Quick hits (part I)

1) As a kid I was beyond fascinated by UFO’s and probably read dozens of books on them.  Long forgotten, but damn, if UFO’s aren’t all over the place and regularly in the NYT.  What a world!  “I’m a Physicist Who Searches for Aliens. U.F.O.s Don’t Impress Me.”

2) God I love science, “Sleep Evolved Before Brains. Hydras Are Living Proof: Some of nature’s simplest animals suggest that sleep evolved long before centralized nervous systems.”

THE HYDRA IS a simple creature. Less than half an inch long, its tubular body has a foot at one end and a mouth at the other. The foot clings to a surface underwater—a plant or a rock, perhaps—and the mouth, ringed with tentacles, ensnares passing water fleas. It does not have a brain, or even much of a nervous system.

And yet, new research shows, it sleeps. Studies by a team in South Korea and Japan showed that the hydra periodically drops into a rest state that meets the essential criteria for sleep.

But a counterpoint to this brain-centric view of sleep has emerged. Researchers have noticed that molecules produced by muscles and some other tissues outside the nervous system can regulate sleep. Sleep affects metabolism pervasively in the body, suggesting that its influence is not exclusively neurological. And a body of work that’s been growing quietly but consistently for decades has shown that simple organisms with less and less brain spend significant time doing something that looks a lot like sleep. Sometimes their behavior has been pigeonholed as only “sleeplike,” but as more details are uncovered, it has become less and less clear why that distinction is necessary.

It appears that simple creatures—including, now, the brainless hydra—can sleep. And the intriguing implication of that finding is that sleep’s original role, buried billions of years back in life’s history, may have been very different from the standard human conception of it. If sleep does not require a brain, then it may be a profoundly broader phenomenon than we supposed.

3) This is fascinating and I bet you can guess the answer before reading, “Exercise vs. Diet? What Children of the Amazon Can Teach Us About Weight Gain”

When children gain excess weight, the culprit is more likely to be eating too much than moving too little, according to a fascinating new study of children in Ecuador. The study compared the lifestyles, diets and body compositions of Amazonian children who live in rural, foraging communities with those of other Indigenous children living in nearby towns, and the results have implications for the rising rates of obesity in both children and adults worldwide.

The in-depth study found that the rural children, who run, play and forage for hours, are leaner and more active than their urban counterparts. But they do not burn more calories day-to-day, a surprising finding that implicates the urban children’s modernized diets in their weight gain. The findings also raise provocative questions about the interplay of physical activity and metabolism and why exercise helps so little with weight loss, not only in children but the rest of us, too.

The issue of childhood obesity is of pressing global interest, since the incidence keeps rising, including in communities where it once was uncommon. Researchers variously point to increasing childhood inactivity and junk food diets as drivers of youthful weight gain. But which of those concerns might be more important — inactivity or overeating — remains murky and matters, as obesity researchers point out, because we cannot effectively respond to a health crisis unless we know its causes.

That question drew the interest of Sam Urlacher, an assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who for some time has been working among and studying the Shuar people. An Indigenous population in Amazonian Ecuador, the traditional Shuar live primarily by foraging, hunting, fishing and subsistence farming. Their days are hardscrabble and physically demanding, their diets heavy on bananas, plantains and similar starches, and their bodies slight. The Shuar, especially the children, are rarely overweight. They also are not often malnourished.

In Dr. Pontzer’s pioneering research with the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, he found that, although the tribespeople moved frequently during the day, hunting, digging, dragging, carrying and cooking, they burned about the same number of total calories daily as much-more-sedentary Westerners.

Dr. Pontzer concluded that, during evolution, we humans must have developed an innate, unconscious ability to reallocate our body’s energy usage. If we burn lots of calories with, for instance, physical activity, we burn fewer with some other biological system, such as reproduction or immune responses. The result is that our average, daily energy expenditure remains within a narrow band of total calories, helpful for avoiding starvation among active hunter-gatherers, but disheartening for those of us in the modern world who find that more exercise does not equate to much, if any, weight loss. (Dr. Pontzer’s highly readable new book on this topic, “Burn,” will be published on March 2. )

So, exercise because it is great for your health.  But, to lose weight, you’re just going to have to cut the calories.

4) I know BB is a sucker for anything with CA and FL comparisons, “California mandated masks. Florida opened its restaurants. Did any of it matter? Which Covid-19 restrictions really worked — and which ones really didn’t?”

5) Give the often vastly different financial worlds for men’s versus women’s sports I think people sometimes focus to much on differences that can fairly easily be explained away by the finances involved.  But, Leonhardt compares College Softball and College Baseball and compellingly concludes that the NCAA is treating the women in a grossly unfair manner:

The Women’s College World Series, which began yesterday, is one of the most popular events in college sports.

It is an eight-team softball tournament held every year in Oklahoma City, and the games frequently sell out. The television audience on ESPN is substantial, too. In the most recent previous tournament, 1.8 million people watched the final game, substantially more than have watched recent championship games of college soccer, hockey or lacrosse — men’s or women’s.

The popularity of softball makes it a telling study in the different ways that the N.C.A.A. treats female and male athletes. In terms of fan interest, softball ranks near the top of college sports. It is well behind football and basketball, but ahead of almost every other sport.

Yet the N.C.A.A. treats softball as a second-class sport, many athletes and coaches say.

The stadium that hosts the championship tournament has no showers; players and coaches must instead shower at their hotels. Off days between games are rare, and some teams have to play twice on the same day, increasing injury risk. The N.C.A.A. prefers the condensed schedule to hold down hotel and meal costs, coaches have told Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman.

The men’s version of the College World Series — an eight-team baseball tournament held each year in Omaha — treats the players better. They have off days, as well as a golf outing, a free massage day and a celebratory dinner for coaches, players and dozens of guests, Molly Hensley-Clancy of The Washington Post reported.

The Oklahoma City softball stadium is also too small to hold all the fans who would like to attend, and many games sell out quickly. It has a capacity of about 13,000 (recently expanded from 9,000), compared with 24,000 for the baseball stadium in Omaha. “I think we could easily get 20,000, just like the men,” one longtime coach told The Post. “But we won’t get that chance.”…

Equity in sports can be a complicated topic, because men’s sports often draw larger crowds and television audiences. Officials who defend the differential treatment of female and male athletes — as executives at U.S. Soccer have — cite the revenue differences.

But the softball situation shows how incomplete those explanations are. The average television audience for the most recent softball World Series (1.05 million) was similar to that of the most recent college baseball World Series (1.13 million). And yet one sport’s players get showers, off days, massages and a festive dinner, while the others get doubleheaders and sweaty bus rides back to a hotel.

Personally, I find both baseball and softball boring as hell these days and cannot quite understand why so many people want to watch either, but hard to conclude anything other than rank sexism going on here.

5) And this was a really interesting discussion with the WNBA Commissioner on efforts to grow the sport.

6) Good stuff on the behavioral economics of vaccine lotteries:

But economists who know how to party see lotteries and other inducements in a whole different way. This will sound resoundingly dumb when I say it, but some people need reasons to justify their behaviors and make decisions. That idea is called “reason-based choice.” Vaccines are scarce in most of the world but widely available in the United States. If someone hasn’t gotten one yet, maybe they’re just an anti-vaxxer, in which case, a lottery ain’t gonna help. But different kinds of hesitancy are sensitive to different kinds of interventions. Some people—like in the Black community—have historical reasons to distrust the medical establishment, and that requires a different kind of outreach to fix. And some people, maybe they’re busy, or they procrastinate, or they’re worried about side effects, or they’re anywhere else on the spectrum of hesitancy. Some motivational change might, well, nudge them to get a shot.

So why not just give people a guaranteed reward, instead of one that almost certainly won’t hit? Maybe not a doughnut, but what about, say, $100? That’s a lot.

But it’s not enough. The problem is sort of the inverse of what the economists Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini meant when they wrote the article “A Fine Is a Price.” Their hypothesis says that if you charge people a penalty for bad behavior (for anything from coming late to pick up kids at daycare to, presumably, polluting waterways), that doesn’t deter them—people (and corporations) just factor the fine into their cost of doing business. The flip side is, if you give people a doughnut or $100 or 2,000 frequent-flier miles or a discounted $5 subscription to WIRED, that’s the value they assign to what they’re getting. And if that’s less, to them, than the value of getting vaccinated, it doesn’t work as a nudge. The needling isn’t worth the needle. It’s too low to overcome vaccine hesitancy—in theory.

(This idea is actually hard to study. Thaler says he and Katy Milkman, a behavior researcher at the Wharton School and author of How to Change, once thought about running an experiment to give some people $3 lottery tickets to induce them to get flu vaccines. “It would’ve been a nice thing to have done two years ago,” Thaler says. And proposals to give people $100 to get vaccines have run into trouble with university institutional review boards, the groups that monitor the treatment of human subjects in scientific research. One fundamental ethical tenet is that you’re not supposed to coerce or bribe people to participate.)

But when it comes to Covid vaccines, free beers haven’t moved numbers as well as the irrational but fabulous prizes. “Economists think there’s no such thing as a free beer,” Thaler says. “Real people think free beers are good.” But they think even a scant chance at $1 million is better.

In marketing, this overvaluing of the distant win is called “prospect theory”; in gaming terms, it’s an “extrinsic reward,” something fun or useful that’s not inherent to the act. “A fully rational economist from Chicago can’t figure out why people buy lottery tickets,” Monk says. “It’s the same thing happening here. The expected value that people assign to the potential to win $1 million is far higher than the cost to the state.”

7) Disturbing stuff from Brownstein:

Across these states and others, Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News. They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP than on an array of hot-button social issues, such as abortion, guns, and limits on public protest, that reflect the cultural and racial priorities of Trump’s base…

The lurch right in Republican-controlled states extends to some economic issues: Nearly two dozen states, for instance, have rejected the increased unemployment benefits that congressional Democrats approved earlier this year in President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan. But the social and racially tinged issues that Trump moved to the center of GOP messaging have dominated legislative sessions in state after state. Among the issues advancing most broadly:..

GOP legislators appear to be operating more out of fear that Trump’s base of non-college-educated, rural, and evangelical white voters will punish them in primaries if they fail to pursue maximum confrontation against Democrats and liberal constituencies, particularly on issues revolving around culture and race. “Very few of the districts are competitive [in a general election], so all they are worried about is being primaried,” says John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, one of the states that have advanced the most aggressive conservative agenda this year. Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas, notes that the state’s militantly conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has pushed legislators toward his priorities this year in part by persuading them that any moderation risks infuriating “an aggrieved Trump base who feels that the election was stolen from them, are fired up, and love the red meat on every issue.”

In earlier generations, when governors of both parties tended to position themselves as less partisan, business-oriented problem-solvers, the GOP chief executives in these states might have restrained their legislators from veering toward the ideological fringe or even forcing votes on polarizing social issues. But today, many governors appear to feel the same pressure of a possible primary challenge—and others, most notably Florida’s DeSantis, seem to be pursuing support from the Trump base for a possible 2024 presidential bid. (As if to spotlight that intention, DeSantis signed the bill barring transgender girls from school sports on June 1, the first day of LGBTQ Pride month, and he did so at a Christian private school.)

8) Really enjoyed Yglesias take on Ezra’s interview with Obama (which, of course, is also well worth your time):

Obama was clearly the more immigration-friendly candidate relative to Romney’s idea of “self-deportation.” But Obama was maintaining considerable distance between himself and immigration activists in order to reduce the distance between himself and Romney. After the failure of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, Obama moved toward what became DAPA. But beyond that, activists increasingly persuaded rank-and-file members that all this stuff about border security was a failed effort to bargain with Republicans and not something they should embrace as an idea they actually believed in.

Choices have consequences

In most respects, I think I like the contemporary Democratic Party’s message better than I liked its 2012- or certainly 2008-vintage message.

But I am not a swing voter, and I don’t live in a swing state or even have representation in the United States Senate. What’s changed is that Democrats went from being an urban-based diverse party that nonetheless tried pretty hard to pander to the views of rural white people in hopes of getting the voters of the poorer and less-religious among them, to becoming a party that decided it would be unnecessary or immoral to pander like that.

But the Senate map (and to a lesser extent the Electoral College) makes it absolutely necessary to pander the views of rural white people. There is no other way to win. And I think a politics of “lose your majority forever when West Virginia, Ohio, and Montana go red in 2024” can’t possibly be a moral politics. The fact that the post-Obama Democrats are somewhat less successful with Black and Latino voters than Obama was should further call into question the logic of doctrinaire moralism about these tactical choices.

Mainly, though, even if you think I’m wrong, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that choices have been made here. That, I think, is what Obama obscures when he talks about meeting people in small town V.F.W. halls and how the media has changed. He makes it sound like either it’s impossible for a Democrat to win in Iowa (the media has changed) or else it’s just a question of hustling more (gotta go to those V.F.W. meetings and talk to folks). But while the media climate and campaign tactics both matter, the fundamental fact is that Obama tried harder to mirror the views of secular rural white midwesterners.

And his campaign, knowing that pandering to low-income rural white people is not what comes most naturally to liberal professionals, imposed ruthless message discipline on the whole party. They decided what every surrogate who went on television was supposed to say, and they’d get really fucking pissed at you if you went off-script and talked about what you thought was important rather than what they thought would help them persuade swing voters in pivotal states. That sounds really tedious in a lot of ways. I bet a bunch of young, college-educated, city-dwelling staffers for the campaigns faced some eye-rolling from their young, college-educated, city-dwelling friends about some of their messaging choices. But while there’s more to politics than winning elections, there’s literally nothing you can achieve unless you win elections first.

9) Good stuff from one of the co-authors of the Emerging Democratic MajorityDemocrats Can’t Rely on Demographics Alone”

There are four lessons here. First, while the effects of rising diversity do indeed favor the Democrats, these effects are fairly modest in any given election and can easily be overwhelmed by shifts in voter preference against the Democrats among unfavorable demographic groups, such as white non-college voters.

Second, even among favorable demographic groups, the electoral benefit to the Democrats can be completely neutralized by shifts against the Democrats within a demographic group. This was the case with the Hispanic vote in Arizona and many other states in 2020.

Third, in states where demographic change is rapid, it is easy to mistake shifts toward the Democrats in a given election as indicators of these underlying demographic changes. But as we saw for Arizona and Texas in 2016 and Arizona and Georgia in 2020 (there are many other examples), their pro-Democrat shifts were, in fact, driven by white voters.

Finally, the long-range effects of rising diversity are also an all-else-equal proposition. While cycle-by-cycle voter preference shifts can be volatile and even out over time, sometimes they result in a long-term shift against a party like the Democrats—think of the move of white non-college voters toward the Republicans in the 2000s. This can cancel or even swamp the pro-Democratic effects of demographic change over a lengthy period. 

In short, demographics set the playing field, but they are not destiny unless all else remains equal. And all else almost never remains equal. Therein lies a challenge for the Democrats that the simple fact of rising racial diversity cannot solve.

10) Greg Sargent on Democrats and the politics of crime:

With crime rising in U.S. cities, Republicans are confident that they can win the midterms by tying it to Democrats and the “defund the police” movement. This, in turn, has prompted a mini-battle among liberals, with some warning against complacency about both the terrible underlying policy problem and the political threat it poses.

But something has been missing from that debate: a look at the strategic response of Democrats themselves. The party is elaborating an approach that defies easy characterization, and could, if successful, defuse GOP attacks and resolve tensions inside the Democratic coalition in a constructive way.

This response demonstrated success this week, when Melanie Stansbury won a special House election in New Mexico by 25 points. Her GOP challenger sought to make the race all about crime and supposed Democratic disdain for law enforcement.

“We believe that Melanie Stansbury created a template for how to respond,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “Respond aggressively, and talk about what you support.”

This template is nuanced. It doesn’t constitute merely denouncing the excesses of “defund,” as some have called for. Instead, it combines a forthright declaration of the facts about what the candidate actually supports on policing with a refusal to retreat on discussing systemic racism…

The key here is that Democrats must forcefully describe what they are for with conviction, but this must entail describing both their actual positions on defunding the police and their continued support for racial justice and police reform.

11) Been hearing for years about a crisis in sperm counts.  Maybe, not so much of a crisis after all?

Now a group of interdisciplinary researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contend that fears of an impending Spermageddon have been vastly overstated. In a study published in May in the journal Human Fertility, they re-evaluated the 2017 review and found that it relied on flawed assumptions and failed to consider alternate explanations for the apparent decline of sperm.

In an interview, Sarah Richardson, a Harvard scholar on gender and science and the senior author on the new study, called the conclusion of the 2017 review “an astonishing and terrifying claim that, were it to be true, would justify the apocalyptic tenor of some of the writing.” Fortunately, she and her co-authors argue, there is little evidence that this is the case.

Mostly, I’m now looking for opportunities to use the term “Spermageddon” 😉

12) Good stuff from Drum, “Democrats Need to Focus on Election Administration”

Republicans have been passing—or trying to pass—voter suppression laws with stunning frequency over the past few months. Most of the press attention has been focused on the simple stuff that restricts where and when people can vote, but most of these provisions aren’t really that important. The evidence suggests that even when you add them all up they aren’t likely to have a large effect on turnout.

What might have a large effect is the Republican effort to undermine the administration of elections. Donald Trump was hellbent on getting election administrators to recount the 2020 vote until they could figure out a way to declare him the winner, but they unanimously refused to do it. Now, Republicans are working to make sure that they can eject future election administrators who don’t play ball.

Yesterday’s letter from a hundred political scientists is clear about what’s happening:

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes.

Ron Brownstein writes that the Biden team agrees. They feel that they can overcome minor rules changes here and there without too much trouble, but not wholesale corruption in election administration:

The White House does see a risk in the possibility that Republicans—whether local election officials, GOP-controlled state legislatures, or a potential Republican majority in the U.S. House or Senate—will refuse to certify clear Democratic wins in the 2022 and 2024 elections. The senior Democrat told me, “Given how things have developed since January 6, if the situation is not brought under some control and this isn’t countered effectively, then I think there is a significant risk” that “Republican officials, unlike the ones we saw standing up to pressure in 2020, are going to decline to certify Democratic victories.” If Republicans hold the House, Senate, or both after the 2024 election, that could allow Congress to try to install a GOP president even if clear evidence exists that the Democrat won.

Democrats need to focus all their attention on this. Lots of people hear about the water bottle stuff or the voter ID rules and just shrug. It doesn’t strike them as all that big a deal. But they don’t know about the movement to allow Republican legislatures to remove election administrators and replace them with faithful party operatives. When they do hear about it, even many conservatives are outraged at the idea.

So forget all the other stuff. This is the real threat to democracy, and the public needs to be aware of it clearly.

13) Speaking of voting, Scott Lemieux, “Texas’ voting bill to support Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ will eventually pass. Blame the Supreme Court.: It used to be unconstitutional to target Black and brown communities with voter suppression efforts. Then the court ruled against the Voting Rights Act.”

14) Fun interview with Jordan Ellenberg, “Why So Many Pandemic Predictions Failed: The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg discusses how geometry explains the world.”

15) This is great (and disturbing) “The Endless Trap of American Parole: How can anyone rebuild their lives when they keep getting sent back to jail for the pettiest of reasons?”

Twenty-five years ago, there was a common saying among community supervision officers: “Trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em.” In other words, surveillance and apprehension. This has started to evolve, with an increased focus on behavioral change, treatment and services. “Parole has two objectives,” says Rita Shah, an associate professor of criminology at Eastern Michigan University. “To assist in the transition back to society and to ensure that you are no longer committing crimes.” In other words, reentry and supervision.

Community supervision rates fell by nearly a fifth over the past decade. Horowitz is clear: “I don’t want to paint a picture of a system that’s failing.” But America’s approach to parole is still plagued by problems. Horowitz says the number of people on supervision per capita remains historically high, up several hundred percent from 1980. National data also shows that between 30 and 40 percent of state prison admissions are for “technical violations,” i.e., failing to observe the conditions of supervision. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, 58.8 percent of California’s parole population went to prison for a technical violation. This could be a misdemeanor, like petty theft or a minor drug offense. But it could also include traveling more than 50 miles from one’s home without permission or entering a bar. Parolees have been sanctioned for infractions such as forgetting to return a steak knife to the kitchen after eating dinner in front of the living room TV; outside the kitchen, the knife is considered a weapon.

Horowitz says concerns about the parole system have largely “flown under the radar” but are gaining attention. It’s partly financial: Probation and parole revocations cost states over $9.3 billion annually; technical violations account for a third of that. Reformers are also pushing for change. Since 2010, 35 states have adopted recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership among Pew, the U.S. Department of Justice and state governments. JRI takes a data-driven approach to reforming sentencing policies; its recommendations have helped to lower both prison populations and supervision revocations in at least a handful of states.

We have to do so much better with helping people actually thrive and rebuild their lives outside prison– not set them up to fail.

16) Given that I follow dozens of journalists on twitter, the Emily Wilder story lit up my feed for a while.  What I hate is any organization giving into bad faith mobs.  And there’s so many bad faith mobs!  Not encouraging that the AP executive responsible is now at the Washington Post:

On May 18, the Associated Press reported on the arrest of an arson suspect over a Los Angeles wildfire: “The man detained Sunday near the fire zone was being treated for smoke inhalation, said Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas. He did not identify the suspect or offer details about the investigation.” At the foot of this classic AP story is a line that reads, “AP journalist Emily Wilder contributed to this report from Phoenix.“

Two days later, AP management dismissed Wilder from her job as a news associate at the AP. Had she botched her contribution to the arson-arrest story? Or had she botched her contribution to a May 7 report about an Idaho school shooting?

Nothing like that, as the media world now knows. The 22-year-old Wilder received her dismissal notice following a successful attempt by conservatives to promote outrage over her activist work while attending Stanford University, where she served as a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine. The episode points to two emerging facts of life in contemporary mainstream media — one, that editors at large news organizations quake when right-wing actors target their colleagues; and two, publishers’ concerns over ethical appearances and perceptions are reaching irrationality.

As part of her work for Students for Justice in Palestine, Wilder, a Jewish woman raised in an Orthodox community, helped organize a 2017 protest against Birthright Israel, a group that funds trips to Israel for young people of Jewish heritage. In a Facebook post promoting the protest, Wilder wrote that the event would coincide with a “fundraising gala with far-right, pro-Trump, naked mole rat-looking billionaire Shel Adelson,” according to the Washington Free Beacon. Adelson was a Birthright benefactor as well as a prominent GOP donor.

The story in the Washington Free Beacon fed off the work of the Stanford College Republicans, a group that found news value in Wilder’s accession to the AP in early May. A May 17 tweet, now pinned to the top of the group’s account, provided screenshots of Wilder’s collegiate activism…

According to Wilder’s dismissal letter, the rumblings from Stanford — and inquiries from the Washington Free Beacon, Fox News and others — prompted a deeper look into the AP rookie’s social media history. “As discussed, over the last few days some of your social media posts made prior to joining AP surfaced,” reads the dismissal letter. “Those posts prompted a review of your social media activity since you began with the AP, May 3, 2021. In that review, it was found that some tweets violated AP’s News Values and Principles.

Did the AP receive independent objections to Wilder’s tweets, or did it decide to scrutinize those tweets only after the Stanford College Republicans raised hell about her college days? (We asked the AP to clarify this point; Wilder tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she didn’t know whether “someone else raised concerns.”) AP managers found stuff like this when they ventured into Wilder’s feed:

17) Scott Alexander with a helluva post about Depression.  Well worth reading and thinking about.  

18) This is really, really upsetting and deserving of more coverage:

Just now (Friday night) the images are back, courtesy of news stories reporting on this.  

19) This is a terrific thread on the awesomeness of the vaccines and how they work.

Quick hits (part II)

1) As someone who thinks demographics are a very big deal in explaining American politics, I found this quite interesting, “Is Demographic and Geographic Polarization Overstated?”

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? Or are stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves overstated? Seo-young Silvia Kim finds that it is not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups—and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. David Darmofal finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both take the long view, finding that we are not as divided by social groups and geographies as we seem…

Matt Grossmann: Demographic and geographic polarization is overstated this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Are Americans substantially more divided based on where they live and their social identities? It certainly seems that way, with our urban/rural divides and our increasing divisions on race and education. It seems like it should now be easy to predict how an individual or a geographic area voted based on a handful of variables, but taking a longer view makes the story more complicated, with the trends much less pronounced.

This week, I talked to Seo-young Silvia Kim of American University about her new working paper with [Yon Zelinsky 00:00:45], The Divided but Not More Predictable Electorate. She finds that it’s not so easy to predict how Americans will vote based on their demographic groups, and it hasn’t gotten any easier over time. Instead, voters are increasingly divided by partisanship.

I also talked to David Darmofal of the University of South Carolina about his [Springer 00:01:04] book with Ryan Strickler, Demography Politics and Partisan Polarization in the United States. He finds that demographics are a bit more predictive of geographic voting patterns, but spatial polarization has not increased markedly over time. They both find the conventional stories of voters sorted into neat social and geographic enclaves to be overstated. Kim says demographics aren’t destiny when it comes to Americans voting and have not become more important over time.

Seo-young Silvia Kim: Try as we might, demographic labels do not give much information about vote choice throughout the last 70 years. We quantify how a well-performing machine learning algorithm does with just five variables: age, gender, race, education, and income, the big five that the people think is demographics. And we find that, on average, you can only predict about 63.5% of the two party vote choices correctly on average, throughout these years.

It also does not increase over the period of 1952 to 2020. So I think this goes against a lot of people’s intuition that the demographic group identities do really determine political behavior such as vote choice. There’s a lot of punditry built around such notions. And also academics, we believe that demographics is a strong and important predictor that we must pay attention to. And given that we believe that demographic sorting has taken place, and that party line voting has increased, it must have been a natural conclusion to say that, based on demographics, we can predict vote choices better. But it’s not really that case.

2) Interesting stuff on abortion, “The Abortion Fight Has Never Been About Just Roe v. Wade: Anti-abortion-rights activists have turned their arguments away from protecting democracy and toward maximizing protection for fetal life.”

Ever since Roe, abortion-rights foes and their Republican allies have been asking the Court to reverse course—to acknowledge that the Constitution has nothing whatsoever to say about abortion, either in favor of or against it. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice arguably most beloved by conservatives, routinely stated that the Constitution is silent on abortion. Republicans have railed against the Court’s judicial activism in Roe, insisting that the justices robbed the American people of the opportunity to decide the abortion issue for themselves. In this account, Roe did not just destroy valuable opportunities for compromise on abortion; the decision did fundamental damage to America’s democratic principles, removing one of the most controversial issues from representative legislatures and resolving it by judicial fiat.

Finnis’s article has provoked debate across the ideological spectrum. The conservative attorney Ed Whelan has taken issue with the substance of Finnis’s claim, suggesting that unless the anti-abortion-rights movement first wins over public opinion, Finnis’s approach will backfire. Progressives have been far harsher, unsurprisingly. Writing in The New York Times, the columnist Michelle Goldberg denounced what she calls an authoritarian turn in anti-abortion-rights advocacy—one more sign that the GOP has changed fundamentally in the post-Trump era.

The abortion debate has never been about just Roe—and it’s never been about letting a popular majority have a say. What’s new is that this argument now meets a receptive Supreme Court for the first time in more than a generation.

3) Not your everyday poll, just, found this notable as it’s me, “A third of hosts who always take off their own shoes never ask their guests to”

4) When I was a teenager and Paulina Porizkova first came to prominence in the SI Swimsuit issue, suffice it to say I was a big fan (pretty sure her SI photos were the first decorations I ever had in a locker).  Pretty fascinating reading about her life nearly 40 years later and in the wake of the death of her rock-star husband, Ric Ocasek.  

5) It’s been so long since I’ve been through the crazy intersection in Breezewood, PA, but reading about it was a great trip down memory lane as well as an explanation of photography and crazy highway policy:

relates to What Internet Memes Get Wrong About Breezewood, Pennsylvania

It’s summer, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans, that means at least one burger-and-bathroom break in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. This half-mile gauntlet of gas stations, fast-food outlets, and motels, its oversized signs towering above the surrounding countryside, is familiar to anyone who has to drive regularly from the East Coast to the Midwest or vice versa.

As the New York Times explained in 2017, Pennsylvania’s “Gas Vegas” sprang up because of an obsolete law. Breezewood is a deliberately awkward transition between Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where they (almost) meet. Back in the 1950s, as I-70 was being built, a law prohibited spending federal funds to channel drivers directly from a free road to a toll road. The law was later overturned, but to comply with it, highway planners designed a looping interchange that lets drivers avoid the turnpike if they (hypothetically) want to. From this constant stream of slow-moving traffic, a mega-rest-stop was born.

It’s true that it would be hard to find a purer distillation of American car culture in one image. A gas station occupies the whole foreground of the photo and seems to merge into the diner behind it, a blurring of our hunger for food with our appetite for fossil fuels. There are plenty of cars in the picture and several semi-trailers, but no humans that the eye can make out…

Nor is the photo’s composition a lucky accident. Edward Burtynsky is a famous photographer, the subject of a New Yorker profile whose work is in the Guggenheim. He took the picture in 2008, as part of a project called Oil that became a book of the same name

Getting such a striking image of the place took a lot more work than most meme-sharers might realize. Burtynsky told me he spent three days in town scouting vantage points and setting up the shot. He often shoots from helicopters, but here he relied on an earthbound rig.

6) Good stuff from Frank Bruni on Joe Biden, 

President Biden was talking about Israel the other day, and I almost had to strain to hear his voice. It was that soft, and it complemented the languid pace of his words.

The subject was bloody, agonizing, unsolvable: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which had taken an especially violent turn and killed many people over the previous days. Biden had reason to scream, cause to cry.

But his timbre and cadence brought to mind a lullaby.

There’s something to that.

We live in polarized, adrenalized times that hardly need the turbocharging of a president who foams at the mouth. Wasn’t Donald Trump’s presidency proof of that?

Most Democrats certainly thought so, and several of their party’s candidates for president in 2020 promised a post-Trump slump on the unbridled-passion front. I remember in particular Senator Michael Bennet’s pledge to be a president whom you didn’t have to think about for days on end.

Well, Biden is that president — sort of. I’m qualifying my assessment because the magnitude of the challenges facing the United States and the ambition of his prescriptions are certainly front of mind. But he himself as a player and a potentate isn’t, and that’s partly intentional.

For the sake of national healing, in the interests of governing, he has turned down the emotional temperature in his administration. My Times colleague Annie Karni noted one aspect of that in an incisive recent article about “the overall culture of the Biden White House,” which includes “the least personality-driven West Wing in decades.”

“President Biden is undoing a longstanding Washington tradition in which staff members enjoy their own refracted fame,” she wrote. Such celebrity is a distraction. It’s grist for social-media tempests that compromise the mission at hand.

Biden sets the retiring, reticent example. He leads by stepping back. The big political story last week was Kevin McCarthy v. Liz Cheney, and Biden for the most part didn’t touch it. He doesn’t need to be in the first or even second paragraph of every news story. He doesn’t want to.

That’s a striking change for him, as I’ve written before. It’s an even more striking change for the country. In terms of presidential bearing, we’ve gone from a screech to a whisper. I for one am relishing the hush.

7) I really appreciate Drum’s contrarianism on Covid, like this post, “US Bungling Is Not Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Was So Bad.”  As much fun as it is to blame Trump and as awful as he was at Covid-related matters, we really don’t look too different from most of Western Europe:

Why did the United States suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

Now let’s rephrase the question. Why did the the United States and all of Europe suffer such high fatalities from COVID-19? Was it:

  1. CDC incompetence
  2. FDA sluggishness
  3. Donald Trump’s mismanagement
  4. Poor preparedness planning left over from the Obama administration

This rephrasing should make it evident that none of these answers—or anything else unique to the United States—makes sense. Europe had good quality tests earlier than us, but it did them no good. Europe responded sooner than we did, but it did them no good. Europe had shortages of PPE etc. just like we did. Europe had the opportunity to establish travel restrictions before the US, but didn’t. European health agencies provided roughly the same masking advice we did. Etc.

In other words, everyone needs to stop the CDC/FDA/Trump blame game because it’s wrong. It’s obvious that the United States isn’t unique among Western nations, and by definition that means the primary cause of our high mortality rate is also not something unique to the US. Our premature reopening in May of last year was responsible for a higher summer death rate, and Donald Trump can certainly be blamed for that, but that’s about all.

This is the question you should ask anyone who insists on blaming the virulence of the pandemic on some specifically American screwup: “But what about Europe?” If their theory doesn’t explain Europe too, you can just toss it out immediately.

8) Just came across this post from JFresh (definitely one of my favorite hockey writers) on one of my favorite subjects– the difficulty of assessing the quality of NHL goaltenders.  Easily one of the most important positions in all of sports, and yet, “Why Goaltending is Basically Random and Will Always Make You Look Stupid (In 5 Graphs): Expecting consistency from year to year will probably leave you disappointed.”

9) This is such a fun and fascinating article.  You should read it, “How to Survive a Killer Asteroid”

The day the Chicxulub asteroid slammed into what is now a small town on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that bears its name is the most consequential moment in the history of life on our planet. In a prehistoric nanosecond, the reign of the dinosaurs ended and the rise of mammals began. Not only did the impact exterminate every dinosaur save for a few ground-nesting birds, it killed every land mammal larger than a raccoon. In a flash, Earth began one of the most apocalyptical periods in its history. Could you survive it? Maybe.

If you make camp on the right continent, in the right environment, and you seek out the right kind of shelter, at the right altitudes, at the right times, you might stand a chance, says Charles Bardeen, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who recently modeled the asteroid’s fallout for the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. Of course, even if you are on the opposite side of the world at the time of impact—which is the only way you can hope to make it out alive—he recommends you act quickly. As soon as you hear its sonic boom (don’t worry—you’ll be able to hear it from the other side of the world), get yourself to high ground and find underground shelter. Immediately…

The impact triggers tsunamis—plural—as high as skyscrapers. The first of them hit gulf coastlines within the hour. Waves ranging from 600 feet to perhaps as tall as a 1,000 feet smash into what is now Mexico and the southern United States and flood tens of miles inland. The waves temporarily reverse the flow of rivers, rushing up river beds like 30-foot tidal bores…

Tsunamis wrap up the eastern seaboard, smash into the eastern coast of the United States, and, six hours after impact, crest as 600-foot-high walls of water in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean coasts. Within 15 hours of impact, waves arrive on every coastline on the planet. Depending on local topography, the ocean sweeps away anything in its path and sucks it back to the sea when the waters finally retreat.

These tsunamis deeply complicate your survival strategy, because proximity to the coastline is otherwise a good idea in super-large asteroid strikes. The ocean serves as Earth’s great insulator, moderating the severe temperature swings that massive asteroids induce. In the case of Chicxulub, the swing starts with heat.

Data visualization of the Chicxulub fallout blast.

When the big rock strikes, its splash constitutes 25 trillion tons of earth that it launches on ballistic trajectories, some at speeds that exceed Earth’s escape velocity. These rocks exit Earth’s gravitational pull to either orbit the sun or embed themselves on other moons or planets as meteors themselves. But the majority of ejected debris returns back to Earth within the hour. These glass-like chunks, called tektites—some as large as school buses, but most the size of marbles—pelt the earth at speeds ranging from 100 to 200 mph in lethal quantities. Regardless of where you are on Earth, you’ll need to find protection from this fiery hailstorm.

Bardeen suggests a cave.

But these glass bullets don’t need to hit you to kill you. As they fall, their friction with the atmosphere collectively emits enough thermal radiation to set fires across the world…

In a final piece of terrible luck for the dinosaurs (and you), Chicxulub happens to strike an area rich in oil and sulfur. The impact ejects 100 billion tons of vaporized sulfur and 10,000 Lake Superiors worth of water into the atmosphere, which then condenses into massive storm clouds and falls back as torrents of acid rain. In the higher latitudes, continental-wide snow storms deposit tens of feet per day. But the global inundation doesn’t last long, because in addition to water, Chicxulub vaporizes and forcefully ejects 150 football stadiums worth of oil in the Yucatán bedrock. This oil then condenses in the stratosphere as a black sooty layer, covering Earth like a coat of black paint. Unlike the sulfur and wildfire smoke, the carbon circulates high above the cloud layer so it doesn’t rain back down. And that’s the problem. The soot layer persists, reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface by 90 percent for at least three years, so the initial ovenlike heat brought on by the returning tektites is followed by a deep, prolonged freeze. Global temperatures drop by an average of almost 50 degrees. The only places on Earth to avoid frost are tropical islands like Madagascar, India (at the time an island), and Indonesia. Not only are these places where you have the best chance of finding plants and the animals that eat them, but according to climate models these tropical islands are some of the few places on Earth that continue to receive fresh water. In the global chill, evaporation almost ceases, which drops rainfall by 80 percent. Nearly every spot on earth outside of these tropical islands dries into a desert.

 

Quick hits

Sorry, just this one not-all-that-long edition:

1) Bernstein on what we really need to make the House better:

In particular, increasing number of House districts enough to make representation happen on a normal human scale would produce an unwieldy legislative chamber of thousands of representatives. The likely results: either chaos, or a highly centralized body in which individual representatives had little or no importance. Neither of these would be good for healthy, meaningful representation. The more plausible reforms, on the other hand, would add relatively small numbers of representatives, and it wouldn’t take long before population growth brought their districts back to about the same size they are now.

In other words, in a nation soon to reach 350 million people, there’s no realistic way for the national legislature to have districts that allow most people to know their representatives.

Rather than increasing the size of the House, the best way to increase personal connections between members and constituents would be to throw money at the problem.

Congressional staff budgets haven’t come close to keeping up with the size of congressional districts over the last 30 years. Over that same period, the demise of local media has made low-cost communication with the district a lot harder, and perhaps impossible. Once upon a time, members gave interviews to local TV and radio stations that everyone in the district could watch and listen to, and were quoted on national and local issues in local newspapers that constituents could subscribe to. All of that, of course, is either gone or diminished. There are lots of reasons that the incumbency advantage in House elections has just about disappeared, but it certainly can’t help that there’s a lot less local media for incumbents to dominate.

So instead of, say, quadrupling the size of the House, how about quadrupling (or more!) each member’s budget? Yes, a lot of that money would be wasted or spend on frivolous things, but so what? Constituents might not have any better chance of knowing their representative personally, but they would have a better chance of visiting a district office, knowing a district staffer (or even a Washington-based one), and perhaps “knowing” their representative on social media. Of course, with a bigger personal staff, members might also increase their personal capacity for doing legislative work without relying on the party leadership. That would be good, too.

In the 1970s, a reasonable objection to adding resources to individual members of the House would have been that it might make them invulnerable to electoral defeat. Today, House elections are nationalized, and so individual members are hostage to the fate of their parties. Whether restoring a bit of incumbency advantage would be a little good or a little bad, it certainly wouldn’t be decisive.

2) Yglesias: on standardized testing and racial equality:

Most critiques of SATs are wrong

People offer a lot of casual criticisms of the SAT that are false or misleading, such as noting that kids with richer parents have higher SAT scores and thus inferring that the test is easily gamed by high-income parents.

It’s true that there is a modest positive correlation between parental income and SAT scores, but you see a similar positive correlation with pretty much anything related to school or child development. Parceling out exactly why it is that the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives do better at school-related stuff than the children of waitresses and cashiers and cab drivers is probably really hard. But broadly speaking, people who do well in school and have high standardized test scores end up earning more money than those who don’t. They then have children who are genetically related to them, and they raise those children in households where the adults are able to constantly model the behaviors of a good-at-school person. There would be something profoundly weird about a world in which the children of good-at-school people were not, on average, better at school than the children of bad-at-school people.

What’s not the case is that rich parents are bestowing huge gains to their kids via the mechanism of extensive test prep. Slate’s Daniel Engber did a good roundup of this in 2019 — the benefits of test prep are modest, maybe between 10 and 30 points out of 1600. There’s a Wall Street Journal article making the same point.

Note that this is not the same as saying that practicing for the tests isn’t helpful! You will absolutely do better on a test if you are familiar with the kind of questions you are going to be asked than if you show up to it cold. But what that means is that taking a little time to prepare is going to help you, not that vast sums of money are going to dramatically boost your score. From the WSJ article:

Laurence Bunin, a College Board senior vice president, says the board’s own research shows limited benefit from test-prep courses. He says familiarity with the SAT tends to provide the biggest short-term gains for students. He recommends free and low-cost College Board materials, including a $20 study guide.

This kind of practice can make a huge difference!

3) Leonhardt on wages:

The chief executive of Domino’s Pizza has complained that the company can’t hire enough drivers. Lyft and Uber claim to have a similar problem. A McDonald’s franchise in Florida offered $50 to anybody willing to show up for an interview. And some fast-food outlets have hung signs in their windows saying, “No one wants to work anymore.”

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through.

Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality.

Let’s start with some basic economics. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution.

The company or person providing the item raises its price. Doing so causes other providers to see an opportunity for profit and enter the market, increasing supply. To take a hypothetical example, a shortage of baguettes in a town will lead to higher prices, which will in turn cause more local bakeries to begin making their own baguettes (and also cause some families to choose other forms of starch). Suddenly, the baguette shortage is no more…

Human labor is not the same thing as a baguette, but the fundamental idea is similar: In a market economy, both labor and baguettes are products with fluctuating prices.

When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more…

If anything, wages today are historically low. They have been growing slowly for decades for every income group other than the affluent. As a share of gross domestic product, worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century. Two main causes are corporate consolidation and shrinking labor unions, which together have given employers more workplace power and employees less of it…

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising rapidly and now make up a larger share of G.D.P. than in previous decades. As a result, most companies can afford to respond to a growing economy by raising wages and continuing to make profits, albeit perhaps not the unusually generous profits they have been enjoying…

That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.

4) Terrific interview with Michael Mina on the Yankees outbreak and his latest ideas on testing:

It seems like you don’t think these are “breakthrough” infections and also that you’re not surprised to see them.
The Yankees are testing themselves frequently. When that happens, especially if you’re doing PCR tests, you’re going to find exposures and infections.

Even in people who’ve been vaccinated?
Yes. I’ve always said that it is very unlikely that these vaccines will create fully sterilizing immunity. Sterilizing immunity is the kind of immunity where, if you get exposed and the virus lands in your respiratory tract, it will be neutralized (or killed) immediately. It will not have a chance to replicate. On the other hand, you can have very highly protective vaccines that are not fully sterilizing — vaccines that prevent you from illness, especially severe illness, but may still allow the virus to grow.

And a PCR test would catch those kinds of infections?
This is a technology that can catch just ten molecules of virus. But this is a virus that when it is contagious, there are billions of molecules. So we have to be very careful about how we interpret PCR results. Just because the virus can grow a bit — and be detected on a PCR test — does not mean we are stuck in the woods as far as herd immunity goes. A vaccine that doesn’t create sterilizing immunity can still greatly limit virus growth, perhaps enough to massively limit transmission. This is likely the case with the mRNA vaccines at least, given the large reductions in cases among kids in hospitals as a result of the adults getting vaccinated. Clearly transmission declined significantly enough to elicit some level of herd effects on the kids.

But it probably won’t decline to zero.
As I have been saying since last summer, we should expect reinfections following infection or vaccination. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. The real question is do those reinfections matter — or more to the point — do the reinfections have negative consequences?

Do we not have to worry about infections of that size?
In my opinion, if they’re not infections that are causing disease, they should be viewed very differently from a breakthrough case, which is a term that should absolutely be reserved for a case that’s causing disease…

In other words treating infection as much more of a spectrum, when throughout the pandemic we’ve treated it much more as a binary matter. 
Right. The way we’ve been using PCR thus far is the equivalent of saying that you either are completely immune to a disease, or you’re completely vulnerable. But we all know that you can get a little bit sick or you can get a lot sick, and that those are two really different things.

That had its own cost throughout the pandemic, of course, but it’s also meant we’ve sort of poorly educated the public about how to navigate the post-pandemic, as this episode with the Yankees shows.
That’s exactly right. Binarizing all of these results, and continuing to put everything in black and white — that has been immensely destructive. One of my core philosophies in public health is we absolutely need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic.

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve generally considered the public to be the problem. But this is public health. The public isn’t the problem – that’s on the virus – instead, the public is the solution. As we are seeing with vaccines, the public is the solution and unless we want to vaccinate people based on some forceful military state requirements (which we do not and I hope never would) then we must see the public as the solution, always.

So we need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic. What we’ve done instead, by assuming that the public was unable to deal with this kind of information and this kind of nuance, we have done immeasurable damage.

We’ve made the same mistake with herd immunity — treating it as some threshold before which there’s still great danger and after which there is none, rather than a gradual lessening of risk as more people gain immunity through infection or vaccination.
It’s crazy. Why we continue to treat everything as black and white from testing to disease to herd immunity is … I can’t really figure out why. Maybe it’s just a basic human thing, but I think it’s something our CDC and our FDA and our policymakers should’ve done a much better job educating about. The burden really falls on them.

5) Quite entertaining science journalism, “The Body’s Most Embarrassing Organ Is an Evolutionary Marvel: And yet we have very little idea where anuses come from.”

The appearance of the anus was momentous in animal evolution, turning a one-hole digestive sac into an open-ended tunnel. Creatures with an anus could physically segregate the acts of eating and defecating, reducing the risk of sullying a snack with scat; they no longer had to finish processing one meal before ingesting another, allowing their tubelike body to harvest more energy and balloon in size. Nowadays, anuses take many forms. Several animals, such as the sea cucumber, have morphed their out-hole into a Swiss Army knife of versatility; others thought that gastrointestinal back doors were so nice, they sprouted them at least twice. “There’s been a lot of evolutionary freedom to play around with that part of the body plan,” Armita Manafzadeh, a vertebrate morphology expert at Brown University, told me.

But anuses are also shrouded in scientific intrigue, and a fair bit of squabbling. Researchers still hotly debate how and when exactly the anus first arose, and the number of times the orifice was acquired or lost across different species. To tap into our origins, we’ll need to take a squarer look at our ends.

 

In the beginning, there was nothing. The back ends of our animal ancestors that swam the seas hundreds of millions of years ago were blank, relegating the entry and exit of all foodstuffs to a single, multipurpose hole. Evolutionary echoes of these life-forms still exist in corals, sea anemone, jellyfish, and a legion of marine worms whose digestive tract takes the form of a loose sac. These animals are serially monogamous with their meals, taking food in one glob at a time, then expelling the scraps through the same hole. (Contrary to what you might have read, not everyone poops.) These creatures’ guts operate much like parking lots, subject to strict vacancy quotas that restrict the flow of traffic.

The emergence of a back door transformed those parking lots into highways—the linear “through-guts” that dominate body plans today. Suddenly, animals had the luxury of downing multiple meals without needing to fuss with disposal in between; digestive tracts lengthened and regionalized, partitioning into chambers that could extract different nutrients and host their own communities of microbes. The compartmentalization made it easier for animals to get more out of their meals, Andreas Hejnol, a developmental biologist at the University of Bergen, in Norway, told me. With the lengthening and uncorking of the end of the gut, he said, many creatures grew into longer and larger body forms, and started to move in new ways. (It would take several more eons for true buttocksthe fleshy, fatty accoutrements that flank the anuses of some animals, such as humans—to evolve. Some researchers I talked with are comfortable using butt to mean any anal or anus-adjacent structure; others are purists, and consider the term strict shorthand for buttocks and buttocks alone.)

6) Really enjoyed Robinson Meyer on the new F150 electric:

4. An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. “Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time,” Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk.” Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.

The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.

5. Chemically speaking, decarbonization—the move away from carbon-based fossil fuels—is a shift to less dense forms of energy. Gasoline, for its many flaws, contains an enormous amount of potential energy in a very small amount of mass. Transitioning away from it means, in practical terms, that electric vehicles will be much heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. The F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, about the same as the gargantuan Hummer H2 of the mid-2000s. The battery alone is 1,800 pounds.

These are hefty, dangerous vehicles. Ford has said that it will send software updates to its EVs over the air, and that it will soon transmit its new autonomous-driving feature, BlueCruise, to its EV fleet. But the tonnage of the Lightning, specifically, means that it must especially prioritize advanced safety features, sensors, and auto-braking. Otherwise pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller and lighter vehicles will die.

7) Zeynep on ransomware:

The dynamics of digital insecurity, ransomware, and related threats are eerily similar to the global public health dynamics before the pandemic. Battlestar Galactica helps explain one key similarity: Networked systems are vulnerable. The premise of the series is that the battleship Galactica, and only Galactica, survived an attack by the Cylons (humanoid robots) on the human fleet simply because it was old and had just been decommissioned in the process of being turned into a museum. Being older, it had never been networked into the system. The “shutdown” command sent by the attackers never reached it, and it was thus spared…

In pandemic terms, Galactica was an island that no one could travel to.

Our software infrastructure is not built with security in mind. That’s partly because a lot of it depends on older layers, and also because there has been little incentive to prioritize security. More operating systems could have been built from the start with features such as “sandboxing,” in which a program can play only in a defined, walled-off area called a “sandbox” that is unreachable by anything else. If that program is malicious, it can do damage only in its sandbox. (This is analogous to the idea of “air gapping,” in which crucial parts of a network are unplugged from a network’s infrastructure.)

Adding security after the fact to a digital system that wasn’t built for it is very hard. And we are also surrounded by “technical debt,” programs that work but were written quickly, sometimes decades ago, and were never meant to scale to the degree that they have. We don’t mess with these rickety layers, because it would be very expensive and difficult, and could cause everything else to crumble. That means there is a lot of duct tape in our code, holding various programs and their constituent parts together, and many parts of it are doing things they weren’t designed for.

Our global network isn’t built for digital security. As I wrote in 2018, the early internet was intended to connect people who already trusted one another, such as academic researchers and military networks. It never had the robust security that today’s global network needs. As the internet went from a few thousand users to more than 3 billion, attempts to strengthen security were stymied because of cost, shortsightedness, and competing interests.

8) My favorite sports analytics discovery (thanks, BB!) of recent vintage is hockey writer JFresh.  I really enjoyed this look at how hockey is about the most luck-dependent of sports and we really need to keep this in mind.  So much regression to the mean both ways.  

9) It also led be to this Vox video” Why it’s so much harder to predict winners in hockey than basketball” that I just absolutely loved (and put in a request for the book it’s based upon).

10) Good stuff from Mark Blumenthal, “How far might incentives nudge the hesitant toward getting COVID-19 vaccines?”

As the rate of new COVID–19 vaccinations has slowed, health officials have grown more creative in efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get their shot. In Ohio, the offer of a chance to win $1 million helped boost new vaccinations to their highest rate in three weeks.

New YouGov polling – conducted prior to the announcement of the Ohio lottery – shows that while such efforts may do little to dissuade the most hardcore of vaccine resistant Americans, the various nudges and incentives being offered in some areas have the potential to motivate many Americans still on-the-fence about getting vaccinated.

The most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for example, asked unvaccinated Americans whether a series of incentives would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Not surprisingly, the various enticements were most attractive to those already planning to get vaccinated (11% of adults overall), especially the prospect of getting easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants (would make 63% of this group more likely to get a shot), receiving $100 in exchange (62%), or the option to be vaccinated “at my doctor’s office” (58%). Nearly all (91%) who say they are planning to get vaccinated respond favorably to at least one of eight potential incentives tested…

In short, these results confirm survey results elsewhere, such as those of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds the unvaccinated “have a range of questions and concerns about the vaccine that require different strategies to address.” 

It may take a broad range of approaches and incentives, but if 90% of those still planning to be vaccinated and 40% of those who say they are unsure can be prodded to get at least one vaccine dose – targets consistent with the results above – it would mean a vaccination rate above 70% of the adult population, the goal recently set by President Biden for July 4.

11) I’ve got Amanda Ripley’s new book on conflict on my coffee table and cannot wait to read it.  I really loved this whole interview with Yascha Mounk.  So many good tidbits in here:

Mounk: I’m struck often, in our political discourse, by the ways in which many of my friends and acquaintances—people who are broadly on the, quote, unquote, same side—want to have a view of the other side that’s as negative as possible. Actually, they seem comforted when the other side does something horrible, because it allows them to hate them without any reservations or without any nuance. Then when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome. 

Ripley: At this level of conflict, emotion is driving the train. I admit to that myself. I remember, early on in Trump’s tenure, he did something—I can’t remember what it was, something about China. I remember having this sudden thought that, actually, that was not a bad idea—but not even wanting to have the thought in my head, let alone verbalize it. Then I realized I felt like if I gave him an inch, he’d take a mile—as if we were in a relationship. It’s a trick of the brain, as if he and I were in conversation, which we’re not. So, it’s a fear. It’s a lack of trust. It’s easier, in a way, to keep things binary: bad, good. There’s really cool research that haunts me to this day by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, where they asked liberals and conservatives if they would reframe an argument for something in words that [would get] conservatives behind it. Interestingly, they found that 20% of liberals would not reframe their arguments to persuade conservatives, even if it would work better to get what they want. That’s high conflict: when any concession, no matter how small, feels too threatening to contemplate, even when it would be in their interest.

Mounk: I find it to be true that when you say, “Hey, these arguments really are not persuasive and popular to a lot of people,” there’s a particularly strong reaction against that among some readers and on social media, where they’re saying, “Look, this is a question of justice, how dare you talk about it in these kinds of terms.” It’s like you’re desecrating the sacredness of your cause by thinking about how you might put it in a way that’ll actually attract support. Of course, we live in a democracy, and that means you have to think about majorities, and that can sometimes be a slightly dirty business. But if you actually cared about the cause, you would be willing to reframe your argument in the ways that makes it most likely for your cause to happen—whereas I think it’s an indication that you care more about being on the good side when you become reluctant to do that. […] To what extent do you think we can apply everything you say about high conflict to the current situation in the United States?

Ripley: I think 100%. That’s why I wrote the book. What I found is, if you come at [conflict] head on, you lose a lot of people. Many people are stridently locked in on one side or another. But if you come at it sideways, with an analogy, people will make the connection. When you’re in high conflict, it feels unique to you, your country and your pathology. You just can’t believe that this is a universal human condition that has anything to do with divorce court. But I’ll tell you what, there is no daylight between divorce court and Congress at this point. There is nothing different about it. 

12) Really good stuff from Derek Thompson on why Texas was okay despite removing its mask mandate super-early:

In early march, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little? …

A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.”…

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

And, I gotta say, this following part super-resonated with me (for obvious reasons, once you read it):

If governor mandates don’t change behavior, and state shutdowns don’t change behavior, and CDC guidance doesn’t change behavior (so far), then where do our beliefs about this virus come from? Who shapes the way we think, feel, and act in response to complex and consequential things like a global pandemic?

I’ll first answer for myself: Skeptical of some official narratives from the Trump administration to the CDC, I’ve become my own private investigator on all things COVID-related. (It helps that I’m paid to be one.) I track what public-health officials say about the pandemic, but I don’t wait with bated breath for their pronouncements. Months before the CDC acknowledged that surface transmission of the coronavirus is vanishingly rare, I wrote that surface transmission is vanishingly rare. Weeks before the CDC acknowledged that outdoor mask mandates make no sense, I wrote that outdoor mask mandates make no sense. I’m not bragging; I’m … well, all right, I’m bragging a little.

But my private-detective work isn’t so special. At at time when citizens don’t trust their government and when information is abundant, anybody can, like me, become their own sleuth on all things COVID-related, piece together their own theory about what this virus is and how it spreads, and come up with their individual risk level. Many remote workers, hunched behind their laptops for 16 months, have had the opportunity to steep themselves in modern epidemiology.

Quick hits (part I)

1) One of the better takes on the ransomware that’s made getting gas a nightmare in NC.  Just because I happened to be out running errands Monday evening and was low I serendipitously filled up as the craziness started Tuesday morning here.  Now, I regularly drive by mostly empty stations with a few stations having lines of dozens of cars.  Do better America!

2) Ummm, I definitely stick with my less intelligent, but friendlier/happier dog.  But, interesting, “Grumpy Dogs Outperform the Friendlies on Some Learning Tests
Dogs that would not be the first choice of many pet owners do better than some of the more agreeable fellows when they have to learn from a stranger.”

3) This, especially when it comes to summer camps this summer, “I Tell My Patients Not to Mask Their Kids Outside: For most young people, the social and emotional benefits of taking masks off outdoors greatly outweigh the personal and public-health advantages of keeping them on.”

4) There’s some really, really bad diversity training that really is out there based on absolutely nonsense, racist ideas like hard work and punctuality are “white supremacy” virtues.  As Yglesias points out, nobody really bothers to defend it (nor did they when he posted this), and, yet, it keeps getting propagated because nobody wants to speak against it and risk being labeled racist or “fragile” white person:

So I want to talk instead about one specific document, not because I think it’s the most important document in the world, but because I don’t really see anyone who I read and respect talking about it even though I’ve seen it arise multiple times in real life.

I’m talking about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun, which I first heard of this year from the leader of a progressive nonprofit group whose mission I strongly support. He told me that some people on the staff had started wielding this document in internal disputes and it was causing big headaches. Once I had that on my radar, I heard about it from a couple of other nonprofit workers. And I saw it come up at the Parent Teacher Association for my kid’s school.

It’s an excerpt from a longer book called Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups that was developed as a tool for Okun’s consulting and training gigs.

But today, even though it’s not what I would call a particularly intellectually influential work in highbrow circles — even ones that are very “woke” or left-wing — it does seem to be incredibly widely circulated. You see it everywhere from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to the Sierra Club of Wisconsin to an organization of West Coast Quakers.

Which is to say it’s sloshing around quite broadly in progressive circles even though I’ve never heard a major writer, scholar, or political leader praise or recommend it. And to put it bluntly, it’s really dumb. In my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if it’s not a psyop devised by some modern-day version of COINTELPRO to try to destroy progressive politics in the United States by making it impossible to run effective organizations. Even if not, I think the document is worth discussing on its own terms because it is broadly influential enough that if everyone actually agrees with me that it’s bad, we should stop citing it and object when other people do. And alternatively, if there are people who think it’s good, it would be nice to hear them say so, and then we could have a specific argument about that. But while I don’t think this document is exactly typical, I do think it’s emblematic of some broader, unfortunate cultural trends…

The craziest thing about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” is that it has literally nothing to do with race.

Some of the things she condemns are genuinely bad. For example, it is true that some people have “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.” That is in fact not true and not a productive way to live your life, conduct political work, or run an organization of any size.

Mostly, though, she’s against things like “either/or thinking” and “perfectionism” where it’s pretty clearly a case in which you just don’t want to take things too far. I am the very opposite of a perfectionist, and in my old blogging days, I was infamous for my typos. Today I am still like that, but thanks to the help of Marc and Claire, I try to keep dumb mistakes out of Slow Boring since this is, after all, my job, and thousands of subscribers have kindly agreed to pay for it. But I still frequently find myself encountering people who are too perfectionist-oriented, and there are absolutely people who are too hung up on dichotomous thinking and false binaries. But there are also people who are too sloppy or too indecisive.

But big picture, none of this has anything to do with race or white supremacy!

And I don’t mean that in, like, “it’s not racist unless you’re wearing a Klan hood and burning a cross in my lawn.” I mean, nothing. If you don’t know any non-white people who sometimes strike you as excessively rigid in their thinking or seem like too much of perfectionists then you need to get out more. But then Okun herself concedes that there’s no necessary relationship between manifesting white supremacy culture and being white yourself, nor even the ethnic composition of the group…

Okay, but really who cares?

I think enough attention has been paid to the view that Cancel Culture Is A Totalitarian Menace Threatening Our Freedoms that a lot of people have trouble hearing any other kind of criticism, and it leads them to immediately retreat into whataboutism and minimization.

So for the record, I wholeheartedly agree — I do not think a bunch of folks running around telling the world that asking for written memos and focusing on measurable results is racist are going to take over the United States and extinguish human liberty. Frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do anything at all other than run a bunch of basically useless trainings and disrupt the internal functioning of progressive organizations. My concern is less that Woke Conservation Biologists are going to oppress us and more that they aren’t going to do conservation biology very well.

But this can still be very harmful.

If you tell teachers and principals that having a sense of urgency about teaching kids to read is a form of white supremacy, then that is going to hurt kids’ learning. And if young people entering the progressive nonprofit sector believe that any effort to construct disciplined, hierarchical organizations is a form of white supremacy, then they are not going to accomplish anything.

I would also say that the political faction that tends to pride itself on ideas like “taking the science seriously” and “trusting the experts” should ask itself how a white physical education major from Oberlin got to be such a guru on this subject…

But that not only has a range of first-order harms, but it also creates a situation where you then find yourself turning around later and wondering why nobody trusts the experts anymore. Some of the reason is that they’re under assault by bad-faith operators who derive personal benefits from discrediting the concept of neutral expertise. But some of it is that the participants in these institutions can’t be consistently bothered to uphold those values and ask really basic questions of the influential practitioners who happen to be aligned with the right politics.

5) Using drugs to cheat in sports is bad.  They way international athletics organizations horribly treat their athletes based on questionable drug test is… worse?  I mean, your career ruined for eating a steak?!

The American Olympic long jumper Jarrion Lawson, the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, 200 meters and long jump at the same N.C.A.A. championships, had a similar experience. After he ate a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas in 2018, he also tested positive for a metabolite of trenbolone.

His agent, Paul Doyle, tracked down the restaurant’s beef supplier, which said it collected beef from farms that, like many farms across America, treated cows with trenbolone to make them grow. Because Mr. Lawson could not recover an exact sample of the beef he’d eaten before the test, he was exonerated in part through old text messages about what he wanted to have for lunch that day and a receipt the restaurant had retained. But he lost 19 months of competition to a provisional suspension while he fought the charge.

“Had he ordered the chicken bowl instead of the beef bowl, he would have saved himself $2 million and his reputation,” said Mr. Doyle, referring to losses from sponsor contracts, competition earnings and legal fees. “It’s very frustrating. Sometimes it seems like they’re taking the approach of ‘Let’s try and ban as many athletes as we can.’”

6) For a variety of reasons, the NHL is gone from a minor interest to me to being my favorite sport by a long shot.  They kind of suck on player safety (Tom Wilson!), though I appreciate the improvements from the constant fighting that really turned me off long ago, but, damn do they get it on air quality.  Kind of amazing that a sports league understands this so much better than major public health agencies.  I loved reading this about upcoming Hurricanes playoff games:

PNC Arena can normally seat 18,680 for hockey. Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said Friday the team was still discussing with the NHL how many fans the team would initially be allowed to host, but that NHL ventilation standards would still limit PNC to about 10,000-12,000 fans until the team can bring in additional HVAC and dehumidifying equipment.

7) No, I’m never going to love wasps, but I can appreciate the important environmental roles they play, “Wasps have a bad rap. This summer, let’s learn to love them”

8) Love, love, love this headline, “Pandora ditching mined diamonds for lab-grown ones: The move by the world’s biggest jeweler reflects consumer demand for sustainability and ethical sourcing.”  I mean, diamonds are absurdly over-rated as gemstones (I mean, a good emerald, ruby, or sapphire over a diamond any day!!), but even worse their environmental and human impact, so, yes, more of this!

9) This was interesting and definitely a move in the right direction, “Is This the End of the Leotard?The German gymnastics team’s full-body uniforms are a bold statement against sexualization and wedgies.”  Also, I had no idea the wedgies were such a big thing.  Athletes should be comfortable, damnit.

10) Good stuff from Noah Smith, “Why politically guided science is bad: Research should not be an effort to reach one’s desired conclusions.”

The other day, a paper was published in the American Economic Review about incarceration’s effect on children. It caused quite a stir, because it concluded that kids can sometimes benefit in certain ways from having their parents locked up:

Every year, millions of Americans experience the incarceration of a family member. Using 30 years of administrative data from Ohio and exploiting differing incarceration propensities of randomly assigned judges, this paper provides the first quasi-experimental estimates of the effects of parental and sibling incarceration in the US. Parental incarceration has beneficial effects on some important outcomes for children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult neighborhood quality. While estimates on academic performance and teen parenthood are imprecise, we reject large positive or negative effects. Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.

There was a torrent of negative reactions to the paper. That’s understandable. You have to be pretty ghoulish to actually like incarceration, and finding out that it can have some beneficial effects for the very children and siblings of the people who get locked up would place us on the horns of a dilemma. Uncomfortably, this is not the first paper to find some sort of effect like this. Here’s another from 2020, which uses a similar methodology but looks at education instead.

Some defended the paper, but very many people were upset about it. Negative reactions from various academics on Twitter ranged from “yikes” to barf emojis to allegations that its publication represented a breach of ethics. Defenders responded that these negative reactions were merely cases of people encountering inconvenient facts.

Those facts — and we do not yet know if they’re facts — would certainly be inconvenient, if you don’t like mass incarceration (and I definitely do not like it!). The U.S. prison system is a human rights nightmare; it would be disgusting to think that casting more people into the maw of that nightmare could be good for their children and siblings. And on top of that, these papers imply that family is sometimes a bad thing — that parents can be such toxic people that throwing them into a dungeon actually makes life better for their kids! That disturbing idea cuts against our deep-seated family values.

Nevertheless, I think calls for the suppression of findings like this are wrong. (And saying that papers like this should not be published, or should have to clear greater-than-usual hurdles for publication, is definitely a call for suppression.) In fact, this reaction is part of what I see as a growing movement in recent years to make scientific inquiry more governed by political ideology. And I think that’s a very bad idea. Scientists can’t ever be fully free of biases, but being less political and more devoted to seeking the facts is a worthy goal that should not be abandoned…

One worry that’s commonly brought up in these debates is that if bad people get a hold of these research results, they will do bad things with it…

In other words, maybe people like John Pfaff know how to use this research to craft better alternatives to modern-day incarceration or subtly tweak sentencing policy, but Ben Shapiro will see it and start screaming “SEEEE? MASS INCARCERATION IS GOOOOOOOD!!!” to his twelve bazillion followers. And then where will we be?

In fact, you can make a similar argument for almost any piece of research, especially for scientific discoveries. The same technology that can cure disease might be used to create bioweapons. The same chemistry discoveries that can create useful new materials can be used to blow people up. And so on.

It’s reasonable for scientists (including social scientists) to be concerned about the evil uses to which their discoveries might be put. But to suppress or modify those discoveries is akin to the Noble Lie — it’s an expression of a belief that you, the researcher, can predict the uses to which society will put your discoveries, and can thus control social outcomes by deciding whether to report what you’ve found.

11) Sorry if I’ve already mentioned Julia Galef and her new book on Scout Mindset, but this is a great interview and I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

Dylan Matthews

Walk me through what you mean by “scout mindset.” What does it mean to have it? How do you know if you have it?

Julia Galef

It’s my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.

By default, a lot of the time we humans are in what I call “soldier mindset,” in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.

I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to “shore up” our beliefs, “support them” and “buttress them” as if they’re fortresses. We try to “shoot down” opposing arguments and we try to “poke holes” in the other side.

I call this “soldier mindset,” and “scout mindset” is an alternative to that. It’s a different way of thinking about what to believe or thinking about what’s true.

12) As a top-notch linguist and someone decidedly anti-woke, John McWhorter is always especially interesting on the N-word:

Some will despise that I am calling the new take on the word pious. But 25 years ago we all knew exactly those things about the word’s heritage, and felt modern and enlightened to, with sensible moderation, utter the word in reference rather than gesture. Under normal conditions, the etiquette would have stayed at that point. The only thing that makes that take on the word now seem backwards is a sense of outright “cover-your-mouth” taboo: i.e. religion. This performative refusal to distinguish, this embrace of the mythic, shows a take on the N-word analogous to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

In my experience, a common idea is that if we allow the word to be used in reference, there is a slippery slope from there to whites feeling comfortable hurling the slur as well. There are two problems with this point. One: for decades civilized people could use the word in reference, and yet there was no sign of the epithet coming back into style. Today’s crusaders can’t claim to be holding off some rising tide. Second: what is the sociohistorical parallel? At what point in human history has a slur been proscribed, but then returned to general usage because it was considered okay to refer to the word as opposed to use it? That many people can just imagine this happening with the N-word is not an argument, especially since it’s hard not to notice that this hypothetical scenario fits so cozily into their professionally Manichaean take on race…

We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word n—– [McWhorter used the full word, but you sure won’t catch me doing that] but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves…

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

13) I haven’t actually read all of this, but everybody sure does love it, “‘I’d Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This’ The plan to kill Osama bin Laden—from the spycraft to the assault to its bizarre political backdrop—as told by the people in the room.”

14) I’m not sure that the correct response from the CDC from being overly-cautious is to now be overly aggressive.  My take is that universal public indoor masking should be expected until all adults who want to be fully vaccinated have had the chance to be fully vaccinated, and, realistically, we’re talking about some time in June for that.  As, usual, I think Zeynep is right, “Maybe We Need Masks Indoors Just a Bit Longer”

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say it did not believe that fully vaccinated people needed to wear masks or distance indoors or out, with a few exceptions, like when using public transportation.

It’s difficult for officials to issue rules as conditions evolve and uncertainty continues. So I hesitate to question the agency’s approach. But it’s not clear whether it was responding to scientific evidence or public clamor to lift state and local mandates, which the C.D.C. said could remain in place.

It might have been better to have kept up indoor mask mandates to help suppress the virus for maybe as little as a few more weeks.

The C.D.C. could have set metrics to measure such progress, saying that guidelines would be maintained until the number of cases or the number vaccinations reached a certain level, determined by epidemiologists…

Telling everyone to wear masks indoors has a sociological effect. Grocery stores and workplaces cannot enforce mask wearing by vaccination status. We do not have vaccine passports in the U.S., and I do not see how we could. Places can either say “wear a mask regardless” or just accept that people who don’t want to wear one will not…

Even if the only people not protected by the vaccines were those hesitant to use them or who had false beliefs about them, public health principles would not allow us to say that any threat to their health is their problem, at least not while the virus is still spreading at substantive levels. Infectious diseases create risks for others.

There are those who are not yet vaccinated because they haven’t managed to navigate the process, or have started late, or are concerned because of bad experiences with the medical establishment. The immunocompromised remain vulnerable. Even if the unvaccinated were all conspiracy theorists and dead-end anti-vaxxers, we would need to take virus levels into account before discounting the risks even to them.

Plus, Covid-19 can still terribly burden our health resources, especially in those areas that still have many unvaccinated adults.

The C.D.C. guidelines are essentially implying that the risk that the vaccinated will transmit the virus to others, including their unvaccinated children, is so vanishingly low that it is not worth worrying about. But if that’s their position, they should state it clearly and explain it, not just say that “fully vaccinated people have a reduced risk of transmitting” the virus.

And is the expectation that the unvaccinated will all simply go with the guidance and stay masked? That does not fit with what we’ve observed in this country over the past year, especially with the ongoing polarization over these questions.

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Bernstein:

You want to know something really depressing? Now is the time when Republicans have the least to fear from former President Donald Trump. There’s more than a year to go until the 2022 midterm elections, and at least 10 months until the primaries for those elections. Trump left office at one of his low points in popularity. Sure, most Republican voters still like him — as most Republicans like most Republican politicians (other than congressional leaders, who are almost always unpopular).

Not only that, but Trump’s electoral defeat is still fairly recent news. If there was ever a time to move away from him, it’s now.

That, of course, is not what’s happening. Just in the last few days, angry Utah Republicans hooted at Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to remove Trump from office after his impeachment trials. Over in the House of Representatives, Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming is apparently in danger (again) of losing her leadership post because she insists on accurately saying that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. And believing — or at least pretending to believe — Trump’s fantastic lies about nonexistent voting fraud is increasingly the central belief Republican elected officials must share

My guess is that this has little to do with Trump. Republican complaints about fictional election fraud were central to their legislative agenda in state after state well before Trump’s 2016 campaign. It’s true that the specifics of that agenda have shifted somewhat in response to Trump’s whining. What that shows more than anything, however, is that attempts to hijack elections may only be the secondary motive for these laws; the primary reason for them is for Republican elected officials to convince their strongest supporters that they are doing their best to repress Democrats and various Democratic groups. 

That’s why fictional election fraud is such a good issue for many Republicans right now. Opposing Biden and the Democratic legislative agenda, after all, would tend to unite the party. But a united Republican Party is the last thing that Republican radicals want. They need enemies; they need apostates they can label “Republicans in name only” to prove that they are the true conservatives. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s continuing lies are so obviously an attack on the Constitution, the rule of law and the American republic that Republicans such as Romney and Cheney refused to go along. For the radicals, that’s exactly the kind of opportunity they rarely fail to exploit.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that any of this will seriously damage Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Elections tend to ride on what voters think about incumbents, not challengers. There is a slim possibility that the party will split and make itself unelectable. And there’s a somewhat greater chance that it will wind up throwing away a handful of elections by nominating candidates who run well behind what a generic candidate would do, as it’s done repeatedly over the last decade. For the most part, however, the out-party’s actions don’t have much to do with its electoral success.

The real damage continues to be to the party’s capacity to govern when it does win. And, even more seriously, to the party’s commitment to core democratic beliefs and procedures. Depressing, indeed — and scary.

2) Yeah, so this… “Experts: CDC’s Summer-Camp Rules Are ‘Cruel’ and ‘Irrational’”

With all this good news related to the pandemic in the U.S. and the relaxing of a number of controls, the CDC’s newly released guidance for summer camps is notable for its rigidity and strictness: Masks must be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old. The exceptions are for eating and swimming. (The guidance helpfully notes that if a person is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, no mask need be worn.) Campers must remain three feet apart from each other at all times including, again, outdoors. Six feet of distance must be maintained during meals and between campers and staff. If you need to sneeze and you don’t have a tissue, do it into your mask. (Children presumably are expected to carry a cache of spares.) Campers and staff should be cohorted, and any interaction with a person outside the cohort must be conducted at a distance of six feet. Art supplies, toys, books, and games are not to be shared…

For much of last summer, when COVID-19 rates were on par with where they are now — before half the adult population was vaccinated and millions of children had acquired immunity naturally — many camps had far fewer restrictions and there was no corresponding wave of related outbreaks.

The combination of masking and social distancing of children outdoors, said Dimitri Christakis, an epidemiologist and the editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, the leading journal for pediatric medicine, “is unfairly draconian.” We should let kids be close and play, he said. And with rapid testing twice a week on a rolling basis, a relatively easy program to conduct, he added, we should be able to forgo masks. Even without testing, Christakis said that sports like soccer should be able to be done without masks. And that “keeping children masked for activities like baseball and tennis is ridiculous.”

Mark Gorelik, a pediatric immunologist at Columbia University and an expert on MIS-C, the rare COVID-19-related inflammatory syndrome, said, “We know that the risk of outdoor infection is very low. We know risks of children becoming seriously ill or even ill at all is vanishingly small. And most of the vulnerable population is already vaccinated. I am supportive of effective measures to restrain the spread of illness. However, the CDC’s recommendations cross the line into excess and are, frankly, senseless. Children cannot be running around outside in 90-degree weather wearing a mask. Period.”

An infectious-disease scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci’s agency, spoke with me about the CDC guidance on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “With staff and parents vaccinated, there is no reason to continue incredibly strict mitigation efforts or put severe limitations on activities,” they said. “Charitably,” the scientist, who has an expertise in respiratory viruses, continued, “masking kids at camp outdoors is simply virtue signaling. Requiring kids to continuously wear masks at camps, even while outside playing in the heat, when it provides little additional protection is unfair and cruel to our children. Considering that children are at incredibly low risk for developing severe illness, the minimal benefits of mask wearing do not outweigh the substantial costs of discouraging children to be active and their overall health.

3) We’re doing some survey experiments with some cool PSA’s we made.  Check out this one.  At the end of the survey there’s an option for open-ended feedback.  This one was just amazing:

In case you’re wondering.  I’m not getting the vaccine any time soon because I’m pissed off about the government lockdowns and the blatant lying by the CDC, and Fauci, about the actual research studies that prompted the state mandated lockdowns.  Refusing to get the vaccine is the only thing that I have control over in this whole unconstitutional situation.  So even though I compleley trust the vaccines, and I believe that they work remarkably well, and that refusing to get the vaccine is not in my best interest nor in the best interest of society as a whole, I am still going to say no.  I’ll get the vaccine when I’m done being pissed off.

4) Speaking of vaccines, I’m so tired of the media trying to scare people about variants for clicks when the reality is more like this, “Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine is Highly Effective Against Variants, Studies Find: Two studies showed the vaccine to be more than 95 percent effective at protecting against severe disease or death from the variants first identified in South Africa and the U.K.”

5) Given the current reality, I’d be disappointed if my or my kid’s university was doing on-line only graduation.  NC State is doing multiple outdoor graduations.  I am disappointed, though, that the PS ceremony where we get to see our graduates and meet their families is not happening.  

6) The lost Franklin expedition of 1845 is fascinating.  I’ve not watched AMC’s The Terror, but read Dan Simmon’s novel upon which it’s based.  Now there’s this, “His Ship Vanished in the Arctic 176 Years Ago. DNA Has Offered a Clue.: For the first time, researchers have identified the remains of a sailor from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

7) I gotta say, I’m not impressed by the prison abolition movement.  There’s so much we need to do a lot better, but I think there’s pretty solid models in Europe rather than a utopian vision of prison abolition:

The book, which débuted on the Times best-seller list, offers an entry point into the world of abolitionist politics, beginning with an essay titled “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist.” It contains several basic but profound observations: “Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized.” If there is a mismatch between punishment and crime, and crime and harm, then what is the intent of the criminal-justice system and the police it employs? Kaba refers to the “criminal punishment system” to emphasize that justice in the United States means a promise of retribution much more than an effort to understand why an infraction has occurred. She writes, “If we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.” When we spoke, Kaba told me, “I am looking to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about.” …

Our current criminal-justice system is rooted in the assumption that millions of people require policing, surveillance, containment, prison. It is a dark view of humanity. By contrast, Kaba and others in this emergent movement fervently believe in the capacity of people to change in changed conditions. That is the optimism at the heart of the abolitionist project. As Kaba insists in her book, “The reason I’m struggling through all of this is because I’m a deeply, profoundly hopeful person. Because I know that human beings, with all of our foibles and all the things that are failing, have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things, too. That gives me the hope to feel like we will, when necessary, do what we need to do.” Abolition is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even the guiding lights of the movement are embedded in campaigns for short-term reforms that make a difference in daily life. For Kaba, that has meant raising funds for mutual aid during the pandemic and campaigning for reparations in Chicago. For Gilmore, it has meant working with incarcerated people and their families to challenge the building of prisons across California. For Angela Davis, it has meant lending her voice to movements for civil and human rights, from Ferguson to Palestine. The point is to work in solidarity with others toward the world as they wish for it to be. “Hope is a discipline,” Kaba writes. “We must practice it daily.”

8) Looks like MDMA (aka Ecstasy) can be remarkably effective as part of a treatment regime for PTSD.  It’s a shame to think of the human suffering we could have been alleviating without such a moralistic and binary approach to so many potentially beneficial drugs:

In an important step toward medical approval, MDMA, the illegal drug popularly known as Ecstasy or Molly, was shown to bring relief to those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder when paired with talk therapy.

Of the 90 people who took part in the new study, which is expected to be published later this month in Nature Medicine, those who received MDMA during therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms compared with those who received therapy and an inactive placebo. Two months after treatment, 67 percent of participants in the MDMA group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with 32 percent in the placebo group.

MDMA produced no serious adverse side effects. Some participants temporarily experienced mild symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite.

“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” said Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”

Mental health experts say that this research — the first Phase 3 trial conducted on psychedelic-assisted therapy — could pave the way for further studies on MDMA’s potential to help address other difficult-to-treat mental health conditions, including substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, eating disordersdepressionend-of-life anxiety and social anxiety in autistic adults.

And, mental health researchers say, these studies could also encourage additional research on other banned psychedelics, including psilocybin, LSD and mescaline.

“This is a wonderful, fruitful time for discovery, because people are suddenly willing to consider these substances as therapeutics again, which hasn’t happened in 50 years,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of the new study.

9) The latest on Neanderthals

Estatuas cave in northern Spain was a hive of activity 105,000 years ago. Artifacts show its Neanderthal inhabitants hafted stone tools, butchered red deer, and may have made fires. They also shed, bled, and excreted subtler clues onto the cave floor: their own DNA. “You can imagine them sitting in the cave making tools, butchering animals. Maybe they cut themselves or their babies pooped,” says population geneticist Benjamin Vernot, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), whose perspective may have been colored by his own baby’s cries during a Zoom call. “All that DNA accumulates in the dirt floors.”

He and MPI-EVA geneticist Matthias Meyer report today in Science that dirt from Estatuas has yielded molecular treasure: the first nuclear DNA from an ancient human to be gleaned from sediments. Earlier studies reported shorter, more abundant human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from cave floors, but nuclear DNA, previously available only from bones and teeth, can be far more informative. “Now, it seems that it is possible to extract nuclear DNA from dirt, and we have a lot of dirt in archaeological sites,” says archaeologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University.

“This is a beautiful paper,” agrees population geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute. The sequences reveal the genetic identity and sex of ancient cave dwellers and show that one group of Neanderthals replaced another in the Spanish cave about 100,000 years ago, perhaps after a climate cooling. “They can see a shift in Neanderthal populations at the very same site, which is quite nice,” Skoglund says.

In what Skoglund calls “an amazing technical demonstration,” they developed new genetic probes to fish out hominin DNA, allowing them to ignore the abundant sequences from plants, animals, and bacteria. Then, they used statistical methods to home in on DNA unique to Neanderthals and compare it with reference genomes from Neanderthals in a phylogenetic tree.

All three sites yielded Neanderthal nuclear and mtDNA, with the biggest surprise coming from the small amount of nuclear DNA from multiple Neanderthals in Estatuas cave. Nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal male in the deepest layer, dating to about 113,000 years ago, linked him to early Neanderthals who lived about 120,000 years ago in Denisova cave and in caves in Belgium and Germany.

But two female Neanderthals who lived in Estatuas cave later, about 100,000 years ago, had nuclear DNA more closely matching that of later, “classic” Neanderthals, including those who lived less than 70,000 years ago at Vindija cave in Croatia and 60,000 to 80,000 years ago at Chagyrskaya cave, says co-author and paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid.

At the same time, the more plentiful mtDNA from Estatuas cave shows declining diversity. Neanderthals in the cave 113,000 years ago had at least three types of mtDNA. But the cave’s Neanderthals 80,000 and 107,000 years ago had only one type. Existing ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones and teeth had also pointed to a falloff in genetic diversity over the same period.

Arsuaga suggests Neanderthals thrived and diversified during the warm, moist interglacial period that started 130,000 years ago. But about 110,000 years ago, temperatures in Europe dipped suddenly as a new glacial period set in. Soon after, all but one lineage of Neanderthals disappeared. Members of the surviving lineage repopulated Europe during later, relatively warm spells, with some taking shelter in Estatuas cave.

10) The Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebasitan Aho had the team’s first hat trick of the season this week.  I was disappointed to learn that the team makes no effort to return the hats to the fans (some teams do).  

11) John Swartzwelder wrote a ton of iconic Simpsons episodes (and way more episodes than any other writer), but is known for being extraordinary private and reclusive.  Thus, a real treat to read this new interview with him.  

12) I’m entirely open to the scientific possibility that we don’t actually need to vaccinate all our kids to keep them safe and Covid well-contained (I like that formulation better than “herd immunity”).  But, the sociological/psychological reality is that there’s too many parents (and teachers) who won’t be able to relax and behave normally till all the kids are vaccinated— so let’s do it. “Do Kids Really Need to Be Vaccinated for Covid? Yes. No. Maybe.: Many experts argue that Covid-19 cannot be curbed without vaccinating children. But others aren’t so sure.”

13) I was shocked to see an ad for Dr Pepper Zero the other day.  As those who know me in real-life know, I absolutely swear by my Diet Dr Pepper (or DDP as we refer to it in the Greene household).  Fortunately, it’s not being replaced and we’ll have a Diet Coke/Coke Zero kind of thing going on here.  Also, I am curious about it.  

14) I remember being really intrigued by David Buss’ work on sex and evolutionary psychology a long time ago (in fact, I even used to discuss it in my Gender & Politics class).  I imagine it is less welcome than ever on the left.  Here’s a pretty interesting summary from his new book:

Professor David M. Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, states in the introduction of his fascinating new book that it “uncovers the hidden roots of sexual conflict.” Though the book focuses on male misbehavior, it also contains a broad and fascinating overview of mating psychology.

Sex, as defined by biologists, is indicated by the size of our gametes. Males have smaller gametes (sperm) and females have larger gametes (eggs). Broadly speaking, women and men had conflicting interests in the ancestral environment. Women were more vulnerable than men. And women took on far more risk when having sex, including pregnancy, which was perilous in an environment without modern technology. In addition to the physical costs, in the final stages of pregnancy, women must also obtain extra calories. According to Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women in their final trimester require an additional 200 calories per day, or 18,000 calories more in total than they otherwise would have required. This surplus was not easy to obtain for our ancestors. Men, in contrast, did not face the same level of sexual risk.

These differences in reproductive biology have given rise to differences in sexual psychology that are comparable to sex differences in height, weight, and upper-body muscle mass. However, Buss is careful to note, such differences always carry the qualifier “on average.” Some women are taller than some men—but on average men are taller. Likewise, some women prefer to have more sex partners than some men—but on average men prefer more. These evolved differences are a key source of conflict.

One goal of the book is to highlight situations in which sexual conflict is diminished or amplified to prevent victimization and reduce harm.

Because of the increased risk women carry, they tend to be choosier about their partners. In contrast, men are less discerning. Studies of online dating, for example, find that most men find most women to be at least somewhat attractive. In contrast, women, on average, view 80 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. Another study found that on the dating app Tinder, men “liked” more than 60 percent of the female profiles they viewed, while women “liked” only 4.5 percent of male profiles.

The book provides a simple figure to understand the ongoing conflict between men and women.

Men are constantly trying to manipulate women into moving closer to their preferred optimum, and women are likewise relentlessly influencing men to inch closer toward theirs. Buss writes, “If women and men could agree in advance on a compromised middle-ground solution that was perfect for neither but acceptable for both … they could avoid many of these costs.”

Because sexual risks are higher and sexual mistakes are more dangerous for women, they prefer to wait longer to evaluate a potential partner for suitability. For men, sexual mistakes are viewed differently. Research indicates that when asked to reflect on their sexual history, women are more likely to regret having had sex with someone, while men are more likely to regret having missed out on sexual opportunities. 

Even in the most egalitarian countries, men prefer more sexual partners compared to women. In Norway, researchers asked people how many sex partners they would prefer over the next 30 years. On average, women preferred five, men preferred 25. Even the desire to kiss before intercourse differs between the sexes. About 53 percent of men report that they would have sex without kissing, while only 14.6 percent of women would have sex without kissing. These different preferences can give rise to sexual conflict.

15) Pretty interesting stuff from Gallup on proof of vaccination status:

Americans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities Based on COVID-19 Attitudes
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Vaccination status  
Have been/Will be vaccinated 74 71 59 56 52
Will not get vaccinated 8 7 6 6 5
Worry about getting COVID-19  
Very/Somewhat worried 77 72 66 59 55
Not too/Not at all worried 49 48 36 37 34
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021
Partisans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Party identification  
Democrat 85 82 69 66 62
Independent 47 47 38 35 30
Republican 28 25 16 22 19
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021

16) There’s a 9 inch(!) moth in Australia.

The giant wood moth was discovered by a construction worker at the Mount Cotton State School.

Credit…Mount Cotton State School

17) This is terrific.  “‘I seek a kind person’: the Guardian ad that saved my Jewish father from the Nazis: In 1938, there was a surge of classified ads in this newspaper as parents – including my grandparents – scrambled to get their children out of the Reich. What became of the families?”

18) David Frum argues that China is actually a paper dragon and not nearly as scary as we think.

Undergirding these examples and dozens more like them is Beckley’s clarifying theoretical insight: Repression is expensive.

The lines that plot the comparative GDP of the United States and China distort the real balance of power between the two societies, Beckley argues, because China must devote such a large share of its resources to basic subsistence needs to avert the overthrow of the state.

Beckley dramatizes this point with historical context. The concept of GDP did not exist in the 19th century, but economists have retrospectively reconstructed those figures backward into time. They have found that in the 1800s, the Chinese empire had a GDP much larger than that of Great Britain. The Chinese army of 800,000 men also enormously exceeded Britain’s troop numbers. Yet when the two states clashed in the two Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1842 and again in 1858, China was crushingly defeated. Why?

A great part of the answer, then as now, was the cost of repression.

Nineteenth-century China faced an average of 25 local uprisings a year. Most of its troops had to be deployed to suppress rebellions and control banditry, leaving few available for war-fighting.

The next part of the answer is that mass is not power.

Although China’s resources were enormous in the aggregate, most were consumed by the basics of subsistence. In the 19th-century, Britain produced only half as much as China, but it did so with one-thirteenth the population—making more wealth available for more purposes.

A final piece of the answer is that technological copycats face huge disadvantages against technological innovators. They will always lag behind the more creative rival, not only in the factory, but on the battlefield. “Repeatedly during the Opium Wars … Chinese armies of thousands were routed in minutes by a few hundred, or even a few dozen, British troops,” Beckley notes.

19) Looks like I was wrong on this and I truly believe that when you opine on stuff it’s important to admit when you are wrong (and even better to grapple with why you were).  For now, here’s Drum: “Update: The J&J Vaccine Pause Probably Had No Effect on Vaccine Hesitancy”

20) Always read Ash Jha: “We may not reach herd immunity. That’s okay.”

After an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign over the past four months, vaccine demand has begun to soften, leading to hand-wringing in some quarters about whether the United States will achieve herd immunity or whether we will be living with the coronavirus months and years from now.

The answer is, it’s not that simple. And just as important, it may not matter that much.

Herd immunity is not a clear line. The virus will not be eradicated the moment we administer the shot that gets us to herd immunity. The term describes the inflection point at which each infection results in less than one additional infection and outbreaks sputter out. You can think of it like a wildfire surrounded by firebreaks, where the blaze ultimately burns out without additional interventions.

It’s not hard to see how it came to be viewed as the pandemic finish line, but that line has shifted. Estimates of herd immunity have been adjusted upward from the 60 percent to 70 percent that we expected last year, to 80 percent more recently, largely because of new variants that are more contagious. The threshold is determined by factors beyond vaccination, including immunity due to prior infections, seasonal effects such as humidity and time spent indoors, who is immune and who isn’t, and broader behavioral factors such as whether people are engaging in any public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
 
Real-world evidence from Israel and the United Kingdom suggests that even without hitting the herd immunity threshold, vaccination can drive infections way down. Why? Because immunity in a population is not like an on-off switch. As populations begin to build up immunity, infection spread begins to slow. If people practice even modest levels of public health measures such as mask-wearing indoors or avoiding large crowds, it may be enough to drive infection numbers down substantially. To stretch the fire metaphor, even if you don’t have the flames surrounded on all sides, a little bit of a drizzle combined with some firebreaks may be enough to keep it from burning out of control…

The coronavirus pandemic marks the clearest dividing line in most of our lives. But while the pandemic had a clear beginning, the ending will be much more gradual. As vaccination rates slow, we will require a resource-intensive ground game to reach more and more unvaccinated people and push us toward herd immunity. It is indeed possible that we may not reach that elusive threshold, or we might get there for a period only to have waning immunity, new variants or changes in behavior drop us below that threshold. But with infection numbers low and modest mitigation efforts in place, we will see small outbreaks that will affect the unvaccinated and burn out quickly. The terrifying surges of the past year will be behind us. And the things we value most in our lives — time with family and friends, social gatherings with colleagues, entertainment and sports — things we have missed so much, will be possible and safe.

This pandemic will end when the risk it poses, and the strategies necessary to mitigate that risk, fade into the background and become part of normal life. To get there, we should focus less on the herd immunity threshold, vaccinate more people and get on with our lives. As the old saying goes, pandemics end with a whimper, not with a bang. This one, too, will end. With a whimper.

21) This was very interesting, but I think in some ways misguided, “The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles: A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Some might not be very green” Yes, there’s absolutely local, significant environmental costs to mining all that lithium.  But on a global cost/benefit scale the benefits are so much greater.  Of course we should minimize the harm we do from mining lithium, but, let’s keep this in big picture perspective.

22) I’ve been following the whole global efforts and patents controversy at some remove so I’m a little cautious, but Alex Tabarrok seems pretty right based on what I do know:

For the last year and a half I have been shouting from the rooftops, “invest in capacity, build more factories, shore up the supply lines, spend billions to save trillions.” Fortunately, some boffins in the Biden administration have found a better way, “the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic.”
Waive IP protections. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that???

Patents are not the problem. All of the vaccine manufacturers are trying to increase supply as quickly as possible. Billions of doses are being produced–more than ever before in the history of the world. Licenses are widely available. AstraZeneca have licensed their vaccine for production with manufactures around the world, including in India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, China and South Africa. J&J’s vaccine has been licensed for production by multiple firms in the United States as well as with firms in Spain, South Africa and France. Sputnik has been licensed for production by firms in India, China, South Korea, Brazil and pending EMA approval with firms in Germany and France. Sinopharm has been licensed in the UAE, Egypt and Bangladesh. Novavax has licensed its vaccine for production in South Korea, India, and Japan and it is desperate to find other licensees but technology transfer isn’t easy and there are limited supplies of raw materials:

Virtually overnight, [Novavax] set up a network of outside manufacturers more ambitious than one outside executive said he’s ever seen, but they struggled at times to transfer their technology there amid pandemic travel restrictions. They were kicked out of one factory by the same government that’s bankrolled their effort. Competing with larger competitors, they’ve found themselves short on raw materials as diverse as Chilean tree bark and bioreactor bags. They signed a deal with India’s Serum Institute to produce many of their COVAX doses but now face the realistic chance that even when Serum gets to full capacity — and they are behind — India’s government, dealing with the world’s worst active outbreak, won’t let the shots leave the country.

Plastic bags are a bigger bottleneck than patents. The US embargo on vaccine supplies to India was precisely that the Biden administration used the DPA to prioritize things like bioreactor bags and filters to US suppliers and that meant that India’s Serum Institute was having trouble getting its production lines ready for Novavax. CureVac, another potential mRNA vaccine, is also finding it difficult to find supplies due to US restrictions (which means supplies are short everywhere). As Derek Lowe said:

Abolishing patents will not provide more shaker bags or more Chilean tree bark, nor provide more of the key filtration materials needed for production. These processes have a lot of potential choke points and rate-limiting steps in them, and there is no wand that will wave that complexity away.

Technology transfer has been difficult for AstraZeneca–which is one reason they have had production difficulties–and their vaccine uses relatively well understood technology. The mRNA technology is new and has never before been used to produce at scale. Pfizer and Moderna had to build factories and distribution systems from scratch. There are no mRNA factories idling on the sidelines. If there were, Moderna or Pfizer would be happy to license since they are producing in their own factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week (monopolies restrict supply, remember?). Why do you think China hasn’t yet produced an mRNA vaccine? Hint: it isn’t fear about violating IP. Moreover, even Moderna and Pfizer don’t yet fully understand their production technology, they are learning by doing every single day. Moderna has said that they won’t enforce their patents during the pandemic but no one has stepped up to produce because no one else can.

The US trade representative’s announcement is virtue signaling to the anti-market left and will do little to nothing to increase supply.

What can we do to increase supply? Sorry, there is no quick and cheap solution. We must spend. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed spent on the order of $15 billion. If we want more, we need to spend more and on similar scale. The Biden administration paid $269 million to Merck to retool its factories to make the J&J vaccine. That was a good start. We could also offer Pfizer and Moderna say $100 a dose to produce in excess of their current production and maybe with those resources there is more they could do. South Africa and India and every other country in the world should offer the same (India hasn’t even approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are complaining about IP!??) We should ease up on the DPA and invest more in the supply chain–let’s get CureVac and the Serum Institute what they need. We should work like hell to find a substitute for Chilean tree bark. See my piece in Science co-authored with Michael Kremer et. al. for more ideas. (Note also that these ideas are better at dealing with current supply constraints and they also increase the incentive to produce future vaccines, unlike shortsighted patent abrogation.)

Bottom line is that producing more takes real resources not waving magic patent wands.

Outdoor masks and youth sports

I was glad that our local rec soccer league encouraged masks for this soccer season back when we started because that turned out to be critical in encouraging my daughter to play this season when we made the decision back in January.  I’m also really glad, that in light of the declining case rates and ever-increasing evidence on the safety of outdoors, they went to voluntary mask use this past weekend.  I did quite enjoy coaching without a mask (mostly because the girls played great and won 3-2).  I think 4 of the 9 players continued to use their mask (will be interesting to see if that’s any different in this week’s practice or next weekend’s games).  I’m not quite sure what my daughter would have chosen to do, as she was actually home sick.  

Anyway, in light of all that, was very intrigued to see this study on kids outdoor sports and masking:

Hoeg also makes the point in a follow-up tweet, that this surely means we should probably eschew masks for recess as well.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) This is very true, “A Vaccine Can Be Bad for a Person but Awesome for All People: The safety pause in giving the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is up for debate again—a battle in a Secret War of Denominators and risk-benefit philosophies.”

2) Have I mentioned how much I love, love, love Zeynep’s (free) substack.  So many posts are basically just a clear breakdown of how to be a better thinker applied to examples with Covid.  In these week’s it’s about an outbreak at a nursing home that led many to say “oh, no, vaccines don’t work” but was really a great demonstration of vaccine efficacy.

What are we looking at here? A nursing home outbreak, 46 infections, three deaths, a variant with concerning mutations.

Here’s one way to headline an article about the study:

The article describes the outbreak:

An unvaccinated health care worker set off a Covid-19 outbreak at a nursing home in Kentucky where the vast majority of residents had been vaccinated, leading to dozens of infections, including 22 cases among residents and employees who were already fully vaccinated, a new study reported Wednesday.

Most of those who were infected with the coronavirus despite being vaccinated did not develop symptoms or require hospitalization, but one vaccinated individual, who was a resident of the nursing home, died, according to the study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Altogether, 26 facility residents were infected, including 18 who had been vaccinated, and 20 health care personnel were infected, including four who had been vaccinated. Two unvaccinated residents also died.

The article isn’t inaccurate. It relays what indeed happened. The headline is descriptive. The article states up top that most of the infected did not develop symptoms or require hospitalization, while noting the one death. It highlights the importance of vaccinating nursing home staff (which is how it came into the facility), and explains that this was a variant that shared a key mutation, E484K, with variants that were suspected of partial immune escape, like  B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1. (Brazil). I’m not picking on the article at all, it is usually how such studies are represented in responsible outlets: the descriptive facts, in order. This is our accepted practice.

The CDC study also notes an efficacy calculation: “Vaccine was 86.5% protective against symptomatic illness among residents and 87.1% protective among HCP.” I saw multiple attempts on social media to compare this number to the one efficacy number from the trials, usually around 95%:…

A cluster differs greatly from what we measured in trials where the participants did not live together or share exposure especially because we know this pathogen is very overdispersed. It oscillates between being aggressively contagious—probably a combination of a person who emits a lot of aerosols and is at the most contagious stage of their infection plus an enclosed space, or repeated exposure in a congregate living facility like this one—and not transmitting onward at all. Various studies find that 80 to 90 percent of people never transmit onward—they are the end of the chain.

Hence, if your exposure takes place while you are a member of a potential cluster, your odds of being infected are much greater than in comparison with exposure that doesn’t occur as part of a cluster. For a pathogen like this, finding transmission events, not infected people, are key because transmission events are near each other. If you find one, you are likely to find more. But that also means that being in a cluster is a worse case scenario, compared with the independent measurements from the trials: one would expect higher attack rates.  In fact, this is very useful information for mitigation: focusing on finding such clusters and “backward-tracing them” to find the source, and then trying to look at other people that might have been exposed within that cluster, rather than trying to trace every infected person’s onward contacts (most of which were going to be dead end anyway) was key to Japan’s comparatively very successful strategy (something I wrote about while explaining overdispersion and its implications). 

When you put this together, what is the information you get from the above study?

You get very, very good, reassuring news about the vaccines.

3) This is really good from political scientists Frances Lee and James Curry: “What’s Really Holding the Democrats Back: It’s not the filibuster.”

Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s Democratic senator, has put everyone on notice: Under no circumstances will he vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster. If the support of at least 10 Republicans is needed to pass legislation, progressives have little hope for their agenda. At least that’s what many seem to think. But eliminating the filibuster probably wouldn’t matter as much as they believe it would. The bigger obstacle to any party’s agenda is its members’ inability to agree among themselves.

We compiled the stated policy goals of every congressional majority party from 1985 through 2018. We identified the parties’ agendas by looking to the bills designated as leadership priorities and the issues flagged by the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader in their opening speech to Congress, yielding a list on average of 15 top priorities per congressional term. Tracking each proposal, 265 in total, we found that the parties failed outright on their agenda priorities about half the time, meaning that no legislation on the issue was enacted.  

We then analyzed when, how, and why each failed, and also whether the majority party faced a unified or divided government when it did. Naturally, when a party controlled the House, Senate, and presidency, it fared somewhat better in enacting its agenda than when it didn’t, but not markedly so. Parties failed on 43 percent of their agenda priorities in unified government as compared with 49 percent in divided government. This failure rate varies from Congress to Congress, but has remained fairly consistent even in recent years. When Democrats most recently held all three branches of government (in 2009–10), they failed on 50 percent of their agenda items. When Republicans most recently held all three (in 2017–18), they failed on 36 percent.

When a party has unified control of government, the filibuster provides the Senate’s minority party (if it has at least 41 senators) with the ability to stop the majority’s legislative efforts. This is why partisans focus so much on the filibuster, and why progressive activists are so concerned over it right now. But the filibuster accounted for only about one-third of the majority party’s failures during the periods of unified government we studied. In the two most recent instances of unified government—the Democrats in 2009–10 and the Republicans in 2017–18—agenda failures caused by the filibuster were even less common. The Democrats had just one of their priorities, immigration reform, fail because of the filibuster. The Republicans had none. Filibuster reform, then, may enable Democrats to achieve particular policy goals opposed by Republicans, and those would certainly be victories. But most failures, about two-thirds overall during years of unified government and 90 percent during the past two instances of unified government, stemmed from disagreements within the majority party rather than the minority party’s ability to block legislation via the filibuster.

4) Kevin Drum with his “megatrends” of American politics.  I agree with most, especially these:

1. US politics will stay toxic as long as Fox News is around. Rupert Murdoch has discovered that spreading fear and outrage is the most reliable way of making money, so that’s what he does. It’s all but impossible to sustain a traditional political system when half the population is scared senseless of the other half, and that will remain the case until Fox New is somehow reined in…

6.  We are entering a biotech golden age. I know, I know: we’ve been entering a biotech golden age for the past four decades. But after years of prologue, I think we really are finally on the verge of huge change. Cheap genome sequencing, CRISPR, and mRNA vaccines are harbingers of the near future.

5) David Frum with an interesting take on the rise of Ron DeSantis.

6) Jack Shafer on the rise of Substack:

The rise of Substack—and of platforms of its competitors—signals a new juncture in journalism, one that combines the power and mystique of the byline with the editorial independence afforded by the blog. After being lectured forever about how information wants to be free, Substack is teaching us that not only will readers pay for top-drawer copy, but that the work of some writers was actually undervalued in the market before readers were given the opportunity to purchase journalism a la carte instead of from a prix fixe menu.

Substack has stampeded some elite media types into a panic. “Is Substack the Media Future We Want?” worried a New Yorker feature recently. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith analyzed the upheaval in his column, “Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack.” Yes, Substack looks like a revolution and smells like a revolution, but as many have noted, it’s really a throwback to the origins of journalism in the Middle Ages, and the emphasis on who is writing the copy as opposed to what is being written can be traced to the late 19th century. Substack may be educating the industry about who adds the high value in journalism, writers or editors.

7) This is cool, “This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It’s Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years”

8) Pretty sure I wrote a post a while back about how the soccer penalty kick is the dumbest thing in sports.  I stand by that.  Apparently, Premier League teams are now working extra hard to draw fouls in the corner of the penalty box where the likelihood of your next few actions actually scoring a goal is super-low anyway.  Soccer is such a great sport with some really stupid rules.  

Indeed, it hasn’t merely gone, but it’s flipped the other way. Aside from serious foul play, VAR only looks at incidents in the box — so now, fouls that are less obvious inside the box are penalised more than those outside.

This new era hasn’t simply changed the decision-making of officials, but also the approach of forwards, which probably explains the increase in the award of penalties between the first VAR season and the second (as well as some particularly harsh handball decisions at the start of this campaign). It has become increasingly obvious that in certain situations, more than ever, attackers are playing for penalties by attempting to engineer contact. Strategically, it makes complete sense, particularly when an attacker is in the corner of the box.

The word “box” is key here, because the concept of a penalty box doesn’t reflect the true value of the football pitch. In other comparable sports — hockey, for example — this type of area is denoted by a semi-circle rather than a rectangle, forming a consistent distance from the goal. Everyone knows the penalty box in football is 18 yards long, but they might not know it is 44 yards wide — because that ensures it also stretches 18 yards away from the two posts, which are eight yards apart.

So although 18 yards was considered the key distance from goal, this became a box rather than a semi-circle. Clearly, there’s a zone in the corners of the penalty box that are within 18 yards of the byline, but considerably further from the goal. These are poor positions in terms of creating a goal from open play, and are therefore disproportionately valuable in terms of winning a foul.

You’ll probably be familiar with the concept of expected goals, aka xG, which outlines the probability of a shot finding the net when struck from a particular position. Shooting from the corner of the box will result in a goal around one or two per cent of the time, depending upon the xG model and the precise position.

Of course, that doesn’t entirely explain the situation. A player with the ball in that position probably won’t shoot. He’ll attempt to pass or dribble into a better position.

But we can also account for that through analytics. Karun Singh, a football analytics writer with a computer science degree from Cornell University, has developed the concept of “expected threat” — xT. This is explained at length on his blog, and largely follows the concept of xG, but takes the process forward a few stages. In other words, it’s not simply about judging the probability of a goal stemming directly from a particular zone, but about judging the probability of a goal arising from the next two, three, four or five “actions” (passes, crosses, dribbles, shots etc) from a particular zone.

Singh’s analysis is worth reading — his methodology is beyond most of us, but it features excellent interactive graphics to explain the concept. For the purposes of this article, the zone highlighted below is relevant. If a player has the ball in this position, his team will score from the next five “actions” 9 per cent of the time (on average — it varies for different teams).

Furthermore, the heatmap demonstrates how the probability of a goal arising in the next five moves varies across the pitch — the darker the zone, the more dangerous it is. And the most interesting here is the very obvious visual proof that not only is the corner of the box less dangerous than a central position, as you would expect, but it’s also slightly less dangerous than a wider position — the same distance from the byline, but outside the box. The danger increases further when a player reaches the zone near the byline, still outside the box.

In other words, having the ball in the corner of the box is not particularly valuable in terms of creating a goal from open play. And therefore the more logical thing to do is attempt to win a penalty, which will bring a 78 per cent chance of a goal (slightly more if, like in Singh’s model, you include subsequent actions, to account for rebounds).

9) This is very good for the Covid-inclined, “We know a lot about Covid-19. Experts have many more questions”

10) Civil Asset Forfeiture is just the worst! “The Government Seized This Innocent Man’s Car Without Due Process. SCOTUS Won’t Hear the Case.
“How can an ordinary person afford to wait years after the government takes their car?””

11) I don’t post a lot on foreign policy, but if this wasn’t just the clearest case of “sunk cost trap” imaginable when it comes to Afghanistan:

At a recent National Security Council Principal’s Committee meeting, Cabinet-level officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and others gathered as part of the administration’s weekslong review of US policy in Afghanistan.

The officials are debating which of three broad options for the 20-year war in Afghanistan Biden should pursue. The first is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.

During the meeting, according to four sources from the White House, Pentagon, and elsewhere familiar with what happened, Milley made an impassioned — and at times “emotional,” according to some — case to consider keeping US troops in the country.

Milley, who was the deputy commanding general of US forces in Afghanistan and served three tours in the country, essentially argued that if American forces fully withdraw by May 1, it would open the door for the Taliban to overtake the country, making life worse for millions of Afghans and imperiling US national security goals.

Women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age,” Milley said, according to two of the sources. He argued that it wasn’t worth leaving the country after “all the blood and treasure spent” there over the last two decades. [emphasis mine] He also added that, in his view, the lack of 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan would make it harder to stem threats from a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

12) Damn I love science! “This Ultra-White Paint May Someday Replace Air Conditioning: Developed by researchers at Purdue University, the paint reflects 98.1 percent of sunlight”

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new ultra-white paint that reflects 98.1 percent of sunlight and can keep surfaces up to 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings. This new paint, which may become available for purchase in the next year or two, could someday help combat global warming and reduce our reliance on air conditioners.

The team of scientists in Purdue’s mechanical engineering department recently published the findings of their paint research, funded by the university’s cooling technologies research center and the Air Force’s scientific research office, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

“Our paint only absorbs 1.9 percent of the sunlight, whereas commercial paint absorbs 10 to 20 percent of sunlight,” says Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue mechanical engineering professor and one of the study’s co-authors.

The paint is a marked improvement from current heat-rejecting paints on the market. When struck by the sun’s rays, surfaces covered in today’s available white paints get warmer, not cooler. At best, these heat-combatting paints can reflect 80 to 90 percent of sunlight, says Ruan.

The new ultra-white paint, which the researchers say is the coolest on record, reflects nearly all of the sun’s rays and sends infrared heat away from the surface, providing an average cooling power of 113 watts per square meter. If painted onto the roof of a 1,000-square-foot home, that translates to a cooling power of 10 kilowatts, which is more powerful than most residential central air conditioners, Ruan says.

In tests conducted during sunny, midday hours on the roof of a campus building in West Lafayette, Indiana, the paint kept outdoor surfaces 8 degrees cooler than the ambient surrounding temperatures. At night, the paint kept surfaces 19 degrees cooler than their surroundings.

“Our paint can lose heat by its own emission—it emits heat to deep space,” Ruan says. “With such little absorption from the sun, our paint loses more heat than it absorbs. This is really exciting for us. Under the sun, it cools below the ambient temperature and that’s hard to achieve.”

13) Apparently the NHL told its players that after vaccination life could go back to normal, but, then… not so much.  Also, I had no idea how restrictive they were being to make this all work:

Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner sparked discussion and controversy Wednesday when he spoke out against the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols and overall approach to mental health during the pandemic.

Lehner sat at the press conference table inside the Vegas practice facility and delivered an emotional message, claiming that the NHL promised players a more relaxed version of the current protocols once players were vaccinated. He said that even though the majority of Golden Knights players have received their shots, the league hasn’t followed through.

“To be promised something’s going to change, to take a vaccine,” Lehner said. “Where some people, some players were even on the verge of taking it, and I was one of them. I wasn’t sure, but I took it for my mental health. When we did it, now they said it’s not happening. I think that’s wrong.”

The NHL and deputy commissioner Bill Daly quickly disputed Lehner’s claim, stating the league never made such promises. Shortly after Lehner spoke publicly, he talked again with The Athletic over the phone to clarify some of his statements and provided details for the exact rule relaxations he was expecting.

He didn’t back down from his initial statements but doubled down on his belief that the league must do better in its handling of players’ mental health issues.

“We were presented with, ‘Listen, if we can get 85 percent of our travel party vaccinated, these rules are going to change,” Lehner told The Athletic. “They showed us the NBA protocols for all the stages, and that’s what made me take the vaccine.

“Being lied to about things changing, to kind of force us to take the vaccine, is unacceptable. And now that we’ve taken the vaccine, to say ‘Nah, we aren’t changing because of competitive advantage,’ is outrageous.”

NHL players are following stricter isolation rules than most of the general public, essentially only traveling from the rink to their house and back for an entire calendar year. They aren’t allowed to leave their house for something as simple as grocery shopping. No visitors are allowed into their homes, including their own teammates. On the road they often can’t even dine as a team, forced to grab a meal and take it to their room to eat. Even players’ family members are encouraged not to go out for any reason. To the rink, and back home. That’s it.

14) Of course there’s fraud in the vaccination cards.

15) Leonhardt on our inability to properly assess the risks of Covid:

Guido Calabresi, a federal judge and Yale law professor, invented a little fable that he has been telling law students for more than three decades.

He tells the students to imagine a god coming forth to offer society a wondrous invention that would improve everyday life in almost every way. It would allow people to spend more time with friends and family, see new places and do jobs they otherwise could not do. But it would also come with a high cost. In exchange for bestowing this invention on society, the god would choose 1,000 young men and women and strike them dead.

Calabresi then asks: Would you take the deal? Almost invariably, the students say no. The professor then delivers the fable’s lesson: “What’s the difference between this and the automobile?”

In truth, automobiles kill many more than 1,000 young Americans each year; the total U.S. death toll hovers at about 40,000 annually. We accept this toll, almost unthinkingly, because vehicle crashes have always been part of our lives. We can’t fathom a world without them.

It’s a classic example of human irrationality about risk. We often underestimate large, chronic dangers, like car crashes or chemical pollution, and fixate on tiny but salient risks, like plane crashes or shark attacks.

One way for a risk to become salient is for it to be new. That’s a core idea behind Calabresi’s fable. He asks students to consider whether they would accept the cost of vehicle travel if it did not already exist. That they say no underscores the very different ways we treat new risks and enduring ones.

I have been thinking about the fable recently because of Covid-19. Covid certainly presents a salient risk: It’s a global pandemic that has upended daily life for more than a year. It has changed how we live, where we work, even what we wear on our faces. Covid feels ubiquitous.

Fortunately, it is also curable. The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization and other serious Covid illness among people who have received shots. The vaccines have also radically reduced the chances that people contract even a mild version of Covid or can pass it on to others.

Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from Covid — because they are so new and salient.

Visitors riding the swings at Adventureland, in Farmingdale, N.Y., yesterday.Johnny Milano for The New York Times

‘Psychologically hard’

To take just one example, major media outlets trumpeted new government data last week showing that 5,800 fully vaccinated Americans had contracted Covid. That may sound like a big number, but it indicates that a vaccinated person’s chances of getting Covid are about one in 11,000. The chances of a getting a version any worse than a common cold are even more remote.

But they are not zero. And they will not be zero anytime in the foreseeable future. Victory over Covid will not involve its elimination. Victory will instead mean turning it into the sort of danger that plane crashes or shark attacks present — too small to be worth reordering our lives.

That is what the vaccines do. If you’re vaccinated, Covid presents a minuscule risk to you, and you present a minuscule Covid risk to anyone else. A car trip is a bigger threat, to you and others. About 100 Americans are likely to die in car crashes today. The new federal data suggests that either zero or one vaccinated person will die today from Covid.

It’s true that experts believe vaccinated people should still sometimes wear a mask, partly because it’s a modest inconvenience that further reduces a tiny risk — and mostly because it contributes to a culture of mask wearing. It is the decent thing to do when most people still aren’t vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, a mask is more of a symbol of solidarity than anything else.

Coming to grips with the comforting realities of post-vaccination life is going to take some time for most of us. It’s only natural that so many vaccinated people continue to harbor irrational fears. Yet slowly recognizing that irrationality will be a vital part of overcoming Covid.

15) Discovered the Raccoon Whisperer videos this weekend.  Ummm… wow.  Who knew raccoons could get so fat!

16) I love McDonald’s ice cream cones.  The fact that they are so constantly broken drives me crazy and feels like some bizarre failure of capitalism (I mean, there’s money at stake here– invent a more reliable ice cream machine!!)  And OMG this amazing Wired story explains it all and so much more.  It’s your must-read for the weekend.  And it also introduced me to this awesome website which I will now be checking before heading to McDonald’s for cones with the kids after Sunday afternoon nature walks.

Quick hits (Part II)

1) Krugman from a couple weeks ago on how Democrats have learned:

The good news — and it’s really, really good news — is that Democrats seem to have learned their lesson. Joe Biden may not look like the second coming of F.D.R.; Chuck Schumer, presiding over a razor-thin majority in the Senate, looks even less like a transformational figure; yet all indications are that together they’re about to push through an economic rescue plan that, unlike the Obama stimulus, truly rises to the occasion…

On the economic side, Democrats have finally stopped believing in the debt boogeyman and the confidence fairy, who will make everything better if you slash spending.

There was a time when many Democrats — including President Obama — accepted the proposition that public debt was a huge problem. They even took seriously warnings from people like Representative Paul Ryan that debt was an “existential threat.” But predictions of an imminent fiscal catastrophe kept being proved wrong, and at this point mainstream economists have become much more relaxed about debt than they were in the past.

Some Democrats also used to worry that big spending programs would hurt the economy by undermining business and investor confidence, and conversely that caution would be rewarded with higher private investment. But this doctrine has also been belied by experience; austerity doesn’t instill confidence, it just imposes pain

But if Democrats have learned a lot about economic reality since 2009, they’ve learned more about political reality.

Obama came into office sincerely believing that he could reach across the aisle, that Republicans would help him deal with the economic crisis. Despite the reality of scorched-earth opposition, he continued to seek a “grand bargain” on debt. He regarded the rise of the Tea Party as a “fever” that would break in his second term. He was, in short, deeply naïve.

Many progressives worried that President Biden, who had served in the Senate in a less polarized era, who talks a lot about unity, would repeat Obama’s mistakes. But so far he and his congressional allies seem ready to go big, even if that means doing without Republican votes.

One thing that may be encouraging Democrats, by the way, is the fact that Biden’s policies actually are unifying, if you look at public opinion rather than the actions of politicians. Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan commands overwhelming public approval — far higher than approval for Obama’s 2009 stimulus. If, as seems likely, not a single Republican in Congress votes for the plan, that’s evidence of G.O.P. extremism, not failure on Biden’s part to reach out.

Beyond that, Biden and company appear to have learned that caution coming out of the gate doesn’t store up political capital to do more things later. Instead, an administration that fails to deliver tangible benefits to voters in its first few months has squandered its advantage and won’t get a do-over. Going big on Covid relief now offers the best hope of taking on infrastructure, climate change and more later.

2) I have no idea how the hell it took two whole weeks for this interview with Michael Mina to finally find me, but it did. Chock full of goodness:

How do you see the state of things, right now? I’m having a hard time sort of juggling the bad news about strains versus the good news about vaccines and the trajectories going down. How about you?
Well, my personal feeling is we are seeing the benefits of seasonality hit, which I know some of my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with. But it’s not uncommon for coronaviruses to essentially start dropping around now. Most of the known coronaviruses have something on the order of a three-month window where they’re really infectious — when they’re really transmitting.

And that’s more or less what we were expecting would happen, or at least what I was expecting would happen, in the fall. In the summer, when a lot of people were saying, “This might not be a seasonal virus,” it was just so obvious to me that this was going to hit harder in the fall and that we needed to prepare for that. Now, I think the corollary is that there’s no reason to think that infection rates wouldn’t drop a few months later, just like all of the other coronaviruses. We don’t fully appreciate or understand why seasonality works like this, but if the trajectory stays this way and we also start to achieve some level of herd effects or herd immunity, I think the next few months could start to offer a reprieve. Ideally that will last through the summer until we get into next fall, when we’ll probably have another wave of it. The wild card, of course, being the variants…

When you say that if our goal is to reduce the mass majority of hospitalizations that we might hit that goal relatively soon, what do you mean by relatively soon?
Certainly over the coming couple of months, we’re going to see a massive number of the most vulnerable people who make up the majority of deaths become vaccinated. Then all of a sudden mortality and the real damage done by this virus go way down at the aggregate level. People will still talk about long-haulers, long COVID and children getting severe disease. But we have to recognize that, especially in younger people, these are fairly rare events, especially in kids.

And then it’s time to really reevaluate. I do think we should take the summer and do what we didn’t do last year, which was squander the summer and did nothing to prepare for the fall. I think we could take this summer and we could say, “Okay, let’s get all the pieces in place. Let’s get rapid testing ready and rolled out so that society is comfortable with it.” It doesn’t mean people have to rapid test all the time, but if you start to see an outbreak occur, then you get a text message that says, “Hey, start rapid testing again.” We can really set ourselves up as a country to be adaptive, to be able to combat an outbreak when it starts, so that we’re not always playing catch-up after it does. That could allow us to both simultaneously get back to work and get back to school with minimal risk…

I wanted to ask about the vaccines, though. When we last talked, you were worried that we had evaluated vaccine efficacy so quickly we might be overestimating how powerful the vaccines were — the immune response might wane after a few more months, you said. Are there other problems you’re seeing with our evaluation of the vaccines?
The entire evaluation process was based on symptomatic disease. The major trials didn’t even consider transmission. They didn’t even consider, do we need two doses or one, and what would it mean if we actually could get by for six months between doses, what would that mean for the globe? Does that mean we could actually vaccinate an extra billion people in a year? Well, that’s a massive, massive win for public health if we could, but we didn’t even include it in the trial. We just followed the regular playbook we’ve always used, which is to do a phase three trial, accelerated a little bit. But then the readout was purely, of people who get two doses, what was their ability to not get sick? Why did we not swab people’s noses during those trials, to allow us to ask the basic question, will these vaccines inhibit transmission? That would have massive implications for who we vaccinate first. And we still don’t know the answer.

Another issue: All of the major vaccines that we are building all present the exact same spike protein. They’re all clones of each other — no difference for the most part. Nobody ever took a step back to say, what if this virus mutates? We are vaccinating with a narrow-spectrum vaccine against one piece of the virus. If that piece mutates, it would be able to escape all of our vaccines. And all it needs to do is mutate once, somewhere in the world. And then all of our major vaccines are moot. Why was that not considered?

What would considering it have meant?
For example, the U.S. could have said, “Okay, we’re going to back two vaccines that are against the spike protein only,” and then maybe try to figure out some other vaccines, like multi-protein vaccines, multi-peptide vaccines live attenuated vaccines, killed vaccines — all different sorts of vaccines. And now we very well might find ourselves totally screwed in a few months, because we have no vaccines that will work as well as we need against a mutant that might arise still, or the ones that have already risen…

I mean, in theory, you could even go further and say, if we’re comfortable with the safety and we’re in the middle of the pandemic, and these new strains are a real threat, maybe we could even skip the phase-three trial and just roll it out to the public, then measure efficacy from there — if we’re comfortable with safety.
That’s exactly right. We have treated this all so much like it’s normal. It isn’t normal. We’ve been trying to take the same box that we’re used to working with, and just trying to speed it up instead of just saying, what could be a whole different framework for this? We’re in the middle of an emergency, it’s killing millions of people and ruining economies and societies, should we really just be satisfied with slightly speeding up the status quo?

This is my whole issue with rapid tests, too — rapid tests aren’t about just trying to increase the speed at which we do PCR testing…

What do you mean by window?
A better way to vaccinate people efficiently. You vaccinate only people who are seronegative. You give only a single dose to people who are seropositive, not two.

Because there’s evidence that people who’ve been sick benefit from one dose but don’t necessarily need a second. That would double the reach of those doses. 
There are so many things we could have done, but serology was always for tomorrow. And even today, people are saying, “Well, we’re never going to get it set up for this pandemic, so we should wait until the pandemic finishes and then we’ll invest in surveillance systems for the next pandemic.” You know what, screw that! For all we know the next pandemic could start tomorrow. We don’t know.

3) I am so here for NYT articles on inter-species lemur bonding at the Duke Lemur Center (of which I am a proud financial supporter and where I took my single coolest college class). “Mature Red-Bellied Lemur Seeks Soul Mate for Cuddles and Grooming: At the Duke Lemur Center, an innovative plan to keep the animals social late in life: pair them with lemurs of another species.”

Julio, a mongoose lemur, and Chloris, a ring-tailed lemur.

Julio, a mongoose lemur, and Chloris, a ring-tailed lemur.Credit…David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

4) Scientists are working on a universal– pancoronavirus– vaccine.  Cool!

5) Very interesting interview with the Harvard astronomer who thinks we’ve really been visited by aliens.

6) Frum, “The Founders Were Wrong About Democracy: The authors of the Constitution feared mass participation would unsettle government, but it’s the privileged minority that has proved destabilizing.”

The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate.

This system is justified today with the same arguments as when it was established a quarter millennium ago. “We’re not a democracy,” tweeted Senator Mike Lee of Utah in October. Lee explained his meaning in a second tweet that crammed Madisonian theory into fewer than 280 characters. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober.

High—very high—on the list of Madison’s concerns about pure democracy was the risk that the unpropertied majority might vote to repudiate debts. In Madison’s single most famous piece of writing, “Federalist No. 10,” he justified the complex mechanism of the Constitution as a safeguard against debt repudiation and other such “improper or wicked [projects].”

In July 2011, Madison’s fears almost came true. The United States was pushed to the verge of a debt default. But the would-be repudiators were not representatives of the poor or the urban dwellers. They were representatives of the party of the wealthy and the rural dwellers; Republicans in the House and the Senate pushed the country toward the gravest fiscal crisis in history. They refused to raise the debt ceiling until 48 hours before the Treasury Department exhausted its legal right to borrow, risking a default that would have capsized credit markets. The crisis sparked the most volatile week in American financial markets since the collapse of 2008—and moved Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time in the agency’s history.

The same Mike Lee who would later tweet his doubts about democracy was leading that attack on the country’s credit. Along with allies such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the newly elected Lee sought to force a stark choice upon the Obama administration: Either accept a balanced-budget amendment that would institutionalize permanent minority rule over the nation’s finances, or face national bankruptcy. (Under Lee’s version of such an amendment, three-fifths of both the House and the Senate would be required to approve any budget that incurred a deficit.)

After the 2016 election, the whole world would see the bad faith of the Republican professions about spending and debt in 2011. But what was sincere in 2011 was the effort to impose yet another layer of minority rule upon the finances of the United States—so urgently sincere, in fact, that the anti-Democrats in Congress were willing to repudiate the faith and credit of the United States to get their way…

In these opening weeks of a new Congress, Republican senators—who together represent 41 million fewer people than their equal number of Democratic colleagues—have praised themselves for their allegedly superior approach to legislating. Senator John Cornyn of Texas explained in a pair of tweets why 41 senators should be allowed a veto over measures desired by an American majority.

“A practical consequence of breaking the filibuster rule is legislative whiplash. Each time a party gets a bare majority, it can jam [bills] through, only to be reversed when tides turn. The 60 vote cloture requirement (filibuster rule) requires bipartisanship and provides stability in our laws- something we should all want in a big, diverse country of 330 million people.”

But this claim by Cornyn flunks the reality test. In the real world, the filibuster is a generator of instability and unpredictability…

Through the second half of the 20th century, the United States evolved in ways that affirmed the equal right of all citizens to vote and pushed toward a more equal weighting of those votes. In this century, the United States has trended away from those ideals. The retreat from majority rule has not only weakened the American system’s fairness, it has also wobbled that system’s stability.

The path back to constitutional normality depends upon a reinvigoration of the majoritarian principle. “We’re not a democracy,” Senator Lee insists, correctly. But perhaps it’s time the United States resumed its long struggle to become one.

7) This is from 2017 super-interesting and super-relevant, “Why does drug resistance readily evolve but vaccine resistance does not?”

8) Waldman, “Insane GOP lies about Texas offer a depressing preview of coming climate debates”

But that wasn’t good enough for those in the conservative propaganda machine, which swung into action to blame everything on diabolical liberals shoving wind power down everyone’s throat. Here’s a taste of the lunacy being poured into the eyeballs of Fox’s audience:

And it’s not just Fox. The far-right Wall Street Journal editorial board penned an editorial blaming the Texas outages on renewable energy. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) acknowledged that the failures ran across all the different types of energy Texas uses, then bizarrely concluded, “Bottom line: Thank God for baseload energy made up of fossil fuels.”

It’s as if you choked on a piece of steak, and I told you, “That’s why you can’t trust all those hippies who forced you to eat kale!”

And lest anyone be tempted to engage in any mindless bothsidesism, Democrats are most certainly not responding to the events in Texas by saying it shows why we need more renewable energy. Their response is focused on what’s actually happening and whyThey’re arguing that we need to examine the weaknesses in our electrical grids — both the one in Texas and the national grid — and modernize them to make blackouts less likely in the future.

9) In a terrific essay on hockey goalkeeping (yes, a niche intellectual passion of mine), hall-of-fame goalkeeper Ken Dryden argues that, ultimately, a larger net is needed to make hockey the more beautiful, fast-flowing sport it is at its best.

So for shooters and coaches, that is the strategy. Rush the net with multiple offensive players, multiple defensive players will go with them, multiple arms, legs, and bodies will jostle in front of the goalie, and the remaining shooters, distant from the net, will fire away hoping to thread the needle, hoping the goalie doesn’t see the needle being threaded, because if he does, he’ll stop it. The situation for the shooter is much like that of a golfer whose ball has landed deep in the woods. He’s been told many times that a tree is more air than leaves and branches, but with several layers of trees in front of him, somehow his ball will hit a leaf or branch before it gets to the green. Somehow, the shooter’s shot will not make it to the net. So he will try again. Because what else can he do?

The result: This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested.

10) This is true. “Why Did We Ever Send Sick Kids to School? An overemphasis on attendance puts students’ health at risk and instills the value of working through illness. The pandemic has made it clear how dangerous that is.”

11) Somehow, I’ve never heard the term “myside bias” but this seems quite interesting:

In recent years, an upsurge of polarization has been a salient feature of political discourse in America. A small but growing body of research has examined the potential relevance of intellectual humility (IH) to political polarization. In the present investigation, we extend this work to political myside bias, testing the hypothesis that IH is associated with less bias in two community samples (N1 = 498; N2 = 477). In line with our expectations, measures of IH were negatively correlated with political myside bias across paradigms, political topics, and samples. These relations were robust to controlling for humility. We also examined ideological asymmetries in the relations between IH and political myside bias, finding that IH-bias relations were statistically equivalent in members of the political left and right. Notwithstanding important limitations and caveats, these data establish IH as one of a small handful psychological features known to predict less political myside bias.

12) Initially, this sounds very compelling, but there’s a huge methodological flaw: “Study finds cognitive bias in how medical examiners evaluate child deaths”

new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences suggests the role medical examiners play in the criminal justice system is far more subjective than commonly thought. It also suggests their analysis might be tainted by racial bias.

Medical examiners (also known as forensic pathologists) make two determinations after conducting an autopsy: the cause of death and the manner. The cause of death, though sometimes ambiguous, is usually a fairly objective finding based on tests and observations well-grounded in medicine. But determining the manner of death can be much more subjective. In most jurisdictions, there are five possibilities for manner of death: undetermined, natural causes, suicide, accident or homicide. The evidentiary gap separating an accidental death from a homicide can be significant (the body was riddled with bullets) or razor-thin (whether the victim drowned or was drowned). Yet it’s enormously consequential, because a homicide designation usually means someone will be charged with a serious crime.

The new study was led by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at University College London who specializes in cognitive perception, judgment and decision-making. (His research team also included four forensic pathologists.) There are two parts to the study. In the first, the researchers looked at 10 years of Nevada death certificates for children younger than 6 and found that medical examiners were about twice as likely to rule a Black child’s death to be a homicide as a White child. The researchers then asked 133 board-certified medical examiners to read a vignette about a 3-year-old who was taken to an emergency room with a skull fracture, brain hemorrhaging and other injuries, and later died. All the participants received the same fact pattern, with one important exception: About half were told that the child was Black and had been left in the care of the mother’s boyfriend. The others were told the child was White and had been left in the care of a grandmother…

Of the 133 medical examiners who participated in the study, 78 said they could not determine a manner of death from the information available. Among the 55 who could, 23 concluded the child’s death was an accident, and 32 determined it was a homicide.

This is already a problem. Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasn’t the case in this study.

Worse, the medical examiners who were given the fact pattern with a Black child were five times more likely to rule the death a homicide than an accident.

Holy hell what were they thinking with that?!  You leave both the white kid and the black with the grandmother or the boyfriend!  You don’t change the caregiver– talk about a confound!  Among other things, it would not surprise me at all if boyfriends were, in fact, five times more likely to cause a homicide than a grandmother!  Anyway, I suspect there really is bias (and these results are way too varied), but, do the damn study right!

13) Epidemiologist makes the case for in-person school (as always with the case, you’ve got to weight the costs of keeping kids out of school!)

Since March 2020, I have been a front-line pandemic health care provider, adviser to my hospital, and consultant to my religious congregation and a local community college — all with the aim of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Toward that goal, I have also been a volunteer member of the public health and safety advisory panel to the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts, where my family lives.

Unfortunately, our panel’s expertise — and that of national and international health groups — has been frequently dismissed by the local educators’ union in favor of their own judgments about best health practices and the safety of in-person learning. In the process, they have misinterpreted scientific guidance and transformed it into a series of litmus tests that keep our district in hybrid learning. These litmus tests are not based on science, they are grounded in anxiety, and they are a major component of the return-to-school quagmire in which we are stuck.

One sticking point, for example, has been the union’s early and continued insistence that desks remain at least 6 feet apart at all times. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space for learners in the building. Distancing is absolutely critical to Covid-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes 6 feet the “safe” distance and 5 feet “dangerous.”

In settings like school, where everyone is wearing a face covering, there really is no measurable difference in risk between being 3 feet and 6 feet apart. That is why there is no official guidance from any relevant public health body that mandates 6-foot distancing at all times. Even the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) school strategy, released February 12, doesn’t address the key problems in the existing guidance to move us forward.

The union also named a lack of asymptomatic testing for teachers as a major barrier to returning to in-person learning. To get kids back to school, we implemented such a routine testing plan, at great cost and logistical effort. We discovered that since testing began in January 2021, the positivity rate among teachers and staff has been approximately 0.15 percent — while cases were surging in the Boston metro area — and our contact tracing efforts have not identified any cases of in-building transmission.

Even so, the union continues to resist a return to full in-person learning. What’s more, the goalpost seems to have shifted again, now to universal vaccination of teachers.

All of this is frustrating, especially to me as an epidemiologist. Generally, union leaders tie their position to public health guidance from bodies like the CDC. But so far, the implementation of these recommendations by our district’s union — and by many others across the country — has been opportunistic, and their stance does not align with current guidance from the World Health Organization, CDC, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, or the Massachusetts Department of Education.

14) Ezra Klein is just killing it as an NYT columnist.  This one is soooo good.  Just read it.  “‘There’s No Natural Dignity in Work’ Punishing mothers for needing help cannot be the answer. A generous child allowance might be.”

Quick hits (part II)

1) Loved this profile of and conversation with Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, who broke away from the evil empire. (He’s never watched Succession, but plenty of good references here).

2) To the surprise of many, Disney World has, apparently, not been a major source for Covid spread. I’m actually not all that surprised, as regimented as Disney is, I suspect they enforce indoor masks pretty tightly. And when it comes to major sources of spread, it really does seem to be unmasked, indoors.

3) Harry Enten on how Biden is actually a good politician:

Biden, though, seems to be winning in part because he’s actually a fairly popular politician in an era in which those don’t really exist on the national stage.

His favorability rating is above his unfavorable rating in almost all of the polls. In our CNN poll, his net favorability (favorable – unfavorable) has stood at +16 points among likely voters. The average of all the recent high quality live interview polls puts Biden’s net favorability rating at +9 points.

You might think it’s easy to get a positive net favorability when you’re standing next to Trump, who has been quite unpopular throughout his term in office. His net favorability among likely voters in our last poll was -18 points…

Indeed, another big reason Biden has been beating Trump is voters don’t think he’s ideologically extreme. The perceived ideology of candidates matters less than it used to, but we see evidence from races up and down the ballot that voters reward perceived moderation.

In 2016, Trump was seen as fairly moderate compared to other recent Republican nominees. Clinton was seen as more ideologically extreme. Recent polling indicates that voters are more likely to see Biden as moderate than either Trump or Sanders (the most likely Democratic nominee if Biden had fallen short).

4) Among other crazy things in politics is that somehow we need to have fact checks on tax breaks for Cal Cunningham’s “butler’s pantry” (old school term for part of a kitchen) because apparently Tillis wants you to think Cunningham has a butler.  More problematic is if he used it for sexual assignations.

5) George Packer takes on the growing anti-democratic strain among Republicans who are, apparently, going all-in on minority rule, “Republicans Are Suddenly Afraid of Democracy: In a series of tweets, Senator Mike Lee laid the groundwork to contest the results or block an elected majority from governing”

My guess is that Lee wasn’t just being pedantic. Worried about an election in which the people can express their will, Lee was laying the groundwork to contest the results or block an elected majority from governing.

The Trump administration is using the last weeks of the campaign to soften up the country for a repudiation of democracy itself. This project will take some doing. Getting rid of checks on presidential power in the form of inspectors general, congressional committees, special counsels, and nonpartisan judges might drive pundits and experts crazy, but such moves don’t hit home for many citizens. The post-Watergate norms established to preserve the Justice Department’s integrity are not widely understood. But voting is something else. Your vote is your most tangible connection to the idea of democratic government. It’s the only form of political power most Americans possess. It’s proof that government of, by, and for the people hasn’t yet perished from the Earth. Your vote is personal. For a president to throw it out would be an audacious undertaking.

Trump keeps promising to try. Every time he talks about “massive fraud” and sending the election to a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, he’s preparing you to have your vote taken away—to make that shocking prospect a little more normal, even inevitable. Each new controversy, each norm broken, each authoritarian pose makes Trump’s intention to nullify the election results clear.

In just the past two weeks, Trump’s children, his entourage, and the president himself engaged in ostentatious rule-breaking at the presidential debate. The president refused to condemn white supremacists or promise a peaceful transfer of power. Vice President Mike Pence engaged in less aggressive but more persistent interruptions and lies in Wednesday’s debate, and gave his own nonanswer to a question about accepting election results. Trump’s contempt for health protocols at a White House event introducing his new Supreme Court nominee led to the viral contagion of his staff and much of the executive branch’s senior leadership. The president’s flight back from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Marine One ended with a climb up the White House steps and a dramatically lit self-unmasking and salute, like a winded Mussolini. Attorney General William Barr rescinded Justice Department rules in order to be able to investigate supposed vote fraud just before an election. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released tricked-up evidence of a Barack Obama–Joe Biden–Hillary Clinton conspiracy against the Trump campaign in 2016. Trump expressed annoyance with both Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for taking too long to produce more “evidence” that could undermine Biden in the election’s final days. When the FBI broke up a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer by right-wing extremists of the kind the president won’t renounce, Trump hurled insults at their intended target…

Having chained their party to Trump, Republicans will follow him in his frantic effort to delegitimize the coming election. But I don’t think it will work. The vote remains too powerful an idea in the minds of Americans. They are already standing in long lines to cast the ballots that Trump claims are fraudulent. The word democracy might not be found in the Constitution, but Senator Lee is right to be frightened by it.

6) This.  Meanwhile journalists are completely obsessed with getting Biden on the record on expanding the Court.  Meanwhile, we’re trying to have a democracy here.

7) Man, are liberals on twitter letting loose on Brett Stephens” take on the 1619 Project.  On the whole, I think what the project does is great work and super-important in forcing us to confront the reality of our history versus what we tell ourselves.  That said, you still have to get the history right.  And, there’s clearly a few places where the ideological goals came before the history.  It didn’t make it right before and it doesn’t make it right now.

8) Great summary in Nature of the value of face masks in limiting Covid transmission.  

9) The technophile in me was initially very intrigued by the idea of using sophisticated monitoring software to proctor on-line tests.  The more I thought about it, though, the less I wanted to subject my students to this.  Rather than reward those who cheat, my tests are now open book/note and I’ve made my test questions even more applied and analytical and apply harder grading standards for getting basic information wrong that should be in your notes. I definitely made the right call.  NYT, “How It Feels When Software Watches You Take Tests: Students say that monitoring programs like Proctorio and ExamSoft discourage them in the moments they’re trying to prove themselves.”

10) Not all millionaires are obsessed with their taxes.  In fact, the richer you are, the less you should be obsessed with the absolute value of your taxes.  So, yeah, the smarter millionaires will just pay more in taxes and live in good places and around loved ones.  NYT, “Why These Millionaires Are Staying Put Despite a New Tax on Them: The reason has little to do with money. Family and community ties keep them from leaving their state.”

Ken Schapiro, president of Condor Capital Wealth Management and a member of Tiger 21, an investment group whose members need to be worth tens of millions of dollars, said it would take more than higher taxes for him to leave New Jersey.

“It wouldn’t be higher taxes,” he said. “I have too many business ties. I own a tennis club here. I have friends and family here. Look, if they double the taxes I might do it.”

Still, Mr. Schapiro, an avid skier, said that he planned to work more from the home he has in Colorado, where the tax rate is half New Jersey’s, and that the increase might accelerate the decisions of some clients who prefer one of the states without an income tax, like Florida or Texas.

“The difference between 10.75 percent and 8.75 percent won’t necessarily pay for a second home, but the whole number will for sure,” he said, citing the new and old rates for millionaires in New Jersey. “But in general, I usually tell people to make decisions based on goals and objectives and worry about the taxes secondary.”

Leslie Quick III, one of the founders of the discount brokerage Quick & Reilly, which Fleet Financial bought in 1997 for $1.6 billion, has lived in New Jersey since 1980. He has children and grandchildren in the state and said he would be hard pressed to get his wife to move to Florida for six months and a day to avoid the tax increase.

11) I did not realize sneaky underhanded serves in tennis were a thing.  Part of me really does not like it; but part of me sees it as pretty akin to a drop shot.  I don’t know.  Alas, no tennis of any sort for me to try this out for at least half a year.

12) Good stuff from law professor Nicholas Bagley, “A Warning From Michigan: The state previews how far Republican judges will go to obstruct Democrats in office.”

As in other states, lawsuits challenging the governor’s executive orders came fast. Republican judges proved receptive, even when the legal arguments were appallingly thin. Three months into the pandemic, for example, a federal judge in Grand Rapids declared that the governor’s statewide closure of gyms was so irrational as to be unconstitutional: “At this point, the bare assertion that gyms are dangerous is not enough to demonstrate a ‘real or substantial’ connection to public health, nor is it a set of facts establishing rational basis to justify their continued closure.” The judge’s decision was so far out of line that it earned him a swift, unanimous rebuke from an appeals court.

Another example was a 13-page concurring opinion from a Republican judge excoriating Whitmer for her COVID-19 emergency orders—in a case that had nothing to do with the pandemic (at issue was an emergency rule prohibiting the sale of flavored nicotine pods for e-cigarettes). “Totalitarianism,” the judge intoned, “has no place in America.”

The judge’s rhetoric was so extreme, it bordered on parody: “Will we live under the thumb of autocrats in the hope that they will keep us safe? The world of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.” But the paranoid suspicion of government should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the conservative legal movement. As Chief Justice John Roberts has warned darkly, “The danger posed by the grow­ing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”

The michigan supreme Court’s decision last week marks the apotheosis of this “totalitarian” line of thinking. Criticizing the Emergency Powers of Governor Act for giving Whitmer “concentrated and standardless power to regulate the lives of our people,” the Republican majority held that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the so-called nondelegation doctrine.

The doctrine ostensibly prohibits legislatures from passing laws that delegate too much power, or power of the wrong kind, to the executive branch. But the doctrine has never done meaningful work in U.S. constitutional law. It has not been used to strike down an act of Congress since 1935. It has never been used to strike down a Michigan state law, much less an emergency law that has been on the books for three-quarters of a century.

13) Yes, be concerned and vigilant, but, “6 Reasons Not to Panic About the Election.”

14) And, more taxes, “The American Dream Is Tax Reform’s Biggest Obstacle: The federal tax code aligns the interests of the middle class with the ultrawealthy. But the alliance may be breaking up.”

Much of the commentary on the fresh revelations about President Trump’s tax returns has focused on how they illustrate the vulnerability of the federal tax system to exploitation by the ultrarich. This is for good reason: Mr. Trump aggressively used a set of tax breaks popular with real estate developers to pay no taxes in 11 out of the previous 18 years, and just $750 for both 2016 and 2017.

But the most expensive subsidies in the federal tax code are not used by real estate developers, energy chief executives or bankers. They are used by upper-middle-class households under the guise of earned economic security. The main obstacle to reforming the tax code is not Mr. Trump, but rather the upper-middle-class American voter.

There are close to 300 subsidies in the tax code that, in total, cost the federal government over a trillion dollars each year. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2019 more money was lost to the federal government through the nation’s regressive tax breaks than was spent combined on Medicare and Medicaid.

And six out of 10 of the most expensive federal tax subsidies — including the exclusion for employment-based health insurance, benefits for company pensions and the charitable contribution deduction — are commonly used by wealthier suburban families. In sum, they drain close to $680 billion annually from the U.S. Treasury.

These subsidies are sold as providing necessary assistance — affordable housing, health care and higher education — to middle-class families. But they also apply a veneer of political legitimacy to a system that shovels billions of taxpayer dollars every year to the wealthiest families and corporations in America. For example, the top 1 percent receive benefits from their tax claims that equate to nearly 10 percent of their income and account for nearly a quarter of the total tax benefits distributed to households. In comparison, the middle class claim tax benefits that corresponds to 5.5 percent of their annual incomes and account for only 11 percent of total tax benefits distributed by the federal government.

So why does the public support regressive tax subsidies that primarily benefit the rich? After all, it’s not as if the rich are popular with the American public: A majority of survey respondents report resentment toward the rich, fueled by the perception that the rich abuse the tax system for their personal gain in ways that exacerbate inequality. At least two-thirds of the public have consistently reported that the rich and corporations do not pay their fair share of federal taxes.

But while the majority of Americans may report dissatisfaction with an overly complex and unfair tax system that’s prone to exploitation by the wealthy, their resentment is purely abstract: Americans love the very provisions that create this complexity and inequity.

In a forthcoming book on public opinion toward the tax system, co-written with the political scientist Christopher Ellis, we argue that federal tax subsidies, even those that provide the most benefits to the top 1 percent, are wildly popular with the public. It is the peculiar political nature of the American masses that creates strong incentives for policymakers to use the tax code to finance popular social goals. This is the manifestation of a phenomena described by studies for more than 50 years: A large segment of the electorate can be described as “symbolically conservative but operationally liberal.” They report hating government while favoring federal assistance for more affordable health care insurance, old-age pensions and child care.

15) Pretty happy with my commentary on the NC Governor’s race here

16) And, if you want to see me on TV, ruptured Achilles and all.  

17) Clarence Thomas is the worst.  But, I don’t think many people appreciate just how bad Alito is, too.  Now the both of them are openly clamoring to overturn same-sex marriage.  

“Due to Obergefell, those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society,” Justice Thomas wrote, adding that the decision had stigmatized people of faith.

“Obergefell enables courts and governments to brand religious adherents who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman as bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss,” Justice Thomas wrote, adding, “In other words, Obergefell was read to suggest that being a public official with traditional Christian values was legally tantamount to invidious discrimination toward homosexuals.”

“Since Obergefell,” he wrote, “parties have continually attempted to label people of good will as bigots merely for refusing to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy.”

The Obergefell case was decided by a 5-to-4 vote. The other two dissenters were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who did not join Justice Thomas’s opinion on Monday, and Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016.

Yeah, yeah, gimme a break.  Nobody is asking them to alter their beliefs.  Just do their damn jobs as government officials.  

18) I generally am not a fan of most American political dramas (though, I do love “Veep”) because I cannot get past how unrealistic they are.  The Danish political drama Borgen has finally come to Netflix and I love it.  I’m guessing I would not if I were a Dane, but I’m an American.  Totally love their dramatically different multi-party parliamentary system and how all the coalition politics elements play out.  I’ll also admit to quite a soft-spot for Sidse Babett Knudsen.  

19) And, we’ll close with good and scary stuff from Rick Hasen, “Trump’s New Supreme Court Is Coming for the Next Dozen Elections”

In short, a Barrett confirmation would make it more likely we will see a significant undermining of the already weakened Voting Rights Act — the Court said on Friday it will hear a case involving the law. A 6-3 conservative Court might allow unlimited undisclosed money in political campaigns; give more latitude to states to suppress votes, especially those of minorities; protect partisan gerrymandering from reform efforts; and strengthen the representation of rural white areas, which would favor Republicans…

The real concern about Barrett and elections requires looking ahead to the next five to ten years. When the Court was split 5-4 on ideological lines, the liberal justices could always try to pick off one of the conservatives in a voting case, like when Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with them in a 2015 case upholding the use of Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting commissions to draw congressional districts and reduce partisan gerrymandering. Another time, Chief Justice Roberts sided with the liberals in a 2015 case upholding rules barring candidates for judgeships from personally soliciting campaign contributions, which was an important step in recognizing that judicial candidates can be subject to more restrictions on their campaign activities than other candidates to preserve public confidence in their impartiality on the bench.

The task for liberals becomes so much harder with a conservative 6-3 Court. Keep in mind that even on a more closely divided Court, conservatives prevailed in major voting cases: the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates for office; the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case striking down a part of the Voting Rights Act requiring jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get federal approval before making voting changes; the 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board upholding Indiana’s strict voter-identification law, despite any proof that such laws prevent voter fraud…

And as Republican legislatures continue to pass laws — in the name of preventing phantom voter fraud — that have the practical effect of making it harder to register and vote, some courts have pushed back. The pushback has come in the form of holding these laws unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause or other parts of the Constitution. A 6-3 conservative Court is likely to see it differently and uphold more of these laws, perhaps even draconian laws allowing states to require people to produce a birth certificate or naturalization certificate before registering to vote.

There’s going to be a lot of attention paid in the next few weeks on how a Justice Barrett in theory could decide the 2020 election. We should be far more worried about the rules that would apply in dozens of elections after 2020.

Quick hits (part I)

1) I’m with Drum.  I’m putting down my marker that we will have a way more mild than usual flu season.  As for the “but we’ve failed on Covid, we’ll fail on influenza take” note that our failure on Covid has cut the Rt from 2.5-3.5 to 1.1.  Seasonal influenza has a Ro of 1.3.  A lot of our Covid precautions should cut that number down, too.

2) Good stuff from Greg Sargent, “7 ways Trump and his cabal are using government to corrupt the election”

The bottom line: Trump isn’t trying to persuade a majority of U.S. voters to support him. Instead, he’s trying to get within what you might call cheating distance of pulling another electoral college inside straight even while losing the popular vote, just like last time.

He’s not there yet. But many top Trump officials and congressional allies have placed their official duties and the levers of your government at the disposal of Trump’s reelection effort, which depends on closing that gap.

3)  This indoor Covid risk estimator is very cool.

4) Robinson Meyer with a great piece on the wildfires:

If you’re having trouble following this year’s western fire season, you are not alone: The fire scientists are too. “There are two dozen fires burning right now that singularly would have been the top story on the national news 10 or 20 years ago,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told me. A few days ago, he said, he learned of the Slater Fire, which has killed two people. The Slater Fire is burning near the site of the Happy Camp Complex Fire, which was itself one of the worst blazes in state history when it raged in 2014. Yet though the Slater Fire, having merged with another blaze, is larger than the Happy Camp fire ever was, the Slater Fire does not rank among the five biggest fires raging today in the state.

“There’s almost no importance in talking about record-breaking events anymore, when talking about fires in California,” Swain said, “because we’ve broken all the records so many times that … what do they even mean anymore?”…

California and the West have always burned. Their plants and ecosystems have evolved to endure and thrive in seasonal fires. But this regional chaos is something different, Swain said, caused by a “perfect firestorm” of elements. A windstorm whipped California and Oregon earlier this month, turning valleys into blowtorches. Many western forests are crowded with fuel after a century in which authorities fought every fire, no matter how remote. And a rare lightning storm last month provided an enthusiastic source of ignition for fires. All of those factors may explain aspects of why there are so many fires right now.

But they do not capture the unusual ferocity of this fire season. “What we’re seeing right now is that every fire is becoming a super-intense fire,” Swain said. “Even if you assume we need more fire on the landscape, we probably don’t need more of this kind of fire.” To explain the severity, you have to go back to the conditions that preceded August. This has been “one of the hottest and driest years on record in this part of the country,” he said. “And surprise, surprise, now there are hot fires.”

The primary driver of the fires this year, he said, is California’s rising air temperature. Over the past century, climate change has warmed California by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This warming has now started to affect the behavior of water stored in vegetation across the state. In hotter, drier air, liquid water is more willing to become a gas.

5) Enjoyed this profile of data of progressive data guy, Sean McElwee.  After being a bombthrower, he basically realized you need legislative majorities to get things done.  So, a bunch of purists on the left consider him a traitor.

6) Great stuff from Political Scientist (and friend) Ben Bishin (and his grad students, I believe):

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent application of employment protections to gays and lesbians in Bostock v. Clayton County highlights the striking absence of policy produced by the U.S. Congress despite two decades of increased public support for gay rights. With the notable exceptions of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and passing hate crimes legislation, every other federal policy advancing gay rights over the last three decades has been the product of a Supreme Court ruling or Executive Order. To better understand the reasons for this inaction, we examine the changing preferences of members of Congress on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues. Examining scores from the Human Rights Campaign from 1989 to 2019, we find a striking polarization by the parties on LGBTQ issues, as Democrats have become much more supportive and Republicans even more opposed to gay rights. This change has been driven not by gerrymandering, mass opinion polarization, or elite backlash, but among Republicans by a mix of both conversion and replacement, and among Democrats primarily of replacement of more moderate members. The result is a striking lack of collective representation that leaves members of the LGBTQ community at risk to the whims of presidents and jurists.

7) Turns out I’m not so great (5/8) at spotting fake social media trolls.  Pretty interesting stuff in here, though, on how to spot them.

8) Enjoyed Jonathan Last‘s contrarian take on the worst part of Woodward’s revelations:

I’d like to take the other side of this Trump-Woodward story and offer two curveball views:

(1) I do not believe that Donald Trump “knew” how dangerous the coronavirus was. Allow me to explain.

Here are some of the things Trump told Woodward:

  • “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. . . . And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
  • “This is deadly stuff.”
  • “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

How in the world can anyone be sure that these are the words of a man who understands the subject and not just the inflationary language of a guy who says that everything he touches is the biggest, or best, or most historic?

  • He won the 2016 election in a landslide! Historic margins!
  • There were more people at his inauguration than any inauguration, ever!
  • He’s more successful than any president since Washington!
  • He’s done more for black people than anyone since Lincoln!
  • The new NAFTA is the greatest trade deal in history!

This is simply how the man talks. About everything.

What’s more, he says everything, takes the both sides of everything:

Masks are bad. But patriots wear masks.

Racism is terrible. Some white supremacists are very fine people.

Fire and fury is coming to North Korea. Kim Jong Un is great leader who wants peace.

This pandemic is the Invisible Enemy and the worst threat ever. Also, it’s not even as bad as the flu and it will go away like a miracle.

Does he believe any of this, either way? Almost certainly not. The man has the brain of a goldfish: He “believes” whatever is in front of him in the moment. No matter whether or not it contradicts something he believed five minutes ago or will believe ten minutes from now.

Also, his “didn’t want to cause panic” line makes no sense. Donald Trump’s entire career is based around trying to create panic.

  • Flight 93 election.
  • Mexican rapists.
  • Caravans.
  • American Carnage.
  • Muslims.
  • Antifa.
  • Black people moving to the suburbs.
  • Law & Order!

All this guy does is try to create panic. That’s his move.

Put those two together—constant exaggerating self-aggrandizement and the perpetual attempt to stoke panic—and what you have is a guy was just saying stuff to Woodward.

In a way, it would be comforting to believe that our president was intelligent enough to grasp the seriousness of the coronavirus, even if his judgment in how to deal with the outbreak was malicious or poor.

But I cannot see any reason to believe that rosy view. All of the available evidence suggests the opposite:

Donald Trump lacks the cognitive ability to understand any concepts more complicated than self-promotion or self-preservation.

Which brings us to . . .

(2) The most alarming part of the Woodward tapes is the way Trump talks about Kim Jong Un and the moment when Trump literally takes sides with Kim Jong Un against a former American president.

9) Alexander Vindman is exactly right, Trump is exactly Putin’s “useful idiot.”

On July 25 of last year, Vindman, who, as the National Security Council’s director for European affairs, organized the call, listened, with other officials, to a conversation between Trump and the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump told Zelensky, working his way to the subject of Joe Biden: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it …”

Vindman was surprised by Trump’s approach, and by its implications. Like other American specialists in the successor states of the former Soviet Union, he was invested in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. And like most national-security professionals, he was interested in countering Russia’s malign influence—along its borders, in places like Ukraine and Belarus and the Baltic states; across Europe; and in American elections. He believed in buttressing Ukraine’s new leadership. He also had an aversion to shakedowns, and this, to him, felt like a shakedown.

He did not fully understand at the time, he says, that the Trump administration had two separate foreign policies. The first was run out of the National Security Council, and by the many agencies and departments that are collectively charged with protecting America from its adversaries. The second was being manufactured by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with a goal of ensuring Trump’s reelection. What Vindman learned that day, he says, wasn’t just the extent to which Giuliani was attempting to weaponize the Ukrainian justice system against Biden, but that Trump himself was involved.

“I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing,” he says. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong. President Trump knew that Zelensky needed a meeting with him in Washington to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the entrenched opposition at home. So Trump was putting the squeeze on this leader to conduct a corrupt investigation. Trump knew he had them over a barrel. I found it repulsive and un-American for an American president to try to get a leg up by pressuring a foreign leader to get dirt on an American politician. I knew by then that Giuliani was somewhere in the background. But I refused to believe that the president was party to what Rudy was doing. I learned in that phone call that the president was the driving force.”…

“President Trump should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler, which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin,” he says. Useful idiot is a term commonly used to describe dupes of authoritarian regimes; fellow traveler, in Vindman’s description, is a person who shares Putin’s loathing for democratic norms.

But do you think Russia is blackmailing Trump? “They may or may not have dirt on him, but they don’t have to use it,” he says. “They have more effective and less risky ways to employ him. He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.”

Vindman continues, “In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”

10) I didn’t know David Epstein had a newsletter.  Hooray!  Subscribed!  As a Type A (A+, of course 🙂 ), I especially appreciated this, ” TYPE A BLOOD AND COVID: DANGER! …WAIT, NEVER MIND”

While I wasn’t excited to hear the results of the blood type study, thanks to lessons I learned while reporting my first book, The Sports Gene, I was very skeptical. My guess was that subsequent studies would either find a much smaller influence of blood type, or none at all.

In the two years I spent going through research on genetics and physiology, I came across a lot of studies that associated some physical trait with blood type. This, I learned, is how most of that body of research was created: a lab would be studying the genetic contribution to some physical characteristic, let’s say height, just for example; the lab collected blood from all subjects; as long as the researchers had blood, they decided they might as well get blood type data. Later on, when they analyzed all their data, they noticed a correlation between height and a certain blood type, and so they published it. It wasn’t the study they set out to do, but it’s an easy way to get another publication. Fine, nothing wrong with that in and of itself.

Except eventually I learned that a lot of labs were doing that because it’s so easy to do, and those that didn’t find an association just didn’t publish it. So all the positive findings got published, and few of the negative findings (i.e. those that found nothing) got published. This is what scientists know as “publication bias,” or, colloquially, “the file drawer problem,” so-called because studies that find no relationship end up stuffed in a file drawer, never to see the light of publication. In the topics I was probing for The Sports Gene, I saw this pattern several times: a study finds a strong association of some physical trait to blood type, then another study does too; then a few studies start to trickle in that show a much weaker association; then come the studies that show no association at all. Ultimately, the conclusion is that the early studies were false positives, and only scientists getting false positive results were initially publishing. (As psychologist Drew Bailey taught me, this “decline effect” — the gradual drop in a reported effect over time as more studies are published — is an area of study unto itself.)

The good thing is that science often worked the way it should, eventually correcting the record. It just took a while. Amid the breakneck pace of coronavirus research and news, that’s kind of a problem, even when “a while” is measured in weeks.

Six weeks after my dinner-table conversation, a new round of studies found that blood type has little or nothing to do with Covid-19 severity. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the new findings received less attention. (But props to the New York Times for following up its initial story. In my opinion, when this happens, the follow-up article should be linked at the top of the original story, so that anyone who sees the first piece also sees the corrective.)

I was never actually all that worried about my Type A blood, but you know how closely I follow Covid and yet I had not even heard of the follow-ups undermining this.

11) I also really enjoyed Epstein writing on how he has reconsidered the case of Caster Semenya and the role of testosterone in regulating women’s sports.  My take-away– it’s complicated!– and there’s good and good faith arguments (and plenty of bad faith ones) on both sides.

12) Honestly, I really think so many “pro-life” people have a shockingly narrow concern about actual human life.  Far too many are basically pro-fetus.  Enjoyed this column from pro-life Biden supporter, Michael Gerson:

For most of my life, had you asked me whether I could vote for a pro-choice presidential candidate, my immediate reply would have been “no.” Protecting unborn children — undeniably alive, distinctly human, possessed of their own genetic identity — is the commitment of a compassionate, welcoming society.

Yet my “no” has always been qualified. It does not mean I could support a pro-life fascist or a pro-life segregationist. Opposing abortion does not make up for the betrayal of fundamental democratic values. And the pro-life Republicans I have supported — say, George H.W. Bush or Mitt Romney — were broadly qualified to do the president’s job. Being pro-life does not grant general permission for dangerous ineptitude.

These are admittedly extreme exceptions to my general rule. But does the extremity of our political moment justify pro-life support for a pro-choice presidential candidate?

This does not mean that the policy stance of the president has no influence on the prevalence of abortion. But whatever that influence is, it is overwhelmed by other social factors — some combination of declining births and pregnancies, state restrictions, improved access to and use of contraception (including long-term contraception), and continued public concerns about abortion itself.

Similarly, Trump’s reelection is not likely to substantially reduce the number of abortions beyond current trends…

For some, treating the 2020 election as a referendum on abortion is a way to live with Trump’s moral ugliness. If there is only one issue on the ballot, then only one policy position counts, not Trump’s character as a man and a leader. This has the virtue of simplicity and the drawback of complicity in grave wrongs…

And it should matter — greatly — to pro-life people that Trump has presided over a substantially preventable public health disaster, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, largely among the ill and elderly.

It dishonors the pro-life cause to make it an inexhaustible permission slip for prejudice, deception and malice. And so I find myself in an uncomfortable but inevitable position: I am pro-life, and I intend to vote for Joe Biden.

Let’s be clear here, the pro-life cause has been gravely dishonored.  Any truly good faith pro-lifers who were motivated primarily by their value for human life would pretty much have to come to the same conclusion as Gerson.

13) I liked this from Jeet Heer on Woodward:

If Woodward is not a daily journalist, what is he? Woodward claims he’s writing “the second draft of history.” The first draft would be the daily newspaper, with Woodward’s books adding to the record with deeper reporting and context.

But if Woodward is a historian, he’s one of a very particular and retrograde kind: He’s a court chronicler, recording the minutiae of modern Washington with the diligence that the duc de Saint-Simon brought to the Versailles of Louis XIV. Court history, long on gossip and palace intrigue but short on analysis, is usually found in monarchies and empires.

In 1996, Joan Didion surveyed six of Woodward’s tomes for The New York Review of Books and drew attention to “Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him.” She added that there was a “disinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told.” This “disinclination” offers another explanation, in addition to the obvious monetary one, for why Woodward sat on the explosive news he found out about Trump.

In an acute paragraph, Didion notes that Woodward’s superficial focus on personal drama often serves the interest of the Washington insiders he writes about:

That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of “the smoking gun,” “the evidence.” Should such narrowly-defined “evidence” be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, “fairly,” that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.

Didion’s point that Woodward’s gossip-mongering helps defuse scandals certainly applies to Woodward’s reporting in the Trump era. It’s noteworthy that Woodward continued to enjoy the status of being “widely trusted” even after he published his first Trump book, Fear (2018). In that book, Woodward offered many juicy stories about how Trump’s underlings didn’t respect him and often thwarted his agenda. But, as Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, in Fear “the Russia investigation is largely dismissed in Trumpian terms, as an overhyped political witch hunt, hardly the stuff of Watergate.”

Trump himself clearly felt he had more to gain from trying to shape the narrative by talking to Woodward than he would lose from whatever scurrilous details the reporter might uncover. According to Woodward, Trump would call him up “frequently” and “unexpectedly.” Logs show that these calls lasted as long as half an hour.

14) I agree with Chait, “Lock Him Up? For the Republic to survive Trump’s presidency, he must be tried for his crimes. Even if that sparks a constitutional crisis of its own.”

A democracy is not only a collection of laws, and norms of behavior by political elites. It is a set of beliefs by the people. The conviction that crime pays, and that the law is a weapon of the powerful, is a poison endemic to states that have struggled to establish or to maintain democracies. If the post-election period descends into a political crisis, having all the relevant prosecutors promise immunity for Trump would be the most tempting escape valve. Yet the price of escaping the November crisis, and simply moving past Trump’s criminality by allowing him to ease off to Mar-a-Lago, is simply too high for our country to bear.

Gulag, Anne Applebaum’s 2003 history of Soviet concentration camps, argues in its conclusion that the failure to come fully to terms with the crimes of the old regime had “consequences for the formation of Russian civil society, and for the development of the rule of law … To most Russians, it now seems as if the more you collaborated in the past, the wiser you were.” This observation, written in the early years of Putin’s regime, captures a cynicism that pervades Putin’s now-almost-unchallenged autarky.

Ziblatt likewise suggested to me that Spain’s handling of the post-Franco era has soured in retrospect. In the immediate wake of Spanish democratization, letting many of Franco’s fascist collaborators walk away scot-free seemed like a masterstroke. But over time, a “growing resentment of a collusive bargain between elites” discredited the system and fueled the growth of extremism.

Before 1945, the international norm held that deposed rulers, however crooked or abusive, should be allowed exile. Kathryn Sikkink’s The Justice Cascade: How Human-Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics captures the modern norm, which emphasizes the social value of transparent and fair prosecutions as a deterrent. These cases apply most often, though, to states transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. There is less precedent for what to do when a reasonably healthy democracy elevates a career criminal to the presidency.

Trump’s unique contribution to the decay of the rule of law has been to define criminality in political terms, but he has also joined a very old project in which the political right has long been engaged: associating criminality with a category of people, so that knocking over a 7-Eleven makes you a “criminal” but looting a pension fund does not. Trump’s unusual level of personal crookedness dovetails with a familiar reactionary agenda of combining permissive enforcement of white-collar crime with a crackdown on street crime — or, as Trump calls it, simply “crime.” The implicit meaning of “Law and Order” is that order is distinct from lawfulness and that some crimes create disorder while others do not.

Trump’s reversals of Obama-era police reforms and his open contempt for the law send a signal about whom the law constrains and whom it protects. The fashioning of a more equal society means sending a different message: The rule of law must bind everyone, just as it protects everyone. A world where the power of the state can be brought to bear against a person who was once its most famous symbol of wealth is one where every American will more easily imagine a future in which we are all truly equal before the law.

15) OMG I’m so glad NC has Roy Cooper as governor.  And that there’s no way Dan Forest will defeat him.  What a marroon.

“When I’m governor I would lift the mask mandate for the state and allow individual freedom to decide whether they wear a mask,” Forest said Wednesday.

Cooper instituted the statewide mask mandate on June 26.

Forest talked to reporters at a news conference at the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh and was joined by Senate leader Phil Berger and other Republican lawmakers and candidates, along with parents who want schools to reopen for in-person, full-time learning now.

Forest said multiple times he was only speaking for himself, not those on stage with him. Most of those on stage wore masks or removed them to speak. Forest did not have a mask on.

He doesn’t think students and staff should be required to wear masks.

“I don’t think there’s any science that backs that up. That’s my personal opinion,” he said.

And I don’t think there’s any science that backs up the nitrogen cycle in my fish tank.  That’s my personal opinion.

16) This is a big story, but hard not to get lost among all the awfulness.  There’s little more important to a public health agency than its reputation.  What Trump has done to the CDC is a travesty and a tragedy, “C.D.C. Testing Guidance Was Published Against Scientists’ Objections: A controversial guideline saying people without Covid-19 symptoms didn’t need to get tested for the virus came from H.H.S. officials and skipped the C.D.C.’s scientific review process.”

A heavily criticized recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month about who should be tested for the coronavirus was not written by C.D.C. scientists and was posted to the agency’s website despite their serious objections, according to several people familiar with the matter as well as internal documents obtained by The New York Times.

The guidance said it was not necessary to test people without symptoms of Covid-19 even if they had been exposed to the virus. It came at a time when public health experts were pushing for more testing rather than less, and administration officials told The Times that the document was a C.D.C. product and had been revised with input from the agency’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield.

But officials told The Times this week that the Department of Health and Human Services did the rewriting and then “dropped” it into the C.D.C.’s public website, flouting the agency’s strict scientific review process.

“That was a doc that came from the top down, from the H.H.S. and the task force,” said a federal official with knowledge of the matter, referring to the White House task force on the coronavirus. “That policy does not reflect what many people at the C.D.C. feel should be the policy.”

The document contains “elementary errors” — such as referring to “testing for Covid-19,” as opposed to testing for the virus that causes it — and recommendations inconsistent with the C.D.C.’s stance that mark it to anyone in the know as not having been written by agency scientists, according to a senior C.D.C. scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a fear of repercussions.

17) This interactive map is so cool, “Every Place Has Its Own Climate Risk. What Is It Where You Live?”  I’m pretty happy with Wake County, NC.  Elevated hurricane risk, but not nearly so bad as on the coast.  I also had fun looking for the places that seemed least impacted.  South-Central North Dakota seems like the place to be :-).

Quick hits (part I)

1) Great stuff from Jon Bernstein on how Trump, regardless of what’s in his heart, is acting like a president who doesn’t care about being re-elected.  And that’s a big part of why he’s performing so poorly.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that President Donald Trump has simply stopped dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and has no particular plan for confronting its economic fallout either. In both cases, he’s pretty much substituted wishful thinking for action. The Atlantic’s David Graham had a good item about this disengagement earlier in the week, followed by one from Ezra Klein arguing that “the White House does not have a plan, it does not have a framework, it does not have a philosophy, and it does not have a goal.”

What surprised me was political scientist Lee Drutman’s conclusion, based on Klein’s article, that “the debate over what to do has polarized with depressing haste, because ‘winning’ in Washington is not defeating the virus, but winning the next election.” I argued a bit with Drutman on Twitter about this, but it’s worth a longer discussion. My basic sense is that Trump isn’t nearly concerned enough with winning re-election, and that the current catastrophe is in part a consequence of that.

There’s no way to know what’s really in the president’s mind. But we can compare his actions with what a president determined to be re-elected would probably do. A lot of Trump’s critics have claimed that he’s deliberately risking American lives by boosting the economy to improve his chances in November. And it’s true that he seems concerned mainly with re-opening businesses these days. But there are at least two reasons to doubt that this preference is due to the election. For one, public-health experts and economists broadly agree that opening too soon will be a disaster. For another, even if there is a trade-off, there’s no particular reason to think that restoring jobs at the cost of more illness and death will be a good electoral deal for Trump.

At any rate, the evidence that Trump has an economic plan is just as weak as the evidence that he’s engaged in dealing with the coronavirus.

What I think is more likely is that Trump simply isn’t finding this aspect of the presidency very much fun. You might remember when President George H.W. Bush declared that he didn’t like broccoli: “And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!” Trump acts this way about doing most of the mundane jobs of the presidency. Thus his newly invented scandal, “Obamagate.” As the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser points out: “For Trump, spending the week attacking Obama, no matter what the subject, is the political equivalent of retreating to his bedroom and hiding under the blanket. It’s his safe space, his comfort zone.” Except it’s not so much a political equivalent as it is a retreat from politics altogether, along with the duties and responsibilities of his office.

A politician who desperately wanted re-election would’ve been hard at work, from the moment he or she was alerted to the danger, attempting to contain the pandemic and limit the economic damage, and would persevere no matter what the setbacks, never wavering in an effort to produce the policy results that might lead to a big win in November. Such presidents might sacrifice the long term for the short term, as Lyndon Johnson did in goosing the economy in 1964, or Richard Nixon did in 1972. But they would never just give up when things went wrong.

That’s not this president. That’s not Donald Trump.

2) I’m increasingly of the belief that talking is a major factor in spreading Covid-19.  Want to talk to somebody indoors?  Wear a mask– period.

3) This personal essay from Political Science professor, Dannagal Young is soooo good, “I was a conspiracy theorist, too: I know why people turn to conspiracy theories in uncertain times. I did the same when my husband had a brain tumor.”

4) Why the hell are we still sticking absurdly long swabs all the way through your nose to the throat?!  If you fly into Hong Kong, you self-administer a saliva test.

5) Good twitter thread on indoor Covid transmission.  Stop talking and wear a mask.

6) I really think a lot of the “oh, not, we’re not going to have immunity is needless fearmongering.’  The latest, “T cells found in COVID-19 patients ‘bode well’ for long-term immunity”

7) Lots of new reporting casting doubt on Tara Reade.  To me, “believe women” means take them seriously.  I long ago took her claims seriously and decided that they were probably not true.  Chait summarizes the current state of the case.  I have no doubt Bernie dead-enders will not give up on this (it’s coming from there, not the Republicans), but I think this will largely fade away.

8) You think it’s tough at their for regular journalists (it is)?  But, damn, sports journalists these days.  I love good sports journalism (though, there’s so much mediocre), so this really sad.

Sports journalism, once a mainstay of daily newspapers and local TV news across the country, already was teetering from the upheavals of the digital era. But while many news organizations have taken a severe financial hit in recent months, sports departments have been devastated by the novel coronavirus, which has wiped out sports schedules and media advertising revenue virtually simultaneously.

Furloughs and layoffs have hit sports staffs seemingly everywhere, from the Miner in Kingman, Ariz., to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to the New York Post. Sports Illustrated cut nine employees, further gutting its staff after some 40 editorial employees were let go last year. Even onetime digital darlings such as SB Nation, one of the earliest and most successful sports websites, have not been immune. The Vox-owned outlet announced furloughs in April affecting nearly its entire staff of national writers.

“We face a new reality, precipitated by the pandemic. To achieve necessary cost savings … there will be consequences to people’s income and livelihood resulting from the actions we are implementing today,” Jim Bankoff, the CEO of Vox Media, said in a memo to staff.

Without live games for the foreseeable future, the grim new reality has forced many in sports journalism to confront difficult questions about what their storied profession will look like even when they do resume — from what kind of budgets they will have to work with to what kind of access they will have to coaches and players.

9) Tom Pepinsky ran the regression models on wearing a mask and, “Yes, wearing a mask is partisan now.”

As a continuing part my collaborative work on the politics of COVID-19 in the United States with Shana Gadarian and Sara Goodman, we recently asked a random, representative sample of 2400 Americans if they are wearing masks in public. Here is what we found from logistic regressions that adjust for a full set of dummies for age, race, gender, marital status, income, education, urban-rural, and state fixed effects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adjusting for those differences, Democrats are more than 20 percentage points more likely than Republicans to (75% versus 53%) to report wearing masks in public.

10) Some cool social science, “The effect of messaging and gender on intentions to wear a face covering to slow down COVID-19 transmission”

We find that men less than women intend to wear a face covering, but this difference almost disappears in counties where wearing a face covering is mandatory. We also find that men less than women believe that they will be seriously affected by the coronavirus, and this partly mediates gender differences in intentions to wear a face covering (this is particularly ironic because official statistics actually show that men are affected by the COVID-19 more seriously than women). Finally, we also find gender differences in self-reported negative emotions felt when wearing a face covering. Men more than women agree that wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma; and these gender differences also mediate gender differences in intentions to wear a face covering.

Men are sooooo lame!

11) On the Michael Flynn case, Drum is so right on this whole “perjury trap” issue:

Are you wondering why I haven’t said anything yet about the Mike Flynn affair? It’s simple: I don’t care. Flynn is a minor player in a minor tiff that happened three years ago. It barely even matters who’s “right.” Here’s all you really need to know:

  • When the FBI asked Flynn about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, Flynn lied about them. That’s a felony.
  • Now the Department of Justice says the FBI was out of line even asking about this. It was just a setup. Therefore the charges should be dropped.

Fine. Like I said, I don’t really care if Mike Flynn goes to jail. Still, I have a question. The Justice Department is basically saying the FBI engaged in a perjury trap. That is, they surprised Flynn with questions he wasn’t expecting in hopes of getting him to lie. Then they’ve got him on charges of lying to a federal agent.

So here’s my question: the FBI does this all the time. It’s loathsome behavior, and I would be delighted if the Flynn case led to a wholesale reckoning with perjury traps. But I don’t think that’s in the cards. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the Justice Department has never in its history pulled back from a perjury trap voluntarily and announced that they’re really sorry it happened. Have they?

12) Dahlia Lithwick, “Refusing to Wear a Mask Is a Uniquely American Pathology: The obsession with individualism and the misinterpretation of constitutional freedom collide into a germy mess”

 As Lydia Denworth put it in Scientific Americanone of the reasons the wearing of masks has never become a norm in America is that the impulse to think collectively about disease was never necessarily fully integrated: “The point is that masks do not just protect the wearer, they protect others. Such community-minded thinking fits with collectivist cultural norms in some parts of Asia, where masks are routinely worn when one is sick—and where there is more experience with serious epidemics.”

This may even explain why some root their refusal to cover up in religious arguments, also swept in under the First Amendment. An Ohio lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Nino Vitale, declined to wear the mask required by his state’s Department of Health director, because, as he explained in a Facebook post last week, “This is the greatest nation on earth founded on Judeo-Christian principles. One of those principles is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. That image is seen the most by our face. I will not wear a mask.” His logic was uniquely illogical: “No one is stopping anybody from wearing a face mask. But quite frankly everyone else’s freedom ends at the tip of my nose. You’re not going to tell me what to do and there’s a lot of people that feel that way.” The idea that God wants to see our faces so very badly that we should be allowed to harm and possibly kill everyone with whom we come in contact is a uniquely self-regarding view of religious faith. But if one believes that the self is the only meaningful actor in a democracy, or a theocracy, it perhaps stands to reason…

The simplest explanation for the insistence that wearing masks is for thee, but not for me, rests in the fundamental narcissism of Donald Trump, and the booming cottage industry on the part of right-wing media in so-called vice-signaling—the performative acting out of malice and cruelty toward the weak. The more complicated answer, it seems, is that in a country founded on a long mythology of the Lone Ranger, Batman, Zorro, and Captain America, the mask has somehow come to signal invisibility, and the death of rugged individualism—perhaps even more so because everyone is now wearing one. For those who have come to feel devalued, degraded, left behind, or shunted aside, being asked to hide one’s face must be the ultimate act of public cruelty. If we have come to believe that each of us is only as important as our ability to be seen and heard, the mask must make that erasure complete. It’s not just the toxic myth of rugged individuals pitted against government and the weak that is gutting us. It’s the poisonous notion that unless we are being seen acting out rugged individualism, we don’t even exist.

13) Good and important stuff from Greg Sargent,

The latest developments in the Michael Flynn case should prompt us to revisit one of the most glaring failures in political journalism, one that lends credibility to baseless narratives pushed for purely instrumental purposes, perversely rewarding bad-faith actors in the process.

News accounts constantly claim with no basis that new information “boosts” or “lends ammunition” to a particular political attack, or “raises new questions” about its target. These journalistic conventions are so all-pervasive that we barely notice them.

But they’re extremely pernicious, and they need to stop. They both reflect and grotesquely amplify a tendency that badly misleads readers. That happened widely in 2016, to President Trump’s great benefit. It’s now happening again.

Republican senators have just released a declassified list of Obama administration officials — including Trump opponent Joe Biden — who requested information that ended up “unmasking” Flynn during the transition.

Trump and his campaign have seized on this to further their claim that the Russia investigation was corrupt, and that Biden was key to that. Trump rails that this “unmasking is a massive thing” that raises new questions about Biden’s role.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale insists this illustrates “the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax.”

This is steaming nonsense. But news accounts are reporting on this in purportedly objective ways that subtly place an editorial thumb on the scale in favor of those attacks.

For instance, the Associated Press ran this headline: “Flynn case boosts Trump’s bid to undo Russia probe narrative.” Axios told us:
Biden’s presence on the list could turn it into an election year issue, though the document itself does not show any evidence of wrongdoing.

CNN informed us that this is “the latest salvo to discredit the FBI’s Russia investigation and accuse the previous administration of wrongdoing.” …

But here’s the problem: These formulations do not constitute a neutral transmission of information, even though they are supposed to come across that way.

The new information actually does not “boost” Trump’s claims about the Russia investigation or “discredit” it. And if there is “no evidence of wrongdoing,” then it cannot legitimately be “turned into an election issue.”

There’s no way to neutrally assert that new info “boosts” an attack or constitutes a “salvo” or is “becoming an issue.” The information is being used in a fashion that is either legitimate or not, based on the known facts. Such pronouncements in a from-on-high tone of journalistic objectivity lend the dishonest weaponizing of new info an aura of credibility.

14) This 538 piece really annoyed me, “Why Some Democrats May Be Willing To Look Past The Allegation Against Biden: Democrats aren’t uniformly progressive on #MeToo issues.”  It offered a number of theories, but never even broached the fact that Tara Reade’s credibility is extremely problematic.  You can be for #metoo, think we need to do more to believe women, and also think that the balance of the evidence suggests that Tara Reade is not being truthful.

Quick hits

1) Major “lamestream” media organizations have been so astoundingly bad with their daily coverage of Trump’s propaganda events.  Eric Boehlert: (whom I used to love for his media criticism way back during GWB and I have no rediscovered):

If Trump’s daily pandemic press briefings aren’t newsworthy events, why does the news media continue to shower them with ceaseless attention?

Nobody is under any obligation to carry the briefings live and in their entirety. That’s a choice television news outlets make voluntarily. And everyday they choose to turn on the cameras and allow Trump to ramble, sometimes for two hours as he alternately unravels and misinforms about a public health crisis. Networks are making that choice at the same time more journalists concede the briefings aren’t actually news.

“Over time, the news conferences have become increasingly devoid of actual news,” ABC News recently conceded, in a report specifically about how Trump is using them not to inform the public, but as a way to maintain a high media profile.

During a briefing this week, an on-screen banner for CNN announced the event had become a “propaganda session.” Immediately following, CNN anchor John King admitted, “That was propaganda aired at taxpayer expense in the White House briefing room.”
So why air it?

2) Jacob Hacker makes a compelling case that Biden should adopt Elizabeth Warren’s strong public option plan (I’m sold).

The core argument for the public option is that it wouldn’t frighten or disrupt the lives of the roughly 150 million Americans who had employment-based insurance before the pandemic (roughly 10 million of them have likely lost their coverage in the past month, according to the Economic Policy Institute). But that raises an obvious question: What assurances are being provided that those with such plans will continue to have them, be able to afford them, and not be clobbered by bills not paid by them?

After all, even before the current crisis, premiums and out-of-pocket spending were rising rapidly for insured Americans. Last year, the total premium for family coverage (worker plus employer) cost an average of $20,000. Meanwhile, deductibles have more than tripled since 2008. And while virtually all large employers offer coverage, firms with fewer than 200 workers — which employed roughly four in 10 Americans before the pandemic — have continued their retreat from sponsoring insurance.

The basic problem is simple: Health care prices are rising much faster than wages, and private insurers haven’t been able to do anything about it, except narrowing their networks or raising out-of-pocket costs. Nor have employers shown the clout to push back, which is why they’re making their workers pay more — or getting out of the system altogether.

The bottom line is that Mr. Biden’s plan would not achieve universal insurance and would leave many with private insurance continuing to face high costs. Yes, his plan also has a relatively modest 10-year cost. But, partly for that reason, it would expand the reach of federal insurance only modestly, which means in turn it would be unlikely to rein in prices on its own.

Ms. Warren’s public option is very different. It would offer broader benefits on more generous terms than any existing proposal besides Mr. Sanders’s, including free coverage for everyone under age 18. Her public option would automatically enroll everyone younger than 50 who lacked alternative coverage. Those over age 50 would be able to enroll directly in Medicare — that is, a full decade before they could join Medicare under Mr. Biden’s current proposal.

Ms. Warren’s plan also includes a number of specific measures to reduce the prices paid by the federal government. Moreover, her public option is so generous, it’s certain to get substantial enrollment, so that pricing power will reach a big and growing share of the market.

Indeed, Ms. Warren’s public option is so generous that if it were set up, tens of millions of insured Americans with workplace coverage would likely jump into it.

3) Dan Guild on Trump’s approval numbers and November prospects:

— There is a substantial and persistent difference among pollsters’ findings with respect to Donald Trump’s job approval and his percentage against Joe Biden.

— Biden’s ability to consolidate the anti-Trump vote will be decisive. [emphasis mine]

— Trump’s statewide job approval is almost exactly what one would predict given his 2016 share of the vote. His approval is below 50% in every state that was competitive in 2016.

— However, Trump’s predicted two-party share of the vote is over 50% in states with 289 electoral votes. Seven states with a combined 88 electoral votes are projected to be within one point.

These numbers suggest that Biden’s ability to consolidate voters who do not approve of the president’s performance will be the difference between a very close election and a relatively significant Democratic victory.

Critically, if the president continues to underperform his job approval by three to four percentage points, the state job approval numbers suggest a Democratic mini-landslide is possible.  [emphasis in original]

And, honestly, I think Biden is definitely better-positioned to do this consolidation than was Clinton.

4) Honestly, David Kessler’s The End of Overeating is a non-fiction book that has stuck with me about as much as any book I have read (amazing what I remember from a book I read 10 years ago).  So, I’ll surely read his new one.  Major takeaways from the NYT article:

Slow carbs like broccoli, beans and brown rice slowly release glucose as they travel through our systems, eventually reaching the lower parts of the gastrointestinal tract. There they trigger a hormone called GLP-1 that tells our bodies we are being fed, resulting in feelings of satiety. But because fast carbs are rapidly absorbed in the upper parts of the digestive tract, they flood our systems with glucose and insulin, the fat-storage hormone, while failing to stimulate GLP-1. As a result, Dr. Kessler said, they fail to turn off our hunger switch.

At the same time, studies suggest, they elicit a potent neurological response, lighting up the reward center in the brain in a way that compels people to eat more even when they are not hungry. Processing also affects the amount of calories that we absorb from our food. When we eat a starchy carb that is minimally processed, much of it passes through the small intestine undigested. Then it is either used by bacteria in the colon or excreted. Industrial processing makes more of those calories available to our bodies, which can accelerate weight gain.

Dr. Kessler stressed that he is not telling people they should never eat these foods — just to be mindful about what they are and how they affect their health. The less often you eat them, he said, the less you will crave them.

He encourages people to follow three steps to improve their health. Limit fast carbs and prioritize slow carbs like beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Watch your LDL cholesterol, a strong driver of heart disease, and eat a largely plant-based diet to help lower it if necessary. And lastly, engage in daily exercise to help control your weight and improve your overall metabolic health.

5a) So, there’s this whole debate now on proper social distancing when running.  Thing is, unless you are running in a truly crowded urban area (which, I expect does not apply to the vast majority of us) you are always going to be running at least 15 feet behind anyway, lest clearly and appropriately being perceived as a creep!  On rare occasions when we walk the dog in the neighborhood, someone will end up closer than 20 feet to us.  Just not okay.

5b) Wired, “Are Running or Cycling Actually Risks for Spreading Covid-19?  An unpublished study went viral after a research team warned that respiratory droplets may travel more than 6 feet during exercise. But that’s not the whole story.”

But so far there are no published studies of the spread of the novel coronavirus from one person to another in outdoor settings. One recent study of 318 outbreaks of three or more Covid-19 patients found all but one transmission occurred indoors—but as with many studies being conducted right now, that report was published as a pre-print in MedRxiv by a team of researchers at Hong Kong University and Southeast University in Nanjing, China, which means it has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne transmission of viral diseases and a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, says the issue of whether people can become infected from cyclists or runners is still undecided. “We need to keep in mind, though, that we don’t yet know what size particles released by an infected person actually contain virus and whether that virus is ‘alive,’ or can still infect others,” Marr wrote in an email to WIRED.

6) Chris Federico and smart other people in the Monkey Cage, “Will the coronavirus make conservatives love government spending?”

Left versus right, or freedom versus protection?

Our research suggests that there is nothing “natural” about the tendency for conservatism in the sense of an emphasis on security, certainty and tradition to go along with support for minimal government. Though many people hold this pattern of beliefs in Western countries — especially if they are highly attentive to politics — it is relatively rare in the world at large. Survey data from 99 nations suggests that cultural conservatism and stronger needs for security and certainty often correlate only weakly with economic attitudes. In fact, they correlate with interventionist economic preferences more often than with right-wing free-market preferences.

In other words, for much of the world, politics is not exclusively organized around the usual left-right ideological divide but also around a freedom-versus-protection axis. On one end of this axis are libertarian views on both culture and economics, with people believing that everyone should be free to make their own choices; on the other end, people want the government to safeguard security and stability in both the cultural and economic domains. On this axis, government interventions in the economy are not indulgent liberal wastes of citizens’ tax dollars in order to pander to people who won’t help themselves but rather an essential means of protecting citizens from economic risks — one that is psychologically congruent with cultural conservatism.

7) This is great from David Hopkins, “Solving the COVID Crisis Requires Bipartisanship, But the Modern GOP Isn’t Built for It”

The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems. So perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that an array of subjects, from what medical treatment might help COVID patients to how important it is to take measures protecting the lives of the elderly, have been drawn into the perpetual political wars. But leading conservative figures like Trump, Sean Hannity, and the Heritage Foundation will find it much easier to persuade existing supporters to take their side in a fight with “liberal” scientists, journalists, and public safety authorities than to win over the American public as a whole.

Republicans need a party-wide reset of priorities. There has seldom been a time in recent political history when daily partisan point-scoring has been rendered more irrelevant. The general election is far enough away that good policy is good politics: the best way for the ruling party to serve its own electoral interests is to work as hard as possible over the next seven months to render COVID manageable and prevent economic freefall. The widespread public confidence that will be necessary for “normal life” to resume simply can’t be jawboned back into existence via daily press conferences, radio broadcasts, or Fox News monologues. If Republicans lose the battle with the coronavirus, they won’t have much of a chance to win the fight against liberalism.

8) Love my small Iphone SE.  But it’s camera software is light-years behind the newer technology.  Very excited about the new SE, which I’ll definitely be getting.  But I do wish they had not felt the need to increase the size.

9) This is great from Jennifer Weiner, “The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming: I can’t control who gets sick or when we might return to something that looks like normal. But judging a random guy on the sidewalk? That I can do.”

10) The committed NeverTrumpers (George Conway and friends) endorse Biden in the Post, “We’ve never backed a Democrat for president. But Trump must be defeated.”

11) Covid-19 is proving to be a highly unusual disease in a number of interesting ways.  And, increasingly, this means doctors are figuring out better ways to actually treat the disease.  Yes, it will remain damn serious for many who are infected, but even without new drugs, doctors will increasingly figure out the best course of action for patients given their particular symptoms.  NYT, “What Doctors on the Front Lines Wish They’d Known a Month Ago: Ironclad emergency medical practices — about when to use ventilators, for example — have dissolved almost overnight.”

12) Again, this disease is really serious.  But if it was actually routinely as contagious as many people make it out to be, grocery store employees would be dropping like flies.  They are not.  Drum, on the matter.

13) I don’t remember why I had this “Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal” open.  But it’s damn good advice.  Perhaps more than ever during a pandemic quarantine.  Personally, I don’t actually write anything down, but do this orally with two of my boys each night.

14) Some good political science on liberal media bias in the Monkey Cage, “Journalists may be liberal, but this doesn’t affect which candidates they choose to cover.”

15) So, I had read about the controversial film, “The Nightingale.”  Was also very intrigued by the trailer.  But Netflix’s algorithm told me I’d only give it 3 out of 5 starts.  But, I watched it anyway.  I wanted to like this movie so much more than I did (aspects were really well done), but, damn, if Netflix wasn’t right.  So not a fan of movies (or books) that really need a good editor, and so not a fan of cartoonishly evil villains.  Really appreciated David Edelstein’s negative take (re-affirming his status as one of my favorite reviewers).

16) And, as long we we’re in the entertainment realm.  I’m now into season 3 of “The Americans” and loving it (thanks, MY, if you are reading this).

%d bloggers like this: