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Old worms

November 25, 2020

Everything in the past is older than we once thought. Including worms.

Old friends

November 24, 2020

It is interesting that old chimpanzees, just like old people, tend to socialize with their long-time mates, rather than acquiring new friends. (Cite.) Richard Wrangham, who has done some ground-breaking work in ethology, explains:

It raises the possibility that we are seeing behavioral systems that have been shared evolutionarily back to our common ancestor, around seven or eight million years ago.

Alas, the author of that article exhibits the naturalistic fallacy in full bloom:

These behaviors were thought to be unique to humans but it turns out chimpanzees, one of our closest living relatives, have these traits, too. Understanding why can help scientists gain a better picture of what healthy aging should look like and what triggers this social change.

The fact that some behavior is common and natural, even across species, does not mean it necessarily is healthy. For all we know, chimpanzees would live longer and happier lives if they broke out of that habit, if they were somehow enticed in their later years to form bonds with some new friends. We don’t know simply from observing it if the habit of old friends is healthful, or merely what aging primate brains do.

Dominion Voting

November 23, 2020

Conspiracy theories about computers were old when I started writing software professionally, in the 1970s. But in those times past, they mostly remained in the margins. I suspect the chief marketing executive for Dominion Voting Systems never imagined that his company suddenly would become the target of conspiracy theories pushed by a mad president in a soft coup attempt. The company’s home page now starts with a debunking of those. The company’s employees are receiving threats.

Like most conspiracy theories involving technology, these strain the credulity of those who understand the technology concerned. From an engineer’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine a system that is built with a back channel that somehow is kept secret from the almost everyone involved in the product’s construction and maintenance. What do the conspirators do, the first time a new QA engineer raises the issue of strange messages on a Wireshark analysis? Murder everyone at the meeting? The only feasible route to such secrecy is where the engineering team itself is committed to it. Which is done all the time where that commitment is socially sanctioned and has legal framework around it. Lockheed likely has hundreds of teams working on classified systems, whose engineers all have security clearances and are committed to security. That is harder to imagine for a nefarious purpose. How does that job interview go? “We like your background in real-time and transaction reliability — how do you feel about illegal, secret projects?” I’ve had some strange job interviews, but that one never came up.

Those who believe those stories are fools. Those who encourage them are knaves. Shame on them. Especially any who ever worked in the technology arena. Honest conservatives take a stand against such bullshit.

Ob disclaimer: I have no connection to Dominion Voting Systems, though I don’t doubt it has connections to companies I have done business with in the past. Nothing I said above should be construed as an endorsement of their products — the fact that they are accused of absurdities for political purpose doesn’t erase any other criticism. I am long LMT.

Erasing history

November 19, 2020

A history professor ruminating on Britain’s retreat from empire explains what actually erases history:

At the empire’s late-Victorian apogee, Rudyard Kipling had enjoined his compatriots to contemplate the ruins of fallen powers with humility: “Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget!” In the event, an apter motto for Britain’s imperial retreat was “Best we forget.” In one colony after another, as the former Guardian journalist Ian Cobain details in his 2016 book, “The History Thieves,” the British went down in a blaze of documents. A reporter in Cairo during the Suez Crisis recalled standing on the lawn of the British Embassy “ankle deep in the ashes of burning files.” Twelve days before Malaya’s independence, in 1957, British soldiers in Kuala Lumpur loaded trucks with boxes of records to be driven down to Singapore and, a colonial official reported, “destroyed in the Navy’s splendid incinerator.” In 1961, recognizing that “it would perhaps be a little unfortunate to celebrate Independence Day with smoke,” the Colonial Office advised the governor of Trinidad and Tobago to get an early start, and told him that he could also pack files into weighted crates and drop them into the sea. In British Guiana, in 1965, two women hovered over a forty-four-gallon drum on the Government House grounds carrying out what their boss described as “the hot and wearing work” of cremating files. What colonial officials didn’t destroy, they hid. In Nairobi, nine days before Kenya became independent, four packing crates of sensitive papers were hustled into a plane and flown to London Gatwick, where a government official supervised their transfer into storage. These, along with thousands of other colonial files, ended up stashed behind the razor wire of Hanslope Park, in Buckinghamshire, an intelligence facility dedicated to communications security—that is, to keeping secrets. “Erasing history” is a charge invariably lobbed at those who want to remove the statues of contentious figures. But taking down a statue isn’t erasing history; it’s revising cultural priorities.

Few people actually are interested in history. Including most who say otherwise. What they want is a comfortable backstory that glorifies their ancestors, validates their cultural outlook, acts as surrogate political argument, justifies their behavior. And preachers and authors and media producers and even, alas, many history teachers are eager to provide that.

France and terrorism

November 18, 2020

If you imagine Islam as a conquering force that must destroy corrupt, western society, whether because you’re an Islamist or because you’re one of Steve Bannon’s acolytes, your misinformed views sadly have shaped how American media reports on terrorism. Both media on the left and media on the right. Combined with a typical misunderstanding of other nations, that leads to bad reporting of terrorism in France. Caroline Fourest is having none of it.

Ignore the press that global warming passed a point of no return…

November 17, 2020

It is possible, of course, that eventually we will trigger some tipping point after which global warming takes off regardless of our carbon emissions. Indeed, it is possible that we already have done so. But the recent paper getting so much attention isn’t convincing. Read also Gizmodo’s takedown.

In technical fields, dilettantes generally have a rough time. Business professors should be cautious about their climate models. And if this year has taught anything, it is that economists make lousy epidemiologists. In fairness, it seems the authors of that paper take it more as an interesting exercise, and it is the media amplification at fault.

Winter is nigh here

November 16, 2020

There is plenty of good news regarding Covid-19. Vaccine companies are reporting positive results. Researchers are better understanding the immune response that causes more severe disease, and the genetic elements of that. Doctors and nurses have learned better how to treat the disease, and are keeping more patients alive.

But, the latter is incremental improvement, and the vaccines won’t be widely available for some months yet. Right now, the disease is surging in both the US and Europe. US deaths are again averaging over 1,000 per day and climbing. So, I quite agree with Zeynep Tufekci: as much as you can, stay safe this winter.

Ob disclaimer: I am long MRNA.

Proud Boys

November 12, 2020

Seemingly, there is a dispute between the Proud Boys who want it to be openly white supremacist, and between those who don’t want that.

Update: A photojournalist who photographed Trump rallies speaks about his experiences.

Diet, health, and evidence

November 11, 2020

Good press is being given to a recent meta-analysis showing that those who eat more chili peppers enjoy almost a quarter reduction in all cause mortality, as well as death due to heart disease and cancer. And those of us who love all things capsicum rejoiced.

But, nutrition science is trickier than many realize. The studies analyzed all were retrospective. It might be that people who report they eat more chilis differ in relevant ways that are incidental to their chili consumption. Perhaps they also eat more tomatillos, and that in fact is the magic food, and the studies didn’t ask that. Perhaps they have genes that influence both their appetite and their health. It could be that people who like chilis live longer, whether they eat them or not. Or perhaps they have higher income. Something we know is associated with mortality. (I suspect, but didn’t check, that the study controlled for that.)

It’s impossible to control for all confounding factors. Which is why randomly controlled trials are so important. The problem with nutrition is that is hard to do with human diet. How do you find a thousand volunteers who are willing to be randomly assigned to the chili / no chili arms for a year? That’s a bit tougher than taking a drug or a placebo.

To make up for that, those looking at nutrition try several things. They do studies on mice. You can assign them to any trial you want. They will eat anything. They don’t live long. All of which makes them handy for experiments. Alas, all of which raises questions about how much the results apply to people.

Another approach is to look for causal mechanisms. If, for example, scientists can figure out that capsaicin has wonderful health benefits, that solves the puzzle. Note, though, that the study above doesn’t provide evidence on what capsaicin does. There might be other ingredients in chili peppers that are playing an important role, either alone or along with capsaicin.

And researchers do meta-analyses, like the one referenced. If the primary data comes from retrospective studies, then it is good to look at many of them, from different researchers and different nations.

So I will relish that there is some evidence that the serranos in yesterday’s pico and that the jalapenos I chop tomorrow for chili may be doing us well. We would eat them anyway.

Bullshit, rage, and lawyers

November 10, 2020

The message from the Trump cult is that the election was fraudulent. And they fast are finding the “evidence” for that. Eric Trump tweeted a bogus and debunked QAnon video. Steve Bannon and another right-wing con artist push deep state nonsense. Trump’s lawyers have pushed bogus claims and have had to eat their words in court. While that kind of bullshit fares poorly in legal arenas and court, it works well on his base. The Trumpistas cannot vet such stories, because they are dishonest, and will eagerly propagate them, because they are zealous. This Twitter thread collects some of them.

The circulation of these conspiracy theories furthers their group beliefs: that they have been wronged, that their leader is heroic, that they hold superior knowledge to the rest of us, that the mainstream media is out to cover it up, that they are right to rage against those outside their cult. Indeed, those lawsuits, plainly futile when filed, might more be intended to keep his base stirred and their loyalty cemented. Which makes them also a nice fundraising tool.

In their rage, the Trumpistas don’t much care if innocent people are hurt in the process. An election worker in Georgia is having to lay low because the Georgia Republican Party Chair tweeted a video interpreted as showing him discarding a ballot. We live at a strange time, that election workers and epidemiologists have been made political targets just for doing their jobs. Steve Bannon publicly fantasized about beheading Dr. Fauci, for his lack of personal loyalty to Trump. Twitter suspended him for that.

Well, if Fauci was a Republican prior to this epidemic, he likely is a Democrat now. Quite a few Republicans seem to fantasize about shooting Democrats. An Alabama police captain has resigned after posting on Facebook that Biden voters deserve a bullet in the skull. An an Arkansas police chief has resigned after posting similar comments on Parler. Those who have been radicalized can find plenty of outlets that will let them publish their vicious views. Some will be surprised that still can come back to haunt, serving as evidence, affecting their employment, and souring their personal relationships.

And even what lawyers are willing to represent them. Trump’s law firms have to worry about the fallout from pushing nonsense in the courts. And Bannon’s lawyer unceremoniously dropped him. When you’re paying someone a few hundred dollars an hour to do so, it says something that they won’t stand by your side any more. Of course, for the money they pay lawyers, Trump and Bannon will have little problem finding someone.

Update: At least this would-be assassin of Biden voters isn’t in law enforcement.