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December 13, 2017

Congratulations to the good people in Alabama trying to drag their state into the 20th century! Doug Jones’s victory hinged on a high turnout in urban areas. Minorities and women carried the day. Moore’s scandals played a role: while Jones won the female vote as a whole by 16 points, “among mothers with children under 18, Jones won by a 34-point margin, 66 percent to 32 percent”. Let’s hope they remember that the misogyny that enabled the right to support Moore will remain, even when they have a less tarnished candidate. And I like to think that Moore’s spokesman, Ted Crockett, pushed Jones over the top in his dumb performance (youtube) with Jake Tapper. The thing about spokespeople is that they are supposed to be able to speak.

In this case, I am ticked that I predicted wrongly.


Potatoes, wine, and chocolate

December 12, 2017

That often describes my evening repast. I like all three.

Quartzy has an article on the importance of the potato to Europe’s expansion, after it was brought back from the New World. The thesis seems a bit overstated, even if the particulars all are sensible. Tasty, nutritious, portable, and storable. Don’t diss the potato!

Alas, this post cannot sing the praises of wine based on the news next. British researchers find that a variety of resveratrol analogues rescue senescent human cells by restoring splicing factor expression and lengthening telomeres. That headline, of course, would bore most people to tears and cause them to skip to the next article right after the ana-. So here is the sell, in a variety of popular articles: researchers say red wine and chocolate will keep you young!

Except, they didn’t say that. They studied cells in vitro, and have no idea how those compounds affect people when consumed. More, they synthesized the resveratrol analogues they studied. The paper doesn’t say any of them appear in red wine or chocolate, or at what levels. In fact, the paper doesn’t mention wine or chocolate at all! The research is interesting. And would be more interesting if it eventually helps us understand the pathways involved. I suggest reading the paper over a glass of wine. Maybe the appearance of resveratrol in both will call down your lucky fairy, who will bless you with health and wealth. Mind, I am not dissing wine or chocolate. Search this blog, and you will find posts praising both! Nor am I criticizing the research. In this case, I just find the gap between research and the popular reports so wide not even Evel Knievel could leap it.

The photo shows Axomama, the potato goddess of the Andean Moche culture. (Warning: some ceramics at that link are not safe for work.)

Not so distant

December 11, 2017

I suspect few will be surprised tomorrow if Alabama elects Roy Moore to the Senate. Jared Sexton is familiar with the homegrown authoritarians who make up the movement that Trump rode to power, and who likely will elect Moore.

That strain, of course, has been part of America throughout its history. Mostly in its margins. What turned them into a movement in the internet age was the rise of the right-wing media. The game it plays is simple. Its audience doesn’t care about the truth, it cares about winning. So every mistake by the rest of the media paints it as the enemy. When Brietbart or Cernovich or other right-wing media purposely lie, that same audience approves, all the more if the lie works. Cernovich’s attack on Seder failed. His audience will cheer the attempt, and support Cernovich all the more. That audience doesn’t care that the Clinton email scandal wasn’t much scandalous, or that Pizzagate was fabricated from whole cloth, or that Trump was a birther. They care only that those attacks are aimed at those they hate. In today’s climate, the mainstream media do a disservice all around when they try for false balance. They need to recognize the asymmetries at work, and expose them.

Those who think this began with Trump have short memories. It was Karl Rove, speaking for the Bush administration, who boasted “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities.” Bush stood up to the nativists, to those Jared Sexton identifies as our homegrown fascists. But they cheered his Iraq war, even after its deceits were exposed. They loved his institutionalization of torture. (Those involved in that should not rest entirely easily.) And they will vote for Roy Moore, not because they doubt the accusations about him, but because they are happy for him to wear those as badges.

Free speech on campus?

December 7, 2017

A university has squelched an evangelical writer and speaker, and more, permanently banned him from its campus. This time, the administration’s claim that it was concerned about safety is transparently false, since there was no protest planned or large controversy. This time, you won’t see any right-wing pundits carping about the loss of free speech on campus. Because it is their favorite university.

Crisping rats

December 6, 2017

Coastal waters are full of microorganisms. Francisco Mojica discovered the CRISPR sequences in a halophile that lives in the Mediterranean waters that lap Spain. Those are now being used for genetic engineering. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the notion of applying that to the eradiction of rats, ferrets, and possums from New Zealand, to restore the native bird populations. There have to be less risky ways. It strikes me as even more risky in the UK.

Manhattan is an island. Unlike New Zealand, it has no hope of becoming free from the brown rat:

There have been 109 mayors of New York and, it seems, nearly as many mayoral plans to snuff out the scourge. Their collective record is approximately 0-108.

So why not study their DNA diversity? All it takes is traps. And a knife. “For the DNA analysis, Combs cut off an inch or so of the rats’ tails. (Over 200 of these tails are still saved in vials in a lab freezer.)”

Ah, the tail. If the brown rat (photo left) had a nice bushy tail, you would think it cute. Cursed with a scaly tail, you’re happy to have grad students snip it for genetic study.

The fact that there is a genetic difference between uptown and downtown rats is not an example of speciation. Genes flow through the brown rat population. Not just up and down Manhattan, but from there by ship to brown rats in foreign ports. Some Ph.D. student in biology should use CRISPR to add a marker gene to brown rats in Manhattan, then watch for how quickly it spreads across the globe.

Religious decline accelerates

December 5, 2017

beliefprojectedAfter yesterday’s bleak post, a more hopeful one today. Allen Downey does some number crunching on GSS data over the years. Taking into account the age of respondents at the time they answered the survey, and anticipating the inevitable rollover in generations, past data can be projected forward some years as shown in the graph left. (Click on the graph to see it full size.)

Downey summarizes the result:

Over the next 20 years, the fraction of Protestants (including non-Catholic Christians) will decline quickly, falling below 40% around 2030. The fraction of Catholics will decline more slowly, approaching 20%. The fraction of other religions might increase slightly. The fraction of “Nones” will increase quickly, overtaking Catholics in the next few years, and possibly becoming the largest religious group in the U.S. by 2036.

That plunging descent of American protestants gives hope that current politics reflects some their dying gasp and final grasp at political power. Of course, a new religious wave might nudge that curve upward. Just as better education will nudge it down. We’ll have to wait and see.

Why Mueller cannot save us

December 4, 2017

Let’s begin with this. Deporting the million undocumented residents who were raised here from childhood, to nations they mostly don’t know, will be an enormity more cruel and with less excuse than the internment of Japanese during WW II. The political movement demanding that, driven by nativism and resentment and fundamentalist religion, quite rightly is categorized with fascist movements past.

Trump did not create or build that movement. He is just the conman and reality TV star who knew how to ride it to power. He came closest to losing its support when he suggested he might be open to something that would treat DACA recipients decently. Mainstream politicians are pursuing that. It will be interesting to see how Trump responds when his base again rages against it. Their objection to DACA never was a matter of legal niceties. It always was rank nativism. They will turn on Trump again, if he actually gets close to signing a bill that allows the Dreamers to remain and to go to school and to work and eventually to become citizens.

So long as he aligns himself with their rage, they don’t care if he tweets lies every day, enriches his family from his political office, sacrifices ordinary people and the environment as favors to special interests, appoints corrupt officials, bollixes our alliances. and commits impeachable offenses. They enjoy all that, because it irritates the hated liberals and establishment. Trump’s best protection from impeachment is to keep his base angry and on his side. If it comes to that, pardoning his family from felonies or firing Mueller both would please them. It was too late for the usual norms to work the day Trump became president.

The current crisis is larger than Trump. When he is gone, more likely from stroke than impeachment, the movement that he currently gives voice will remain. They are driven by pundits from Coulter and Ingraham to Hannity and Jones. If Trump is removed by impeachment while still siding with them, it will add fuel to their rage. If he loses them, they will search for their next leader. And they eagerly would forward someone more competent and more ruthless than Trump.

Thousands of civic officials now are working their way through the new circumstance of trying to do their job while the president treats them as the enemy. The FBI is but one example. Mueller has to follow his charter and expose crimes related to it. Some of those may have been committed by Trump’s inner circle. Or not. Though reams of ink are spilled doing so, I think it is futile to second-guess such investigations. Either way, I suspect it will have less political importance than many hope.