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    • Accepting and Using Climate Change
      A couple days ago I was thinking about the problem of surveillance states and I realized “this problem is likely to become less of one because of climate change.” And I started thinking about all the opportunities and good things climate change makes possible. My grieving was done. My pre-grieving, I suppose. I see grieving […]
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Proudly Defying Consensus Reality Since 2008

cjsnmttLong time readers know that I started this blog in response to the ridiculous, over-the-top, pre-accomplishments hagiography of Barack Obama during the primaries in 2008. The man could do no wrong. Don’t even get me started, I’ve written War and Peace over that primary season. And what did we learn from his eight years in the White House? We learned that the media and Obama’s fan base will do almost anything to obscure his flaws. That was fatal for us because if we weren’t allowed to be critical, we couldn’t correct when he was on the wrong track or hold him accountable for poor policy making.

For that early assessment of the media and his mysterious well-heeled fanbase propping him up in 2008, many of us were labeled “racists”. I hope that the left has learned a painful lesson from the last election about throwing that word around. Yes, there are racists. Real racism exists but it isn’t all about Barack Obama, who is a class based aspirational president and not John Lewis. But there many voters who were sick to death of having their perceptions invalidated by that cynical accusation. Unfortunately, some of them did not know when they were being played. We’re still trying to figure out what separated the casual Trump supporter from the lefty voter who simply didn’t like Obama but had no problem voting for Hillary. The Nate Silvers of the world who crunch their models can point to surface causes but I think the answer is buried in how labile we are to pressures to conform and adapt to consensus reality. We may need to find new descriptors for that model.

The purpose of this blog is to defy consensus reality. Commenters here feel safe to say what they think is really going on. The way we do this is by avoiding mental short cuts and slogans and buzz words. If you have a problem with out of control capitalism, calling a politician a “corporatist” is not going to cut it here. You need to say exactly what you mean, think it through, choose your words to convey their intent clearly.

Choosing carefully where we get our news and touchpoint with actual reality will also make a difference. Here are my tips for finding reality based news. Do with them what you will:

1.) Avoid any news source that provokes an immediate emotional response, especially if that response is fear or anger. People who are provoked to anger or fear do not make good decisions. It is difficult to reason with someone who is enraged. Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you tried to have a reasonable conversation with someone in a rage state.

2.) Avoid television news. This means ALL television and cable news programs. The combination of audio with visual cues is very powerful. It doesn’t matter which network you choose. Some are worse than others but they all do it. Just don’t watch it. Give it a week and you won’t miss it. Get to know your family again, take up the guitar, go for a walk. Make the TV a special thing where you binge watch Outlander and oogle Jamie Fraser in a kilt.

3.) If you need to get a quick news fix, try radio. Again, some radio is better than others. NPR used to be my go to. Now, I can hear the narratives built into the scripts. So, be careful with this. Again, if you find yourself becoming fearful or angry, stop listening.

4.) Find reliable sources in print journalism. Even this is getting increasingly difficult to do. There are some sources that are more reliable than others. I read a wide variety of sources like the NYTimes, Washington Post, ProPublica, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Conversation, The Guardian. If it seems like my choices are left leaning, that’s because truth does seem to have a strong liberal bias. That being said, the NYTimes and Washington Post have been lax with their standards in the last decade or so. I wouldn’t necessarily call either paper “left”. But occasionally, you can find articles that are less biased and better investigated. Also, read foreign news sources, like Der Spiegel for an outsider’s perspective. Google translate is amazing.

5.) Try alternate sources for news. I like podcasts. In 2016, we saw a bumper crop of good podcasts, some more analytical than others. Among my favorites, The Weeds from Vox, Five Thirty Eight from Nate Silver and his data modelers, and my current favorite, TrumpCast with Jacob Weisberg from Slate.

6.) Apply the Cindy Lu Who test. If you see a green imp in a Santa suit stealing your Christmas Tree and he tells you a story about taking it back to his workshop to fix a broken light, ask yourself why he couldn’t have come by during the day when your parents were awake. In general, the simplest explanation is the most likely. Conspiracies are rare. Most people are motivated by simple things like greed, revenge, arrogance. (I’m looking at you Rudy Giuliani) Those deadly sins can lead them to do a number of unethical things. But if your favorite news reader starts spewing an improbable scenario, and if that scenario makes you mad before you can figure out if it’s true or not, apply the Cindy Lu Who test and start asking questions.

7.) Read non-fiction. Read history, science, paleobotany, it doesn’t much matter. Find a well reviewed non-fiction book and learn from it. It’s especially good for learning to analyze and that can be applied to the here and now. Some of my favorite non-fiction include, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, anything by Michael Lewis, In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larsen, SPQR- A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard.

Lastly, check out this diagram of where news sources fall on the left-right, reliable-unreliable spectrum. If you are confused and distrustful about what and who to believe, stick to the top layer in the middle. Even the Wall Street Journal, as crazy as its opinion pages are, has a very good news bureau and high quality reporting.

7xhauxf

We’re about to be bombarded by a high volume of issues and controversies all at once. We will be disoriented. We may have a hard time keeping track of what is going on. Many people who have studied authoritarian regimes say that citizens quickly learn to accept the unacceptable so you are encouraged to write down what your beliefs and principles are right now and check them periodically to see if you are slipping.

Hold hands, stick together, look out for one another.

SWAK!

STrumpets

procuressSTrumpet sounds so quaint. I get the image of floozies in bodices where their cups runneth over. There’s a whiff of something overripe about them. They don’t necessarily have hearts of gold. They’re looking out for themselves. Nothing so tasteful as Vermeer’s Procuress but the boob grabbing seems to be a thing.

It’s a silly image. How close is it to reality?

Well, Matthew McWilliams at Vox did what looks like principal components analysis of the typical Trump supporter and most of you will probably not be surprised with the results:

What I found is a trend that has been widely overlooked. A voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump. Neither, despite predictions to the contrary, did evangelicalism.

Here is what did: authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans’ inclination to authoritarian behavior. When political scientists use the term authoritarianism, we are not talking about dictatorships but about a worldview. People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.

Authoritarianism and a hybrid variable that links authoritarianism with a personal fear of terrorism were the only two variables that predicted, with statistical significance, support for Trump.

We’ve been here before. If you’re new to the concept of authoritarianism, stop right here and go read Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, his online study of the subject. I’m not sure the typical Trump supporter would see themselves as cousins of North Koreans or an Ayatollah but that’s about where they are. Trump has similar qualities of power and strength that the typical authoritarian follower admires.

Conformity is a key personality characteristic of authoritarian followers. The wariness of outsiders has been a constant feature of our culture. We all learned about xenophobia in America in our 11th grade social studies class. It’s an “us vs them” strategy employed by politicians since forever.

There’s something I think the analysis is not yet picking up on and I’m not sure what parameter to chuck into the mix to see if it counts but it has something to do with the inability to assess risk or think critically. I’m not sure this has anything to do with education either since I’ve known plenty of people with PhDs whose ability to think critically can be derailed by a good propaganda campaign. Let’s just say that politicians like Trump and George W. Bush are good at poking at the amygdalas of some people to make them think of how vulnerable and unsafe they are all the time.

There’s reasonable fear that we can think through and prepare for and then there is unreasonable fear that resists thinking through. I think authoritarians are very good at stimulating the latter. But the funny thing is that the scenarios that the authoritarians present to all of us are the same. It’s just that some of us don’t fall for them. That’s the part I’m most curious about.

Well, that’s about as far as I want to delve into the mind of a typical STrumpet today. I think we can all see where the campaign is heading at this point. The Republican primary is set up for “winner take all”, while Democrats have gone with proportional distribution of the vote. We all know from 2008 that this is just a convenient fiction for the Democrats. The Superdelegates will make the final call and pretty soon (In fact, I’m already seeing signs of this), the word will go out to fall in behind Hillary. Im already seeing the ice crack around protecting Obama’s legacy too with Bill Press’s book on Buyer’s Remorse and one of Tom Sullivan’s posts at Digbysblog where he pretty much admits that the Democrats tried the Republican campaign strategy in 2008 (and how did that turn out??). The title of the post is An “existential sense of betrayal”.  Digby herself seems to be stuck thinking that it’s all about racism but some of her co-posters are a little more introspective. That’s encouraging. In any case, Hillary is going to have to start distancing herself from Obama and probably sooner than later if she has to present herself as something new.

Trump will continue to insinuate that Hillary is about to be indicted for something. Not sure how she’s going to deal with it but I suspect that the media, who has had an irrational hatred of her for two decades, is going to have to swallow its pride and start, you know, actually reporting the truth about her. That should be interesting.

I thought 2008 was ugly but I think this campaign year is going to get even uglier. We might even see one candidate completely rid himself of the Mister Nice Guy routine we expect of serious candidates and go after his opposition using language that will make everyone but the most hardened strumpet blush.

Another thing that irks me

Vox has a new post about Frances Collins remark that if the NIH had better funding, we would have an ebola vaccine by now.  Vox says this isn’t true.  I think this was addressed briefly during the hearing.  The NIH went for years looking for a partner for vaccine research in the private sector and couldn’t find one.  Finally, they got GSK and another company interested in development.

Here’s what Vox doesn’t understand about drug discovery research and I have seen this repeated time and time again until it has become ingrained and hard to dislodge:

The NIH is not the only player necessary to take vaccines to market. The agency’s role in pharmaceutical development is usually basic research, giving scientists grants to look at how diseases function and what can stop them.

When it’s time to use that science to build a vaccine, that’s where drug companies typically come in, paying for the trials and manufacturing. We don’t know whether, in a world where the NIH had more funding, a pharmaceutical company would have stepped forward to do this. There’s decent reason to believe there wouldn’t have been; a vaccine to treat Ebola, an infrequent disease that hits low-income areas of the world, is hardly a blockbuster.

This is the conventional wisdom but it is incorrect.  The NIH does provide valuable basic research but the key word here is basic.  It’s not like the NIH develops a vaccine that just needs to be “built” by private industry.  It’s the same thing with drugs for cancer or any other illness.  The NIH provides very basic starting points.  After that, private industry has to pour massive amounts of money into research to fill out the details to get it to the point where it can be built.

What Vox and others do not understand is that private industry research is Real RESEARCH.

Now, if Vox wants the NIH to do the same kind of research that private industry is doing, starting with basic nuggets performed in NIH sponsored labs and publishing work that frequently can not be reproduced in private industry labs (I have been there, Ezra Klein), then it will need a lot more funding.

And this may be necessary anyway because private industry has decided that Real RESEARCH is way too risky and it would prefer not to do it anymore. (Hence the hundreds of thousands of layoffs that we refer to as Pharmageddon)  So, if we want a vaccine for anything, it may eventually have to come from the NIH.  That is what Collins is referring to.  NIH can only go so far without a private partnership.  If the partnership isn’t there and funding is cut, guess  what?  No vaccine.

This has been another episode of a former drug discovery researcher fruitlessly trying to correct the record.

EBOLA, EBOLA, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! Or not.

Funny, I was just watching a documentary on the Black Death.  Now that was scary.  Once the plague became airborne, you were really in trouble. I can remember the day I spent in Siena, Italy looking at all the plague art.  It was chilling and there was so much of it. And yet, there were still countries, like Poland, that managed to isolate themselves from the epidemic.  So, if there was a way to evade an airborne illness in the 14th century, we’re probably going to do Ok against ebola, which isn’t airborne.

Then again, yersinia pestis was a bacteria and ebola is a virus.  The last time we had a viral epidemic of catastrophic proportions was during WWI with the Spanish Flu.  Still, many of those deaths were caused by cytokine storms, i.e. an overreaction of the immune system.

Nevertheless, the probability that this virus will spread is pretty low and is summarized in the following PSA from Vox:

 

And there you have it.  The way ebola spreads is through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected individuals.  So, the solution to containing any potential outbreak of ebola in Texas is pretty simple: treat the sick and quarantine them and any person who may have had direct contact with them.

There are only a couple of problems with this.  The first is that Texas, like many states run by Republican governors, has not accepted federal money to expand medicaid.  So, we have to assume that every person who gets sick from ebola is insured.  Uninsured people are not allowed to get ebola in Texas.  The virus should be instructed to avoid infecting uninsured individuals.

Secondly, we have to assume that everyone who gets ebola can take a sick day and won’t lose their jobs if they decide to go into quarantine.  That might be more tricky because it is likely that quarantine wouldn’t be voluntary.  The virus should be directed towards people in the leisure class as they can afford to take time off.

We just have to hope we can reason with the virus in case the single isolated case in Texas turns into more than a single isolated case.

If I were the Feds, I’d try to get ahead of those two issues.

Not that there’s anything to worry about.  Because there isn’t (probably).

Well, I’m not going to panic in any case.