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Mar-a-Lago McEnany

July 17, 2020

Already following in the footsteps of Trump’s hired liars past, when McEnany said, “I think the world is looking at us as a leader in Covid-19,” she showed as nothing more than a better coiffed Baghdad Bob. There are two salient psychology questions about that role. First, how do those serving in it see what they do? Do they see it as necessary for the greater good? Or simply as job opportunity, something that brings them lucre and fame? Do they take pride in being a professional liar? Or are any of them actually believers?

The second question is how the regime’s supporters view that? Do they excuse such blatant lying because they think the enemy does likewise? Or see it as an inevitable race to the bottom, given the circumstance? I suspect most of Saddam’s supporters just didn’t care. Which raises the question of whom was the target of the propaganda? With Trump, those lies are necessary to the movement behind him and core to how he operates.

Sarah Sanders always seemed angry. As if it were somehow the press’s fault that her boss was an incessant liar and she was having to defend that. McEnany seems to have taken lessons from al-Sahhaf: the lifted eyebrows, innocent face, and open, raised hand. As if to say, surely you can believe what I’m saying, can’t you?

Don’t rule out immunity

July 16, 2020

I have seen quite a few people share an article about a Covid-19 patient who seemingly caught the disease twice. Be careful not to read too much into that. If there were zero immunity to the disease, the fraction of people showing an infection who previously had been infected would equal the fraction of the population already infected. I.e., having been infected once would not affect your odds at all of being infected again. If that were the case, doctors would be seeing tens of thousands of repeat infections, not just a handful. In the other direction, if immunity worked a 100%, we never would see what the article reports. Few things in biology work 100%. Having ruled out the extreme possibilities, we’re still in the grey middle with this new disease:

In general, the unknowns of immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 currently outweigh the knowns. We do not know how much immunity to expect once someone is infected with the virus, we do not know how long that immunity may last, and we do not know how many antibodies are needed to mount an effective response. And although there is some hope regarding cellular immunity (including T-cell responses) in the absence of a durable antibody response, the early evidence of reinfections puts the effectiveness of these immune responses in question as well.

I think the author is wrong when he goes on to say that dims the hopes for herd immunity. It means we just don’t know yet. And while studies of antibody titers are interesting, immunoglobulin has a half-life in the blood, and declines unless it is being produced. That production process may be the more critical issue.

Note, also, that artificial immunity through a vaccine is a somewhat different issue than natural immunity through having the disease. A vaccine might work well even if natural immunity is spotty, either because antigens are differentially targeted, or because the vaccine stimulates a bit different immune response. And despite the few cases of re-infection, I suspect natural immunity is more effective than the worse speculation that generates.

We’re in an epidemic. That is hard, and people are dying, and more will die. But it won’t last forever and it’s not the end of the world. Imagination tends to run to simple extremes. Reality usually is more complex and in-between.

Cancel culture?

July 15, 2020

To the extent that cancel culture is a threat, I agree with Ross Douthat that the major concern lies in people losing their jobs because of what they say or write. What he fails to point out is that those typically are corporate decisions. Corporations aren’t people. They don’t hold convictions or have personal loyalty. They have interests. They readily will dismiss someone not because they disagree with what was said or because it violates any corporate policy, but for a variety of tangential reasons. A corporation may see that as convenient to some pre-existing desire for staffing changes. It may want to discourage other employees from speaking out, regardless of view. It may just seek expediency in dealing with the resulting PR issues.

Discovering what Tucker Carlson’s writer, Blake Neff, had been posting for years under a pseudonym left Fox News in a sticky bind. It wants to maintain the public stance of rejecting racism and misogyny, without abandoning its core audience, a slice of which is reflected in the forums where Neff wrote. Its solution was to cancel Neff, and have Tucker Carlson speak as if the problem were Neff’s personal failing, that he succumbed to normal temptation. Neff “fell short,” but “we are all human.” See, don’t let those damned liberals get on their high horse and make you feel bad, if you posted something a little bit racist yesterday! Nice spin. Fox News can point out it cancelled Neff — What more do those damned liberals want? — while completely ducking any harder questions stemming from what they discovered.

Let’s dig

July 14, 2020

We have only scratched the surface in studying what viruses exist. An article from early last year, long before most people had heard of coronaviruses, argued that we should dig more. Of course, doing so would be take public research money spent in association with university labs. If there is any beneficial side effect to this awful epidemic, let’s hope it spurs some young students to take interest in virology and in immunology and in biology in general. And that it persuades more of the public that they should be supporting the natural sciences.


July 13, 2020

The corruption in Trump commuting Stone’s sentence quickly fades into just another example from recent news. Trump ordered the NIH to stop a coronavirus research grant purely for political display. Trump just replaced the inspector general who was putting Mitch McConnell and his wife at legal risk. Barr is trying to make sure Michael Cohen doesn’t release a book on his experience with Trump, and is stonewalling on Department of Justice work products related to why the Mueller probe did not indict Trump on obstruction of justice. And constantly in the background lies the issue of Trump mixing his own business interests and foreign policy, with Turkey as easy example.

Robert Mueller III reminds Americans that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was real, and that Roger Stone was at the heart of it. George Will calls for the defeat of the Republican senators who have enabled Trump. Mueller, Will, and Romney all are conservatives. They just cannot stomach the open corruption that has taken over their party. Which separates them from those who pretend not to see it.

Update: McSweeney’s has a more comprehensive list.

Genes across the Pacific

July 9, 2020

PacificProaA new gene analysis using fairly sophisticated techniques finds evidence of a single contact event between Native Americans and Polynesians around 1200 AD. (Cite.) Of course, that analysis cannot tell whether Polynesians as they spread across the Pacific made their way to the continent, and returned with guests or captives or stowaways, or whether some South American fishermen crossed the Pacific after some sea misadventure, or whether it was something else entirely. From a historical perspective, I don’t know that a single contact event much matters, if it didn’t lead to further intercourse.

I wrote previously on the mystery of the sweet potato’s dispersal.


July 8, 2020

Right-wing militias once again turned out to protest an antifa event that was nothing more than an internet rumor.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is gaining political power.

Remember, if you are one of the 3% or a QAnon follower, you shouldn’t go anywhere without protection against 5G.

Sucking arachnid blood

July 7, 2020

Had some science fiction writer in the 1940s written a novel on how future humans came to depend on the blue blood of one particular sea arachnid for their wonderful medical technology, it likely would have been treated as far-fetched.

National Geographic explains how that is exactly what happened. Needless to say, we should move forward exploring synthetic alternatives to limulus amebocyte lysate. Not just because of environmental concerns. The article strains to make a tie to Covid-19, given that it is the topic of the day, and vaccines for it will require this. But the need to detect bacterial contamination is broad. This has been a part of drug manufacturing for many decades.

Everyone is an art critic

July 6, 2020

Let’s first dispense with a particularly stupid argument, that toppling monuments and removing flags erases history. No one learns history by looking at statues. The history of the Axis was not erased when the victorious allies tore down Germany’s and Italy’s statues and banners and other monuments. What actually erases history is the destruction of records, the legal sequestering of information, official secrecy, and perhaps most of all, people’s failure to record what might interest those in the future.

The argument over statues — which to topple, which to make, which to preserve — is essentially an argument over art. The first and sufficient clue is that sculpting and painting both are taught in the same schools. The interesting thing about any piece of art is that its meaning changes over time, depending on where it is displayed, on what groups are motivated by it and how, on its relation to current politics, on what we know about its past, on its reception by the art world. And who should be making arguments about its display? Those related to the subject? To the work’s past? Those nearby who will see it often? The painting right, by Alexander Gerasimov, shows Stalin and Voroshilov. Should it be ritually burned, because it was commissioned to show one of history’s worst dictators? Preserved, as an iconic example of the art that time produced? Trashed, with the other art that time produced? Moved to a wing that also shows paintings of Putin?

The Confederacy was created for the singular and clearly expressed purpose of preserving black, chattel slavery. To the extent that we can label a regime evil, it must be included high in that list. Yet here in the US, there still is a veneration of it, an attempt to pretend there was some nobility married to that cause. That veneration has roots in the Lost Cause movement, quite ugly in its own right. Which creates the quite understandable desire to tear down the statues and monuments and flags that movement raised.

But, this is where the initial observation above plays the other way. Changing Mississippi’s state flag won’t make anyone more knowledgeable about history or more liberal in their views. It won’t change the fact that it took Mississippi until 2020 to do that. History books and museums still will accurately record the flag that flew for so many decades. It does not erase history. In politics, in the short term, it may create as much backlash as nudge away from that past.

Photographs can be a bit different. Though art, they also are a kind of recording that is less interpreted in their making. Especially when the subjects aren’t posed by the photographer. Li Zhensheng, famous for his photographs of China’s cultural revolution, recently died.

Technology and the ancient

July 2, 2020

Recent advances in the ability to lift and identify trace proteins may give historians and archaeologists a new scope on the past.

Chad Orzel ponders on the technology that went into Ötzi’s kit, some five millennium old, and the developments that went into it. We should be cautious, though, of attributing the knowledge work present in a culture to particular individuals in it. Everyone today carries a cellphone. Few understand the first thing about radio waves. Those prehistoric cultures knew some practical metallurgy. Or at least, a few people in them did. Not most who carried copper or bronze tools.