March 27, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM



[T]he Lightyear 2 will be a huge step for clean energy vehicles. The solar-electric design boasts over 500 miles of driving range between charges, thanks to integrated "solar cells" placed on the outside of the vehicle. 

Lightyear also claims the vehicle can be charged three times less than a conventional EV. On top of all that, Lightyear says the vehicle has the smallest energy footprint on the market -- with lifetime emissions being half that of conventional EVs. At an estimated price of less than $40,000, this could be huge for the sustainable vehicle movement. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Will AIs Take All Our Jobs and End Human History--or Not? Well, It's Complicated... (Stephen Wolfram, March 15, 2023, Writings)

Inside ChatGPT is something that's actually computationally probably quite similar to a brain--with millions of simple elements ("neurons") forming a "neural net" with billions of connections that have been "tweaked" through a progressive process of training until they successfully reproduce the patterns of human-written text seen on all those webpages, etc. Even without training the neural net would still produce some kind of text. But the key point is that it won't be text that we humans consider meaningful. To get such text we need to build on all that "human context" defined by the webpages and other materials we humans have written. The "raw computational system" will just do "raw computation"; to get something aligned with us humans requires leveraging the detailed human history captured by all those pages on the web, etc.

But so what do we get in the end? Well, it's text that basically reads like it was written by a human. In the past we might have thought that human language was somehow a uniquely human thing to produce. But now we've got an AI doing it. So what's left for us humans? Well, somewhere things have got to get started: in the case of text, there's got to be a prompt specified that tells the AI "what direction to go in". And this is the kind of thing we'll see over and over again. Given a defined "goal", an AI can automatically work towards achieving it. But it ultimately takes something beyond the raw computational system of the AI to define what us humans would consider a meaningful goal. And that's where we humans come in.

What does this mean at a practical, everyday level? Typically we use ChatGPT by telling it--using text--what we basically want. And then it'll fill in a whole essay's worth of text talking about it. We can think of this interaction as corresponding to a kind of "linguistic user interface" (that we might dub a "LUI"). In a graphical user interface (GUI) there's core content that's being rendered (and input) through some potentially elaborate graphical presentation. In the LUI provided by ChatGPT there's instead core content that's being rendered (and input) through a textual ("linguistic") presentation.

You might jot down a few "bullet points". And in their raw form someone else would probably have a hard time understanding them. But through the LUI provided by ChatGPT those bullet points can be turned into an "essay" that can be generally understood--because it's based on the "shared context" defined by everything from the billions of webpages, etc. on which ChatGPT has been trained.

There's something about this that might seem rather unnerving. In the past, if you saw a custom-written essay you'd reasonably be able to conclude that a certain irreducible human effort was spent in producing it. But with ChatGPT this is no longer true. Turning things into essays is now "free" and automated. "Essayification" is no longer evidence of human effort.

Of course, it's hardly the first time there's been a development like this. Back when I was a kid, for example, seeing that a document had been typeset was basically evidence that someone had gone to the considerable effort of printing it on printing press. But then came desktop publishing, and it became basically free to make any document be elaborately typeset.

And in a longer view, this kind of thing is basically a constant trend in history: what once took human effort eventually becomes automated and "free to do" through technology. There's a direct analog of this in the realm of ideas: that with time higher and higher levels of abstraction are developed, that subsume what were formerly laborious details and specifics.

Will this end? Will we eventually have automated everything? Discovered everything? Invented everything? At some level, we now know that the answer is a resounding no. Because one of the consequences of the phenomenon of computational irreducibility is that there'll always be more computations to do--that can't in the end be reduced by any finite amount of automation, discovery or invention.

Ultimately, though, this will be a more subtle story. Because while there may always be more computations to do, it could still be that we as humans don't care about them. And that somehow everything we care about can successfully be automated--say by AIs--leaving "nothing more for us to do".

It's a deflationary epoch, as labor and energy costs trend toward zero.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Historical Cost of Populism (MORITZ SCHULARICK, CHRISTOPH TREBESCH, MANUEL FUNKE, March 18, 2023, ProMarket)

[W]e conducted a historical analysis on the ups and downs of populist leadership worldwide over the past 120 years and gauged its political and economic fallout. Three main takeaways emerged.

Populism has a long history and it is serial in nature

The first populist president was Hipólito Yrigoyen, who came to power in the general election of Argentina in 1916. Since then, there have been two main populist peaks: during the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the 2010s. The 1980s was the low point for populists in power. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, from 1990 onward, populism returned with a vengeance. The year 2018 marked an all-time high, with 16 countries ruled by whom the political science literature describes as populists (more than 25% of the sample). The most recent increase can mainly be attributed to the emergence of a new populist right in Europe and beyond.  

A particularly interesting insight from our long-run data are the recurring patterns of populism over time.  Specifically, populism at the government level appears to be serial in nature, as it is observable in the same countries again and again. We identified long and repeating spells of populist rule. Having been ruled by a populist in the past is a strong predictor of populist rule in recent years. Interestingly, half of the countries in our sample with recurring populist spells saw switches from left-wing to right-wing populism or vice versa.

Populism is economically costly

To study the  economic consequences of populist politics, we measured  unconditionally averaged performance gaps in annualized real GDP growth based on Blinder and Watson's measurement of a Democrat-Republican president performance gap in U.S. postwar data. We found that countries underperformed by approximately one percentage point per year after a populist came to power, both compared to their country's typical long-run growth rate and the (then-)current global growth rate. This is true for the short term of five years and the long term of 15 years after a populist gains power. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Redeeming Pain and Normalizing Uncertainty: A Better Way to Talk About Christian Doubt (Blake Victor Kent, March 08, 2023, Real Clear Religion)

In my latest academic work, however, I formulated hypotheses about suffering and religious and spiritual struggles that contrasted with the viewpoint Yancey helped me develop. I hypothesized that people who are more committed and involved in their faith should struggle less with doubt and feelings of abandonment by God when they suffer. The hypothesis was built on the well-documented proposition that religion (most often measured by service attendance) frequently protects people from a host of negative outcomes.

But in fact, the opposite was true in our study of chronically ill American adults. As suffering increased, religious and spiritual struggles - including doubt, fear of abandonment, and loss of confidence in God's power - also increased, and even more so for those who were highly religious. And that included respondents high in spiritual fortitude, a measure scoring people on their intent to redeem hardship.

As a reader, what I treasured most about Yancey was that he avoided platitudes and legitimated doubt, uncertainty, and fear. But as a researcher, I wondered if I had done the opposite, unconsciously relying on old truisms like "Let go and let God" and "God is good all the time, and all the time God is good."

According to research by the Barna Group, doubt is normal. Fear is normal. Being uncertain about God's power is normal. This is what people need to hear, and not just those who are suffering. My research confirms that some 40% of evangelicals experience attachment insecurities in their relationship with God, meaning they aren't totally confident God is as warm, present, and loving as evangelical preachers make him out to be. This makes everything from Bible reading to prayer to attending worship fraught with uncertainty. [...]

But doubt is not devoid of meaning. Research on post-traumatic growth suggests there are ways through it. Ultimately, I was wrong as a researcher to label religious struggles like doubt and insecurity as "negative" experiences to be avoided at all costs. And despite contemporary platitudes, the historical Christian tradition contains a good deal of wisdom about walking through suffering.

As Yancey wrote when disclosing his diagnosis, "Those who live with pain and failure tend to be better stewards of their life circumstances than those who live with success and pleasure. Pain redeemed impresses me much more than pain removed."

Belief invites doubt, fear, and insecurity - for all of us. So let's move past the platitudes. Instead, let's acknowledge doubt as normal. When we do, we'll be allowed to deal with it - in brutal honesty.

To not doubt is to not think, which is the purpose of belief for many. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Custom, 3D-printed heart replicas look and pump just like the real thing (Jennifer Chu, MIT News)

The team has developed a procedure to 3D print a soft and flexible replica of a patient's heart. They can then control the replica's action to mimic that patient's blood-pumping ability.

The procedure involves first converting medical images of a patient's heart into a three-dimensional computer model, which the researchers can then 3D print using a polymer-based ink. The result is a soft, flexible shell in the exact shape of the patient's own heart. The team can also use this approach to print a patient's aorta -- the major artery that carries blood out of the heart to the rest of the body.

To mimic the heart's pumping action, the team has fabricated sleeves similar to blood pressure cuffs that wrap around a printed heart and aorta. The underside of each sleeve resembles precisely patterned bubble wrap. When the sleeve is connected to a pneumatic system, researchers can tune the outflowing air to rhythmically inflate the sleeve's bubbles and contract the heart, mimicking its pumping action. 

The researchers can also inflate a separate sleeve surrounding a printed aorta to constrict the vessel. This constriction, they say, can be tuned to mimic aortic stenosis -- a condition in which the aortic valve narrows, causing the heart to work harder to force blood through the body.


Cure Bionics was founded by Mohamed Dhaouafi, an entrepreneur who started the company after learning that out of the approximately 30 million people who need prosthetics, only 1.5 million (or 5%) had the ability to obtain them.

After years of research and development, Cure Bionics has now created a prototype limb that can be made via 3D printing. The limb is lightweight and muscle-controlled and can be attached without surgical intervention, which makes it usable for children with amputated limbs, many of whom would have previously had to wait until adulthood to be fitted with a prosthetic.

Each prosthetic arm will feature rotating wrists, plus thumbs and fingers that move at their joints thanks to electrical impulses. Their solar power capabilities mean they can be used in areas where people may not have traditional means to charge or power them. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Behold Ron 'culture war' DeSantis: The Florida emperor with no clothes (Rex Huppke, 3/26/23, USA TODAY)

Consider the recent stumbles by the man GOP presidential primary frontrunner and former President Donald Trump has labeled "Ron DeSanctimonius" and, somehow more insultingly, "Rob."

President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron "Rob" DeSantis, in happier days.
DeSantis referred to Russia's deadly invasion of Ukraine as "a territorial dispute" and was then admonished by Democrats and Republicans alike. So he flip-flopped in an interview with Piers Morgan and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal." Then on Friday he flop-flipped back to saying: "I care more about securing our own border in the United States than I do about the Russia-Ukraine border."

The Daily Beast ran a lengthy story citing former DeSantis staffers and GOP operatives who painted the governor as someone who "struggles with basic social skills." That story included an anecdote about the governor's allegedly messy eating habits, claiming he once devoured a chocolate pudding dessert with three fingers.

That's dumb, of course, but it yielded this chyron when the Morgan interview was aired on Fox Nation: "RON: I DIDN'T EAT PUDDING WITH 3 FINGERS."

Tough beats, Rob.

March 26, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 10:48 AM


Comer's 'oversight' is focused on phony scandals (Jennifer Rubin, March 26, 2023, Washington Post)

The worst-kept secret in Washington is that Democrats could not be more delighted with the inept, unhinged and entirely unproductive hearings that House Republicans insist on conducting in search of pay dirt on Democrats.

For that, they can thank Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Put in charge of a committee that Republicans have historically used to fan conspiracies and put their opponents on defense, Comer has gotten flak from his own side for failing to come up with much useful to his party. Voters are unimpressed and want the committee to get back to real issues. And Democrats have mocked his loony claims on everything from the Chinese balloon to the Silicon Valley Bank collapse. Outside right-wing media, these "scandals" don't have much (such as facts) to recommend them. But a good deal of the problem lies with Comer.

Comer stomps around, sending up a cloud of dirt that falls mostly on himself. A recent New York Times report pointed to one embarrassing episode in his failed run for Kentucky governor when he leaked private emails to try to discredit an ex-girlfriend who said he abused her and took her to get an abortion...

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Luke as Historian (Paul Krause, 3/26/23, Voegelin View)

The world of biblical analysis seems to have two poles in the public imagination. One popular, generally atheistic, and horribly ignorant: the gospels were written--this analysis goes--long after the death of Jesus and passed through oral transmission and are incredibly garbled and unreliable in their final composition. Moreover, they have the trappings of mythopoetic construction. The other analysis, deeply scholarly and scholastic, built on a multitude of familiarity with ancient texts, asserts that while the synoptic gospels were written several decades after the life of Jesus, they fit the genre of ancient biography (and history) and are modeled on the writings of the ancient historians, and are generally reliable texts concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In his newly published and eminently readable introduction to the vexing questions of Lukan historiography, John J. Peters provides the best cursory introduction to the multifaceted issues that face graduate students and biblical scholars on matters of New Testament historiography. Moving beyond the now largely discredited form criticism of the Rudolf Bultmann and his disciples, Peters provides a readable and well-argued case for Lukan historiography as part of the Greco-Roman literary genre of biography and eye-witness history. Luke among the Ancient Historians, in no qualified terms, argues that the author of Luke "represented himself as a historian of contemporary events." While this is a generally well-known and accepted position in biblical studies, it may come as a surprise to some, skeptic and faithful alike. Wasn't Luke reporting hearsay passed down through multiple generations of oral transmission whose work detailing the life of Christ mirrors mythological poetry as the indoctrinated Neanderthals of the New Atheism like to claim? And wasn't Luke "divinely inspired" and not writing like the ancient historians who shun the muses and God-breathed inspiration as most of the innocently faithful have likely been told? No, and no!

To understand the genre of Luke's gospel, one must understand the various hermeneutical approaches to the New Testament. Further, one must understand how these approaches change over time. The once dominant school known as form criticism, which asserted the New Testament writings based on their literary tropes and patterns were synthesized from preceding generations of oral transmission, is now largely abandoned by most historical critical scholars. While the typical graduate student in biblical studies will be introduced to form criticism in their studies (as I was at Yale), which Peters does for the reader in his opening pages, this introduction to form criticism is simply meant to provide some background to broader New Testament historiographical debates and not meant to be taken as the dominant scholarly paradigm. "Luke-Acts," Peters writes, "belongs to the broad genre of Greco-Roman historiography." Our eminent guide then proceeds to provide the brief history of how the acceptance of the gospels as biography akin to the writings of the ancient historians came to predominate biblical studies and supersede the old form criticism of the past.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


What America's Civil War Can Teach Us About Israel'sIsraeli protesters may not realize it yet, but the only way they can protect their own rights and democracy is by allying with Palestinians ( Ian S. Lustick, 3/26/23, Foreign Policy)

There is a good deal of hullabaloo about whether the Jewish state will remain, become, or stop being a genuine democracy, but virtually no discussion of the impossibility of it being both a Jewish state and a democracy when half the country's inhabitants are Palestinian Arabs.

Approximately 6.8 million Palestinian Arabs live under the actual if not formally declared rule of the government of Israel. If half a million non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union are taken into account, this means there are more Arabs living in Israel than there are Jews.

So what is at stake is not just whether Israel is or will be a democracy (or can get away with calling itself a democracy even if it is not). What is at stake, really, is whether a regime of Jewish supremacy will be established so that the full weight of the state's laws can be explicitly used to enforce the disenfranchisement and subjugation of half the population.

Indeed, to sustain itself and protect against Jewish-Arab alliances that could end the racist regime it aims to create, the government will need to not only outlaw Arab participation in politics but also ban activity by Jews that might lead to Arab emancipation. That is why, if the Supreme Court of Israel is successfully neutered, the present government will move to outlaw anti-Zionist (i.e., Arab) parties as just another step toward the eventual exclusion of all Palestinians from political life.

To protect against Jewish-Arab alliances that could end the racist regime it aims to create, the government will need to not only outlaw Arab political participation but also ban activity by Jews that might lead to Arab emancipation.

Of course, some Israelis know very well what they are fighting for, however reluctant they may be to say so out loud. Among them are Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (who is also, within the Defense Ministry, in charge of civilian affairs in Judea and Samaria) and the settlers, fundamentalist ideologues, and ultranationalist activists he represents. With one another they are candid about their aims, but occasionally they let the cat out of the bag in public, as Smotrich did with his comment about needing to "erase" the Palestinian town of Hawara.

A slice of the Israeli Jewish left also knows what is really at stake, having come to understand that the rights of secular liberal Jews, and their hope to live in a country they can experience as sane, are increasingly dependent on Arab political mobilization and Arab votes. The intellectual elite among West Bank and Gaza Palestinians also know that, in the long run, political equality is the fundamental question that will determine their future.

But none of these groups will speak the truth. Smotrich and his followers prefer not to contradict their claim to be democrats by talking about their plans for the permanent political enslavement of Israel's Palestinians. Leftists fear that speaking of Arab rights, or including Arabs and Palestinian flags in demonstrations, will damage prospects for a protest movement that currently presents itself as a carnival of blue-and-white patriotic Zionists. And Palestinians who aspire to eventually live in a state that represents all its citizens, whether named Israel or Israel-Palestine, cannot admit to this for fear of retribution from either the Palestinian Authority (committed officially to the now-defunct vision of a separate Palestinian state) or the "resistance"-oriented street, which is intolerant of programs requiring decades of political mobilization.

Most Israelis, however, do not feel the reality of what this struggle is about. On the right, they are focused on specific opportunities the government's judicial "reforms" open for expanding settlements, ending protections for Arab citizens, increasing ultra-Orthodox subsidies, guaranteeing freedom of ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and expanding religious authority over both personal and public life. Accustomed to viewing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as outside their state, even while living within the domain of its power, they view the Arab problem "through the gunsights" (as the Hebrew expression goes) and see the regime they live in, which privileges Jews over non-Jews, as an unchangeable given in their lives.

Ariel Sharon's stroke is the singular tragedy of modern Israel. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


'Stuck in a swamp': Saudi Arabia seeks exit from Yemen war (Hashem Osseiran, March 25, 2023, AFP)

Since the Saudi-led military intervention began on March 26, 2015, the kingdom has pounded its impoverished neighbour with air strikes in a conflict that has triggered one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed through direct and indirect causes, with 4.5 million people internally displaced and more than two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line, according to UN estimates.

Nagi said that "military operations, such as air strikes" are now likely to cease, adding that the priority now is a "diplomatic solution".

The Saudi-led intervention, which marks its eighth anniversary on Sunday, came after the Huthis took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014.

March 25, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 3:52 PM


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What Worked Against Covid: Masks, Closures and Vaccines: Millions of lives were saved in the three years of the pandemic, but millions more were needlessly lost. And the world is far from ready for the next one. (Tom Frieden, March 17, 2023, WSJ)

Although the protection that vaccination offers against infection wanes after a few months and protection against severe disease decreases somewhat after four to six months, vaccines have been strikingly effective at reducing the risk of death, especially the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. In the U.S. in the last quarter of 2022, people who had been vaccinated and boosted were about one tenth as likely as unvaccinated people to be killed by Covid and half to one third as likely as people who were vaccinated but not boosted.

Until vaccination and effective treatment became available, the primary means of preventing death from Covid was reducing the risk of infection. Disruptive as they were, strategic closures of indoor activities reduced infections and deaths substantially. When people don't congregate indoors, the spread of Covid decreases exponentially. Masks, particularly when worn by people who are infectious as well as people who are exposed, further reduce spread, as does the isolation of infectious patients.

The first year of vaccination alone is credited with averting an estimated 14 million Covid deaths.

Studies from New York City, the U.S. as a whole and 11 European countries all come to a similar conclusion: Indoor closures prevented at least 50% of infections and deaths in 2020, with masking further decreasing spread. New York City's closure of indoor businesses and gatherings in mid-March 2020, for example, reversed the exponential increase in cases and resulted in a rapid decline in deaths, which lag infections by three or four weeks. Deaths in New York City decreased from more than 700 a day in mid-April that year to 300 a day two weeks later and 15 a day by July 1. Closures prevented or delayed many infections until hospitals became less overwhelmed and better treatments and vaccination became available.

In the U.S. and many other countries, however, schools were closed when they could have remained open, with devastating educational, social and economic harms. Mandates to close and open businesses were not tightly tied to real-time data, and the decision-making process of balancing costs and benefits was not transparent, creating avoidable antagonism and distrust. The simple truth that controlling any pandemic is essential for economic progress was often lost, along with many lives that did not have to be.

Masks proved to be surprisingly effective, although public discussion of them has been muddled. Masks have two different benefits: to reduce the amount of virus released into the air from people with Covid (source control) and to protect someone from inhaling the virus from the air (personal protection). Mask-wearing is crucial for source control because approximately half of the risk of spreading Covid occurs when infected people feel fine, either before they become ill or because they never develop symptoms.

Laboratory studies demonstrate that masks reduce the spread of the virus. N95 masks are more effective than surgical masks, which are more effective than cloth masks. When both those who are infected and those who are exposed wear masks, even if only cloth or surgical masks, the decrease in risk of infection is substantial. No mask is perfect, and breakthrough infections can occur, for example, because an N95 mask isn't worn properly or doesn't fit well. Successive variants of SARS-CoV-2 have become strikingly more infectious, making it even more important to wear effective masks when the virus is spreading.

High levels of community masking, including both source patients and exposed people, have been associated with reductions in infections ranging from 10% to 80%, with more protection when there is consistent mask-wearing in high-risk areas such as households.

God bless you, Dr. Fauci. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:50 AM


Inside the Failed Plan by MAGA World Lawyers to Keep Michael Cohen on the 'Right Page' With Trump: The Daily Beast obtained hundreds of emails and internal documents showing how Cohen went from a Trump confidant to the lead witness against him for paying off a porn star. (Jose Pagliery,  Mar. 25, 2023, Daily Beast)

Talking to reporters on a New York City street, Costello waved around papers saying that grand jurors deserved to see nearly 330 emails tracking his private interactions with Cohen to "see the full picture."

The Daily Beast has reviewed those emails, which do indeed tell a more complete story--one in which the Trump White House tried and failed to keep Cohen in line, eventually positioning him to testify against his former boss.

The emails show an attempt to establish a backchannel running from Cohen--who was suddenly being investigated by the feds over the $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels--all the way to then-President Trump. Costello had long been associated with Trump acolyte Rudy Giuliani, so an opportunity presented itself to establish a Cohen-Costello-Giuliani-Trump chain.

The New York Times previously obtained these emails, using them to document how Cohen turned on Trump. However, this account goes into further detail.

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


"The Results on My Screen Were: Raccoon Dog, Raccoon Dog, Raccoon Dog!": Evolutionary biologist Florence Débarre has long been searching for gene sequences from the market in Wuhan. Recently, she made an astounding discovery. What does it tell us about the origins of the coronavirus and the resulting pandemic? (Interview Conducted by Rafaela von Bredow und Veronika Hackenbroch, 25.03.2023, der Spiegel)

DER SPIEGEL: What were you specifically looking for?

Débarre: I was looking for information on a gene sequence that had been shared before and was from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. You have two ways of accessing a sequence. If you know the identifier, you just enter the identifier, but I was too lazy to look for the identifier, so I just used the search function. I just entered something like "sequences from China. January 2020. Environmental." And there were more sequences than usual. I thought: Wow!

DER SPIEGEL: Did you immediately realize what you had found?

Débarre: The results are displayed in a table, and you have a column for sequence length. And in the sequence length field, a very short sequences was entered, only three nucleotides. It made no sense. I thought they were placeholders and that the data hadn't been entered yet.

DER SPIEGEL: As you and your co-authors write in the recently released report, this happened on March 4. But you only found the actual data five days later?

Débarre: I immediately contacted the people who became my co-authors - as well as multiple other researchers - and asked them about the placeholders. They were surprised, but not much more. I, however, really wanted to know what was going on. Then, on March 9, I went back to the database and just clicked on one of the entries - and I realized that there was data associated with them!

DER SPIEGEL: Gene sequences from samples taken by Chinese researchers in the Huanan market shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic -- samples containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. What went through your mind when you found them?

Débarre: It was 11:30 p.m. and I was at home on my couch. It was: Wow! I had been waiting for a year, and then suddenly seeing them. But the greatest emotion was the next day ...

DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?

Débarre: My co-authors started downloading the data and my colleague, Alex Crits-Christoph started analyzing it, focusing first on samples that he found particularly interesting. He sent us a file the next day, a sequence he had assembled from one of the samples. He didn't tell us what it was, to give us the pleasure of seeing it for ourselves. I entered it into a program we use to identify sequences, and the result was: raccoon dog, raccoon dog, raccoon dog! So I don't swear, but I didn't just say "wow!"

Posted by orrinj at 7:26 AM


Florida parents upset by Michelangelo's 'David' force out principal (Timothy Bella and Hannah Natanson, March 24, 2023, Washington Post)

A Florida charter school principal said she was forced to resign this week after some parents complained about their sixth-grade students being shown images of Michelangelo's "David" statue in class, with one parent believing the art lesson on the Renaissance masterpiece amounted to pornographic material. the Right is at war on schools.

Posted by orrinj at 7:12 AM


Ron DeSantis' donors and allies question if he's ready for 2024 (Dasha Burns, Jonathan Allen, Allan Smith and Henry J. Gomez, 3/24/23, NBC News)

NBC News spoke with more than 20 GOP strategists, politicians and donors about whether DeSantis can bounce back from adversity -- some of it self-inflicted, some of it the result of constant pressure from Trump -- or is destined to wilt under the white-hot lights of a campaign for the highest office in the land. 

For a governor who prides himself on taking bold stands, and winning on the electoral battlefield, DeSantis has not yet shown the strength that gave some Republicans reason to believe he could compete with Trump.

He just needs to attack Donald enough to inflict some damage before he crumbles.

March 24, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 6:14 PM


DeSantis Finds His Voice: A NatCon Culture Warrior Who Praised a Prominent White Nationalist (TIM MILLER,  MARCH 24, 2023, The Bulwark)

There is no role in which the old maxim "personnel is policy" is more apt than that of presidential speechwriter. And there is good reason for that role to hold its exalted place in the mythos of the office.

Trump's "American Carnage" was no doubt shaped by the dark, nativist views of his Gollum-like muse. Obama's West Wing-era hopey-changey optimism was colored by the earnest and youthful pod-bros who wrote for him. And Bush's Chesterton-infused evangelizing was sculpted by the faith of Michael Gerson and Matthew Scully. To say nothing of the last century's legendary scribes for Reagan, JFK, and FDR (whose speechwriters included a multi-Pulitzer-winning playwright).

So I perked up when I heard scuttlebutt a few weeks ago that Ron DeSantis had chosen a speechwriter not from the ranks of the GOP's classically liberal old order, but from the brash online "new right" that is more animated by culture wars and MAGA identity politics than by free markets and free people. [...]

As first reported by the Dispatch last year, Hochman participated in a Twitter Space with white nationalist virgin Nick Fuentes--and lavishly praised him. "We were just talking about your influence and we were saying, like, you've gotten a lot of kids 'based' and we respect that for sure," Hochman said. "I literally said, I think Nick's probably a better influence than Ben Shapiro on young men who might otherwise be conservative."

The only difference between Don and Ron is 7 inches and a hundred pounds. 

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Bragg, DA probing Trump, received death threat letter with white powder (Jonathan Dienst, Dareh Gregorian and Laura Jarrett, 3/24/23, NBC News)

The FBI and NYPD are investigating a letter containing a death threat and white powder that was mailed to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office is investigating former President Donald Trump, law-enforcement sources told NBC News.

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The War and Treaty: Lover's Game (Justin Cober-Lake, 3/24/23, Spectrum Culture)

The War and Treaty rose slowly and then all at once. Tanya Trotter (then Tanya Blount) released her solo album on Polydor way back in 1994, but it didn't capture her remarkable vocal ability and didn't go anywhere. Michael Trotter Jr. served in Iraq, using his gifts to console and inspire fellow soldiers. The two met up, formed a band (and, not inconsequentially, got married) and in 2017 put out an EP. They followed that up with 2018's stunning Healing Tide, which only came out of nowhere if, like most of us, you didn't realize how long the stew had simmered. Since then, they've rapidly gained attention, appearing at the Grand Ole Opry and this year's CMAs. Their early broad take on Americana has become increasingly refined and accessible. With Lover's Game (produced by Dave Cobb), they find peak professionalism without sanding off too many of their edges.

Between Healing Tide and 2020's Hearts Town, the band became a little smoother, moving toward broadly appealing pop. They haven't lost their country roots, and perhaps nothing in their catalog makes that point quite like "Yesterday's Burn." The classic country duet lets both artists show off their vocals and skillful harmonizing. The song segues nicely into the ballad "That's How Love Is Made." The first song showed the healing power of new love while the next one covers the difficult reality of a relationship. The Trotters recognize the work necessary to keep a connection strong, accepting the challenges as well as the joys. It removes the idealism of many love songs without losing the possibility of transcendence.

That kind of idea drives much of the War and Treaty's art. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 AM


The Philosophy of Toxophily, Part III: Archery as wisdom (Sebastian Morello, March 24, 2023, European Conservative)
 Roger Scruton once remarked to me that, "if one is tempted to turn back to oneself, to encounter oneself, one immediately discovers that there's actually nothing there." When he said this, it filled me with horror. In fact, he meant that in the attempt to encounter oneself, one must epistemically isolate oneself, but the isolated self is an illusion, given that I am only I inasmuch as I am I-in-relation-to-You. 

Ideas sundered from the reality from which they're abstracted, especially those that orbit the chief fiction of the 'authentic self,' are at the very zenith of self-deception. Our declining civilisation is one that is in the grip of this illusory condition, which is accordingly expressed by every duped modern, from the teenager routinely taking 'selfies' to the trans-activist who declares his 'true identity' and consequently forces others to say things that both he and they know to be untrue. All such people run roughshod over reality in pursuit of the 'authentic self'--and it's obvious to any sane onlooker that, of course, there's actually nothing there. 

The perennial teaching of all wisdom traditions--one that was raised to the status of holiness by Christianity--is that self-actuation comes by self-forgetting and not by self-discovery. And the perfect overturning of this humanising truth by modernity is the ultimate proof both of our epoch's falsity and malevolence. All this stupidity and chaos is derived from starting one's intellectual quest from the wrong point of departure: with the illusion of the self rather than--like a child pointing and asking "what's that?"--with the (much more interesting) world out there. The person, of course, who gave this error philosophical respectability was Descartes, by whom we continue to be cursed.

The reason why, so often in my writing, I advocate hiking, riding, hunting, and foraging, and why I encourage the learning of real things, from the history of nations to the names of trees, is because I think we're all very unwell and such things are part of my prognosis. Now, I want to add archery to this list of treatments.

All of morality is just an attempt to restrain the self.

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 AM


A Utah parent says the Bible contains porn and should be removed from school libraries. Here's their full challenge. (Courtney Tanner, March 23, 2023, Salt Lake Tribune)

"Incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide," the parent wrote in their request, listing topics they found concerning in the religious text. "You'll no doubt find that the Bible, under Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1227, has 'no serious values for minors' because it's pornographic by our new definition."

The code cited is the Utah law passed in 2022 to ban any books containing "pornographic or indecent" content from Utah schools, both in libraries and in the classroom. It came after outcry from conservative parents groups, who have been pushing to have titles removed.

When you make a law hopelessly vague so you can use it as a weapon, you risk it being turned on you.
Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


Sparc Technologies claims "exciting" progress on sodium ion batteries (Giles Parkinson 24 March 2023, Renew Economy)

Australian battery technology group Sparc Technologies is reporting "exciting" developments in its pursuit of sodium ion batteries, an alternative to the prevalent lithium ion.

Sparc has been working with the Queensland University of Technology on how to source sustainable hard carbon anode material for sodium ion batteries, and may have found an answer with green bio-waste and less energy intensive processes.

Posted by orrinj at 7:17 AM


Why America was uniquely vulnerable to COVID (Tina Reed, 3/24/23, Axios)

 "What is clear from our study is that COVID-19 exploited and compounded existing local racial inequities, health disparities, and partisan politics," co-lead author Thomas J. Bollyky, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Global Health Program in the USA, said in a statement. The combination of local factors increased the burden of disease and the likelihood of poor outcomes, he said.

By the numbers: States with higher poverty, lower rates of educational attainment, less access to quality health care and lower levels of interpersonal trust saw disproportionately higher rates of COVID infections and deaths.

When adjusting the data to account for age and comorbidities, Arizona saw the highest COVID death rate (581 deaths per 100,000 people) in the nation. Washington, D.C. (526 per 100,000) and New Mexico (521 per 100,000) were the second and third worst.

On the flip side, Hawaii had the lowest adjusted COVID death rate with 147 COVID deaths per 100,000 people. It was followed by New Hampshire 215 per 100,000) and Maine (281 per 100,000), respectively.

New England resembles Scandinavia in social trust, so, similarly, citizens took protecting each other upon themselves.

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 AM


Woman described as 'among the worst' Jan. 6 rioters gets 3-year sentence (Paul Duggan, March 23, 2023, Washington Post)

Riley J. Williams, 24, who was found guilty of six offenses Nov. 21 in U.S. District Court in Washington, apologized at her sentencing for being "disrespectful, hateful and angry at innocent people" during the Jan. 6 mayhem. Back then, she said, she was "a young and stupid girl" who "was addicted to the internet" and believed false claims by President Donald Trump and his supporters about Trump being denied reelection because of massive fraud.

March 23, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 PM


How raccoon dog DNA fits into the COVID-19 origins debate (Erin Garcia de Jesús, 3/23/23, Science News)

The first cluster of coronavirus cases in humans was linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China (SN: 1/24/20). Environmental samples taken in 2020 from the southwest corner of the market, where live animals were sold, carried genetic material from both the coronavirus and animals, the Atlantic first reported on March 16.

In some virus-positive samples, computational biologist Alex Crits-Christoph and an international team of colleagues also found DNA from the common raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). The foxlike animal native to Asia is susceptible to coronavirus infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  

The fact that traces of both animal and coronavirus were uncovered in the same samples suggest that the virus may have jumped from bats to raccoon dogs or other animals at the market and then to people, the team writes (SN: 7/12/21). It posted its analysis March 20 on Zenodo, a repository where scientists can post research results that have not yet been reviewed by their peers.

This analysis builds on evidence from two studies published in Science in July 2022. In the first study, researchers reported that the genetic diversity of SARS-CoV-2 variants from the pandemic's early days suggest that there may have been two separate jumps from animals to people: one in late November 2019 and another weeks later. The second study used the first known COVID-19 cases and coronavirus-positive environmental samples from the seafood market to identify the southwest part of the market with live animal vendors as the likely epicenter of the pandemic's spread.

In the new analysis, Crits-Christoph, who works from Baltimore for the nonprofit Cultivarium, and colleagues analyzed public genetic data that had been released in early March from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That data, linked to a February 2022 preliminary study from the China CDC (which is now under review at a scientific journal), allowed the team to zoom in on an animal stall in the southwest part of the market that had the most virus-positive samples. A sample from a cart in that stall also contained plenty of genetic material from raccoon dogs, as well as a handful of other animals such as ducks.

There was no evidence of human DNA in that sample, a finding that hints that animals, not necessarily people, were close to the coronavirus in that spot. Raccoon dogs or another animal, the results suggest, might have served as a bridge to take the coronavirus from bats to humans.

Posted by orrinj at 1:53 PM


Is there a multiverse? (Miriam Frankel, 3/23/23, The Conversation)

The multiverse idea has long been an inspiration for science fiction writers. But does it have any basis in science? And if so, is it a concept we could ever test experimentally?

That's the topic of the third episode of our podcast Great Mysteries of Physics--hosted by me, Miriam Frankel, science editor at The Conversation, and supported by FQxI, the Foundational Questions Institute.

"One way to think of a multiverse is just to say, 'Well, the universe might be really, really big--much bigger than our observable universe--and so there could be other regions of the universe that are far beyond our horizon that have different things happening in them'," explains Katie Mack, Hawking chair in cosmology and science communication at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. "And I think that idea is totally well accepted in cosmology."

The idea that there could be other parts of the cosmos with different physical laws, processes and histories is hard to ignore. And the concept is consistent with the theories of quantum mechanics, which governs the micro-world of atoms and particles, string theory (an attempt at a theory of everything)--and also with cosmic inflation, which says the infant universe blew up hugely in size during a brief growth spurt, and then continued to grow at a less frantic pace. These theories each give rise to their own version of the multiverse theory.

For Andrew Pontzen, a professor of cosmology at University College London in the UK, quantum mechanics is the best reason to believe in the multiverse. According to quantum mechanics, particles can be in a mix of different possible states, such as locations, which is known as a "superposition". But when we measure them, the superposition breaks and each particle randomly "picks" one state.

So what happens to the other possible outcomes? "There's a brilliant way of understanding this which is to imagine that, actually, the reality we experience is just one kind of facet of a much more complicated multiverse, where pretty much anything that can happen does happen and we just experience one version of events," explains Pontzen. "Although it sounds crazy, it's sort of the least crazy option for understanding how quantum mechanics can be right."

As Fermi asked: Where are they?

Posted by orrinj at 1:27 PM


Trump Is Reportedly Obsessed With How His Perp Walk Will Look On TV  (Mike Redmond, MARCH 22, 2023, Uproxx)

Via The New York Times:

He has concentrated on projecting strength and avoiding any signals of shame over his circumstances, an approach that mirrors his handling of repeated political crises and his flair for creating dramatic, made-for-TV moments. Seeing Mr. Trump after a court appearance could also galvanize his supporters, whom Mr. Trump urged over the weekend to protest in the event of his arrest.

"He wants to be defiant -- to show the world that if they can try to do this to him, they can do it to anyone," said one person who spoke to Mr. Trump over the weekend.

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