for the only two litigated U.S. military tribunals since Nuremberg. These were the trials of Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who were among those detained at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base after the attacks of 9/11. While it’s been 12 years since I served in Guantánamo, and the number of detainees has dropped dramatically, the realities that must be faced for trials to proceed haven’t changed. Military tribunals are sometimes a necessary consequence of war, but to drag the judicial process out for this long — up to nearly 20 years — is absurd and un-American. It’s an abandonment of our commitment to rule of law and what we consider to be fair jurisprudence.

My entire experience at Guantánamo was a rude awakening. I believed in the system after the first failed effort at prosecuting alleged terrorists was repaired in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, where the court acknowledged the unconstitutionality of the process. I thought our pursuit of justicecould be fair and impartial, and an example to the world. I was wrong. Everything I saw and experienced while serving in that assignment convinced me of that. Nothing I’ve observed since has changed my mind.
 

10) This… “Why You Still Might Want to Have a Home Covid Test on Hand: At-home rapid Covid-19 tests can offer unique benefits for weddings, parties, travel or for households with children or at-risk adults.”

11) Drum with some pushback on the “sky is falling” takes on democracy (like those I shared):

The New York Times, echoing the views of most liberals, says the Supreme Court is dismantling democracy piece by piece:

The latest blow came Thursday, when all six conservative justices voted to uphold two Arizona voting laws despite lower federal courts finding clear evidence that the laws make voting harder for voters of color — whether Black, Latino or Native American. One law requires election officials to throw out ballots that were cast in the wrong precinct; the other bars most people and groups from collecting voters’ absentee ballots and dropping them off at polling places.

This is starting to piss me off. Maybe the Supreme Court is bound and determined to take apart our voting laws no matter what, but the truth is that yesterday’s ruling can be laid directly at the feet of liberals. This was just a stupid case to bring. You can’t make a serious argument that there’s anything really wrong with either a ban on ballot harvesting or with requiring voters to cast ballots in the right precinct.

More generally, this kind of stuff, along with voter ID laws, is popular with the public, and this has nothing to do with the alleged existence of voter fraud. Even if there’s no fraud, the average Joe and Jane think ID laws make sense and are untroubled by common sense rules like being required to vote in the right precinct. Liberals will get nowhere by going after this stuff.

What’s more, none of it matters. The actual effect of these rules on Black and Hispanic voter turnout turns out to be minuscule. It is a waste of time—maybe worse than just a waste of time—to yell and scream about these kinds of laws.

What really is bad are provisions of these laws that allow Republican legislatures to replace election officials they deem insufficiently loyal to the Republican cause. If you talk to moderate voters, they’ll be shocked if you tell them about this. They’ll agree that these provisions are outrageous.

So why do we spend so much time protesting the stuff that doesn’t matter (and is popular) and so little time protesting the stuff that does matter (and is unpopular)? It is a vast mystery. And like I said, it’s really starting to piss me off. If democracy is truly at stake here, wouldn’t it make sense to be at least a little smart about trying to save it?

12) I follow a few of the “Intellectual Dark Web” types on twitter and they’re obsession with Ivermectin to treat Covid is just nuts.  Interesting to me that many of these people started out with reasonable complaints about cancel culture and wokeness and just end up off the cliff in conspiratorial nuttiness.  

13) I love the owner of the Carolina Hurricanes.  The following statements is completely ordinary for those into sports analytics, but it seems like you never see someone from the front office of a sports franchise say something like this:

Q: You want to win a Stanley Cup. What’s missing, what’s needed?

A: “I think we have to stay competitive, stay in the top percentage of the league every year. You hope that at some point you get the right thing to happen at the right time. Once you get into a playoff format with a small sample size, more random things have a bigger impact on the outcome. During the regular season, assuming you’re healthy, the better teams tend to make the playoffs. But once you’re in the playoffs it’s such a short series that the outcome is less about how good you are (in the regular season) but more how good you are and what happens in that exact moment. So we have to be there enough times with good players and good coaches and I think eventually we’ll get on the right run we need to win.”

14) The rule of law is so much more important than any one guilty person being punished.  And that’s why Bill Cosby was released. It’s really hard for Ian Milhiser to make this claim for his Vox audience, so he derides the decision every way he can, but does come down on this ultimate truth of our legal system.  

15) This was fascinating to me.  Apparently the writing is on the wall for Northern Ireland to cease to be.

16) Love this story! “Two women chatted in a bathroom. They soon realized they were each a match for the other’s husband, who needed a kidney.”

17) This was a really powerful essay. “I Am Breaking My Silence About the Baseball Player Who Raped Me”

Quick hits (part II)

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



Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A goanna burrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits (part 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”

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