• A Wee Little Republican Story

    Here’s a little story. I had lunch a few days ago with a Republican friend. Not a tea party crank, just a normal, moderate Republican. We were talking about Donald Trump and he said, Well, at least you have to give him credit for Warp Speed. No Democrat would ever have done that.

    I just looked at him. I barely knew what to say. Why wouldn’t a Democrat have done it?

    Oh come on.

    But Warp Speed was mainly about spending money. Democrats love to spend money. You’re always complaining about it.

    Hmmm.

    Any president would have done it.

    This is an example of how we inhabit different sets of realities. Aside from the admittedly catchy name, which I give Trump credit for, Warp Speed was a program that Bill Gates and others had been talking about for months. It was funded by the CARES Act, which passed with unanimous Democratic support. Of course a Democratic president would have pushed for something like Warp Speed.

    So what had convinced my friend that a Democrat never would have come up with something like that? It’s a mystery.

    POSTSCRIPT: Why did I share this story? Because it struck me as different from the usual sort of thing: Benghazi, Hillary’s email, Trump won the election, etc. It’s not a dumb conspiracy theory, just a routine assumption about an opposition party that came out of nowhere and seems (to those of us in the opposition party) to be completely off base. How much more baggage like this is out there that never gets reported because it’s not crazytown stuff?

  • Is the Substack Revolution Here to Stay?

    Have you heard of Substack? If you don’t pay close attention to the online writing/blogging/punditing world, you might not have. But it’s currently enjoying its 15 minutes of fame.

    Newsletters are the everything-old-is-new-again hotness these days, and Substack is a platform that allows you to manage a newsletter business. What makes it unique is that it provides a ready-made infrastructure for charging subscription fees, which can vary depending on what you want to charge for and what you want to send out for free. This is handy for solo writers who just want to write and don’t feel like messing around with the business side of online writing.¹ Recent converts to Substack include Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, and others.

    Those three are the reason Substack is suddenly getting attention. That’s because all of them, to one extent or another, have joined Substack as a sort of protest against the wokeness of their previous employers. They want the freedom to say whatever they want to say without hindrance from editors or allegedly hypersensitive fellow writers. Naturally this provides a great hook for stories about whether the wokeness of the left is getting so bad that even progressive writers are finally getting sick of it. For more, check out “The Substackerati” in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

    But this is not my topic today. I’m a blogging dinosaur, which makes me a little sad about the rise of Substack. Back in the day, the virtue of blogging was that everyone could talk to everyone. Later, when many bloggers (including me) went to work for magazines, our work was still freely available. We could link back and forth and our readers always had the option of clicking those links if they wanted more details or just wanted to check and make sure we were quoting each other fairly. The same was true of news articles we commented on.

    This ecoystem began to break down when newspapers started going behind paywalls. For example, I now pay for subscriptions to the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. That comes to over a thousand dollars a year, and I’m not really willing to cough up any more than that. This means that I constantly run into paywalls that prevent me from even reading potentially interesting pieces. And my readers, unless they also shell out a thousand dollars a year, are likely to be unable to ever read the news pieces that I link to.

    Now, with Substack, the same is going to be true of an increasing number of writers. I’m not really willing to rack up a whole bunch of $60-per-year subscription fees for individual writers, which means I’ll never know what they’re saying. And even if I did, you’d never know what they’re saying unless you’re coincidentally a subscriber too. This means we have a growing circle of writers who are influencing the political conversation but doing it semi-privately. The rest of us will only get hints here and there, the way you might have heard snatches of gossip from acquaintances who had been invited to an 18th century salon.

    There is, obviously, lots of political gossiping that already happens over lunch tables or cocktail parties. Still, I’m not thrilled to see political writing begin to head behind a paywall where only a select few can read it. I may be overreacting to this, and I very much understand the business problem it solves. Still, it’s a trend I’m not very happy to see.

    ¹The marketing side, by contrast, is more important than ever to mess around with. You’re on your own with Substack, and it’s up to you to keep your subscriber base growing.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles. I posted a nighttime picture of it a couple of years ago, where I complained that it was hard to take a good picture because there was too much crap in the way. This time I took the picture from the middle of the street so there was nothing in the way, but of course that got me too close to get the whole thing in one shot. So I snapped four shots and then stitched them together.

    This turned out to be a huge pain in the ass. Maybe there are some tips and tricks I don’t know about, but getting the top edge of the museum straight took a ton of time and effort. It’s still not 100 percent straight, but it’s close. And I suppose it’s better than trying to shop out the traffic lights and so forth that get in the way if you back up.

    Unlike some of my other panoramic shots, this one could have been done pretty easily with a fairly normal and inexpensive wide-angle lens. But I don’t have one of those.

    September 19, 2020 — Los Angeles, California
  • California’s Ballot Initiatives Were a Debacle for Me

    California Secretary of State

    I was reminded yesterday that on this year’s state ballot initiatives I recorded my most brutal repudiation ever: only five out of twelve went my way. I’m pretty sure I’ve never come close to doing so badly. Here’s the scorecard:

    1. Stem cells. I said NO, California said YES.
    2. Split rolls for Prop 13. I said YES, California said NO.
    3. Affirmative action. I said YES, California said NO.
    4. Allow felons to vote upon release from prison. I said YES, California said YES.
    5. Allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the time of the general election. I said NO, California said NO.
    6. Miscellaneous hodgepodge of tax increases. I said WEAK NO, California said WEAK YES.
    7. Increases penalties for certain minor crimes, primarily shoplifting. I said NO, California said NO.
    8. Allows local governments to enact rent control. I said NO, California said NO.
    9. Allows Uber to treat its drivers as contractors, not employees. I said NO, California said YES.
    10. Requires physician or nurse to be present during dialysis treatment. I said NO, California said NO.
    11. Tightens California’s consumer privacy laws. I said NO, California said YES.
    12. End cash bail. I said YES, California said NO.

    Some of these are not that important. I don’t really care all that much if Californians want to spend a few billion dollars on stem cell research, nor do I care that much if 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in certain primaries. For me, the important ones were 15, 16, 17, 22, 24, and 25. Every single one of those went against me except felon enfranchisement.

    What does this mean? In the case of the Uber initiative, I’m willing to completely blame the $200 million ad campaign in favor of it, which was enormously effective and virtually uncontested. The others are more obviously ideological defeats. Californians just didn’t want to make corporations pay a fairer share of property taxes. They didn’t want affirmative action. They were willing to vote for a consumer privacy law even though almost none of them understood what it would do. And they just didn’t like the idea of ending cash bail.

    This might be nothing more than a random drubbing for me. You win some, you lose some. Alternatively, though, it could mean that something is shifting: either California is becoming less liberal or I’m becoming more liberal. I don’t think I’ve changed much, which leads me to think that maybe California has entered a new phase of slightly declining liberalism. Maybe.

    Or it might mean nothing at all. That’s always a possibility.

  • No, Retail Sales Growth Didn’t Slow Because of Coronavirus Cases

    From the Wall Street Journal:

    U.S. shoppers boosted their buying in October for the sixth month in a row, but the pace of growth slowed considerably amid rising coronavirus cases and uncertainty ahead of the U.S. presidential election. Retail sales increased a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in October from a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. That fell short of economists’ expectations for a 0.5% rise, and was well below the 1.6% gain in September.

    Is this really true? I doubt it:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but retail sales are growing now at the same rate they were growing before the pandemic. The reason they’re leveling off is because they have no choice. There’s really no way they can sustain a growth rate higher than the trendline.

    This business of constantly trying to explain a single month’s (or day’s) movement in some economic indicator has an ancient lineage, but we really ought to knock it off. The Journal has no more idea of why retail growth flattened than you or I do. What’s more, even a fleeting glance at a chart should suggest that there was no external cause at all. It’s just a matter of how much money people have.

  • Health Update

    Here are the latest lab results for my M-protein level. As always, the lower the level, the better my cancer is under control:

    So everything is fine. There was a tiny uptick in November, but it’s probably just noise.

    Unfortunately, there’s a little more going on. Beginning four weeks ago, I’ve been sick constantly. I get something that feels like a normal stomach bug for a day or two, and then it goes away. But then it comes back. And goes away. And comes back. I’ve stopped counting, but I’m now on my ninth or tenth round. It seems to have nothing to do with food, nothing to do with an actual bug, and nothing to do with whether I’m currently taking my chemo med. (I take Pomalyst for three weeks on, then one week off. I’ve gotten the stomach problems both when I’m on and when I’m off.) Needless to say, perpetual rounds of stomach upset and diarrhea are pretty unpleasant.

    The most likely cause is simply that a year of taking Pomalyst has finally produced this side effect, something that’s pretty common with chemo drugs. The usual reason for stopping a particular chemo med is either (a) it stops working or (b) the side effects finally become intolerable, and it’s possible that (b) has kicked in. In any case, I’ll discuss this with my doctor during my next visit.

    Possibly related to this is that I’ve been deeply fatigued and depressed for weeks. Now, this could just be random. Moderate depression often comes and goes for no discernable reason. Or it could be physical, possibly linked to my stomach ailments. Or it could be due to external events. That doesn’t typically seem to be the case with me, but God knows there’s been plenty of reason lately. Between COVID-19; Trump’s tweeting; conservative malevolence; progressive blindness; climate change stagnation; and some personal stuff, there are plenty of reasons for me to feel unhappy.

    Hopefully this will all go away eventually. In the meantime, it’s reduced my posting frequency for two reasons. First, I’m tired. Second, posting while depressed is a bad idea that mostly produces epic rants. This would probably be pretty entertaining for everyone, but not a good use of time or pixels. For now, I’m going to keep things slow and make sure to edit myself rigorously. I have never trusted myself when I’m in the throes of depression.

    POSTSCRIPT: That said, I have no apologies for the headline to the previous post.

  • Race For Biggest Asshole of 2020 Is Heating Up

    Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly via ZUMA

    Today the White House told the Pentagon to begin planning for a substantial drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan. Mitch McConnell was not amused:

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday slammed President Donald Trump’s plan for a swift reduction of U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, warning that it would be a gift to America’s enemies and would undermine progress already made in the region. “A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell said bluntly.

    Let me get this straight:

    • If Donald Trump orders a reduction of 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, McConnell is willing to publicly blast Trump in no uncertain terms as a threat to the security of the nation.
    • But if Donald Trump loudly undermines the foundations of democracy by refusing to admit defeat in a presidential election, McConnell remains silent.

    On a scale of 1 to 10, I already rate the Republican Party leadership at 0. I guess they’re now gunning for negative numbers.

  • Does Melatonin Offer Promise In Treating COVID?

    By now you’ve all heard the news that the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 has been 95 percent effective in early testing. Obviously this is nice to hear, and the only thing I have to add is that it’s good news for more than just its success against the coronavirus. Both Pfizer and Moderna employed an innovative mRNA technique to develop their vaccines, and the fact that they appear to be spectacular successes provides us with a ton of hope that this might usher in a whole new era of vaccine development. It’s too early to say anything for sure, but the prospects of a huge breakthrough in vaccine development are pretty exciting.

    While we’re on the topic of COVID-19, however, a recent study provided another bit of good news. A team of researchers led by the Cleveland Clinic took a dive into a database of 26,779 individuals looking for possible associations between COVID-19 and other diseases and found something pretty interesting:

    We found that melatonin was significantly associated with a 52% reduced likelihood of a positive laboratory test result for SARS-CoV-2 in black Americans after adjusting for age, sex, race, smoking, and various disease comorbidities.

    A 52 percent reduction in positive tests is pretty spectacular. (White patients also benefited, but showed only a 23 percent reduction.) However . . .

    WARNING: Every research result like this is tentative. It’s only one study, it might be biased, etc. In this case, though, the warnings need to be doubled or tripled. The researchers essentially just fed some data into a computer and looked for any two variables with significant correlations.¹ This is normally a big no-no and can’t be taken to prove much of anything. So take this result as very, very tentative.

    So why did they do it? That’s easy: the purpose of a study like this is to identify things that deserve further study. By itself it might not provide strong evidence about melatonin, but it clearly identifies melatonin as something that should be the subject of a good RCT or other, more reliable, study designs:

    Large-scale observational studies and randomized controlled trials are needed to validate the clinical benefit of melatonin for patients with COVID-19. It would be important, however, that the trials be designed with the understanding of the mechanism of the drug to be repurposed. For example, it would be obvious that drugs that decrease viral entry, e.g., part of melatonin’s action, would be beneficial in preventing infection or very early in the COVID-19 course, but may be inconsequential when utilized in severe or end-stage infection. Several randomized controlled trials are being performed to test the clinical benefits of melatonin in patients with COVID-19.

    If the results eventually pan out, they’d provide us with two things. First, we’d have a cheap and easy way of reducing the risk of COVID-19. Second, it might provide a clue about why COVID is so devastating to Black patients.

    And in the meantime, melatonin is cheap and harmless. Nobody should start taking without talking to a doctor. And don’t go nuts and assume that if you’re taking it you don’t have to wear a mask or socially distance yourself anymore.

    ¹There was a little more to it than that, but you get the idea.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    On Saturday I introduced you to a giant rubber lens hood for my camera. Its purpose is to eliminate reflections when you’re shooting through glass, and it works pretty well. The picture below is a good example.

    This is a Merten’s water monitor at the San Diego Zoo, and it’s kept in a display case behind glass. Under normal circumstances there are reflections galore from the glass, since the Reptile House is fairly dim and there are lights all over the place. But the lens hood blocked all that, allowing me to take a picture with no reflections and a good look both below and above the water line. This is a nice little picture, and it was possible only because I had a giant lens hood.

    October 9, 2020 — San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California