Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 14th, 2020

Some Animals Have No Microbiome. Here’s What That Tells Us.

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I find this fascinating, but it shows again not to generalize from a small sample. In this case, that means not to jump to the conclusion that what is true for one animal (humans) is true for others. Jordana Cepelewicz writes in Quanta:

In the summer of 2011, the microbiologist Jon Sanders, then a graduate student, found himself in Peru’s tropical rainforest for the second time in as many years, lugging 60 pounds of lab equipment — a bulky fluorescence microscope and the generator to power it — up the Amazon River. Upon arriving at the remote field site, he quickly set about catching as many different ants as he could, eager to peer at the microbes that populated their guts.

In some of those ant species, he saw “this amazing, dense, packed cloud. It was like a galaxy of microbes,” he said. “They’d explode in your eyes when you looked at them” under the microscope. Which is what you might expect to find, given the extent to which we and so many other animals depend on the trillions of bacterial cells that reside within us — for processing food that we can’t otherwise digest, for providing key nutrients, for training our immune system to act effectively against infections. The microbiome is so critical to our health and survival that some researchers even find it useful to think of animals as the sum of their microbial parts.

But when Sanders turned to the rest of the ants — about two-thirds of the different colonies and species he had collected — he was surprised to find that “you would be hard-pressed to find any cells in the gut that you could readily identify as bacteria,” he said. Food, debris, the cells of the insects’ gut lining — all were present. Microbes that might be engaged in the symbiotic relationships we take for granted — not so much.

As the tools to measure and analyze microbial communities have improved, it’s gradually become clear that the microbiome is nowhere near as ubiquitous and important across the animal kingdom as it’s often portrayed to be. Many animals seem to have more flexible or less stable associations with microbes; some don’t seem to rely on them at all. And ironically, it’s these animals that are now allowing scientists to gain new insights into the mystery of how and why the microbiome evolves — its real importance, and the nuanced balancing act of pros and cons that lies at its core.

Microbes Gone Missing

In the early 20th century, biologists began to uncover fascinating relationships between complex organisms and their microbes: in tubeworms that had no mouth, anus or gut; in termites that fed on tough, woody plants; in cows whose grassy diet significantly lacked protein. Such observations generated excitement and prompted follow-up experiments. In those years, the absence of microbial helpers in an animal wasn’t considered particularly surprising or interesting, and it often received little more than a passing nod in the literature. Even when it was thought to merit more than that — as in a 1978 report in Science that tiny wood-eating crustaceans, unlike termites, had no stable population of gut bacteria — it ended up flying under the radar.

And so expectations quietly began to shift to a new norm, that every animal had a relationship with bacteria without which it would perish. A few voices protested this oversimplification: As early as 1953, Paul Buchner, one of the founders of symbiosis research, wrote with exasperation about the notion that obligate, fixed and functional symbioses were universal. “Again and again there have been authors who insist that endosymbiosis is an elementary principle of all organisms,” he seethed. But counterexamples drowned in the flood of studies on the importance of host-microbe symbioses, especially those that drew connections between human health and our own microbiome.

“The human microbiome has completely driven a lot of our thinking about how microbes work,” said Tobin Hammer, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Texas, Austin. “And we often project from ourselves outwards.”

But the human example is not a good model for what’s going on in a diverse range of species, from caterpillars and butterflies to sawflies and shrimp, to some birds and bats (and perhaps even some pandas). In these animals, the microbes are sparser, more transient or unpredictable — and they don’t necessarily contribute much, if anything, to their host. “The story is more complex,” said Sarah Hird, an evolutionary biologist and microbial ecologist at the University of Connecticut, “more fuzzy.”

A transient, almost nonexistent relationship with bacteria was what Sanders saw in his tropical ants. He brought his samples back to his lab (then at Harvard University, although he is now at Cornell), where he sequenced the insects’ bacterial DNA and quantified how many microbes were present. The ant species with dense, specialized microbiomes had approximately 10,000 times more bacteria in their guts than Sanders found in the many other species he had captured. Put another way, Sanders said, if the ants were scaled to human size, some would carry a pound of microbes within them (similar to what humans harbor), others a mere coffee bean’s worth. “It’s really a profound difference.”

That difference, reported in Integrative & Comparative Biology in 2017, seemed to be associated with diet: Strictly herbivorous tree-dwelling ants were more likely to have an abundant microbiome, perhaps to make up for their protein-deficient diet; omnivorous and carnivorous ground-dwelling ants consumed more balanced meals and had negligible amounts of bacteria in their gut. Still, this pattern was inconsistent. Some of the herbivorous ants also lacked a microbiome. And the ants that did have one didn’t seem to have widespread, predictable associations with particular species of bacteria (although some sets of microbes were common to individual genera of the insects). That result marked a clear departure from mammalian microbiomes like our own, which tend to be very specific to their hosts.

The reasons why would become clearer as case studies of other organisms started to trickle in.

The Tip of the Iceberg

At around the same time that Sanders was examining ants in Peru, Hammer was in Costa Rica on an independent search for a microbiome in caterpillars. (“What better insect to have obligate relationships with bacteria than these cows of the insect world?” Sanders commented.) But try as he might, Hammer couldn’t find much bacterial DNA in the gut and fecal samples he collected. “Something really weird was going on,” he said.

When, after months of “frustrating lab work,” he realized that the animals might simply not have a stable microbiome, “it was a shift in thinking for me that was not expected at all.” He and his colleagues ultimately found that, like so many of Sanders’ ants, caterpillars had much, much lower quantities of microbes than was considered the norm. Moreover, those microbes were simply a subset of the ones found in the animals’ plant diet — “which supports the idea that they’re transiently passing through and some of them are getting digested, essentially,” Hammer said. “They’re not establishing stable populations within the gut.”

To determine whether those transient bacteria benefited the caterpillars, the researchers . . .

Continue reading.

 

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Evolution, Health, Science

Senator Richard Burr Sold D.C. Townhouse to Donor at a Rich Price

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Now we see why the GOP supports a corrupt president: the GOP is riddled with corruption. Robert Faturechi reports in ProPublica:

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has come under fire in recent weeks for unloading stock holdings right before the market crashed on fears of coronavirus and for a timely sale of shares in an obscure Dutch fertilizer company.

Now the North Carolina Republican’s 2017 sale of his Washington, D.C., home to a group led by a donor and powerful lobbyist who had business before Burr’s committee is raising additional ethical questions.

Burr sold the small townhouse, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, for what, by some estimates, was an above market price — $900,000 — to a team led by lobbyist John Green. That is tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent. The sale was done off-market, without the home being listed for sale publicly.

Green is a longtime donor to Burr’s political campaigns and has co-hosted at least one fundraiser for him. In 2017, the year of the sale, Green lobbied on behalf of a stream of clients with business before Burr’s committees.

Ethics experts are generally troubled when politicians enter into business transactions with donors or lobbyists with matters before them. The legality of this sale hinges on whether the home was purchased for fair market value. If it was purchased for more than that, it would be considered a gift. Gifts of significant value from lobbyists are generally banned by Senate ethics rules, and those that aren’t are typically required to be publicly disclosed. Neither Burr nor Green disclosed any such gifts. Gifts that are intended to influence official actions are illegal.

“This appears to be extremely problematic,” said Kedric Payne, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center and former deputy chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Other ethics experts agreed. “This has every appearance of being a violation of the gift ban,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The gift ban is one of the most basic legal frameworks for preventing corruption. Lobbyist gifts to lawmakers is akin to a bribe.”

Holman, however, said proving such transactions went for above market value is difficult. He compared the scenario to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt renting a Capitol Hill condo for a discounted rate from the wife of a lobbyist who sought to influence the agency’s decisions. EPA officials initially defended the rent as market rate, and the case did not result in any sanction or prosecution against Pruitt. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. No wonder Congress is held in low repute.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 4:25 pm

From the time of the impeachment

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I had not seen this before, so I’m posting it now. I can see why President Trump fears Adam Schiff so much.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 4:08 pm

Finally We May Have a Path to the Fundamental Theory of Physics… and It’s Beautiful

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A fascinating and lengthy work in progress by Stephen Wolfram, which begins:

It’s unexpected, surprising—and for me incredibly exciting. To be fair, at some level I’ve been working towards this for nearly 50 years. But it’s just in the last few months that it’s finally come together. And it’s much more wonderful, and beautiful, than I’d ever imagined.

In many ways it’s the ultimate question in natural science: How does our universe work? Is there a fundamental theory? An incredible amount has been figured out about physics over the past few hundred years. But even with everything that’s been done—and it’s very impressive—we still, after all this time, don’t have a truly fundamental theory of physics.

Back when I used do theoretical physics for a living, I must admit I didn’t think much about trying to find a fundamental theory; I was more concerned about what we could figure out based on the theories we had. And somehow I think I imagined that if there was a fundamental theory, it would inevitably be very complicated.

But in the early 1980s, when I started studying the computational universe of simple programs I made what was for me a very surprising and important discovery: that even when the underlying rules for a system are extremely simple, the behavior of the system as a whole can be essentially arbitrarily rich and complex.

And this got me thinking: Could the universe work this way? Could it in fact be that underneath all of this richness and complexity we see in physics there are just simple rules? I soon realized that if that was going to be the case, we’d in effect have to go underneath space and time and basically everything we know. Our rules would have to operate at some lower level, and all of physics would just have to emerge.

By the early 1990s I had a definite idea about how the rules might work, and by the end of the 1990s I had figured out quite a bit about their implications for spacetimegravity and other things in physics—and, basically as an example of what one might be able to do with science based on studying the computational universe, I devoted nearly 100 pages to this in my book A New Kind of Science.

I always wanted to mount a big project to take my ideas further. I tried to start around 2004. But pretty soon I got swept up in building Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language and everything around it. From time to time I would see physicist friends of mine, and I’d talk about my physics project. There’d be polite interest, but basically the feeling was that finding a fundamental theory of physics was just too hard, and only kooks would attempt it.

It didn’t help that there was something that bothered me about my ideas. The particular way I’d set up my rules seemed a little too inflexible, too contrived. In my life as a computational language designer I was constantly thinking about abstract systems of rules. And every so often I’d wonder if they might be relevant for physics. But I never got anywhere. Until, suddenly, in the fall of 2018, I had a little idea.

It was in some ways simple and obvious, if very abstract. But what was most important about it to me was that it was so elegant and minimal. Finally I had something that felt right to me as a serious possibility for how physics might work. But wonderful things were happening with the Wolfram Language, and I was busy thinking about all the implications of finally having a full-scale computational language.

But then, at our annual Summer School in 2019, there were two young physicists (Jonathan Gorard and Max Piskunov) who were like, “You just have to pursue this!” Physics had been my great passion when I was young, and in August 2019 I had a big birthday and realized that, yes, after all these years I really should see if I can make something work.

So—along with the two young physicists who’d encouraged me—I began in earnest in October 2019. It helped that—after a lifetime of developing them—we now had great computational tools. And it wasn’t long before we started finding what I might call “very interesting things”. We reproduced, more elegantly, what I had done in the 1990s. And from tiny, structureless rules out were coming space, time, relativity, gravity and hints of quantum mechanics.

We were doing zillions of computer experiments, building intuition. And gradually things were becoming clearer. We started understanding how quantum mechanics works. Then we realized what energy is. We found an outline derivation of my late friend and mentor Richard Feynman’s path integral. We started seeing some deep structural connections between relativity and quantum mechanics. Everything just started falling into place. All those things I’d known about in physics for nearly 50 years—and finally we had a way to see not just what was true, but why.

I hadn’t ever imagined anything like this would happen. I expected that we’d start exploring simple rules and gradually, if we were lucky, we’d get hints here or there about connections to physics. I thought maybe we’d be able to have a possible model for the first  seconds of the universe, but we’d spend years trying to see whether it might actually connect to the physics we see today.

In the end, if we’re going to have a complete fundamental theory of physics, we’re going to have to find the specific rule for our universe. And I don’t know how hard that’s going to be. I don’t know if it’s going to take a month, a year, a decade or a century. A few months ago I would also have said that I don’t even know if we’ve got the right framework for finding it.

But I wouldn’t say that anymore. Too much has worked. Too many things have fallen into place. We don’t know if the precise details of how our rules are set up are correct, or how simple or not the final rules may be. But at this point I am certain that the basic framework we have is telling us fundamentally how physics works.

It’s always a test for scientific models to compare how much you put in with how much you get out. And I’ve never seen anything that comes close. What we put in is about as tiny as it could be. But what we’re getting out are huge chunks of the most sophisticated things that are known about physics. And what’s most amazing to me is that at least so far we’ve not run across a single thing where we’ve had to say “oh, to explain that we have to add something to our model”. Sometimes it’s not easy to see how things work, but so far it’s always just been a question of understanding what the model already says, not adding something new.

At the lowest level, the rules we’ve got are about as minimal as anything could be. (Amusingly, their basic structure can be expressed in a fraction of a line of symbolic Wolfram Language code.) And in their raw form, they don’t really engage with all the rich ideas and structure that exist, for example, in mathematics. But as soon as we start looking at the consequences of the rules when they’re applied zillions of times, it becomes clear that they’re very elegantly connected to a lot of wonderful recent mathematics.

There’s something similar with physics, too. The basic structure of our models seems alien and bizarrely different from almost everything that’s been done in physics for at least the past century or so. But as we’ve gotten further in investigating our models something amazing has happened: we’ve found that not just one, but many of the popular theoretical frameworks that have been pursued in physics in the past few decades are actually directly relevant to our models.

I was worried this was going to be one of those “you’ve got to throw out the old” advances in science. It’s not. Yes, the underlying structure of our models is different. Yes, the initial approach and methods are different. And, yes, a bunch of new ideas are needed. But to make everything work we’re going to have to build on a lot of what my physicist friends have been working so hard on for the past few decades.

And then there’ll be the physics experiments. If you’d asked me even a couple of months ago when we’d get anything experimentally testable from our models I would have said it was far away. And that it probably wouldn’t happen until we’d pretty much found the final rule. But it looks like I was wrong. And in fact we’ve already got some good hints of bizarre new things that might be out there to look for.

OK, so what do we need to do now? I’m thrilled to say that I think we’ve found a path to the fundamental theory of physics. We’ve built a paradigm and a framework (and, yes, we’ve built lots of good, practical, computational tools too). But now we need to finish the job. We need to work through a lot of complicated computation, mathematics and physics. And see if we can finally deliver the answer to how our universe fundamentally works.

It’s an exciting moment, and I want to share it. I’m looking forward to being deeply involved. But this isn’t just a project for me or our small team. This is a project for the world. It’s going to be a great achievement when it’s done. And I’d like to see it shared as widely as possible. Yes, a lot of what has to be done requires top-of-the-line physics and math knowledge. But I want to expose everything as broadly as possible, so everyone can be involved in—and I hope inspired by—what I think is going to be a great and historic intellectual adventure.

Today we’re officially launching our Physics Project. From here on, we’ll be livestreaming what we’re doing—sharing whatever we discover in real time with the world. (We’ll also soon be releasing more than 400 hours of video that we’ve already accumulated.) I’m posting all my working materials going back to the 1990s, and we’re releasing all our software tools. We’ll be putting out bulletins about progress, and there’ll be educational programs around the project.

Oh, yes, and we’re putting up a Registry of Notable Universes. It’s already populated with nearly a thousand rules. I don’t think any of the ones in there yet are our own universe—though I’m not completely sure. But sometime—I hope soon—there might just be a rule entered in the Registry that has all the right properties, and that we’ll slowly discover that, yes, this is it—our universe finally decoded. . .

Continue reading. There’s much much more, and note the links in the chart that appears next.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Math, Science

The weirdness of water

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Rachel Brazil writes in Chemistry World:

Water, the most commonplace of liquids, is also the strangest. It has at least 66 properties that differ from most liquids – high surface tension, high heat capacity, high melting and boiling points and low compressibility. One school of thought is that water is not a complicated liquid but ‘two simple liquids with a complicated relationship’. For some, this statement contradicts the basic principles of physical chemistry; for others it explains just why water behaves in such an anomalous way.

Over the last decade the academic arguments have reached boiling point. ‘[It’s] bringing out very strong, almost religious opinions among different scientists,’ says Anders Nilsson, a chemical physicist with appointments at Stockholm University in Sweden and Stanford University in the US. Chemists have attributed water’s strange properties to the tetrahedrally arranged hydrogen-bonding networks that it forms, but exactly what is going on, particularly when water is in a supercooled state, is still up for debate.

Like many other chemists, Nilsson assumed earlier in his career that the structure of water was well understood, but started to realise that was not the case. For the last 10 years he has concentrated on understanding water’s extraordinary behaviour and his recent work adds weight to the theory that water isn’t one liquid, but two distinct separate liquid structures that can coexist – an idea that is still controversial.

‘If you look at the simple thermodynamic and kinetic properties of liquids, as you change pressure and temperature, they all behave the same way,’ explains Nilsson. As you cool a liquid, its density increases, and its heat capacity and compressibility decrease. ‘Almost all liquids on the planet behave like that. Except for water.’ This strangeness comes into focus as water is cooled to 4°C, where its density reaches a maximum, below which it starts to decrease again.

The explanation chemists are taught is that while most liquids are disordered, with their molecules constantly rearranging, water differs due to its network of hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds have a strength in between stronger covalent bonds and weaker dipole-induced interactions. Unlike the latter, they are directional, with each hydrogen atom pointing towards an electron pair on an oxygen atom.

‘It’s a lot of hydrogen bonding for such a small molecule,’ says Martin Chaplin, chemist and water researcher from London South Bank University in the UK. While water behaves like most liquids at higher temperatures, as it’s cooled the hydrogen bonding starts to play a more important role. ‘They actually force a structured ordered state,’ says Chaplin. As temperature decreases, the additional bonding interactions compensate for the loss of entropy the ordered arrangement causes.

Two liquids

Theories to explain water’s properties have continually cropped up over time. In the 1960s a theory from Russian chemists even suggested that water molecules in capillary tubes could form polymeric chains, known as polywater. This was taken seriously until it became clear that their results were due to experimental contaminants.

The idea that there may be two different and distinct arrangements of molecules in liquid water goes back over 100 years. German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen , who first discovered x-rays, suggested in 1892 that water was made up of two distinct phases that co-existed in a mixture.

In the 1990s, the two-state model of liquid water returned, based on  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Science

Heather Cox Richardson notes President Trump’s emergency powers

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Elizabeth Goitein and Andrew Boyle of the highly-regarded Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, calling our attention to the fact that Trump has at his disposal extraordinary emergency powers. The authors tell us what they have been able to discover about a highly classified series of documents called “presidential emergency action documents,” or PEADs.

These documents are drafts of laws, executive orders, and proclamations that could be used in case of emergency. The government began to hold these drafts during the Eisenhower administration out of fear that a nuclear attack would require an immediate response. We know very little about what is in them, but the declassification of a few of them has revealed that, if implemented, they would allow the president to arrest people at will, jail “subversive” citizens, and declare martial law.

While people are alarmed at the revelation that such PEADs exist, it’s actually no secret that the president can unleash extraordinary powers in times of emergency through other means. Even without the PEADs, the president can seize assets, have people arrested, shut down electronic communications, and so on, and there is little limit to how and when these powers can be used. Under the National Emergencies Act, passed in 1976, in any emergency declaration the president has to specify which powers he intends to use, and tell Congress every six months how much the government has spent on the emergency. Congress can override the president’s declaration and must reauthorize it every six months, and the emergency declaration expires after a year unless the president renews it. But the system has permitted “emergencies” to take root unchecked. Currently, more than thirty emergency declarations are in effect in America, and Congress has made no effort to end them.

Emergency powers are not necessarily a bad thing: a nation’s leader must be able to respond quickly to a crisis. The problem is the existence of emergency powers that have no legal guardrails. Indeed, the authors of the New York Times op-ed are not necessarily against the draft orders; they simply want Congress to oversee these secret PEADs.

And that’s the rub. The problem the op-ed identifies is not really the PEADs. The problem is that Trump is the man who has them at his disposal.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has worked to expand his power, and the novel coronavirus crisis is encouraging this inclination.

Just recently, he has fired the intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, admitting openly that he did so to retaliate because Atkinson alerted House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff that then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was withholding a whistleblower complaint that, by law, he had to turn over to Congress.

Trump has announced he will not comply with the oversight provisions in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

His lawyers are currently arguing that the president and those who work for him do not have to comply with subpoenas to turn over his financial records to Congress or to a New York official investigation because the president is immune from a criminal investigation while in office—even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue (yes, one of the judges who rules on the issue asked about that, specifically).

Trump demands that White House officials praise him in public and won’t put up with criticism. Just tonight he retweeted a tweet calling for the firing of top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who recently said that the administration’s slow response to the novel coronavirus has cost lives.

Last week, complaining about the media coverage of his administration’s response to the novel coronavirus, he said that Democrats “want to make Trump look as bad as they can, because they want to try and win an election that they shouldn’t be allowed to win based on the fact that we have done a great job.”

“An election that they shouldn’t be allowed to win.”

It seems clear that emergency powers in the hands of such a man could enable him to destroy our democracy.

But here’s what’s key to remember: . . .

Continue reading, and do read the whole thing.

And then read this post, made the following day.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 11:13 am

State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses

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Not a Chinese conspiracy but perhaps Chinese incompetence. Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post:

Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats. The cables have fueled discussions inside the U.S. government about whether this or another Wuhan lab was the source of the virus — even though conclusive proof has yet to emerge.

In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). WIV issued a news release in English about the last of these visits, which occurred on March 27, 2018. The U.S. delegation was led by Jamison Fouss, the consul general in Wuhan, and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology and health. Last week, WIV erased that statement from its website, though it remains archived on the Internet.

What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)

The Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations, but the Chinese requested additional help. The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.

As the cable noted, the U.S. visitors met with Shi Zhengli, the head of the research project, who had been publishing studies related to bat coronaviruses for many years. In November 2017, just before the U.S. officials’ visit, Shi’s team had published research showing that horseshoe bats they had collected from a cave in Yunnan province were very likely from the same bat population that spawned the SARS coronavirus in 2003.

“Most importantly,” the cable states, “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

The research was designed to prevent the next SARS-like pandemic by anticipating how it might emerge. But even in 2015, other scientists questioned whether Shi’s team was taking unnecessary risks. In October 2014, the U.S. government had imposed a moratorium on funding of any research that makes a virus more deadly or contagious, known as “gain-of-function” experiments.

As many have pointed out, there is no evidence that the virus now plaguing the world was engineered; scientists largely agree it came from animals. But that is not the same as saying it didn’t come from the lab, which spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

“The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected,” he said.

There are similar concerns about the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab, which operates at biosecurity level 2, a level significantly less secure than the level-4 standard claimed by the Wuhan Insititute of Virology lab, Xiao said. That’s important because . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the article:

“The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

No extra assistance to the labs was provided by the U.S. government in response to these cables. The cables began to circulate again inside the administration over the past two months as officials debated whether the lab could be the origin of the pandemic and what the implications would be for the U.S. pandemic response and relations with China.

Inside the Trump administration, many national security officials have long suspected either the WIV or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab was the source of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

And:

As my colleague David Ignatius noted, the Chinese government’s original story — that the virus emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan — is shaky. Research by Chinese experts published in the Lancet in January showed the first known patient, identified on Dec. 1, had no connection to the market, nor did more than one-third of the cases in the first large cluster. Also, the market didn’t sell bats.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 11:09 am

Bad date

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108 years ago today the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank (the hull perhaps weakened by a coal fire on board that started even before the ship left port).

155 years ago today President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 10:39 am

Posted in Daily life

Putin’s Long War Against American Science

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William J. Broad writes in the NY Times:

On Feb. 3, soon after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a global health emergency, an obscure Twitter account in Moscow began retweeting an American blog. It said the pathogen was a germ weapon designed to incapacitate and kill. The headline called the evidence “irrefutable” even though top scientists had already debunked that claim and declared the novel virus to be natural.

As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has been accompanied by a dangerous surge of false information — an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within.

The House, the Senate and the nation’s intelligence agencies have typically focused on election meddling in their examinations of Mr. Putin’s long campaign. But the repercussions are wider. An investigation by The New York Times — involving scores of interviews as well as a review of scholarly papers, news reports, and Russian documents, tweets and TV shows — found that Mr. Putin has spread misinformation on issues of personal health for more than a decade.

His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists. The disinformers have also sought to undermine faith in the safety of vaccines, a triumph of public health that Mr. Putin himself promotes at home.

Moscow’s aim, experts say, is to portray American officials as downplaying the health alarms and thus posing serious threats to public safety.

“It’s all about seeding lack of trust in government institutions,” Peter Pomerantsev, author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a 2014 book on Kremlin disinformation, said in an interview.

The Russian president has waged his long campaign by means of open media, secretive trolls and shadowy blogs that regularly cast American health officials as patronizing frauds. Of late, new stealth and sophistication have made his handiwork harder to see, track and fight.

Even so, the State Department recently accused Russia of using thousands of social media accounts to spread coronavirus misinformation — including a conspiracy theory that the United States engineered the deadly pandemic.

The Kremlin’s audience for open disinformation is surprisingly large. The YouTube videos of RT, Russia’s global television network, average one million views per day, “the highest among news outlets,” according to a U.S. intelligence report.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 10:36 am

Why don’t they just walk out?

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Jay Rosen writes at Press Think:

Last week Maggie Haberman of the New York Times observed about Donald Trump’s daily briefings, “As long as he’s fighting with reporters, he can attempt to shift focus from where the government has lagged in its response.” 

Which raises the question, “why stick around for that?” As Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept put it

So why are the reporters, and the networks they work for, allowing him to do it? Being his punchbags on live TV *every single day*? Playing their role in his TV production? Why not ditch these ‘briefings’ and focus on the failed response? Relentlessly, forensically, passionately?

On social media people ask me this question a lot. Why don’t they just walk out?  There is no simple answer to that. I have no elegant explanation. What I have instead is a list of factors that might help you understand why the walk out doesn’t happen. But I want to be clear: I think it should happen. Here’s the way I have put it when people ask me what I would do: 

If I ran a newsroom I would not broadcast Trump’s Covid-19 briefings live. I would not send reporters so he can waste their time and use them as his hate objects. I would instruct them to watch it on CSPAN, and report any news that emerges. If he makes a factual claim it has to be verified or no go.

A few months ago this would have been an unthinkable stance for journalists who report on politics. But that is changing. Ron Fournier is a former White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for the AP. You cannot get more establishment than that:

So why do newsrooms keep sending their people to the briefings? Here is my list of factors, which, again, is a long way from an explanation. I’m not defending these propositions. But I am proposing that the answer to the question is some combination of items 1-13 here. 

1. What the president says is news. This was a wrong turn taken long ago in American journalism. It’s a kind of bug in the code for how to report on national politics. As a writer for the New York Times said in 1976, “Journalism has long been caught up in the particular tautology that runs, news is what the President says, so what the President says is news.” This never made a lot of sense. For one thing, it effectively hands over editorial control to the president. Another: what the president does is news, what the president says may or may not be. Third: journalists are always working with limited time or limited space. They cannot treat everything the president says as news. Nonetheless, the tautology remains. Trump has weaponized it. And if you think this way — what the president says is news — you’re going to want to be there when he says it. 

2. There is enormous prestige in being the president’s official interlocutor because it means you are effectively part of the presidency. This is not something journalists think to mention, but to me it is major. There is glamour in being at the White House every working day. It means you’re important. If you’re not in the actual room where history happens, you’re pretty damn close. That’s seductive. One occasion on which you can feel this is an official prime time press conference in the East Room of the White HouseQuitting that is hard if you want to feel important— and close to power. 

3. It’s part of our franchise, a thing we are able to do that others are not. This is a prestige factor, as well, but more for the executive suite. Having a seat in the briefing room means your brand has made it to the big time. You are now part of the national press. And if you have been big time forever, like CBS News, that’s not something you relinquish. It’s one of the advantages of media incumbency. 

4. We fought for this space in the White House, it’s valuable, we protect it, and we’re not going to give it up. This is how the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) thinks. Its agenda can be summed up in one word: access to the president and his aides. It’s not only about the briefing room, but work spaces in the White House and the ability to ask questions of the president’s communicatons staff, and perhaps develop valuable relationships. 

5. The American press tends to be a “herd of independent minds.” Meaning: it often moves as a pack, but each individual believes in his or her autonomous decision-making. Which means it . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s interesting.

He notes in concluding:

One last note: The New York Times does not send anyone to the coronavirus briefings. They walked out. 

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 10:21 am

Republicans Used the Coronavirus Bill to Give Millionaires a $90 Billion Gift

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The Republican party is detrimental to the American public. Kevin Drum notes:

When the coronavirus rescue bill was passed, it brought everyone’s priorities into high relief. Republican provisions solely benefited corporations. Democratic provisions benefited laid-off workers, hospitals, schools, local governments, and struggling families on food stamps. It’s rare to see such a stark difference in values set down for posterity in a single place.

But there’s more! Republicans have been moaning for the past couple of years that their 2017 tax cut had some provisions that were insufficiently friendly to businesses run by rich people. In the coronavirus bill they fixed that:

More than 80 percent of the benefits of a tax change tucked into the coronavirus relief package Congress passed last month will go to those who earn more than $1 million annually, according to a report by a nonpartisan congressional body expected to be released Tuesday. The provision … will cost taxpayers about $90 billion in 2020 alone, part of a set of tax changes that will add close to $170 billion to the national deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the nonpartisan congressional body.

….An analysis by the JCT found suspending the limit overwhelmingly benefits higher earners. About 82 percent of the benefits of the policy go to about 43,000 taxpayers who earn more than $1 million annually. Less than 3 percent of the benefits go to Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, the analysis found….Hedge-fund investors and owners of real estate businesses are “far and away” the two prime beneficiaries of the change, said Steve Rosenthal, a tax expert at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Ain’t that grand? When it comes to rich people, Republicans will work and work and work for every little tax advantage they can dream up. But even in the middle of a pandemic, they can’t bring themselves to care about the working and middle classes. I wonder what other goodies are packed into that bill?

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 10:14 am

Virginia pastor who defiantly held church service dies of coronavirus

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Lee Brown reports in the NY Post:

An evangelical pastor died of COVID-19 just weeks after proudly showing off how packed his Virginia church was — and vowing to keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”

In his last known in-person service on March 22, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn got his congregation at Richmond’s New Deliverance Evangelistic Church to stand to prove how many were there despite warnings against gatherings of more than 10 people.

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” he said, repeating it a second time to claps, saying that “people are healed” in his church.

Happily announcing he was being “controversial” by being “in violation” of safety protocols — with “way more than 10 people” at the church — he vowed to keep his church open “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”

“I am essential,” he said of remaining open, adding, “I’m a preacher — I talk to God!”

On Sunday, his church announced “with an exceedingly sorrowful and heavy heart” that the pastor had died a week after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

His wife, Marcietia Glenn, is also sick with the bug, with church members offering their prayers.

Their daughter, Mar-Gerie Crawley, told WTVR that her father initially dismissed his symptoms because he has a condition that often leads to fevers and infections.

She is now urging everyone to stay home.

“It becomes very real to you,” she told WTVR after her parents’ diagnoses. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 9:14 am

America Can Afford a World-Class Health System. Why Don’t We Have One?

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Anne Case and Angus Deaton, authors of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, write in the NY Times:

In March, Congress passed a coronavirus bill including $3.1 billion to develop and produce drugs and vaccines. The bipartisan consensus was unusual. Less unusual was the successful lobbying by pharmaceutical companies to weaken or kill provisions that addressed affordability — measures that could be used to control prices or invalidate patents for any new drugs.

The notion of price control is anathema to health care companies. It threatens their basic business model, in which the government grants them approvals and patents, pays whatever they ask, and works hand in hand with them as they deliver the worst health outcomes at the highest costs in the rich world.

The American health care industry is not good at promoting health, but it excels at taking money from all of us for its benefit. It is an engine of inequality.

Now is a difficult time to talk about the costs of health care. Doctors and nurses are risking their lives to fight the virus. We need more doctors and nurses. We need more beds, more ventilators and more protective equipment, and we need vaccines and drugs. High prices are not the best nor the only way to get drugs or vaccines that will win the war against the virus, but they can help.

Yet we cannot go on as we have been. America is a rich country that can afford a world-class health care system. We should be spending a lot of money on care and on new drugs. But we need to spend to save lives and reduce sickness, not on expensive, income-generating procedures that do little to improve health. Or worst of all, on enriching pharma companies that feed the opioid epidemic.

The crisis will, inevitably, change health care in countless ways. The industry might emerge as a superhero of the war against Covid-19, like the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain during World War II. If so, it might become even more untouchable than before. Or it may be seen as a financial predator that leaves many thousands with unpayable bills for coronavirus care.

But the virus also provides an opportunity for systemic change. The United States spends more than any other nation on health care, and yet we have the lowest life expectancy among rich countries. And although perhaps no system can prepare for such an event, we were no better prepared for the pandemic than countries that spend far less.

The first step to reform is to change the way we think about the health care system. Many Americans think their health insurance is a gift from their employers — a “benefit” bestowed on lucky workers by benevolent corporations. It would be more accurate to think of employer-provided health insurance as a tax.

One way or another, everyone pays for health care. It accounts for about 18 percent of G.D.P. — nearly $11,000 per person. Individuals directly pay about a quarter, the federal and state governments pay nearly half, and most of the rest is paid by employers.

In 2019, employer-based insurance plans cost an average of $21,000 for a family policy or $7,200 for a single person. This system requires companies to calculate whether a worker’s value to the company can cover both wages and benefits, a difficult test for less-skilled workers. Wages fall or employers shed or outsource these positions to companies with few benefits and fewer prospects for career advancement.

Rising health care costs account for much of the half-century decline in the earnings of men without a college degree, and contribute to the decline in the number of less-skilled jobs. Employer-based health insurance is a wrecking ball, destroying the labor market for less-educated workers and contributing to the rise in “deaths of despair.”

Rising costs are an untenable burden on our government, too. States’ payments for Medicaid have risen from 20.5 percent of their spending in 2008 to 28.9 percent in 2019. To meet those rising costs, states have cut their financing for roads, bridges and state universities. Without those crucial investments, the path to success for many Americans is cut off. We face a looming trillion-dollar federal deficit caused almost entirely by the rising costs of Medicaid and Medicare, even without the recent coronavirus relief bill.

Every year, the United States spends $1 trillion more than is needed for high quality care. Of course, that waste is also someone’s income; executives at hospitals, medical device makers and pharmaceutical companies, and some physicians, are very well paid.

American doctors control access to their profession through a system that limits medical school admissions and the entry of doctors trained abroad — an imbalance that was clear even before the pandemic. That keeps their numbers down and their salaries up. As of 2012, doctors were the largest single occupation in the top 1 percent. The business model under which most doctors practice isn’t working; without the revenue from high-paid elective care, some hospitals are now resorting to furloughs and layoffs of doctors and nurses.

Hospitals, many of them classified as nonprofits, have consolidated, with monopolies over health care in many cities, and they have used that monopoly power to raise prices. Many Americans, even those with insurance, face bills that they cannot pay, or are hit with “surprise” medical bills charged by providers working at in-network hospitals who have opted not to accept insurance. Ambulance services and emergency departments that don’t accept insurance have become favorites of private equity investors because of their high profits. Medical device manufacturers have also consolidated, in some cases using a “catch and kill” strategy to swallow up nimbler start-ups and keep the prices of their products high.

These are all strategies that lawmakers and regulators could put a stop to, if they choose.

They choose not to. And so we Americans have too few doctors, too few beds and too few ventilators — but lots of income for providers. While millions suffer, our health care system has turned into an inequality machine, taking from the poor and working class to generate wealth for the already wealthy.

The health care industry has armored itself, employing five lobbyists for each elected member of Congress. But public anger has been building — over drug prices, co-payments, surprise medical bills — and now, over the fragility of our health care system, which has been laid bare by the pandemic. This anger could breach the protective cordon in Washington.

If it does, what will we get instead?

A single-payer system is just one possibility. There are many systems in wealthy countries to choose from, with and without insurance companies, with and without government-run hospitals. But all have two key characteristics: universal coverage — ideally from birth — and cost control.

Britain, for example, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 8:43 am

Vaccine skepticism reflects basic cognitive differences in mortality-related event frequency estimation

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Very interesting study that indicates that the judgments of anti-vaxxers regarding the danger/benefit trade-off of vaccines stem from a basic cognitive difference. Mark LaCour writes in ScienceDirect:

Highlights

• Vaccine skepticism is related to misjudgments of risk probabilities.
• Participants estimated fatality frequencies of rare and common fatality types.
• Estimation performance was negatively related to vaccine skepticism.
• This was not so when they estimated non-mortality related statistics.
• Exploratory analyses suggest vaccine skeptics use different estimation strategies.<

Abstract

Vaccines have prevented and nearly eliminated several deadly diseases, yet they face skepticism from the public. One potential driver of vaccine skepticism is how people process event frequencies such as rare adverse reactions to vaccines. Misestimations may distort the perceived risks of vaccinating. The current study examined how vaccine skepticism is related to accuracy in event frequency processing. In Experiment 1, participants (n = 158) estimated the frequencies of several vital statistics (e.g., ‘How many people die per year in the U.S. from emphysema?’). Higher levels of vaccine skepticism were associated with lower accuracy in frequency estimation and over-estimation of rare events. In Experiment 2 (n = 109), we again found that vaccine skepticism was negatively associated with vital statistic estimation accuracy but not for emotionally neutral or positive events. These results suggest that vaccine skepticism may arise from basic individual differences in processing events associated with mortality or negative affect.

More info.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 8:33 am

A RazoRock Italian shave

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This is a combination I greatly enjoy: fine fragrance, luxurious lather, smooth-shaving razor. What’s not to like? Recommended. The razor is the Baby Smooth, which now comes in various colors. All from ItalianBarber.com — and all purchased by me as a regular retail customer: no gratuities, kickbacks, bribes, or affiliation. I just like the products, so I let you know.

Written by Leisureguy

14 April 2020 at 8:17 am

Posted in Shaving

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